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Jul 10
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Mind and Butter Tarts

morning sun at Juniper Hill

Morning sun at Juniper Hill

Back to Basic Goodness: My First Weekthun
by Jacqueline Larson, Toronto

Group retreats are often described as “potent” ways to deepen one’s meditation practice. I finally experienced that potency for the first time in a weekthun at Juniper Hill. Patricia Hayward directed the retreat with teachings on the new Shambhala meditation: recognizing that whatever is going on is part of our embodied basic worthiness.

In some ways, it’s not new. Card 23 in the boxed cards with principles from Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior says “you cannot possess basic goodness.”

The goal of warriorship is to express basic goodness in its most complete, fresh, and brilliant form. This is possible when you realize that you do not possess basic goodness, but you are the basic goodness itself.

Somehow we still don’t get it. Or I didn’t. The approach gives us a context for practice, helps us remember that we are here right now, feeling what we’re feeling. As Patricia put it, “we spend years forgetting we’re right here so practice is remembering that we’re alive.” Meditation brings our mind into our body but also brings our body into our mind, synchronizing us right here. It’s also a way to take responsibility for uplifting ourselves. When we appreciate ourselves as human beings — when we care — “we fan the ember of basic goodness…Cultivating this in ourselves helps our family, our immediate context, whoever we come into contact with.”

Walking Meditation

Walking Meditation

Meditation is a societal act. It’s not just working on ourselves — it affects our culture by powerfully altering our paradigm. This “declaring human worthiness,” is what Sakyong Mipham calls a “process of discovering reality,” and takes courage because it involves letting go of our own version of reality, opening our senses beyond grasping, beyond “like and don’t like.” And every time we each let go of our “me project,” we strengthen the fabric of culture. But as Patricia reminded us, it takes manual labor, in this case shamatha meditation.

With Tristan Lyons (L), Madeline Conacher, and Louis Allen (centre and right)

You had to be there. Or rather, you have to be here. The sound of frogs at night, the wind and bird song. The sensation of sweat slowly trickling down the back. Each day began at 7am with morning chants followed by either a walk or yoga or another body practice called lujong to wake up and energize our bodies. Breakfast, like all meals, was part of the practice. We ate in silence — we did almost everything in silence. The first day I was pretty uncomfortable when I discovered that everyone was sitting in silence while I ate before we could end the meal.

Although I knew that everything was practice, I didn’t understand that everything means, well, everything. My scarcity thinking about meals, for example. Would there be enough time? Would I get enough? During sitting I’d catch myself regretting having the oatmeal and wishing I’d eaten cereal instead. It is a banal but very ordinary example of how I don’t focus on what’s on my plate right now and enjoy or at least taste what I’m actually eating. Or feeling.

photo by Suzanne Bassett

Patricia Hayward (photo by Suzanne Bassett)

The first couple of days were about getting familiar before moving into “noble silence” (i.e., no talking at all, no email or texting). Patricia reminded us to be gentle, keep it simple, and just feel what we’re feeling. I’d been practicing for maybe six years or so (and fallen off the cushion many times) and certainly had heard the instructions about working with thoughts countless times but I’d never really believed that my speed and schemes and emotional narratives — or what Patricia Hayward called our “blah blah blah” — were actually part of my fundamental good human situation. For the first time I got curious about the feeling of my thoughts. When I was annoyed by something or strategizing about how I was going to X, Y, or Z, I sat with how my heart hardened with judgement or snarled in aggression. How speed feels, how fear and doubt feel. Right here. I suspect this is what making friends with one’s self means.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche remembers his father saying “life is a ceremony” (The Sambhala Principle, 74). There are ceremonies of walking the dog and ceremonies of going to dinner with a friend. But there are also ceremonies that reinforce our fear and doubt and strengthen the cocoon so that our worlds become very small and tight. I’m reminded of a little story from Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty. Kalman describes her aristocratic father-in-law carrying around a little notebook in which he collected insults.

