Mindfully Retreating into Self, Finding Community
“Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.”
This simple practice of awareness lays the groundwork for the art of living mindfully, an art which is the basis of daily life at the Blue Cliff Monastery – a practice center in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, located in the lush green Hudson Valley of New York.
From August 22-26th, I was fortunate to be able to attend my third retreat at Blue Cliff, led by the monks and nuns of Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition from their various practice centers around the world. As part of their summer tour, entitled, “Refreshing our Relationship with Life”, the monastics led the 100+ attendees in practices that brought us into the freshness of each moment, through dharma talks, mindful meditation, chanting, walking, eating, working, and group discussions.
This being my third retreat at Blue Cliff, I was struck by the contrast I felt between this retreat experience compared to previous ones. In the past, my attendance at retreats coincided with some kind of personal crisis, and having the space to breathe was both helpful and challenging. In the midst of struggle, I felt fortunate to spend time being with myself, but the feelings of deep loneliness often seemed even bigger and more vivid in the midst of the bliss, connection, and happiness that other retreat-goers seemed to enjoy. Nevertheless, I always stayed, kept practicing, and by the time I left did feel a greater sense of peace than when I had arrived. During this recent retreat, my experience was much different. I’ve been feeling quite good recently, more consistent with my daily mindfulness practices and generally less like an emotional roller coaster. You could say I’d already been feeling pretty peaceful and happy, so much so that I wondered if I really needed to “retreat” at all. But as is always my experience with mindfulness practice, taking the time to slow down and just be was profoundly beneficial.
When I arrived at Blue Cliff, I was aware that the transition to the slower pace and beautiful surroundings felt easeful, much less of a shock to my system than ever before. The awkward moments I’d become used to enduring in the first few days of a retreat – eating in silence, wondering if I was chewing too fast, meeting people’s eyes without being able to converse while practicing noble silence, struggling to stay present with my breath and steps during walking meditation – seemed less present, the shift into mindfulness less drastic. In group discussions, where friends shared their joys and pains as well as moments of insight and deep questioning, I observed that I wasn’t having such a dramatic experience. While a part of me felt the urge to take notes during the dharma talks, to record in my journal the wondrous moments of beauty and clarity that came from time to time, there was a new energy present, one that allowed me to simply just rest in quiet calmness, enjoying each moment as it came and went without feeling such a strong need to hold onto it, without having to figure out what it meant on an intellectual level. Emerging from my tent to see the north star in the indigo sky at 5:30 each morning, pausing to watch two deer grazing between the meditation hall and the bathrooms, coming back to my breath at the sound of each bell, I felt at peace, connected to the community practicing together, connected to the earth and the bounty of life that I am a part of, that is part of me. Perhaps most importantly, the time spent in mindfulness with sangha friends, sharing and seeing how our individual experiences of this practice unite us as brothers and sisters, reminded me that – without a doubt – I need the support of a community. Growth and transformation may not be impossible on one’s own, but walking the path of peace with friends certainly makes the road much easier, not to mention more joyful!
I am so happy to be resuming our free weekly community mindfulness practice sessions this Sunday, September 9th, at Evolution PT & Yoga from 6:30-8:30pm, and look forward to smiling and breathing together with all who are seeking peace and love. I hope you will join us!
- I asked the leaf whether it was scared because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was very alive. I worked hard and helped nourish the tree, and much of me is in the tree. Please do not say that I am just this form, because this leaf form is only a tiny part of me. I am the whole tree. I know that I am already inside the tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’ – Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding