Weekend Retreat at Mariposa: Through a Newcomer's Eyes

Weekend Retreat at Mariposa: Through A Newcomer's Eyes

Part 2 of the Sugarplum Sangha Series

September, 2018

We were mindfully enjoying a silent dinner on the first night of retreat when a few more people arrived to the retreat. I noticed them walking slowly, carefully, but with inexpressible eagerness into the dining hall.  A young woman entered the room and hardly glanced at the serving table of delicious offerings. Instead her bright eyes were filled to the brim with joyous anticipation, and focused on a friend coming to greet her. The intimate blend of shyness and joy clearly told a story of how much this place and its people had been on her mind and heart, perhaps for weeks, months, or longer…. she had finally arrived.

The brightness in the woman’s eyes and the nature of that interaction was like someone meeting up a beloved family member or a longtime friend while traveling abroad; the love of home and deep familiarity mixed with a sense of ripening adventure was bursting out of her face. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the fire of anticipation immediately cooled in the refreshing lake of contact, as they hugged silently and serenely for a few minutes. As a new person to this community, I felt a mixture of both awe and appreciation as well as a touch of envy for the close bonds they appeared to share. Earlier in the week, Jonathan and Eric had already forewarned me with patient excitement in their voices, about the special quality of friendships that were blooming among their nascent community. But hearing about and experiencing are two separate things. This dinner was my first real taste of the wider Sugarplum Sangha that fluidly blends both residential and non-residential practitioners into one family.

The Sugarplum Sangha has held a retreat every month of the year together since December 2016. At that time, Joann Rosen, a seasoned Dharma Teacher and long time resident of the Mariposa Institute had been in communication with Jonathan Borella and My Tong, who were passionate, committed (and not too shabby) Sanghabuilders in the Bay and LA area. She invited them to come live there, partner with the existing Mariposa Center, and hold retreats there regularly, thereby laying the foundations of a mindfulness retreat center and residential community. By the time I visited them in April, they had already offered well over a dozen retreats, and their young Sangha tree was already bearing some delicious fruits in its 2nd year together.

So where does the sweetness of the Sugar Plum Sangha come from?  Well the best way to taste this sweetness is to dive in with me on this weekend retreat and weeklong journey I spent there with them… So come along!…

Welcome to Mariposa! …. Dinner will be a bit late, but very happily prepared!

As the sunset laid down countless beams upon the glowing oak leave canopy over Mariposa, I walked down the gravel road to a large wooden yurt for orientation. Its Eastside windows seemed to hang like a spaceship in midair over the creek bed valley and oakwood forest, offering us the beauties of outdoor living in this cozy hall. Having helped wash up after dinner, I was the last one to arrive. The atmosphere inside was crisp with silence as I opened the creaking wooden doors to enter. Everyone was sitting quietly, with eyes closed, breathing harmoniously in stillness together, as if they were some kind of single living, breathing organism in circular formation.

After several minutes, Eric, one of the four residents, invited a bell and broke the silence with a soft yet unmistakably excited voice to welcome us. My, another resident and Sangha co-founder, sat next to Eric as they co-led the orientation. On the surface, they calmly explained the fundamentals of mindfulness practice as well as logistics of the center; but on a more subtle and energetic level, the two of them were tempting us to step more closely into the magical mindfulness journey they have been walking together over the last 15 months. The mood in the room, like the tones in their voices was serene and sincere, with small unconcealed bursts of joy and nervousness eliminated any heaviness in the air. My’s soft, angelic voice was balanced by an unquestionable trust and confidence in the depth of her experiences thus far. “This is the 13th or 14th retreat we’ve done here together, and it’s something very precious that we’ve been slowly cultivating together. We’re a community and peer led retreat. That means we’re all learning from and growing with each other. Yes, we learn so much every time, just like we will this weekend.” 

After a pause, Eric recommenced, “As a community, we all have some parts of our lives that we’re beginners at, and others that we’re more experts at. These retreats are a chance for us to share our gifts with each other, learn from each other, both offering and receiving at once.”  Many gifts and givers there were indeed that weekend. The diversity of five organizers who were leading various activities was impressive, spanning females, males, Filipino, Caucasian, and Vietnamese backgrounds. To be honest, the wide spectrum of unique strengths among the facilitators was one of the most uplifting aspects of the whole retreat for me. As I happened to glance over a few of the anonymous feedback forms at the end of the retreat, it seems like I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

This happened to be the first retreat without Jonathan, one of the core founders and teachers in the community, and it seemed like a big deal for people, especially the organizing and facilitating crew. He was the most seasoned practitioner among them and carried most of the Sangha’s facilitation and organizational leadership in the first year. But by now, the forest had grown several pillar trees who stood strong to embrace the rest of the forest.

Eric was the only male on the organizing team this time. Being a resident and having lots of practice experience over the last few years, he’d had a primary role in organizing retreats the last year. Eric shared with me a few days prior that Joann, the local Dharma Teacher, had commented to their organizing team, ‘Yes, the retreat was great, and things are going great. But, there are too many white guys talking.’ This was felt like a conundrum for them at first, as both Jonathan and Eric, the two ‘white guy’ facilitators, were the only ones living full time at Mariposa over the past year, and thereby did most of the organizing and preparatory work for the retreats. But Joann’s point had clearly made it’s mark, as the Sangha was now supporting a more diverse and dynamic group of non-resident members into facilitatory action. The leadership was well spread out across the retreat. No voice stood out too strongly in front of another, while every voice stood out strong among each other.

