Thanksgiving Retreat Reflections
Doing my job
An essay on self, not-self, and dirty tables
By Jessica Swanson
On the last full day of practice, Upasika Debbie cracked a joke only card-carrying Buddhist meditators would find hilarious, “I came to the Thanksgiving Retreat for the jhanas, and all I got was this lousy cold.”
Last month, along with several others from Portland Friends of the Dhamma, I attended this annual 10-day silent meditation retreat led by Luang Por Pasanno. It was the first time I had attended this event, and it had been more than five years and two kids born since the last time I went on retreat. When I returned home, people asked me questions like, “Was it hard?” (Yes.) “Did you go a little crazy?” (Yes.) “You didn’t talk AT ALL?” (Well….)
The truth is I did break noble silence about four days into the retreat. I had this wonderful “yogi job,” which involved putting away the breakfast food and wiping down the tables. Ironically, as a mother of two small children, most of what I do at home is work in the kitchen and clean up after meals — complaining all the while. But this job was really quite pleasant and I looked forward to it each day. After all, there was very little else to “do,” so my job took on a prominent place in my day.
One day, another yogi came in and started wiping down the tables. MY tables. Had the whole world gone mad?
I walked over to her in anjali and emphatically whispered, “YOU’RE DOING MY JOB.” It was kind of like when I ask my son to use his inside voice and he just whisper-yells. In fact, it was exactly like that. She explained with her brightest yogi smile that she was supposed to wipe off the tables and sweep. Which was completely untrue, because it was MY JOB. I told her I’d ask the person who trained me about it, which I did, and it went like this, me whisper-yelling all the while: “THAT YOGI IS DOING MY JOB.”
The kitchen manager Monika said the other retreatant had mixed up the times and was scheduled for the walking period. Which gave me all the information I needed to demand MY JOB back. But then, wise Monika said, “Just let her do it.”
I sank into despair. If another retreatant could just come in and TAKE MY JOB, then everything had obviously devolved into chaos. I slunk out, dejected.
During days 4 and 5, I devised many plans to get my job back. I would bring the intruder-yogi to my posted job description and have her read it. Or I would work really fast, so the chore would be done by the time she appeared to wipe down my tables. Or I would check in with the other kitchen manager to see where things had gone so horribly, horribly wrong.
Yes, you see, I did go a little crazy. But I acted on none of these impulses. I just waited, and sat, and walked, and chanted, and did my job. Intruder-yogi (who, of course, turned out to be quite a lovely person) came again and wiped down a few tables, then she came back one more time, eventually rechecking her job description and quietly re-ordered her day.
By day eight, the whole kerfuffle was a thing of the past. And by staying quiet, and going about my business with a tiny shred of patience, I saw the thing I was supposed to see: my own mind.
I saw how I had clung to that job, how much I had made it MINE, how hard I was willing to hang on to it, and how much it stirred up. Funny enough, it brought about the same results I get when trying to get out of the very same job back at home.
So there is greed, and there is aversion. If we are lucky — if the conditions are right — we get to see them arise, and then by the laws of nature, pass away.
Unlike Debbie, fortunately I didn’t catch the very aggressive Thanksgiving retreat cold. And I can’t claim to have experienced deep absorptive meditation states. But I got see again and again the beneficial results of not acting on unwholesome states of mind.
And now, back in the world, that is making all the difference.
Lessons learned on the Thanksgiving Retreat
If meditating along with monks sounds fun to you, you can imagine my excitement when I got the opportunity to join the Abhayagiri monastic retreat, with Luang Por Pasanno. And yes, there was a lot of intense meditation. But there was more than just the meditation that moves me now to share a few reflections with you.
The retreat began with evening puja, and what felt like a rather short and not so satisfying meditation period. So that night I dreamed that this whole retreat was going to be about chanting and very little meditation! Speaking of a disappointing start, the next morning, I woke up with a solid headache from the previous day of traveling. I desperately needed rest, and here were the eight precepts, one of which was to avoid over-indulgence in sleep! I decided to ignore my moral shame and napped after the Dhamma talk, which made me feel much better. So this was my first lesson: to temper my zeal for exertion to be “just right”, and accept my body’s limits and needs. As the retreat progressed, this theme served as a much needed reminder.
For the first two days, my mind was still a little despondent. I thought that if I could get my meditation straight, I would get happy. But I soon realized that actually, the mind would not get concentrated if there’s no joy in my heart. And as I looked around, there was ample reason for joy and hardly any reason for despondency. I had a rare opportunity to meditate with such good samanas. As well my fellow yogis volunteering for all sorts of supportive offerings. Alistair and I were joined by several other yogis in sweeping the walking paths, Charla volunteered to instruct for a chanting class, another yogi led two Yoga sessions every evening (one for beginners and the more advanced), all held beautifully within a simply exquisite and secluded rustic valley. The well attended flower and candle arrangement on the altar made for an inspiring setting and joyful setting for the very chanting I worried so hesitantly about on the first night.
What more could I ask for? This was my second lesson: skillfully using elements of joy we already have in our lives to support Dhamma practice.
As the days progressed, the theme of gratitude began lingering in my mind early on. I began feeling a deep sense of gratitude for the cooks. The food was simply delicious, and without them I couldn’t have had this retreat experience at all. All lodging and food was completely offered on a dana basis and I felt deeply indebted for all this. All this generosity brought up in mind my parents and teachers; how they had loved and fed me every day, and taught me so many things, without whom I wouldn’t be what I am today. When I had called to tell my mother that I was about to enter retreat, she was worried if I would get enough to eat. And this was my third lesson: there is undeniably a special bond between parents and children, and I was deeply stirred with gratitude for them. I was almost in tears thinking of how little I had done for them in gratitude and respect for all their selfless service for my welfare. This reflection of gratitude and goodwill for my parents and teachers served as an excellent topic for meditation.
I hope that all of you can one day attend the Abhayagiri Thanksgiving retreat. The life-lessons learned by slowing down during ten days of silence can be transformative. I started in doubt, was led to reflection and ended in bliss . . . a satisfying ending that i wish for you too.