I leave in three days for Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery and retreat center in central France. I love going on retreats, and have been on many dozen retreats in several different traditions over the last 15 years.
I remember well my very first retreat. I had been reading a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, and falling in love with mindfulness and the idea of “drinking my tea” while I was “drinking my tea.” It literally had never occurred to me that I could be present while living my life. I had spent every moment of my life planning for another moment, or rehashing previous moments– those that had been amazing or those that had been traumatic. I was inspired by the idea of experiencing my life as it was happening, and learning how to be with whatever was there.
One day a catalog for the Omega retreat center came into our kitchen. As the mother of four children, ages 6, 7, 7, and 9, I enjoyed reading retreat catalogs as an indoor cat might dream about snagging a bird. It was a very unlikely possibility. When I got to the page describing a retreat with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, I paused. Up to then, I had not met another person who knew TNH’s teachings, or who practiced mindfulness. So the idea of being in a community of other people practicing mindfulness, and to hear the teachings straight from the teacher, sounded amazing. The retreat was a full week in September. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to leave my kids at home during a school week. Supportive as my husband was of my spiritual pursuits, he worked more than full-time, and we didn’t have any regular child care.
Given these limitations, my stomach flipped when I read that TNH’s retreat was especially for families, and that children of all ages were welcome. I might be able to make this happen! It was only a 6-hour drive, so I could pack the kids up in the car and drive. If it was a total failure, I could always turn around and come home. The only obstacle was the kids’ school. But heck, they were only in elementary school, and what better education could they get? I decided that I would make it happen.
Several months later, I packed the Volvo wagon with our belongings, loaded the four kids, and drove up I-95 toward New York. We were aiming to arrive by 5:30 in order to have dinner before the evening orientation with TNH. Extra traffic and pee breaks caused us to fall behind schedule, and we arrived just in time to get our room assignment (a tiny 2-twin-bedroom with shared bathroom) and head directly to orientation. I had been overly optimistic about our arrival time, so sadly had not packed any contingency food. All five of us were famished.
At the meditation hall, which was packed with hundreds of people, my four small children straggled in behind me, wondering where their crazy mother had taken them. Everyone else was seated and ready, and we were directed to walk past everyone to the very front of the cavernous room, to a space reserved for families. We were exhausted, thirsty and hungry, in a crowd of hundreds of strangers. But we found a tiny spot in the sea of other families. When TNH came into the hall, we all stood up to bow to him, and then sat back down. While everyone else was quietly sitting, preparing to listen to this brilliant teacher, my kids were climbing all over me, whispering loudly, I’m tirrreeeddd, I’m starving, Rub my back, etc.
Finally, my oldest had had enough. She reached into my purse, grabbed the room key, and announced she was leaving. To my whispered protests, she began to weave her way back toward the entrance. Burdened by the other three kids, I watched my 9-year old disappearing into a crowd of hundreds of strangers. I began to panic. My inner bad mother critic rose up loudly punishing me for ever thinking I could go on retreat with four small children. Was I crazy!? And I just simply didn’t know what to do. Should I leave my three smaller children here in the middle of strangers, stand up while the revered teacher was speaking, and chase after my daughter, or call her bluff and hope that she would turn around and come back? I was frozen.
When I meet people, I think of them as long term friends; I don’t regard others as strangers –Dalai Lama
Luckily, the sea of strangers became a room full of kind people, all trying to help us. Someone offered to stay with my three, someone else commandeered my oldest and guided her gently back to me, others offered us food. Within minutes, we were once again together at the front of the hall, calmly listening to TNH and munching on crackers. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and noted how differently people behaved than I had expected.
Over the course of that week, all five of us experienced something we had not known before. The way that we were cared for in the hall the first night was typical of the way that life happened during that retreat. Retreatants cared for each others’ children, and, though we spent much of the day in silence, when we did speak, we spoke quietly and gently to each other and to our children. This was a brand new experience for our family. My conditioning is to be loud, impatient, often gruff, and to take care of myself and my “own.” On this first retreat, we experienced what it was like (wonderful) to be so connected to others, originally seen as strangers, but soon realized as friends.
By the time we left, we all had a different sense of what life could be like. My oldest daughter drew a picture on the way home from that retreat. It showed a little girl sitting on a huge brick wall. Behind the wall were the people and gardens of the retreat. To me it represented how special that world of acceptance, trust, and community was, and yet how it was not a natural part of our lives. I cried as we drove away from Omega on the last day, and wondered if I would ever be able to have that kind of life back at home.
A few years ago, after going on many such retreats, I woke early to walk to a meditation group. As I stepped outside in the semi-dark and joined my friends for meditation, I had the sense that I was on retreat. And I realized that over time I had been able to bring aspects of the retreat back home. In addition to an inner quiet, I feel more connection and trust with others as I experienced on that very first retreat. It’s a welcome change to go from feeling like everyone is a stranger that can’t be trusted, to knowing that we are all in this together, whether or not we have ever met. We don’t have to be strangers. Everyone wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. And as TNH likes to say, We already have enough conditions for happiness. And that is true whether we are on a silent retreat or walking down a busy city street.
The epilogue is that all of my four children continued to go on retreats with me for many years. The twins, now 21, continue to go on retreat, one is going with me on this next (21-day) retreat. All of them were influenced by their time on retreats, and I hope that, like me, their lives now have the flavor of a retreat wherever they go.