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.



22 comments:

  1. Beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing. Please keep writing. It is powerful. You are powerful.

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  2. It says next to the little Facebook box in the right hand column: "You like this." It's right; I like this. :)

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  3. Becky, thank you. There are other stories. I'm so happy you want to hear about them. Love!

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  4. Blueheronwearing aka, Linda--thanks for the like.

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  5. Oh, Susan, I am so eager to hear more of this. And the names of the dorms are just so full of possibilities! I just LOVE this line:
    “When you find Compassion, your name will be on a bunk bed.”
    Can go in so many directions!
    Possibly a zen koan?
    Hope you are doing well, friend!!

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  6. Sarah, yes! A zen koan. I could hardly believe the unfolding of that initial adventure.

    I thought of you while there and easily imagined your kids holding hands with Thay during walking meditation.

    Hugs to you

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  7. I couldn't help but smile as I read this - I can't wait to hear more about your journey!

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  8. I loved reading your post. Your words had me mesmerized. I look forward to visiting you often....my Sister Flyer and now BBTL Sister. :)

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  9. Oh, the places you'll go! Compassion, Understanding, Diligence, Deep Listening... I wonder if Dr. Suess had these places in mind.

    Your story has me sparkling with laughter, and has warmed me up from within.

    Whenever I go on a retreat - whether it's my first time or I've been there twenty times before - I feel nervous, scattered, unfed, and unwell, at least at the beginning.

    It is such a relief to know that others there may feel the same.

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  10. Beautiful. The words were flying out the page and made me feel like I was there. Thank you Susan! I can't wait to hear more about your journey!

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  11. Beautiful. The words were flying out the page and made me feel like I was there. Thank you Susan! I can't wait to hear more about your journey!

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  12. Susan, you write beautifully and I admire your courage to write about your feelings of vulnerability. I loved the words 'heal yourself. heal the world.' I can't wait to hear more from your soul retreat. much love!

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  13. Susan - you brave soul! Sounds like a wonderful adventure, can't wait to hear more about it!

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  14. I am practically on the edge of my couch waiting for your next post. Love. This. So. Much!

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  15. I hung off your every word here. I have never been to a retreat and you describe it all so brilliantly. Very ready for the next instalment.

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  16. I love the story of finding your room - I do hope you are going to blog some more about the retreat both in terms of what happened and how you managed the process. I am thinking of going on a retreat and it is very scary!

    thank you

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  17. I have always wanted to attend one of these silent retreats! I love how you describe your experience with your lovely writing. I cannot wait to read more... and I am nervous, just as I would be, were I to be along for it.
    Thanks for sharing your beautiful journey!

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  18. Thank you, everyone for visiting my space, reading and commenting with such love and encouragement. Sending virtual hugs back to you all xo

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  19. This is fascinating - I almost feel as if I'm there with you. Looking forward so much to learning about the rest of your journey here.

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  20. Helen, thank you for visiting my blog and your kind message. I'm glad that my writing makes you feel like you're there, though I needed the experience to know.

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