After over 45 minutes of sitting and listening together, the facilitators suddenly shook things up with a surprise. I was reminded of the facilitators’ youthful ages as we moved into a game I had never heard of before…. “Buddha Freeze Tag!” (In fact, they later admitted that they invented the game that morning!)

What Buddha Freeze Tag feels like with Sugarplum Sangha

Prior to the game, we had listened to a moving passage form Old Path White Clouds, an account of the Buddha’s life, in which the Buddha befriended and affectionately touched a child who was part of the lowest class in Indian society, the ‘untouchables’. And this became the theme of the game! Basically, someone is the ‘Buddha’ and stands in the middle. That person tries to tag the ‘untouchables’ (the rest of us in the circle) to make them Buddhas and bodhissatvas as well. The untouchables are afraid of being tagged (because of deeply ingrained cultural fears), and try to avoid being touched. Someone in the circle starts off by saying a second person’s name; that second person has to say someone else’s name in the circle before the Buddha in the middle tags them. Slowly, everyone becomes a Buddha, and the game ends when we all become enlightened! (i.e, tagged out). The game was a total hit among everyone, while at the same time forcing us to memorize everyone’s name extremely quickly, especially for us competitive types! Everyone rolled with laughter as people tried to blurt out each other’s names before freezing with fear of being tagged. What a contrast to the meditation and stillness earlier in the evening. It was one of the most fun and creative ice-breakers that I can ever remember playing. What do you expect with the facilitators all being in their 20s and 30s? While perhaps not always true, this quality often supports better games all around.

Dawn in the mountains of Mariposa, home of Sugarplum Sangha

The nights and early mornings in these low coastal mountains were still cold, as we gathered for pre-dawn meditations every morning. A wood fire stove had been burning well before our arrival,  as we cozily gathered inside for warmth, togetherness, and peace. After the meditation, My translated a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh that was originally offered in Vietnamese. I was feeling sleepy that morning, and yet I felt ease and grateful knowing that every aspect and need was being cared for so fluidly and generously by the rest of this young Sangha body.

We finished the dharma talk and proceeded to breakfast, which was was completely silent until wash-up. Except for the last lunch, every meal was silent during the first 15 to 20 minutes in order to practice mindful eating, and maintain a collective energy not dominated by boisterous exchanges throughout the day. And all the better for us, as the meals were exquisitely prepared, and we were a talkative bunch already. For example on the first night, Teel, a new Mariposa resident, went all out to prepare a burrito bar on the first night that included homemade cashew butter topping, cilantro sauce, and a chocolate banana date smoothie. Aside from the decadence, you could feel the love and intimate Sangha friendship flowing through each of her dishes.

Following a break, the Sangha started ‘working meditation’, which I would more appropriately call ‘joyful service’, because there wan’t a lot of meditation happening. While perhaps some people were quietly focused at times, my team had continuous laughter, smiles, and conversations throughout.  We tossed each other empty buckets like footballs after dumping each load of manure, and used wheel barrow journeys down the hill to get to better know each other. Regardless of one preferred quiet or conversation, one thing was clear: a ubiquitously positive spirit infused our work to help build and beautify this Sangha home. We knew that our hands were helping shape, even a little bit, this center for future retreats and possibly even future generations of practitioners.

Working meditation is the best!!

What a day of retreat… Besides everything mentioned, the Sangha gathered for a letter writing exercise, a 2 hour presentation and discussion on global mindfulness communities, dharma sharing for an hour and a half, and an hour and half long Interplay session…. WOOWWW!!!  We sure packed it in. It may have been the fullest day of retreat in my life… and it was all incredibly rich and fun as well. It was one of the most joyful days I’d had in quite a while, actually. I enjoyed it thoroughly, despite even not having slept well the night before. You can bet that I slept well the following night though.

Sunday included another 40 minute meditation at dawn, followed by yoga and breakfast together. One thing I really valued about this retreat was the organizers’ sensitivity to time and spaciousness for closing the retreat on Sunday, which gives everyone plenty of time to clean up their rooms and leave right after lunch. An unhurried drive home (especially for those commuting a few hours back to the Bay), time to settle in back home, do some laundry if needed, and enjoy a relaxing evening before Monday at work is what I call smart retreating.

Our closing session together was… well perfect, for me at least. We grounded ourselves in silent breathing for 10 minutes, the home base of our practice together. Then we did a series of touching the earth practice, offering our respect and gratitude to the land all the ancestors who came before us, before entering into a final sharing circle. For both the closing circle and dharma sharing the day before, people shared with a depth of trust, and vulnerability that was both striking to me as well inexpressibly familiar. People’s raw honesty and personal suffering was matched by overwhelming appreciation and joy for their experiences on retreat and everyone there. This candor and vulnerability allowed people to feel really seen, heard, and supported in what was most present in their lives right then and there. People shared about mental health issues in their family and feeling helpless about it; others shared about current struggles with mental health and weight control; another shared about feeling socially anxious throughout her life, yet still greatly enjoying the retreat’s social activities together; several people spoke to a recurring theme of critical and harsh self-judgments, and how to hold such thoughts and feelings more attentively with discernment and with compassion. Throughout it all, everyone shared their gratitude for what was happening in the retreat, and the opportunity be part of this vigorously budding community.

Cleaning the windows of our souls, we reflect each other more clearly and beautifully…

One gets the sense here that people are positively proud of what they are creating together, and for this precious seedling that is on the rise. They were grateful and excited to be part of something that felt so fresh and genuine, and with so much potential to grow in themselves. Most of all, they felt the happiness and pride of building it themselves. They weren’t following one leader or teacher throughout the retreat; instead, the regular members were all slowly become the leader themselves in some small way or another. That is the mysterious power of the Sangha – something that you can’t exactly place your finger on or duplicate, but you can touch it and receive it through the magic and strength of the group.

