Middle Treasure

This is it. The end of my wildest fantasy.

My 56th birthday, just two weeks ago, held a weighty significance for me. My father passed away at this very age, and I find myself contemplating life’s brevity as I stand at this milestone.

I reckon for most people, this phase of life triggers deep introspection, stirring emotions, and potentially nudging one onto new life paths. And for that reason, I imagine him at this juncture, questioning his mortality, pondering unfulfilled desires, and I wonder about the directions he might have pursued.

What if he wanted to travel, to revisit his old haunts in Cambridge, reconnect with surviving siblings, or catch up with his old neighbors on Rankin Avenue. What if golf or winemaking was his secret passions, the pleasures he’d strived to savor in retirement. What if he wanted to learn an instrument? Piano, maybe? Violin? Harmonica.

Did he wonder or want or wish, or was his life satisfying? Was it everything he wanted it to be?

Fifty-six is undeniably young.

Over a year ago, I began this personal interrogation, haunted by the notion that 56 isn’t quite the ancient history I presumed it to be.

Had I ticked off anything on my wish list? Wandered through any of those places I dreamed of seeing? Snuck in even a fraction of the experiences I pined after? Aaaaany at all?  

While contemplating my answers, one pipe dream came to mind.

I very often daydreamed about a 30-day retreat on a Buddhist monastery in India before my time would be up and fueled by the stark realization of life’s finite nature following my father’s passing, I decided this was the year to make it happen.

It turns out, a full month in India wasn’t possible (thanks to my delayed passport), but I managed to secure a two-week escapade in Mississippi. It wasn’t the initial blueprint, but it marked a deliberate step, an effort to grasp life’s chances, driven by the poignant lessons my father’s departure taught me.

Magnolia Grove Monastery. Batesville, Mississippi.

This piece is titled ‘the end of my wildest fantasy’ because it took merely three days for me to reconsider and reassess my choice of spending two weeks away from home. I must confess that this self-doubt took me by surprise. Contemplate the idea of being in India for an entire month, and you’d find my hands trembling at the mere thought. As it turns out, I have a deep fondness for being at home. In all honesty, my restlessness, and the wavering in my decision to spend two weeks away didn’t stem from a lack of desire to be ‘here, at the monastery’ but rather from my yearning to be ‘there, at home.’

So, with my belly tied in knots, I opted to halve my stay and remain for just one week.

And there, the culmination of my most untamed, extravagant fantasy is laid to rest.

My week in monk mode.

During my retreat, I wasn’t the sole participant. About 15 of us were present, and to my surprise, eight committed to the entire 90-day Rains Retreat—an aspect completely unknown to me. For the intriguing backstory, let me explain the Rains Retreat, tracing its origins to the time of the Buddha.

In those early days, monks traveled between villages, teaching and collecting food. While some, including the Buddha, resided in one place during the rainy season, others continued to roam. Those wandering monks faced criticism for a significant reason: their movements inadvertently harmed both crops and small creatures—picture worms, snails, and frogs emerging onto the wet ground. Aligning with the core Buddhist principle of non-harm, even towards the tiniest creatures, the Buddha laid down a rule making it compulsory for the Buddhist monks to stay in one residence during the three months of the rainy season. Hence, the Rains Retreat.

***

Mindful moments.

Buddhist monastics typically embrace a simple life, distancing themselves from the material world. Their days are filled with silence, contemplation, and prayer, each moment approached mindfully. As monks let go of concerns about material things, they explore inward through meditation and prayer. The day of a monk begins and ends with meditation – what I believe forms the bookends of their daily spiritual practice.

This routine meant my days opened and closed in the Grand Meditation Hall, where the 15 of us “lay friends” joined about 20 monks. It’s an experience beyond words. Meditating alongside the entire Sangha is truly one of Buddhism’s treasures. A simple definition of “Sangha” means the community of people (sisters, brothers, nuns, monks, and laity) that follow Buddhist principles.

And then, silence.

