(Reflections from First Time Participants at a Plum Village Tradition Retreat)
Lauren Hara arrived in Batesville, Mississippi from the Pacific Northwest, near Portland, Oregon, the city in which she has resided for the last 7 years. Though she had been to Florida briefly, this would be her first extended experience in America's Deep South. Originally from O'ahu, Hawai'i, Lauren is a naturopathic doctor - a primary care provider that utilizes natural and conventional treatments to promote healing by addressing the root cause of disease to re-establish balance of mind, body and spirit in her patients. Lauren mused that upon her arrival in Mississippi, she was greeted by severe storms and lightning, and in the dead of night her driver's GPS stopped working. This was not exactly the start she was hoping for but trusted everything would be just fine, as it always turns out to be.
Madeline Shortt reached her destination in Mississippi with a copious amount of reading material to help her learn more about the practice of mindfulness. The down time she was expecting on her trip never materialized, which turned out to be an unexpected blessing for the Crisis Stabilization Advocate for children in foster care. She calls Daytona Beach, Florida home, and while located in the same geographical parameters as Mississippi, she found herself a world away while in Batesville. A world she would soon discover prepared her for a rebirth of mind, body and spirit.
Jon Vu came to Mississippi from due north, the greater metro area of Detroit, Michigan. Expecting an experience rooted in a strict seriousness, he found the reality to be quite the opposite. There was a joyfulness and camaraderie that was surprising, but happily welcomed by him. Dealing with patients on a daily basis that have suffered musculoskeletal injuries, strokes and heart attacks, the Physical Therapy Assistant hoped to find tools and resources that would help him connect to his patients in a more compassionate manner.
Finally, Sarah Lane journeyed from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, and her home state of Maryland. Much like Jon Vu, she expected her trip to Mississippi to be anchored in a much more serious paradigm. One where she would only exist in the serenity of sacred silence. However, she discovered that there was much for her to encounter and experience. And soon I discovered that while the aforementioned individuals were healthcare professionals that were hoping to find solitude within themselves and tools that would help them in their chosen professions, Sarah was focusing on a much more specific career. One that was rooted squarely within the Plum Village community.
What had brought these four individuals together from all directions in the United States was the Nourishing Ourselves, Caring for Others Retreat at Magnolia Grove Buddhist Monastery and Meditation Center. It was a mindfulness retreat for healthcare professionals, first responders, and caregivers that the monastics at Magnolia Grove were offering for the first time. And like the retreat, Lauren, Madeline, Jon and Sarah were also, for the first time, attending an overnight event hosted in the Plum Village tradition. It was a tradition and practice that had come from the teachings of Inter-Being and Engaged Buddhism by Zen Master, Thích Nhất Hạnh, or better known to his ordained disciples and lay practitioners as Thầy (Teacher in Vietnamese).
PERCEPTIONS, SUPPOSITIONS & SURPRISES
Before I attended my first retreat at Magnolia Grove in 2017, I had abounding ideas of how it would play out. I found my actual experiences and encounters while on site to stand in stark opposition to my pre-retreat perceptions. It was impossible for me to anticipate the amount of love, encouragement, spiritual direction and nourishment I would encounter.
I was interested, as first time participants, what each of these four individuals were experiencing and if their suppositions were being realized or if something completely unique was taking place for them.
The consensus was that something uncommon was being born in their midst and what they were experiencing during their retreat was a burgeoning spiritual awakening and growth. One that both excited them and gave them confidence for the future.
Madeline Shortt happily offered the following, "I had expected a great deal of down time. Honestly, I thought we would be meditating a lot, so I brought a lot of reading materials on the practice to further my knowledge. But there has been an intense connection and interaction between the participants and monastics." The same sentiment was reiterated by Jon Vu and Sarah Lane, with Vu stating, "I was not anticipating experiencing as much joy and happiness as I have. I thought it was going to be serious and solemn, however, it has been so inclusive and welcoming. I have had a great opportunity to express myself, and this is not something I expected." Lane championed Vu's sentiments, as well, "I honestly thought that in this retreat we would be sitting in quiet meditation. The interaction was such a nice surprise. Getting to move our bodies and express ourselves through that movement was beautiful."