Before leaving Mariposa, I sat with Teel on the deck of her porch and newly decorated cabin during a lazy afternoon after the retreat. The afternoon forest was cool yet the spring sunshine was still bright. I shared with her that MorningSun Community, my resident home Sangha feels pregnant with possibility; it’s still young and a growing community that’s just waiting for something big to be born and created through it. She turned to me with wide eyes of knowing and said, “That’s what it feels like here too.”

A Sugarplum Cinnamon Swirl…. Yummm!!!


For more information on Sugarplum Sangha, and to see some really cool videos of their retreats and practice, visit:

www.SugarplumSangha.org


Enjoy a few more photos to taste the many flavors of the Sugarplum Sangha retreat...

Working mindfully, working joyfully, working with a smile to benefit all beings…

How wonderful to clean. Day by day, my heart and mind grow clearer.

(My favorite photo taken at Sugarplum Sangha!)


Special thanks to the kind and generous hearted Sangha friends at Sugar Plum who welcomed me for one week to their community. I'm looking forward to visiting back soon!


The Blooming Forest of Sugar Plum Sangha

The Blooming Forest and Community of Sugar Plum Sangha

#1 of the Mariposa Series

May, 2017

What most impressed me when first visiting Sugar Plum Sangha at the Mariposa Institute was not the hand-built redwood cabins and dorms, nor the meditation hall overlooking the valley forest and creek, nor even the burgeoning community of young people. Rather, first off was the blooming forest completely enveloping their community. So before sharing anything further about the flourishing mindfulness community, let us saunter through the petal rich flourishing forest community. Let us take a rest and sit atop a high rock overlooking the valley with a warm cup of tea in our hands. Welcome to Mariposa and her many many blooming beings….

The slow and rich forest mountain drive up to Mariposa…

Not far off the 101 freeway in Northern California, less than 2 hours north of San Francisco, I drove along a dirt road into the dark green mountain hills, climbing slowly into a river valley well hidden from the city. It was already late afternoon when I arrived at the Mariposa Institute, and its old redwood built cabins and campus appeared very cool and dark shady brown under the thick shade of the oak forest. An old friend appeared, Jonathan, welcoming me with a long Sangha hug to this car weary traveler.

I was eager to explore, so we briefly toured the main buildings and a few cabin dwellings sprinkled throughout the forest valley, as we meandered to the meadow and creek main attractions.  It is difficult to describe the overwhelming contrast of spring’s magic in these California coastal mountains to the frigid city life not far away. It softens the senses, and seemed to prepare my heart and mind for a deeper connection to the community.

We sauntered along the forest paths at the same pace of the soft breeze in the air, following Jonathan’s footsteps that felt neither too slow or too fast. Each step, this hallmark of our tradition, reminded me I was at home in the Sangha here. Even a slight rush to our gait would seem to disrespect the rainbow galaxies of wildflowers and fresh fluorescent green blades waving to us from below. Light permeated a little bit everywhere through the feathered canopy of baby green oak leaves.

Crossing a meadow filled with wild violet irises among countless other blooming beings whose names I have yet to learn, we coursed our way through a steeper forested hillside with a streamed below. Every so often, I would stop and look at Jonathan as if to say, “Dude, You live here now?!”  Jonathan would just chuckle as if he was also barely believing it himself and say, “Yah, I know.” 

The trail meanders through meadows, oak forests, and all along the riverbed valley.

It didn’t take me long to discover why they chose this valley as the true soil to plant their deepest aspirations for building community.“There must be over a billion flowers booming in this stream valley alone, and perhaps a hundred billion across the other valley as well” I thought to myself. Over the next several days, I met many violet and white striped ‘wild irises’, various shades of violet and off-white lupin, little yellow ‘mariposa lilies’ growing on the rocky hillsides, the ‘crimson columbines’ that look like mini gorgeous spaceships, the transparent white and orange ‘fairy lanterns’ that look like real fairy lanterns, and the ‘blue dicks’ with their long stems and just usually two to four violet flowers on top that the butterflies perch and eat from… each one was a new mesmerizing friend.

During my walks either alone or with a friend, I would occasionally stumble upon a whole tribe of  one variety, especially if we ventured off the path. Minding their own business on a undiscovered slope tucked in the valley, I would find this village of wild violet irises, or a well knit community of cool-blue lupin friends. Perhaps they enjoyed particular conditions together there: a little more shade, more moisture, or perhaps more this soil than another. Whatever their reasons, they gathered by the dozens and dozens nearby, covering they territory they have claimed as home.

A family of lupin pops up to greet us happily along our way.

Eventually we came to what Jonathan wanted to show me: a simple, yet very elegant series of cascades hopping down one after another for about 25 to 30 feet. The multiple stages had 5 to 8 foot cascades, gently hopping down one after another, turning left and right, and filling small 2 to 3 person sized swimming holes in the rock at each turn. On the one hand, it was nothing in comparison to the falls that Vanessa and I had become accustomed to in Washington or New Zealand. They weren’t gigantic and thundering, nor magnificent enough to attract people from afar. Yet, this was their waterfall….  gentle cascades in their very own humble backyard. And at a short distance, even a small waterfall can be almost overwhelming to the ears, drowning out any noise in the periphery, and simultaneously numbing the spirit of any dis-ease and anxiety in the periphery of our mind. This was a clearly a Mariposa gem.

