Category Archives: retreat

Walking with the monastics of Plum Village

 

walk-with-me-monk

A monastic of Plum Village from the film ‘Walk with Me’

I have always been curious about Plum Village in France, especially since founder Thich Nhat Hanh is a teacher whose writing I deeply appreciate. So the film ‘Walk with Me’, documenting life there, called to me.

Thich Nhat Hanh appears in the film and his words are a presence, but the focus is on life at the monastery and what it’s like to be a Buddhist monk or nun.

Certain scenes stay with me: A small group of novitiate nuns have their heads ritually shaved as their families watch with great emotion. Monks and nuns walk slowly together following their teacher to the dining hall. The many shots of the French countryside in all its pastoral serenity. The difference between the cooler seasons when life is quiet and the summer onslaught of tour bus loads of secular visitors coming to experience Plum Village. Whatever the season, whatever the situation, the monks and nuns go about their daily chores, welcoming whatever arises. Any emotion we as viewers may feel at the vision of noisy busloads of people arriving, is ours to notice. The visitors with their heads full of hair and their colorful clothing are incorporated into the life of the monastery, and are touched by the experience deeply. And so are we.

Then we travel along with TNH and a few monastics as they go to New York City. As the teacher gives lectures at large venues, we stay with the monks and nuns who, among other things, visit a local prison and engage in conversation with curious inmates.

In a couple of cases, we learn a little bit about their past as a nun visits her family in New York and a monk has a chance encounter with someone he worked with in his previous career. These smiling sharers of the many blessings they receive from their meditative practice are both endearing and inspiring.

There were moments in the film that resonated as part of my experience of being on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Sitting in silence eating in the dining hall was the same wondrous sensory experience. I remember writing a poem about the symphony of sounds in all the clatter of earnest meditators clearing their plates. So to have that sound and the sight of a nun mindfully eating her breakfast, was a delight.

The filmmakers made a wise choice in having no typical narration explaining what we are seeing. We are just there. This creates an experiential intimacy rather than travelogue-style acquisition of information about the experience — an important distinction. Instead they chose to have Benedict Cumberbatch read from Thich Nhat Hahn’s early writings interspersed throughout the film. So the wisdom teachings were well represented, but almost unnecessary, as the monks and nuns themselves evoked pure joy that was contagious.

http://walkwithmefilm.com/player/

 

A very different kind of retreat

spiritrockI have just returned from a three day conference/retreat of Intersangha, the annual meeting of the Buddhist Insight Network held this year at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

It’s always wonderful to stay on retreat at Spirit Rock: to be there when the sun sets, to go to bed after an inspiring dharma talk and a walk under the stars, to wake to a bell, to walk in the still dark morning to meditate wrapped in a shawl or blanket, and then to walk together in silence down to the dining hall as the sun rises.

On this retreat we had the most crystal clear blue sky with the hills as green as I’ve ever seen them, especially appreciated after our years of drought. I wasn’t taking photos but this one is a near approximation of the green we experienced.

Every retreat is different, but this gathering was a conference, held in the envelope of a retreat. We went into silence after the evening dharma talk as we went into the last meditation sit, and we stayed in silence through breakfast in the dining hall, which was especially sweet for me. Years ago I wrote this poem about the symphony of eating breakfast on retreat at Spirit Rock:

Breakfast, Day Four

The dining hall clatter becomes symphonic.

The ecstasy of scraping chairs and utensils!

I have never heard anything so beautiful

as the sound of a sangha in silence

earnestly clearing their plates.

                                                 – SN, June  2006

Happily I was able to re-enter that state of awareness on the first morning since there was no ‘Day Four’ this time!

Just like every other retreat we all had our yogi jobs to help maintain the space and to help the seven cooks keep us well-fed. I try to have a different yogi-job on each retreat, so over the years I have vacuumed dormitory halls, scrubbed showers, swept decks, cleaned bathrooms, washed vegetables, and cleaned the Council House. This time I maintained the foyer of the main meditation hall, washed glasses and refilled water for the teacher-presenters. 

