Transitions

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Transition

Whenever I meet someone new and tell them I lived at a monastery, I typically receive a combination of surprise and curiosity: “Wow, that’s not something you hear everyday… what was that like?” A little while into our conversation, the topic usually arises of what it was like to leave the monastery and live in the “real world.” Even for people who’ve never touched foot in a monastery, they can intuit that the transition from a contemplative environment into a city might not be easy.

They’re right.

I have been in a unique position of transitioning in and out of contemplative settings frequently for the past four years and have become familiar with the unsettled feelings accompanying such a shift. I heard a monk once jokingly compare it to coming back from war! While we all found the comparison amusing, I think the challenges of any re-integration from a very specific way of living to another have some underlying commonalities.

In this writing I aim to investigate and communicate some of the challenges I’ve faced. In the years to come I think many people will take the leap to spend extended time at contemplative settings… and it is my hope that this writing will support them.


Monasteries have been around for over 2,000 years for a reason: they work.

There is a daily schedule that everyone follows. This schedule varies by tradition, but many incorporate meditation practice and study, quality time with others, regular meals, necessary work, leisure time and rest.

There is also a set of precepts/guidelines that everyone agrees to live by. For the monastics (monks and nuns) this typically includes sexual abstinence, along with vows of not killing, stealing, speaking falsely and intoxication. Individual possessions are kept at a minimum, as most elements of life are communal (living spaces, food, vehicles, etc).

Lastly, monasteries are typically secluded and situated in nature, far away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

The schedule, precepts and seclusion allows for an environment in which the things that typically demand the majority of our time and attention in modern day life (i.e. decisions and distractions) are minimized in order for energy to be concentrated in other domains.

This environment is in stark contrast with the daily reality that most people reside in: a world full of decisions (where should I eat tonight? what will I do next weekend? when should I go to the gym?) and distractions (advertising everywhere, the internet instantly accessible, television and radio in restaurants, waiting rooms and most homes).

For most of the 2,000+ years of their existence, monasteries have been inhabited solely by monastics who are committed to a specific set of precepts for the rest of their life. Typically, this arrangement means one stays a monastery for the vast majority of their time. Recently, as interest in contemplative traditions grows in the west, there have been monasteries that also invite lay (non-monastic) persons to reside there for brief periods of time and practice with the monastics. And extremely recently, there are monasteries where lay people are invited to stay for a longer period of time, to essentially live within the monastic community.

It is within this most recent context that my time at monasteries has been spent over the past few years; an experiment that is a radical departure from the traditional model, one with much potential, and also, new challenges. Within this model I have benefitted tremendously, and my time spent at retreat centers has been illuminating, transformative, and lots of fun. (For details on my personal experiences living at monasteries, see writings on Plum Village and Deer Park).

Within this model I have also been challenged in many ways, most notably during the ‘transition’ phase from leaving a monastery to re-entering the world outside. Here I will share the primary challenges I’ve faced, alongside ways that I have practiced with them.


1. Initial shocks of re-entry => Releasing expectations

When first exiting a contemplative setting after an extended stay, it’s easy to put unrealistic expectations that one will be able to maintain a certain type of equanimity out in the world. (e.g. After my retreat I am now a “calmer person”). This perception can last a matter of weeks, days, or hours until one meets the inevitable reality that life is unpredictable and has a way of shattering expectations.

I recall coming back from my first visit to Plum Village, and needing to deal with selecting a car insurance company. There seemed to be so many choices, each company proclaiming that they were #1, and I found difficulty hearing my own voice among the chatter. I found the legal speak to be dense, and felt extra sensitive to agents trying to ‘sell’ me on something. Part of the decision included weighing the pros and cons of getting collision insurance, which involved me thinking through worst-case scenarios of if I got into a crash, how much coverage I wanted to pay for. Not very fun. After going back and forth among companies and coverage options I felt a bit overwhelmed, and then soon started criticizing myself for having a hard time with this. Hadn’t I just spent 3 full months at a monastery devoting time to my ability to handle the difficulties of life? Where was my practice? This of course made me feel much worse.

After such a downfall it’s easy for someone to beat themselves up thinking they have failed. In truth, the only thing that has failed is their expectations. With patience we see that the practice is not about ensuring a particular state of mind, it’s about learning how to navigate the storms of our lives with wisdom and compassion. This takes time.

By cultivating a spaciousness for whatever one experiences it is easier to take in the bad, along with the good, and over time one is less phased by the inevitable ups and downs of everyday life.


