My first meditation with Thây

Calligraphy, Thich Nhat Hanh

I recently 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 fourth consecutive post in a series of six about my experience.

I’m home, sitting legs crossed, meditating. I must have dozed off because I startle awake and hear myself say, “Oh Terry (he’s sitting in his chair in the same room), look at that delicate insect crawling on the couch.”

I get up for a closer glimpse of a lacey peach-colored creature about two inches in diameter. Multiple eyes open and close slowly. It looks like a sea anemone. Floating wavily, its legs prance like a New York City Rockette

And that cancan dance step brings reality into focus. I see that I don’t see anything. I’m dreaming.

Meditation and falling asleep are two different things.

Without discouragement or giving up because I sometimes fall asleep, I continue to practice meditating.

I don’t have to be Princess Perfect. 

It can be easy to let negative mental formations take over without diligence. I’m committed to regular, ongoing practice, and feel grateful for my first retreat meditation. I learned a few things. 

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 and gasp 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 am grateful for the pad for my legs. 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 either 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 it and passes it to a brother like one would a newborn.

My eyes follow every step he takes 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.

I’m captivated by his presence.

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, softly quiet, deliberate. Agile, he sits with ease, crossing his legs before he bends like preschool children are able to do with their core strength and flexibility. Caressing his robe smoothly over his knees, he gazes slightly downward, and stills.

I imagine looking into a deep, quiet, clear stream with small stones on the bottom. He is like those stones, 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 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. He's been diligently practicing since he was fourteen years old.

I open both eyes and notice off to my right that a woman is lying on her back, knees up. I think, She's in a more dire place than I am. I look to the left and see a young man with a hair bun on the top of his head sitting 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. 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. I still.

I make a little progress.