“I haven’t been this un-mindful for ages,” I confessed to a dhamma friend a few weeks ago. We were checking in after a Monday night Buddhist Studies class at Common Ground.
“Me, too,” she said folding up her bench.
“Seriously? I asked. “What’s up?”
She shrugged with a huge smile, “Something in the air?”
I had my suspicions. We had both attended the annual June retreat with Steve Armstrong and Kamala Masters sponsored by TCVC. Over 40 people had participated in the nine-day retreat held at the Koinonia Retreat Center just outside of Annandale, Minnesota. Two months had slipped by since we were all wrapped in the protective dhamma shield that we wove through days of noble silence, hours of concentration, and mindful moments of opening the heart-mind.
But all things eventually pass– even the pumped-up concentration that a retreat can induce.
The teachings that Steve and Kamala offered this past June underscored the sanctuary that we intentionally create in retreat. They spoke of Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw’s counsel on a skillful meditation environment. Mahasi Sayadaw called for practitioners to “do good deeds, avoid causing harm, and purify your mind.” Steve and Kamala translated this trio of actions into a series of evening dhamma talks. Steve opened the retreat with a talk on generosity (dana). Kamala then spoke on morality (sila). For the remainder of the retreat, they gave talks on the wisdom we can cultivate through continuous mindful awareness and insight.
For me, walking creates a condition that often supports awareness. So taking walks around Koinonia in the glorious sun-filled days of June was very pleasant. The central Minnesota land is freckled with small lakes and I had a favorite on my daily walk. I’m sure others will remember it, too—the small backwater pond filled with green cattails and a bevy of green frogs. Unlike the newly sprung cattails, the frogs were invisible. One knew they existed only by their peculiar banjo-like call—a two-noted twang. These hidden frogs didn’t sing in unison. Instead, they took turns. Thump-thump, said one. Thump-thump, replied the next frog from another part of the pond. Thump-thump, called a third one off in the distance. On and on their conversation would go, like a merry-go-round in perpetual motion. The frogs reminded me of my fellow retreatants. We had gathered together in an intentional sanctuary—a metaphorical pond. Yet, each one of us had our own song and our own timing. I felt grateful to be in the company of my fellow frogs in our safe pond.
As the retreat drew to a close, Steve and Kamala shared strategies for coping with the inevitable change that arises when we must leave the “pond,” or the lovingly created retreat sanctuary. Changes like decreases in our concentration. Steve confessed that after he left Burma as a young(er!) monk, he rode the wave of deep concentration states for a year and a half. But he discovered that even the famed janas are temporary.
No surprise then that by August, my dhamma friend and I had also discovered that in our post-retreat pond of daily life, the ease with which we practiced mindfulness had slowed. But with wisdom, we accept the changing conditions of life. When we walked to the closet where the blankets and benches are stored off the meditation hall at Common Ground, I teased my friend, “At least we’re mindful of our loss of mindfulness!”
As I drove home that night, I thought about how we retreatants are spread out across the Upper Midwest. Still, the conditions set down during our time at Koinonia remain in motion. Sure, the pond has grown wider, but we are not alone. In fact, we are never alone. We have each other—a bevy of lay, city practitioners. Though we may not always see one another, we can still listen to and feel one another’s call. The awareness cultivated in this listening is the sweet twang of wisdom and compassion.