Always at the Beginning

My First Retreat Experience By Haven Tobias


A friend and I set out from Oklahoma, bound for the Rocky Mountains, and my first mindfulness retreat. Two years before I knew nothing of Buddhism or Thich Nhat Hanh. Now, I still feel uninformed, but trust my friend, Marla, and my well-intentioned beginner’s mind to carry me through.

Well, okay, part of me trusts my own mind. The other part of me can’t decide what to worry about first.

Meals are high on the list of frets. What is mindful eating? At home, breakfast is whatever I can slice into a baggie and eat while driving. Lunch is at my desk, with the phone, computer, and files. I eat dinner in four and a half minutes in front of the TV, with a fork in one hand, remote in the other, and the day’s mail and newspaper spread out on the coffee table. Silent meals, I know how to do. I live alone. But, for precisely that reason, when two conditions arise together, food and people, I turn into a chatterbox. Could I be quiet?

When I’ve exhausted the subject of meals, worrying about room arrangements is another diversion. How can I share one room with four other women? I’ve had ten rooms to myself for a dozen years.

I didn’t want to bother Marla with these worries, but every once in a while when she’d hear me sigh a deep sigh, she’d say, “Breathe and smile. This is going to be fun.”

We arrive at the retreat and learn we’ve been assigned different rooms. I’ve lost my guide! I’m on my own! PANIC!

But it’s evening, and I decide against thumbing a ride home. Instead, I make my way to the cafeteria. The food is plentiful and looks good. I’m hungry. I’ve got to try a little of this, and this, and that. I make my way to a table, plop down, and look around. Hundreds of people are eating in silence. I notice people bow­ing and smiling when they sit down or get up. I also notice that not everyone does this and realize I don’t know when to bow, to whom, or why.

Suddenly, a bell sounds. Is it a fire drill? No, nobody’s moving. In fact, everybody has stopped. If it were possible for this room full of people to be quieter, it is. Then, everybody starts slowly chewing again.

Marla comes to my table. What luck! She bows and smiles, so I bow and smile back. But we don’t speak, of course. I remember she told me to chew everything thirty times. I eat. Suddenly it occurs to me that I have been chewing and smiling and bowing for a long time. So how come there is still such a pile of food on my plate? Marla was done long ago and waits patiently. I write a note on my napkin. Do I have to stay until I have eaten every­thing on my plate? I slip it to Marla. She smiles and shakes her head. As I bus my tray, I feel I’ve failed my first test. I am a glutton, and not even a successful one. I didn’t eat everything. I just took it, then threw it away.

After dinner there’s an orientation. Hundreds of people pour into the meditation hall. People are milling about, greeting each other, finding places to sit. Then it is still and there he is, just one of the people on the stage, dressed like the other monastics. He sits off to the side by a large bell. I recognize Thich Hanh, not because anything is said or done to call attention to him, but because he looks like his picture on the book Marla had in the car.

The orientation, introducing us to the theme “I have arrived, I am home,” is wonderful, but when it concludes I am tired. I go to my room and crawl gratefully into my upper bunk bed.

My eyes are just shutting, when, bang, they are suddenly wide open and my mind has started in again. I never heard Thich Nhat Hanh introduced. I could swear I heard people refer to him as “Thai.” I still don’t know much, but I thought he was from Vietnam, not Thailand. What if I run into him tomorrow? What do I call him? Your Holiness? Mr. Thich Nhat Hanh? Mr. Thich? Or Mr. Hanh?

We waken at five a. m. I let my roommates get ready first, while seriously contemplating staying in bed to avoid embarrassing myself. But I realize I probably can’t stay in bed for five days. I’m too shy to go to the meditation hall, so I dress warmly and sit outside as the darkness rolls away and light outlines the mountains. I walk alone to breakfast and when I get brave enough to look up, I see a nun with a kind face coming towards me. I decide to trust. I stop her and ask whether it is appropriate to bother her with a question, especially a really stupid question.

I am so agitated over polite forms of address, I have com­pletely forgotten we are still within the period of noble silence. Despite this, the nun smiles and nods encouragement, so I ask, “What is the name of Thich Nhat Hanh and why do some people call him Thai?”

Her smile grows, turning what is already a lovely face into the face of an angel. “That,” she says, “is a very good question.” “Thank you for asking.” Then she explains that his students call him the Vietnamese word for teacher, “Thay.” Her sweetness is like wings on my heels, and I float off. I can’t get over it. She THANKED me for my question! That morning I decide I want to be his student too.

At breakfast, I resolve to be reasonable in the presence of all this wonderful food, and take less than I am tempted to. An hour passes, and after much chewing: twenty-six, chew; twenty-seven, chew; twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty. I have finished! I have wasted nothing. I smile.

I am learning. But I have bigger lessons ahead of me.

Doing it All

On that first day, I want to do everything. I plan it all out. I can rush lunch, run back to the room, grab my bathing suit, run by the bookstore on the way to the pool, get to the pool in time to do some laps, dress again, then make it back for the slide show, and hurry to join my Dharma discussion group.

I am on the brink of jumping into the water, when I hear a shrill whistle. “Evacuate the pool,” the lifeguard orders. “There is heavy lightning in the vicinity. There will be no swimming for at least an hour.” Well, phooey! I could have eaten lunch prop­erly and enjoyed it. I could have passed an enjoyable half-hour in the bookstore, instead of barreling through. I could have sat quietly and…

Come to think of it, I can sit quietly now. I can just sit down and take stock. Let’s see. What’s the bad news? I’m worrying. Just like home. I’m over-planning. Just like home. I’m frustrated I can’t do it all and have it all, just like home.

The good news? If I had left my worrying, planning, frus­trated self behind, I might not have come to this moment, when, after making mistakes, I realize I can learn from them. In fact, if I can learn from a mistake, can it be a mistake? Does a person who never makes a mistake learn anything? After all, it’s not called mindfulness perfection; it’s called mindfulness practice.

If everything one does and says is an opportunity to practice, then a beginner is not less worthy than an old hand. In fact, it is good to be a beginner, to have the opportunity to start over in every moment.

The last morning of the retreat, Marla and I and many others commit to the five mindfulness trainings and learn our Dharma names. The monks who guided my discussion group chose the name Embracing Freshness of the Heart for me. How could they have known me so well in such a short time? My Dharma name is one of the best gifts I have ever received. Every day, I begin by smiling to my name, and vow to embrace freshness.

At my first retreat, I learned it does not matter if my last step was a misstep, because the last step leads to the next. Each can be a mindful step toward patience and compassion, for myself, and others.

mb39-Always2Haven Tobias, Embracing Freshness of the Heart, lives in Norman, Oklahoma and practices with the Norman Meditation Group Sangha. She has practiced law for thirty-two years, and she is happy practicing mindfulness now

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