Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mindfulness Meditation Retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh

       As I write this blog entry it happens to be the eve of Thich Nhat Hanh's 83rd birthday. My first exposure to the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh was in college around 1992. I had read his book "The Miracle of Mindfulness" which resonated and still resonates with me to this day. Last week, it was such a gift to be in the presence of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh at a five-day mindfulness meditation retreat in upstate New York near the Catskill Mountains. The October leaves were turning bright colors of fiery red, orange, and yellow. The retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery consisted of 1,100 retreatants. The conscious collective energy of 1,100 people practicing mindful meditation had a profound effect on me. All of our meals occurred in silence. I particularly loved the practice of walking meditation through the woods along with a group of 50 others. We practiced synching our breaths with our steps: "I have arrived" on the inbreath & "I am home" on the outbreath. Aaaahhh...peace & inner space which then created a similar peace and spaciousness externally when interacting with others.

      Life at the retreat was slowed down to a snails’ pace that created a sense of calm, peace, and deep space from within and without each of us. The Monastics of the monastery would strike a large bell hanging on a tree at random intervals throughout the day. It was the resonant sound of the Mindfulness Bell. The bell was a reminder to stop whatever we were doing to take deep breaths in and focus on our breath. I came to really enjoy the chime of the Mindfulness Bell and in seeing everyone around me stop what they were doing to practice deep breathing & briefly pausing from life's activities. In the afternoons, we would have Dharma discussions in small groups of twenty people. We also participated in working meditations by pot washing after the dinner meals. Who knew that I could feel a sense of being alive through the simple act of washing a bowl? I discovered that by practicing mindfulness & focusing on being in the Present Moment that everything began to come to life more fully. The grass became alive with its' greeness and in its' textures. The tiny red leaf that fallen to the ground was so bold in its' color. The wind through the trees became such a beautiful movement of swaying and the sound was the wind whispering truth to me. I felt my heart opening up and truth shining forth. I found myself smiling at everyone & making eye contact with everyone that I passed walking around the monastery grounds. I felt a connection and Oneness as a result of practicing our mindfulness together as a collective community.

     Being in the presence of Thich Nhat Hanh (also known as "Thay") was a great honor. He spoke to us about impermanence, compassion, the phenomenon of mental formations, and the importance of "watering" seed-thoughts of loving kindness instead of "watering" seed-thoughts of doubt and fear. Thay says that "our minds can become clear as still water through the practice of meditation" and through this "we reflect like a mirror the things as they are just like the still water reflects the sky & clouds overhead". Throughout the retreat week, I realized that our joy & happiness resides from within all of us. It is not something that we can find outside of ourselves. I have found great joy, happiness, calm, and peace in my mind & body. I look forward to maintaining a mindfulness practice through daily meditation and always remembering to come back to the breath in the present moment.