Come Home to the Senses — Day Long Retreat

In the midst of a series of extremely cold windy days, the morning of our daylong retreat started with more of the same, but by the time the students arrived, the wind had quieted down, and by the end of the first sitting practice, the birds were singing, a sure sign of a calm day ahead.

We were able to spend much of that mild sunny day doing walking and sitting practice in the garden. Being able to practice outside isn’t just pleasant; it provides a bounty of nature’s dharma lessons. The Buddha and his students practiced almost exclusively out of doors, even though there were undoubtedly followers who would happily have provided regular shelter.

The retreat seemed to be timed perfectly since our last dharma talk had been about the Sense Spheres, and here we were with a full day to practice resting our awareness in the Sense Sphere portal.

We had lots of things to smell, touch, taste, hear and see. Indoors I provided mint and basil clipped from the garden and set out on the counter to sniff, along with a bottle of vanilla. A student brought roses we put on the table, and there were more roses in the garden as well as a bounty of flowers, birds, trees, leaves, vistas, including the mountain.

I encouraged them to do traditional walking meditations, but also to take time to use all the senses to experience the garden. So they reached out to touch, leaned in to smell, closed their eyes to listen. They became totally enmeshed in the life of the garden, noticing everything, and in that noticing the garden came more intensely to life. We noticed, among other things, how the bees buzzed with such joy in the trumpet vine flowers, the way the trees and the day lilies opened their arms wide to the sun, inspiring us to do the same. The way light danced in the long grasses, the happy song of the waterfall. The colors, the interplay of light and shadow. Yes, indeed, it is a ‘high’. But it is not induced by ingesting chemicals, but by pausing in our lives to simply be alive to our senses. And to sense ourselves as natural expressions of life as well.

Resting awareness at the sense portals, we have the choice to be present or to get lost in all the patterns of associative thoughts, emotions, memories, judgments that the senses might trigger. We always have that choice, wherever we are. The dharma shows us the map of where we are in any given moment, and gives us the way to come home to our senses, again and again.


Drawing of Buddha by Mary Wagstaff

The next day was Vesak, the Buddhist celebration of the life of the Buddha, so I had created cards featuring a drawing of the Buddha by friend, artist and wise surfer Mary Wagstaff. Each retreatant received a card to write their insights and gratitude for the Buddha’s teachings.


At the beginning of one meditation, I passed around a basket of shells and each person felt around and chose one to hold through the meditation, to rub the thumb against the rough or smooth surface when the mind wandered to bring them back to the present moment. Communing with the little shell in hand, the realization of oneness, of life formed of stardust, expressed in all its variations, but always kin, always the same at core. One student allowed the shell to take her to a sense of gentle lulling wave action in her meditation.


At one point we lounged around in the studio and listened in silence to Missa Luba. This African choir sing a Catholic mass in their own language with such beauty. It was a perfect choice because the glory of the mass and the earthy drum beats, reminded us that the spirit of being is in the very pulse of the earth and our own bodies. Our aliveness is an expression of that spiritual nature.


Towards the end, we came out of silence to share experiences in the garden communing with flowers, the view of the mountain, hummingbirds and the waterfall. Several reported momentary or extended periods of feeling one with everything.


To help the students develop their own meditation practice at home, I led a short visualization exercise: Imagine your home. Imagine the place where you meditate or where you could meditate. It’s a quiet private place, etc. etc. Now imagine a time of day when you do or could easily meditate, etc.


How do we find time in our busy lives for this kind of relaxed awareness practice?
First we recognize it as a priority. We see how when we meditate it benefits the things we say we care about most: our health, our family and friends, and a sense of natural aliveness, not alienated or isolated.


Then I used the same shells from the previous experience and took my bell bowl and began to fill it with all the tiny shells that represent all the little bits and pieces of life demands — emails, errands, obligations, hassles —  they rattle around making a lot of noise and there’s no room for the big shell, that thing we say is so important: the practice that enables us to be healthy and loving. When I dumped the little shells out and put the big ones in first, they made no sound except to ring the bell on contact. Then I poured the little ones in, and they all fit right in, nice and snug, settling into the open spaces the big shells had created. A good lesson for us all. It is so easy to fill our time with the little things, putting off the big thing that matters, the big thing that would make all the little things so much easier to manage.


So as I share this experience of a retreat with you, I hope there is inspiration to spend time resting your awareness at the sense portals when you take a walk or sit in nature. May you give yourself many opportunities to do so. May you establish a regular daily practice of meditation to develop a strong muscle of mindfulness. May you put that practice first so that all else will fall nicely into place in your life. And if the Buddha’s teachings have value for you, may you open to the gratitude for the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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