I arrived a Dharma Gaia one morning at the end of April. Walking along a forest road I was greeted by a fresh dewy air and an invitation to enjoy my breathing. I immediately fell into the stillness of the place.
Dharma is a mindfulness practice center in the tradition of Tich Naht Hahn, a Vietnamese Zen master who has developed his own teaching of Buddhism. The practice here is led by Sister Shalom, a New Zealand born nun who has created and built this particular Sangha, or Buddhist community. Dharma Gaia houses a meditation hall, living areas, gardens, forest paths, and a monastic area for sister. The center is cared for by Anton and Benni and their four year old daughter Amelie.
There is formal sitting and walking meditation every morning, but mindfulness is encouraged throughout the whole day. The work here has been strenuous, with not much time off, but the company and the environment has been very nurturing. Shortly after I arrived Anton’s teenage son Rowan came for a visit as well as an inspiring young musician named Ben. I felt a close comradarie with these two, and a great joy at seeing people younger than myself practicing meditation and truth in their lives.
The day after I arrived was a full moon. Sister took us out for an evening picnic of tea and chocolate under the moonlight. We sang to Ben’s tune- Cat Stevens, Led Zeppelin, and many others. Ben, Rowan and I continued to play and talk long into the night. I realize that I love singing. ‘Everybody loves singing,’ says Ben. I suppose we don’t all know it, though. It is another way to move the heart, to seek truth in ourselves. Many things are seeming so these days. Music, speech, meditation, feeling, breathing, writing, eating. All are colors on our palate. I want to paint my life with many colors.
Early on in our meditation sister opened up the group for questions. I asked her about how I could reconcile my deep desire for healing and opening the body with Buddhism’s ‘nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be’ philosophy of pracitce. Though questions often go unanswered in this tradition, she pointed out to me that the idea of healing contains within it the belief that one is unwell. That this belief can have a lot of force behind it. ”I had cancer,” she says, ”but there was nothing wrong with me.” I decided I would practice being OK.
Tich Naht Hahn’s tradition is very gentle, very nurturing. My best moments in Vipassana were when I could find this gentle space in myself in which my feelings could arise and unfold. it was love, really, though Goenka never called it that. The teaching was very strict, all about discipline, concentration, persistence. Sister really nurtured me here, giving me much gratitude for the work I was doing and really seeing that I was there to practice. She set me up in front of a small TV to watch one of Tich Naht Hanh’s dharma talks. It was about mindfulness of breath and body, about really enjoying your breathing, enjoying and smiling to your body. He talked of cradling your painful feelings as a mother cradles a child. Surrounding the feeling with love, not indulging in it or pushing it away with a forceful concentration.
Practicing in this way has been really rewarding, though it is so radically different from what my mind wants to do. In the midst of the pain I feel there can also be love. This is not my first experience of this truth, but here I am really practicing it. I am realizing that the pain we feel exists to turn us towards love, if only we could give it the attention it is asking of us. As James, my vipassana brother wrote to me, ‘the pain we feel is the love we withhold.’ Or from Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet, which sister read from this morning, ‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.’
I am feeling much joy here, in sitting, breathing, listening to the bell, singing, opening to others. There is a safety in this practice that allows me to feel the depths of my heart, which up until now I have kept guarded from all but a few. Even from myself.
Today is May 5th. It is my last day here. We have just concluded a mindfulness weekend, where i got to meet and practice with some long term members of the Sangha. My time here has been very nurturing. Although part of me goes kicking and screaming towards Buddhist meditation, I think it is a good practice for me. Not that it has to be my sole practice (soon I will be in China!) but I think it keeps me really present in life, meeting myself in each moment.