My plan was to take a friend and my children, Ben, five, and Emily, eight, to the family retreat at Deer Park over the fourth of July weekend. This would be our third family retreat with the Deer Park Sangha. Though my husband, Bruce, recently passed away, my hope was to return to a place where we had shared many meaningful times and to continue our family practice with the support of the Sangha. The week before the retreat, my friend decided not to come. Three days before the retreat, Emily voiced her desire not to come as well. When she told me it was “not right to force her” to attend a mindfulness retreat, I could not deny the truth of her words. She and my son opted to stay home with a babysitter and for only the second time as a parent, I traveled without my husband and children.
I felt a mixture of excitement, freedom, anxiety, and fear as I headed out of town: thrilled at the prospect of having only myself to look after and all the programs I could attend uninterrupted by my children’s needs; excited that my children felt safe, independent, and trusting enough to speak their truth and send me on retreat; delighted that I could release my plans and concerns about what others might think, and just take care of myself. All these feelings were mixed with a strange new feeling of independence after the past year of caretaking during Bruce’s illness and dying process. After dreaming of getting away (and sometimes of running away) during the past year while sitting in doctor’s offices and hospitals, in the fullness of time, I was presented with the possibility of a dream come true. And I had taken it.
In this state of mind, I arrived at Deer Park, fully expecting the retreat to be a life-changing experience, based on my previous retreat experience there. I felt open in a way that I never had before––expectant, wondering, and alive. I surrendered to the retreat and the time was magical for me. I practiced mindfulness with my whole heart and created my intention to be fully present. with my experiences and to the Sangha. I am so grateful to the Sangha for the support my family has been offered, and I wanted to give back. I let go of my tendency to create arbitrary plans and instead just followed the schedule and my instincts about where I needed to be, what thoughts and feelings were coming up for me, what I needed to be doing and with whom, and trusted in the refuge of the three jewels.
Besides attending nearly every scheduled activity, I also had the luxury of engaging in many conversations with my lay and monastic brothers and sisters. Highlights of the retreat for me were the Rose Ceremony, the early morning hike up the mountain, participating in a Five Mindfulness Trainings panel presentation, and attending wonderful Dharma talks on parenting. Nourishing moments included laughing with friends in the garden and dining hall after meals, crying about Bruce’s death, seeing a raven for the first time, learning about oak trees, and sleeping in a hut in Clarity Hamlet with the nuns. Everything felt safe and familiar yet totally fresh, surprising, and new to me at the same time.
I have brought home a recharged spiritual battery, newfound and deepened friendships, a more intimate understanding of myself, my marriage, my children, and my priorities as a mother, daughter, sister, and practitioner. I continue to experience new insights that help me transform my life. Central to my newfound freedom has been an awareness of how my plans and ideas about how to parent interfere with my enjoyment of my life and my children here and now. I’ve noticed since I’ve been home that I’ve been listening more deeply to my children, feeling more patient with myself and with them, and taking more time for myself when I feel sad, tired, irritable, or frustrated. I’ve been aware of not pushing myself like I used to and continue to make time and space for my practice at home every day.
Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, is a psychologist and lives with her children near Deer Park Monastery.