I asked Jonathan if we could climb the rocks left of the falls, rising higher above the ravine walls. He hadn’t tried it yet, so like little boys again, we played rock climbing up to the top. The steep and edgy rockside, combined with its pasty violet white succulents growing all around, and various golden yellow, violet, and light maroon wild flowers spurting up in the most unforeseen places was at once exhilarating and peacefully delightful.

Finally, we arose to the simple summit, and behold the view! The view that I am now sitting upon. The kind of view that puts so much of life into grand persecutive and scope of ease. The kind of view that mellows an anxious spirit, and warms the cold places in our soul. It was an western view to catch the last of the sunset rays over the horizon. As I would later find out, the other side of the waterfall valley had an equally stunning view, rising even higher than where we originally perched. With its eastern view, it was an unparalleled morning meditation spot, offering the first glimpses and warmth of the rays peaking up over the mountainous horizon.

A longtime resident later informed that it was called King Kong hill, and I think for good reason. The rocky plateau on top jets out high above the creek bed, and offers a stunning view of the valley on multiple sides. The sheer drop on the eastern side over the creek bed makes one feel like your just the king of the whole forest. If it weren’t for a few lilac bushes on the northwestern side, then the protruding outcrop would offer a full stunning 360 degree view.

Jonathan and I had planned on heading back before sunset, but with our new view, that plan just became obsolete. We poured some tea and breathed silently with the lingering rays. Neither of us could call ourselves wealthy by most conventional financial standards. But a cup of tea out there under the evening sunlight, our bums cushioned by thick red-green moss over the rocks, welcomed by many blooming friends, having a deeply present friend to enjoy it with, and indeed we could call ourselves with absolute certainty, very rich beings in this Universe.

Welcome to the Sugar Plum Sangha at Mariposa.

Old friends, young hearts, and playful spirits

“A view that mellows an anxious spirit or warms the cold places in our soul”



Interview with Morning Sun Community - as featured in the Mindfulness Bell

Morning Sun Community's Featured Article

We are excited to share Sanghabuild's interview with Morning Sun Founders Michael and Fern, recently published in the Mindfulness Bell, a journal of the art of mindful living!

We feel that this is one of our best articles yet, and we are happy to invite you into Morning Sun's first intimate steps as a young but thriving community. We are also excited to share that the editor selected Sanghabuild's photo of Morning Sun's young adult retreat as the cover photo!

For a more authentic experience with the original Mindfulness Bell article, we have preserved the article and photos in their initial form and layout for you to read.

Step into Morning Sun Community's creation and adventure

We also wholeheartedly invite you to check out more of what the Mindfulness Bell journal has to offer.  Each issue focuses on the most cutting edge practices and topics of socially engaged practice in our world, from mindfulness in education, mindful consumption, social justice and racial equity, practicing peace in times of war, mindfulness and the Plum Village community's continuation in light of Thich Nhat Hanh's illness, and more...

Deepen your journey of practice with the Mindfulness Bell...


Watering Powerful Seeds: The Wake Up Center at Morning Sun (Part 2)

Michael Ciborski shares our deepest intentions for creating a Wake Up Center at Morning Sun

Heading Back to Morning Sun

And Ready to Start Visioning!

After a blissfully warm visit in August, we were back at Morning Sun for springtime action in May. Last year, I soaked in the community life, history, structure, and culture in depth. With fresh eyes, I caught my first glimpses of this community, which appeared like bright fluorescent green maple leaf flowers under the warming sunshine of spring. The community clearly has so much glowing enthusiasm and brightness for growth, it’s both awe-inspiring and contagious. Most of the residents are in their mid to early 30’s with a few in their 20’s, along with some grandparents and kids along for the mindfulness adventure.

But our aims of this round were different, especially in regards to me and Vanessa. Our intentions for this weeklong visit were threefold – for Vanessa to explore Morning Sun as a possible future home, for us both to continue partnering with Morning Sun in building a Wake Up Center, and to connect with some of our treasured friends!  (like playing together with Annie and the tulips one morning for a photo shoot)

But as I look back at our weeklong visit at Morning Sun, one conversation in particular continues to visit me. It’s a great window to share as the brief words convey the depth of our visit and aspirations there. We were capturing video interviews from different Wake Uppers and Morning Sun residents. Michael shared that when we first started thinking about the Wake Up Center, one thing stood out bright and clear for him, and has remained with him ever since: “Who do we want to leave the future of our world to?” Yes, we’re all engaging in valuable projects and relationships in our lives and in the world. But at the end of the day, and especially at the end of our life, who have we helped empower to truly care for our world and lead our society? If you’re like us, you want to leave this world in the hands and hearts of young people who have been training and developing more understanding, compassion, and wisdom to most skillfully take care of their lives and our world.

So that is the foundation behind this Wake Up Center we aim to build at Morning Sun. And what is this Wake Up Center, you may ask? Good question! We’ve been trying to explain that to potential donors all week!… and with as much inspiration and insights as we could convey.

Here are some fruits of our time together: quotes that best capture our vision and plans for the Center:”

“Our programs will be developed from one basic question and premise:

What are the most powerful things that we wish to transmit to future generations?”

The Center is a powerful intersection of Bodhissatva training, enabling young people to develop tools for personal, psychological, and spiritual maturation, as well as respond compassionately and communally to the suffering in the world.

A homebase for supporting, training, and growing Wake Up programs; a place where many young people can come to develop a solid mindfulness and meditation practice with other experienced young practitioners.”

