Saturday, November 11, 2006

Saved by the Bell

by Cathy Anderson Moffat

First came the terrible phone call when my friend Robin told me their 22-year-old daughter Wendy had been instantly killed in a car accident. Our daughters had played together since they were three, and my heart bled for Robin, a gentle and loving soul who was ripped apart by this loss.

So when Robin called a few weeks later and wanted me to join her on retreat at Deer Park Monastery (near Escondido, California), I couldn't refuse. Plus I'd studied the teachings of the group's leader--Thich Nhat Hanh--for many years. He's a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk of great power and strength; his weapons include an agile mind, a loving presence, and expertise at Buddhist spiritual practice.

We arrived in early February to a camp of rudimentary wood buildings. I didn't relish the thought of sleeping with five other women in a crude dormitory room. The monks and nuns had convened here in the monastery for a few months, over two hundred of them, most of them from Plum Village, the home monastic order in France.

What began as a mission to help my friend Robin became a healing experience for me. We listened to Thay, or teacher, as the monks called Thich Nhat Hanh. He spoke humbly, yet elegantly, with his poignant stories and gentle sense of humor. We hiked among the hills of white boulders and green bushes with our friends for the week and found a mountain lion paw print. We laughed together in our room with Susan (a financial advisor from London), Marie (a businesswoman and astrologer from Paris), Marsha (a friendly, vivacious lesbian lady from New Hampshire), and Linda (originally from Australia, but now a tired mother from the nearby area).

I even met Thay's massage therapist, a happy monk in his late twenties. I sat beside him on the couch of the tea room and felt waves of heat rolling off him. Did his spiritual practice and life as a monk give him secret powers at massage? I thought so, but didn't have the nerve to ask him.

We ate healthy vegetarian food disguised so that you didn't realize you were eating rice three times s day. We ate mindfully--in silence--chewing each bite and tasting the food. By week's end I learned what all that rice can do to one's GI tract.

Periodically, a monk would ring a bell, and like Pavlov's dogs, we all stopped dead in our tracks. We returned to our true selves by breathing deeply for a minute, following the breath. We practiced mindful breathing and living in the moment. Then we would go about our business as before.

And that's how writing connects with the week with the monks. For to write deeply, one must write in the moment, be aware of all one hears, sees, smells, tastes, touches, and knows. Mindfulness makes life more vivid, more deeply experienced. Great writing takes your reader there, a reader who's acutely aware of the moment, of a string of moments.

During orientation to Deer Park Monastery, the monk told those of us in Budhist boot camp that coyotes roamed the surrounding hills. A few minutes later, we heard yipping and yapping in the outside distance. Robin and I later decided they probably weren't real coyotes, but monks imitating coyotes to fool the guests.

Our friend for the week Jay joked about it when he asked, "How can you tell if yaps are from coyotes or monks?"

You ring the bell.


Tory said...

Sounds like a wonderful experience, Cathy! I'm jealous. I'd like to go on one of those retreats, starting tomorrow.

I do think writing makes me more mindful of myself. In deciding what to do for my next writing project, I feel a longing for the passion of fiction even though it doesn't really fit in with the rest of my life. Fiction helps me become more aware of myself in a way I haven't found when I write non-fiction.

Kristine said...

Can we make attending one of those retreats mandatory, sort of like paying your taxes or getting your car inspected? Just imagine the possiblities!

alan said...

How exciting it must have been, to spend a week at Mindfulness Camp with THE teacher of mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh. I'm sure that living a week within that situation...meditating, working, and eating mindfully has helped you in other pursuits of your life such as your massage and energy work as well as your writing. Knowing you as I do, I see how you remain mindful in your care of your animals as well as in your relations with others.

Having learned about Thay through reading many of his writings and hearing several recorded lectures, I agree with Kristine that attending a retreat such as this should be mandatory.

I'll bet the next time you attend a Buddhist retreat, you will be much more mindful of how much rice you eat.

Nancy said...

Beautiful story, Cathy. Thanks for sharing.

And Buddhist boot camp---how I wish we coudl send some of our newly elected leaders!

kathie said...

Really nice post. I too, would love an opportunity to attend something like that. I agree about being in the moment when you're writing. I pay more attention to that when I'm revising. My first draft is more of a plow through the events...perhaps that's why my revisions are such a pain???