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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Healing All Moments

A Retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh By Jill Siler


The Vietnamese monk seemed to float onto the stage. He put his palms together and bowed his head. Then smiling, he folded his legs, effortlessly sank to the floor, and settled on a small round cushion.

“Dear friends,” said Thich Nhat Hanh, “this moment heals all moments.” I didn’t understand that at all, but I loved listening to the gentle, earnest way in which he spoke. The dharma talks, or teachings, were being given in a huge tent where hundreds of people sat on the floor in front of him; some sat on little cushions called zafus, some sat wrapped in blankets, and some sat on chairs further towards the back. We’d gathered here for a five-day, silent retreat to study with this world-renowned Zen teacher.

“The Buddha often taught about the importance of slowing down,” he continued in his beautifully accented voice, “of stopping all thoughts so that we might enjoy present moment awareness.”

Whatever. I have things to do and places to go. I have a staggering list of things that must get accomplished for me to even keep afloat, let alone make progress.

“This wonderful present moment,” he said again, smiling like he was really happy about it.

Present moment, my foot. That’s not going to solve my problems.

My husband was pouring our retirement savings into his boat and in denial about it. I was taking radioactive medication and my hair was falling out. I felt like throwing up all the time, my knees hurt, and my teenage daughters were careening through the hellrealm years of their adolescence. These were the elements creating my present moment.

But then he said that by practicing this simple idea, this sutra—and a sutra is a sacred teaching—suffering could be relieved and we could experience a greater capacity for joy. Well, I’m all for less suffering and greater joy, so my interest was sparked. He said that it takes practice to bring ourselves into the here and now, but that we should try it when we find that anguish or discomfort has risen in us. He said if we become mindful of our thinking and look deeply at the nature of what caused our personal sorrow we can begin to heal or unravel it.

Whatever. I could not unravel ill health or my husband’s boat.

Thich Nhat Hanh put his palms together and closed his eyes. He took a breath: slow, slow, in and out, and the room got quiet as a night sky. He asked us again to remember this simple teaching, from the “Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone”: Do not pursue the past, for the past no longer is. Do not chase the future, for the future is yet to come. By looking deeply at life as it is in the here and now, happiness is attainable.

Well that was it. I had personally hoped for something with a little more kick to it.

At the end of his two-hour talk, he asked us to take our cushions and blankets back to our rooms because it might rain and the tent leaked. I really liked where my zafu was placed. I was very close to Thay and knew chances were slim that I’d get this close tomorrow. The retreat was being held on the side of a mountain in Vermont and it seemed senseless to drag my cushion back down the mountain and haul it up again in the morning. I peeked out at the cloudless evening sky and decided to just push my cushion against the tent pole behind me and leave it there. When almost everyone was gone, I furtively arranged my cushion and slipped out of the tent.

People were scattered over the mountain, moving with mindful attention; walking with slow deliberate steps. The whole scene was so reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead that it struck me as ridiculous. I felt no reverence for any of it and I thought I might leave early.


Giving It a Try

That night, back in my room, it was time for me to take more medicine. I dreaded it because I knew it kept me feeling sick. As I stood at the sink, filling my glass with water, I began to notice that I felt really uncomfortable. This is what happens to me when there’s no TV, no one talking, and no distractions. I become more aware of what’s going on inside. I considered what Thay had said about looking deeply at our suffering instead of running away from it. The discomfort, I found, was fear. I got so sad, that I believed I could feel my heart aching. I was really scared the medicine wouldn’t work and I might die. I wanted to see my daughters find happiness. I wanted to be an old woman. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my friends or be brave. I wanted to be alive and figure it all out.

This is suffering, I decided, so maybe I should try that present moment thing.

I considered the sutra; look at life as it is in the here and now. Don’t chase the future.

I took a breath and tried.

The present moment sucks, I thought. I’m really depressed. I took another breath and tried again.

In this moment, I discovered, I’m okay. Actually, I’m good. I’m not nauseous. I’m not dead. I’m okay. Actually, as I thought about it some more, just right now in this moment, I’m getting well. I’m good.

