Where is my Mind

I don’t even know where to start with talking about this retreat. It is both one of the most profound things I’ve ever done and one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I was not in a good mental place on the Friday that I began the retreat - to the point that I almost decided to forego my money and stay home. In reflection, I am very happy that I did not.

I’ve been sober from alcohol for 4.5 months now. I thought being sober would be my answer. That everything else would just fall into place and I would live happily ever after. But emotionally it’s gotten much more difficult. All of the feelings that I was numbing with alcohol have risen to the surface. After a lifetime of numbing my feelings and issues, it’s really painful to have to deal with them.

Most notably, I’ve been horribly insecure lately. Feeling like people don’t want to hang out with me, that if I died no one would really care, etc. One friend told me that I need to start doing positive affirmations and another friend told me that I need to start giving back byway of service. So I am going to work on both things, in the hope that they will help.

Getting There

Until I started practicing with the Open Heart Sangha in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, I never realized how big of a deal Deer Park was. I didn’t realize that Thich Nhat Hanh only has like 7 monasteries in the world and that Deer Park is the 2nd most important, second to only Plum Village itself. All these years I’ve been within an hour drive of it and never been.

Driving up to Escondido on a Friday afternoon was a bit stressful. Lots of traffic. I definitely wasn’t in the most mindful mindset. But I got there, parked my car and began the mental journey of a lifetime.

The Retreat

This being San Diego, everything is either mountains or foothills. We don’t really have flat ground. Deer Park is located on a mountain. So pretty much the whole place is uphill. The parking lot is at the bottom of the hill and then the camp ground is about 1/4 mile up the hill. Another 1/4 mile up the hill gets you to the monastic living quarters, dorms and small meditation hall. With the large meditation hall and dining hall located between the campground and top of the hill.

This weekend was hot. Like the thermometer said 93° Fahrenheit but it was probably closer to 100° in the sun. I was very fortunate that someone had their truck and was helping to haul all of our stuff up the hill to the campground.

I pitched my tent, still not really wanting to be there. I didn’t see anyone I knew and was starting to feel out of my element more so than I already did. Strangers practicing with us! The horror!

Checking In

Walking up the hill to the main buildings was a bit of work. But when I got to the top, out of breath, I finally saw a couple of people from my Sangha, which made me feel a little better. The check-in guy was super cool. He showed me to the tea room. Tea is something that I know and love. Tea is something that I can do well. I immediately felt better and more comfortable.

They told me that the next activity on the agenda is walking meditation and that there would be a bell 15 minutes prior to the start of the activity.

I sat on the back patio of the tea room with my Dharma family just listening to the birds, wind chimes and the wind. It’s amazing the sounds in everyday life that we tune out. I was finally starting to feel happy that I came up here.

Walking Meditation

To be honest, walking meditation is something I’ve always found a little strange. Even uncomfortable. Particularly when we do it at our regular Sangha meetings on Sunday. Mostly I’ve always been wondering at the back of my mind what if someone sees us and thinks we’re strange. But the beauty of it finally clicked this weekend. I get it now.

We walked slowly up the hill. Even more up than we already were. But it was slow. And mindful. So I wasn’t out of breath. I was even enjoying it. A few times the monk that was leading us stopped. And we just stood there. And listened. Some people smelt flowers. It was a beautiful day. The birds, wind, setting sun, all beautiful. These things are always there. And always beautiful. We just rarely take the time to notice them because we are so busy.

When we got to the top of the hill, we broke into small groups and sat on little stumps. And did an informal sitting meditation. This was also super nice.

When we were done with walking meditation, we headed back down the hill and then to dinner. I finally felt like I was in the correct mindset to get value out of the weekend.

Mindful Eating

I’m the worst offender when it comes to mindless eating. I’m usually eating on the run. In the car while driving. At my desk. Or if I’m at a meal with friends or family I’m distracted by talking (or worse: checking my phone).

I welcomed the idea of mindful eating, just never practiced it. I was also a little worried about the fact that the monastery is vegetarian (mostly vegan). Vegan meals combined with having to eat slow and chew everything 30 times scared me a little.

But. It changed the way I view food. And my relationship with food.

First, I realized that I’ve never truly tasted my food. I’ve eaten it and been convinced that I enjoyed it, but never truly tasted it. Did you know that romaine lettuce has a taste? It does. And it’s really good. At our first meal, there was also this Vietnamese herb salad that blew my mind. The flavors were almost too intense when they were the only thing you were focusing on. But I probably wouldn’t have even noticed all the herbal tastes normally. At our third meal, we had acorn squash, roasted. This also absolutely blew my mind how delicious it was. Almost like a cross between pumpkin and potato.

Secondly, the food was amazingly delicious for vegan food. So good in fact that I’ve now adopted a mostly plant-based diet.

Finally, this experience helped me realize that we should take the time to reflect on everything we do mindfully. Particularly food. I’ve printed out my own copy of The 5 Considerations to put on my dining room table. So that every time I eat, I can reflect on what went into growing the food, harvesting it and preparing it.

Noble Silence & Tent Camping

After dinner we went to orientation with one of the monks up in the small hall. While it was mostly our Sangha group of about 30 people staying at the monastery that week, they did have about 5 people from elsewhere there. A couple of the people had never meditated before and were staying at the monastery for a 7 day retreat. That was surprising to me. But I got to talk to two of the guys a little and found out that they were going through a lot of suffering in their lives. I really hope that they found what they were looking for at Deer Park.

