My first meditation with Thây

Calligraphy, Thich Nhat Hanh

I recently went on retreat 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 fourth consecutive post in a series of six about my experience. Originally published in October 2013.

I’m home soon after retreat. Legs crossed, muscles relaxed, I meditate. 

I must have dozed off because I startle awake and hear myself say to Terry who is sitting nearby,"Look at that delicate insect crawling on the couch.”

I get up for a closer look at the lacey, peach-colored creature. Multiple eyes open and close slowly in a sea anemone motion. Floating wavily, its legs prance like a New York City Rockette

And that cancan dance step wakes me up. 

I see that I don’t see anything. I’m dreaming.

Meditation and sleeping are two different things.

Without judgment because I fell asleep on the cushion, I continue my meditation practice. After, I reflect on my first meditation while on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. Here’s what I recall:

It’s about 5:15 AM. The walk to the hall is uphill and uneventful with the help of a small pocket flashlight. I remove my shoes outside the door and enter.

I pause in awe at the humble feel of the hall. The brothers and sisters built most of it, finishing the interior just before this retreat.

Hundreds of dark brown meditation cushions, each with a matching pad, are on the bamboo floor.

A monastic brother motions me to the front of the room.

We don’t choose our seats (unless we need to sit in a chair in the back). Rather seats fill up in order upon arrival.

I’m in the second row, slightly off-center to the right.

I sit and feel the firmness of the cushion and the pad. I adjust to three points of support (bottom and each knee) and place my hands on my thighs. I sit quietly breathing in and out in a delightful reprieve from thinking. Maybe a half hour passes.

I sense something and open my eyes. A bell rings signaling the arrival of Thây.
A side door noiselessly opens and he enters. A brother is on each side. Thây wears a hat, scarf, and jacket, the same attire I’ve seen in pictures of him for decades. As he takes each item off, he holds and passes it to a brother like one would a newborn.

My eyes follow his steps to the cushion in the front row middle of the room. He sits facing us.

In another setting, I could say psst and he’d look and see what I wanted. He’s that close. His presence feels like I'm sitting with wisdom and lightness.

He looks as if he is in his late 40s. (He celebrated is 87th birthday on October 11.) His skin is smooth, his eyes clear. He gazes with an intensity that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. His walk is like a film in slow motion: even rhythmic steps, soft, quiet, deliberate. Agile, he sits with ease, crossing his legs before he bends like preschool children are able to do with core strength and flexibility. Caressing his robe smoothly over his knees, he gazes slightly downward and stills.

Watching him, I easily imagine looking into a deep, quiet, clear stream with small stones on the bottom. He is like the water, peacefully still.

The meditation gong rings.

The sound swirls around the room. I feel my eyes shut. 

I sit.

Time passes. 

I feel a twitch and tightness in my left leg, and my bottom is numb. I adjust my position. A few minutes pass and I begin to obsess about not having any feeling in my bottom and if I could just straighten my leg for a minute to take the pressure off of it. I start to blame my mom (oh gee I don't like telling you this) for her flat bottom and my inherited glut lack. 

I cannot keep still. I open one eye and look at Thây. I feel so disruptive in my body that I'm sure he notices. Of course, he doesn't. 

I open both eyes and notice off to my right that a woman is lying on her back, knees up. I look to the left and see a young man with a hair bun on the top of his head—he sits erect with so much lightness he might be levitating. I let go of a desire to compare myself to either of my companions. Instead, I recognize myself on a middle road.

I don't have much consistent practice sitting on the floor on a hard cushion for hours. I smile and whisper as if into my own ear, “Hello, dear sore body. I'm here with you.” I breathe in comfort and breathe out the tension. 

My mind stills for a short time, wanders, and comes back.

I make a little progress.