It worked! This little monk might be onto something. Reality was still reality, but the suffering part, the mental anguish had passed. Very cool, I decided. Maybe I’ll stay.

All Is Lost

Two o’clock in the morning: thunder is cracking over the mountains so loudly that the window shakes. The rain pours down with such shocking intensity that as I stand by my window weeping, I can’t see five inches into the lightning-illumined night.

All is lost.

The retreat is ruined for me. My blanket and my zafu are in the tent getting soaked. What is wrong with me? Why am I such a mess? I came a thousand miles to listen to this guy and when he tells me to take my cushion, I think I know better. It’s too cold to sit in the tent with no blanket and I don’t want to sit with the tourists on chairs in the back. I hate myself. I hate this retreat. I want my zafu and blanket dry: I want to do this night over.

I get back in my bed and listen to the rain pound against the roof. I kick the blankets, moan, and blow my nose. I roll over, kick the blankets, and roll over again. I think of Thay’s words… life as it is in the here and now. Right now my zafu and blankets are getting soaked, I wail to myself, the soul of misery. Tomorrow will be ruined and the next day. I bet it takes a month to dry out a zafu.

Practice not chasing the future, I remind myself. I take a breath and try again.

In this exact moment, I am here in this bed; nothing hurts. I am not hot or cold or dirty or hungry. Though the heavens are crashing over me and rain is pouring down on everything, I am dry and warm and safely inside. Tomorrow will bring what tomorrow will bring. Right now there is absolutely nothing I can do about that.

I did this for a while and began noticing that I felt downright cozy. I slept peacefully till the br-r-ron-n-nng of the morning bell called us to meditation.

In the tent again, my zafu and blanket were waiting for me, dry and warm. I wondered how much of my life I’d spent worrying about things that wouldn’t even happen. I wondered how many times I’d traded a moment of peace for a moment of suffering.

Vacuum Meditation

A few months later, I was vacuuming my house. A huge mirror hangs on one of the walls. As I worked, I whined and grumbled to no one. “Geez! Look at this. Gross! Stupid dog. Why do I even bother? Sheez!” I was bent over, sucking up some dog hair, and I happened to glance at myself in the mirror. I saw how I’d aged and as I looked at my face, I saw my mother looking back at me. I saw how like her I’d become, not just physically, but the same style of complaining and negativity. In that instant, I saw how I carried my mother and my grandmother’s habits into my daughters’ lives. I saw how I could change that and suddenly, I knew that in that specific moment, I was healing all moments. I was healing the past of my ancestors and the future of my daughters and granddaughters.

I turned off the vacuum cleaner and set it down.

With palms pressed together, following my breath, I touched the present moment and thanked my teacher.

Jill Siler, Calm Calling of the Heart, founded the Miami Beach Sangha after this retreat with Thay as a direct result of Thay’s request that she either find a sangha or center to practice in, or start one.

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Present in Thay’s Absence

By Lucy Mail I am a Buddhist at heart but I’m not a disciplined practitioner. I come to the retreats every year to listen and see our dear Thay. In 2005, when I first heard Thay speak, he broke my heart and then put it back together with his words, compassion, and wisdom. Since then, my practice has been to do what Thay asks of me. I joined a Sangha, I use the skills he taught me to live in harmony with my significant other, I practice compassion with my co-workers and my patients, and during the retreats, I try to move as one with the Sangha. During the YMCA retreat in Colorado, I worried about Thay’s health to the degree that I was almost unable to participate in meditations or Dharma talks without breaking down. I realized at this retreat that everything I have done in my practice has been to please my teacher and not to find my own way. Thay’s absence helped me realize this. I love Thay dearly and want him to be at peace, not experience pain or disease, and be pleased with the progress of the Sangha, to the point that I missed his message. Thay’s teachings are present even in his absence.

Lucy Mail, Gentlest Diligence of the Heart, is a physical therapist on the Texas Gulf Coast. She finds Thay’s teachings to be very powerful when assisting her patients.

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