By CHRIS BIRD
With the pandemic waning, I was grateful for the opportunity to attend this four-day silent retreat at FCM's Tampa Center on the 14 Verses on Meditation in honor of Thich Nhat Hanh. Previously, I had only recently started watching Fred’s Dharma talks online and joining the the weekly Zoom meetings of the Gainesville Live Oak Sangha.
My prior understanding of Thay‘s teachings was limited to reading some of his books, the Plum Village app and podcasts, and days of binge watching his transition ceremonies. I left the retreat with new tools to unpack my suffering and an inspiring image of the sandhill crane, migrating smoothly over danger below.
Arriving at the FCM practice center was like summer camp for the first time. Despite my inexperience, I immediately felt at home. Fred, the amazing volunteer staff, and my fellow retreatants help me connect with support on a peer level. The retreat ran like clockwork, with a sense of timelessness. The programming was balanced between intense practice sessions and relaxing personal space for reflection. The facilities and grounds were immaculate and uncluttered. Tasty and nourishing vegan meals inspired mindful eating. The mindful movements, guided meditations and work sessions helped me settle down into my body and distanced me from my thinking. The retreat invited stillness, deep looking, compassion, and laughter in the present moment. Hearing the beautiful voices of the morning and evening chanters, the invitings of the bell, and the smell of incense, with eyes closed I could have been sitting at Plum Village instead of Nebraska Avenue.
Fred’s Dharma talks were powerful and inspiring. During the Q&A sessions, I was moved with the skill of his loving kindness in assisting practioners to learn how to look in the mirror to understand their suffering. I was encouraged by my own baby steps in stopping and looking to begin unpacking and embracing some of my deeper seated afflictions. As Fred pointed out, in the present moment, you can only deal with one affliction at a time. Another of my takeaways is the importance of sangha to support my practice.
During the last two evening sessions, Fred encouraged us to devote an hour to solitary meditation. What manifested for me was a new object of meditation. I visualized a sandhill crane, gliding high in the sky with a steady tail wind, calmly migrating after a perilous winter in overdeveloped Florida, toward the refuge of a pristine prairie in Canadian summer.
Breathing in, wings up, breathing out, wings down. With stillness and ease, looking through clear skies, keeping the turbulence and dark clouds of thoughts and feelings at a safe distance. Deep looking on a smooth flight path toward the other shore.
Video of Sandhill Cranes Flying and Calling
Chris Bird of Gainesville recently retired from an environmental career implementing community-based best practices for climate and water resiliency. Chris’ spiritual path started with Kripalu Yoga and the Temple of the Universe led by Michael Singer, and currently the practice of mindfulness as taught by Fred Eppsteiner and Thich Nhat Hanh. He especially enjoys incorporating mindfulness into dog walking, paddleboarding, and hiking.