Look Within at Deer Park Monastery

“In, out.  Deep, slow.

Calm, ease.  Smile, release.

Present moment,

wonderful moment.”

I was standing outside with nuns, monks, and laypeople.  The majority of the monastics were Vietnamese.  We formed a circle and everyone started to sing, but because I didn’t know the song I listened to the words.  “In, out, deep, slow.”  My face turned bright red and I wondered if I had heard them right.  “Calm, ease, smile, release.”  I was so close to bursting into laughter, but instead I contorted my face into a bunch of weird expressions and somehow managed to not laugh out loud.  I didn’t mind the possibility of embarrassing myself – I just didn’t want to disrespect a bunch of nuns and monks in their home.

This is one of the many songs sung by the sangha (community) at Deer Park monastery.  All I could think about was sex!  I practice many of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, but I definitely have a sense of humor.  The students of Thich Nhat Hanh affectionately call him by his nickname, Thay.  Well, when Thay wrote this song, it was abundantly clear that he had never had sex before becoming a monk (at least I don’t think he ever had sex – I’ve never asked him personally though).  Don’t get me wrong – I love this song; it just makes me giggle

I have a very deep respect for Thay and his teachings.  His words are so gentle and his messages are simple:  Be in the present moment; breathe; practice compassion and understanding; be aware – be mindful in all that you do.  Dwelling in the present moment and being mindful in all of your actions are his 2 main teachings.  These are very simple messages, but when put into action they can be very difficult to maintain.  How many of us can say that from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep we are fully present in each and every moment?  Are we in the present moment while we’re brushing our teeth?  Are we in the present moment while we are eating our meal?  Are we in the present moment while we are having a conversation with a coworker or friend?  I’m usually not, but I’m working on it.  Some days are good and my awareness is heightened; I am able to deeply listen to others.  Other days I’m just irrational, scatter brained, or a multi-tasking machine.   My lifestyle continues to evolve as I find a rhythm that makes living in the present moment natural and familiar.

Let me just give you an example of what it is like to be in the present moment.  When I was staying at Deer Park I enjoyed eating my meals with the sangha.  The process is this:  You pay your respects before even entering the dining area, and what I mean by ‘paying your respects’ is that you place your hands together at your heart, and bow.  When you do this you are coming into the present moment, and you are showing your appreciation for the food that has been prepared for you.  Next, you offer respect by bowing before picking up your bowl and your spoon.  You serve yourself a portion of the vegetarian meal that has been prepared for you while keeping in mind that there are others waiting in line behind you.  You tend to have a bit more ‘portion control’ (the amount you serve yourself) when you’re in this type of situation.  You take your meal over to a table, but before you sit down you bow and show gratitude to the table and chair.  Once seated, you wait for everyone else to take their seats as well.  Meanwhile, your salivary glands become activated (which is great for aiding digestion) and your patience is tested.  Once everyone is seated a prayer is said aloud and everyone closes their eyes and listens while their palms are together at their hearts.  Then everyone opens their eyes and each person takes turns bowing to each other at their table as a way of showing respect for one another.  Finally, you say your own personal prayer in silence and bow towards your food.  This is your time to think of the people who prepared your food, the farmers who grew the food, the sun and the rain, and everyone else involved.  Now you can eat.

This entire process is done in complete silence.  This ritual isn’t as long as it seems and it’s actually quite enjoyable.  Personally, I love it.  You really come into the present moment.   Plus, the process helps facilitate proper digestion.  Digestion improves when we are relaxed, focused on eating, and enjoying our food.

When you eat at Deer Park you eat mindfully (or at least you try to).  You appreciate each bite and chew until your food is no longer solid.  This doesn’t always happen, but this is what we strive for.  Apparently, Thay chews his food 60 times before he swallows.  I’ve never actually witnessed this and I don’t really care to.  I do not count how many times I chew my food.  I just chew until I’m done.  That’s it.