It will have a multidimensional approach, with a variety of programs, mentored by Dharma Teachers and Morning Sun founders, Michael and Fern, and supported by the practice community at Morning Sun.”

A home for young people to learn to live harmoniously together; not merely teaching mindfulness in society, but embodying mindful living and communication in our daily lives.”

Consistent trainings and workshops for many young adults to learn to facilitate mindfulness practice in diverse realms of society, such as schools, universities, hospitals, juvenile hall, and more.”

Young people will learn to organize and facilitate quarterly Wake Up retreats together, focusing on issues that are strongly alive for young people, such as:

  • Relationships and communication

  • Practicing at work and right livelihood

  • Social and climate change justice

  • Healthy fun living and mindful consumption

  • Family life and parenting

We’ll have more to come soon!

But if you feel inspired to support this initiative or partner with us, please contact us so we can further discuss our aspirations. No need to wait to join this adventure of Sanghabuilding together.


Watering Powerful Seeds: The Wake Up Center at Morning Sun (Part 1)

Seizing this opportunity even on our “lazy day”, Vanessa, Dave, and I headed to town after getting word that Fern and Johanna were available and ready to meet at Brewbakers cafe. When one feels such a calling and inspiration to create, even a community designated day off of work is perfect time for us to throw our aspirations into a cafe and blend up our project visions together. During our short visit to Morning Sun, we’d been seizing such opportunities and gathering in groups of 2, 4, or 5 of us at a time, whether after breakfast, in the meditation hall, or in this bustling little college town down the road from the community.

Dave, formerly known as the Brother Heart, had recently transitioned from living four solid years in the monastery, having shed his brown robes and laid down his alms bowl. Leaving the monastery a few months before, he decided to spend the entire summer program at Morning Sun, a destination already known as a safe-haven and respite for former monastics. Having spent a few years in monastic life myself, I couldn’t imagine a more supportive, inspiring, and wonderful place for him to be right now. A wise and blessed choice for him, no doubt. Having practiced with him for some months at Deer Park, Vanessa and I also couldn’t be happier to see him at Morning Sun.

I dropped off Vanessa and him in front of the cafe, as the spring morning sunshine had quickly turned to puddles that afternoon. By the time I reached the cafe only a block and a half from the car, I was half-sopping wet. The warm and rich roasted coffee bean and pastry aromas infused every nook, cranny, wooden table, booth, and person in this cozy cafe. Straight back, there was Fern and Johanna. A 27 year old aspiring artist and dedicated Wake Up community enthusiast, Johanna had arrived at Morning Sun a few months before. Each with a mug of hot cocoa and whipped cream on top, and cozily seated towards each other in the booth, their intimate sisterhood session had clearly already begun.

After some warm greetings and smiles, Fern shared with us that she had to leave by 6pm, so we had only about one hour together. Between attending her children’s dance at school, forging out time for a biweekly date with her husband Michael, and shopping for Morning Sun, her time is squeezed. By the genuine freshness in her smiles as we sat down, and the spontaneous bright beams of compassion in her eyes, you wouldn’t know it. But this is the life of a mother of three, senior lay Dharma teacher, and one who’s devoted the last 10 years of her life to creating a thriving mindfulness community. We’d gratefully take each minute offered of her time.

We hunkered together, intending to write a video script intend that would excite and inspire potential donors for the Wake Up Center. We knew that our brainstorming time was short, so we jumped in with our creative ideas, passion, insights, and schemes all together. It was a short amount of time and it was messy. We tried our best to listen to each other’s inspiration while still searching for our own, talked over each other at times, disappointedly let go of personal ideas that were initially exciting but altogether not working out, and tried again to listen to each other. We seemed to grind down each other’s ideas to the core, sometimes patiently, and sometimes less so, but the air of safety and care never left the circle. 

In the midst of our brainstorm grinding, the cafe was grinding its own beans, and so loudly that we couldn't hear each other anymore. We stopped, relaxed our postures, and took a few minutes to just breathe, and re-establish our presence of calm, ease, and connection together. Then Dave started making over-exaggerated facial gestures of concentration, acting as if he was thinking just as hard as the coffee bean machine was grinding. We all burst into laughter watching him make such ridiculous faces of concentration - but we were also really laughing at ourselves being so serious about our work together. Good thing the air of humor and playfulness never fully left our circle either.

Michael, Morning Sun co-founder #2 and Fern’s husband, joined us after an hour and a half; to our happiness, he was 30 minutes late to meet Fern. He came to take Fern on their Friday night date, but our conversation was all too powerful and moving to leave. So we then had Michael’s creative genius and fresh eyes to join us.

Our momentum and vision were coalescing together slowly, steadily, increasing, brewing, and finally, Aha!! We had it. What finally came out was a damn fine vision for our video, and most importantly our collective harmony, happiness, and celebration together.

We had a vision to deeply inspire and uplift others, no matter if they were to partner with our project or not. Our video would be a mini-Dharma talk in itself, watering seeds of hope and peace in anyone who watched it, while also creatively imparting our deep collective dream and message to others. Each one of us would have an important role in the video’s creative expression. It was perfect.

These moments together, hashing out our aspirations and dreams, and putting them into concrete expression, these are what great community memories are made of. This, my friend, is Sanghabuilding.


Mindfulness Beyond Borders

9 Wake Uppers

From 4 countries

4 days

5 events

100s of tacos

1 Tijuana

And Infinite Fellowship!

