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Serving with Grace

Last weekend, we enjoyed our local spring family retreat up on the Flathead Lake with our Montana sangha family. Twice a year, we organize local 3-day residential retreats: one in the spring and one in the fall. And each spring is a family retreat, where we invite children to attend alongside their parents. This year we had 59 adults and 25 young people, aged 3-15, for a total of 84 people.

Each spring, I serve as co-director on the retreat planning team. I also head up the children’s programming with my good friend Amy, so essentially I am on two different branches for organizing the retreat. We have one team for: managing all of the logistics with the camp facility we use, registration, and organizing the schedule for the adults and program elements with our visiting teacher(s) and another team for planning the kids programs that we offer.

Knowing I serve in this co-director capacity each spring, friends often ask me if these spring retreats are an actual retreat for me. My reply this year has been: Not in the classic sense of the word, no. These retreats for me are a rich opportunity to engage with work as spiritual and joyful practice.

I’ve recently started reading this book:

Serving with grace is a deep aspiration for me on the path of practice. And to speak to my full aspiration, I would add: serving with grace and kindness.

Supporting our young people and their parents to come on retreat; to be in touch with the nature and landscape of the lake and the surrounding woods; to be in touch with the Dharma and the Sangha is a great joy and a true calling for me. It’s also exhausting work too. But gosh, I have no qualms about getting worn out temporarily from undertaking such a lovely endeavor. Sometimes, putting all of our physical fuel into something can fill up the heart tank and gear us up for the next thing that comes along. The physical tank is easy to refill: food, rest, movement. But keeping the heart tank full, that’s where the real work happens.

 

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Fun Zen Circle Project

In preparation for our upcoming spring family retreat with our Montana sangha family, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh – for which I am serving as co-director – I worked on this fun project this morning. Ensos! An enso is a zen circle and is said to symbolize a number of different things: openness, awareness, strength, the universe. Enso’s can be created open or closed and are typically fashioned in one brush stroke.

Since our upcoming retreat will be a family retreat and we’ll have kids present, we thought it would be fun this year to create a small optional activity that we could simply leave out on a table in the main gathering area that all ages could engage in, if they so chose.

As I was brainstorming a simple community activity, I came across a post in my Twitter feed from the Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico that offered inspiration:

The tweet that accompanied this picture said something along the lines of having folks there at Upaya fill out an enso with their aspiration for their own practice during the retreat. So I took this idea and tweaked it a bit.

I made a total of 70 enso’s on small multi-colored squares of paper, using a calligraphy brush and some tempera paints I had on hand. Then I made a sample one posted with instructions that I’ll leave on the table, along with markers and some oil pastels:

This wound up being great fun to do this morning :)

I contemplated whether to put out paints and brushes for people to make their own enso’s but decided with the number of people we have attending and so many kids that it would best to keep the activity less involved/potentially messy. My plan is to collect all of the well wishes created and string them together in a collage for display. So stay tuned to see the final product!

 

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2019 in Fun, Local Retreats

 

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One Day Soon

Pic taken of Mike and I the day before he left for Deer Park Monastery for a 3-month retreat stay

 

One day soon, the other side of the bed will be occupied by him once again, and I will no longer have to utilize the services of my heating blanket to keep warm at night.

At certain times over the past 3-months, I’ve used this solo time to imagine what a life led in his permanent absence would be like; as though he were gone for good and not only for a short stint. I’ve pondered how I would manage and carry on without him. I’ve gotten a tiny glimpse as to why a widow might keep herself in mourning for a lifetime.

When you’ve married your heart to another full throttle – after weaving your lives together for a spell – there is no such thing as time spent without their energetic impression accompanying you.

Mind you, I can hold my own. I’m steady on my own two aching feet and can joy it up with the best of em, all on my own accord. But I want to keep doing all of that with him close at hand.

One day soon, I’ll shift positions in the middle of the night and in place of the open sea, he’ll be there to catch me – and it will be the utmost of grand occasions.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2019 in writer's life

 

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Rituals

Immensely inspired by a video interview I watched this morning, as part of a free Wellness Summit happening online right now, entitled: How to Set Yourself Free From Pain & Misery, with Dr. Sean Stephenson, I was called to craft this post focused on my own personal daily rituals.

In Dr. Stephenson’s interview, he said: I have 16 rituals and if I don’t do at least 4 of them every day, my insecurities will eat me alive.

He said a lot more that’s worth mentioning – I took over 5 pages of notes during the 60-minute video! – but there is much greater value for you, my friends, in watching it yourself (click on link above). It is one of the very best mindfulness-based talks I have ever seen.

So rather than using this post to relay all of my notes, I will instead focus on sharing my daily rituals, which isn’t new for me to do here on my blog but has perhaps been a little while since last I did.

