July 15, 2011

Simple Surroundings Focus Us On More Important Things

Monk's cell similar to one of my favourite rooms
One of the favourite places I have laid down to sleep for a few nights (indoors that is) was Gillett House, of Chichester Theological College, England. It was 1992, and I was taking a summer semester course that took me overseas to study the British elementary school system. The class had been booked to stay in the student residence of the college to take advantage of its frugal accommodations.

The student residence we stayed in was built in the early 1960s. The architectural language used to describe the style of the three storey building today is 'New Brutalism'. It was basic and stark, but I found it truthful in its blatant, functional approach. As we walked up to the building some of my fellow students were not feeling as sure about it.

The interior of the building was just as interesting, and reflected both the severe exterior, and its intended purpose - housing students on a budget, and studying a spiritual tradition. Lacking ornamentation or decoration, it was plain, and basic by design. My room, not recommended for the claustrophobic, reminded me of a monk's cell, but I was intrigued.

The tiny, all white bedroom had sturdy built-in furniture, and a small cold water sink in the corner. There was a single bed with rough white linens, and a set of drawers at the end. Finishing off the basic furnishings - a study desk in an alcove with a single shelf above it, and a narrow skylight above that. When sitting at the desk the light would stream in like warm inspiration from above (cue Gregorian chants, or a choir here).

View from one of the rooftop terraces of the student residence

The opening window of my room had a ledge large enough to sit on comfortably. It allowed a view of lush lawns dotted with hedgehogs and giant, twisted deciduous trees. I felt strangely comfortable and tranquil right away.

I enjoyed the plain simplicity and stark beauty of this basic room. Meanwhile some of my fellow students were threatening to mutiny and seek out more luxurious digs elsewhere. After all, one person's monk cell is another person's prison.

The other students eventually calmed down enough to feel comfortable in our austere surroundings, and decided to stay. I was happy they did because far from feeling imprisoned, I felt liberated by the four white walls of my room.

I was beginning to focus on more important things as my simple surroundings worked their magic on me. We all ended up learning a lot more than about the British school system - we learned about ourselves and about our inflated expectations.

The week I spent in my 'monks cell' provided me with a new perspective on what was enough. Stripped of all unnecessary trappings, it helped me realize what a 'luxurious' life I had been leading up until that time. But what was it all for, when this was clearly enough?

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