I arrived at the retreat center on Wednesday, December 29th, and the first thing I did – after showing my negative PCR test, taking and receiving a negative result from a rapid test, and bidding a tearful goodbye to Shawn – really surprised me.
I always swore I would never be a bell ringer. ‘Too much responsibility,’ I always said.
And then, after I got my room key and visited the bulletin board to sign up for service jobs, without hesitation I picked up a pen and wrote my name in one of the 13 daily slots, choosing 3:45 pm.
Hey, what the hell, I thought. I’m here to pay attention – might as well get curious about my resistance to being a bell ringer.
And after the bell ringing training that evening at 6 pm with a dozen others whose names now filled the remaining slots, I thought, What was that resistance all about?
Turns out that being a bell ringer is AWESOME!
First of all, you get to walk around the entire campus once a day, up and down several flights of stairs. And you get to carry this badass heavy brass bell around. And at a dozen different spots, you get to ring the bell! Making music – I was born for this.
And the sound of the thing. The B flat fundamental, with a super high D harmonic. So full and warm and clear with just the right amount of sparkle. Just stunning.
The tour takes about 10 minutes to complete. And when I was done each day, I would carefully hang the bell, listen to the last ringing fade, then walk to the meditation hall for the 3:45 sitting.
As the retreat went on, I noticed that I really looked forward to 3:30 – ending my walking meditation practice, taking a seat on the square stool, noticing teachers and staff and other retreatants coming and going, watching the clock on the opposite wall as 3:35 approached. I would get a little nervous, excited.
And I noticed my tendency to organize this part of the day around this task – making sure I was in a walking meditation room at 3:00 that had a clock, making sure I was wearing my hat so I wouldn’t get chilly when I went outside in those two places to ring the bell – and my tendency also to stay wedded to time and the keeping of it.
And that is perhaps what I was resisting – wanting so much to relax around this, to not be so serious about and bound to time and punctuality.
So each day, I walked more slowly as I rang the bell. I savored each step, each ringing. I noticed the rhythms of my walking, and of the ringing, and of the bell swinging slightly in the grip of my left hand. I noticed the rhythms of others’ walking when they saw me approach with the bell. Sometimes they would speed up, sometimes they would slow down, sometimes they would stop altogether, or even step out of my way.
And I noticed my longing for the purpose of the bell ringing, and I got curious about that, too. Yes, I enjoyed the music-making aspect, and the chance to break through the silence – and I also loved that I was, in this small way each day, helping the whole community stay on task with this reminder. Each ringing of the bell was my way of saying out loud, Here we are. Let’s practice together. Let’s go get curious about what we’re each and all doing here, alone and together.
And each day we did.
And then I noticed something else start to happen as I sat down each day in the hall at 3:45 – my letting go of the concept of time. I could be a bell ringer, just for those few minutes a day when I was holding and ringing the bell, and then relax when I was no longer a bell ringer. I didn’t need to hold onto the identity, or to time. Others were holding those things now. I could sink into the fullness of my practice, knowing that the teacher leading the sit would sound the bowl when the sitting was over. And then, that someone else would pick up the bell at 5:00 to let us all know that it’s time for dinner. And so on.
On the final day of the retreat, on January 7th, I got to ring the bell one last time, at 9:15 am – the bell that summoned all of us back to the meditation hall for the last sitting together, one last instruction, one last chance to be in that particular place in which to notice everything about our relationship with time, with curiosity, with trust, with the concept of self.
And the bells are ringing still.