The Buddhist Insight Network is a community of mostly North American sanghas (communities of meditation practitioners) in the Vipassana/Insight tradition. (There are over 500 schools of Buddhism, all on a wide spectrum from religious to secular. Our tradition is the most secular.) Those attending were teachers, community leaders and board members of their local sanghas. Some of what was shared were the practical aspects of how to best manage the challenges of administration of these non-profit organizations, but the formal talks were deep sharings of Buddhist teachings to a group of advanced meditation practitioners. Dharma teachers Rick Hanson (for whom I guest teach), Gil Fronsdal (founder of Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City and Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz), Kevin Griffin, Matthew Brensilver (who ran the conference) and Lori Wong, among others, gave inspiring talks. To share them now would be to parrot what was taught. I’d prefer let the teachings percolate within me, then let them influence my own explorations and sharings over the coming weeks and months. Such a rich experience, I definitely need time to digest!

 

The Intersangha was a group of 65 people adept at practicing wise speech, so even though this was not a silent retreat, the talking was skillful, supportive and inspiring. Even so, after so many talks, discussions and conversations, I felt full to bursting, like I couldn’t take in one more drop of information. And when I got home, I took a long deep nap.

With my class the next day, I shared the experience of being on retreat and encouraged them to give it a try. I asked them, and now I’m asking you:

  • Have you been on a silent meditation retreat? If yes, take a moment to reflect on the value you received. Remind yourself of that value from time to time, so that you may be inspired to attend again, perhaps once a year as a regular part of your practice.
  • If you haven’t been on a retreat, is it something you consider but then reject? Reflect now on any thoughts that come up in considering going on retreat. ‘Can’t afford it.’ ‘Don’t have the time.’ ‘I have too many responsibilities I can’t hand off.’ Or something else. For each of them, ask yourself: Is this true?
  • Is there something else that keeps you from attending? Perhaps fear of what the experience might entail? Perhaps the belief that you couldn’t possibly maintain silence, or maybe you’re just unwilling to do so? Maybe you’re worried that it will be a bad experience and you’ll feel stuck there. These are all typical concerns. And I certainly can’t guarantee that you won’t have a bad time. But if you do, it’s another opportunity to explore the nature of mind, of expectation, of preferences. And you can always leave. (Just be sure to tell the retreat manager!) Most attendees have some moments of discomfort amidst many moments of delight, awe and contentment. I encourage you to explore the possibility of going on a retreat. Find out for yourself!

Spirit Rock Meditation Center is a main retreat center but there are others as well. If you prefer something on the East Coast of the US, then check out Insight Meditation Society in Barrre, MS. Other smaller retreat centers are also worth checking out. You can go to the Buddhist Insight Network listing of residential retreats.

My experience with retreats deepens more and more each time I return to the sweet silence. What a relief from all the talking I normally love to do! Like anything else, it is something that needs to be tried in order to be understood. Resistance is typical. But attendance is so fruitful!

I am happy to answer any questions you may have about the retreat experience at Spirit Rock. Although I have been on retreats elsewhere, that is the only one I feel I have sufficient knowledge of to be able to provide information.

I have promised my class that I will set up a time for us to go on a field trip to Spirit Rock when no retreat is in session. Sometimes just being able to see exactly where you will be sleeping, eating and sitting helps to motivate a meditator to sign up for a retreat. If you are in the Bay Area and would like to join in the field trip, contact me and I’ll let you know when it will be.

I occasionally offer daylong retreats here in my home in San Rafael. We are most fortunate to have a beautiful space with views of Mount Tamalpais and garden paths to wander. We maintain silence throughout, alternating between sitting, walking and eating meditations. It’s a very deep and transformative experience. If you are interested in attending a daylong with me, let me know.

—-

A final few words about yesterday’s class: For my students coming from one direction there was a challenge of a road closure. I had alerted them and offered alternate routes, one of which was quite a maze of small roads (It would have helped if I’d mentioned whether to turn right or left!) Everyone got there, but one student was late. At the end of class she shared that she did get utterly lost, but she remembered to stay fully present with the experience and had the most beautiful ride.

A beautiful example of one of the reasons we practice!

