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Mindful Weeding: A Retreat Memory

 

RETREAT NOTEBOOK

CLICK HERE for a listing of upcoming local retreats and gatherings with Thich Nhat Hanh in the U.S. this summer.

What do you WANT from a retreat? What have you FOUND in a retreat? Members of the Washington Mindfulness Community have had numerous and varied experiences with retreats locally, elsewhere in the United States, and abroad. Sangha Reflections welcomes stories and observations from readers about retreats they have experienced or would like to experience, as well as questions pertaining to retreats.

While weeding at New Hamlet in Plum Village, I began to understand the complexities of mindfulness. My two sons, our helper and I arrived there last May, during the hiatus before the summer retreats. We had long had the pleasure of knowing our wonderful sangha sister, Sr. Pine, as I had been with the Washington Mindfulness Community for eight years. But this was our first time to Plum Village, to its beautiful peace, hills, and monastic life.

Always active, on the second day I noticed that weeds had overgrown the flowerbed behind our room, and as my four year old son Kaja often helped me with this at home, I thought it would be a lovely project to do together. So we spent one morning cheerfully weeding. I recognized the European weeds as ones we knew from the Czech Republic, although I spent an equal amount of time pointing out what Kaja should not pull.

The next morning, we asked who was the guardian of these beautiful flowers and were pointed to Sr. Anh Nghiem. She graciously accepted our help. She said while Kaja and I weeded next to her she would arrange stones for the borders. We watched her in wonder as she carefully picked up each stone, examined it, cradled it, and placed it next to or on top of others. She explained she wanted to make the stones harmoniously frame the flowerbeds, especially around the meditation hall, and that she had to find the right fit. Often she would unhurriedly move one stone from bed to bed to bed, until she was satisfied.

I was so happy to be put on ‘work duty’ with others on three or four large flowerbeds. I thought that with so many of us, we would certainly make great progress on cleaning them up. Now, I am from Manhattan, but my years of following and being on retreat with Thay have blunted much of my ‘Type A’ achievement-oriented activity. Or so I thought. As I looked at the rather greatly-overgrown beds, I knew that it would take us all of our work hours during our two week stay to get them properly weeded. I and several other practitioners set to our task with some tempered vigor. Kaja joined me sometimes in the afternoon as well, and we laughed as we pulled together. We enjoyed the slower pace and the time for each other.

After about a week of such joint, joyous daily work, I arrived one afternoon to the back flowerbed nearest the meditation hall. I found Sr. Anh Nghiem, patiently moving her beloved stones around. We breathed together, enjoying the late spring air and light clouds, before I felt I had to head “to work.” This time, Sister accompanied me to where I knelt down. She watched me for some minutes. Then she gently suggested that I consider pulling out one weed at a time.

“One weed?!” screamed the thought in my head. “One weed at a time?! This will take me forever if I do one weed at a time!” I sat back on my heels in amazement. I simply couldn’t fathom releasing myself from the yoke of looked-forward-to-work, from the joy of accomplishment. In that moment, I began realizing that accomplishment could also be a beautiful prison. I left weeding that day, as well as the next day. But the third, fourth and fifth days I tried as Sister had said. It was remarkably hard, but I noticed details about individual weeds I had not until then, and I even started to mourn their passing from life into death at my hands.

Though I have much to learn, I have not weeded the same way. Since that summer’s day, I have tried to be more mindful. To stop in mid-action, to breathe, to look around and feel, to appreciate what is happening. On summer days with my heart filled with love for my boys, that is easier. Lately, I’ve been through a difficult time in my life and have noticed that “present moment, wonderful moment” has been more elusive for me, as I don’t particularly like the present moment of sadness, or anger or uncertainty. Until, that is, I realize that if I just label the circumstances as “change” they bear less weight on my soul – less fixed and immutable, as they seem now, as Thay, Pema Chodron and others say so eloquently. Lately I’ve come to appreciate that in the moments I just stop to breathe I am, in fact, tending to one weed at a time. One thought, one sensation, one urge, one whatever. That is the amazingly distilled lesson Sister Anh Nghiem taught me in that flowerbed and the other amazing monastics at Plum Village and sangha brothers and sisters elsewhere teach me.

Namaste, Sister Anh Nghiem; Namaste, Thay.

— Jindra Cekan
(Awakened Joy of the Heart)


Thich Nhat Hanh & Plum Village Community U.S. Tour
more details here

  • Aug. 12-17: Stonehill College, Easton, Mass.
  • Aug. 18: Public talk, Boston
  • Aug. 21-26: YMCA of the Rockies, Estes Park, Colo.
  • Aug. 29: Public talk, Denver
  • Sept. 6-23: Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, Calif.
  • Sept. 29: Public talk, Pasadena, Calif.

May 4-6: Still Water MPC Community Retreat, Charter Hall, near Perryville, Md., info(at)StillWaterMPC.org

June 8-10: Willow Branch Sangha Annual Retreat, led by monastics of Green Mountain Dharma Center/Maple Forest Monastery, St. Davids, Pa.; www.willowbranch.org

September: WMC Fall Retreat, date and location to be determined, e-mail ideas to retreats(at)mindfulnessdc.org

The WMC Scholarship Fund enables sangha members who need financial assistance to attend retreats or visit Plum Village to deepen their practice (and thereby the practice of the sangha). To apply, sangha members should write a letter to the committee explaining their financial situation and what they propose to do with the subsidy. Certain rules apply; up to 50 percent subsidy will be provided. Contact the Board of Trustees for more information, trustees(at)mindfulnessdc.org.

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