 

Mindfulness Beyond Borders

 

Eight of us walked across the bridge, exiting the border patrol, and emerging into the new streets, smells, sounds, language, and people of this neighboring community. Tijuana is as much a next door neighbor, as a long-distant friend for those living in the affluent bubble of San Diego. Crossing the bridge is like walking through a portal to a new dimension, like something out of Dr. Strange, as our eyes, ears, and minds opened wide to absorb and understand the new energy of this realm and culture.

It was quite a shock to our senses that afternoon, in contrast to earlier that morning, awakening to the sound of the temple bell pulsing through quiet mountain misty air of Deer Park Monastery. The last week was spent in the luxury of the great hidden mountain of Deer Park, which was blooming beyond belief. Lilacs infused the air we breathed everywhere we walked, while dharma teachers infused the air with crisp awareness. We had just ended a unique 5-day retreat combining diligent young adult practitioners with seasoned Dharma teachers, and our spirits were raised adequately to meet this new adventure before us.

The eight of us were a mixed flock of Caucasian, Venezuelan, Vietnamese-American, French, and Mexican young adults. We came from many backgrounds, but one thing united us all – our lives were steeped deeply together in the cauldron of practice. We converged at the monastery, but we were heading into new territory, where we could share the magic of our practice together into new corners of our world.

 

We soon met up with our Tijuana hosts and last members of our cohort, who came to pick us up for the beginning event of our 4 day mindfulness tour. From there, most of us had little idea of who we would meet, the venues to where we headed, and especially the depth of exchanges that lie ahead on our path.

‘Mindfulness Beyond Borders’ - what does this mean? Where does our attention and community of practice get limited, stuck, small, or short-sighted?  How do we share our practice beyond the safe and comfortable borders of our community, nation, personal space, and our ideas of who we and others are? This was the theme driving our aspirations, after all. Only diving into together, could we truly answer these questions.


We arrived promptly at the first venue, a yoga, meditation, and farming center in the outskirts of the city, and had all of our cushions and mats placed promptly for an anticipated crowd. To our surprise and concern, it was time, and only a few people showed up. We came all this way for only a few people to listen and share with us? … We settled into a circle and just sat quietly together. We were here to practice in this beautiful city, no matter who came. We would offer our energetic vibrations of peaceful steps, conscious loving breaths, and ears of Avalokiteshvara, no matter the conditions around us. That was our intention, and I felt myself drawing a stake of aspirations and plunging it straight into the earth beneath my cushion as we sat.

However, 15, 20, and then 25 minutes later, we gradually learned the significance and meaning of the phrase ‘Latin time’. The circle slowly filled with new friends, especially youth. It was a good first test of our intention and heartfulness. We passed that test, and the rest of our events were equally filled with kind souls and hungry, inquisitive minds.

 

Our brother, Rogelio was on stage that first evening, and here was the first example of one of the greatest delights of this tour – watching our dear friends light up on the stage of practice,  sharing their hearts away, as we’d never seen them before. In English, Rogelio’s sharings never struck me as incredibly charismatic or awe-inspiring. But then again, most young adults don’t have the floor to really teach and share their practice before an eager audience. But now, he was in his element of culture and language, with a wide circle of curious youth, and the rest of us at his side, wholeheartedly. His eyes and hands lit up with bright animation, like a fire spinning show in a dark night, illuminating others with each word and gesture, and then slowly, gently, putting his fire out and quieting our minds into a serene and relaxed meditation.

 

 

I had been sitting next to a young man who was radiating a simple but authentic joy and serenity throughout our practice. I admired his composure, while curious about his roots of culture and spirituality. Neither of shared each other’s language, so we just exchanged a few words of greeting and smiles. After the meditation and some fun conscious movement games together, we listened to questions from our new friends and entered into a circle sharing. The exchanges centered around basics of mindfulness practice, but also touched upon cultural issues between the US and Mexico.

When time allowed, I shared my experience of the evening. While motioning to my neighbor I said, “Although we don’t speak the same language, and weren’t born in the same land, we both communicate in a similar ancient language. That’s the language of peace. We’re Peace Brothers.” He and I beamed smiles at each other, as we waited silently for the translations. I continued and spoke to the entire group. “Others may be using their energy to try to build walls. But right now, we’re already dismantling the walls within our own hearts. And we’re building bridges too, and we know how much joy that offers us. We can’t always control what our political leaders may say or do, but we can still be happy to sit, breathe, walk, listen, and smile together. Our government leaders don’t look very happy building walls. Maybe if they were to join us here, then they’d be happier, like us.”  I could say that at the moment, because our joy was palpable that evening. You could feel it throughout the room.

Fortunately, we saw this young man very often during our tour of events in Tijuana. And now we had this special bond, so that whenever we saw each other, it was always “Hey Peace Brother!” or “Hey Hermona Paz!” He became a great friend to us.

 

(One of our many amazing 'Peace Brothers' on our Tour)

At almost every event, I or someone else shared similarly about us being there in the context of our countries’ political circumstances. At the end of our last event, overwhelmed by the generosity and warmth of our hosts, I couldn’t help from sharing what was on my heart: “Thank you so much for welcoming us so generously and lovingly into your space, and to participate in your community. Please allow me to humbly apologize for the ways that our political leaders are currently acting and speaking. We ask you to please forgive their arrogance and ignorance. They do not understand how to appreciate and enjoy the gifts of your land and your ancestors, as we are able to enjoy now today.”

The elders and hosts nodded, smiled and with gracious hearts, said, “Don’t worry, we already have. And our political leaders are quite the same.” I can’t say for sure, but I thought I saw some of their faces soften, and their eyes seemed to really see me in that moment. I hope that they were able to lessen any resentment and hurt they may feel towards the US and especially our government over the last few months. Acknowledging that their government isn’t always much better, we all moved into a lighter space of acceptance and compassion for each other.

