‘Where can I nap?’ I ask on arrival. I’ve been awake since 4am, and the light is now dimming. Karme Choling, like a warm grandmother, embraces us weary travellers, but I can’t hug her back until I’ve rested my eyes. I want to know what’s behind every door, but not yet.
‘Well, you’re staying in the Shrine Room Jessica, so it’s a little difficult. You’re welcome to bring your sleeping bag onto this couch if you like?’
So that’s how I meet everyone, like an exhausted huddle of fabric, drifting in and out of consciousness in the middle of a registration session. I relax my neck and shoulders and drift away to the sound of bustling people in the distance.
Sometime later Paul taps me on the shoulder and hands me three bananas and two oranges to stash away in my locker. ‘Do you want to go and look at the stars?’ He asks. I put my phone down, almost for the last time. A bunch of us belt our coats and wander out into the yard. The air breathes Chogyam Trungpa’s breath. The milky way streaks across the night like pale fluff. It’s cold up here. No hat. Endless universe. ‘When I look at the stars I’m reminded of the order of everything,’ Paul says. We gawp. They make us infinitesimal.
When my nose is too cold I go and make a bed in the Shrine Room behind the tech desk, on two of what the staff call ‘foamies.’ Rectangles of itchy foam. It takes me three more nights before I remember to ask for a sheet from housekeeping. There’s too much electricity near my head, but at least tucked behind the desk I have a slither of privacy.
I don’t set an alarm, aware that seven other women are sharing the space and will no doubt wake me with theirs, but when 6 am comes around everyone tiptoes by so considerately that I stay sleeping, until the tech man comes in and switches on one hundred bright lights in my face. I feel acutely embarrassed to be the last one asleep. I also took my clothes off in the night. But I have very little time to worry if I was exposed and/or dribbling.
I try to eat breakfast alone, but it doesn’t work. I’m swept up into conversations and smiles. I meet a girl from Pittsburgh who lives here. She has a really pretty voice. ‘The hardest part is having to say goodbye to everyone who comes through this place,’ she says. I can imagine; I carry so many people within me too, only I’m the one who’s always leaving, and it breaks my heart.
In the afternoon we learn how to eat like Japanese monks. ‘Oryoki means just enough in Japanese,’ our teacher tells us. ‘Today we’re going to learn to open, clean, and close an Oryoki set.’ I look down at my set. It consists of four immaculately-ironed rectangular blue cloths, three small black bowls that tesselate perfectly inside one another, a wooden spoon, a spatula, and a set of chopsticks. Our teacher continues, ‘Eating in everyday life has become mindless. We order a pizza and scoff it in front of our iPhone. But food is so fundamental to life. Food keeps us alive. So here we won’t be taking it for granted. This is an exploration into how we can bring mindfulness into ordinary moments.’
Three and a half hours later. Bored, frustrated, amused, defeated. There are one thousand rules and I will be facing them three times a day from here on. I now know how to hold a spatula, how to pick up each bowl with thumbs only. How to wrap fabric in a certain way and secure in place with a rubber band. How to tie knots, fold corners, clean wood with teeth and tongue.
After meditation we arrange our gomdens into circles of six, and trial run an Oryoki meal. ‘Not too tight, not to loose. With a sense of humour!’ A seriousness descends. Gloominess follows. Not only do I meditate in this room all day and sleep in it by night, I now have to eat silent meals in here too. The container already felt claustrophobic. By the end of dinner I’m in tears. I’m unable to eat fast enough, I feel the whole room waiting for me to finish, and then I have to clean my bowls with warm, dirty water and drink it.
‘Surrender,’ suggests my neighbour.
Between sign-painting, singing, and staying Shambhalian in the 21st century, Jessica Eve Watkins travels the globe as a writer and artist. She is the co-creator of www.animarising.net, a space dedicated to consciousness-raising art.