At the end of a retreat conducted in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, retreatants are invited to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings. These are the lay precepts cast in terms of positive engagement by Thich Nhat Hanh. At one level that is so; at another, they continue to contain elements of the “do not” found in all calls for ethical behaviours. While the terminology is not as directive, the commitment to not kill, not steal, not engage in sexual misconduct, not speak in anger or untruthfully, and not to use intoxicants is very much evident. It’s unavoidable really. The first step of any practice whose intention is well being begins with restraint.
This aspect of ethics is a touchy one for many of us. We don’t like being told what to do; even more, we dislike being told what not to do. And yet, in the liminal space between moving forward and holding back, there may be something valuable that can emerge.
So today, I’m watching the many ways in which I can act with restraint, hold back, pause. Not as a process of denying myself or others but rather as a practice of awareness, of not obstructing the possibility of something different arising.
I’m stretching my right brain a bit and trying out some abstracts. Thankfully, this is a low-risk proposal with few consequences to others and the world. As with most of my spontaneous attempts at changing my mind’s stuck points, I started off on the wrong foot. I thought I was splashing grays on the paper but in turned out to be sepia. And yet… and yet… the tones seem quite at home and what was meant to be curtains of ethereal grays and blues ended up being something about earth and sky.
So it was with this past weekend. Frank and I attended a retreat organized by the local sangha which practices in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition. It was being held in a center that is the home of the Grey Nuns (now the Grey Sisters). The building is a residence for the Grey Sisters, a retreat center, a community resource for counselling and activities, and a museum of the history of the Grey Nuns. And what started out as a practice of being in the present became a journey into my past.
You can read about the founder of the Grey Nuns, Marguerite D’Youville, here; a fascinating story of one woman’s life in the New France of the 1700’s, surviving adversity, and transforming her suffering into a path of service. Her work with the poor was so reviled by the culture of the mid-1700’s that she and her supporters were mocked with the name “Les Grises” – the “grey women” or the “drunken women.” Yet, despite the enormous opposition, they grew as a community and persevered to found and fund numerous hospitals, shelters, and schools globally.
Where does my past fit in this? Walking down the hall of history at the retreat center and reading of the various schools the Grey Nuns founded, I realized I had been taught by them and two in particular might well have watered the seeds of practice for me. As a child in elementary school, I only knew them as The Nuns and Sr. Leger in particular as the woman who saw through my defensive posturing and deep into my potential. I lost touch with them only to reconnect with them in the Grey Nuns retirement residence in Montreal about 10 years ago when I was there for another retreat (in TNH’s tradition again). There are few specific memories however what I remember of our relationship is set deep in my bones. I know this because when went to meet Sr. Leger, I stood up taller and shook the cobwebs out of my brain. She was never one to be tolerant of my tendency to sloppiness – whether it was in body or mind. And through her persistence, I realize now that she transmitted to me an unrelenting devotion to the spirit of practice.
The pictures in the hallways were interesting relics. What penetrated me was the interconnections and the surfacing of the past in a new perspective and with new understanding.