Mindful Community (written 2010)
One of the great gifts of retreat, for me, and there are many, is the slow withdrawal of anxiety from my consciousness. For me, anxiety is the tag-along partner of care and control, both being features of the climate of my mind. In the ordinary world, awareness of this is primary for me. Noting it. Letting it go. But when I am on retreat, it is as if my mind shifts. It's like a vacation where you leave in a snow storm and step off the plane to beaches and salt air. Over the course of my settling into retreat, the climate of my mind undergoes a transformation, and anxiety melts away.
In these communities, wherever they may be, harmony reigns and there is no harsh speech or sense of prickly irritation surrounding me, as there is in the “world”. I am not on hyper alert regarding the judgement and requirements of others. The social “forms” are lifted away. The rules change. There is always an adjustment period when it seems odd not to make polite eye contact, not to say “thank you” or such. But as the flow of kindness and consideration, of harmony and patience and ease begins to become familiar again, I am reminded there is little need for conventions of courtesy where kindness and harmony rule. I have received many glittering false smiles and meaningless directives to “have a nice day” in the world from people in a rush or a self-absorbed fog. Here we are aware of each other more fully, differently, not as other but together. Making way in activity, doing what needs to be done, radiating patience and care. Yes, we are all human, and this picture is not perfect but what I'm trying to describe is that the care is not empty form. It is not just polite action by busy people. I include myself in this. When we are separate and self-absorbed in the world, we require rules to keep our interactions civil. Stop signs. Courtesies. I am grateful for these opportunities to withdraw from the preoccupations and the forms, and hone mindfulness skills without the distraction of anxiety.
Walking meditation is a delight this time. It isn't always so. Walking the smooth grey floor in my heavy socks, I touch the earth gently, enjoying the motion and rhythm. I'm usually alone on the paths. Sometimes I see Ajahn's feet beneath the screen where he walks his own private path. Sometimes one of the young monks or another guest may be there or join in later in the easy silence and movement.
One morning I go out into falling snow and find a royal blue plastic shovel and join Linda in clearing the exit paths and those to the outbuildings. Smiles and bows from a steward and one of the young monks when they pass. When I warm up with the work, I throw back my hood and the thick falling snow fills it. When I raise it again later, I'm showered. Gasping, I turn at a laugh behind me and find Kati, who has joined in with a brilliant canary yellow shovel. It is a lovely time. When the paths are clear, I put away my shovel and head off for a walk. The snow is heavy on my boots now and there's a good climb to the logging road. I stop once and breathe and watch, and life is a great gift that lifts my heart.
Back at the monastery, I shake out wet coat and socks over a bathtub and lay them out to dry in my room. When I go to the sala, some guests are already seated and I slide into my place. Not a cog in a wheel, but a cell in a body. The body breathes each of us in the hour that follows.
Day's end I am grateful for the comfort of my thin foamy on the tatami mat. I reflect on the Buddha's instructions to be mindful in all postures, “sitting, standing and lying down”. Breath focus merges into sleep.
First thoughts at the waking bell are of the time to come...my favorite sitting is this earliest one. The bows and soft light, the whisper of movement as everyone settles in the near dark. The day in mindful community begins with ease and joy.