Mindfulness Practice Center

Manifesting the Teaching

By Sister Chan Khong We are very happy to announce that on November 14, 1997, Thich Nhat Hanh officially opened the Maple Forest Monastery in Hartland, Vermont. The first winter retreat is now underway, led by Sister Annabel with ten Buddhist monks and nuns living and practicing at the monastery.

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Affiliated with the Maple Forest Monastery will be a new Buddhist retreat center also located in Hartland, Vermont, to be named Green Mountain Dharma Center. Green Mountain will hold retreats led by monks, nuns, and lay Dharma teachers throughout the year. It will also be home to the Mindfulness Training Institute, where Dharma teachers and mindfulness practice facilitators will be trained to assist in the establishment of local Dharma Centers and Mindfulness Practice Centers throughout North America.

The first Mindfulness Practice Center, located in Woodstock, Vermont, has already opened its doors. The MPC is led by two lay Dharma teachers, Anh-Huong Nguyen and Anh-Thu Nguyen, and a member of the Order of Interbeing, Pritam Singh. The MPC has been organized in a nonreligious, nonsectarian way so that friends of all traditions will feel at home when they come to experience the art of mindful living. The practice at all three centers will be entirely in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.

With the establishment of the new monastery in Vermont, Thay welcomes his students and friends to participate fully as sponsors of this timely undertaking. Establishing the roots of Buddhism in the soil of a new culture requires the creation of a monastic community in the country of that culture as well as the active support and participation of a broad-based lay community. Thich Nhat Hanh has appointed the Maple Forest Monastery Support Committee to help with the realization and maintenance of this project. The Committee will warmly receive any suggestions you may have.

Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness, has been an associate of Thich Nhat Hanh for over 30 years. She lives in Plum Village, France. Her autobiography, Learning True Love, is available from Parallax Press.

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Still Water

By Mitchell Ratner Four years ago, a friend and I realized that the lift we received from Sunday night Washington Mindfulness Community gatherings didn't quite get us through the week. I asked Crossings, a nearby holistic healing center where I teach mindfulness classes, if we could use their attic room on Wednesday mornings. "Yes," they responded enthusiastically. So we announced the new sitting to the Sangha and other friends, and began. In the early days, there were sometimes only one or two of us, but soon five to ten people showed up regularly.

Our routine is quite simple. We gather at 6:30 a.m., sit, walk, sit, and then do a short reading. In the beginning, we read from the Plum Village Chanting Book. More recently, we have read books such as Peace Is Every Step, section by section. By 7:30 we are putting on our shoes downstairs, and after a few minutes of optional conversation, people get on with their day. Occasionally, a group continues their discussion at the neighboring cafe.

The crispness of the mornings combined with the intimacy and stability of the group made the morning sittings unexpectedly powerful and addictive. About two years ago, several Wednesday morning regulars began asking about doing more: "Why not Friday morning?" Again, Crossings readily agreed. We had developed a comfortable symbiotic relationship with the Crossings staff. While using the same building, we hardly ever saw each other, though several of the acupuncturists mentioned that the building felt more alive on the days we sat. (We do give Crossings a small contribution for the use of the space.)

Recently, the desire for more mindfulness practice opportunities arose in conversations again-from morning regulars who wanted to add another morning, and from people in the community who had attended one of my Thursday night class series but couldn't attend in the morning. So we began 1999 with another expansion, adding sessions Monday mornings and Wednesday evenings. And realizing the mindfulness practice at Crossings had taken on an energy of its own, we gave that energy a name: Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center.

Just saying Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center seems to make people smile. The phrase "Still Water" evokes images of calmness and clarity. It is in the Psalms: "He leadeth me beside the still waters." It appears often in Plum Village gathas and guided meditations: "I see myself as still water, reflecting all that is." Still Water is also the name of the large meditation hall in the Plum Village Upper Hamlet. "Mindfulness Practice" connotes the open and energizing way of being in the world cultivated through attention to the present moment, as well as the specific meditative tradition taught by Thich Nhat Hanh.

The guiding vision for Still Water MPC is to provide opportunities for newcomers and experienced practitioners to deepen and share their mindfulness practices. The spiritual heart of the Still Water MPC seems to be the early morning sittings, because of their regularity, intimacy, and supportive energy. I often think of our mornings as a piece of Plum Village transported to Takoma Park: waking early, silently walking to the meditation hall in darkness, and then collectively creating a space of calmness, in and around us, while the sky lightens.

