(Photo: A snow-covered stone wall in the Norris Reservation)

A friend of mine recently returned from a two month silent meditation retreat at a monastery in Myanmar (Burma). He was there from November to January. Even though he was only one country away from it, he didn’t find out about the tsunami until after the retreat had ended — a full month after the devastating earthquake had struck.

Can you imagine what that’s like? Your retreat ends, and you board a bus back to “the world.” You begin your first conversation in two months, and discover that while you were gone, something cataclysmic happened, only a few hundred miles away. It’s enough to drive you back to another two months of renunciation.

Like many in our community, my husband and I sent a donation to support tsunami relief efforts in Southeast Asia. I’m embarrassed to admit that once I’d mailed the check, I put the tsunami victims out of my mind. “I’ve done my part,” I thought.

And indeed, I’d helped out in the only practical way I could – sending money that I otherwise would have spent on takeout suppers and fancy hot chocolates.

But the tsunami did not stay out of my mind for long. In January, I vacationed in Mexico, on a tiny island that’s become my family’s home away from home. Lying on the beach, it was easy to imagine how a tidal wave could wipe out the entire community.

When I got home, I spoke with a business owner in Brant Rock whose buildings sustained major damage during the blizzard. She waved off my sympathies, saying it was nothing to what had happened on the other side of the world.

Each evening I’d sit in my comfortable overstuffed chair, belly full of dinner, watching the news in my warm, dry house. Night after night there were scenes from Sri Lanka and Thailand. A world turned upside down.

The tsunami didn’t affect my life directly, but it got me to thinking. Here in the United States, most of us are so fortunate. Compared to many other cultures, our lives are luxurious. Yet as a society, we don’t seem content.

It’s human nature to want to improve oneself – one’s health, standard of living, or relationships. But often we get caught up in making improvements – to the extent that we end up always wanting more. More money, better weather, a flatter tummy, or nicer clothes. More time with family, more time with friends, more time to get work done, more time to relax. In most cases, there is always something “more” to aspire to. I suspect that most of us could get by with much less.

After he returned from Burma, my friend met me for a walk at the Norris Reservation in Norwell. I didn’t know what to expect. I imagined that life at the monastery was austere – with 15 hours of meditation per day and only two meals. Would he be emaciated? Blissed out? Grateful to be home? Eager to go back? He was healthy – and rather ambivalent about being back.

We talked about what it’s like to come back to “the world” after being on retreat. After you’ve withdrawn from your usual routine and become accustomed to relative stillness, returning to “normal” can be overwhelming. You don’t realize how full your life is until you’re away from it for a while. When you do come back, what was normal now feels indulgent. You see how easily you could get by with less.

Compared with people all over the world, most of us here in the U.S are extremely privileged. We don’t have to get by with less. But perhaps we could benefit from contemplating how fortunate we are.

It’s important to keep it in perspective. My goal this year is to appreciate what I have, rather than wish for more. Things can always get better. By the same token, things can always get worse. Perhaps the key to happiness is simply being grateful what we have right now.

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
February 2005

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.