Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bells of Mindfulness

In Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hahn talks about literal and metaphorical "Bells of Mindfulness," and says
In my tradition, we use the temple bells to remind us to come back to the present moment. Every time we hear the bell, we stop talking, stop our thinking, and return to ourselves, breathing in and out, and smiling. Whatever we are doing, we pause for a moment and just enjoy our breathing. Sometimes we also recite this verse:
Listen, listen.
This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.
 He goes on to discuss the idea that just about anything can serve as a "bell of mindfulness," particularly here in America where church bells are less common. I was thinking of this last weekend when I was at my college choir's reunion, because one of the many distinctive features of our campus is the set of bells in the bell tower, which not only toll out the hours and the quarter-hour increments between them, but are also pealed by students for an hour each Friday after classes have ended.

While I was there, I used my iPod to record the bells on Sunday morning as they struck the 9 o'clock hour, and after I returned home, I edited the file so that it could toll any of the hours during the work day, as well as the quarter hours. Then I scheduled my computer to play those files at the appropriate time and--voila!--bells of mindfulness.

Of course, the campus on which I live and work actually has its own bell tower with an even more impressive set of bells. However, I never seem to hear them in my office. This way, I will hear bells. It's also nice that each sound clip starts with the gentle sound of the breeze and the chirping of birds and fades out into the same. Lovely, really.

But there's more to it than that, because the bells also take me out of the present moment, somewhat, and take me to the past and to another place, to Kenyon College. It's the place I spent four nostalgia-burnished years of my life, some of my favorite to recall. It's the place where I proposed to my wife four years ago (very close, in fact, to where I stood to record the bells) and where we married three years ago (pretty close to the same site). I've returned there over and over. Lauren and I both love the place so much that she was jealous of the fact that I got to return last weekend and she couldn't. We decided that we would take a vacation to just hang out there when we have a long weekend in the fall. That's how much we love it.

More than that, it's a place that helped form "my true self," my best self. I think of it all rather like the way that Wordsworth thinks of his spot of wild country written about in "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey":

                                These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: --feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened: --that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on --
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul;
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
 My bells from Kenyon are not exactly what the Buddhist monk had in mind, nor are they quite what Wordsworth was getting at, but hearing them is a way of bringing into the present moment peace and joy and perhaps a sort of recollection of my best self.


  1. Okay, I'm going to have to ask Frank to have bells installed at Columbine.

  2. Paula, one of the schools I worked at had some kind of mp3 "bells" that played through a speaker up in what looked like a bell tower (but wasn't, since, you know, it didn't actually have bells). Of course, the downside of that system was that graduating seniors once hijacked it on the day of graduation to play "School's Out for Summmer," since it was equally capable of playing music as it was of playing bells. With real bells, even Alice Cooper would sound pretty stately, I think.

  3. Now, that's a bell-choir arrangement I'd love to hear! During spirit week and "A Day Without Hate" the kids play music over the PA during passing period. I always like that.