Mealy Redpolls & on Being Content
One of the nice things about working here at Chithurst is that I get to do part of the winter retreat with the monastic Sangha. That includes some time alone in one of the forest meditation kutis. It helps that it is winter, when there is not too much wildlife to distract me. But, of course, I still notice what wildlife there is, both around the kuti and on my way in to the monastery to collect my meal. I particularly enjoy that daily walk through the forest with the birds calling as they flit about the trees and the bright green shoots of the woodland flowers appearing amidst the carpet of old leaves on the forest floor. The first year I used a kuti it was a revelation how much more I noticed on a retreat, when my mind was quiet. I would come floating in each day, happy as anything, full of the beauty of the forest. I remember being really happy that I was to be working at Chithurst and that as I would not be responsible for the Hammer Wood I could just enjoy it.
I gave up on the mealy redpolls and returned to being content with what was actually there.
|Mealy redpolls, it turned out, were a subspecies of redpoll that we see occasionally in this country. Most people would just call them a redpoll but not a keen birdwatcher like Mike. They occur in northern Europe and come to Britain in cold winters and are usually seen in flocks with ordinary redpolls and siskins, feeding on alder or birch seed. Well, of course, Mike's news completely changed my walks into the monastery. From then on I was looking for mealy redpolls. I wasn't interested in the common birds any more. I wanted to see a mealy redpoll. But although I looked everywhere for the flock I couldn't find them. The searching completely ruined the walks in. I didn't enjoy them any more I was so taken up with wanting the mealy redpolls. Eventually, after five or six days I realised that this was stupid. It was even upsetting my meditation. So I gave up on the mealy redpolls and returned to being content with what was actually there. I went back to enjoying the antics of the common birds: the sudden flash of movement and colour as a chaffinch landed on a branch above me; the hammering of a nuthatch as it hung upside down on a tree trunk seeking grubs from under the bark. My meditation improved again too, and, as the retreat went on, I became peaceful.|
Then one day near the end of my time in the forest, I was sitting in the kuti with the door open, feeling particularly at one with the world, when something made me open my eyes. There, just a few yards in front of me, were two mealy redpolls feeding on the birch seed covering the ground. I didn't need my binoculars. Even without them I could admire the little patch of red on the head of the male, and appreciate the lighter colour and the particular whiteness of the wing bars that made them mealy redpolls. And, because I was not seeking them, I could sit there and really enjoy them just as they were, for as long as they were there. It was a great lesson in the benefits of being content with how things are.
I actually try to practise being content now. This meditation business seems, these days, more like a process that is happening to me, rather than something I am doing. So I reckon, the more I can relax and be with how things actually are, the better. Even if that is a sense of dis-ease. I find that if I can manage to be content with a restless and untogether mind, then I can also be at ease with the mind when it becomes still. Before,
|I tended to rush right past the more together experiences of meditation, being not quite content with them either. Now, maybe this is just the attitude I particularly need to adopt, because I am such a one for getting things done. But, I do notice how contentment is a quality in people I particularly admire for their wisdom. Like Ajahn Sumedho. When I've been walking with him I have noticed how wherever you put Luang Por, he seems to be content, whether it is a grassy knoll beside the footpath, a town square or an airport waiting lounge.|
Last year my practice of being content had a good effect on someone else, which seemed to indicate that I must be doing something right. It was the winter retreat again and one of the junior nuns was having a self - retreat in one of the kutis. Although she was keen to make the most of it, the first week of her two weeks had gone poorly. Her mind just would not settle, no matter how hard she tried. Then one day she saw me on my way back to my kuti. I dare say I was taking in the beauty of the lake as I passed, or something like that. Anyway, she thought, I bet Nick doesn't have my problem on retreat. And then she pondered why that might be, deciding that it was because I let myself enjoy my time in the forest. She later told me that, because of this, she tried relaxing for her second week, tried to enjoy her time more, didn't work so hard at it, and that things went much better for her.
|So practising being content can do others some good too, as well as leading to peace for oneself. However, please donít get me wrong. It is not that I am suggesting we should be giving up trying to do something, one still needs to put in effort, itís just that the perspective of also being content with how things actually are helps one to have the wisdom to apply effort skilfully, to know when not to apply effort, and to make the right decision at the time it is needed. It is the balance between the two which leads to peace.|
Mike was right about the mealy redpolls, by the way. In cold winters there is a large flock of redpolls mixed with siskins here, and it does seem to include mealy redpolls. Usually the flock is chattering away in the alders along the valley above Hammer Pond, but sometimes they are amongst the birches in the forest or the monastery grounds. In fact, they can be seen all the way along the route that I was walking into the monastery that year. But I only get a brief sight of what might be a mealy redpoll, never the kind of view I had during that retreat. This winter I have seen none, as it has been particularly mild, only a small party of siskins on the alder trees hanging over Hammer Pond. Still, I've learnt my lesson from the mealy redpolls and I've been content with what I have seen on the way in for the meal each day.
I still keep to the one route when walking in, though. If I go anywhere else I start to think about the management of the forest, because, of course, now Mike has retired I am responsible to the forest committee for much of the work done in the forest. And a lot has been done over the last year. The rhododendrons which once threatened to take over the forest have finally been completely cleared, and to my surprise, as well as to those in the community here who were reluctant to see them all go, the bit of forest that has been revealed is quite beautiful without them. There is only the mopping up of seedlings and any regrowing stumps left to do. We have also used contractors to open up two parts of the forest to make small areas of heathland, a project which was close to Mikeís heart as it was he who first realised that most of Hammer Wood would once have been heathland. This year we will be trying to get heather to regenerate in them. And there is good news again on Hammer Pond. At the end of this winter retreat we received a further offer of ten year's grant from the Ministery of Agriculture's Countryside Stewardship scheme. They are already paying for the heathland areas to be made and the new grant is to help us with the conservation work we are doing in the rest of Hammer Wood. It includes half the very expensive cost of dredging the pond. The dredging has now been scheduled for the summer of the year 2000. In the meantime the committee will try to raise the rest of the cost through other grants.
Despite all the changes, I still try to focus on being content with Hammer Wood just as it is. To appreciate the bluebells which are up now, and the secretive mandarin ducks which live in the swamp above the lake. You really have to be awake to notice them quietly drop into the wood of an evening. This year on my retreat the thing I appreciated most was the song of the robin. There was one using a perch at the far end of my walking path. The robin's song, which is a short random assortment of trills, burbles and simple notes, and which is different every time, makes a lovely meditation object. You never quite know when each call is going to come, how it will be this time, and when it will end. So your mind cannot anticipate it. The robin has a slight reflective air as it sings and the song has an evocative haunting quality which fits the dawn or dusk, when the robin most likes to sing. And, if you just stay with each bit of the song as it trails off into silence, it will leave you there, each time, in the present ever-changing moment.