What I wanted more than anything for my 62nd birthday was to become more mindful. Too many screeching tea kettles and pots of scorched rice were testaments that my Gemini-sanctioned multitasking skills were careering out of control. It was time to seize the steering wheel, the day, the moment. I needed to get me to a monastery.
I live in the Hudson River Valley, an area overly blessed by Mother Nature. Studded into its green, velvet hills are monasteries, convenient for stressed-out city dwellers and locals alike to drop in for a taste of mindfulness at its most mindful.
Blue Cliff Monastery, started by the venerated Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, was an hour away. I made a plan to visit on what they offer as a Day of Mindfulness.
I woke up in plenty of time to arrive for the 9:30am Dharma talk. Except I forgot to factor in all of my morning rituals: a coconut oil pull, an apple cider vinegar drink (sipped, not gulped), and a light breakfast (with coffee). Packing the car with day trip necessities, I spent too much time deciding on shoes and worrying about ticks, and, with a jolt, realized that my mindful start to a mindful day was already behind schedule.
Skipping breakfast, I aimed my Subaru into Ulster County. Close to my ETA, I realized that I was not on the right road. I would get there, albeit in a roundabout way, but late. I am the type of person who can’t watch a movie if I miss the credits. I hate to be late.
Driving up to the monastery, I took a moment to breathe in the calmness of the surroundings, then entered the Great Togetherness Meditation Hall. This was the moment I dreaded: disturbing the concentration of those already seated on cushions and chairs. People who were not late. People who were mindful.
I chose a cushion and dropped myself as inconspicuously as possible into a Half Lotus pose, promising myself I would not budge for at least ten minutes. I then immersed myself into the dharma talk, which was led by Thich Nhat Hanh himself, larger than life, on a screen.
He immediately put me at ease, soothing my guilty, tardy conscience. I knew very little about this man whom his followers call “Thay,” or “teacher,” but his demeanor was wise and gentle, and with a wit that let me know it was okay to be a human struggling in this life. Talking about the inter-relatedness of suffering and happiness, he drew a lotus blossom rooted in the earth. “Without mud, there is no lotus.” And later, with a nod to the divisiveness in our country (as I interpreted it): “Without a left side, there is no right side.”
I had just learned the day before that a relatively young family member had suffered a stroke, and I was spending this day without a phone, not knowing what his situation was. The dharma talk eventually embraced the mother of all topics: transformation from birth to death. Thay explained his belief that the timeline of life precedes our birth and extends beyond our death. And after he stirred in a little Einstein-ian physics, I left enlightened and reassured.
Next up, walking meditation. This is where my fear of ticks vied with my freshly hatched inner calm. Another newbie, a woman who was changing into white leggings (the better to see the ticks), lent me socks, while I noticed that many monks were walking barefoot. Almost more startling was seeing tennis courts and ping pong tables at the beginning of our walking meditation. Was competition part of Zen Buddhism? Regardles, in single file, we all walked into the sun-dappled woods, past a pond and a statue of Buddha (next to a not-yet-submerged drainage pipe), with periodic moments of stillness revealing a chorus of celestial birdsong. The loop led back to lunch.
I waited patiently on line until I was hovering over the cafeteria-style vegetarian spread, wanting to sample everything! The Southeast Asian vegan cuisine was to be consumed in a mindful manner within our allotted time of twenty minutes, a chime periodically reminding us to stop and breathe. I had laden my plate so full—convinced I could finish it all—that I neglected to factor in the meditative mastication and appreciation for the sun’s energy, the water, the seeds, the farmers, etc. Everything was fine until I noticed there were ten minutes left and I easily had a half-hour’s worth of mindful chewing still on my plate. Sweating bullets, I realized that if I ate faster to prevent waste, I was defeating the purpose. Surrounded by nuns and monks who were finished with their modest portions, I put my chopsticks down at the gong. Luckily, a friendly monk opposite me said I could take more time to finish. I washed my plate clean and thought about the next one and a half hours of free time. What would I do?
Wandering the grounds, I sat in a meditative garden and observed the Lowes tags accompanying the newly planted hydrangeas. Hmmm...big box stores and Buddhism—who knew? One of three hammocks seemed to have my name on it, and I dozed for a half hour, then spent the remaining free time in the corner of the reading nook, delving into dozens of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. I learned more about the prolific output of this poet, writer, and human rights activist.
At the 3pm dharma sharing, we all sat at a long table and were asked “How do you feel?” Answers ranged from “wonderful” to “grateful” to “confused.” Mine was: “Surprised that I haven’t bolted by now.” It was true—I am a person who always wants to know where the exit door is. At the end of the dharma share, I was ready, yet a bit reluctant, to leave. Everything I had sampled was a delicious taste of what living could be like. I promised myself on I-84, as I crossed the bridge heading home in rush hour traffic, that mindfulness did not have to be a birthday gift. It can be an everyday gift.