 

Nicole’s DAILY Rituals (for Self-Care and Cultivating Ease, Joy, and Solidity)

Waking up early enough to enjoy a period of time connecting with myself, amid the graces of quietude and slowness

Writing (if even only a little bit)

Sitting meditation

Gratitude practice (which I created myself and involves certain verses I say each morning, along with prostrations to the earth)

Saying a connection/gratitude verse before I eat each meal

Watering my seed of joy, with intentional skillful effort

Guarding well my sensory input (TV/films, music, books, magazines, conversations, social media, news…)

Resting (which for me typically comes in the form of taking a nap every day; even on the days I work, as soon as I get home around 4:00, the first thing I do is lay down to take a short nap before preparing dinner)

Maintain consistency with when I eat each meal: breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Wake up at the same time every day (5:00am) and go to bed around the same time each night (between 9-10pm)

 

Nicole’s WEEKLY Rituals (for Self-Care and Cultivating Ease, Joy, and Solidity)

Attend sangha every Monday night

Participate in my self-crafted Mindful Morning Saturday practice

Watch a Dharma talk and/or mindfulness-based teaching video online

Spend time dancing and exercising

Devoting one morning (usually Sundays) to Lazy Morning practice

 

Nicole’s YEARLY Rituals (for Self-Care and Cultivating Ease, Joy, and Solidity)

Attend our two locally held and organized mindfulness retreats with my extended Montana sangha family

Prioritize solo sojourns

Spend extended, concentrated time on personal retreat (or amid other practice-related spells of personal quietude)

Attend local days of mindfulness and special practice events hosted by our sister sanghas as much as possible

 

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Q & A Writing Prompt

As a Dharma-teacher-in-training, one of my weaknesses is knowing that I would not be much good at fielding Q & A sessions on the fly. I am not a quick thinker. I am a percolator. I need time to process – that’s why I’m a writer!

But as Q & A’s have a way of making their way into our retreat formats, I reckon I should muster up some skill in this regard. And by the way, it doesn’t help at all that for the most part, I tend to personally dislike Q & A sessions in general, simply as a member of the audience. So I see that my weakness on this front is operating at a further disadvantage because in truth, I have little interest in getting any better at it.

I’ve born witness to many a Q & A session while on retreats and it’s been rare that I’ve seen a truly well-crafted question being asked. And by well-crafted, I mean a question that isn’t looking for a quick-fix/straight-forward/tell-me-what-to-do-here sort of answer. No teacher can answer properly the sort of questions most people tend to ask. And by properly I mean in a way that the question asker feels a sense of satisfaction when all is said and done. It seems to me that the best hope one has as a teacher fielding the questions, is the chance to possibly benefit someone else in the audience with what they have to say. My sense is that Zen-based answers leave little to be desired for the people directly asking the questions.

Once in a while, a good question is presented. One that will benefit the whole of the community and isn’t vying for an answer to a question that only you yourself can unfold as you continue on the path of practice. Most questions simply speak to the newness of the practitioner doing the asking. I don’t mean to give new folks a hard time – and I’ve heard equally answerless-questions offered up by people who’ve been in the practice for a while, too – but I do wonder about the necessity of Q & A sessions during our retreats and how much benefit they offer our community.

It makes sense that new practitioners would have questions. But I think especially when we’re starting out, it might be better to simply invest our time and energy into doing the practice, verses talking about it.

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Posted by on March 14, 2019 in Growth Work

 

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He’s Leaving On A Jet Plane

pic taken on Jan. 23rd, 2019

He’s leaving on a jet plane tomorrow morning at 6am, with a plan to be gone for 3-months.

And while physically he’s going on alone, to our beloved extended sangha family at Deer Park Monastery in southern California, on retreat – where he and I have been venturing together every January for 2-4 weeks at a stretch for the past 5-years – and I’ll be staying home to hold down the fort, do not mourn for our marital separation. Rest instead, as we are, in the graces of our interbeing nature, knowing full well that wherever he goes, I go and wherever I am, he is. When he goes away on retreat he goes not only for or by himself alone. He goes for us both. He will not be there alone and I will not be here alone.

When either of us engage in a true act of self-care, we are automatically and simultaneously helping to care well for our counterpart. There is no separation.

Of course there is sadness in our physical parting. Of course we will miss each other. But do not think for one moment that this is our sole or dominating reality. Do not suffer from the false impression that I am sacrificing my own usual personal retreat time at Deer Park, for I am not giving anything up. Together, Mike and I are acting in the best interest with love and care for one another. For those who may have trouble understanding, falling victim to your own falsely held views, let this be heard, understood, resonate, and absorb.

Know too, in the wake of sorrow, there is nothing wrong or in need of fixing. Sorrow is part of life, not separate. We would do well to stop trying to make it go away or will it to be other than as it is or inflame it to some dramatic swell.

So if in the next few days and weeks you ask me how I am and I respond by saying that I am sad, please know that it’s okay and I’m okay. Being sad doesn’t automatically equate to falling apart. I’d rather not have to shield you from sharing my true state of heart in an effort to help you manage your own discomfort with sorrow. This is something I’ve been working on: not over-caretaking for other people’s experiences and feelings (which I have the great tendency to do). So this is me stepping into some discomfort, doing the work.

I’ve been reluctant to share this news on a variety of occasions since we made this decision 2-months ago, for a lack of knowing how to best field people’s common misunderstandings about why we’ve made this choice. Here are some of the impressions people have shared or eluded to:

  • Our marriage must be in trouble
  • Mike’s depression must be REALLY bad
  • My personal practice will suffer without my annual DP retreat sojourn
  • Mike and I must be consumed in sorrow at the prospect of our separation for 3-months
  • I am performing some great and noble act by “allowing” him this opportunity

And NONE of these are accurate or true.