I felt like orientation took about 4x longer than it needed to, but I guess Monks are in the habit of doing things mindfully rather than efficiently, so perhaps I’m the one with the problem haha.

After orientation (the final activity of the night), it was suggested that we practice noble silence until the next morning at the conclusion of breakfast. Noble silence of both the mouth and the mind. I went back to the campground and then went to sleep. For being so hot in the day time, it got pretty cold at night. Quite the contrast. It was amazing to just lay there and listen to all of the bugs and animals. I kept hearing frogs despite not being close to any obvious water source.

Waking Up at 5am

After sleeping for what felt like 5 minutes, I was awoken by a loud (but strangely sooting) bell. It was very nearby too. Even if one wanted to go back to sleep, it would be hard to do so, because the bell continued to sound for another 30 minutes.

I decided to get up, brush my teeth and head up to the Big Hall for meditation. Sitting for meditation at 5:45am seems like it would be a really hard thing to stay awake for, but I was pretty wide awake after the bell. 45 minutes went by pretty quickly. I wish I could say that I was able to be still and focused for 45 minutes, but I spent most of the 45 minutes batting away aggressive flies. But I learned that flies are a fact of life and getting annoyed or upset won’t change that, so I just put up the hood on my hoodie and tried to ignore the buzzing.

Working Meditation

I had a lot of anxiety about working meditation, since one of my Sangha members mentioned bringing work clothes and work gloves. So I assumed I’d be doing hard physical labor and panicked a little. In reality, I got to work in the kitchen chopping vegetables. Since I actually love cooking, this was a very serene and enjoyable experience.

The monk we got to work with in the kitchen was the first one I actually got to talk to and know a little bit, although working meditation like all other meditation is largely silent. When we completed our task, he made us tea and we got to talk a little bit. He is from Italy, ordained in Germany, lived in France at Plum Village and then moved to San Diego. We also got to hang out with an aspiring monk (an Aspirant) from Laguna Beach, CA who was also super cool.

My biggest takeaway from working meditation is that I learned how I can make an activity that I already love doing into a mindful activity.

Sangha Breakout Session

Our Sangha breakout session is where I experienced the most healing on this retreat. For the sake of confidentiality and anonymity of our members I can’t really share specific details of what was said. But one of the things the facilitators asked us to do was to bring some artifact that represents our family - specifically our ancestry (parents, grandparents, etc). Each person placed their object in the middle of the circle and then talked a bit about their ancestry.

For some, there was pain. Either the pain of loss, the pain of regret or the pain of a difficult relationship. For others, there was happy memories and reflection. By the time we were about half way around the circle, a good portion of the group was crying, including myself.

After we finished going around the circle, which took a lot longer than the facilitators had intended, we took a quick break and then returned for a prostration / grounding / “Touching The Earth” meditation. While this was new to me and a little odd, it was super freeing. It allowed us all, in a sense, to return our pain to the earth.

Touching The Earth Meditation

The practice of “Touching the Earth,” also known as bowing deeply or prostrating, helps us return to the Earth and to our roots, and to recognize that we are not alone but connected to a whole stream of spiritual and blood ancestors. We touch the Earth to let go of the idea that we are separate and to remind us that we are the Earth and part of Life. To begin this practice, join your palms in front of your chest in the shape of a lotus bud. Then gently lower yourself to the ground so that all four limbs and your forehead are resting comfortably on the floor. While touching the Earth, turn your palms face up, showing your openness to the Three Jewels — the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. When we touch the Earth, we breathe in all the strength and stability of the Earth, and breathe out our suffering – our feelings of anger, hatred, fear, inadequacy and grief. This is a wonderful practice.

The biggest takeaway that I have from the Sangha Meeting is that everyone has the same issues that I do. I don’t have to go through my emotional pain alone. I can let it go, return it to the earth and know that I have a community that is all going through the same issues - some of the members far worse issues - and that they are okay. Life goes on. We will all be okay, together.

Lots of Emotions

After the Sangha Breakout session, we met up with the rest of the Monastery for walking meditation (on a different, foresty, route) and then went to dinner. I was dealing with feeling a lot of things that I didn’t really want to feel. Particularly after such an emotionally raw session. So I decided to skip the evening activity and go back to my tent.

At one point I got up to go pee and every time my light hit the ground, something was jumping out of the way. I finally caught one of the mystery creatures and saw a fairly large toad. Apparently the campground is teeming with toads that come out at night. Which are the creatures I heard croaking the night before.

I got about 10 hours of continuous sleep this night and decided to skip the morning activity as well. In orientation the monks had said that we need to take care of ourselves. While they recommend we participate in every activity, if we’re not feeling it, we’re welcome to sit out activity. So that is what I did.

I slept in, went to breakfast with the Sangha, packed up my camping gear and decided to head home. This was my first retreat of any kind and I didn’t have it in me emotionally to deal with another day. Next time I will have a better idea of what to expect and to be in the right mindset.

One advantage of leaving early was that there was a lot less traffic and I was able to attend a friend’s baby shower that I wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise. This made her very happy.

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