 

Happiness begins with questioning in

questionmarkIn our ongoing exploration of the Ten Perfections of the Heart, we have been looking at Truthfulness, especially how truthful we are with ourselves. It is not that we are outright lying, just that we are not often questioning the statements, beliefs, judgments, etc. that are the running inner commentary of our mental lives. How much does this inner commentary shape the way we relate to this present moment and all that we are dealing with? Do our assumptions persuade us and dissuade us in ways we are not even aware of? Of course! So after quieting the mind down a bit in meditation, it is extremely valuable to start questioning these previously unquestioned long-standing thoughts that have been getting a free ride all this time. If we are basing our intentions, attitudes, words and actions on something we haven’t even looked at lately, then there’s no time like the present to start questioning.

As we take the time to unplug, focus on our breath and develop awareness and compassion, we have the opportunity to begin to see the nature of the thoughts that pass through (again and again). Especially right after meditating, we can allow ourselves just a few more minutes to really notice and question.

Of course, the process is particularly noticeable when on a silent retreat. (But don’t put it off until then!) On retreat there is so much time in silence, and without the opportunity to be expressed, thoughts stand out in our minds. They have more space to move around because the normal thoughts that typically run our daily activities have become unnecessary: We don’t have to pick anything up from the store, make anything for dinner, accomplish anything on our to do list or think of what to say or review what we should have said instead of what we did say, etc. On retreat all we do is respond to the bells by getting up, going to the meditation hall, sitting, walking, dining, listening to dharma talks, maybe going on a little hike or resting in the sun, and doing our one simple daily yogi job — a housekeeping or cooking chore that we have chosen. The remaining thought patterns have a lot of room in our heads to rattle around, so that we actually see them passing through, again and again.

How we come into relationship with these repeating patterns is really the focus of our practice as we go about our day.

Do we combat them? “Oh, shut up!’

Abuse them? “You are so stupid!”

Placate them? “I promise I’ll do better.’

Reinforce them by adding in some emotional component? ‘ Grrr, that really made me angry, and not only that, remember the time…?’

Or, as the Buddha suggested, do we question their veracity? ‘Is that true?’ ‘What proof do I have to back up that belief, assumption, judgment or statement?’

This is a valuable investigation, and one that is lifelong. We develop the powerful habit of self-exploration. This is quite different from self-doubt, which is the habit of undermining our best intentions. Inner investigation is simply making sure that we are being truthful in what we tell ourselves. So many of our thought patterns simply repeat something we heard as children. We have tuned ourselves in to a certain set of beliefs, and we accept anything we hear that resonates with those original assumptions. But where did the assumptions come from? They are often negative judgments about ourselves or the world, and when we simply accept them as true without questioning, we do a disservice to ourselves and those around us. With our child’s limited view we made sense of a confusing world at the time, but now, from our adult perspective, if we take a moment to really look, these assumptions reveal themselves to be erroneous, painful and unnecessary now. Whatever we thought we were protecting doesn’t need this protection any longer. The truth does set us free!

As with all the Paramitas, these perfections of the heart, we can spend a lifetime in this practice and find great value in it. We have insights into the nature of mind and how we are causing ourselves and others to suffer by being oblivious to the patterns of thought and emotion that activate anger, jealousy and ill will of all kinds.

In our meditation practice, we are training ourselves to be present with whatever arises in our experience. This is a worthy endeavor in itself, but when we get into inner investigation, the real fruits of our efforts reveal themselves. When we see that thoughts are not ‘who we are’ but instead just wisps of mental formations passing through our vast compassionate field of experience, or synaptic activity, it makes it a lot easier to look at them without freaking out or freezing up or turning away.

You can see how the matter of identity comes into play with this investigation. We may cling to certain beliefs, opinions and judgments as components of our personality or character. Those of you who have studied the work of Byron Katie will recognize these valuable questions: ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true? Who would I be without this thought?’

As we begin to explore the next Paramita of ‘Resolve’, we are asked to continue with this practice of looking closely at the nature of our thoughts. The Buddha taught that there are four aspects to ‘Resolve’, and the first one is Discernment. And what is involved in discernment? It is really looking at the intention or course we have set for ourselves and noticing all the underpinnings of thoughts and judgments that rise up in our field of experience that may be sabotaging our intentions. Discernment makes us look at the goals themselves to see if they are worthy and sustainable.