For Lauren Hara, the retreat was not so much a surprise in what it offered, but rather what is was for her. Her time at Magnolia Grove was proving to be a refuge and respite for her:
"Being a primary care physician can be demanding, time-consuming, and overwhelming at times. I've realized that I have experienced heightened stress levels after neglecting my mindfulness practice and being without sangha for years due to becoming caught up in the busy-ness of life, which is so easy to do in this line of work. The retreat came at the perfect time for me to help me reevaluate my priorities and remind me of the importance of sangha."
She continiued, "The sangha here at the monastery has been loving, supportive and revitalizing. It has been inspiring to meet people who are devoted to the practice and join them in mindfulness.
NEW NAMES, NEW PERSPECTIVES
For three of the first time participants at the Nourishing Ourselves, Caring for Others Retreat, Lauren, Madeline, and Sarah, not only was a professional awakening to be realized, but also a deep and abiding spiritual one was, as well. Thích Nhất Hạnh had for decades before his transition in 2022 presented the elements of the Buddhist practice through the 5 Mindfulness Trainings (To learn more about the specifics of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings follow this link.) The trainings are based on the first five precepts of Buddhism; Reverence for Life, True Happiness, True Love, Deep Listening and Loving Speech, and finally, Spiritual Nourishment and Healing. These are moral sign posts that are established to help the practitioner live a more fulfilled life, and experience less suffering. When the individual takes the vow to receive the 5 Mindfulness Trainings they are given a new Dharma name. For instance, when I took the vows on New Year's Day 2018 at Magnolia Grove Monastery, I was given the name Awakened Path of the Heart. I found my name to be ironically on point, as the idea of path and journey to this day are inarguable components of my Buddhist experience. Furthermore, coming from a Christian tradition, the idea of awakening to something deeper and more authentic in my heart was a fundamental aspect of my understanding of mindfulness. I wasn't rejecting anything, but rather, broadening my understanding of my own spiritual walk and how Buddhism could, and subsequently has, made my life more dynamic, robust and dimensional.
Lauren had received the name Courageous Awakening of the Source, Madeline, Grateful Vow of the Source and Sarah, Nourishing Wellness of the Source. I was interested in learning if the Dharma names themselves held any personal significance.
What I received from each of the three turned out to be incredibly powerful testimonies.
Sarah Lane lovingly reflected on her taking the vows and the Dharma name (Nourishing Wellness of the Source) she was given at Magnolia Grove:
"In order to understand the meaning of wellness, we need to understand health. Health is more than strong vital signs. Health is more than not being sick. We rarely pay attention to health unless we don't have it. So what is wellness... ? On the last night of the retreat, my 'family' and I performed a song together for the sangha and part of the lyrics said 'no this well will not run dry.' Let us then think about our health and energy levels as a well... Just as a well connects us to the source of water in the ground, so we connect to a Spiritual Source for answers, guidance, wisdom, and health. If your well runs dry, you feel depleted burnt out, and overwhelmed."
As I referenced at the beginning of this article, Lane may have been attending her first retreat in the Plum Village tradition, however, it would only be the nascent beginnings of her journey with them, "What an honor it is to be named 'Nourishing Wellness of the Source' by the monastics and to support these teachings as Communications and Program Director at Deer Park Monastery, starting next month." Her presence at the retreat without question was a wonderful opportunity to bind herself more deeply to the teachings and traditions before her inclusion to everyday monasticism in California.
For Madeline Shortt, her Dharma name as well touched upon a personal significance. "I was aware of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings before I arrived, however, I never realized I would be able to take the vows in person, and to accept them and put them into practice. I am always speaking of source, so receiving the name Grateful Vow of the Source was incredibly personal to me. Source and gratitude is something I try to live, so my 5 Mindfulness Trainings name is sacred to me."
Calling Daytona Beach home and living in close proximity to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean has led Shortt to adopt a ritual of immersing herself everyday after work in the salty, foaming waters near her home. She calls it a type of cleansing or baptism that helps her to wash away the stressors of her daily work in the foster care program, allowing her to reset her spiritual compass. She offered that her new Dharma name will make the ritual more profound moving forward, "I am so blessed to live only a block away from the beach. It's a grounding process for me, cleansing me inside and out, and learning that I had been given the name Grateful Vow of the Source only deepened this experience for me."
