Gem at the Foot of the Mountain: Welcome to Avalokita, Italy

Welcome to Avalokita,
Beloved Mindfulness Practice Center of Italy

In the first of our two posts on Avalokita, we welcome you on a photo journey through this wonderland of mountainous landscape, vibrant flora, and rock solid community. We will walk and hike through the span of one full day at Avalokita, from red glowing sunrise over the Italian countryside, to glowing mountains in the dark blue twilight. Here at Avalokita, the sun, mountains, fields, and moon are as much a part of the community as the people who live and commune here. Let us now awaken to her early morning summer rose light…

Waking up before the morning bell, taking soft steps through the house, filling a thermos with hot tea, we walk slowly up the rugged field, finding a comfortable spot amidst the straw grass and clods of earth. With each sip of tea, red light over the dark rolling hills grows brighter and brighter…

The burnt red light changes to flaming pinks and orange, all the while filling the mountainside behind us with its glowing spectrum.

Avalokita has awoken.

Like rich golden oolong tea pouring into a clear glass cup, the golden morning light flows in and fills the tea room completely, awakening both orchids and Thay’s calligraphy. Its message is clear and alive in this moment…

“La Pace e la gioia sono possibili”

“Peace and Joy are Possible”

The pond lies motionless under early morning rays. Without a hint of urgency, the lilies take their sweet time to open, and frogs rest after another boisterous night of lusty croaking. But the butterflies and bees already quietly make their breakfast rounds through the garden. Morning meditation is over, yet noble silence continues for the community, quietly and vibrantly alive.

Breakfast in serenity and quiet, as we eat and contemplate…

“This bread is a gift of the entire cosmos”

Every morning after breakfast, whether during retreat or not, the community at Avalokita gathers for Morning Circle. One of three resident practitioners, Letizia guides us in a short meditation to both center our mind and presence individually, and connect us collectively. Then we grasp each others’ hands for a few moments, welcome the day’s activities before us, and share the joy of song.

“Morning has come,

Night is away.

Rise with the sun,

And welcome this day.”

Avalokita stands like a sentinel over the activity bell, ensuring the bell master’s calm and focus as she invites the community for the next gathering.

Behind her, Thay’s words echo throughout the house, a reminder of when he and a delegation of monastics visited the center just after its opening in 2011. Upon walking mindfully up the back hill, between the center and mountains, Thay spoke, “This is a place of healing.” Then Thay offered it a name, “Center of Deep Listening”. Because the Italian translation of had some ambiguous meaning, the founders adapted the name to “Avalokita”, the bodhissatva of great compassion and deep listening.

“Ascolta con Compassion”

“Listen with Compassion.”

The Sangha gathers in the meditation hall for a Dharma discussion, facilitated by Marco, another Avalokita resident practitioner.

On the left is Dharma teacher Michael Schwammberger, former monk and abbot of Son Ha Hamlet in Plum Village, who offered this 5 day retreat at Avalokita. The community invites both lay and monastic Dharma Teachers from around Europe to offer retreats throughout the year.

Sharing in pairs…

Italians love love love to share from the heart, as seen from the rich smile on her beaming face…

And some playful sharing too, never a problem for Italian youth…

Okay, enough sitting inside for us. Let’s take this Sangha magic out and explore!

But keeping our silence, we tune into the world and each other, soaking in cascading mountain reliefs, glorious sunshine, rolling golden fields, abundant wild cherry trees, and more. Each step of our silent strolling bodies is alive and free…

Hungry?  Yum!!!

We break, and pick some wild cherries in the woods. No joke, these grow all over Avalokita’s property and around the region.

Try some, but let’s save enough for a cherry crumble later!

We continue hiking through Avalokita’s hillside of olive groves, 65 trees in total. They cure their own olives here, as well as partner with friends to make fresh olive oil for cooking. The groves are also perfect for a quiet and romantic period of evening sitting meditation.

And you can enjoy some premier organic Italian olive oil with Marco, Avalokita’s unofficial bread master, especially after a hot loaf arrives fresh from the oven.

Some salt and olive oil on delicious homemade bread, along with Marco’s charming Italian accent, “Mangi, Mangi!”, and you know you’ve truly arrived at this Italian Sangha home.