I will say that the food at Deer Park is phenomenal and it would be very easy to eat like a vegetarian if all of your meals tasted this good.  Some of the dishes include marinated tofu, oriental mushrooms, rice, soups, quinoa, beans, lentils, and a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.  I have always looked forward to their meals.

Now that we’ve talked in depth about eating at Deer Park let me tell you why I even went to Deer Park in the first place.

In the summer of 2010 I was a full-time student studying several modalities of holistic health.  I was engaged to be married for the second time in my life to a man I no longer loved.  We were going through a very long break-up process.  I knew that I didn’t want to be with him since February of 2010 and we didn’t officially break-up until September of 2010.  It became ‘official’ when he and I were no longer living together.  The romance had died out several months before that and the passion never truly existed.  I had come to a place in my life where I was no longer willing to settle in my relationship.  I knew that he wasn’t the one.

One night I was out at a bar with a girl friend.  A guy came up to me and we started talking.  He told me about Deer Park because he had just returned from a week long retreat and this was his first day back in the ‘real world.’  He went to Deer Park as a way of coping with his heartache.  His girlfriend of 3 years had just dumped him because she was on a ‘spiritual journey and needed to be free.’  He said that his experience at Deer Park was life changing, yet as I write this I can’t help but think that he was out at a bar the first night he came back from his retreat.  Deer Park doesn’t make your problems go away.  I found that out first hand.  But it does provide you with an atmosphere that is conducive to healing, and it helps you to explore the root cause of your pain.  Deer Park is a distraction-free, nurturing environment that allows you to meditate, listen to your heart, and explore the depths of your true essence.

This is exactly what I wanted to do, so without thinking too much about it I went online and booked a week long stay.  I was a little nervous about going because the idea of looking deeply within myself could be painful and could conjure up uncomfortable feelings.  I knew I needed to do it though.  I was ready to cleanse on all levels.

My belief is that you should only do things when you are truly ready.  If you end up missing out on an opportunity, then fine.  Learn from it and move on.  I was so ready to experience life at Deer Park and because I was in that state of mind I believe that it made my experience what it was:  One of the most profound moments in my life.

Deer Park is a Buddhist monastery.  The monastics practice Engaged Buddhism.   The ‘Engaged’ part means that one is able to apply these practices to their everyday life.  You don’t have to be a monastic and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to come to Deer Park.  In fact, I’ve seen clergy members of different faiths practice the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh at Deer Park.  Many religious folks come to Deer Park not to be converted, but to enhance their own relationship with their God.  Engaged Buddhism is more like a lifestyle rather than a religion.  I don’t agree with all of the teachings, but I agree with most of them.

The monastics discourage you from bringing your cell phone and laptop to the monastery.  My time at Deer Park was technology-free and I was happy to take a break from Facebook and text messaging if only for a week.  Smoking and drinking alcohol are not allowed.  The nuns and monks do their best to provide a healthy and healing environment for their guests and for themselves.  The moment I drove through the entrance gate, I felt compelled to turn off the radio, roll down the windows, and breathe in the fresh mountain air.  I drove slowly and listened to the wind; I invited the sunshine to warm my skin, and I let myself be moved by the wonder and awe of my new surroundings.  I was ready.

I stayed in Clarity Hamlet, which is the part of the monastery where the laywomen and nuns reside.  The women typically work and eat separately from the men, except during Days of Mindfulness when anyone is invited to come and partake in daily activities at the monastery.  I participated in walking meditation, the Dharma talk & discussion, chanting, mindful eating, and ‘total relaxation’.  The men and women reside separately because the nuns and monks of Deer Park have committed to a life of celibacy, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have sexual urges.  They’re human beings after all – no better or worse than any of us.  They have desires and temptations just like everybody else, and so it is important for them to create an environment that helps them to succeed in their practice.

This was my biggest qualm about becoming a nun:  No more romantic love.  And yes, I seriously considered becoming a nun.  By the end of my first week at Deer Park I was contemplating life as a monastic.  My perception of Deer Park was still romanticized, and I had not seen all that truly existed there yet.  I wasn’t so hung up on the idea of being celibate as I was about giving up my freedom to fall in love with a man and possibly get married someday.  Some of the nuns had become monastics after they had children.  I wasn’t sure at that time if I wanted to have children of my own, but I knew that I wanted to keep that option open.

