A weekend at Great Vow Zen Monastery

Two weekends ago I showed up at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon for a weekend silent meditation retreat. I'm so glad I overcame my trepidation and my inertia to engage in a truly heart-centered weekend. 

True, I had a hard time sitting on a cushion, because my foot kept falling asleep, but thankfully they allowed chairs. I did not have a hard time enjoying the silence. I was also happily surprised to find that I loved the vegan food they served—there's nothing like a happy belly in a new environment to help a person settle in.

Being silent with a group of people over an extended period is actually both relaxing and empowering. No need to worry about small talk! Instead I was free to be with myself and my thoughts. Imagine becoming good friends with your mind - that means accepting all the thoughts - good, bad, stressful, painful, joyful - that flow through your mind, constantly every day.

Most of the time we aren't even aware of our thoughts. Yet we know that in many cases a focused mind is a happier mind. Often when the mind wanders off into unfocused territory it starts to ruminate about the past and worry about the future, rarely does it rest in the present moment.

But how do you focus if you aren't aware of your mind wandering in the first place? That's where meditation comes in. And that's basically what I did for two days: I watched my mind wander and gently brought it back, without any judgment. I did a few other things too. This particular retreat was themed "Loving Kindness Meditation." This is a real Buddhist practice and not a made-up western thing.

In Buddhism there is an element of strength associated to walking in loving kindness. This is not about romantic or weepy, unrealistic or wishful love. This is about the hard and useful work of relating to oneself and to others from a heart-centered, empathetic place. You might also call it a value-centered place.

For me, the idea that love is strong and wise is a new source of freedom and peace, and also, a call to action. This is what I meditate on these days. Love is strong, not weak. I've read this idea on a lot of signs around town, so I realize it's nothing new: "My Love is Stronger Than Your Hate", but I confess I didn't really feel it in my bones until this weekend retreat. Loving kindness teaches that love is not just in us, but in all the spaces not occupied by things, living and non-living. Meditating on that idea brings about strong feelings of connection to the world. An antidote to loneliness, to fear, and to anxiety.

There is a loving kindness chant that we sang and chanted together repeatedly in a strong chorus.  It sticks with me today when I meditate. I find it useful when I'm feeling fear or anxiety sneaking up on me. Our minds are oh-so-very powerful. This is one tool you can use to turn your thoughts in a more peaceful and positive direction so that your mind can work for you and in service to whatever you are trying to accomplish.

May I walk in loving kindness
May I be free from fear and anxiety
May I be well
May I be happy

May you walk in loving kindness
May you be free from fear and anxiety
May you be well
May you be happy

May we walk in loving kindness
May we be free from fear and anxiety
May we be well
May we be happy