2. Meeting basic needs => Cultivating flexibility & determination

We are creatures of habit. Good habits can enable fundamental needs to be consistently met, and habits are quite easy to follow when your environment is designed to support you in doing so.

When residing at the monastery I was able to consistently follow-through on habits that enabled meeting many of my most basic needs:

Sleeping well: 8-9 hours of sleep, waking up at the same time each day, and nap time.
Eating well: Three healthy meals at same time every day
Exercising regularly: an hour a day in the schedule, 5 days a week
Meditating regularly: at least an hour a day in the schedule, 6 days a week

When leaving the monastery these needs are much more difficult to meet. It took me a while to realize discipline is not necessarily strengthened while living in structured environments. It’s extremely easy to meditate when there is scheduled time for it and everyone around you is doing it!

As a remedy I have had to employ a strong flexibility (accepting that my routine will never be as defined outside the monastery) and determination (If I don’t make time for it, it often won’t happen).

Operationally speaking, this typically means:
-Detailing out what is important for me to do each day and week
-Finding a community & partner who understands and supports my needs
-Protecting time for myself by doing less (i.e. saying “no” to some invitations)
-Taking naps


3. Practicing during tough times => Creating space & seeking support

After adjusting back to life on the outside there are bound to be some really tough moments, as that’s part of the human experience. Receiving support in these times can be challenging for a couple reasons:

1. There is less relative time available to stop and look deeply
2. There are likely less people in one’s immediate environment to support

When residing in a contemplative setting, if something difficult arises internally it’s easy to devote a substantial amount of time and energy to investigate: when at the monastery I could easily practice mindful breathing and walking for as long as I needed to in order to work through something. If I didn’t want to talk to anyone for a day I could do so without it being seen as strange.

Then when I was ready to share, there were many people around who were available to support. These people were engaging in the same practices as I was and could offer perspective that aligned with my deep aspirations to be awake to my experience of life.

Outside the monastery, when something difficult arises its often in the midst of other activities. Most work environments do not allow for one to take a two-hour walk in the middle of the day to let off steam. Then when you do share with somebody, they may try and immediately offer advice, or worse yet, respond with the ever-so-helpful “That’s nothing. One time I…”

This lack of space and support can further exacerbate a difficult situation. The remedy? A Sangha.

This can be in the form of a weekly sitting group where one goes regularly and knows he/she will have time to process and people to process with. This can also be in the home, creating a breathing room where one can go and be still, and a place where those one lives with understand his/her aspirations.


A couple closing thoughts:

First, while it’s helpful to make relative distinctions between the monastery and the ‘real world’ ultimately we must remember that it is the internal environment that determines well-being. Both the monastery and the outside world are simply laboratories to witness moment-to-moment experience. They have their own unique characteristics and some people prefer one to the other. I like both.

Second, transitions occur every day; in fact every second is a brand new experience looking to be understood and cared for. Sometimes there are more moving pieces than at other times, what one friend affectionately refers to as a “lumpy universe”. During such times it can be more difficult to embrace change, but the fundamentals of practice remain the same: being open, curious, and accepting of one’s experience enables appropriate and skillful responses. By staying grounded in your wisdom, and the wisdom of those around you, transitions can be manageable…even really lumpy ones.

What about this moment is not enough?

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Stadium

In the fall of 2011 I made an unconventional decision: taking a sabbatical from a job as a management consultant to explore the emerging phenomenon of a thing called “mindfulness”.

To kick-start this exploration I signed up for a conference titled ‘Creating a Mindful Society’ held in New York.  The name seemed fitting enough and the conference featured some super-stars in the field of mindfulness. The keynote speaker was Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and widely considered one of the most influential people in bringing mindfulness into mainstream western life. I had recently read his first book, Full Catastrophe Living, and I resonated deeply with how he articulated mindfulness and its potential for healing our world. Through my own first-hand experience I had seen the transformative beauty of mindfulness, and I was stoked to learn there was a whole “movement” dedicated to the cause.

When I arrived at the conference I was disappointed to see only about 300 people. It seemed crystal clear to me that mindfulness was the answer to so much personal and societal suffering; why weren’t more people catching on?

