By Travis Masch Without knowing what to expect, I dove into the sea of 450 retreatants at "The Greatest Relief retreat at Camp Swig in Saratoga, California. There were times during the first hours and well into the next morning when I felt skeptical about the possibility of experiencing a meaningful personal retreat with such a large number of people. I had been going on non-guided silent retreats in the past surrounded by no more than fifteen people. No wonder that during those initial hours at Camp Swig I became an easy victim of my own preconceptions and ideas about what would and would not work. And even after those notions slowly started to dissolve, I still had my cynicism. I was secretly amused by the initial efforts of my fellow retreatants in practicing walking meditation, by the "freeze frame" motions of others during mealtimes who, whenever the bell was invited to sound, left bowls, cups, and plates suspended in mid-air. I became increasingly more uncomfortable with my role as observer which kept me isolated, evoking thoughts of early departure. One of the first effects of this retreat was that I began to realize that my own ego started to erect a wall inside of me, trying to separate "them" from "me." I used my cynicism to become my own prisoner. My "small self tried desperately to prevent the influences and changes I was seeking from actually penetrating me. I knew I had to find a way to break out of that enclosure.
What brought the turnaround? It may have started with Thay's first Dharma talk and the way his voice and mere presence poured oil on my stormy sea of emotion. His words, which I had only read before, floated across the gathering hall and touched me deeply, helping me focus on the moment instead of stumbling through the thicket of memories, conceptions, plans, and judgments. Without realizing it at first, I slowly opened up and the teachings, which before had always resided in my head, started to live and breathe deep inside of me. During that day, I had many more realizations. I understood that what I had felt inside was nothing other than my ego trying to hold on to its old ways of thinking and judging. Some place inside me was a deep fear of change, even if that change meant turning to something good or higher. Leaving behind what is familiar, even values and habits that had lost their meaning long ago, felt like a little death. Thay's words showed me, however, that this death had nothing sad or ugly about it. It revealed itself as a great transformer, helping me take off the dark and heavy coat of prejudices, habits, and expectations. It allowed me to continue my journey on the river of life lighter than ever before, longing to merge with other rivers of thought, experience, and love to create a pool of kindness and good intentions.
The final barrier was washed away during the first Dharma discussions, revealing that we all shared the same fears, despairs, and sorrows, but also had the same courage, hope, and ingenuity in striving to increase our mindfulness. I began to see myself more and more in those around me, reflecting not only the way I was now but also I saw the "me" of the past in some retreatants who were now wrestling with issues I had struggled with before, and I was able to offer advice. I saw the impatience and short-temper that I used to display when dealing with other people's problems only meant that I denied my own past, that I thought I had taken care of long ago. I had projected my own frustration and anger onto others. What wonderful revelations lay hidden in Thay's appeal to loving kindness, not only to others but to one's self—for how can we be gentle and understanding with others if we are harsh against ourselves?
The retreat continued to present countless opportunities to offer help and advice, sometimes just by being mindful. I was in turn, inspired by other retreatants' efforts in mindfulness, which encouraged me to deepen my own practice. At times I just stood still and enjoyed the beauty of seeing others shine in their practice.
As the retreat drew to an end, one question became more and more pressing: "How will I be able to bring this atmosphere of peace, understanding, and mindfulness into my everyday life?" Thay's suggestions of remaining mindful at all times, during sitting, walking, eating, or lying down were the tools we needed to create a wave of mindfulness and become skillful enough to ride on it long after the five days were over.
I am still riding that wave: I meditate each morning and evening, eat one or two meals in silent mindfulness, invite the bell to sound, make use of the gathas, and practice walking meditation on my way to the corner store or mailbox. My Christian roots offered themselves in declaring Sundays as a mindfulness day. And even though my little boat of mindfulness gets tossed around in the wild sea of daily living at times, these practices are my anchor firmly fastened in the ground of spiritual awareness. Sometimes when the "sea" is really calm, the tiny diamond-like sparkling bubbles of the "Avatamsaka realm" break to the surface as gentle, friendly reminders of what lies hidden behind the ordinary.
Travis Masch has been a student of the Dharma for nearly twenty years. He lives in San Francisco, where he owns the "One World Cafe."