My meditation teacher has a big Japanese bowl or bell that is used at every retreat. It’s a wonderful bell, with a magical, clear, rich tone. Once, a friend and I timed the length of the ring to 3x that of other bells. Since it was the main sound at all my early retreats where I first cultivated deeper states and clear techniques — in a Pavlovian way, just the sound of it could help me drop deeply at the beginning of a meditation. His bell is, in a way, my best mindfulness bell …. or was.
My mother gave each of her children a Keurig coffeemaker for Christmas – but she wasn’t sure about me since I’m a bit of a health nut and so she gave me a carton of green tea pods for it. I appreciated the gift although I wasn’t sure I’d be using it to make tea from pods when I could simply boil water and use all the special teas I had, but I was touched that she made the extra effort to get me some green tea (which I had actually just recently decided I needed to drink more of.) And I do drink coffee on occassion (when I want that kick) so I thought it might be fun to try out. I did not get a chance to take the coffeemaker out of the box, however, before I had to leave for my annual year-end silent meditation retreat.
I’d been coming to that retreat (for the last week of the old year and first week of the new year) for …. hmmmm, for 15 years. (And yes, this is where I get to hear that bell at the beginning and end of every sit.) This is the one retreat for me, where I hunker down and do deep work that helps me get through the rest of the year more skillfully. (I attend other retreats in the year, but at those I will not be adhering to strict silence since I will be answering questions, maybe teaching, discussing things with my teacher and others as I focus more on supporting than meditating.) So I always look forward to this silent retreat for me — and I always seem to need it.
I always arrive sleep-deprived, and so it was about 3 days into the retreat before I started getting up early for that luscious 6-7am sit that happens after the half hour of chanting from 5:30-6:30am. The room is full and vibrates and there are several of us who like to skip the chanting and slip into that thick vibratory silence. That sit can set up your day the same way this retreat sets up my year.
But, not being a morning person, I do then want coffee, or some form of caffeine, so that I will be alert to take advantage of the deep stillness vs. just going back to sleep. And that’s when I joined the line at the coffeemaker which is a Keurig machine much like mine. (We always have this Keurig machine at our retreats because the founder of Green Mountain coffee is a great supporter of my teacher, Shinzen Young, and donated this coffeemaker and lots of coffee to the delight of the meditators.)
There could sometimes be up to 8 people waiting in line during the 5 minute breaks between meditations (and clearly more would join but were discouraged by the odds of a successful outcome.) On at least 3-4 occasions, I’d end up getting to the coffeemaker just as the sit was starting and had to abandon any notion of caffeine-aid to my awareness – and I knew that many others were having that same experience.
I kept thinking of the coffeemaker sitting at home that could be of great use here – and on an impulse I got into my car, left the retreat and drove home to retrieve my Christmas gift. I returned and put it on the table next to the other coffeemaker and suddenly there were rarely any lines. I noticed people smiling as they made coffee side-by-side to that unique gurgling sound of the coffeemakers. All coffee-related activities now seemed to happen so fluidly and easily – all in silence, of course, but there were smiles. I was glad to have donated it.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever HEARD a Keurig coffeemaker and it’s one of those unusual sounds that you think someone would mention because it’s quite a unique event. It starts with a comical buzzy kind of moan, then the gurgle of pouring hot liquid, and when it’s over, there’s a loud squish-sound — like it’s loudly clearing its throat — followed by another shorter moan and buzz … and then silence. It’s done. You’ve got coffee.
The only place I’d ever heard this machine was at our meditation retreats. This sequence of sounds was not only a constant musical accompaniment to breaks between sits, but during sits you could hear it playing it’s melody as those not in the meditation hall were getting their coffee, tea, cocoa and hot cider. I thought of it as another bird call (much more friendly and comfortable than the cat-wailing call of the peacocks who roamed the retreat grounds.) There was an R2D2 cuteness to this sound. And you alway knew the tune.
I had accepted the sound of this machine at the beginning of meditations – and sometimes calling me out of a deep meditation – but having TWO Keurig machines going … just made me giggle. It’s like a little brother came in who could make the same sounds, but sometimes opted to echo and sometimes followed his own cue. Sometimes these guys would be in almost perfect harmony, but more often than not, it was like rounding verses of Row, Row, Row your Boat – one of them was always continuing – especially during that 5 minutes between meditations.
And for the next 8 days, as we all tuned in with clarity and concentration while developing some extraordinary equanimity with all the stuff that arises (especially given the growing sensitivity that happens on retreat), the sound of the Keurig coffeemakers was an integral part of the musical accompaniment to our mindfulness practice.
A loud higher-pitched bell calling us to meditate, Shinzen’s magical bowl beginning sits, peacocks wailing, and coffeemakers playing their tune – each filled the air and each had its purpose and connotation.
For me, the Keurig sounds also meant that someone was choosing to be alert and present for their meditation instead of dozing or what we call “sinking mind”. So it was a gentle call to awakeness that had become familiar and friendly – and when both were going, I couldn’t help but smile – also enjoying how my new present was being of service.
That retreat ended weeks ago, but after I got back, I put the Keurig on the kitchen counter and just looked at it for a couple of days. Then I got out one of those green tea pods and made some green tea (which was actually quite good and I must say that I enjoyed just pressing a button to make it happen. It made me feel rather taken care of.) But it was the gurgle/moan/swish that I realized was especially filling me with delight.
Every time I hear that machine work, I’m back at the retreat and I instantly slow down and tune into what I’m doing with a luscious acceptance – whether it’s just walking or cleaning or writing something down. I’m instantly reminded to be present with the same mindful awareness that I have on retreat.
The sound just brings up not only the reminder to do that, but a warm loving emotional quality – as if I’m feeling the supportive environment of the retreat. A wave of gratitude always fills me when it’s done – gratitude for the retreat, for the reminder to be more present in this moment, for my mother’s generosity, and yes, for the tea.
So my desire to offer my coffeemaker to serve others at the retreat, has resulted in my being gifted with an auditory experience that stimulates so much good stuff! It’s a Mindfulness Bell Extraordinaire. My gift to others has unintentionally created a most beautiful gift for me that has contributed to the warmth and strength of my daily life.
Ah, imagine if the sound of every coffeemaker worked like a mindfulness bell. May we all find the sounds, sights, touches and thoughts that help us to keep coming back to the present moment with a delighted fascination and/or commitment to accept our experience with gratitude and joy. For now, I have my Keurig Mindfulness Bell.