I have mixed feelings about one of the concepts, and that’s Noble Silence. This practice involves maintaining silence during meals, and also, from 9:30 PM until after the 5:30 AM morning meditation, not to mention monastics observe a monthly Day of Noble Silence – which lasts approximately 36 hours. (The Day of Noble Silence for November just happened to land during my week.)

While I’m truly captivated by the idea, finding it both liberating and spellbinding, I must confess that as an Italian, the challenge of not being able to engage in conversation during meals is rough. And no talking with my hands, either.

And then, talking.

I took part in Dharma talks and delved into the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

A Dharma talk, essentially a lesson on Buddhism by a Buddhist teacher, and the Five Mindfulness Trainings encapsulate the global spiritual and ethical ideals in Buddhism. They tangibly express Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path—a pathway of right understanding and genuine love that leads to healing, transformation, and global happiness.

If you’re interested, the Five Mindfulness Trainings are: reverence for life, true happiness, true love, loving speech and deep listening, and nourishment and healing.

I also joined in Dharma Sharing. For this activity, we gathered in a circle and followed specific guidelines:

  1. Practice deep listening and speak lovingly and mindfully.
  2. Bow.
  3. State our name before speaking each time.
  4. Refrain from giving advice, even if requested.
  5. Maintain confidentiality about all that is shared.

While sharing wasn’t mandatory, I felt invited, even encouraged. Still, for an introvert like me, the anxiety level hit a solid 10—kind of counterproductive during a Zen week, isn’t it?

And then, eating.

I haven’t eaten three meals a day since childhood, and veggies haven’t been on my plate since I was in my 20s. But there’s something about real, clean, vegan food. I stuck to small, mindful portions, except for that one time I grabbed a few of those round fried things off Allen’s plate. Apart from the Australian sister, all the monastics are Vietnamese, and their cooking is absolutely fantastic!

Eating mindfully, you know, 36 chews and pausing between bites, really fills you up! On the full Day of Noble Silence, I threw in a fast. Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard; by Wednesday, I was still feeling full from Saturday breakfast!

What surprised me.

What caught me off guard was this: I’m pretty sure at least 75% of my acquaintances, and probably all my readers, know I lean conservative. More often than I’d have liked, I had to step away from the group, focus on my breath, and count: breathe in—1, 2, 3, breathe out—1, 2, 3, 4, pause… in—1, 2, 3, out—1, 2, 3, 4, pause…

I’d wager two sweet potatoes, a spaghetti squash, and some of those round fried things that I might have been the only conservative on the grounds. But what surprised me the most was how often politics came up, of course only among the lay people (though the Australian sister was also quite open and willingly shared her left-leaning political views).

It was unexpected, quite unsettling, and frankly, disappointing.

So, what did I learn?

I learned how to squeeze a deep breath into my jam-packed day!

I also learned that life can be beautifully simple if I let it. What complicates things for me? Excessive thinking. (I’ve done the legwork for you; excessive thinking is just a time-suck.)

I’ve also figured out that my life is unfolding in the present, yet I often reside elsewhere—in thoughts tethered to the past or the future. The past is set; it’s what brought me to this very moment, right where I ought to be: the present. While I can make plans for the future, it’s vital not to dwell there. My place is here, right now. When I fixate on a future moment over this one, I’m just longing away time. I’m missing out on life.

I also learned that mindfulness doesn’t have to be slow. I’m naturally speedy, and slow-movers can irk me. The secret to mindfulness? Staying engaged in what you’re doing. I discovered that even in walking meditation, you can move briskly, as long as you’re invested in the activity.

Another realization: my hang-ups and quirks follow me wherever I go. Just like Jon Kaba-Zinn said, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Other Ah-Ha learnings: connection to others is SO important, but time solo is precious. And if you TRY to settle your mind, you won’t succeed. Whenever you resist something, it makes it so much worse.

Lastly, I’ve come to understand that the real work of life is internal. The most significant strides forward come from having faith and embracing optimism. It’s the middle treasure.

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The wrap-up Q&A:

  1. Regret shortening my stay? Nope.
  2. Go again? Definitely.
  3. Stay on course? Just bought a sweet potato—yup.
  4. Use my passport? Doubt it, and that’s cool.