Listening to the Heart @ Dharmagiri – Jennifer Radloff

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Mary Oliver

It was not until I started listening to my heart and paying attention that my journey to Dharmagiri became possible. Here are some reflections on my journey and experience of a retreat at Dharmagiri, Calming the Mad Mind, Knowing the Luminous Heart: An Insight Meditation Retreat, with the wise and wonderful teachers, Kittisaro and Chandasara.

I read poetry daily. I go to poetry to be opened up, to find a balm, to be reminded that living means times of suffering, that there will always be hope. I read in order to be reminded of my connection to all things and to know that there is always a wide open sky of forgiveness and grace.

Recently, the poetry of Mary Oliver has been my refuge. Her words inspire such intense joy in me and help me direct my heart. I connect with the way she finds herself in nature, her belief in sacred silence, the praise of aloneness in order to connect meaningfully with others and what I read into her words of the non-separation between all living beings. She is my praise poet.

I carry volumes of poetry wherever I go. Hiking in the canyons or in the mountains, when I travel to other countries. I write lines of poetry in my diary which I carry with me all the time. But I forgot my diary and my books of poetry when I travelled to Dharmagiri for a retreat with Kittisaro and Chandasara.

It was a blessing as one of the many huge and beautiful lessons I learnt during the dharma talks was that I should give my full attention to “reading the book of the heart”. (attributed to Ajahn Chah). These words for me were profound.

I had come to the retreat to learn how to calm my loud and busy mind. to find my way back to a steady sitting practice and to respond to a deep and persistent longing to go deeper into the experiences of my heart. I was feeling overwhelmed with the mysteries, the suffering, the gratitude, the confusion, the tenderness, the wide-open joy and the pain of this one human life. I wanted quiet amidst the noise of my work and my world. I felt tired and as if I was not being of much service in my work any more.

I was not reflecting on my life, my heart or my path. I was not listening to myself and barely hearing others. I was meditating erratically. My Mom had passed and her death had stunned me as no other loss had. And yet she had given me the greatest gift. The grief I felt was huge but so was the joy. I was so proud of her life. She is everywhere now. She exists in me, in the sky, the wind, the rain. I wanted to honour this beautiful being by truly seeking to know myself better.

So, I went to the mountain. The symbolism of “going to the mountain” represents a pilgrimage of aspiration of moving towards consciousness, of closeness and contact with celestial bodies. Going to Dharmagiri sitting at the foot of the sacred Mvuleni mountain, in the province of my birth, felt right. I had spent the past few years seeking a place, a practice and teachers to guide me. I slowly found my way to Dharmagiri through friends, through much searching and through reading Kittisaro and Thanissara’s book “Listening to the Heart : A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism

The retreat was transformative for me. And I hope, over time, for others.

Our mornings started in the quiet pre-dawn when the stars are still visible and sometimes the wild sounds of jackals howling. To chant and bow in the dark of early, cold mornings with a warm fire and candles on the shrine with Kuan Yin’s sacred presence, alone but with an unspoken connection to the sangha, gave me deep comfort. Sitting on my cushion, wrapped in a blanket and in quietness as the sun rose and the mountain of Mvuleni in all her grace, power and steadfastness, became visible, I felt I had come home to myself.

Each day we went deeper into our practice, guided with such gentleness and wisdom. The profound and lived knowledge of both Kittisaro and Chandasara fed us during the dharma talks. We energised our bodies through chi kung and walking meditation. In Noble silence we ate delicious and carefully prepared food with each meal being blessed and each one of us expressing gratitude for the comfort of nourishment and shelter. During the daily question time with our teachers we all gained more insight into ourselves, each other and the practice through the thoughtful questions of the Sangha and the generous and deeply reflective responses from our teachers. Each of us contributed mindful work through washing dishes, cleaning spaces, chopping vegetables, all in silence. The silence was so welcomed as we could all turn inward but still be aware of our connectedness. As my friend who was also on retreat said to me: “I have known you for many years but through this seven days of silence I know you more deeply.” The silence woke me up to so much more and to a communication with self and others which goes beyond anything language can explain.

At night we gathered for chanting, meditation, a dharma talk and the sharing of blessings. The meditation room was full of quiet and of prayer as we let each thought dissolve and sought the silence between the thoughts. We rested together in the silence and the peace.

On our final day we spent time finding flowers, a stone, a branch – something from the environment which we could place on the alter and dedicate to a person, people, a cause – what we chose to honour and bring into the room. We each had time to place our offering and to reflect and to witness others. Nobel silence was suspended for a time as we gathered in small groups each with a few minutes to speak whilst others listened about our experience of the retreat. I love storytelling and listening to stories. So for me, it was an intimate storytelling circle and it reminded me of what Muriel Rukeyser said: “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” And from the stories what Rumi said :“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” From the stories of others, from their experiences and reflections, we learn, we breath in and are one with them and with all of creation. Through listening to others, we find parts of ourselves.

On the last day of the retreat, during the Dharma talk, we were given this from the Dhammapada

There are no footprints in the sky;
You won’t find the sage out there.
There are no eternal conditioned things.
Buddhas never waver.

I hold this in me with gratitude as I work towards an authentic practice and am reminded to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

Mary Oliver in her poem “The Old poets of China” tells of how because the world is so busy and often we need quiet to re-connect with our hearts, the poets went “so far and high into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.” Dharmagiri offers us all this place of quiet, this refuge and people of generosity and wisdom. I have such deep gratitude that I was there and that I can return.

And so as Mary Oliver tells in her poem and what Dharmagiri has reminded me:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

So I wanted to tell this about my time at Dharmagiri.

Jennifer works as a feminist information activist, connecting people to
information in order tojennifer create their own change in the world. She spends a lot of time in nature, is drawn to nature-based Rites of Passage, enjoys running, poetry, clay, the ocean, life stories & believes that change can happen.

She is relatively new to Buddhist practice but has been meditating on and off for quite a few years. She is the proud Godmother to a tribe of 6 godchildren who are her main teachers. A recent retreat at Dharmagiri had inspired her deeply to regular practice.