 

Our last full day in Tijuana, we had the morning free - so we hit the beach! Eight of us spent three hours lounging, sipping coffee from the many cafes along the boardwalk, and eating a brunch combo of fruit, bread, seed and nut-butters, homemade Mexican jams, and treats. We felt like kings and queens that morning with nothing to do and nowhere to go, except to simply be present with admirable friends. Is this not the ultimate luxury of our time?

Even as we delighted in the ocean, sand, and sunshine, and felt the buoyancy of other’s stories and laughter, something could not escape our attention throughout the morning. About a quarter mile north of us, the brownish-black pylon fencing looked small in the distance, but we felt its heaviness in the landscape of pristine coastline. Eventually, we knew we were destined to walk in that direction. Our curiosity, compassion, and practice took us there. We took light-hearted, but determined walk together northward, while still enjoying the sand beneath our toes, and the pervading smiles and laughter between our group.

Finally, we reached the wall, which extended about 200 feet into the ocean, and without visible limit in the other direction. We peered our heads between the pylons and gazed at the unbounded beaches ahead, and watched a few couples walking casually and freely on the other side. We were so close to them, yet we also felt strangely in different universes. We could shout to them, see them, hear them - but we could not fuly enter into their universe. Suddenly, without conversation, as if we were of one mind, we started sitting next to each other against the wall. We lined up, rooting ourselves into the earth, and into our community.  It was the only meaningful response before us….

Sitting, breathing, and touching life in a way that transcends all borders of our mind and world.

Sitting in this way, we touch the mind of no beginning and no end, no here and no there, no you and no I, no countries among us, and no borders between us.

Sitting there, we transcend the wall. We become the wall, as well as the sound of the waves crashing and lapping at the shore, the sun rays pouring over us, the ocean breeze flowing between us and between the pylons, the sand on both sides, the barbed wire, the people walking on both sides, the border patrol, the air we breathe on both sides, and the time that erodes and crumbles all walls.

Sitting, breathing, listening, not a word. This was the only true response we could offer to this space and moment. And we could only offer this as a true community.


We traveled in our 2 car caravan to several other events around the city, to share our practice and the vibrant energy of mindfulness within our mobile Sangha. We presented at a small conference of Tijuana therapists, a yoga and meditation community, and students at Ibero University. But the University faculty and administrators were so excited about our presentation, that they wanted to join as well! At each event of our tour, we were struck by the interest and wholehearted engagement of so many friends. We may live in different countries, but we share the same suffering and stress of life, and the same curiosity and determination to awaken our hearts and minds.

 

On the last full day, we visited the yoga community studio, where the Tijuana Sangha meets each week. The day before we were scheduled to facilitate, they offered us the option to either share our practice, or have someone treat us to a traditional Cacao Ceremony. We accepted the invite immediately!  We had  been offering the jewels of our tradition throughout the last several days, and now it was our turn to receive the gems of their Mayan ancestral heritage. And who offered this ceremony? To our delight, it was our ‘Peace Brother’ from our very first gathering.

Scholars estimate that cacao has been used as a health elixir and ceremonial medicine as far back as 1900 BC by the ancestors of Central America, the Olmec people, before becoming a ritualistic medicine used by the Aztec and Mayan cultures. And we thought that Buddhism was old!  Signifying both life and fertility, raw ceremonial grade cacao has been used for centuries to unlock euphoric states, release negative emotions, and connect to pure heart energy. As Wake Uppers, we were totally down for this kind of fun. Cacao is considered a heart opener, due to certain active ingredients, primarily theobromine, which expands the release of dopamine, the ‘pleasure’ hormone. Another primary actor is phenethylamine, the ‘love’ compounds of cacao, known to create heightened sensation and empathy, as well as help relieve stress and depression. When taken in ceremonial doses, it’s a powerful stimulant that opens the heart chakra. But this evening, we journeyed light with cacao, and just got a small dose of its flavor and sacred power.

The Cacao Ceremony reflected our practice in so many ways! We started with playful movements, so that the energy and innocence of our child heart spirits could manifest in our circle – this is essential in Mayan spiritual tradition our host explained (much like Wake Up!). Then we wrapped bundles of sage with different colored yarn while setting prayers and intentions for our time together. Our ceremony facilitator poured a few cups of raw cacao into a wooden bowl filled with agave nectar, and proceeded to share his prayers and blessings while stirring the bowl and grinding whole cacao beans into the mixture. Passing the bowls to his right, we each were given the opportunity to do the same, and offer our heartfelt blessings. After a round of this, we were all invited to stir the bowl again and hand grind more fresh cacao bits, all while singing our love to the bowl and to the community (very Plum Village-ish once again). All the singing, gratitudes, playfulness, and sweetness of the cacao reminded us of our Plum Village tea ceremonies! But the cacao dessert at the end was unlike anything we’ve ever tasted - surely one of the most exquisite tastes of my life. The flavors were rich with the love of the evening.

 

Enthralled by the beautiful rituals, sharing and lightheartedness of the evening, we could not believe it lasted 3 hours! And our energy reflected it! Now we were not only Dharma meditation high, but we were Cacao high too!  Not only were we fully present, we were Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah present! As the 8 eight of us waited outside for more friends to join us, we started singing, beat-boxing, playing our imaginary instruments, and everyone was dancing like a circus troupe parading down the elevator, stairs, parking lot, and beyond into the evening.