Every evening, the Sangha enjoys either sitting meditation in the hall, or a slow walking meditation outside. This evening, the weather is sparklingly beautiful, and the sunset light is irresistible…  We head outside again for a mellow saunter around the center.

Nothing else to say here …

Here is the pure land. The pure land is here.

Local villagers call this region, “the Italian Tibet.”

Turn around, and see why.

Behold the magic behind our steps….

And we arrive back home, watching dual sunsets unfurl their majesty of lights before our eyes, and at our feet.

We end this evening with a tea meditation, filled with musical offerings that respond to the day’s many wonders and teachings. Everyone has a turn to share their tune, inspiration, and laughter with the community, as we close the retreat together in rhythm and harmony.

An aspiring rock star by day, this young man shares the depths of his gifts and spirit with the Sangha by night.

We know that he will share his awakening and compassion with countless other youth as he passes through this sacred center and blessed community.

As the evening closes, we meander outside the meditation hall to commune with the refreshing night sky before bed.

Always awake, magnificent, and solidly present at any hour, we bow goodnight to the mountains embracing us.

Goodnight and thank you, Avalokita

Nourishment, Joy and Healing Through Food at Intersein

I recently learned a saying in Germany that goes, “The path to love is through the stomach.” There are similar truisms in the U.S., and I would guess many places around the world. Food is an absolutely central part of not only human existence, but also human connection. It identifies and differentiates cultures and ethnic groups, gives us energy to sustain our bodies, roots us to our families, communities and history, and allows us to create both traditional and original dishes and flavors. For me, it is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being human!

But food nourishes us much more than just our physical beings. It feeds our very spirits and nourishes our souls. Take for example, African American cuisine, whose ‘soul food' helped to create and maintain strength and joy within the family and home, regardless of external life conditions. Their traditional dishes continue to be an important connection to their culture, history and ancestry. I believe we all have our own versions of ‘soul food’, its scents, flavors and textures that both comfort and remind us where we come from. If we are truly present with ourselves and the plate before us, then food can call us back to our spiritual, blood and land ancestral roots.

At Intersein Center for Mindful Living, food is one of the main nourishments of the community and an absolute highlight to experience. Since sampling my very first meal there, I could immediately feel the amount of love, care and attention that goes into its preparation. First off, all the food at Intersein is organically sourced (extraordinary in my opinion). And we’re not just talking about the majority of the food but every single item from the wide range of spices, herbs, bulk grains and legumes, fruit and vegetables, teas and coffee, honey, olive oil, bread, nuts and seeds and all the other condiments, canned goods and baking supplies that are used. A few baked goods or cakes that are not organic will occasionally make their way into the dining hall but they are a rare pastime.

Every week organic produce is delivered to Intersein.

The store-house of organic bulk, dry and canned goods used for every meal.

While food has the potential to heal us, promote good health and connect us to the planet, it can also make us very sick. It can be quite toxic if we are not mindful about what kinds of food we are putting in our bodies, where it has come from or how it was processed. Mindful consumption of edible foods is one of the most significant parts of nourishing and healing ourselves. If we are unable to properly nourish ourselves through wholesome foods that our bodies and minds need, many other parts of our lives will suffer.

The Intersein diet is mainly vegan with some lacto-ovo options like butter, milk, cheese and yogurt, which had in past years been obtained locally from farms in the surrounding region. The availability of dairy products at Intersein is primarily cultural as these foods have been important staples of the German diet for millennia. Intersein founder, Karl Riedl explained to me that German dinners often consisted of bread and butter, or ‘Butterbrot’ in German, with slices of hearty bread always slathered with plenty of butter.

The cuisine at Intersein is simple, tasty and high-quality. It is both sustaining and light so our mindfulness practice can more easily be focused. One rarely feels heavy or weighed down by the meals. This is especially true for dinner which is typically light, such as a hearty veggie soup or savory porridge, given the community evening meditation at 8 pm. All of the meals intermix Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine to be both nourishing and healing. A good example of this is the rice congee served for breakfast every morning which combines fresh carrots, Wakame seaweed, ginger and salt, for a light, warming and nurturing start to the practice day.

