A circuitous route to deep listening while on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh


Calligraphy, Thich Nhat Hanh

I spent six days at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Batesville, Mississippi with about 900 others in a mostly silent retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh (Thây) and a monastic community. This is the first in a series of posts about my experience.

I look forward to this retreat for almost a year.

In excitement, I tell practically everyone I know. Some of you I tell twice (forgive me, if you’re one of them).

Thây, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, author, and non-violence activist is a significant teacher in my life. His ideas for how to love and bring forth a peaceful world resonate in my heart and mind.

The mindfulness retreat has a title: “Heal yourself. Heal the World.” The idea is that world peace or world healing happens by starting with oneself.

Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to what is happening inside and around me in the present moment. It’s as simple and profoundly challenging as becoming aware of my breaths, steps, and the wonders of life in each moment.

That means slowing down. Focusing. Concentrating. Becoming still. And using breath to help do it.

I want oh so much to say that my introvert self is peacefully ready to breathe, sit, and smile about camping with hundreds of others. (I wrote about my apprehension here.) But, I’m not going to start lying now.

I arrive anxious and full of energy.

The energy is passion and enthusiasm for the experience. The anxiety is about letting go of the familiar, including everyday habits such as eating fast and busyness, and distractions. I will not be in contact with my husband, family, or friends. (My phone is off and stored, not even for pictures. I consciously choose to be a participant, not a spectator.)

I’m immediately aware I’m not in the present moment because I’m worried about my accommodations. Who are my roommates and where will I sleep?

I place my carefully packed soft luggage bag on a large tarp that will be dragged uphill a half mile to the entrance of the monastery. I wonder how I’ll find my bag. I turn and sigh c’est la’vie and begin the hike.

I walk to the entrance and notice calligraphy that says “This is it,” which means this wonderful moment asks for full attention. As touched as I am, my moment does not feel wonderful. Yet. I look skyward seeking relief.

A bell rings. 

It has a loud thick vibration sort of like a gong but without any brassy splash. At the sound, I notice and join others and stop walking and talking. I take a breath.

The bell is an invitation to cross to an opposite feeling. Before the bell, I feel agitated and stressed. Its sound invites me to breathe in the pine-filtered air of the surrounding woods, put my face into the breeze, feel sunshine on my face, and let go of unsettled feelings. After three breaths, activity resumes. I feel lighter. More peaceful.

Registration is in a building adjacent to a gigantic bell. I get in a line with two others to see where I’ll stay. While waiting, I feel simultaneously eager to be in the presence of Thây to experience how peace is possible in a world of rife discontent and uncomfortable not knowing or able to control my housing environment. I recognize I can hold opposing feelings at once.

It’s my turn and with a lotus greeting and smile I’m kindly and gently welcomed and told I’ll be staying in a dormitory named Compassion.

“When you find Compassion, your name will be on a bunk bed.”

She gestures to another volunteer who points towards the woods and says, “Follow this path.” I do.

And I find Compassion.

I check for my name on each bed, but I’m not listed. Since Understanding, another dormitory, is right next door, I check to see if perhaps my name is there. It’s not.

I hike back to registration.

I get in line and tell my story. Puzzled, a gentle woman checks a roster, smiles and says, “You need the Solutions table.” 

I walk to that table. A sign says, “It’s going to be okay.” I believe that sign. 

A monastic sister taking care of solutions looks me in the eye and says, “Let’s try Diligence.” (I’m clued in to the word associations and now see a personal dharma lesson emerging in the evolution of my housing places.) I get excited because I just read about diligence in Thay’s book, The Art of Power. Diligence is essential in maintaining a joyful spiritual practice.

Sister is glad I’m thrilled. She says, “You understand.” I quietly chuckle to myself having just returned from checking the dorm Understanding.

We walk together side-by-side in silence to see if there is a bed available in Diligence. There is.

I’m ready to wave goodbye and settle in but Sister asks me to walk back to registration to reserve my spot. I’m glad I do. When she checks the computer, she shakes her head back and forth—and for a reason that is still unknown to me says, “Your home is in Deep Listening.”

I ask, “Are you sure?”

She laughs. It feels like a Buddha joke.

Deep Listening is right next door to Diligence. And it’s not a dorm. It’s a new cabin with four beds, not eight or twelve. An air-conditioned cabin a short walk away from clean indoor bathrooms and showers. And it’s close to Thây’s cabin. Oh, my camping angels, I’m feeling special.

I unpack, make my bed, and head off to my first silent dinner. I begin six days of deep listening.