“The way to the star
can often be
to pick up a stone.”
Roger Housden, Risking Everything
For a bunch of years I would spend at least a week of my summer break away in silence. Usually to Cloud Mountain, in Castle Rock, Washington, I would attend one of the Buddhist retreats. Though I hadn’t identified as Zen, Tibetan, Theravadan or even Buddhist, I loved the deep quiet.
Besides the stillness and gentle guidance, scrumptious vegetarian meals were served, and it was a luxury to not worry about feeding myself or anyone else. I simply showed up to the table and filled my plate.
Those “vacations” from the whirl of the world nourished: Besides the food, I could witness the wildness of my very own mind making a big mess of things with no danger of doing further immediate damage. I didn’t need to figure out what to say to anyone.
Odd as it may seem, I’d return from my days away more refreshed than from most beach-vacations. Many times, some trouble I was feeling had worked itself out–or didn’t seem such a big deal. Some crazy relationship with a colleague, a neighbor or someone in my family didn’t seem quite so impossible. The luxury of quiet allowed me to observe how my own mind creates the chaos, drama, and constant travels back in time and hops into the future.
Those retreats gave me perspective–and helped me to understand how alike we humans are–even when we can look so unalike and cast contradictory ballets. Nothing is forever. Everything changes.
“One day,” I thought. “When I’m not busy grading papers, I will support others to get away in silence–to be on retreat.”
Last May I spent a week at SCOL, a newly built center in Goldendale, Washington–on a personal retreat. This time, no one guided my days, but three meals were served, and I walked in the woods, studied for hours, meditated, reflected and wrote.
At the end of the week I ate my breakfast of amaranth with a few staff members–as a way of “transitioning” back to a life of chatter.
“Do you ever need an extra hand around the kitchen?” I asked.
“In fact we do,” said the cook. “I want to do a ten-day retreat in October, and we need someone to help out then.”
The seed was planted that Sunday morning in May, and for two weeks in October, Ludger fed the cat while I learned new techniques for chopping onions and glimpsed life from the serving-side of a silent retreat: I grew a new appreciation for all the planning, prepping, dishes, pots and pans a cook must wash before serving a meal to 35.
“I always wondered why people on retreat had to do chores,” Chuck, the newly hired staff-members said one afternoon as he scrubbed a blackened pot. “Now I know.” Without everyone pitching in, the place would be a mess–or retreats would cost as much as a week at the Ritz Carlton or along the Riviera.
For me, those silent retreats had been respite: I had happily switched off my cell. I would arrange life ahead of time, and people knew how to reach me in an emergency. Now, as cook, I saw how some people couldn’t stay quiet: Perhaps from my own silence I hadn’t noticed them.
It’s common while on retreat to get aggravated by other people. Even without saying a word, people grow intimate. It’s habit how we study each other. It can be a powerful experience, but this time I was a cook and there to serve. My job wasn’t to judge, but there I was–still an ordinary human being with my own standards and world view!
I caught myself at the end of the weeks realizing how many hours people had spent cleaning the cabins, assigning rooms, making certain each of us would have an acceptable place to sleep. I’d forgotten that even the regular cook–who attended this retreat quite silently–had devoted hours to preparations before I arrived. By the time I showed up the refrigerator was stocked, the pantry, too, and the kitchen counters and floor were shining.
Cooking with Carissa, the chef in charge those weeks, was fun. I made the garlic mashed potatoes, bread pudding, and chopped a lot of parsnips, carrots, mint, parsley, potatoes and learned to make tofu “ricotta–quite scrumptious as the “cheese” of her vegan lasagna. We blended salad dressings and served three meals a day that pleased the crowd with Carissa’s menu and grace.
It was a fun way to learn in the kitchen and serve those 30-some people who took time out to be on retreat in Goldendale, Washington before SCOL will close to all but a few in March. That’s when a Three-Year Tibetan Retreat will begin–and I won’t be one of the few wearing maroon clothing every day, sleeping upright, and practicing deeply until the gates again open in 2018.
To learn about places in the Northwest where people can go on retreat or practice mediation, check out some links below. Most places are open to anyone. Costs vary, and the Northwest Vipassana Center does not allow a first-time participant of their 10-day retreat (I call it meditation boot camp) to pay a dime until the end. This place is great for anyone wanting to get a good training in how to meditate. They offer many retreats but are often booked for months in advance. Those who can pay more than “cost” often do so others don’t need to worry.
The Man Sings From His Silence
The man walks by in silence,
across the valley, soothing
smile along cloister paths,
light as he settles upon a zafu.
Each time I see him reach
for a tree branch, pass out
prayer cards before a meal,
spray clean the mats we stand upon
chopping onions, parsley, mint,
I notice his graying hair, ease of gait,
skin that gleans a warmth of wear
and wonder when he first chose
this rest from the whirl of the world:
How old, or who had died?
Who did he meet, or what had left
his life so that quiet
was all he wanted–transformation,
kindness, and does he walk often
without want for things to be other
than the way they are?
Dreams that were his world
have surely been washed away as he
dives through waves that once terrified
the ocean is ours.
No one is ever alone
though we forget: creatures
all over the world are dying,
crying out in their first breath,
climbing into each other’s body,
getting lost before
we feel found.
Deborah Brink Woehrmann
Links You Might Like:
Cloud Mountain Retreat Center