After 16 years of taking part in meditation retreats I had come to believe that a deep and somewhat lasting level of calm was not to be had in this lifetime, not for me anyway. Thank goodness I’m ridiculously poor at predictions.
Thanksgiving has long been my favorite family holiday. I find it satisfying to create an atmosphere where Alistair’s annual cooking can be beautifully displayed. I enjoy printing out and framing photos and setting them about the house where everyone will meander for memories from the year. The fireplace will crackle and a crazy amount of candles will add a warm glow to the day and light the house far into the night. And it all starts with the grandkids as they clomp up the front porch steps, swing open the door and come rushing in with a shout — “NANA!” — and throw their tiny arms around my neck.
Everything changes, even holiday traditions. Last year we hosted our Thanksgiving meal a week early and this year we didn’t even have one. Instead I joined the annual Thanksgiving retreat taught by Luang Por Pasanno.
“Nana, do you have to go away on Thanksgiving Day?” asked 6-year-old Dylan while fumbling to get his shoes on before heading out for the long drive home. Sliding his winter coat over his arms, I said “Yes” and lifted his chin with a finger to look into his eyes. “Okay then” he chirped through a ginning face, “let’s go to Hawaii!”
“Hawaii sounds awfully good doesn’t it? Wouldn’t we have a blast? But on this trip Nana is going all by herself.”
“You mean you’ll be all alone?” he said and dashed up the stairs to his playroom. “Yes,” I called behind him. “Come back downstairs, we have to get going.”
In his hurried return he skipped the last two stairs and tumbled toward my purse where he plunged a tiny object deep inside. “Take puppy with you, Nana, so you won’t be alone, so you’ll have a friend.” I felt a slight tug. Surely one should spend Thanksgiving with family . . .
A balmy 68 degrees in Santa Rosa was a welcomed start to the 10-day retreat. First things first, I unpacked the stuffed dog and gently placed him on my pillow. With Dylan in my heart and his friend on my pillow, I was ready to begin.
For the first time, I took the sentiment of “may my efforts be friendly” as my mantra, and aimed it wholly toward myself. My personality type tends toward an all-or-nothing stance so sustaining a sense of balanced friendliness took remarkable persistence.
On retreat I usually fast, this time I ate well. I usually sleep little and some nights not at all, this time I slept plenty. I limit my caffeine, this time I drank coffee and black tea several times a day. And on retreats, I never relax, I push, push, push. This time I pushed only to the degree I could dwell consciously relaxed within any given experience.
So what was my experience? Following Luang Por Pasanno’s instructions I first anchored in the body, and then turned my attention toward a sense of kindly effort, the kind of effort one makes toward a friend. This led to friendly thoughts and feelings, which led to joy. And as this joy passed, a pervasive sense of contentedness remained: an all encompassing balance and ease. This was a place worth returning to, a good place to call home on this Thanksgiving Day.
Now I happily anticipate Christmas day when Alistair’s annual dinner will once again be beautifully displayed. I look forward to a crackling fire, candles and photographs. I’ll listen for tiny footsteps to come onto the porch and enjoy the little arms as they loop around my neck. And as I kiss the joy as it flies I’ll give a nod and a wink to that which remains.
“Have you ever seen flowing water?… Have you ever seen still water?… If your mind is peaceful it will be just like still, flowing water. Have you ever seen still, flowing water? There! You’ve only ever seen flowing water and still water, haven’t you? But you’ve never seen still, flowing water. Right there, right where your thinking cannot take you, even though it’s peaceful you can develop wisdom. Your mind will be like flowing water, and yet it’s still. It’s almost as if it were still, and yet it’s flowing. So I call it still, flowing water. Wisdom can arise here.”