I was assigned to the Mountain Lion hut.  Each of the cabins has a name and they sleep up to 6 people.  They have their own toilet and shower.  It’s luxury camping essentially.  You are provided with a bed and you supply your own linens.  I came well equipped with all of my little creature comforts to make my stay as enjoyable as possible.  I brought sheets, a blanket, and a sleeping bag.  My vitamins, books, journal, and aromatherapy sprays made their temporary home on my nightstand. I had plenty of colorful clothes and lots of delicious smelling shampoos, conditioners, and soaps.  I had earplugs for the night, a hat and sunscreen for the day, and a headlamp for walking to the early morning meditation session when the sun was still sleeping.  I set myself up for a really cozy experience and that’s exactly what I had.

 

I replaced my late night snacks with late night reading and meditation.  The monastics discouraged anyone from bringing their own food, but nevertheless, some overlooked that request and munched on Butterfingers.  I very affectionately called this lady “The Butterfinger Pusher.”  She was staying in my hut for a couple of days with one of her girl friends.  She would frequently ask me if I wanted any candy, and I would politely decline.  I wanted to respect the rules of the monastery.  This was their home and we were their guests.

I had 3 roommates.  Two of them were only staying for the weekend while Loulou and I were staying a full week.  I found it very interesting to witness the stark contrast between 2 of my roommates. “The Butterfinger Pusher” worked as a psychologist in San Diego.  She smoked cigarettes in our bathroom and used her cell phone.  She called everyone either “Baby” or “Sweetie”, and she snored like a bear.  During working meditation she worked the hardest in the garden.  She yanked up weeds, raked, and shoveled like a madwoman.  I got tired from just watching her.  Her body was always moving.  She cried to the nuns and they held her hand.  Loulou, on the other hand, was quiet and practiced deep listening.  She was a massage therapist from New York.  She went on walks by herself, read outside in the sun, and smiled at everyone she passed by.  Her energy was calm and wise.  She and I had deep, meaningful conversations.  Her beloved husband had passed away a few years ago and she was still healing from her grief.  These women were two very different people with a common bond:  They both felt pain and they both wanted to let it go.

I spent my free time going on hikes by myself, taking pictures, reading outside, and journaling about my thoughts.  I also spent time with my new friend, Margreeth – A Dutch woman in her late 30′s who had made arrangements to stay at Deer Park for 6 months.  There was an instant connection between us and I looked forward to having tea and good conversation with her outside of her hut.

Margreeth and I talked about what girls often talk about:  Boys.  We also shared stories about personal growth, our goals, fashion, experiences at the monastery, and wine.  Margreeth hadn’t had any wine since she’d been there and although I didn’t drink wine during my stay at Deer Park, I definitely had a glass or two or three when I was back at home.  It makes me think of what was normal for me then is no longer normal for me now.  That was 2 years ago.  I’m no longer drinking alcohol – not to prove anything and not to live by the guidelines of Thich Nhat Hanh, but because I am intolerant to alcohol.  It makes me feel bad physically, and the effects have only gotten way worse as I get older.  Margreeth is back living in Holland where she still practices the art of mindfulness.  She now has a blog of her own (pretapitu.blogspot.nl) that focuses on her 2 passions:  Style and mindfulness.  She has remained an amazing friend who I will cherish forever.

I have been to Deer Park numerous times after that initial week long retreat, but it was during that first week when I really grew as an individual.  I not only learned how to be comfortable by myself, but I came to enjoy it.  The most amazing thing about the experience was that I did not feel an ounce of anger during those 7 days.  For me, that was a pretty big deal.  I was able to be compassionate and understanding the entire time.  For the first time in my life I really loved myself.

You can learn more about Deer Park by visiting their website:  deerparkmonastery.org

Better yet, go visit during one of their Days of Mindfulness (usually held on Thursdays and Sundays.  Check the website for their schedule.)