Interview with Ann, a Bhavana Resident
Q: Tell us a little about yourself, your background, and interests.
A: I grew up in Arlington, Virginia. After obtaining my bachelor’s degree at West Virginia University, I worked in Washington D.C., editing newsletters for the U.S. Navy. It was a boring desk job, but included graphics and photography, which I enjoyed.
Then I started taking yoga and meditation classes, and found they complemented each other well. After each yoga class, I felt calm and centered yet energized. For me it was like a physical way of meditating.
My first meditation class was focused on “insight” or “vipassana” and it helped me recognize the value of being present and not just letting the mind wander all the time. It opened my mind to seeing things as they truly are, gaining wisdom, and finding meaning and purpose in my life.
While leading yoga and meditation classes for many years now, I have met wonderful, like-minded people who inspire me to stay on the path. I wouldn’t trade my career for all the riches in the world.
I’m also a part-time journalist, writing about mind-body wellness and social justice issues. Ten years ago, I self-published a book called Preserve Your Brain.
I lead yoga sessions during retreats here at Bhavana, and practice yoga and tai chi with other residents on non-retreat days. Mindful stretching and slow, gentle movements help us reduce tension and feel more at ease in seated meditation.
In one of his recent talks, Bhante G said yoga and tai chi are good mind-body practices, but meditation should be our highest priority, since the best self-care is having your mind well-trained. I agree. We all know how important exercise is for our bodies, and we need to see meditation as exercise for the mind. A healthy mind ensures a happy life, and I’m so glad to be here at Bhavana, with daily reminders of that. The word “Bhavana” means “mental development” or “cultivating the mind.”
Bhante G had some of us chuckling when he also noted that meditation has become “big business” for some teachers and institutions. Some are charging huge amounts for classes and retreats. But Buddha’s teachings are priceless, and when people know the value of what Bhavana provides, they’re happy to give generous donations. The center has grown and is thriving today, solely through voluntary contributions.
Q: What benefits have you gained through your meditation practice?
A: It helps me stay more in touch with my thinking processes and catch thoughts that are unwholesome when they start to arise. There are times when I still ride along with a thought train or a strong feeling, like regrets from the past or planning for the future. As some teachers call it, I’m “making stories in the head”. But I can catch myself more quickly and come back to the present moment—to just being, rather than thinking—when I’m consistent with my practice.
Q: How do you keep your mind focused on the present moment?
A: As Bhante G has said, “liberation is right under your nose.” I feel the air in my nostrils, and the rising and falling of my abdomen. I might take a few deep breaths to begin a session or bring myself back from mind-wandering—which happens to everyone, I think. Then I just follow the breathing sensations and notice the moments of calm stillness between breaths.
You can feel how, in your nostrils, the inhale is cooler than the exhale, and there’s a subtle touch of air as it enters and leaves the nostrils. Sometimes counting breaths or saying words to myself like “calm” on the inhale, and “peace” on the exhale, can be helpful.
Mindful breathing can be done during any activity, as well as in seated meditation. Buddhist teacher and author Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “when you’re washing the dishes, just be washing dishes, not thinking about what’s next.”
Bhante Rahula’s guided meditations help me stay focused. You can find him on U-tube and the Lion of Wisdom meditation center website. He says things like, “Breathing in, feeling the whole body. Breathing out, sitting here and now.” And “Breathing in, letting go of the past and future. Breathing out, sitting here and now.” Silently repeating words or phrases (mantras) can prevent the mind from wandering.
Q: Your first visit here was in 2009 and you’ve returned many times for retreats or as a resident. What keeps bringing you back?
A: It feels like a good community living situation for me, and I enjoy the way Bhante G teaches. He relates well with students, and often brings humor or real-life stories into his talks. I’m amazed that he’s still teaching and having long talks with visitors, at age 96!
I also appreciate our Co-Abbot, Bhante Saddhajeewa, for his strong, steady leadership. He stays calm even when things get a little chaotic here, like at holiday events or when 45 people are arriving for a retreat.
Visitors flow in and out of Bhavana all the time; some stay longer than others. It seems that most people I meet here are traveling the same path I’m on, and we support each other on this Dhamma journey.
Q: What are some ways that you bring the retreat experience back home?
A: When I return home, I’m more mindful during daily activities and have renewed energy for sharing Buddha’s teachings and mindfulness skills with others. I co-lead a weekly Sangha and always include some meditation in my yoga/ tai chi classes for seniors.
Q: For someone who’s never been a resident at Bhavana, how would you describe the experience?
A: You’re expected to work at least a few hours a day, doing things like cooking, cleaning, gardening, and other chores. Residents help new visitors find their way around and learn the procedures here.
Lay people focus on serving the monastics’ needs in this forest tradition, which started over 2500 years ago. Monastics depend on the lay community to cook and do other things for them, like shopping, and community members benefit greatly from their wisdom and teachings.
I feel privileged to be part of the Bhavana community.