By Katherine Cook I found myself ambivalent about going to the retreat I had signed up for so many months in advance. I feared the size of the crowd (450 people) and my own internal formations about "not being good enough." After consulting a good friend, I decided to make the leap and go to "The Greatest Relief at Camp Swig.
Once I arrived, the sight of familiar faces and people smiling, sitting, and breathing put me at ease. The atmosphere created before we even began was very pleasant. I set up camp and went to dinner in the large dining hall, where I heard for the first time the meal chant beautifully translated and set to a lovely, simple melody that reminded me of Plainsong. I was moved to tears. I had lived and practiced for many years at Zen Center which emphasized Japanese-style chanting from the hara, and it was so wonderful to hear the thanksgiving for the food in words and sounds that were part of my cultural heritage.
At the opening meeting, Thay mentioned that he thought we might have a happy retreat. I was reminded again about the simple practice of putting my attention on the in-breath and the out-breath, took it as my practice and returned to it again and again during the retreat.
Early on I realized how much my habitual consumption of coffee and cigarettes interfered with my ability to be present for Thay's teachings and other events. Much to my astonishment, I simply abandoned them both. I have struggled with these addictions for years. This time I knew that nothing was more important than being available for the teachings and being able to practice unencumbered by bad habits. Nothing had moved me to that point before. I understood so well what Thay meant by keeping our "living room," or mind consciousness, full of what we consume. Doing so creates a floor between our mind consciousness and store consciousness so that circulation between them stops. This I have experienced myself.
What moved me so deeply during this retreat, though, was finding out that with a skilled and committed teacher, one could practice even with this feeling and come to a place of ultimate trust in the practice and touch the ground of being. I felt myself actually moving in this direction, until, at the end of the retreat, I felt quite strong in my practice and trusted in it completely. I felt more like I had a responsibility for teaching the practice than for just being a student. I felt I had been completely met and understood for who I was both as wave and as water. That was the gift to me of the Sangha and of the teacher.
Over the course of the retreat I discovered what a treasure it was to find a true Dharma teacher. It was so timely and skillful that Thay and Sister Chan Khong were able to use the language and feelings of "true love," which is one of our deepest longings, and that we practiced with it until we were carried to the ground of the ultimate. The retreat could not have been better for me, and I sensed this was true for others as well.
When I got home, I faced a difficult family situation. My daughter had fallen in love for the first time and wanted to get married right away. Her blood family, her spiritual family at Green Gulch Farm, and I had never seen her so ungrounded. I could not communicate with the person she had become and I did not trust her partner. Fearing I had lost her forever, I became very distraught. I even feared for her life at times. When I began to run on fear like that, I knew the only thing that would save me was mindfulness of the breath, and I practiced it to save my life and try to find some calmness and peace of mind so I could accept my daughter's situation. Sometimes my feelings were so intense the only way I could practice was lying down in bed with no external stimulation. I asked my friends to sit with me to help ease my suffering. I went to the park and practiced walking meditation in nature as much as I could.
Eventually I became calm enough to write my daughter a letter. As "wave-mother," I expressed my hopes and fears about her life situation. As "water-mother," I expressed my unconditional love. She responded to that. She could feel my calm, and she left a message on my phone machine saying she would respond-in writing. We tried to talk by phone, but we just hurt each other. I felt as if we had barbed wire stretched between our hearts. I thought we might have to separate in silence for years to heal our wounds.
I went to a retreat center in a beautiful natural setting near her new home where I worked with the community and refreshed myself in nature. I became calm and happy enough to call my daughter and ask if she would meet me for dinner. I said I would prefer to meet her alone, but agreed to meet her with her partner. She agreed to meet me alone the next time. The three of us met for dinner and we were finally able to talk. Real communication began around her new situation. She was able to understand that, even though I could not understand her choice of partner, I would not do anything to try to separate them. I was able to understand that, even though she had a new commitment to her partner, she was not going to cut me off. We were able to reveal to each other our hopes and fears for our relationship as mother and daughter and recognize that we were truly bound by a very deep love and valued each other's presence in our lives very much. She had also heard the concern of her friends and family, and had come back down to earth into the present moment. This was a great relief to mc. I had no choice but to bring my retreat experience to my family life. Mindfulness practice made my family life possible again.
We stood in the restaurant embracing for a long time.
Katherine Cook practices flower essence counseling, Shiatsu massage, and teaches Pueblo pottery and lives at San Francisco Zen Center in California.