Breathing With a Smile in the Cold Rain

Photos by Natalia Vasco

In February, many friends joined the sisters and brothers on a week-long backpacking retreat to explore nature with the practice of mindfulness around Deer Park Monastery and Dixon Lake. The daily Dharma talks, heartfelt listening circles, beautiful views, playful exchanges and mindful steps lightened the load and nurtured warm bonds of friendship even as the cold rain drenched the mountain paths and camp sites. Three friends who joined the retreat recount below fond memories of the week.

From Kristy Randall

My intention coming into the Mindfulness Backpacking Retreat was simply to practice in nature with likeminded people. I had only done one long backpacking trip with my husband before and I relied on him to carry more weight and take care of shared gear then. This time I had to carry my own heavy backpack and be responsible for all of my equipment. What I noticed was how loud the worried thoughts were! Am I bringing too much and can I really carry all this by myself for this long? What if I can’t? Will I hold up the group? The thoughts brought up anxious sensations in the body. Climbing up that first hill with my 37-pound backpack on, worrying that I might topple or my legs might give out, my heart and breathing rates increasing with the worry, the mantra “Peace is Every Step” came to mind. As each foot connected with the Earth and I said this mantra, the fear subsided and I continued up the mountain, eventually safely reaching the top. 

Am I bringing too much and can I really carry all this by myself for this long? What if I can’t? Will I hold up the group?

Two days into the trip we took a break on the trail and I was reflecting with a fellow backpacker. We shared about our recognition that though it has been challenging, it was absolutely do-able to carry a heavy backpack for miles and that putting up tents and using a stove were simply learned skills. After doing these once, I felt my confidence increase. We saw how dominant the worried thoughts were at first and now, there on the beautiful trail together, my new friend and I were seeing that giving those untrue thoughts so much importance was unnecessary!

Our week outside turned out to be filled with wind, rain, even hail. We were all challenged to stay dry and warm and we often failed. On the day we walked down the hill back into Deer Park, the rain was coming down solidly, even my raincoat could not keep out the rain and my clothes were soaked through and my hands felt frozen and yet I felt so much peace and I saw so much natural beauty and I noticed many smiles on the faces of my fellow hikers. I got to experience that even in these not-so-ideal external conditions, I indeed could be happy, I could be full of joy.

Our group of Sisters, Brothers and practitioners from all over the country coalesced, step by step, into a Backpacking Sangha. We shared our hiking experience, our lives, our stuck places, our food, our steps. On the last day there were tears, as I recognized our new sangha would now get in their cars and on planes and our sangha would take new form, yet to be determined.

I am writing in the morning after the retreat ended and I can feel how much this retreat changed my life in unanticipated ways. I left with a deepened intention to make my practice a main priority in my life. Where before the retreat, common thoughts arose about how there is simply not enough time to make practice the center of my life, I am so clear now that I no longer believe those thoughts. The monastics’ talks led me to want to dive more deeply into the Sutras, so I bought Awakening of the Heart at the monastery bookstore. This morning I felt happy to wake up around 5am and I started reading the first sutra, then I sat for 30 minutes with the Plum Village App Morning Meditation Chant and I recited the First Mindfulness Training with my husband. I have also reached out to a local sangha to continue to support my family’s practice. This retreat has been transformative in my life in ways I did not expect and I am happy Deer Park plans to offer more of these in the future!

Photo by Natalia Vasco

From Barak Lake

Going on the trip my intention was not to worry too much about having everything. Over-planning is an energy very strong in me, and I wanted to go into this trip with a sense of ease – trusting that either the community could support any real needs I would have, and that if they weren’t able to be met I would be ok. So, I chucked enough dehydrated food to last the whole trip, some clothes, a sleeping bag and a tent into my backpack. I only brought a fleece and a rain jacket for warmth. And, even though I was uncomfortable for parts of the trip – cold or wet or hungry or having digestive issues – I was able to stay quite peaceful. “I am cold and thats ok.” This is a mindset Br. Phap Xu touched on directly in his talk on the first day – can we maintain our peace in the face of discomfort? I feel that in this retreat I was able to work with this in a very real, embodied way. I have also had the privilege of continuing this work after the retreat as, upon returning to the monastery, I immediately sprained my ankle and became(still now) bedridden. Usually, an injury like this is a highway to some very difficult, unmanageable places: Why did I think wearing those shoes was a good idea? How could I do this again? What if my ankle doesn’t heal right? Am I being judged for not working, not healing fast enough? What are people doing, while I’m stuck in bed? Et cerera. 

Can we maintain our peace in the face of discomfort?

This time, I have been surprised to find that my thoughts aren’t drifting in those directions. I’ve been able to continue living my experience of the backpacking retreat – where I was cold or wet or tired and yet, still, fine. Now, my ankle hurts. I’m in bed. I can’t work. And, still, I’m fine. And that’s one of, to me, the core teachings of mindfulness and meditation – that we can survive our experiences as they are happening, and embrace serenity in the face of difficulty. But, it’s a very different thing for me to embody that, rather than read about it – or even to contemplate it in formal meditation. It certainly wasn’t something I expected to work with so strongly on this retreat. 

Photo by Natalia Vasco

From Jerry Tonkovich

My daughter Tonks invited me to the backpacking retreat and I wanted to understand her decision to live there, learn about the monastery and learn about the practices.  I feel I really got to know the retreat participants and the practices in a way that could have only been possible through backpacking and camping.  I have been backpacking for over 50 years, so the planning, packing, hiking etc. came naturally for me.  The challenge was understanding the intent and practices and seeing if or how they fit into my life.  I had no prior experience with mindfulness, meditation, Dharma talks etc.  By the end of the retreat, I realized the week had affirmed much of my personal thinking and habits and I decided to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings.  This came at a very opportune time in my life as I am about to retire and what I learned will definitely shape my actions going forward. 

I had some impactful experiences during the retreat: The progress from Breathing on Day one, Walking on Day two, Walking in Nature on Day three and Walking with your Ancestors on Day four really worked for me.  I thought a lot about my father who was a strong walker.  The setting for Wednesday’s talk about the Five Mindfulness Trainings was perfect and the talk made a big impact on me.  That evening’s dinner at camp was very special, getting to know others in the circle.

I found I could be happy and peaceful while cold.

I have often felt cold, especially at night while backpacking or camping. That cold was more tolerable during this outing – I found I could be happy and peaceful while cold. I really did benefit from the group’s energy, at all 3 camps, but especially the first 2 nights at Dixon Lake. The hard rain all that night and breaking camp in the rain Thursday morning pulled everyone together. I decided to continue camping at the Monastery Friday and experienced (survived?) an amazing hailstorm that night. I was glad my tent held up when I got out in the morning to brush the hail off the rain fly. The ground was all white.

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