A little bit ago, I went to live with the monks at the Amaravati Monestary just outside of London. For a weekend.
I unplugged for two days, leaving all the distractions and BS of real life ( minimal as they might be in my current situation ) outside and behind, and for two days worked on being mindful, being introspective, and listening to any advice my inner-self was willing to share with me. I was willing to set aside two days to try something different, to try something many, many others before me had done and claimed helped them increase the quality of their lives.
I was not disappointed.
No matter where you live, there’s likely a monastery or meditative retreat that could help you do the same thing within driving distance. Maybe more than one.
Some are big and you’d definitely notice them. Signs out front, clearly a special place set aside, a reserve in more ways than one. But other times you might have driven or walked past it on your way to Starbucks a zillion times and never known it was there. Not all of these kinds of places invite outsiders to visit, but lots do.
By “retreat” I mean a place you could go for a day, a weekend, a week, or longer. By “monastery” I mean a ( usually Buddhist, but maybe other variety ) place where monks and/or nuns are working full time on their personal development towards Enlightenment. If they’re open to the public, these places welcome newcomers who want to spend a day or longer unplugged. Both types are most commonly free, even if you stay for weeks, though you’ll be expected to participate in the routine – chores and meditation. Don’t worry, the chores are things you know how to do, and they’ll teach the meditation; they assume you don’t know anything.
When I say “free” I mean they don’t charge. They’ll certainly accept a donation if you want to make one, and there’s a kind of expectation that you’ll bring food of some kind, but if you’re not inclined to give back you could just show up and hang out for a week, working on your Enlightenment thing.
Just for clarity, in this post when I say “monastery” I mean that, or a meditative retreat that might be run by non-monks/nuns.
Unplugging – what you do there
Ever wish you could unplug?
Or maybe you don’t wish to, but you know in the back of your mind somewhere it’d be a good idea. Life is noisy or stressful, people are fucking annoying, the job is stressful, and you just want things to be -simple- for a short while. Your current daily thing is bugging the shit out of you, or maybe you’d just like to try something different. A stay-cation of sorts, but definitely something a little more mindful than bingeing on “Pretty Little Liars” on Netflix.
Your local monastery is the perfect place for this. Not expensive, not hard to get to, totally looking forward to you being there, and great for a little reset-button-pushing.
Question – Will they make me join their cult?
Answer – No.
They’re definitely not going to try to convert you. It’s not like that. You won’t have to shave your head, give up any possessions, wear funny robes, or anything along those lines. Part of the “work” a monastery does is make itself open and available to seekers looking to learn more about the monastic experience, or more about what they teach there, or just learn a bit of quiet mindfulness. They don’t give a shit about trying to make you join, or changing you or your life – a huge part of their universe is the idea that we all change ourselves, starting with making a decision to do so. They’re not looking to change you, only help you exactly as much as you want. And also, providing you a great environment to do this, if only for a weekend.
When I say “unplug” I mean exactly that. You can bring your phone, but most monasteries will expect you to keep it in your bag. Your Kindle or laptop… probably just leave those at home.
A quick aside – If this right here sounds like a deal breaker for you, you might be more in need of a break than you think. Just sayin’.
The belief is that during your mindful time at the monastery, you’ll be looking inward. You spend a lot of your regular day looking outward – answering emails, texting, watching traffic, cleaning up after the kids, making sure that project gets done, remembering to pay the electric bill, and so on. That’s all outward-directed stuff.
At the monastery, they’re going to kind of insist you go inward. This is called “being mindful,” and for normal people with no training, this starts with leaving the laptop at home and putting the phone in Airplane Mode. And of course taking a few deep breaths, because just this can be a little stressful, eh?
Deep breath in. Be aware of your breathing. Hold it for a moment. Now let it out.
See? You feel better already.
What to bring to the monastery
Be cool and bring a bag of food. Their monastary website probably has some suggestions. Bring some comfy clothes you can sit around in. Leave the graphic t-shirts, sport coats, funny hats, and expensive shoes at home. Trying to be a fashionista at the monastery is a special kind of ridiculous. Bring comfy shoes, and a hoodie if you get cold. They might have location-specific rules depending on who runs the monastery – the one I stayed at wanted you to wear long sleeves – so follow those rules.
If you stay overnight, you’ll likely be doing something outside, so dress for this too.
You make the arrangement to stay, even if just for a day, ahead of time. You do this like you’d make any other sort of reservation – you call, or more likely message like email. I made arrangements with the “Guest Monk” through email to stay the next weekend.
A thing about “rules” at the monastery: part of the deal with providing you a pretty-much-free place to learn and try the mindfulness thing, giving you a retreat from your stressful life, is that you’ll be a good sport and follow The Program. What this entails exactly varies from place to place according to the traditions of whomever is running the place. As I understand it, where I stayed is pretty typical; The Program there went like this:
- wake up at 4am, with the gong ( cooler than it sounds )
- do morning stuff ( like S-S-S ) for an hour
- attend morning meditation in the temple from 5-630
- help with chores inside from 630-730
- eat breakfast as a group
- do chores outside until 1130
- eat lunch as a group
- do “mindful shit”
- ( maybe no evening meal – you’ll be fine )
- go to bed early enough so that waking up tomorrow at 4am doesn’t kill you
They’re going to expect you not to be on your phone. They’re going to need you not to yell, or otherwise interfere with other people trying to be mindful. Some places will insist you don’t talk at all, but at the monastery I went to this was not a thing; people talked all the time – just not about stuff like reality TV.
They’re going to expect you to pitch in with chores, to eat only at mealtimes, and not be disruptive to the routine or other people visiting or living there. They’re definitely going to expect you to come with an open mind, and an honest desire to give The Program a try for the duration of your stay.
