Visiting Birken (written 2010)
Why do I come here? The exquisite silence is a draw. Walking outside in the snowy drives and paths, the placing of each slow step fills all my hearing. No traffic hum. No roaring snow machine engines. When I pause, the tip tapping of dead leaves in the wind, clinging to dark-armed trees is all I hear.
What do I value most here? The silence. Absolutely. But the serenity and harmony too. No sharp words or tones. No tight knot of anxiety in my breast. No being “on”. Roles abandoned for a time. Moving task to task in the surreal sense of being no one, going nowhere. When I sit, I'm there. When I watch the birds, I'm there. When I wash dishes, I'm there. Dropping into bed early is fine. Just sleep. No sense of things left undone, of resentment over no time for me. Oddly, “me” retreats when it's given no agenda. No longer protective of the tidbits of private space or time it greedily grasps for in the busy world.
I love the shine and order of this place. The glossy floor of the sala, the tall windows, the gleaming white Buddha, the tiny, organized rooms and the cupboards for shoes at the door, the labels on the coldroom shelves.
All the rooms are simple and pleasant, but I have been assigned a lovely room this stay. First floor in a curving hallway down from a steward's room. The only first floor residents, we will share the large white bathroom between us. I have two long windows on one wall and sliding doors to a balcony, where a note on the glass politely requests the door not be used in the winter.
There is still light filling the room as I write and all the world of snow and sky and trees beyond. I fit the black jersey sheets I brought over the foam pad on the narrow bed and scrounge two comforters from the hall closet for warmth. The bright red and white one I put on top...its vibrancy pleases me in this room of white pine and white walls. My clothes are unpacked and piled neatly on shelves in the box closet, the white curtain drawn to hide them. The floor is painted wood with a tatami mat under the square desk-table I write at and a pretty white rug with pink and blue borders and flowers. A frame stretched with white canvas separates my half from an unused side where another similar bed and amenities await, but I am told that the rooms are deliberately kept to one occupant for the the Great Silence of January through March.
I was picked up at the airport by one steward, then we gathered a second who had been grocery shopping, before driving here. This second steward was a guest here when we met before; he arrived when I was leaving at the end of my last stay. He applied then for an open steward position and was pleased to be accepted. He tells me it took him only 3 weeks to close shop on his life in Vancouver, get rid of 95% of his possessions and settle in here. He is grateful and pleased with the transition, tentatively refreshing his driving skills to renew the license he let lapse more than five years ago. Driving is a necessary skill for the stewards who must commute to Kamloops for errands and appointments and often taxi guests and monks as well.
I reflect on this capacity and willingness to pare down. The things I love here. The life I have at home and the desire to bring more simplicity to that.
No one appears at teatime I choose a book from the library shelves and return to my room to read by flashlight. It is not dark enough yet to warrant room lights.
They are conscious here of being off the grid. Producing their own power by solar and supplementing with diesel/propane in the interim. Today, a new experiment means closing down the kitchen fridge and moving food to the cold room and/or the re-freezerator there.
I do not mind this elusiveness of others either. This is a “home”, warmer and more inviting than any hotel, and not empty.Yet silent and I have solitude. Quite perfect.
I have been watching my state of mind. I am not lonely or sad at ths point. Often I must transition on retreats, feeling guilt over abandoning my family, feeling fear and remorse over the time I am losing with my sons, time that is not available again. Yet, it is simply true that they are growing and leaving me.
At evening meditation, the pull of the room is physical with the soft light, the deep blackness beyond the windows. At the beginning of retreat because of my zeal, I work to remember patience with body and mind. “Come here now, sit and be calm, be quiet awhile.” The mind may be unruly for a time, suggesting amusing thought detours, and then suddenly it “agrees” to settle on the breath. This is a pattern I know. I come here for the time retreat allows to make this settling my only task. So that, at home again, in the world, this pathway is so well-worn, the tangle of busy-ness cannot obscure it.