In the stormy ocean of life, take refuge in yourself.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
My mother died many years ago. After her death, I found great healing through the Eastern teachings of yoga and meditation. But I also noticed something else. The more I practiced and applied these dynamic techniques, the more joy I felt, and the richer my experiences in the whole of my life. These masterful practices acted as a kind of life support for all my various difficulties and challenges, the ones that come with being human. But, here’s the thing: even though yoga and meditation benefited me immensely, I didn’t consistently apply these teachings in my life. And then my father died. And there it was. I felt I had nowhere to stand. I had lost the connection to my familiar inner Home.
Death can be a destabilizing force. And when it touches you closely, you must somehow discover a way to find and rebuild your secure Home. A forty-day pilgrimage is what I came up with. The longest meditation retreat I had ever undertaken had been ten days in length. Maybe forty days would bring me closer to the strength and love and Home I needed to reconstruct. Maybe a six-week pilgrimage with a wise monk at the helm would not only bring deeper healing from the deaths of my parents, but also serve as guidance throughout the turbulent waters of life. This ocean, as we all know, is sometimes calm and sometimes stormy. All of us need to be well-equipped for those stormy days.
In yogic science, cycles are often used to enhance life-affirming habits and advance one on the path of wisdom. A forty-day sacred journey supports the philosophy of the ancient yogis. Within many cultural and spiritual traditions, the span of forty days is recognized as a key interval in which the unfolding and recognition of truth happens. Christ prayed and fasted for forty days in the desert to prepare for and understand his purpose; so did the prophet Muhammad in a cave. Moses was transformed by this time on Mount Sinai. In the forty-day Christian season of Lent, followers give up a pleasure or vice. And the Buddha enjoyed the peace of enlightenment under the Boddhi tree for a period just exceeding forty days.
I was forty years old when my father died. Knowing that a forty-day spiritual practice has the power to be incredibly transformative, entering into this forty-day journey of renewal at this time would be to honor synchronicity. So, under a cold November sky, with the mystical number forty by my side, I crossed an ocean and set off for my pilgrimage. For six weeks I lived essentially as a nun, alongside the Sisters and Brothers of Plum Village, in their beloved Buddhist community in the Aquitaine countryside of France. During their monastic winter retreat, under the tutelage of world-renowned Vietnamese Zen master, author, peace and human rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh, I meditated, gardened, walked, reflected on life, communed with pilgrims from all over the world, and looked my various demons straight in the eye as I listened intently to a wise eighty-four-year-old monk talk about the sacred and ancient teachings of the Buddha.
Each monastic winter retreat follows a theme that is announced on the first day. For this particular retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh chose to focus specifically on addressing the new world order, emphasizing the importance of applying the Buddha’s teachings to our lives within the current times.
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