So, what’s it like to leave behind the everyday trappings of life?
I’ve been a bad girl in connecting to the Internet to blog, read Facebook and answer and send email. We have broken silence by whispering to one another. I have listened to music, using earbuds, on my laptop.
Technically, I should not be doing any of this. But I am not a practicing Buddhist, more here to support the devout faith of the sweetie. And, yes, I am sufficiently weak-willed that I cannot fill 6+ hours a day merely staring at the trees.
I attend the teachings, of which there are two or three a day, beginning with chanting and meditation, and which last 60 to 90 minutes. It can get very esoteric, with endless examination of concepts like mind, clarity, self…It’s both stimulating and a little exhausting.
The lama, who’s also a friend of ours, is funny, down to earth and everything he says makes perfect sense in the “real world” beyond the stone walls that enclose us.
It is odd to be surrounded by 64 strangers, from teenagers to seniors, with whom we’re (blessedly) forbidden to speak. It’s such a relief to not have to talk or listen or react or remember. To drop all pretense of being social or friendly. But we’ve also been admonished to be even quieter, as some of us have been whispering to one another while outside away from others, or in our rooms.
It’s also interesting to be surrounded by people with little or no way to assert status: their schools, graduate degrees, job titles, neighborhood, clothing, jewelry, handbags, cars, shoes. What we see is what we get. What we see is all we know. What we “know” is only surface anyway, here and elsewhere.
We watch one another and wonder what their story is, with students here from Europe, Canada, South America: the beefy, the lame, the bald, the long-haired, the lithe.
It’s an elegant, self-imposed house arrest, our only allowed territory the halls, rooms and grounds. The highway is just at at the end of the driveway and our car sits right there, for once — yay! — undriven.
(I know others are breaking the rules by actually going off-campus, using cellphones, etc. I’m not the only one succumbing to temptation [she said defensively].)
So, here, we look inwards or outwards, sky-gazing.
Remove the usual distractions of kids and pets and work and commuting and movies and shopping and ATM withdrawals and buying gas and groceries and paying bills or playing Angry Birds — and you suddenly find time to read, think, paint, draw, take photos, sleep and — of course, pray, listen to teachings and meditate.
It will be a challenge for all of us to re-create that sacred quiet space within the craziness of “normal” life. It’s also quite moving to share space and time with others on, for this week anyway, the same path of questioning and learning. Five students have left along the way. Without ever having exchanged a word, you notice their their silent absence immediately.
On Thursday, a new influx appeared, a spiritual shift change.
The physical space enclosing us all is lovely, a four-story former Catholic monastery now open to other faiths, and a frequent site for Buddhist retreats. It faces — what else? — West Point across a narrow stretch of the Hudson River.
You have to love the irony of prayers and chanting and meditation literally facing the academy training soldiers to kill and be killed. The hiking trail through the woods includes (!) Benedict Arnold’s escape route.
We eat vegetarian food, four choices at every meal, at long communal tables, sitting on wooden chairs. Everything is spotless, polished, cared for. There are vases of fresh flowers and bamboo from the gardens, so there is, everywhere, something beautiful to look at, touch or smell.
The garden has a huge lavender bed filled with bees, a wild garden with green peppers and sunflowers and gerbera. A huge bamboo grove looms over a bench where you can sit and read in the shade. I enjoyed an hour there watching a bad bunny eating anything he could find.
Such a calm and quiet place to escape the relentless chest-beating of ego assertion!
I’ll miss this as I plunge back into the elbow-in-the-eye world of professional journalism in New York.
But boy am I ready for a tuna melt with fries and a cold beer! (Or a steak and a martini.)