Wednesday evenings, we begin with a mindfulness practice, such as guided meditation, Touching the Earth, or total relaxation, followed by a 45 minute openhearted discussion on embodying mindfulness in our lives. In addition to some of the morning regulars, the evenings have drawn many new people from the community, who are looking for spiritual practice.

The Thursday night classes, which I have taught since 1994, are now considered part of Still Water MPC, though they have a separate history and have been a somewhat separate community. Currently, two twelve-week series are offered each year: an introduction to mindfulness practice class in the fall and a mindfulness at work class in the spring. Unlike the other sessions, the classes require advance registration, regular attendance is expected, and there is a fee. Because the format is unusual-systematic presentations within a supportive small group-the classes have attracted many participants willing to drive to Takoma Park for the twelve weeks, but who then find more local opportunities to continue their practice.

For me and many of the Still Water regulars, the expansion of group practice opportunities and coming together as a center has changed our lives. Four years ago, we were testing an implicit hypothesis that if weekly group practice helped nourish our mindfulness amid the stress and distraction of urban life for a day or two, more frequent sessions might nourish it longer. We are now finding that when we practice together several times a week, the nourishment of group practice is not confmed to specific parts of the week, but pervades the week as a whole.

Mitchell Ratner, True Mirror of Wisdom, lives with his family in Takoma Park, Maryland.

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There Is No Way to Community, Community Is the Way

Progetto Essere Pace: the practice of the Italian Order of Interbeing By Silvia Lomardi

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I am smiling while I drive on the southbound highway to reach Pomaia, an Italian Tibetan community located in Tuscany. This is the place where in 1992 Thay came to teach for the fi time in Italy and where we regularly hold our sangha meetings for the project. The project, called “Essere Pace” (Being Peace), is to create a mindfulness practice center in the Plum Village tradition.

On my way, I will pick up Giuseppe, Claudio and Paolo in Genoa and we will get there in two hours. In Pomaia we will meet with Stefano and Viviana coming from Rome; Vanda from Milan; Amedeo, Nongluck, and Andrea coming from the northeast and Emanuela coming all the way down from Bolzano (Bozen), near the Austrian border.

Our Italian community has been expanding a lot during these last years. We have regular monthly retreats with 50 people, we have a retreat with Thay and 800 participants every other year, and we have annual retreats with Helga and Karl Riedl with 120 participants. Now we are ready to create our own center and grow in the direction of offering our well-rooted stability and our joyful practice to others all year long.

What inspired us is the experience of the lay mindfulness practice center in Germany, Intersein Zentrum. Every time we visit them we find the genuine spirit of Thay’s teachings and the flavor of the Plum Village atmosphere. In the last few years we have been developing a special relationship based on esteem and friendship with the two dharmacharyas guiding the center, Helga and Karl Riedl. The Italian Order of Interbeing asked them to be the spiritual guides of the future Italian center. Although they are very busy taking care of the Intersein community, Helga and Karl have accepted our invitation with generosity and enthusiasm, and have offered us their support all along the process, step by step.

A Three-Phase Project

In the last two years we have been meeting regularly every other month to focus our attention on the aspects involved in setting up the project. In phase one, we elaborated our vision: a place where we can go back to inner calm and peace, in a natural setting; located in a central region of Italy; large enough for a resident community and at least forty retreatants; and with space for families.

In the present phase two, some Italian sangha members are currently spending training periods with the German community, where they are learning ways to support community life, run a retreat center, solve conflicts, and so on. We feel now that our project is no longer a dream but it has gained a sense of reality, being already alive in our actions, in our thoughts and in our daily mindful breathing.

At the same time, phase three has started. As you can imagine we have to raise a considerable amount of money; we have already been collecting donations in the last two years through a Trust and we are confident that more donations will come. Sister Chan Khong said: “If you are happy, money will come,” and I am sure she is a real expert in fund raising! So we are practicing as a happy sangha and creating the right conditions for the center to manifest.

In the meantime, we are looking into the real estate market and trying to get to know it better. “We cannot go shopping without money,” Karl once said, but we are building up awareness about what is available: large bed and breakfast houses in the countryside, or village ruins that we could restore or, even better, a green field with a building license. The first two options are more likely to happen, because building from scratch in Italy means taking the risk that the place is full of archaeological remains and you have to stop building!

How We Have Cultivated It

When we started working on the project we were full of enthusiasm, but “empty” of everything else! We needed to learn how to work together bringing the practice into our thoughts and actions. What a wonderful and surprising experience!

We were supported by Helga and Karl in putting the right emphasis on our meetings: “If we are peace, if we practice as if we are a community, the peaceful community is already alive! When the center manifests, the community is ready to step in and live harmoniously.”

