“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
Carl Gustav Jung
Last year, at the beginning of 2014, I decided it was time to search out–or simply notice–people doing cool things in the world and write their stories. “Cool” is relative, of course. What’s “cool” to one person is “absurd” or “crazy”–or maybe even a pure waste of time to another. I’m pretty sure some of you will find the story of Kathleen Benz puzzling while others of you will be inspiring and wonder “What would that be like? To spend three years cloistered, without any responsibility other than to develop insight and compassion?”
Last year I also began writing articles for a local newsletter once in a while–highlighting people and activities of a local Buddhist organization. So, it only makes sense to merge these two “platforms” once in a while. Since I’m rather new to hanging out with the Tibetan Buddhists at KCC in Portland–and some of these folk have known each other for decades–writing stories has given me a chance to ask questions and get to know people in a way I wouldn’t otherwise.
Kathleen Benz, until recently, was president of the board, and she’s been around KCC since 1993.
“I was in a full-out mid-life crisis,” she says. “I needed tools. . . I like Buddhism because it doesn’t tell you what to believe but gives you tools.”
KCC, as an organization, decided almost 20 years ago to build a retreat center in eastern Washington, near Goldendale. Kathleen was on the board when they first went out to see the 240 acre site in 2000.
“I knew then that someday I wanted to live out there,” she says.
After much longer than anyone expected it would take to build the retreat center, Kathleen and 11 others will enter into cloistered life in early April–the first Three Year Retreat at SCOL (Ser Chö Ösel Ling—“Land of the Clear Light Golden Dharma) .
Why? You might ask.
Why would anyone choose to rise at 3 am every morning, meditate for 12 hours a day–and then rise again to do the same for more than 1200 days?
For Kathleen–who turns 70 in March–there are three main reasons.
- She is curious.
“Over the years I’ve heard more than one person say, after completing a Three Year Retreat–independent of each other–that after a year they felt they couldn’t go on. But after three years they felt they could go on forever.”
“What could happen given that long time-frame?” she wonders.
- She wonders how life will be when no one is depending on her.
“What would I be if no one depends on me? Who am I?” As the oldest of three in a military family who traveled around the world, she learned to take care of people at a young age. She learned to make things work, keep people and systems going–and people look to her as someone who gets the job done. She realizes she has created this way of being in the world.
- 10,000 Hours to hone a skill
She relates to Alan Wallace who spent years with the Dalai Lama and is an important Western Tibetan Buddhist scholar and teacher. He says it takes 10,000 hours to hone a skill–music, medicine, athletics–to become exceptional at something.
“Compassion and insight are skills that can be cultivated in much the same way,” she says. The retreat is an opportunity.
Yet, not everyone sees it that way.
“Why would you leave me?” some of her friends ask–though Kathleen consciously began to prepare for this stepping away from lay-life years ago. More important than giving away books and pottery or selling her home of 30 years has been spending quality time with people she loves.
The interesting thing is that in many ways, these preparations have led Kathleen to spend more time with the people she loves than she would have otherwise.
For five years she visited her parents in Texas for a week each month. Her mom–who had been one of Kathleen’s biggest supporters–had Parkinson’s. Because Kathleen was self-employed, and her children grown, she could make her own schedule–unlike her siblings who lived in the same town as their parents.
“It was a precious time,” she says.
Kathleen’s mother passed on three years ago. Her 91 year old father is still driving and well and lives in a senior community in Texas.
Over this past spring, she was able to spend a week with her sister who was recovering from a mastectomy. This time gave them the chance to visit in a way they hadn’t in years.
Her three sons say, “If it’s what you want, go for it.” And as I write, she is trying to spend time with them, with her grandchildren, and also with friends.
She tries to assure them all of her care and her own long-time aspiration to spend these years in contemplation and growth.
“There is a tradition in my family to do further education late in life: The Three Year Retreat will be mine.”
It is fascinating to meet people who share their story as they find their way.
Whether it’s Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism or Judaism, human beings all over the world are trying–through these religions and belief systems or as atheists or agnostics–to live as best they can.
Whether it’s going away for three years on an intensive retreat or going for 20 years to live as missionaries in Botswana, the people choosing to do either believe their efforts worthwhile. They are making sacrifices not only for their own betterment but because they hope to give something of themselves in the world.
Thank you, Kathleen–and all of KCC–for sharing your stories. It makes my life more fulfilling simply to learn about your efforts, your ways of making sense, your steps along the path. I always learn something worth contemplating when I talk with someone about their life.