SUBDUING THE MIND, ACTUALIZING THE PATH
A funny thing happened during the five years my wife and I spent caretaking at Land of Calm Abiding, a long-term retreat center in California. Our ears grew larger and our mouths smaller. This was an essential part of our development as caretakers. This became clear after an embarrassing mistake.
During our time at Land of Calm Abiding, communication between the caretakers and retreaters was done primarily through letters. On day one letters, mail, and shopping lists were picked up. On day two groceries, incoming mail, and any other correspondence were delivered back to the retreater. Usually the correspondence to the retreater was straight to the point about center business (propane delivery, any issues with groceries, weed clearance dates, etc.) and maybe something about the weather. As we got to know and build relationships with retreaters (it is amazing how close we got with people through weekly note passing) sometimes the correspondence would become more playful, but mostly it was business.
There is a tremendous amount of responsibility we took on being the only people a retreater would interact with for months, and in some cases, years. Our words, be them written or oral, would replay over and over in their minds. Looping through the retreaters’ regurgitation of their life’s images – movies, songs, advertisements – was our last communication. And not just our words, but our energy transmitted through our facial expressions and the shapes of our eyes or through the speed with which our letters were written and the phrasing of a sentence. The impact of our words became especially clear on one particular delivery of groceries and correspondence. What we tried to do was be cute by telling a joke. Writing grocery lists and the weeks’ weather forecast can become incredibly boring for a caretaker, so why not liven up the letter a little? So we wrote the jokey note and delivered it.
A week later we picked up mail and shopping lists. We had long forgotten about what we had written; it was no more significant to us than anything else we had communicated. Unfortunately, what was communicated was apparently not understood as either cute or funny. We received a page of concern and worry from the note’s recipient who had been bothered for a week as we went about whistling while we worked and making merry. We felt awful. We reread our initial letter and looked for clues. Finally we could see how our words were only merely funny and could also be read as merely concerning.
The best caretaker has big ears and a small mouth. Caretakers are blessed to be the repositories of stories from retreaters. Stories of what went wrong and what seems to be working. Caretakers are not there to give advice or to tell their stories to the retreaters. They are there to listen. They are there to observe and absorb. Like a birthing partner, they are not there to direct or to do the dark, painful, exhausting work; they are there to bring support when it is asked for.
Ben Waite is the Center Manager at Land of Medicine Buddha. He and his wife, Marti, were caretakers at Land of Calm Abiding from 2001 to 2006. He is father to two children and says, “Nothing is more important in his life than becoming a father. Not meeting the Dharma or the lamas or taking this or that initiation or attending the most spectacular teachings. Not taking Refuge or vows. Nothing trains my mind and breaks open my heart like my kids, a persistent source for practicing love and patience with deep joy.”Tags: retreat