And every time we come to the end of the working weekend, we realize the effects of such a process: we had arrived as individuals and we leave as community members. What an experience every time! Now we know that it will happen next time too, but each time we repeat the experience again and again, to our surprise and joy.

We feel “there is no way to community: community is the way.”

And it is along that way that my smile becomes brighter and my heart full of gratitude.

Silvia Lombardi, True Wonderful Mind, invites you to learn more about Progetto Essere Pace by visiting www.centrovitaconsapevole.org (follow the link to pages in English). Or contact Silvia Lombardi, gioiadelcuore. silvia@tin.it or Stefano Carboni, stefaning@fastwebnet.it.

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Mindfulness on Campus

By Simone Blaise-Glaunsinger Our days in academia are marked by a constant hum of activity— the staff working through piles of paperwork, answering phones and typing away on the computer, faculty preparing for classes, grading exams and advising students, and most of all our students, who are studying, writing papers, and often working part-time jobs to make ends meet. What better place could there be than the Mindfulness Practice Center, where one can re-center, breathe, and just be mindful of the present moment?

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The Mindfulness Practice Center was started in 1998, when Thich Nhat Hanh inspired its formation by a large public talk at the University of Vermont (UVM) and a donation of the proceeds went to support it. The Center was founded to help UVM community members cope mindfully with the many challenges of academic life, bringing greater fullness, freedom, and compassion into their lives. We offer a range of meditation opportunities, from weekly sittings to stress management workshops to one-day retreats.

The Center for Cultural Pluralism houses a small meditation room where the groups meet, and is available for students to meditate at other times. Miv London, the Center’s coordinator, works out of the University’s Counseling Center which offers mindfulness-based stress reduction workshops for students. These workshops run over a period of seven weeks, meeting once a week. The workshops are based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program, in which participants learn mindfulness principles, sitting and walking meditation techniques, body scans and hatha yoga to deal with stress, pain, or depression. Last year we started offering this program for UVM staff members. It was such a success that the center continues to offer it for staff on a regular basis. The workshops end with a half-day retreat.

Every semester, a day-long retreat is led by Miles Sherts, a mindfulness teacher and owner of Sky Meadow Retreat in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Mindfulness has also caught on with the psychology department in Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, a class taught by Dr. Arnold Kozak.

As a staff member at UVM, I started coming to the mindfulness meditation group almost six years ago. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step was one of the first books I read about mindfulness, and it inspired me to start the practice. Integrating mindfulness into my everyday life has helped me to deal with my stress and anxiety. Every day, the teachings and my practice enable me to be a more compassionate and patient listener, meditation instructor, hospice volunteer, Reiki practitioner, and receptionist.

Currently I facilitate a weekly mindfulness group on campus. Having a meditation community on campus has expanded my connection with the university and the community as a whole. The people coming to my group, newcomers and regulars alike, inspire me in my own practice as I notice the steady integration of mindfulness into their lives. I asked what it meant to them to have mindfulness on campus, and they shared their insights:

David H., a staff member: “I began this practice almost fifteen years ago to combat severe work-related stress. As I developed my ability, the stress lessened, and I found that the practice helped me in many other, sometimes surprising ways. Today, I continue a practice of mindfulness during the day in order to both maintain a sense of calm and a deeply felt internal energy that ‘ties’ me together.”

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Eric G., a graduate student: “I’m practicing mindfulness mainly to help me get to know myself and stay in touch with who I am and who I want to become. I can look at the direction my academics are taking me and ask myself whether this is in harmony with my values and my vision for myself.”

Amy H., an undergraduate student: “Mindfulness has been very helpful in my life through both practices and various readings by Buddhists. My academic life has somewhat improved by increasing my attention span and concentration, but other aspects of mindfulness are more powerful. For instance, the experience of mindful walking is very fulfilling. Mindfulness also helps us solve deep mysteries within ourselves that have been untouched for many years.”

Many participants have told me it helps them to have a scheduled time during the week they can put aside to come to the group and meditate. They also appreciate the group dynamics, and the ways in which it can create a sense of belonging. We always end meditation groups with a discussion about how it was for all the participants, and what worked or did not work. It is a time for reflection, questions and mindful dialogue.

The Mindfulness Practice Center helps faculty, staff and students to see beyond their wandering minds filled with memories of the past or plans for the future. They experience witnessing their thoughts instead of overanalyzing them. Rather than succumb to the feeling of being overwhelmed or paralyzed by assignments, they begin to approach their projects one small step at a time, and consequently are more productive. The participants go from walking with their minds caught up in thought patterns and their ears plugged into their music devices to an awareness of every step and the world around them, smiling at people they pass, and thereby spreading peace and harmony across the campus.

