“I no longer want a monastery which is too secure. I want a small monastery like the house of a poor workman who is not sure if tomorrow he will find work and bread, who with all his being shares the suffering of the world.”
-Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916)
When I first took monastic vows, I received a lot of criticism: “You’re just running away from the world” or “why don’t you do something useful?” or “you are so selfish, you are thinking only of yourself.” But for me, experience proved otherwise. The spiritual community where I lived for three years as a Buddhist nun was Tara Mandala, an oasis hidden away in the mountains south of Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The community there was a mixture of monastics and “lay” practitioners, but the dedication to living a wholly spiritual life was shared by all. Along with this dedication came the reality of the challenges and difficulties of the world, experienced in microcosm in our little community and amplified by the circumstances of living, practicing, struggling and succeeding in a tight knit group of people.
Anyone who has shared this experience knows that living in a spiritual community has a way of bringing the suffering of the world into your daily existence. Living in close quarters, the rigors of maintaining the monastic discipline, and trying to evolve spiritually all at the same time is a lot more difficult than it sounds. And, besides, what could be more useful than serving others, practicing patience, giving of yourself, expanding your definition of love? The purpose of a spiritual community is to help one another give up selfishness…to create an environment in which you give and give and give until you think you have no more to give…and it is that moment precisely when you discover the source of infinite giving.
There is no way that I could have found my inner strength, and touched the universal source of strength, of compassion, of giving, of love, without the opportunity to practice in a spiritual setting. And so, for me, the focal point of the whole spiritual life became the winter retreat. Every year, about this time, the entire community at Tara Mandala goes into deep, silent and solitary retreat; some for one week, some for one month or more. On the one hand, winter retreat is a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of communal living; on the other hand it is more difficult to practice being completely self-reliant, and to not despair or lose your head when the vast silence, the deep loneliness and the great emptiness set in. Eventually, you find out what you’re made of, you realize (maybe) how sincere your daily practice really is, and you have an honest gauge for the next step in your personal evolution.
Even though I gave up the monastic path for family life, I still feel called to slow down and dedicate some time, even just a few extra minutes a day, to reconnecting with the silence, the stillness and the simplicity of retreat. It’s like recharging my battery, clearing my head, refreshing my outlook. The more sincere I am about taking the time for a mini-retreat the more I can give to my family and my community. I am definitely more patient and kinder on the days that I consciously practice meditation or t’ai chi or recitation of mantras. I have less anxiety about missing a phone call, I have less stress in the lines at the supermarket, I am much nicer in traffic, and I am more loving and giving as a wife and mother.
Now that I don’t have the “security” of the monastery, now that I have a family and a regular job and bills to pay, how on earth do I find time to maintain any kind of spiritual practice? Well, that’s exactly what this year’s online retreat is all about. I want to share some of my exercises, breathing practices and meditation techniques with you; these are the gems that I received from my teachers that I have kept as a part of my life, that I use every day to keep me grounded, centered and inspired – no matter what the day may bring.
Health is not perfection, it is a dynamic experience of well-being that is measured by how well each of us can cope with the stress of living. In order to cope we need tools…choose the tools that will benefit yourself and others in the long run. Someone asked me if I got enlightened living as a nun…of course not! If anything, I discovered how very imperfect I really am, and how very far I still have to go. But I did internalize some valuable tools that have influenced my perspective on my situation in life, that have given me the humility to admit when I have been completely wrong, the ability to say “I’m sorry”, and the courage to pick myself up and try again.
Offering some of these tools, some of these lessons, is my way of giving back to you, my community, for the many gifts that have no price. On that note, I would be truly honored if you would join me next week, February 23 through March 1, for The Holistic Homestead’s first annual online Winter Retreat. You can sign up free here, or click the “follow” button on the bottom right of your screen to receive the daily practices via e-mail.