Touching the Earth: Reflections on the 2018 Summer Family Retreat

This past June, we held our fourth annual IMCW Family Mindfulness Retreat. Fred, Ofosu, and I were joined by eighty parents, grandparents, children, and staff in rural Virginia for three nights and days, spending treasured time together having fun and reconnecting with friends, family, and nature. This year's theme, Touching the Earth, came alive naturally amongst the beauty of the Shenandoah foothills. We explored this theme through games and play interspersed with mindful moments and periods of stillness. Skits, music, relational family activities, ice-breaker games, meditation, and nature activities brought the mindfulness toolkit to life. We spent time together as a group and time in break-out groups by age. Adults gathered for parent meditation and discussion while kids engaged in activities with their respective peer groups.

We were excited this year to add, for the first time, a full teen cohort serving as Assistant Mindful Leaders. In addition to being on staff, teens had time to connect with one another and relax.

Building community and relationships based on mutual respect and kindness is a central aspiration of the retreat. We were fortunate to have a highly skilled group of mindfulness teachers on staff, as well as psychologist Doug Fagen leading the tweens and parents in a rich, thought-provoking, and relevant workshop on Technology, Attention, & Mindful Parenting.  Free time found folks tubing down the Rapidan River, playing indoor hockey, throwing a frisbee, lounging on the green, engaging in one of the free-time offerings such as African drumming & dance or Qi Gong, making crafts in the art tent, having fun with new friends, or taking that much-needed nap.

In choosing the theme Touching the Earth, Fred, Ofosu, & I agreed it holds two-fold meaning for us. It reflects the belonging, renewal, wisdom, and support each of us has access to when we choose to be in close relation with the natural world.  As well, it references the meaningful Buddhist legend of Siddhartha as he sat steadfast beneath the Bodhi Tree, resolved to free his mind from suffering. As the story goes, Mara projected every mental hindrance in hopes of getting Siddhartha to abandon his lofty quest. Eventually Mara unveiled the fiercest of his weapons - the mental hindrance of doubt. When questioned as to why he thought he was worthy of freedom and enlightenment, Siddhartha reached down and touched the Earth, responding, "I call on the Earth as my witness".  At that moment, Mara vanished and Siddhartha was transformed into the Buddha -- the awakened one.

Siddhartha was born from the Earth and to the Earth he returned. So it is with each of us. With steadfast equanimity, the Earth equally holds us through our our birth and death, our darkest and finest hours, our failures and accomplishments, our joys and sorrows. Each one of us is worthy and capable of penetrating insight, compassion and freedom from suffering for the profound yet simple reason that we are alive, we belong, and we are here. Our greatest obstacle to this end is the stories we are attached to -- believing we need to search outside ourselves for fulfillment, that we aren’t enough, that we're fused to a limited and contracted self. As with Siddhartha, Mara represents our very own thoughts. In time, Siddhartha had the resolve to courageously come face to face with his barest of thoughts and ask -- what is really true? We can do likewise. It helps to have a good dose of support in meeting this challenge, which the tools of mindfulness offer.

When we practice mindfulness -- when we truly pause and look deeply -- we find interesting things. As Thich Nhat Hanh says -- we find not only our flowers, but we find our garbage too. The garbage isn't easy to be with. It is ugly, smelly, and unpleasant!  By nature, we turn away from it.  The trick, and challenge, is learning how to stay. This is where mindfulness, a tried-and-true practice that has survived millennia, is profoundly helpful. The focus of our retreat -- and all of our offerings -- is to share the mindfulness toolkit in practical and accessible ways. Staying requires a dose of courage. Yet when we stay, we begin to settle our nervous system, widen our safety net, deepen our resilience and courage, and see more clearly. We see that the flower cannot exist without the garbage, and the garbage cannot exist without the flower. Although garbage stinks, if we know how to care for it, it transforms into compost that is capable of growing new flowers. This is in part what is meant in Buddhism by non-dualism, dependent origination, and inter-being.

We can turn to, and be with, the natural world as we would turn to a teacher for support. The Earth upon which we stand, that gives rise to each of us and is our ultimate witness, will support and teach us. But we first must allow it. If this sounds strange or funny, don't believe it. Go try it. Venture into the woods and sit like a tree -- simply "be". And then go do it again. And again. With courage, patience, and a degree of faith, we find that when we meditate -- when we stay, let be, and let go -- we slowly but surely build steadfastness and equanimity, qualities that the Earth itself embodies. Just like the natural world, meditation is a long-term investment. Don't expect instant gratification or a quick fix. But do expect the 'fixes' to be effective and long-lasting. Being with the natural world can be like a catalyst, supporting our momentum. We gain strength and resilience, building upon our ability to be with it all -- just as the Earth does. Creating space to be with the unpleasantness within, to be with our stinky, ugly, hard-to-look-at garbage -- with kindness, clarity, and non-judgment -- and to transform it into compost. With tending, this compost ultimately becomes the powerful fertilizer for the flowering insight of our hearts. Compassion blooms.

For information on upcoming Family Program events, please click on the family calendar.


It is the mission of IMCW is to support the awakening of hearts and minds through the direct experience of the Buddhist path, and the integration and manifestation of wisdom and compassion in all aspects of life, for the benefit of all beings.

P.O. Box 3
Cabin John, MD 20818

Phone: 202.986.2922