By Comfort Queh
It stands in the middle of Mindfulness Road, surrounded by trees on 80 acres of land in Pine Bush, NY. Tu Vien Bich Nham, also known as Blue Cliff Monastery, is a place where mindfulness is taught with every step and breathe that we take. It’s an ongoing practice in the daily life of residents and visitors.
Mindfulness is when we are aware and present with ourselves and our surrounding. To be mindful, we must learn to bring our mind, body, and surrounding into harmony.
Being mindful leads to a level of concentration that helps us understand how we think and respond to things happening around us.
I participated in daily mindfulness this weekend at the monastery with the monks and sisters of Blue Cliff, as well as other students from DCCC and Burlington Community College. The two and a half days at the retreat were eye-opening and healing.
The moment my feet touched the 80 acres of land, a sense of peace and serenity overcame my body. The quietness and stillness of everything allowed me to be in touch with myself and my surroundings.
We were first greeted by Sister The Nghiem, which means Sister True Vow, who showed us to our rooms and informed us about the day’s schedule.
After settling into my rooms, I volunteered to participate in a working meditation in the garden with a few other students.
The thought of working might not sound relaxing, but it was. We joined the sisters in the garden to help. Along with three other students, I worked with Sister Diamond, who was in charge of gathering soil and wheeling it back to the garden.
I would have never imagined that the first time I got to garden would have been at a monastery, in chilly weather, with a group of nuns, faculty and students I did not know.
As we worked, we shared information about our lives and connected with each other by listening and relating to each other’s stories.
Sister Diamond shared with us that she has been a nun for a year and half. She listened attentively to everything we had to say.
As we talked, the bells of mindfulness rang, stopping us in the middle of our conversation. I brought my focus back to my breathing and my surroundings as I stood still for a moment, dropping everything I was doing.
The bell of mindfulness rang throughout the day to remind us of this practice, which is inherent to monastic life.
After working meditation, we enjoyed a small break, snacking on fruit, granola bars, and smoothies as we continued to chat with one another.
After gardening, we were invited to partake in deep relaxation meditation in the Sisters’ Meditation Hall. As I entered, the tranquil smell of incense pierced my nose; two rows of brown pillows and cushions were spread on the floor in the hall.
Sister True Vow and Sister Diamond led us through our meditation. As I lay there, I shut my eyes, allowing Sister True Vow’s voice to lead me into a deep sleep as she sang soothing songs.
The next activity following meditation was dinner, but it was not just any ordinary dinner. Meal time at the monastery is a unique experience. I had never experienced anything like it until this weekend.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the monastery occur in silence. At the start of every meal we were invited by a monk or sister to a buffet style table filled with vegan dishes to serve ourselves at the sound of a bell. After we filled our plate with coconut rice, vegetable stew, or vegetable mix in vegetable, we remained seated until everybody else was able to get food.
When everyone was seated, a monk or a sister recited “The Five Contemplations” before eating our meal. During one of these meals Brother Emptiness recited, “This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard and loving work…”
Before his fingers touched the bell leading us into our meal, he concluded, “We accept this food so that we may nurture our brotherhood and sisterhood, build our Sangha, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings.”
Then, at the sound of the bell, we began to eat in silence without voices echoing or the sound of technology to distract us as we ate. I was focused on savoring every taste of every bite.
The idea of eating in silence with no disruption of any type gave me the chills. I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I did. I admit it was a bit foreign for me and a bit challenging, but it was insightful.
It felt as though I was having a conversation with my food with every bite I took. The silence lasted for about 20 minutes; then the bell rang to break the silence, allowing us to speak to each other.
On Saturday and Sunday morning we started at 6 a.m. sharp with 45 minutes of sitting meditation in the Great Togetherness Meditation Hall.
Meditation is an art of its own depending on the person entering mindfully. For me, it was very difficult to allow my body and mind to create.
It wasn’t until Saturday night when I participated in “Pebble Meditation,” a meditation done by movements and music that I was able to learn the craft of meditation.
Each stage of movements guided us to imagine ourselves as a flower, mountain, water, and the space in between us.
At first I struggled to let go and allow my body to be free with the music but eventually, I allowed my eyes to close and the music to take over my body, and I begin to move with every image called out.
After Pebble Meditation, we sat in a circle sharing how we felt about the meditation. A classmate shared that it was easy for her to imagine herself as water because the calmness and stillness of water reminded her of herself.
To end the weekend, the monastery has an event call Dharma Talk, when people from all over are invited to the monastery for a day of mindfulness.
During this day, visitors get a chance to partake in walking meditation and meal meditation, as well as an opportunity to ask the monks and sisters questions that may pertain to their life when practicing mindfulness.
Sunday evening while packing to return back home to the “real world,” I found myself feeling a bit nervous. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to cultivate the sense of peace and stillness that I had experienced throughout the weekend.
But if I had learned anything from the practice of walking meditation, it’s that every step I take can bring me into the moment. Recognizing each moment brings me back to a place where I am able to smile and feel free; with this thought I know I can cultivate peace whenever I am present.
Contact Comfort Queh at firstname.lastname@example.org