After Jon’s talk there was a rousing applause and you could feel the high energy of inspiration. There was time for a public Q&A; I felt a question alive in me and mustered up the courage to ask:

I recently finished reading Full Catastrophe Living, and when I looked at the front page and saw it was written over 20 years ago I was shocked. If I had read the book when it was published in 1990, I would have thought that 20 years later there would be a stadium of people coming to a conference like this. What’s preventing us from filling a stadium and how do we get there?!”

My heart was racing; I was essentially asking for a pep talk from one of my idols on how to bring this to the next level. His face scrunched a little as he brought the microphone up slowly. He looked straight at me and calmly uttered words I’ll never forget:

“Why do you want a stadium? What about this moment is not enough?”

I was dumbfounded. I stood there, mic in my hand, jaw on the floor, as he expounded about how stadium-crowds tend to have a fervor to them that lacks individual and collective awareness, and that usually such events are focused around a very small group of individuals in a devotional worship context. He said that if a stadium gathered to rally about mindfulness he probably wouldn’t show up.

I felt like a fool. I had read his 300-page book and realized I had pretty much missed the whole point.


While I was initially quite embarrassed by this transmission, today I can say with confidence it is one of the most helpful transmissions I’ve ever received. In my naïveté I believed bigger was better and that strength in numbers would unequivocally support the cause…but I now realize that without being grounding in the present moment I was at risk for losing touch with the whole reason for doing this work.

Ultimately, mindfulness is not about getting somewhere else. It’s not about making yourself, or the world, better, bigger, faster, stronger. It may facilitate that, but binding happiness to a specific idea of how things could/should be better in the future is precisely the kind of distorted perception that leads to suffering, as well as unskillful action in the present.

Mindfulness is about being fully awake to the conditions in the here and now, inhabiting the present moment with a compassionate awareness that bears fruit in the form of wise action.

In that moment of asking the question to Jon I was unsatisfied with how things were because I thought it would be better if there were more people there. Jon picked up on this perception and shared his view: not only would more people at a mindfulness conference not necessarily be better, it may be worse! This coming, by the way, from a guy who has dedicated his life to healing the world through mindfulness.

In the years that followed that conferences I spent a lot more time actually practicing mindfulness (rather than just reading about it), and my appreciation for Jon’s transmission has grown immensely. During this time mindfulness has in fact grown to be much more mainstream than it was then. A couple months ago I attended the Wisdom 2.0 conference which had over 2,500 people! Jon was also at this conference and I gathered up the courage to ask him a question again. This question (and response) had a much different effect. I’ll share about it someday. For now, this is enough.

Amusing end-note: I actually wrote a post back in 2011 before the conference sharing my excitement about seeing Jon. Check it out here.

2015 Aspirations – Tasting Mindfulness

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Tasting Mindfulness

 

For 2015, my aspiration is to continue building on the foundation of the previous year while being open to the winds of change.

It feels like roots are stretching into the ground and a trunk is growing, and I will nourish this solidity knowing storms come on their own timeline and often without warning.

In practical terms this means:

1. Continuing the Gathas & GTD practice

2. Continue investigating the link between decision making, rumination and depression.

3. To handle the unknown, I will practice more with “Positive Spin.” This entails asking myself, when facing a negative situation: “Given the facts I have, what’s the most empowering story I could tell?”

I also plan to memorize one of my favorite poems. Continue reading 2015 Aspirations – Tasting Mindfulness

Reflection on 2014: Gathas & GTD Principles

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Gathas & GTD

For reflections on my first aspiration, faith, click here

My secondary aspiration for 2014 was to recite gathas (short meditation poems relating to everyday activities) as a concrete way to integrate mindfulness into my daily life. While my original intention was to practice with one gatha per week for the whole year, I quickly realized I would need more time to integrate each gatha into my daily life.

In response I decided to turn this aspiration into a two-year project, and every other week incorporate a chapter from Ready for Anything, David Allen’s book on essential principles for productivity. Conveniently that book has 52 chapters, so along with the 52 gathas I was able to trade off one per week and complete half of each by the end of this year. Continue reading Reflection on 2014: Gathas & GTD Principles

Reflection on 2014: Faith

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Faith

My primary aspiration for this year was to grow my faith. I define faith as the “confidence born from observing the fruits of practice.”

Faith does not mean everything works out the way we want it to. It simply means that we know two things with confidence: First, nothing has gone wrong. Second, by taking care of this moment completely we are taking care of every moment that unfolds from this one (i.e. the rest of our lives).

