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Musings on the Retreat at Deer Park From a Complete Novice

By Jim Dudley

I have been a Police Officer for over twenty-seven years with the San Francisco Police Department. It is a fulfilling, challenging, rewarding, but sometimes difficult job. I have seen more than my share of violence and human tragedies. I worked two decades of patrol work with time spent in investigations and at our special operations division. I enjoy my off-duty time by playing softball and golf, kayaking, and cycling. I work hard when I am at work, but I take time to enjoy my time off. Sometimes my neck or shoulder would ache, maybe from tension, perhaps just from old age. Sometimes work would pile up faster than I could get to it. Maybe, I thought, my off time was not as relaxing as it should have been.

When my partner, Susan, suggested that I accompany her to the Awakening Together to Restore our Future retreat in September, I readily agreed. Susan is a physician in San Francisco, with a lifestyle similar to mine — work is important, valuable and rewarding but also very stressful. She has been a follower of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and owns and reads several of his books.

We made our way through registration, set up our tent, and took a walk on the grounds. Initially I was a bit apprehensive about the coming days, but I loosened up as we strolled up the mountain and looked out onto the canyon below. The view is calming. Over the next four days, we ended up hiking around the canyon during the day and once in the evening. We climbed to the deck that overlooks the canyon and just above to the pagoda. The trees circle the complex like silent sentries. The smell of the pepper trees is still with me. The sweet smell of the tree leaves belies the aroma you get when you rub the dry peppercorns between your palms.

Susan and I are both about a chicken wing away from being vegetarians already, so the change in diet was not difficult for either of us. The meals were great and it was obvious that a lot of care and thought went into each meal that was prepared for us. Our Dharma discussion group, “True Names,” had clean-up duty, making the pots and pans clean again. It was good, clean, mindful work that we enjoyed as a team.

When the Dharma group first convened, on our second day, my first impressions got the best of me. I was too quick to judge people, annoyed when some asked to move the group from one location to another or when some of them spoke much more often than the others. We did introductions around our circle but that was all too brief. It was apparent that we were all from the peninsula of the San Francisco Bay Area. We discussed Thay’s Dharma talk, and what it meant to us. At least, some of us spoke. It seemed to me that those already in their own sanghas back home had the most to say. I was not sure of the protocol and kept quiet, choosing to listen and learn instead. I left the group feeling a little frustrated, thinking I may be in for a long week of experiencing the retreat as an outsider. I felt like I was sitting in a club meeting that I was not a member of.

It didn’t help that at dinner and afterwards we maintained our silence. I couldn’t express some of my frustration and ignorance to Susan until after lunch the next day. Of course, that next afternoon, Susan disarmed me with her usual, calming reason. Her soothing voice was a warm welcome after the unfamiliar extended silence. She encouraged me to remain an open book, to experience the teachings and to listen and learn from our Dharma Sister and others in the group. I followed her advice with renewed determination. I was mindful of my breathing. I slowed my pace during walking meditation. I felt my usually tight neck begin to loosen a little.

I was skeptical at fi regarding the Dharma talks. That changed as I listened to Thay’s teachings and realized that it was not rhetoric, but reason. He spoke of sharing and sacrifice, of hope and inspiration. When he answered questions from both children and adults, he spoke in easily understandable terms. There was no ambiguity. He responded to the questions directly. He did not say what people wanted to hear. Sometimes he asked the questioner to look within. Best of all, he did not judge others.

At one point Thay seemed to be speaking to me when he spoke of how important law enforcement officers are in our community and how he has held retreats just for them. At times I have been torn, attempting to reconcile being mindful in a job that requires us to be vigilant, assessing others and reacting quickly with instinct in some situations. Sometimes my job requires us to use force, sometimes deadly force. He mentioned his book, Keeping the Peace: Mindfulness and Public Service [Parallax Press]. I thought it would be good to read about how to be more mindful in my profession.

When I read the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I wondered if I could abide by them. Susan had already indicated that she would take the vow on our last day of the retreat. I truly struggled with the thought. I could have easily said that I would try, that as some had said in our Dharma group, they were really “only guidelines.” Some of the others in our True Names group struggled with the thought, as I had. Some spoke of taking the Trainings and strictly abiding, while others gave their versions of true commitment, with some failure mixed in.

As we talked, the group transformed before my eyes. Individuals who had previously annoyed me and that I saw as caricatures, spoke with compassion and insight. One couple spoke of personal tragedies that drove them to a deeper commitment to the Trainings. Others spoke of their past religious upbringing and the conflict that it caused within them. Still others spoke of moral and ethical conflicts with what they had previously known. It occurred to me that the choice is indeed a personal commitment that one can only make for oneself. In the end, I found new respect for everyone in my group and wished that we had had this talk earlier in the week. I wanted to get to know them better and to tell more about myself.

That next morning, I sat and watched as Susan and several others in our Dharma group committed to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The Meditation Hall was brimming full of people despite the early hour. I listened to the descriptions of each of the Five Trainings and the responses from the men, women, and children who participated. A part of me wanted to be there as well. At the conclusion of the ceremony, I witnessed just how much it meant to Susan, as she hugged her friends and openly wept. Tears of joy flowed freely in the hall, including some from my Dharma discussion group who held reservations about taking the Trainings the night before. I was glad that we talked about meeting together again, back in the Bay Area.

Susan and I gathered our things and packed up for the return trip home. We enjoyed our last lunch with some of our friends and said our good-byes. What had seemed like potentially too long a stay when we arrived, changed to too brief a visit as we prepared to leave. Since coming home, I still try to live in the present, to chew slowly and enjoy my food, to be mindful of things I do. I know that I physically feel better and much more relaxed. I have taken a few meditation walks and always enjoy restful meditation, my favorite kind. I stop when I hear a bell and remember to breathe. I try to be mindful of others and not too quick to judge. I am beginning to understand the philosophy of community and support and I will try to teach it and practice it with others.

This retreat will not be my last.

Jim Dudley lives in San Francisco and is a Captain with the San Francisco Police Department.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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