So here we are again, paying attention to the nature of thoughts that arise, and questioning them. We just can’t get away from it! And that’s okay, because there is incredible richness in this process. This is where the wondrous insights grow from the fertile field of ongoing dedication to awareness and compassion.

Does it feel like you’re running on empty?

A friend of mine recently told me that she hadn’t realized how much of a weight she had been under from the duties involved in administering her father’s estate until the day she gave the final checks to her brothers and sisters and was truly done with that sad responsibility. Weight lifted, she could suddenly see how much her energy had been depleted, and how much strength had been sapped. Because of course, being life, it wasn’t just the one thing. At the same time she was dealing with work transitions, other family matters, health challenges and of course the lingering grief over the loss of her father.

They say ‘when it rains it pours.’ We recognize the truth in that. Life doesn’t always present challenges in an orderly queue, each one waiting its turn. But whether they happen all at once or in succession, we may doubt if we have the strength and energy to handle it all. It just becomes too much. Sound familiar?

The Fifth Paramita is Strength / Energy, another quality or ‘Perfection of the Heart’ for us to explore and consider. We can see that it’s relevant in all our lives, because even the hardiest among us sometimes feel physically exhausted, mentally fatigued and emotionally drained.

Speaking to energy, the Buddha’s teachings have us look at the Hindrances of restlessness and of sloth and torpor. Just recognizing when they arise in our experience, not making an enemy of them, we can see how they cloud our ability to see clearly what is happening in our lives and in our way of relating to our current experience. One student in class noted that when she has a decision to make she feels a sense of restlessness until she decides on a course of action. That restlessness is discomfort with things not being settled. Another way handling that discomfort is to give up, become a channel-surfing couch potato or lose ourselves in any one of a variety of addictions in order to avoid being present with what is going on with us. A couch potato is sloth personified, and a mind lost in addiction is in a state of torpor. We can become mentally fatigued when we exert a lot of energy leaning into or living in the future, planning, daydreaming or worrying; or when we run away from the challenges we are facing in this moment.

In the Noble Eightfold Path, we learn about Wise Effort. Certainly this has to do with how we use our energy. Are we striving in a way that depletes us? Are we not making any effort at all, ending up lethargic and unmotivated? So how do we bring ourselves into Wise Effort when we’re feeling things are off but aren’t sure why?

Wise Effort is based on Wise Intention, so when we get that ooky feeling that our effort is unskillful in some way, we can ask ‘What is my intention here?’ The answer will let us know if we are trying to be perfect, trying to prove something — to ourselves or someone else, living or dead. Or if our hidden intention is to harm or sabotage ourselves or someone else by making no effort at all, a kind of passive-aggressive reaction. This is all worth exploring in a skillful way, either by ourselves after meditation or with the help of a therapist if it just feels too tangled and we’re not able to break the cycle of judging ourselves or blaming others. Another skillful question, always, is ‘What am I afraid of?”

Because my spiritual path, and my meditation practice, was renewed through a serious encounter with depletion, the subject of energy is central to me. When in the early 1990’s I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome and eventually had to give up my career, I had a lot of time to meditate and investigate the nature of energy.

I began to see that when I am caught up in living in a tight fearful way, my energy is limited, finite, shallow. When I am living fully in the moment, creating spaciousness and compassion to whatever degree I am able, I loosen into a loving relationship with whatever arises, and my energy is equally spacious, unrestrained, infinite. When my life was one big to do list with no time for meditation, walks in nature or anything else that connected me to true joy and understanding, then I got depleted very quickly. During that period of my life, that state of depletion became the extended norm, and I got very ill.

Women's Ceremony by Anna Petyarre and courtesy of the Aboriginal Art Directory
Women’s Ceremony by Anna Petyarre

But what does that mean: finite and infinite energy? Well, scientifically speaking, this solid-seeming world is really energy, vibrations at varying frequencies coming together in patterns that form and dissolve all the objects we perceive to be solid, including ourselves. For convenience we perceive everything as solid, but it’s very inconvenient really when we get attached to that self-limiting view, believing it to be reality. It can also be very painful, because we cling to one fleeting version as the way things should be.

