A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Deer Park Monastery
Transformation at my Non-Retreat
I hadn’t been with my teacher and the monastic sangha for two years, so when registration opened for the retreat, “Finding our True Home”, at Deer Park monastery in October, my husband and I signed up right away. Then we bought our airline tickets. Though it’s possible for some to drive the 16 hours from southern Oregon to Escondido, our aging bodies are beyond that. A one and a half hour flight makes it possible.
We planned to travel the day before the retreat, to give us plenty of time to arrive and settle in. Our small airport in Medford uses prop jets to send us to a connection point in San Francisco, Portland, or even Salt Lake City. So though the tickets were purchased through American Airlines, our plane was to be operated by Alaska Air. Ten days before leaving, we received an email confirmation of our flights from Alaska, going first to Portland (300 miles in the opposite direction of our destination), before connecting to a flight to San Diego. We chose this flight because we’d heard many stories about folks missing their connections and being stranded in San Francisco, the logical connecting point, not quite halfway to San Diego.
Our house and dog sitters installed the night before, we rose early and had an leisurely time driving to the airport, arriving around 8:00 am for a 9:30 flight. The first sign of trouble: an empty airport. No passengers milling around, the security screening area closed, and no one behind any of the ticket counters. Next sign of trouble: attempting to get boarding passes from a machine, we were told our ticket numbers were either expired or invalid. My husband, Robert, had tried to print boarding passes at home the night before, and though the computer told him they were printing, nothing came out of the printer. So we figured we’d just check in at the airport.
We sat down to call Alaska Airlines, and were told we had to talk with American since they had issued the tickets. The agent there told us nicely that the time had been changed on the flight, from 9:30 am to 7:30 am, and they had sent us an email to that effect. Which we never received. Apparently the confirmation of the original time we had received from Alaska didn’t count. She also informed us that there were no flights in the next three days that could get us to San Diego through any of the connecting cities.
By this time an agent had appeared behind the United Airlines counter, so we bustled over to see if he had anything to offer. He was very helpful, concluding that though there were no flights that day, there was one the following day at 1:30 pm, connecting through San Francisco. We discussed it and agreed to purchase these new and very expensive tickets. We were surprised at this unexpected change to our plans, but were reassured that we’d be with everyone, just a little later than we had thought.
This was mid-October, a month that was storybook autumn weather: cold enough at night to turn the abundance of leaves various shades of red, orange and yellow, but warm enough in the mid-day brilliant sunshine to walk around in a light sweater. So it wasn’t a hardship to return home for another day of enjoying nature’s beauty.
We had even more leisure time the following morning, enjoying our time without schedule or commitments, able to begin our retreat before leaving home. At 7 am, we got a call from a Sangha sister at the airport, telling us the three Sangha members who were ticketed to leave at 7:30 that morning we unable to: their flight was delayed three hours, which meant they would miss their connection in SF and there were seats to San Diego for the next three days. Later I learned that the agent helping them worked for 90 minutes trying to get them there and was almost in tears when he couldn’t find a way. Being regular international flyers, it was hard to believe that they couldn’t get from Medford to San Diego in time for the retreat.
Researching the possibility of taking Amtrak, maintenance on the tracks eliminated this as an option. Finally giving up, our friends went home in shock, to care for their disappointment as best they could. At that point, Robert and my 1:30 flight was still on time.
Another trip to the airport, parking and going through security, only to find that our flight had also been delayed and that we would miss our connection in SF. No other connections available: Portland, Salt Lake City, etc. None. The helpful agent explained to us why this was happening: at certain times of the year, around 7 am a low cloud cover rolls in off the San Francisco bay, making visibility impossible for these small planes. He said he had been working in Medford for 7 years, and had observed that when the cloud cover starts, it continues for at least 3-5 days. This was day one. So no connection through SF would work for the next several days.
Two sangha members had, fortunately, taken off at 6 am and had arrived in time for their connection, before the cloud cover had spoiled their chances of getting there. We were all extremely happy that our OI ordinee was on this flight.
So there we were, again: rolling our bags behind us as we walked to the parking lot, driving out of the airport on our way home. It was surreal. Apparently there is a powerful brain mechanism that can kick in when one experiences a shock, helping one to come fully into the present. My brain protected me from the feelings of disappointment, frustration, anger, sadness, being left out, etc. that might have arisen. Instead, my attention was repeatedly drawn to the miraculous colorful trees dotting the roadside. It was only later that it registered how unusual my response was.
In my family of origin, we were taught that if an event happens in which you aren’t getting what you feel you need and deserve, you react by making a big noise, getting angry, yelling, getting pushy, and making everyone miserable around you until you get what you want. Through mindfulness practice, I have been training myself to choose a more harmonious way of responding, but still have strong seeds in me of my old habit pattern. Reflecting on this experience later, I was amazed that none of this old behavior came up in me: no pushing, no anger, no resistance even. Just doing my best to find an alternative way of traveling, and as one door after another shut, keeping my attention on the beauty of the moment. Thay tells us that there are always enough conditions to be happy, and I was learning to add “even when I’m not getting what I want”. Somehow, my daily practice paid off, and my mind naturally turned to conditions of happiness instead of the loss of what I had expected and felt entitled to.
It was another week before I realized another practice that saved me: the practice of gratitude. The previous month our Sangha had a day of mindfulness with the theme The Power of Gratitude: a Revolutionary Path to Happiness and Transformation. In preparing the teaching for that day, I had been practicing and studying this topic through the summer. So my mind was trained in a new pattern: instead of focusing on what I was missing, it kept turning to the conditions of happiness right in front of me. There are times that I am unhappy and have to remind myself to list the things I still have in order to change my focus of attention, but this time there was no effort, no need to discipline my mind. It just naturally stayed with the wholesome. Heads up, folks, this training works! My mind automatically chose happiness and gratitude over disappointment, anger and loss. If I can transform this way, I am confident that everyone can.
After stopping for a celebratory lunch, Robert and I returned home with the prospect of six days with no commitments or appointments — the rare event of having an open calendar. The next morning I woke at retreat time, 4 am, and by noon I had listened to over six hours of dharma talks. I started with Thay’s orientation from the first evening of the retreat, and continued to watch each talk in the days that followed. Our friends at the retreat called the first evening, telling us that though they missed us, we were very much present. On Sunday the five of us who were left behind had our own retreat, sitting and walking and sharing our stories of difficulty and transformation. We each continued our personal retreat during the days that “Finding our True Home” continued.
I became unclear whether I had missed the retreat: my body wasn’t present, but the rest of me had received the teachings and the transformation that occurs when enveloped in the collective consciousness of mindfulness. I had found my true home at the airport: choosing the happiness of the moment over the old stories I could have focused on. Through the days of the retreat, the disappointment of not being there was like a light fragrance or a gentle breeze, present but not disturbing my happiness. I just couldn’t get 100% behind the idea that I wasn’t there, that I wasn’t part of the Sangha body. So I gave up and let go into happiness. And there I found my true home.