Every time he felt insulted or slighted (and it was often), he would pull out a small leather-covered notebook from his inside jacket pocket and make a notation with a slim gold pen. He had so many of these books. Why. I always wanted to know. Why? (114)

What a poignant description (with delightful illustrations too)! I certainly have my own version of such a notebook. Not a literal notebook but my own well-rehearsed stories of hurt: private ceremonies of the cocoon, stretching from childhood right up to well, breakfast.

But instead of hardening my heart with armor and increasing my sense of doubt and impossibility, I can just feel the effect of such stories instead of collecting more. Patricia kept reminding us that we can just relax and remember that we’re alive right here, right now. (I noticed at one point that I was clenching my teeth, growling at myself to just relax and enjoy my life, with a fist in my chest! Not what she meant of course but it softened up after I sat with the feeling of my aggression.)

Every society is a ceremony that reflects the attitude of individuals toward themselves and others. We have been participating in somebody else’s ceremony—a ceremony of being asleep. But we have the power to shift the direction of our destiny by engaging in enlightened society—a ceremony of being awake. —Sakyong Mipham, “Joined at the Heart”

The most powerful thing about a retreat is the practice. Including everything is what gives us confidence. Did I say everything? Midweek I saw that there were going to be butter tarts at the tea break. I caught myself remembering the best versions I’d tasted, hoping these ones would have raisins. At tea they were served with whipped cream. How extravagant! As I took my tart with my tea outside to the patio, it slipped on the plate, whipped cream smearing on my t-shirt and slopping on the floor. I got flustered, cleaned it up, and sat down. After taking a breath I took a forkful of tart into my mouth. It disappointed — so much pastry and not enough buttery sweet center. And not a raisin in sight. I didn’t want this to be true! I had another bite, searching, hoping. Another. Before I knew it, I’d eaten the tart without really tasting it — I’d compared it to butter tarts in the past and hoped for something that wasn’t this one and found it lacking, but I’d failed to experience the thing itself. So I had another one. This time slowly tasting it for what it really was without my trying to make it into what I preferred. (Yes I had two butter tarts!)

While this anecdote could be illustrating my speed and sweet-toothed greed, it was also a very concrete example of how the “me project” (my version of a good butter tart) gets in the way of tasting what’s actually on my plate. In Ruling Your World, Sakyong Mipham’s first chapter is called “What About Me?” When I notice that I’m not tasting my experience, I can wake up and come back to basic goodness.

(from L to R: Madeline Conacher, Sangye Martin, Marie O'Brien, Suzanne Bassett

from L to R: Madeline Conacher, Sangye Martin, Marie O’Brien, Suzanne Bassett

Patricia told us that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche asked her in February whether Shambhala meditation changed the culture at a recent winter dathun (month of meditation). By the last day it was very palpable that we had created a culture of kindness. The weekthun roused my motivation and confidence. The other participants also spoke about the power and inspiration arising from touching our vulnerability, our appreciation. Tristan Lyons composed a spontaneous haiku that said, “Back aching/ comes and goes/ more comes.” If we can maintain this sense of humor, everything can remind us that we are alive — worthy and healthy and wise. The weekthun finished with a beautiful dinner that included stories, poems, jokes, dance, and songs. And the butter tarts were fantastic.
Jaqueline Larson
Jacqueline Larson works as a freelance editor and writer in Toronto.

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2 responses to “ Mind and Butter Tarts ”
  1. A beautiful articulate powerful reflection. A joy!

  2. While experiencing your writing my heart felt happiness and warmth for being part of our greater Shambhala Sangha- a sense of being home in the best way with all of us that are drawn to this practice! Thank you for sharing your time there. My first weekthun is yet to happen, but in the next year I trust it will open up for me to do so- I sure “hope” there will be butter tarts and whipped creme there!

    Thank you,


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