Whitney H., an undergraduate student, writes: “On campus, I find that I am more empathetic to other students and staff, and with such a diverse group of people all around us on campus, we really have the chance to appreciate and celebrate different opinions and ideas. Mindfulness opens my mind!”

The Mindfulness Practice Center at the University of Vermont has certainly changed my life in a very positive way. Mindfulness is clearly beneficial for the health and well-being of the campus community. My wish is that this message of mindfulness spreads everywhere and continues to bring peace and harmony into others’ lives as it has into my own.

mb54-Mindfulness4Simone Blaise-Glaunsinger works as an office manager at the UVM Department of Art and Art History. She has been a member of the UVM Mindfulness Practice Center (which she considers her Sangha) since 2002. She can be reached at sbhealingsoulstice@gmail.com.

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Stretching Our Practice

Vancouver Prepares for 2011 Retreat By Jeanie Seward-Magee

Vancouver is preparing for a truly historic event—our beloved teacher, Thay, along with forty ordained Sangha members, is coming to give a public talk and lead a retreat in August 2011. We are so excited! Situated on the west coast of British Columbia (BC), Canada, Vancouver is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. We truly feel blessed to host this special event in a city surrounded by so much natural beauty—mountains, forests, and the sea.

Thay was last in BC in 1987, for a small retreat in White Rock. His teachings were from the Heart Sutra, and led to his wonderful book, The Heart of Understanding. At that retreat, there were only eighty-five attendees. Thay was able to connect with his students in a far more personal way than he can do today. At our retreat this August, we shall be hosting over 800 residential guests at the University of British Columbia, with 2,300 attending Thay’s public talk. He will definitely not be able to come around and correct our sitting postures, as he did in White Rock nearly twenty-five years ago!

The Mindfulness Practice Center 

The Mindfulness Practice Center (MPC) of Vancouver was set up in 1998, after my husband John and I returned from the twenty-one-day retreat in Vermont. Thay asked attendees to go home and set up non-Buddhist MPCs. Vancouver’s was the second in the world, after Pritham Singh’s and Anne Johnson’s lovely center in Vermont.

Over the years, MPC has changed from a fairly structured, welcoming space in a nice residential area of the city to a casual, friendly drop-in group in the heart of our downtown East Side. This area is one of the poorest postal districts in the whole of North America. It’s where a large number of homeless folk live, many of whom are drug users and prostitutes. Because there appears to be such helplessness on the streets, it can be a frightening location for some people.

A number of Sangha members who used to come to our first, more suburban location, now no longer come, mainly because of their fears of perceived dangers of the new area. However Thay teaches us that 80% of our perceptions are incorrect! Personally, I do not have a problem with our new location, as homeless folk give me no reason to be scared. Often they ask for money, possibly wanting to purchase their next pack of cigarettes or a bottle from the booze shop. I never give cash, always offering instead to go and buy a coffee with a sandwich.

Having the Sangha meet in this area makes me much more grateful for all the gifts I have in my life: a solid, supporting family, a roof over my head, and food on my table. It helps reinforce one of my daily practices of gratitude, the first always being: “Today I am grateful for my life and breath.” Without these two gifts I could no longer be grateful for everything else in my life.

Growing Our Practice 

A very deep practice also comes with our preparation for the upcoming retreat, which requires a lot of hard work from a number of very generous and kind volunteers. When I was a very new Order of Interbeing member, a wonderful senior practitioner told me how family was her hardest practice. Well, my practice and our committee’s practice have been stretched, sometimes to the limit, as old habit energies come up—unfortunately the ones we don’t admire in ourselves. My volunteer family is stretching my practice and helping it grow on a daily basis. I have to thank all of my dear volunteers for this; they are indeed the flowers in my garden, helping me to pull out the weeds in my mind.

This process has been greatly helped by the kind leadership of several of Thay’s senior monastics. The main direction for our mindful decision-making has come from our liaisons with some amazing monks and nuns in Deer Park. We could never have done any of this work without their tremendous loving kindness! We have also received great joy and nourishment from the volunteers within our larger Northwest Pacific Sangha, and I give them a deep bow of gratitude.

For details about the Vancouver retreat, please visit  www.tnhvancouver2011.org.

mb57-Small4Jeanie Seward-Magee, True Virtue and Gratitude, B.S.W., resides with her husband John on Bowen Island, British Columbia. She is a writer of newspaper articles and books, and a Mindful Way Course presenter.

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