Posted by: Tess (Piyadassi) | March 25, 2012

The unbelievable lightness of being

Learn freedom from the spreading grass ~ Hafiz

Not too long ago, I was on the move. The considerations of Kamma and Dhamma had taken a back seat to reading poetry and my weekly dance classes. For months I had been in a state of dis-ease with my Buddhist practice, wondering where my beliefs fit into my life and what I held as dear. In search of solace and confirmation of where my heartprint laid in the world, I set off earlier this month to sit and walk and contemplate at a week long silent meditation retreat at Birken Forest Monastery. I was curious to see if the week away from my city life of obligations and endless doings would offer a fresh infusion of quenching inspiration into my thirsty meditation practice.

After a five hour bus ride filled with conversation and anticipation, my friend, Fawn, and I arrived at Birken. The chance to share this time with my dear Dhamma sister only added to my elation for this inward time. Stepping through the front door and seeing the meditation hall reminded my heart that I had come home.

Coming home and finding one’s place in the mix of monks, fellow meditators, and stewards proved to be challenging. Settling into a silent retreat has its own set of rules and hiccups. I almost wished there had been a gong announcing the ready-set-go moment of silence. My initial attempts at microwaved nibbana didn’t materialize. No, you can’t hurry love or enlightenment. Ajahn Sona, the abbot at Birken, told us it would take about 72 hours for us to fully arrive. That was just about spot on for when my mind settled down and left it’s citified hustle and bustle at the outskirts of my meditation cushion.

Being in a space of silence and continuous reflection opened me fully to the beauty that lies in the Dhamma, in truth itself. I found in each moment a sharp presence in my breath and in my surroundings. Unlike my meditations at home I was able to hold and carry the peace I’d found on the mat into the day-to-day tasks of life in the monastery. I turned the doorknob to my room with awareness of skin touching metal. I brushed my teeth with heightened attention to the flexing muscles moving in my hand and the soft malleable bristles cleansing the hard bone surface of my teeth. Cleaning the walking meditation hall allowed me to watch my thoughts around perfection and doing things “the right way” without judgment or pretense.

Each bite of food was a reminder of impermanence, of the fact that it and we are mere elements of earth, air, fire and water devoid of self. Quoting Joni Mitchell, Ajahn Sona reminded us that we are stardust. All of us and everything comes from the same source devoid of personality and all its attachments. Walking the icy road from the monastery, I wept at the beauty of black and grey stones stacked upon the snowy ground, realizing that their exquisite nature was without mind or ego or any attempt to be anything other than stone. Their beauty existed simply in their stoneness. They didn’t take it personally when the next day a bitter storm covered them in crisp whiteness nor will they mind when someday the wind and sun and rains of decades upon decades reduce them to stardust again.

For the first time I truly dissolved into walking meditation and watched wave upon wave of realizations and faltered thinking fall away. With each step a sense of tranquility quenched my hungry pores and I discovered in the last few days a profound lightness of being. For brief stretches of time I experienced anatta, the sense of non-self I witnessed in those stones. Illusions of specialness, of separation from all other things, of clinging to sensory props vanished along with my suffering. It was beyond quenching. It was freedom.

Each day I practiced metta, loving kindness, sometimes sitting, sometimes walking, sometimes lying down in the cocooned quiet of my room.  I looked at the pain I had caused others and reached out to those who had become so distant in my life. I sent loving kindness to myself as a little girl and experienced a profound healing for her, my parents and my sister. It shifted the way I’ve clung to my woe-is-me story and transformed it into a gentle picture fading into the past. Letting go, letting go of so many things.

I’ve returned to the city with a renewed sense of practice and of commitment. Like the chickadee after a long winter I’ve found my song again. Where a few weeks ago my sits frustrated me in my lack of resolve now I see the thoughts arise and pass with little more attachment than the sky has for the clouds crossing its plain of existence. When I walk the labyrinth near my home or stand watching the glimmering ocean I carry that lightness of being with me. It’s a warm reminder of golden stardust, knowing I’m on my way back to the garden.

Rain-glaze on snow. Mud and ice and snow.
Coyotes feed themselves on gaunt dreams of spring. Then
what comes slowly suddenly he sees.

Light hovers longer in the southern sky.
Brooks uncover themselves. Alders redden.
Grosbeaks’ beaks turn green. Chickadee finds the song
he lost last November, and blue jay abandons
argument and gluttony. He cranes his neck,
bobs his mitered head; he bounces on a naked branch
crying: Spring!
But, like all winter’s keepers
he speaks his dream before
he sees the fact.
Did you hear a phoebe?
And he out again and walking on the earth,
in the air, in the sun, ankle deep in mud.

March” by David Budbill, from Judevine. © Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999, from The Writer’s Almanac

Excerpt from “Spring and All Its Flowers” by Hafiz, English version by Homayun Taba & Marguerite Theophil from Poet Chaikhana.

Excerpt from “Woodstock“, music and lyrics by Joni Mitchell, © Siquomb Publishing Company



  1. Yes, yes, yes , and yes.
    Tomorrow morning I will carry your contemplation of dhamma/truth into the forest as i walk and listen to the birds of Green Valley.
    May we continue to see things as they really are,
    May all beings be well, happy , and free.
    With love from one bag of sea water to another, dhamma sis Fawn
    (stardust is nicer than bag of sea water)

  2. Thank you Fawn. What a delicious delight it was to share that time with you. And I forgot about the bag of sea water. That may have to be another post…Tess, DS (Dhamma Sis).

  3. How was your retreat?

    Ah, it “went well” you say.

    That, and chickadees too!

  4. Ah David. When I found the poem and its mention of chickadees I knew it had to be part of my post. I looked for one up at Birken, but they must have still been a slumbering.

    And yes, it went pretty darn well.

  5. […] and his intimate understanding of western ways into the corners and plains of his teachings. In a recent post I wrote of my visit to the monastery last month and Ajahn Sona’s Dhamma talk about the […]

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  7. […] my visceral propensity towards solitude is why I hunger for long meditation retreats. At times I see myself as a monastic, floating on the tender surface of silence and non-doing. Yet […]

  8. […] noisy city life after spending 10 days in tranquil silence at Birken Forest Monastery. I’ve written before about the transcendence I feel when I dip my mindful toes into meditation retreats at Birken. This […]


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