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By Rhonda Fabian
I’m ordained as a ‘lay monastic’. It feels a bit like cheating, because unlike my true monastic brothers and sisters, I have a husband and children, a home, a business and numerous possessions. And yet, when I arrive at Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, New York, my sense of belonging is immediate and complete. About thirty Buddhist monks and nuns live there and hold regular retreats in the tradition of our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. I have been to other retreat centers too, including Omega Institute, Pendle Hill Quaker Retreat Center, Findhorn Eco-Community in Scotland, and recently Plum Village in France, and I have stayed in convents and visited numerous spiritual societies and ashrams in my travels.
Living lightly on the Earth is a common thread – an emphasis on simple organic food; plain but comfortable sleeping arrangements; long periods of silent contemplation; ample time in nature to work, walk and exercise; and opportunities to gather, listen to teachings and share. It is best to leave all electronic devices behind, along with drugs, alcohol, junk food, politics, and ‘small talk’. If I bring a book at all, it is likely to be Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, or some books of poetry and writings by my teacher. Even so, I’m not here to ‘study’. I come to listen closely to the birds, to notice how the trees sway and insects make their quiet journeys, to really taste each morsel of food, to drink my tea in peace.
We ‘retreat’ not so much to ‘get away from it all’ as to ‘fall back’ to something very deep inside. I can’t really say what it is because words and concepts don’t get us there. It has to do with touching an essential emptiness – the absence of a separate self. In that moment, Life reveals herself – unbearably exquisite – like the sun suddenly breaking through the clouds. Of course there are many ways to reach that place, many paths up the mountain.
Spiritual retreats, yoga and wellness centers, ashrams, many faith communities, and secular places of goodwill everywhere are part of a network of interlinking pathways – a Gaia Circuit that includes intentional communities like ecovillages, community-based farms and gardens, permaculture sites, Transition Towns, certain institutes, arts collectives and sacred spaces all working to remind us of our true nature – to share and live in resilient harmony with each other and the Earth.
And I do believe this glowing web, this jewel-like network is slowly becoming self-aware. It is lighting up the world. Visiting these places is how we seed and cross-pollinate the ideas and practices that are going to help humanity thread-the-needle – to survive – and to protect the very things worth surviving for. Such places nourish us and we nourish them. One could travel this global enlivened Circuit as a way of life, doing great work and learning a lot along the way. Maybe I will take that leap one day. For now, when I travel, I try to include stops on the Gaia Circuit. And I take the monastery with me. What I mean is I carry a set of mindful practices that help me navigate the world with more peace and accountability and less rushing and consumption than I used to. Here are a few practices that help me, in no particular order.
INTENTION Traveling with intention sets the tone for a journey. Maybe you like to write poetry or learn about local foods. When you set an intention, you have a guiding means, something to fall back on when you get tired or feel lost. You don’t have to run to the next attraction. You carry your intention with you. As a practice, I try to visit intentional communities and sacred places, and locate vantage points to watch the sunrise and sunset each day and enjoy nearby lakes or rivers.
PERSONAL PRACTICE When I travel, I still like to get up very early, to meditate and have my tea. By maintaining a personal routine on the road, whether it’s breakfast, exercise, yoga, or writing, most people feel more solid and at ease. We all have our rhythms. My math skills are best in the morning, while I write more easily in the afternoon. Dusk is an unsettling time for me, so I keep ‘noble silence’. Carrying the monastery in my mind, it’s easy to recognize when my thoughts are becoming cluttered or scattered. Slowing down is a practice for noticing and enjoying the miracles of life happening every moment. When night comes, I feel restored and ready to play once again.
WALKING After years of happy family vacations, I now find it easiest to travel alone. In Buddhism, we enjoy a practice called aimlessness. For me it involves a lot of walking with no particular destination or agenda, not every traveler’s choice. With young children it’s fine, in fact they love the slower pace, with numerous breaks in parks to play or picnic along the way. Walking is the best way to really see a place. In over-developed countries, I avoid the touristed and high-traffic shopping districts and walk around quiet neighborhoods, universities and green spaces.
OBSERVING People-watching has always been a favorite pastimes. I like to sit in a café with my journal and see who comes and goes. Sometimes I overhear fascinating snippets of conversation and jot down interesting phrases or figures of speech. Lovers, married couples, business associates, friends – real-life human drama is far superior to the shows on TV. You can learn a lot about yourself just listening and observing. It costs nothing to watch the clouds, the sun, and the flowers. I love meeting families, especially their children and their dogs!
LOVING KINDNESS Traveling is a beautiful way to meet good people. I don’t hide behind my phone, but instead smile at strangers and even invite them to sit with me if they seem to be alone and not in a hurry. I might ask, ‘What is your passion in life?’. If I show up at an ecovillage, monastery or farm there is almost always work to do. Everyone responds to genuine kindness – shop keepers, waiters, mothers with young children, elders on the bus, people living on the street – I have had some of life’s most memorable encounters with people living on the thin margins of society. It’s often humbling and I’m grateful if I can share some small gift in return.
These are some of the ways I take the monastery with me. Humans have a deep need for refuge, places we feel safe and peaceful. We can also take refuge in each other, in our own communities, and in our practices. More efforts are needed to map out the Gaia Circuit, but they are happening. You can visit RetreatFinder, the Global Ecovillage Network, initiatives like NuMundo, and also explore other mapping tools.
all photos R. Fabian
About the Author
Rhonda Fabian is editor of Kosmos Online. She has directed broadcast and educational media programs for 28 years. Current projects include 100 short animated episodes for children titled Home Planet, and 100 Art Minutes for Kids. She is ordained in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist Order of Interbeing.
Fall | Winter 2017