Guest Blog Post: A Mindfulness weekend at Dharma Gaia, experiencing the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh
I got a ride from Auckland to Dharma Gaia in the Coromandel with a local member of the Order of Interbeing and a young Vietnamese woman who was preparing to receive the five mindfulness trainings (ethical precepts that can guide a practitioner's life choices).
I was very curious: what is it like to practice mindfulness in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh? Thay, as he is known within the order, is an incredibly prolific writer and teacher who has modernised Zen buddhism and popularised the concept and practice of mindfulness in the west. I was attracted to his teachings because of the lightness and joy I could see in the monks and nuns whose talks are available online.
The retreat centre is tucked away in a valley of native bush, down the hill from Mana Retreat, and is made up of two larger and a few smaller stained wood buildings, with a productive vegetable garden and several tracks winding through the bush, across streams and through marsh. It was certainly a very relaxing and wholesome place to spend the weekend, and a weekend seemed suddenly like a terribly short time to soak up the sun, quietness and the renewing spirit of the bush.
Quickly I became aware that there was an implicit focus on truly caring for oneself. The schedule was not gruelling, there were several pockets of free time during the day, and an afternoon session devoted to deep relaxation. Sitting meditation was a minority in the programme, which included walking meditation, work practice, dharma sharing and dharma talks by sister Shalom. Song is employed to further the sangha's (community's) togetherness and as a simple way of reminding practitioners of the basics of the teaching, such as “Happiness is here and now.”
Eating mindfully, walking mindfully, I did notice how quickly my life became simpler, my mind quieter and contentment was able to surface as a natural way of being. Especially in the walking meditations, often barefoot through the grass and bush, I found myself entering deeply into a state I describe as 'holy wonder,' my ability to notice that life all around me is a miracle and to feel the enormous gratitude and awe that arises in me when I see the sun hit the clouds, the pattern of the bark on the trees, and hear the stream trickling over rocks.
A friend said to me recently, “I like to enjoy the little things in life.” I got to thinking: perhaps what we see as the little things are actually the big things. Perhaps what we see as the big things, are actually very unimportant. Being aware of and thankful for the many miracles that bring food to our table and the community of people we share that food with is one of the keys to rebalancing our perception of what is truly important and what, in reality, we don't need to worry so much about.
I would recommend a mindfulness weekend at Dharma Gaia (or practice centres in Nelson, Wellington or Hamilton) for anyone interested in learning the simple but profound practices of mindful sitting, walking, eating and working and experiencing how they can positively impact on your life. I notice a consistent benefit on my mental and physical wellbeing through the practice, without finding it difficult to fit into to my daily schedule. There are many online talks by Thay and other members of the order which would provide a good introduction to the teachings – visit Plum Village Online Monastery on youtube or visit tnhaudio.org.
About the Author: Lucette Hindin is an organisation development consultant based in Christchurch. With a background in the creative arts (theatre, dance, circus) and community development, Lucette focuses on group process and strengthening relationships, with the goal of increasing performance and productivity through attention to personal fulfilment, joy and purpose. Lucette met Michael Apathy through her involvement with the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism in Christchurch, and together they facilitated the workshop “Coming Back to Life: Meditation and the Environment.”
"The world is full of pushing and shoving and people who think they know what everybody else needs. What's really rare and much more important in my opinion, are places where people can feel safe, and content and cared for and begin to gather their strength. When they're ready for the next step, they'll take it. But in order for that to happen we as helpers and rescuers and healers have to learn to bear the anxiety of not knowing when, or even if that step will be taken. We need to understand that wounds which were inflicted over the course of years will not be healed in months."
At two months old, she was abandoned in the wild and left to die. She almost did. Discovered hours from passing, dehydrated by a third of her body weight and emaciated to the point she looked like a kitten half her age, she was taken to a vet and given life saving treatment. For three days she was watched over day and night with fluids and antibiotics until she was declared stable enough to come home with me. There was not much to her. She was a big head, skinny little legs and a belly swollen from starvation. I held her in my hands and my heart hurt because she had been so horribly harmed. She was, essentially, a skeleton with fur.
For the first week, she did nothing but lay in her bed. I would encourage her to eat, and she would, but then she would return to her blankets and curl up and sleep. She had little to no energy. She could not run or jump or climb. She was a kitten, but just barely. She had a significant head tremor which would appear when she was startled or frightened which gave her the appearance of a fluffy bobble toy. She was quiet, aside from a small, cracked meow she gave one day. It sounded hoarse and static-y, like the sound an old fashioned record player would make when you lifted the needle....