Practicing at Deer Park Monastery By Carl, Aubyn, and Sage Stahmer
Deer Park is where you meditate and are mindful. You meet monks and nuns. They always smile. It makes me happy. At Deer Park everyone is a vegetarian like me. Everyone at Deer Park protects the earth. - Sage Stahmer, Age 7, April 2002
Sage had been coming to Deer Park for one year when I asked him to write a few words about the monastery and our practice there. I remember his first visit to Deer Park well, because it was also the first for me and my wife. We shared similar emotional reactions to our introduction to the Day of Mindfulness of fear, disorientation, and a sense of alienation.
My wife and I had been reading Thay's books at home and attempting a self-guided practice for nearly a year prior to our first Day of Mindfulness. But everything at Deer Park was so different from the world that we lived in - new languages, new rituals, new faces - that all of our seeds of fear and alienation moved quickly to mind consciousness, bringing with them all of their associated habit energies. We were afraid to speak to anyone, afraid that Sage would not be properly cared for at the children's program, afraid that we were making too much noise during the silent meal, and generally, just afraid. As we talked about the experience in the car on the way home, we all echoed the same sentiment. It was radically unfamiliar and, as a result, radically uncomfortable.
But the Dharma works in subtle ways. Happily, one important lesson that we learned from reading Thay's teaching was the need to look deeply into our suffering; and that night, as we prepared and ate our meal, we made a conscious determination to do just that. After much thought and discussion we came to realize that not a single unwelcoming word or gesture had been made by the other practitioners at Deer Park, lay or monastic. To the contrary, everyone had actually acted very skillfully to try to alleviate our suffering and make us feel welcome. Why then, if we had been openly welcomed into the Sangha, did we feel so un-welcome? It was at this moment that I saw clearly, for the first time in my life, that the source of my suffering was me. We made a family commitment to return to Deer Park for the next Day of Mindfulness, and we have been doing so ever since.
I have often reflected on the events of that evening and wondered what it was that allowed us in that particular moment to free ourselves from the cycle of habit energies that had, until then, prevented us from truly touching our suffering. Certainly, our reading ofThay's teachings and the light, informal practice that we had developed on our own were important contributing factors, providing the foundations for a process of deep looking. But I have come to believe that it was something more than this, something that we had taken home with us from the Day of Mindfulness, even while consciously rejecting it, that watered our seeds of mindfulness. It was a simple something that is reflected in Sage's words about Deer Park: "They always smile."
As we sat that night discussing our Day of Mindfulness, we returned frequently to this simple point. They did always smile; and their smiles were genuine, reflecting both joy and stability. Try as our habit energies might to reject this gift, they could not. The living Dharma is contagious!
As an extension of the spiritual community at Plum Village, of Thay's teaching, and of our many spiritual ancestors in the practice, the fourfold community at Deer Park provides support and stability for our family as we practice everyday life. Days of Mindfulness offer the opportunity to regularly touch the living Dharma, which helps us to deepen our relationship with ourselves, with each other, with the Sangha, and with the world. For my wife and myself, the organized forms of practice such as sitting, chanting, and Dharma talks have helped us learn to be more diligent in our daily practice. And the true sense of community that is present in the Sangha brings us joy and support, even when we are not physically gathered. For Sage, the Sangha provides an opportunity to develop his mindfulness naturally while he spends his days exploring and playing with the other children, the brothers, and the sisters in the loving and mindful environment provided by the stability of the practice. We have made friends , and we have learned to be friends as well. We have arrived. We are home.