Lauren Hara, in the same manner as Sarah and Madeline, recognized a stirring significance to her Dharma name, Courageous Awakening of the Source. She imparted the following, "Courageous because I came to the retreat without intention of receiving the trainings. I had the option of committing to part of the five but quickly realized the two that I struggle with are really the ones that are causing suffering, so it made sense to to take on all five. I came to the retreat for sangha, healing and transformation so it was the right time for me to make this commitment."
The understanding of the name Awakening was cogent as well to the naturopathic doctor from Hawai'i:
"Sr. Brightness (Man Nghiem) blessed me with my name and explained that I came to the above realization early on during the retreat, and on my own. What I needed to do to heal became very clear. I realized the importance of sangha and how this was missing from my life, as well as having a consistent practice, so yes, naturally my Dharma name spoke to me profoundly."
TOOLS TO TAKE & PLANS TO MAKE
Unfailingly one of the greatest hopes from any person attending a mindfulness retreat in the Plum Village tradition is to identify tools and insights to their personal journey and how they can be utilized to create a more authentic practice, in both a personal and professional life. The same held true for Lauren, Madeline, Jon and Sarah. Along with almost 200 hundred other participants, the four were able to amass strategies they could utilize once they returned home from the monastery.
For Jon Vu, the Physical Therapist Assistant from Michigan, the experience was something that he found equipped him with confidence and insight, "I definitely feel I have become more skillful in my ability to communicate. I am learning how to use love and compassion in my communication with my patients. You know, I am in a high pressure job, and I see many healthcare providers detach from their emotions, and this includes compassion. The retreat has really helped me to understand the importance of compassion when working with my patients."
Working in a field where he questions whether the people he serves will ever recover fully, Vu was grateful for the encompassing nature of the retreat, "Coming in I thought it might be difficult to share my thoughts and feelings with people I didn't know. But it has felt good to share. The most important aspect is I learned a lot about myself, and that is essential in the healthcare field. Being around others who were trying to transfer their suffering into love has been a great hands on experience I can take back to Detroit and implement it in my job."
Sarah Lane offered that the retreat had been an incredible opportunity to touch her true nature and prepare her for the fledgling career she is about to embark upon at Deer Park Monastery, "I was able to embrace all aspects of my humanity and share it with others, connecting the teachings of Buddha and Thây with the community. Having been immersed in this can only help me to realize a stronger beginning at Deer Park. Being here has helped serve as a reminder that I always need to come back to the breath and live with mindfulness and presence. These are strong tools to utilize moving forward."
Likewise, Madeline Shortt found the retreat to be a sacred inroad that has allowed her face a very emotional job with more confidence and serenity. She was looking forward to incorporating Thầy's pebble meditation into her work in Florida. She is confident it will be an exercise that will help her avoid the burn-out that is common in her area of work, as well, stay grounded in the moment, focusing on being the very best advocate she can be. (For specifics on pebble meditation, follow this link.)
For Shortt, life and work after the retreat will take on more meaning, "It has been a sacred time and just being able to walk on the grounds and absorb the energy of so many others has been incredible. Having the structured time to practice the skills has been so beneficial. It is one thing to read about it and obtain the knowledge, but it is an entirely different experience to put it into practice. That is something I am bringing back with me."
For Lauren Hara, an upcoming move from Oregon back to her home of Hawai'i has elicited an excitement about her long-term goal of sharing her wealth as a naturopathic doctor with the indigenous and locals. For her, it is not one specific tool that she feels is going to benefit her and the longevity of her career, but rather establishing healthy habits:
"I am going to implement a monastery-like schedule in my personal life - waking up earlier to meditate, followed by gentle exercise such as yoga, and incorporating mindful eating. Having a solid foundation will maintain balance in my life." She confided that being in the stressful yet rewarding field of healthcare, a healthy equilibrium and boundaries between her personal and professional life must be made. Awareness of the breath, simply breathing in and breathing, out helps her return to the present moment. She said, "The fundamental exercises are the ones that help me the most."
Four individuals, from different states, cultures, walks of life and professions united in Mississippi to contribute their sacred energy to the larger whole. They arrived as strangers, curious, but willing to learn and work together for the common good of themselves and others. Though each had a personal transformation, because of the miracle of mindfulness, they left as one, one sangha, one family, one breath. They allowed a spiritual amalgamation to transform them into the waiting arms of love and compassion. Each of them opened their hearts, minds and spirits to the beautiful and life changing effect of the Thầy that binds.
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