This confidence supports us in those moments when we are working with an edge or feeling overwhelmed by the sheer scale of a challenge. Trusting wholeheartedly in ourselves and in the potential for transformation can help facilitate seemingly miraculous shifts in well-being. Of course most of us need constant reminders in the form of friends, teachers and teachings that things are okay, but by gradually watering the seed of faith in ourselves, we can grow in our capacity to hold space for what arises.

How does one water the seed of faith?

By meeting what arises, being present with it, and seeing what happens.

At times, this can be difficult. Continue reading Reflection on 2014: Faith

Effectiveness as a Teacher

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Cape Town

 

Your effectiveness as a teacher has a direct correlation with the depth of your own personal practice -Jeremy Hunter

Many years ago I was sitting on a mountain in South Africa. It was a warm summer day in Cape Town and I was soaking in the sun on a perch overlooking the magnificent Camps Bay. I was nearing the end of a consulting project in the region and had been mulling over my next steps of a while. I resolved that day I was going to decide what I wanted to do next with my life. No small resolution, but it was time.

I asked myself three questions: “What do I enjoy doing? What am I good at? What makes a difference in the world?” In response to all three questions one word emerged: “teaching”.  I received fulfillment from helping others learn, perceived I was pretty good at, and felt a quality teacher could make a tremendous difference. Plus, both my parents were teachers so I had some ancestral momentum.

Check. Continue reading Effectiveness as a Teacher

Pain in the neck

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OW Boston

One morning I awoke with pain in my neck.

I shrugged it off, reasoning that it was likely just a short-term kink.

The next morning I awoke with a similar pain.

Again, I engaged my habitual response to discomfort and thought little of it.

This pattern continued, but after a week there was worry that something was wrong, and the worry was strong enough to call me to action.

The first thing I did was Google “Neck Pain.” Continue reading Pain in the neck

Personal Sustainability – Mental, Spiritual & Themes

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Balancing Act

In this post I’m exploring the latter half of the four areas of personal sustainability, Mental and Spiritual, as well as sharing a few themes which apply to all.

Sustainability is defined as “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.” In this way I view sustainability as not just doing something as long as you can, but doing it in a way that promotes well-being (ecological balance) and prevents burnout (depletion of resources).

Mental (focus of energy)

When most people use the term burnout, I think they are referring to mental exhaustion. I don’t know anyone who intends to be burnt out by their work, but I know plenty of people who feel that they are. Here are some helpful ways I’ve found to address this: Continue reading Personal Sustainability – Mental, Spiritual & Themes

Sitting with Thay

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Sitting with Thay

Bell

Line forms, patiently waiting

Shuffling of feet, clinking of bowls, heaps of deliciousness

Stepping outside, inhaling freshness

Walk

The sun, it shines

Entering the hall, seeing a path, straight ahead: emptiness

I’ve arrived, I’m home

Sit

Breathing in, breathing out

Opening my eyes, directly in front, I see Thay

Posture straightens, thoughts abound

Breathe

Present moment, wonderful moment,

Following my breath, curiosity steadily rising, who are you?

Zen master, reading contemplations

Eat

Consuming energy, digesting freedom

Looking at Thay, I crave acknowledgment, who am I?

Be free, my friend

Stand

We turn, we bow

I stall awkwardly, hoping that perhaps, we might speak?

He passes, without words

Calm

Woman approaches, announces suffering

Asks for support, my heart opens, I am here

Deep listening, loving speech

Care

She bows, I smile

An insight manifests; Thay isn’t gone, he’s within me

No discrimination, no discrimination

Peace

Benefits of Mindfulness

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dessert in the desert

“If you come to mindfulness just expecting benefits, sooner or later you’re going to be confused.”
-Michael Carroll

If you Google “benefits of mindfulness” you will find hundreds of recent scientific studies. There is proof of mindfulness meditation’s effectiveness at strengthening attention in schoolchildren, creating more resilient business leaders, increasing brain density of the pre-frontal cortex, improving the functioning of the immune system, and plenty more. But most seasoned mindfulness teachers will tell you that while all those benefits may be true, they are side-products of the process and not to be focused on as the “goal.”

Three years ago I was speaking on the phone to Michael Carroll, the founder of an organization which focuses on sharing mindfulness to business audiences. We were talking about a new initiative I was involved with, and while I was extolling the numerous benefits of the program he stopped me and said, “If you come to mindfulness just expecting benefits, sooner or later you’re going to be confused.”

I was admittedly confused. Continue reading Benefits of Mindfulness

a brand new day is before me…