Ancient grains such as buckwheat, millet, faro and spelt are often used with gluten-free options available. Some Intersein specialties are buckwheat and vegetable casserole with Tahini sauce, polenta pizza, hand-crafted focaccia made from spelt flour, roasted root vegetables with leeks and fennel, and creamy coconut stewed Rhubarb flowers. Helga proudly claims the latter as one of Intersein’s most unique and special dishes, claiming to be the only center that cooks Rhubarb flowers. Creative with their flavors, Intersein has found a way to make this interesting flower into a surprisingly delicious dish.

Fresh Rhubarb from the garden that are allowed to flower to make an Intersein delicacy.

Equally delicious and an all-time favorite at Intersein is Helga’s Rhubarb crumble made from freshly grown Rhubarb from the garden. This dessert would be considered pretty sour by American standards but for most Germans is reminiscent of their childhood. Intersein also makes their own special version of pesto and other herb dips made from freshly picked herbs or beets, along with spices and a base of either almonds, sunflower seeds or soy cream. These mouth-watering spreads are a culinary genius and can be relished at any of the three meals offered each day. Stay posted for some Intersein recipes coming soon!

Beetroot sunflower seed dip and vegan pesto from freshly picked herbs.

Potatoes and cabbage, being German staples, are also staples on the Intersein menu. Traditional German and Bavarian dishes typically served with meat are always prepared vegetarian and very often vegan.

During the warmer months, fresh herbs are picked in the nearby fields and meadows to make gourmet salads abundant with nettle leaves (watch out for an occasional sting!), cleavers, ribwort plantain, young spruce tree tips, Large sorrel, wild radish, young European Beech tree leaves and much more. Edible flowers decorate the top of the salad adding a colorful and lovely mixture that include dandelion flowers, forget-me-nots, clover and delicate purple and white flowers like bellflower and Persian speedwell. In the warmer months, Intersein grows its own vegetables along with a smorgasbord of herbs like oregano, sage, mint, lemon verbena and more.

A beautiful (and delectable!) Intersein salad topped with edible flowers from a nearby meadow.

For the majority of Intersein’s 18-year existence, all of the cooking was shared among the resident practitioners. In more recent years, Intersein hired a cook to help lighten the load of the community’s work, including its founding teachers Karl and Helga. In addition, Helga takes part in all decisions about the food, while allowing the inspiration, creativity and care of the cook, Alexander to do his wonders in the kitchen.

A youthful and bright young practitioner named Jara taught me to identify, taste and collect over a dozen edible herbs and flowers in a span of less than two hours! What a precious learning experience! Jara’s love and care for plants stems from a very nurturing upbringing in a Christian-based community in Northern Germany, where she became interested in permaculture, learning about edible plants and herbs. One of her favorite edible flowers is the garlic mustard weed because of its nutty, slightly spicy taste. Little did we know before meeting Jara, the impressive abundance of edible herbs in this region!

Various edible herbs and flowers from the surrounding property.

During our first week at Intersein during one of our precious ‘lazy days’, (aka unscheduled free days), we were so taken by the beauty and enchantment of the fields around us that we jumped around like bunnies and calfs, munching on wild flowers and letting our inner playfulness go. We later joked about skipping lunch that day and just foraging off field greens and flowers but our hungry bellies beckoned us back knowing we would be thanking ourselves later for the delicious nourishment we would soon receive. Gratefully, we followed the insight of our stomachs, smiling to one another at the fun atmosphere we had cultivated together.

Our magical first week at Intersein enjoying some of the more fun and tasty parts of nature ;)

Not only is food a delectable part of the experience at Intersein but is a deep expression of their practice. All meals are eaten in silence so care and attention can be given to every bite of food, inviting each person to slow down and truly savor the many flavors and textures they are experiencing. And to more easily appreciate the nourishment being received.

It is clear that the food at Intersein is a beautiful offering of love and practice, and a huge part of my experience there. Although the food wasn’t the same ‘soul food’ of my family, ancestry or culture, it reminded me of home, of a meal cooked with love by my Grandmother or Mom. Food that nourished my spirit as well as my practice. I genuinely aspire to enjoy every meal, every bite of food with the same amount of presence and care that I did while at Intersein. Remembering the essence of those meals still lingers sweetly on my tongue.

Sharing a meal together as a community of friends and practitioners.