The local Sangha members got a kick out of us! They loved hanging out with us after events, so we joined for a last evening of tacos to finish off the amazing evening of meditation and cacao festivities together. After enjoying tacos and guacamole of our dreams, we parted and shared goodbyes wholeheartedly with many of our Tijuana beloved friends. Amazing that just 4 days earlier, most of us had never even met.

While leaving, I motioned to my ‘Peace Brother’ how cool his pants are, perfect for meditation. Then he motioned to me how he liked my shirt too, and then his face lit up. He raised his eyebrows with an idea. We were on the sidewalk of a busy street near our cars, but before I knew it, we were both taking off our shirts in front of everyone, and offering them to each other with ecstatic smiles. Mine was a Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirt, a perfect Southern Cali gift. His was a custom handmade shirt in traditional Mexican design from the region of Chiapas, both simple and beautiful. I have to say that his gift to me was the better offer, but we knew that that wasn’t the true value. Simply to exchange a part of ourselves with the other was the real gift.  And now we remember and embody each other’s spirit every time we wear them. Thank you, ‘Peace Brother’!  But this won’t be the last time we meet, I’m sure. Upon leaving, he promised me that during our next trip down to Mexico, he’ll offer us a different Cacao Ceremony, which is deeper, with more energy - spicy cacao ceremony as he called it. Well, we’ll see you soon, Peace Brother!

 

Special thanks goes to our dear Sangha sister, Denisse Aguilar, who was at the hub of this Tijuana Wake Up tour and mindfulness adventure. Deep gratitude for all of your wholehearted courage, perseverance, and love that you poured into this tour and your Sangha. We love you! 

 

Also, deep gratitude and love for all nine of our brothers and sisters who adventured with us, offering your unconditional joy, harmony, and sincerity of practice. You made this mindfulness tour really come alive and sparkle at each moment for everyone, even when we least expected it...

 


First Sights at Morning Sun Community

After a red eye flight from Vancouver to Boston, a few Morning Sun friends picked up three of us retreat 'staffers' at the airport and train station. What a gift to be picked up by dedicated and absolutely lovely Sangha friends, who I had yet to meet! After a few hours ride and lunch together, we arrived at Morning Sun in the late afternoon, ready to begin the program that evening. I was exhausted, so how fortunate to arrive with dinner just prepared, followed by Fern leading a total relaxation for all of us on staff that evening. The magical orientation and structure of their meditation hall, overlooking the lake, and the gentleness of Fern's words and voice lulled me to sweet dreams of Mornign Sun that first evening. I couldn't imagine a more perfect way to enter a new place and retreat. No orientation, no busyness, just resting, relaxing, and eating nourishing food.

Upon waking this morning, I stepped outside of the yurt in the forest, which I have all to myself. The sun was peeking up over the forest, warmly greeting me with such temptation, that I couldn't help but take off my shirt at 6:30am and bask in the warm bright sunlight over the green marshes and pond below. Fortunately, we don't begin meditation until 7am, which allowed our traveling bodies to setttle I slowly and rest deeply in this quiet green haven called Morning Sun.


Upon entering the hall, candelights offset the dark foresty mood in the hall.. As little glowing bodhissatvas sorround the room, especially next to Thay's calligraphies on the altar: I Have Arrrived, I am Home. Yes, I have, right here, and now. The second one, Enjoy the Present Moment, also sets the intention of this increcidbly gorgeous and intimate dharma hall. Then we listened to Michael offer the Morning Chant. To hear it at Morning Sun, in this candlelit room of 8 of us, sounds 1000 more beautiful than any digital version I've heard many times before.

Breakfast in silence. Fresh blueberries, different nut butters, pecans and alonds, soy and coconut yogurt, oats and bread... the meals are vegan, simple, but luxurious.

What a perfectly ironic name, Love in Action Retreat. From the first 24 hours, I remember little else than sleeping, deep resting, eating deliciously nourishing food, swimming in the lake after dinner, and taking in the beauty of nature in every direction. But I suppose that for action to be really filled with love, we have to offer such basic love to ourselves first. This is the first teaching of one's stay at Morning Sun. Come home, and love oneself in most simple and nurturing ways.

July 27, 2016

In the afternoon, we've had various activities together. Yesterday, we took a 'mindful hike' silently and serenely through the forests to Middle Pond, and Lily Pond, two pristine bodies of water, located in the nature preserve of Morning Sun. We walked freely and let the Earth nurture us, as much as we have been caring for her. She offered us wild blueberries along our path, puddles and streams of fresh fallen leaves to our bare feet, and delicious views of her ponds. As we made our way into the forest, Michael stopped us at a certain point and said that beyond a certain marker, we are not on ''our” land anymore. That is to say, the land belongs to the animals, plants, and all species of the wild there. 181 acres of Mornign Sun are protected in this way, free from human development. It's Morning Sun's commitment to preserve these beautiful lands for countless generations.

We stopped on “Coyote Rock”, with its stunning view of Lily Pond. We just listened silently for a good while to her afternoon pond animal songs, of birds, trees, and insects, which were all new to my ears. Then, we enjoyed a dharma discussion there for an hour. Having contemplative discussions in such a magically beautiful place, invites a caliber of vulnerability and truth that is often hard to reach at other times.

It feels as if the land, community, and teachers of Morning Sun are wooing me and each one of us, to take deeper breaths, steps, and lives here at Morning Sun each day. Every day is like a vacation into nature and meditation retraet in one. Like others, I find myself also asking, Shall I too live here one day, and place my roots down in the soil of this land and community?