As we sit in meditation practice, we relax and release pent-up tension. We attend the vast field of physical sensation we experience, and we are able to let go of the idea of our skin being the edge of our being. Because it is not a solid edge at all, but porous. And we are breathing in and out air that defies our desire to name exactly when it is a part of ‘me’ and when it suddenly is not. But in meditation, attending actual sensation, we are in this vast sphere of experience — no boundaries, infinite. Yes, it is centered in consciousness here and now. We are not flying off to some other realm. All the realms of experience are available here and now, passing through our field of experience, named or unnamed.

This is how we access and come to understand the infinite. We don’t need to explain it to ourselves. We only need to know how through our practice we can experience it. Quite naturally, without striving, we let go of thinking that life begins and ends with our to do list. We create enough space to check in with ourselves to see what is important to us, and what is not. We access infinite energy and our relationship with life and the world shifts into something joyful, where we are able to do whatever is necessary in a mindful way, another part of the dance of life.

When we go on a silent meditation retreat, each person is assigned a daily yogi job. This might be vacuuming the hallway, washing pots and pans, cleaning a bathroom, sweeping a courtyard or scrubbing a shower. Whatever it is, after a few days it somehow transforms from drudgery into a labor of love. And that sense of aliveness in the moment of doing any activity can be brought home and applied to everything we do.

Which is a big relief, because most of us most of the time are functioning with a heavy reliance on finite energy, which isn’t very reliable. Finite energy is manufactured out of caffeine, striving, willpower, pushing, scolding, demanding that we work harder, go faster, and accomplish more. We give our all without taking time for ourselves. We are out of balance. And our energy is quickly depleted. Finite energy may seem to be getting the job done, but there is some crucial aspect missing: That infinite quality of connection, loving-kindness and pure attention. We may think it’s working but at some point an unwelcome amalgamation of stressors can force us to acknowledge that when push literally comes to shove, finite energy doesn’t work.

Through regular meditation practice, and particular through going on retreat, we begin to see how our striving was based in fear, and that fear just creates more and more tension in the body and mind. When we release the tension by attending sensations arising and falling away in our field of experience, relaxing the tight kinks that hold us in a forward-leaning fearful striving mode, we discover something very interesting. Life does not require us to push it or shove it into shape. We don’t need to push the river of life! We can become skillful in navigating it instead.

So notice for yourself to what degree you are trying to push the river instead of coming into skillful relationship with whatever arises in your experience. Notice how much energy you exert when you could be rowing — merrily, merrily, merrily — gently down the stream.

 

Where Do You Go Mindless?

Have you ever realized when you arrived somewhere that you don’t remember anything about the ride? Have you ever finished a meal and realized you didn’t taste a single bite? Have you ever blurted out something you wish you could take back?


We all have times when we go mindless and function as if we’re on automatic pilot. As we develop mindfulness through the regular practice of meditation, we begin to see where this happens in our lives and why.


You know how when things go into slow motion actions reveal themselves that you totally missed at normal speed? It’s the same with meditation, especially on a silent retreat when you have no where else to be and nothing else to do but meditate and practice being mindful. In that slow motion state, thoughts are still there but they dance in a more spacious field of awareness. We can see the dance steps, how one thought leads to another by process of association.


We become present enough to see how thoughts arise, one dependent on another. And if we can see what thought stream kicks us into mindlessness, we can look more closely to see where we are falling into habituated patterns that don’t serve us and where we might be avoiding something that makes us uncomfortable.


Some people are terrified of the idea of meditating for that very reason. They don’t WANT to be mindful, because it might reveal something they have very forcefully kept stuffed down. Instead of giving themselves quiet time alone, they fill their lives with as much noise and busyness as they possibly can to stifle whatever it is in there that seems so threatening.


But developing awareness awakens compassion. Meditation is not some boot camp with a tough drill sergeant bent on making us suffer. Just the opposite! It’s a homecoming! A liberation! A savoring of this gift of being alive in this moment. The thing we thought was scary or shameful is not lying in wait to harm us. Instead it is waiting for us to soften the tight chains that bind it to us, and through compassionate dialog to release it and allow the process to teach us.

So, tell me, where do you go mindless?

You have the answer!


Always we hope
someone else has the answer,
some other place will be better,
some other time
it will turn out.

This is it.
No one else has the answer,
no other place will be better,
and it has already turned out.