Take comfort in the letting go of such false notions, if indeed you have them, dear friends.

Yes, Mike’s depression has kicked up and we were propelled into making this decision based on him needing some recharging and restoration time to help support his mental and emotional well-being. But we’re all good on the home front.

There is no crisis. No catastrophe taking place. No upheaval of our state of being.

Our feet are planted firmly on the path of practice – both as individuals and together as a paired couple – with love and ease, in the spirit of liberation.

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2019 in Deer Park Monastery, Travel

 

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Gosh it’s easy to misunderstand things

This morning, while reading the Discourse on Happiness from our Plum Village chanting book, it clicked. After reading the second sentence: “Late at night, a deva appeared whose light and beauty made the whole Jeta Grove shine radiantly,” I came to understand what Brother Phap De meant two years ago when I was at Deer Park.

He had just finished leading us in stick exercises one morning before breakfast when he asked us, in a light and friendly tone of voice: “Who was that diva dancing the polka in the parking lot yesterday? I think they should lead us all in a dance session!”

In that moment, my internal dialog went something like this: Oh man. That was me. I didn’t really think others were watching. Do I have to declare myself now in front of all these people?! I mean, I really REALLY do not want to lead a dance session, that’s for sure.

I sheepishly raised my hand, indicating that the diva he was inquiring about was me. Then, I raced the heck out of there and headed to breakfast.

Later, I pondered the terminology he has used: diva dancing the polka and felt a mixture of confusion (as I didn’t know exactly what the polka entailed but I was certain I wasn’t doing it), slight embarrassment, and feeling affronted. Did he call me a diva? I thought to myself on many occasions after that. I’m not sure I like that term. No, I KNOW I don’t like that term. Is that how others see me?! Oh dear.

Up until this morning, I thought he meant diva (with an i), as in someone who is a prima donna, as my paperback Webster’s defines it. (Then I looked up “prima donna” to make sure I understood that word correctly – which is listed as: an extremely sensitive, vain, or undisciplined person.) But now I realize he probably meant deva (with an e!), which is described as a Celestial being or angel in the glossary in the back of our chanting book.

Upon making this discovery this morning, my internal dialog went something like this:

This changes everything!

Whew!

Thank goodness!

Brother Phap De

I’ve read the Discourse on Happiness a handful of times since Brother Phap De declared me the deva dancing the polka. But it wasn’t until just this morning that this insight arose, allowing for me to move into proper understanding.

The human experience is so incredibly fascinating, from a self-observation standpoint especially.

While it’s not worth giving it too much thought, I wonder: What changed? What allowed me to make this connection TODAY vs. some other day? I mean, I haven’t consciously thought about this instance with Brother Phap De in a long long time.

One of the guiding life sayings that I like to tell myself often is: Sometimes you don’t get to know why. Translation: This is a moment you would do well to practice just going with the flow of the river of life experience, Nicole. Stop trying to analyze things or come to some sort of neat conclusion that can fit in well with how you view the world, it’s a waste of time and energy.

Over the years since this encounter, even though I wasn’t a fan of being called a diva (with an i), I have dearly cherished this moment between us. He was genuinely interested in knowing who it had been that he had seen down in the parking lot. It was clear to me that he had been delighted in their joyful offering. And while I was mildly embarrassed that someone – especially a monk – had seen me dancing, I was also put at ease that he was able to sense my heartfelt enjoyment of dancing and appreciate it for what it was, vs. perhaps deeming it an inappropriate activity to do at a monastery (which was a back-of-the-mind concern of mine). And he was apparently so taken with my dancing that he even wanted me to instruct and lead others!

Brother Phap De passed away at age 82 (I think) in August of 2016. If memory serves, he made the “deva dancing the polka” comment in January of that same year, when Mike and I were there on retreat. It was an honor and privilege to get to know and spend time with Brother Phap De over the years that Mike and I have been visiting Deer Park, before he passed away. When I do stick exercises – which typically amounts to once a week – I think of him every time, as he was the one who would always lead them at Deer Park. Randomly during his instructions, he would prompt us all to smile – and when I lead them on our local retreats or at other times, I continue his memory and remind people of the same thing.

At the end of my stick exercise session each week, I do two standing bows in closing. The first bow is in dedication of Brother Phap De. And the second is in gratitude for the stick I use.

In conclusion:

Gosh it sure is easy to misunderstand things.

Now that I know what Brother Phap De actually meant, I am even more nourished from this encounter we shared. And now that I have been afforded the great gift of insight, it will allow me to carry forward this memory with more clarity, understanding, ease, and joy.

Sometimes – maybe even all the time – more understanding equates to more freedom. Freedom from what? you might wonder. To which the teachings in our tradition would say: Freedom from illusory notions and false views, which is ultimately what all of our suffering (large, small, or tiny) can be attributed to on a foundational level.

To read more about Brother Phap De’s life story, click here.

 

 

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