Day in the life: Deer Park 3/4

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Continued from Part 2

12:00pm Everyone begins lunch together and eats for 20 minutes in silence, after which the bell is invited to wash your dishes, get seconds and/or converse with those around you.

When I first arrived, the fact that we were socially obligated to sit for 20 minutes before getting up felt like a chore. What if I was done earlier? After a few weeks, I began to realize the wisdom inherent in such an arrangement.

I recalled a year ago, when I attempted to adopt a consistent mindful eating practice. I was in my apartment in Chicago, and I’d make myself a nice lunch and resolve to eat it undisturbed, savoring every bite. More often than not, however, there was something else that desperately yearned for my attention. I could return that phone call to Kevin I’d been meaning to get to…A trailer for that movie Peter told me about…That promising article Brad sent which I had skimmed. If I didn’t crack and indulge in the second activity, then I oftentimes thought about it repeatedly. The meal had finished and I felt like I only really enjoyed a few bites of it.

While eating at the monastery, all of those distractions are gone. No one has a cell phone, laptop or newspaper out. All you do there is eat. Revolutionary, I know!

What seemed at fist like an obligation now made a lot more sense…regardless of my intentions, left to my own devices I will (at this stage in my practice) inevitably be distracted while eating. A period of twenty minutes eating together is a way to ease me of the burden of having to decide whether or not to read that unread email. As demonstrated by a flurry of recent studies, willpower is a finite resource; I’ll save it where I can.

12:45pm One of my favorite post-lunch activities is swingin’ in a hammock. Crawling into a net of goodness on a breezy summer afternoon does the mind and body well. Today I turn on a tune by singer/songwriter Joe Reilly (a fellow Michigan native) called “Present Moment Wonderful Moment.”

The opening chords trigger a dopamine release as I feel the breeze circulate the scent of pine from the trees around me. With the sun shining through the leaves it’s a perfect temperature; as the song progresses I think to myself “I love this song! Man, this moment here in the hammock is such a solid embodiment of the song’s message. I should tell Joe about being here in Deer Park listening to the song, I think he’d appreciate it.

Speaking of Joe, I’m headed back to Ann Arbor soon for a weekend wedding, I wonder if I’ll have time to meet up with him? I’d like to attend the Huron River Sangha meeting on Sunday evening, oh, if I did that perhaps I could grab lunch with Dustin earlier that day. I’ve been meaning to see him for a while. And then I could get my haircut at that place I found downtown; triple play! Hm, wait a minute, the wedding is on Saturday and I’d like to get my haircut before then. So should I make two trips to Ann Arbor? Maybe I can see Joe or Dustin on Friday? May be rushed through, my flight gets in during the afternoon and I’d like to spend that evening with mom and dad. Oh I almost forgot Brad is going to be in town as well, definitely want to catch up with…Wait a minute…My mind has been hijacked by planning!”

And just like that the song is over. I smile to myself and restart the song. Weekend planning can wait.

1:15pm I head back to room D4 for a visit to the restroom. During our California Wake Up tour, one of the sisters said that for many of us the restroom is more accurately described as the ‘rush-room’. It is seen for many as an inconvenience from Point A to B, am unwelcome break in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Reflecting on my own habits in the restroom, it is the prime space for cramming “just one more” thing into my day. The temptation to check my phone for new emails often arises while sitting on the toilet. Unlike the dining hall, there’s no Sangha here! There’s nothing wrong with checking email in the bathroom, but I’ve come to ask myself “is this really necessary in this moment?” Oftentimes the answer is no. Today I take a few extra moments to breathe.

1:30pm After doing my duties I pull out my Mac for another working session. It’s nice spending time with the computer offline, as it limits the number of choices I have for what to spend time on. I glide through a few emails and tick off a few to-dos, sitting comfortably cross-legged on a floor chair I brought from home. A woman walks by outside and can see through the window that I’m working; she gives me a look of sympathy. Perhaps it appears to her that I’m cooped up inside during a bright afternoon…but in actuality I am quite enjoying this nook.

I once did an exercise with a couple friends where each one of us went through our “perfect day”, from sunrise to sunset, in as much detail as we could muster. The detail may be a topic for a later post, but one of the primary differences between all of our days was that mine included a period of working on the computer. To many people I think work seems like a burden; and for many people it probably is. But there is a joy to doing work that you find meaningful. I personally feel fortunate to have found work that has contributed to a slow dissolution between the distinction of “work” and “life” in my own experience. Of course these are arbitrary distinctions in the first place, and they vary by day and week, but never have they felt as integrated as they do now. A year ago, connecting and learning from other mindfulness practitioners was what I did in my free time, now it’s part of my job!

3:15pm I look at the clock and it tells me there’s 45 minutes before walking meditation. I do some stretches and lay down on the floor for an Alexander Technique (AT) exercise. My dad took lessons from an AT teacher, and I’ve found it to be quite complementary to mindfulness practice. It is essentially a method of bringing awareness to your body and posture in order to improve your everyday functioning. It’s a rather vast topic once you get into it but the exercises are deceptively simple. I do a 20 minute exercise following the simple instructions in this old school video, which has the effect of lengthening my spine and relaxing my neck muscles. I virtually always combine an AT exercise with a body scan as they make an ideal combination: one instructs how you lay down and the other instructs what you do as you are lying there. Today I play the Planting Seeds body scan.

Resting in peace I hear a bell, signaling it’s time for walking meditation.

3:55pm The sun is high and hot; I put on my go-to safari hat & orange shades to bask in its warmth without sizzling.

My relationship with walking meditation has transformed over the last year. When I arrived in Plum Village last November I didn’t enjoy the exercise very much. I was used to very-slow-walking meditation, where you spend 20 seconds with one foot movement and methodically and systematically notice every sensation that arises.

Community walking meditation is much faster (although still likely considered slow by most people’s standards) and it is too quick for me to concentrate on specific detailed movements; I found my mind wandering often and this was frustrating.

One day I shared these frustrations with a friend, who paused for a few moments and replied: “I think it’s more about going as a river, you know, being with the community.”

Hmm, I hadn’t thought about that. I had evaluated the exercise by how much it fit my arbitrary conception of what I thought walking mediation should be like. This fixed view was preventing me from appreciating the exercises for the other things it offered, namely, a chance to walk together in nature.

4:00pm Today we walk through an Oak grove and pause to marvel at these fine specimens of nature. I feel a close affinity to trees, and there are plenty around to enjoy. As we are soaking in the scenery and I place my hand on an outstanding branch, breathing in the oxygen the tree provides and breathing out carbon dioxide to complete the cycle. We continue walking and I turn my attention to the ground, noticing the satisfying crunch that Oak leaves provide as they are stepped on.

As the walk finishes everyone seems to vanish except for two other lay friends who are left standing near me. There’s a clean-cut actor from LA and a guy with dreads who lived on Pacific Beach in San Diego. We briefly share a few words of our background and realize, in turn, that we all are at similar transition points where most of the people around us look at us and say “You’ve got the life! Why would you want to change anything?” It’s easy to look with grass-is-greener glasses from beyond the fence, but few can understand the intricacies of experiences without having done it themselves.

We all have a good laugh about how we represent different stereotypes of 20-somethings (i.e. businessman, hollywood actor, beach partier) and I realize that if I would have grown up with their parents, in their city, with their friends…I would probably be just like them.

Continued in Part 4

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