I have the opportunity to talk about my experience at Deer Park, which I think is best reflected through the eyes of my present.
I am here in Mississippi, 1.5 months after the 90 Day Rains Retreat, listening to the sound of the evening rain, reflecting and writing. I moved here from Arizona right after the retreat ended due to my new job.
If I speak in the language of realms according to the Lotus Sutra, I am finally in the human realm after a long time, outside of the monastery. A realm with just enough suffering and just enough joy for me to be able to practice. Before going to the monastery for the Rains Retreat, I had passed on my mother’s care to my brother. She is only 57 but has dementia (not memory loss, but cognitive dysfunction and episodes of catatonia). I had done this for the past 4 years, the first two rough but not deteriorating my wellness. The second two, mainly the last one… watered my seeds of despair, helplessness, and scarcity. In addition to taking care of my mom, I was also in a work environment that was deep in trenches of white supremacy. I stayed because of the flexibility to care for mom and slowly started feeling that everywhere would be like this place. I was in the animal realm of the Lotus Sutra, where I was constantly in fight or flight (and fawn and freeze). Just barely getting through the day, my heart closing down. Observing mom all the time to make sure she’s ok, having to discern whether to take her to the ER, her primary. Not having enough conditions to cultivate understanding or wisdom. I have been a diligent practitioner since 2014, but these last two years—no Dharma doors seemed to help. Brief visits to the monastery helped and provided some clarity.
It took many weeks at Deer Park for me to start coming out of the animal realm and into the human one, to start trusting my capacity to practice again. To cultivate the spiritual dimension. Watching my seed of scarcity become smaller. Even if all I did for the 45 minute morning meditation was watch how busy my mind was, touching the earth with monastics and lay friends, there was refuge and a taste of spirituality I was able to borrow from others. And slowly… start cultivating it myself. Being a lamp unto myself again, taking refuge in the island within. Letting the hypervigilance I had learned while being a caregiver go I began to create awareness within my body and mind, and then outwards. I let go of Wrong Mindfulness and started practicing Right Mindfulness. My mentor advised me to spend about 30 minutes at the end of each day to breathe, smile, and to reflect on all the wonderful things that happened in the day and to write and include drawings. I think she gave me this homework because she saw how my awareness tended to see the negative very quickly.
My friends think I go to the monastery and experience bliss there, I try to explain to them that in fact what is alive outside the monastery also becomes alive within. You’re living in a community and as much as there is joy and support of practice in that, there are also challenges. The difference is, I’m able to generate love for myself and have sangha support to embrace what arises.
There was one white lay friend in particular, that never caused me any harm yet their mere presence unsettled my body. I spent two months trying to convince myself to relax around them. It didn’t work.
One morning during sitting meditation, they sat next to me. The first 30 minutes were spent trying to convince myself to relax; noticing a tense torso, tense upper left body. The last fifteen minutes, I just gave in to whatever wisdom there was in my dharma body. I started speaking to my manas (the survival part of manas) “thank you for protecting me from this, dear manas. I’m safe. It’s safe.” Body still tense. “I know this person’s habit energies are very similar to the white co-workers who have unintentionally hurt me because of their unconscious biases and individualistic ways of showing up. They’re not my coworker. I’m okay.” Still a tense body but I could sense I was on the right track. “I promise next time my body warns me about a person, I will listen. I will be kind but not vulnerable until trust is there. I promise. Thank you, manas.” Finally. After two months. My body relaxed in this person’s presence. And it continued to not send me any alarms up until the very end of the retreat.
Knowing that someone’s mere presence (way of being) can trigger someone. I also know its opposite is also true. I have also experienced the calming of my nervous system by just being in proximity to certain people. Such a simple, yet profound insight.
This insight has informed my practice since leaving the monastery. The question I come back to during the day is something like this- “what is the quality of my presence?” If I have been forgetful and gotten carried away in whatever I am doing, I may have built tension in my body. I invite my body to release the tension, soften my face, bring a light smile. When walking from my apartment to work and back (and during lunch break), I sometimes invite myself to walk as I would at the monastery, with many practitioners around. I forget, and then I remember. And I practice being kind to myself for forgetting. I have a calligraphy of Thay’s that says “reverence is the nature of my love”. I do my best to keep coming back to practice reverence through how I walk, pick up a coffee mug, type, open a door, and more—mindfulness of the body. I know now if I am having a hard time being kind to my mind, I can start with practicing reverence with my body, slowing down my body. If I move my body with gentleness, it’s much easier to be gentler within my mind.
After so much time in the animal realm, I am thankful for the calming of my nervous system I was able to walk away with from Deer Park.
May all beings be able to reside in the human realm.