Going on Retreat

By Lois Barber In October 1990 I received a letter inviting me to a retreat for environmentalists, to be held in California in March 1991. Normally, in the rush of my busy day, such a letter would go into the pile "to be attended to later." But precisely because I was busy and feeling overwhelmed and overworked, this letter went right to my heart. It was from James Thornton, a Senior Attorney of the National Resources Defense Counsel. He said that most of us work too long and too hard with our nose too close to the grindstone. Caught up in an intense pace, fueled by the perceived urgency and dire seriousness of everything we do, we are always behind schedule and out of breath. Then he described this retreat as an opportunity to slow down, breathe, and get back in touch with the reasons we do environmental work- the love of beauty, joy, and all the wonders about being alive on this planet. The idea of devoting six days to silent meditation seemed improbable if not impossible for me. But James' description of Thich Nhat Hanh as a gentle teacher, guiding people in a simple meditation practice to help one be at peace within the environment of oneself and consequently more effective at bringing peace to the environment of the planet, convinced me. I decided to go.

The day the retreat began, my brother, pragmatic and skeptical, drove me from his home in Santa Barbara to the camp in Malibu. We turned in from the Coast Highway and drove five miles up a very twisty, narrow canyon road-the kind you don't take your eyes off for a split second. The landscape was strange to this New Englander who had just left snow on the ground. It was dry, with lots of sage and low-branching coast oaks covered with millions of waxy green leaves. Marty left me at Camp Shalom with a hug, saying "You can call anytime and I'll come get you if you need to bailout." I felt the strangeness of being in a new and different place and not knowing what I had gotten into.

The first night of the retreat, it poured- a blessing for the parched California earth. The thunder and the rain crashed down on the thin wooden roof of the cabin. The shallow creek turned up its volume as it danced by not far from my window. The drenching, racing water felt very close around me.

In the morning we had to make our way through and around large puddles to get to the meditation hall. I took a place in the last row, not wanting to disturb anyone if I couldn't sit still. Thich Nhat Hanh came in and the 200 participants began our morning practice. He had the quietest voice I had ever heard. The quietness came through even with the amplification of the microphone. He talked, we listened, and then he showed us what he meant and we would try it out. It was slow and gentle. He gave some practical suggestions, including telling us we could sit any way we felt comfortable, even on a chair. He said when people ask him why he sits on a cushion on the floor to meditate, he answers, "Because I like it." At this his face broke into a smile, a beautiful smile that over the week we would come to know well as punctuation marks in his talks. During the week he talked with us two to three hours every day, building each day on the lesson of the day before. In addition, there were times for questions and answers, or questions and questions. I realized that I had had a few preconceptions about meditation that were incorrect.

During the six days, we learned that meditation is a skill you learn and then apply to what you do in the rest of your life. Meditation is focusing your concentration on one thing--doing just one thing. First you become aware of the object, then you recognize it for what it is, then you become one with it. Thay taught us to meditate on our breath, "something you always have with you." "In/out; deep/slow; calm/ease; smile/release; present moment/wonderful moment." He said that gathas are helpful in keeping your concentration focused the way a handrail helps guide you across a slippery log bridge that spans a rushing creek.

We took silent, slow walks along the canyon trails. To practice the sitting or walking meditation is to practice being in the present moment, being at one with what you are doing. The idea is to be able to transfer this mindfulness to everything else you do. Always live in the fullness and wonder of the present moment. It is all we've got. Be there, enjoy it, love it. "Walk as if you are the happiest person on Earth," he said. "You can be the happiest person on Earth. All the riches of the world are there for you to have. Take them." This example from a man who felt the tragedy of the Vietnam War close up, who lived through it, who saw his country, friends, and loved ones destroyed. He showed us how to be at one with the joy of the present moment.

Thay explained that being mindful increases your appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the world-the flowers, the blue sky, the rain, someone's sparkling eyes, the miracle of your own eyes through which you see. These seeds of happiness and beauty become agents of transformation within you.

He emphasized that to be effective we must begin by taking care of ourselves. The theme of the week was a simple line that Thay said one morning, "To take care of the environment, you must take care of the environmentalist. Of course we need to focus on what is wrong in the world, but if we only do this we will be overcome and we will die. That is why we need to focus on what is not wrong. Rediscover what is not wrong and celebrate it. Nourish it, smile on it, contemplate the beauty of it, and it will nourish and heal you."

I was nourished throughout the week by Thay's teachings, by practicing conscious breathing, by the quiet walks in the chaparral canyon landscape, and by the discussion groups with other environmentalists. We spent most of the week in silence, but a few hours every afternoon and evening were set aside for talking. During two afternoon sessions my group discussed the need to make the environmental movement, and specifically our organizations and workplaces, more in tune with what we were learning. Several of us agreed to keep in touch and develop some plans to carry out these ideas.

The week ended with a joyous Passover Seder and then a walking meditation to greet the Easter sunrise. Just as we reached the crest of the hill, the full moon set over the ocean and the brilliant sun rose from behind the mountains in the east. We sang, acknowledged our individual and collective fears, anger, and grief, and we shared communion celebrating the birth and resurrection of the God within us all. As the sun rose, the hills around us lit up as did our spirits.

Lois Barber is founder and President of 20/20 Vision, a nationwide citizen lobbying organization. For information, contact 20/20 Vision. 30 Cottage Street. Amherst. MA 01002.

PDF of this article