Written by Carolyn
I often wonder what it takes to be the kind of person who arrives early, the kind of person who never runs out of time. When I travelled to China in 2011 I packed the morning we left. This was very inconvenient, even for me. Two weeks before I’d put on a ten day art festival. My work load had been huge and even sorting our trans-Mongolian railway tickets and arranging visas had felt a major accomplishment in the midst of hanging an exhibition, hosting poetry readings and arranging watercolour workshops. Packing for China had taken a back seat and throwing things in bags was certainly a last minute affair.
This evening my daughter reminded and chided me about it on the way to her school play. “I want you,” she said, wagging an accusing finger, “to start packing 2 weeks before we leave this time.”
“That seems a bit excessive.”
“Just open a suitcase and add things every day. The morning we go all I’ll be putting into my bag is my toothbrush!”
“Please do the same Mum, remember what happened last time!”
The road leading to Li Chen’s school was lined with parked cars. I dropped her off 6 minutes before the play started. “It’s a good job the other mothers are not like you or there’d be a traffic jam and people running everywhere.” “My darling forgive me,” I said, suddenly changing my mind about seeing the play. “I realise I don’t have time to sit down for a couple of hours, I’d better go home and get ready.” “Good plan, I love you Mum,” she called over her shoulder as she ran towards the school.
I don’t mean to be disorganised and I’m not even sure that’s what the problem is, although I do admit I have a problem. I didn’t go home to pack for China tonight. We’re coming to China next month so I don’t have to start yet, but I will try to follow my daughter’s suggestion; I owe it to her after the last time.
Tonight, as usual, I packed for tomorrow. And as it turns out I’ve been so busy I haven’t even had time to go to bed. If there were 40 hours in a day I could fill them all.
In just two hours, when the sun rises at 3:30AM, I shall put a small bag into my car and drive to Gatwick Airport. I will fly to Bordeaux and take a train from there to a small station called St. Foy Le Grande where I will be met and taken to a Zen Buddhist Monastery called Plum Village. The monastery was founded by Thich Nhat Hahn; a Vietnamese monk who Martin Luther King himself revered when Thich was barely more than a boy. This enigmatic Zen monk was unknown to me until two friends made reference to him on the same day in two unrelated conversations. That night I looked him up on the Internet and, so impressed by what I learnt, immediately booked myself onto a weeklong Zen farming retreat.
I’ve never been on any kind of retreat before, zen or otherwise. I have little idea what to expect other than plenty of meditation and some work on the monastery farm. I shall take the opportunity of being in a contemplative environment to have a good long look at my problem with time.
Should I have found out more about Plum Village and what exactly I’m going to be doing over the next week before booking up? Perhaps the fact that I generally leave things to reveal themselves is a clue to the root of my problem. My natural inclination is just to allow situations to unfold. But, is it wiser to research thoroughly or leave matters a little to chance? To my mind a life lived within tight perimeters would take away half the pleasure. I’m not suggesting one dispenses with preparation entirely but is it so foolish to allow space for spontaneity and the spirit of adventure? Leaving ones packing until the very morning of a three year trip to China is taking spontaneity to a ridiculous limit, but you know what I mean.
It’s unlikely I’ll see Thich Nhan Hahn because he’s now very old and poorly and it’s said he doesn’t leave his hermitage these days. Nevertheless his influence in the monastery will be very strong and I shall learn a lot about his philosophy by the time I leave.
So, one full week to immerse myself in meditation, mindful digging on the monastery farm and contemplating the root of ‘my problem’. I don’t want to dispense with spontaneity but it would be very useful not to find myself so often immersed in one thing that I end up needing wings to be in time for the next.
It’s 3:20AM now and the cockerel has just started to crow. I’d better hurry, I’ve only got ten minutes to throw the last things in my bag and set off. Before I leave I shall open the gentle monk’s book at random and see what it offers me. The page falls open on a verse entitled The Pursuit of Happiness and begins thus:
“Allow yourself to be. When you practice walking meditation every step helps you arrive deeply in the present moment. You don’t need anything else to touch real happiness…..”
Now while I try to work out exactly what that means I think I should just grab my bag, run to my car and get going!