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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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Snippets of thought

Last week, I attended a weekend of mindfulness up on the Flathead Lake, hosted by our sister sangha Open Sky, entitled: Be Still and Heal. To help lead it, they brought in Dharma teacher Barbara Newell (formerly Sister Pine in our Plum Village tradition).

I thought I’d craft this post in order to share some pics and a few things I jotted down in my journal over the course of the weekend.

Dec 8th, Early morning journal entry:

Words can do only so much to incite action. Therefore, we should be advised as to when to put them down, in order to lift our gaze and set to the work of embodying their application in our life.

Words are nothing on a page. Words are empty of value when left to swirl around like a goldfish in the murky waters of our minds. And yet, words matter like the pulling of tides. They matter like thunder approaching warning us to weather coming. They can pierce our thickened armor as though it weren’t made of steel, penetrating our hearts like an assassin’s blade. And if I were told I would die tomorrow, I would cling to them for salvation, solace, and camaraderie.

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Fall Retreat

Breathing in, I feel gratitude for the opportunities that I am so richly afforded, and the spiritual community of friends I get to share my practice with.

Breathing out, I feel refreshed and energized.

________

This past weekend, I had the great fortune of attending our Montana Open Way Sanghas fall retreat on the Flathead Lake, with visiting Dharma teacher Leslie Rawls. Each of our two annual retreats start on a Thursday evening and end on a Sunday afternoon. I feel so very grateful to have access to these opportunities twice a year, so close to home. Our local retreats are truly a gift.

Thursday, a northern drive which lulled my two travel companions to sleep, revealed a trusted tender sweetness I’d not shared with them before.

Friday, our first full day of the fall retreat revealed cohesion of the part of me that wanted to be somewhere else this weekend, with the part that wanted to be here.

Saturday, the water pitching and heaving under gray skies, revealed how similar the mind is to the lake’s surface and how quickly things can change.

Sunday, a 2-hour car ride with a friend, revealed another lovely layer of understanding and celebration for how other people’s experiences sculpt and enrich my life.

 

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Posted by on October 1, 2018 in Local Retreats, video

 

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Solo Retreat in a Lookout Tower (Part 2 of 3)

I’m back among the ground-dwellers. I awoke this morning around 3:30am, disappointed after a confusing moment that I wasn’t in the tower.

Prior to my solo sojourn, I’d given no thought to the effects of tree top living. I hadn’t considered how well I might take to it or the re-calibration period afterwards that I’m experiencing now.

Upon returning home on Saturday night, I stood on our wooden deck out back, located 19″ off the ground, wondering why I felt so strange. In short order, I realized it was due to having spent the week in high concentration of time on a wooden deck rocketed 40-feet up high in the air. The ground was just too oddly close from where my feet were settled.

I didn’t anticipate loving – and therefor now missing – the ritual of lighting the gas stove. A task I involved myself in more than the average person who is not an avid tea drinker.

I’d forgotten how in love I am with trees and sky and sun rises – and how sad I would be to leave them behind. While they surround me every day, of course, it’s not the same as paying the kind of close and unscripted attention to them that comes from dwelling directly in their midst.

Tuesday May 22nd: Day 2. 4:48am

I’m sitting here at the map table inside, guessing over which peak the sun will rise, based on the color patterns unfurling over the mountains. I’ve got it narrowed down to two. With how much light hangs in the sky this time of year, I will make little use of my headlamp, book light, and lantern I packed along. Perhaps an hour’s worth of artificial lighting in the morning is all I’ll need. A truly dark sky only lasts for around 6-hours, in the late springtime of Montana.

With the light, temperatures, and time of year, I think I’ve managed to stumble upon the very best time to situate myself here. It’s neither bug, fire, or tourist season just yet; the nights and mornings are tinged with just the right amount of cool to accompany tea drinking and a hoodie; and the days are warm and friendly to my skin. I see this place becoming an annual excursion, and I only just arrived yesterday. It’s simply brilliant here.

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Deer Park Wrap Up

Tonight at my local sangha, Be Here Now, Mike and I, and a few of our sangha friends who recently spent time on retreat at Deer Park, will be offering a Deer Park (DP) retreat sharing panel as part of our format. There will be 5 of us on the panel and we’ll each share for 5 minutes or so about whatever is alive in our heart and our practice in regards to our time at DP. I plan on starting with a short intro and background about DP and then after the panel we’ll open up for Q & A. If there’s time, I also plan on showing a 10-minute DP video montage I put together from footage I took in January during our 3-week stay. And if there’s not time, then it’ll be an addendum after we close the group, for those wanting to stick around to watch it. I’m looking forward to this evening and hearing from my other friends about their retreat stay!

Here’s what I plan on saying for my sharing:

The importance of sangha practice is not new to me but I did delve deeper into this insight when I was at DP this last time. Being in close contact and interaction with my sangha – whether it’s my local home sangha, larger statewide Montana sangha, or the community at DP – is not an additional component of my mindfulness practice, like adding parmesan cheese to the top of a bowl of pasta. Sangha practice is equivalent to the tomatoes needed to make the sauce. It’s a necessary and critical ingredient.

Despite how strong and diligent my practice is with peppering in a variety of mindfulness tools and exercises throughout the day, if I were to stop attending sangha and stop attending retreats, my practice would eventually fall off and take a nose dive. Sangha practice is not just something nice to sprinkle in to my life when I have time or when I’m really craving connection, sangha practice is the center of the wooden wheel, which all the spokes splay out from.