At the center of your being,
you have the answer:
you know who you are and
you know what you want.
There is no need to run outside
for better seeing,
nor to peer from a window.

Rather abide at the center of your being:
for the more you leave it,
the less you learn.
Search your heart and see
the way to do is to be.

— Lao Tzu


This poem was read by Mark Coleman at the end of the first sit of the third morning of the Mindfulness Facilitators retreat I recently attended at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. The poem filled me with such a shiver of delight. It’s true! It’s true! No one has my answers! Yet I am chasing here and there looking for permission and approval, looking for the green light, instead of trusting my own inner wisdom.

And yes, how often have I thought a change of location might be a solution to some perceived problem, as if it is this place and not the patterns of my thinking mind that are causing my current my unhappiness.

And wanting to get past this difficult time into some other future time when it will ‘all turn out.’ Oh yes, I’ve been there. I have lived whole portions of my life, especially my younger years, almost completely in the future, daydreaming about when things will all work out.

I’m guessing by the request of co-retreatants for Mark to please please please post this quote, that it touched them too, and is a common human experience, this reaching out for answers from other people, other places and other times.

So I share this quote with you in case it also speaks to you, addressing some deep-seated yearning you may or may not have noticed before.

The poem takes us back again and again to this moment, this one and only moment, this point of reality where all the power resides. We see how the practice of meditation strengthens our ability to be present, to live fully right now. We can notice how we want things to be different, but we are less likely to be deluded to believe that someone else has our answer, somewhere else is the solution, some other time things will be better than they are right here right now.

We carry our patterns with us. If we have a pattern of discounting our own ability to access wisdom through quieting down, centering in and opening up to the infinite clarity of being, then we will always feel the need for others’ confirmation before we trust what we know.

If we have a pattern of believing that another location will miraculously resolve all that is restless and disgruntled within us, then we will always be daydreaming about other houses in other cities, other jobs, other partners — and we will never deepen our connections right where we are. We won’t plant our garden and then we’ll tell ourselves how ugly it is.

If we have a pattern of believing that someday we will be happy, then we won’t bother to notice the joy possible in this very moment, if only we would open our senses to it.

This poem truly captures the heart of what we learn from meditation practice. And when it was read at 7 AM in the meditation hall at Spirit Rock after 45 minutes of sitting, it was like a rock dropping into a still pond, creating a huge impact and lots of ripples within me. Ah!

Great Gratitude Retreat

I just led a daylong Great Gratitude retreat that seemed to leave everyone in a state of bliss and yes gratitude, according to their end of the day sharing.



Going into silence is such a delicious thing to do, although people always think it sounds scary. ‘How can I possibly not talk for hours (and in the case of longer retreats, days) on end?” Easy! One student at the end mentioned how surprised she was at how pleasant it was to be quiet, to not have to think of something to say, and to be together as a sangha in mutual appreciation without needing to communicate orally or even by eye contact. This lovely interior experience is fully supported by the community, and that’s something people forget when they think about going into silence.


We did a traditional Vipassana Buddhist style retreat: sitting meditations alternated with outdoor walking meditations. The decks with their boards set the natural walking meditation aisles for formal walking meditation. The gardens were for less formal meandering and communing with nature. At different points throughout the day meditators would take a seat by the waterfall to do a listening meditation. One meditator kept returning to the base of an old oak. At the end of the day sharing she said it helped her feel her roots. One meditator took note of the great number of species of animals that share the garden with us, sensing community. Another noticed her comparing mind, how enjoying the garden got infiltrated by thoughts of ‘Why isn’t my garden like this?’ One meditator developed gratitude for her feet as she did walking meditation, and recognized what a gift they are, how some people don’t have the use of their feet or their feet are in pain. One meditator felt the flush of creativity that being fully present can provide.

You might say well of course it is easy to be present and grateful in a garden on a beautiful spring day, but what about being present amidst life’s difficulties? What about being present with pain and hard choices?

We practice in the garden so that we learn the way to the present moment in any situation. We learn here and apply what we have learned out in the busy world. Since so much of what we struggle with in life has little to do with conditions in the world but much to do with how the mind grasps for, clings to and turns away from whatever arises in our experience, it isn’t necessary to provide unpleasant situations to get the mind to struggle. The mind does this with everything, until we recognize it and find that we can make room for all of life experience if we simply expand our spacious open embrace.

