On the first night of my seven-year-old daughter Alexandra's first Buddhist retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh smiled and looked into her eyes as few adults ever look at children. Although he sat very still on a stage, the Vietnamese teacher seemed to bow to her inwardly, offering her his full presence and inviting her to be who she really is.
Alexandra threw her jacket over her head.
"Children look like flowers," said the man who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967. Surrounded by scores of monks and nuns who had traveled with him from Plum village, the French monastic community that has been his home since his peace activism caused his exile from Vietnam, he lifted his eyes from the little flower who was huddled, hiding her face, in the front row. Before him sat 1,200 people who had gathered in a vast white tent on a wooded campus of the Omega Institute for Holistic studies in upstate New York. Thay, as he is affectionately known, had convened us for a five-day retreat dedicated to cultivating mindfulness through practices such as meditation, walking, and sharing silent meals.
As he talked about the freshness and sensitivity of children, I couldn't help but be struck by the way Alexandra was ducking for cover. He extolled freshness as one of the qualities that each of us possesses in our essence. Alexandra, shrouded in nylon, was reminding me that true freshness isn't limited to those moments when we feel playfully open. It often means feeling raw and vulnerable. I wondered if it had been a mistake to bring her here.
During the retreat, children and adults came together during different parts of the day. In addition to sharing meals and a daily mindfulness walk, the children clustered at the front of the stage for the first 20 minutes of Thay's dharma talks, which he carefully framed in simple, poetic images that children could remember. I brought Alexandra, hoping that contact with Buddhist practice would stimulate her imagination and awaken her own wisdom. I though she could be inspired by the various techniques Thay describes, such as listening to the sound of a bell that can call us back to "our true home." "My true home is Brooklyn," Alexandra whispered. She had peeled off her covering and lay stretched out on the floor with her head in my lap, jittering her foot to convey how bored and impatient she was. On the first night, most of the other children nearby were sitting cross-legged, quietly, and listening with what seemed to me preternatural attention. Alexandra was muttering to herself and writhing on the floor like a big, unhappy baby.
As we made our way back to our little cabin, the power went out all over the Omega campus. We stopped on the path, unsure which way to turn. I had left the flashlights behind. Alexandra took charge.
"Let's go to the visitors' office," she said, leading the way. A kindly man on the Omega staff gave Alexandra a candle and walked us to our cabin.
"You knew just what to do," I said as I tucked Alexandra into bed." That was good thinking."
"I hated to think of you wandering around in the dark," she said, beaming in the candlelight.
The following day in the dining hall, I discovered how deeply traveling with your own pint-sized Zen master makes you feel aware of yourself, and how apart. The majority of the people were moving about with a kind of underwater grace, practicing silence. We parents struggled with the task of filling trays and settling children while trying to remember to stop and breathe consciously when the mindfulness bell sounded.
Alexandra and I sat at a table in the dining hall facing a table decorated with pumpkins. "Mommy!"
I whispered to her that we supposed to try eating silently together.
"This is not my experiment," Alexandra reminded me. "I don't want to do it, because I have a question."
"What's your question, Alexandra?"
"Is a pumpkin a fruit or a vegetable?"
"Why are you being so mean? Aren't you supposed to be happy?"
One day, those of us who were with the children watched Thich Nhat Hanh walking towards us from the dharma tent, leading his multitude: 1,200 tall Americans dressed in bright Polartec colors following a small figure in brown. No sooner had Alexandra and several other children joined to walk up front with Thay than she split off to scamper to the top of a leaf-carpeted hill. "I'm going to roll down this hill!" she shouted to another girl. "Come on!"
I dropped my head and trudged along. Suddenly, I noticed Thich Nhat Hanh. His face looked calm and fresh, while mine ached like a clenched fist. Alex had raced ahead to the water's edge, where she stood waving and smiling at me. I felt a pang of love for her and experienced how the voice of my heart was being drowned out by a welter of negative thoughts that seemed to come from somewhere in my brain that felt like a robot, mechanically repeating bits of old programming. I was haranguing myself that really good mothers didn't get swamped by nasty reactions. Good mothers, my mind chided, were capable of unconditional love.
The bell calling for mindfulness sounded. I knelt down in the warm sand. The bell rang again, and a third time. I raised my eyes to see an old man's hand gently stroking a familiar head. Thich Nhat Hanh and my daughter were sitting side by side. Thay had been inspired to pick Alexandra, the loudest kid there that particular day, to sound the bell that called everyone else to silence.
Back in Brooklyn, as Alexandra and I slipped back into our daily routines, I wondered what effect, if any, a week of mindfulness training might have. Then, one night many months later, I was fuming about some frustration.
"Breathe, Mommy, " said Alexandra. "Just relax and breathe and return to your true home."