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Deer Park Journal: Day 21, Departure Day

2018 Deer Park Daily Musings
Written during a retreat I attended from January 5th-26th, 2018

Background Info & Terminology: Deer Park Monastery is rooted in the mindfulness tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and is situated in Escondido, CA, north of San Diego.

Laypeople: Also called lay friends or laymen and laywomen; those of us who practice in this tradition but are not monks or nuns.
Monastics: The collective group of both monks and nuns.
Clarity Hamlet: Where the nuns, also called Sisters, reside. Laywomen stay here as well.
Solidity Hamlet: Where the monks, also called Brothers, reside. Laymen and couples/families stay here as well.
Thay: Refers to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning “teacher” in Vietnamese

Friday, January 26th 2018

Day 21: Departure Day

8:18am

Early morning haiku:

The morning sky glints
like polished obsidian
singing in star dust

_______

I wrote this in the Dining Hall this morning:

The coffee maker adds its voice to morning’s orchestra of sound: water boiling in the hot water dispenser, clattering of breakfast preparations from the kitchen, the rolling wheels of a cart over cold tiles, carrying all the daily fixin’s for oatmeal and toast. The clock ringing its 7am song.

We depart from here today, on a jet plane, unsure of when next we will return (who is it that sings about this? I can’t recall). How both strange and delightful it is to have so many feelings of home. When I arrived, although I had left my home to come here, I felt as though I was returning home. And now, as I prepare to go back home, I feel as though I’m leaving home, too!

Then there’s the home which remains a constant source of solidity and fluidity. My true home within myself, anchored in the here and now. Home really is where the heart is – literally and metaphorically! When the heart is open, home is everywhere!

_______

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Deer Park Journal: Day 20

2018 Deer Park Daily Musings
Written during a retreat I attended from January 5th-26th, 2018

Background Info & Terminology: Deer Park Monastery is rooted in the mindfulness tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and is situated in Escondido, CA, north of San Diego.

Laypeople: Also called lay friends or laymen and laywomen; those of us who practice in this tradition but are not monks or nuns.
Monastics: The collective group of both monks and nuns.
Clarity Hamlet: Where the nuns, also called Sisters, reside. Laywomen stay here as well.
Solidity Hamlet: Where the monks, also called Brothers, reside. Laymen and couples/families stay here as well.
Thay: Refers to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning “teacher” in Vietnamese

Thursday, January 25th 2018

Day 20

7:35am

Early morning haiku:

If I didn’t write,
how would I manage to speak
all that my heart learns?

_____

On Thursdays (and Sundays too), we have breakfast at 7:00am instead of 7:30. And as I am among the first in line to dish up at mealtimes and also the first to exit the Dining Hall, here I am already typing!

Today is Lay Day once again, and I am feeling a particularly strong rebellion against attending the scheduled activities. At 9:00am we are set to gather in the campground for Tai Chi, followed by outdoor walking meditation. Then, according to the posted schedule, we are to have a tea ceremony at 10:15 in the Small Hall and dharma sharing at 11:15.

In knowing that we’ll be leaving around lunchtime tomorrow, part of me wants to simply depart right now, thereby skipping Lay Day and the dancing around to avoid social chatter like land-mines. Sidestepping Lazy Afternoon and Lazy Evening tonight and the Lazy Morning that follows in suit tomorrow. Other than meals – and lay day activities through until lunch
today – the only thing remaining is Working Meditation tomorrow at 9:00am. While part of me sees this as rather timely – a proper transition back to life outside of the monastery – another part of me does not want to let go of the periods of collective stillness and silence, which I so revel in here.

It’s almost 8:00am and I am still undecided about what to do for today. So often this question arises for me: How does one discern between the discomfort that arises from genuine lack of interest, or skilled ability to engage in a beneficial manner, and the discomfort that holds one back from acquiring the opportunity to practice in such a way that enables us to become free of the ties that bind us so fiercely? Part of the answer, I think, is to simply keep this question alive. To stay in continual contact with myself. The other part is to wait for a response to arrive from this space of inquiry and spaciousness. I’ve found that when I’m able to allow myself to settle into even just a modicum of spaciousness and stillness, my path forward tends to present itself pretty clearly.

_______

Every morning after breakfast, I recite this verse (which I fashioned of my own accord, influenced by other renditions):

This bowl, now empty, was just filled with
wonderful, delicious, nutritious food.
May I take the energy and nourishment
it provides me and transform it into:
_____, ______, and ______
on my path of practice today.

I fill in the blanks with a varying assortment of words, depending on the day and my aspirations. Today, I used the words: deep looking, ease, and friendliness.

With this agitation stirring, I see that the practice of befriending is most important for me right now. To take good care of this agitation with loving kindness and gentleness. To smile upon it like a dear friend and not criticize or condemn these feelings, wishing they would go away or be some other way than as they are.

The ability to let go of a painful or uncomfortable feeling only develops after learning how to recognize, accept, and embrace those feelings as they are. If we try to skip those first parts and go directly to the practice of letting go, it doesn’t work. Attempting to skip the first parts equates to the practice we’re most familiar with: running away, covering over, or ignoring the pain or discomfort that has arisen.

Befriending is always the answer.

_______

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