Even in a lovely setting we can find something to bother us. As I walked on the cedar decking, I couldn’t help noticing how shabby it was, how mottled, how in need of repair. But after a few periods of seated and walking meditation, I walked the same course and found the same boards to be beautiful pieces of natural art! That’s how the mind is. It finds fault in conditions and situations, and then when it settles down — when the tuning fork of meditation has brought it into balance — it sees beauty everywhere. So if we took this retreat on the road, if we transported it to a slum in Mumbai, at first we might be overwhelmed by the squalor, but after a period of meditation we would begin to see the beauty of the people, the colors, the patterns, the sounds and the energy of life being lived. We would, as people often do, fall in love with something that we had felt such aversion for just a few hours before.

Another example: I used to go on a wonderful Buddhist women’s retreat up above the world famous Muir Woods where towering redwood trees fill a deep canyon. During each day of my retreat I would walk down the trail into the canyon and enjoy the quiet of the areas away from the tourist-trodden trails. Towards the end of the retreat, I decided to venture into the populated areas. In that state of mindfulness, my heart filled with such love for the flocks of this colorful species with their bright t-shirts and hats, each little grouping a family or fellow-travelers having its own little world of interaction. What a falling away there was for me of the attitudes, opinions and cynical judgments I carried about my species, especially in crowds. This is the gift of meditation. It doesn’t turn us into zombies. It removes the dust-trapped veils that have prevented us from seeing clearly and experiencing great gratitude for this gift of being present, wherever we are.

So what is ‘great gratitude’ and how does it differ from plain old gratitude? Plain old gratitude is counting your blessings, and that’s a lovely thing to do. What kind of unfeeling ingrates would we be not to be grateful for the good fortune we have? People who have less health, wealth, love and beautiful surroundings would say, ‘Hey, if you’re not grateful, then step aside. if I had what you have I would be soooo grateful.’ How often have we been in that position ourselves, thinking ‘if only’ we had the blessings some other person has, we would be so incredibly grateful? (That ‘if only’ is a very painful place, one that doesn’t disappear with acquisition, but sets the stage for more ‘if only’ desires.)


So we count our blessings. Of course we do. We are not automatons that don’t feel pain at the loss of these kinds of blessings. But when a loss happens, through our meditation practice, we stay present with the experience, noticing what arises. We might notice the heavy pressure in the chest that is so often associated with loss, for example. We stay present enough to hold ourselves with tender compassion. We are willing to feel what we feel and not rush to get past it. We understand that the dark valleys of our lives are where the fertile soil is. Instead of wallowing in the mud, getting stuck in our story of loss, we nurture ourselves, have patience with the process, and grow from our experiences.
One thing we learn from loss is that the blessings we can count on our fingers are conditional: our health, our wealth, our homes, our loved ones. These things we are grateful for are finite, changeable and undependable — all the things that make being attached to them a sure fire way to cause dukkha, suffering.

Is there anything that is infinite that we can be grateful for? Yes! We can feel great gratitude for this very moment just as it is, with all its joys and all its sorrows. As long as we are conscious we always have this very moment. Pleasant or unpleasant we have the experience of being present.

In moments when our conditional gratitude falters, when we want things to be different from the way they are, or we want things to stay the same and we dread change, can we open to that infinite quality of gratitude for being present simply to experience it all? And in that way can we soften our tight clinging and our fear-based belief that without these things we could not go on?

The practice (for the retreat and perhaps for you if you choose to do it) is to notice both the finite gratitude for specific blessings we can name, and then expand into infinite gratitude for this very moment just as it is. There is room for it all if we are present and compassionate.
We feel gratitude for being conscious in each moment as it reveals itself. We learn the fine art of holding it lightly and savoring it. This devout gratitude sheds light on the darkest despair, allowing us to discern the treasure buried deep within. It allows us to experience pain as a symphony of passing sensations. Deep unconditional gratitude can be a constant companion that opens our eyes and our hearts. And ultimately, at the moment when we breathe our last precious breath, we are grateful even for this.

We can simply let the great gratitude breathe us, illuminating our lives.