Friday, April 18, 2014

Lenten Diary 11

Breaking Old Habits

Thich Naht Hahn
     As I write this on Thursday evening, April 17, it is a week since we arrived at the Oak Grove Plantation on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and settled into a three-day retreat designed to concentrate our minds on the practice of mindful living in the Buddhist tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.
     Michael Ciborski, our retreat teacher, is especially qualified to lead such a gathering, having spent nine years as a monk at the Plum Village monastery in France, headquarters of Thich Nhat Hanh’s world-wide mission. He left the order, but not the teachings, to marry, and is now an ordained lay teacher of Buddhist thought with a home base in Keene, NH.
     And he’s good. That, at least, is my relatively uninformed opinion, which I suppose means that I got a lot out of his teachings. I also liked the guy and found we had more than just an interest in Buddhism in common. But I digress.
     When Jala and I arrived that first Thursday evening, I was not in the best shape. I was bothered by chronic pain in my hips and—a recent development—an aching shoulder. In addition, for some reason I’d slept poorly the night before, clocking three hours at the most, though I’d gone to bed early for me, around 1 a.m.
     But I thought that might be for the best because the retreat schedule called for us to go to our rooms at 9 p.m., observing “Noble Silence” through 9 a.m. the next day, which started with wake-up at 6, group meditation at 6:30, and breakfast at 8. This was a nearly 180-degree turn-around from my normal schedule, with bed time closer to 3 a.m. and wake-up as late as 11. I could only hope, short on sleep as I was, that I’d be ready to go to bed at 9.
Our Cottage, shared with four others.
     That turned out to be a false hope. I couldn’t sleep Thursday night. I couldn’t sleep Friday night! But finally, by Saturday night, bone-tired as I was, I adjusted at last to the early-bird schedule and slept like a happy baby Buddha.
     And that was just one of my less-than-ideal habits broken over the weekend.
     Another was consuming too much world news, which is a great molder of depression. It’s a habit left over from my days as a journalist, but it also runs in the family. My mother literally depressed herself to death with CNN on the television all day, and I guess I’d become her heir as town crier, staying informed and alerting others to all the evils of the world going down.
     To make matters worse, Jala and I were in the habit of eating dinner in front of the TV news. We’d usually turn it on at 5:30 to catch Charlie Rose on PBS, then switch over to the CBS Evening News, then back to PBS for the Newshour. On Fridays we’d extend the session with Washington Week. Usually I’d doze off at some point during this marathon, absorbing the toxins subconsciously. We often talked about turning the TV off at dinner, but we never followed through.
     At the retreat there was no access to news, and meals were taken in silence as we followed the dharma—the teaching—to eat mindfully. That means slowly, with deliberation, tasting each bite, chewing it fully, swallowing, taking a pause before lifting the utensil to gather the next bite.
     We ate our meals outside, with the vast sky above, meadows and forests surrounding us, and birds chirping and chattering in the trees on every side. It was the ultimate relaxation, in large part because no one was on the spot to make conversation. Many of us were strangers to each other, yet we got to know one another anyway, in silence, connecting with eye contact, smiles back and forth, and primitive sign language.
     Everyone had an assigned job, which helped create the harmonious communal environment I’d hoped for but was too immature to pull off in the 1960s. My job was in food preparation, where silence was observed except for minimal consultations about the work at hand. Jala helped with keeping order in the meditation hall, where we met two or three times a day to sit on our cushions or chairs for meditation or to listen to Michael’s insightful dharma talks on aspects of mindfulness, some of which I described in my last post.
     Each afternoon we had two hours of personal time, giving us the opportunity to visit the sheep in their pasture, cross the wide meadow from the house to the inlet opening upon the Chesapeake Bay, romp with the ground-keeper’s black Labrador retrievers, or whatever we fancied.
     I got a big kick out of the sheep, who aren’t shy. They lumber up to you, stick their noses in your belly if you let them, and can knock you over if you’re not braced against their  considerable mass.
     But the Labs won my heart completely. They pegged us at once as the dog lovers we are. One in particular followed me up the gravel road to the cottage where we were staying, waited for me while I went inside, and came back to the main house with me, as if he were my own dog.
     He wandered off then, and I lay down on the grass in the warm spring Sun to catch a nap if I could. But, without warning, a heavy tongue slavered over my lips and nose. I opened my eyes to see my Lab buddy’s big jokester face an inch from mine. I couldn’t resist his advances, didn’t even want to, and he washed my face like an English nanny—from neck to ears to hair line and back again. Then, for good measure, he lathered my arms and even my arm pits before he considered me done and trotted away, leaving me laughing in the grass, the happiest I’ve been since before we lost our beloved boxer Athena a year ago.
     I think at that point I fully grasped one of the key mantras of the retreat and of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings: “I have arrived. I am home.” Not at the Oak Grove Plantation, though that place is certainly conducive to such a thought, but in my own mind, in the present moment, wholly connected to Life as it is—not past, not future, but Now.
     And, of course, the original Thinking Dog, after whom this blog is named and whose picture appears at the top of the column opposite, was a black Lab.
     So how’s it going, a week after the retreat?
     Interestingly, I don’t feel as if the retreat has ended. I still feel the presence of the people we were with and the continuation of the activities we shared. We don’t turn on the news at dinner and don’t miss it. We eat our meals together mindfully (though not in full silence necessarily), and I’ve been getting to bed and waking up quite a bit earlier, giving me more time in a day. I meditate more deeply each morning, and I seem more attuned to people around me, less alienated and trapped inside myself, despite my various aches and pains. I’ve also lost five pounds.
     But the change that seems most telling to me concerns my interactions with our cat, Spookie, a homeless waif we took in after the guy next store moved out, leaving her behind to fend for herself.
     Before the retreat, she used to duck and run away from me when I’d walk through the room. It annoyed me a little, though I felt sorry for her, too, figuring her reaction was a product of her early insecurity.
     Not necessarily. Because now that I’m back from retreat and practicing walking meditation around the house, she doesn’t run away from me. And I realize it wasn’t she who was strange. It was I.
     That insight alone tells me as much about the effectiveness of this practice as anything else I can think of.
     And with that, I bring my Lenten Diary of 2014 to a close. I feel it has been a productive spiritual season for me. But without the retreat to imprint the Lenten duty to reflect and repent, I’m not sure it would have been. Too many tired, old habits would have survived the winter, making this April “the cruelest month” rather than the most hopeful in many a year.
Happy Easter!


At 10:28 PM , Anonymous Gavin said...

I love reading your entries.
You are an inspiration to living in this world we all share. Gives me hope and motivation. Thank you for being so open and sharing your experiences.

At 2:21 PM , Blogger Delaney said...

You're welcome, Gavin, and thank you for your kind words!

At 6:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful D.D.

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