If you decide at any point, anytime day or night it’s not for you, of course you can leave. Never a problem.
They’re going to expect you to sleep in the dorm appropriate to your gender, and not to flirt, chase anyone, or even talk or pay attention to that kind of thing. You’re not there for that, and you’re definitely not supposed to bug other people who are there to be mindful with your ham-handed attempts at flirting. Leave that stuff outside. If you come to the monastery with a sweetie, no PDA.
Doing the mindful shit
All monasteries will have meditation as serious parts of the schedule. There might also be lectures about Buddhism or the mindful perspective. The chores you do will be simple, and also work to provide you with time to reflect and look inward.
The local rules are there to help reinforce the mission to be mindful, to look within. You’ll be up pretty early, so as not to waste the day, but to also encourage the feeling of “holy crap, it’s 9am and I feel like I’ve done a day’s worth of stuff already.” A good feeling. Meals are communal, and pretty simple. This helps you realize that you don’t need to make a production of meals or spend a lot to satisfy your body. The noon meal is huge, and filling, and it’s the last one of the day.
They’ll assume you’ve never meditated before, and will be happy to give you some instruction. Each place teaches slightly different variations. Whatever flavor of meditation they teach, if you’re not used to sitting still for 90 minutes and doing nothing, this will be hugely difficult.
We’re not used to this. We’re used to attending to the outside world. When things are quiet, most of us crave distraction. We hit Facebook or Reddit, find something to clean, or someone to talk to. We don’t care to be alone and quiet with ourselves because most of us weren’t trained for that. We’re thought that it’s not “productive time” and that it’s just being lazy.
Some of us have a definitely problem with being alone with ourselves. Meditation is specifically designed to help with this. It is definitely work, and it is definitely productive. If you work at stilling your mind, quieting the “monkey brain” that’s screeching inside all of us, amazing things will happen. I promise.
But working on this is a definite pain in the ass. It will be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done. Even if just for an hour.
No one will expect you to be any good at it. They’ll gently remind you not to be hard on yourself, and when something breaks your concentration, just turn aside and start again with the blank slate. Or whatever. Part of this is learning not to be so hard on yourself, not to beat yourself up.
After a bit of time and effort, you’ll be able to hold that stillness for a few moments. It will be surreal. It will surprise you.
Then you’ll think of that next episode of “Pretty Little Liars,” you’ll chastise yourself for breaking mindfulness, you’ll remember not to chastise yourself, you’ll put the idea of Netflix aside, and this next time the stillness will last a bit longer.
In that stillness, sometimes, you’ll learn things. Very valuable, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful things. the quiet you’re striving so hard for will allow stuff to bubble up that the smarter part of who you are is trying to tell you, but can’t get across because of all the daily BS you immerse yourself in.
This mindfulness, as well as taking steps to physically remove yourself from a noisy and distracting life, unplugging and living for a short while at a place apart from that world, is what the monastic experience is all about. For a day, for a weekend, or longer.
Meditation will be a big part of this mindful practice. There will also likely be a relevant library on-sight, if that’s your thing. There may be gardens, fields, courtyards, or other places suited to quiet contemplation. There will be supportive people all around trying to do the same thing you are.
Ten minutes after I arrived, I got me some enlightenment
When Kim and I arrived, she immediately went off with some girl who’d spent previous time in this monastery, and helped her get settled in the women’s dorm… which left me by myself, moments after arrival. I sat in the reception area of this monastery, endeavoring to be quiet and respectful ( like I was supposed to be, right? ) waiting for the “Guest Monk” to come get me and orient me.
As the moments turned into minutes, still sitting by myself I watched people enter the main group area of the monastery, but no one came to tell me where to go, or what to do.
At first I fidgeted. Then I started to get really bothered.
I was shocked by how much this bothered me, and caused me to be anxious. And maybe it was the environment of the monastery itself, or the idea that I had set aside this time to learn about myself, but my first lesson hit me pretty hard in that moment, no meditation required:
Lesson 1 – as a matter of routine, I put an awful lot of stock in what I’m “supposed” to be doing, at any given moment. If I feel I’m failing at this, I’m immediately pretty hard on myself. The monkey brain starts chattering loudly.
What am I supposed to be doing? Am I missing out on something? Will I be reprimanded? Or worse, will people just quietly look at me and think “poor, dumb newbie. He just doesn’t understand this place.”
Where the f*** was the guy who was -supposed- to be here orienting me? WTF? I’m just sitting here!
Lesson 2 – I put an awful to of stock in what others “should” be doing to help me along in life, and in doing so I give up a lot of agency.
Lesson 3 – both of these things cause me a lot of stress
Lesson 4 – both of these things are -totally- my own decision. I could just as easily choose a number of other options: Just to not feel stressed. Just to relax and be patient. Or to stand up and go see what the delay might be, or even better – just go find somewhere to fit in. Or to read something, make better use of my moments than sitting, stewing, and stressing about what I -should- be doing, or what someone else -should- be doing to help me.
No meditation required, and ten minutes in I’d already learned some maybe-life-changing stuff about myself.
I could have had this epiphany anywhere. I could have had this realization at home while watching Netflix and texting on my phone while chasing Pokemon. But I didn’t. In all the zillions of moments I’ve had to myself, I didn’t learn all this there in front of the TV. I learned it within moments of sitting my ass in the chair of the reception area of the monastery.
To wrap this post up
I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you. My time at the monastery was very well spent. I’d be happy to talk with you about this, or answer any questions, or help you find a place you could check out for a day, or a weekend, or longer. Drop me a line.
If I’m not meditating, I’ll get back to you.