I’ve been waking up early so that I can sit cross-legged on the floor. Half an hour on the carpet of my apartment before work every day, to meditate. It’s the first time I’ve ever succeeded at regularly waking up earlier than I absolutely have to.
Anxiety and depression helped lead me to the practice, which I’ve been getting more and more into over the past year and a half. I have an on-and-off feeling of meaninglessness, of soft despair, a dullness. Perhaps a sense that life sucks. It’s hard to describe. It’s a vague, nasty little bug. But I think meditation is helping.
So this year, I wanted to use some of my vacation time to practice a bit more intensely. The teacher at my weekly Buddhist group suggested Deer Park in California. It’s a Zen Buddhist monastery in the tradition of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, located among mountains 40 minutes north of San Diego.
Thich Nhat Hanh was chased out of Vietnam during the Vietnam War because of his peace activism. Since then he’s lived at a monastery he founded in the South of France. He later started a few others elsewhere in the world, including Deer Park. He’s authored dozens of books that have sold millions of copies (I bought a few after my trip, though I haven’t gotten through one yet. It’s taken me four months to write a blog post…). I also found out that he’s a supporter of Barack Obama. (Here you can read an interesting interview of him by Oprah.)
The week before my departure, I developed a sharp stiffness between my neck and right shoulder. I was a little worried that I was getting myself into something that was too rigid for me – spending a week with monks and nuns. The website made the place seem very welcoming – but I knew nothing more about it than that when I booked my ticket, besides that it had my teacher’s recommendation.
My flights out of Regina always seem to leave at 6 AM. I never get much sleep the night before. This time, I got one hour. I slept on the plane, but as usual, my trip started out bleary-eyed.
We landed in San Diego in 30 degree heat. My options for getting to the retreat centre were either a three-hour medley of buses and trains that would cost less than 10 dollars but would require getting my big, no-wheel-suitcase onto all of those vehicles, or a 40 minute airport shuttle ride that would cost at least $60. Decisions aren’t my strong point. In typical fashion, I wandered back and forth from the shuttle stand to the bus stop twice, sticky with sweat, before getting fed up and grabbing a shuttle. It ended up costing $80. As we drove, the air conditioning was on but it just seemed to recycle the hot, humid air from outside. Along the waterfront, there were clean, glimmering high-rises. Sailboats were moored along the shore. A jogger beat the pavement in the heat, beside the boats. We dropped off other travellers at posh hotels.
The monastery is perched over a valley between some low mountains. When I arrived, there was hardly a nun or a monk in sight. Buildings and trees were linked by a pathway that wound up the side of a steep hill. Cacti, trees, bushes and plants lined the pathway, and covered the hill, and at the top there was a huge garden full of flowers, with a fish pond. A sign attached to the trees near the entrance said “I have arrived. I am home.” And another: “Breathe – You are alive.” There was a great view, onto the forested valley, and more mountains in the distance.
I registered for my stay with the registrar – simple, pleasant, not much small talk — and walked over to my dorm, a little building divided into four sections, each of which housed several bunk beds and a washroom. There, I met one of my two roommates, Dimitri, a 32-year-old Mexican graphic designer of Greek descent, with flawless English, a lot of kindness, and exuberant exclamations. I was immediately reassured not to be the only “lay”-person at Deer Park for the whole week. There were a lot of people there, the weekend that I arrived – because it was Buddha’s birthday! But Dimitri, our other roommate, Hac, and I were the only men there for the whole week. Hac was a Vietnamese-American from Northern California with a great sense of humour who had been meditating and coming to Deer Park for over 10 years. He had considered becoming a monk before marrying and having three kids. Hac and Dimitri and I became friends.
I immediately noticed that there’s a lot of time without anything planned at Deer Park. When I arrived that Friday, there was nothing to do until dinner. I walked around, I read, I talked to Dimitri, I sat still. It wasn’t that easy, that first day.
Dinner was announced by the ringing of a bell. Throughout the week, the same bell would announce the next activity. It rang 15 minutes before the activity started, so you had time to walk there peacefully. Everything happened slowly.
A monk or nun would also ring a different bell, first thing in the morning around 5 am, and again after dinner. That bell had a deeper, darker tone to it, and it would ring continuously for about 20 minutes. For me it was strangely nostalgic and calming, a dull drone that seemed to seep naturally into the surroundings.
I felt the stillness of the place.as soon as I arrived. An ease, a relief, a quietness.
We settled into a kind of routine. Days began with meditation and chanting at 5:45 am. In the morning, there was often an hour or two of work with the monks to help them look after the monastery – cleaning, generally. In the afternoon, there was a lot of free time, and then an activity. Sometimes, a hike, or walking meditation, or sitting meditation, or a dharma talk (which are basically talks on Buddhism from a monk or nun, or a recorded talk by Thich Nhat Hanh). After dinner, more free time. It was strange how quickly that time went by. Sometimes I would meditate on my own. Other times, I would go on a hike, with Dimitri or Hac.
I learned a little about Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings during my week there. He emphasizes, like it seems most Buddhists do, being in the present moment, every moment of the day. Every so often, a bell rings at the monastery, and everyone stops to breathe for a second. I loved that. He also promotes walking meditation, while it seems like many Buddhist traditions focus primarily on the sitting kind. At the same time, the monks and nuns at Deer Park do a lot of sitting meditation too. Both styles involve focusing on your moment to moment experience – what your senses pick up, what you feel, what you think, and the feeling of your body in space. Sometimes you focus on your breath in order to help yourself become more aware of the present moment, and to avoid getting lost in thought.
Outside the tea room at Deer Park sat pools of water for washing the tea cups, with little sticks in the water, to help “our insect friends” avoid drowning if they happened to land in the pool. All the food was vegan. And the monks exuded an aura of gentleness. Community is a big value at the monastery. I remember hearing or reading somewhere when I was there, that Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t believe in solitary monastic life.
While there is this wonderful gentleness at Deer Park, there is also a touch of austerity. The monks and nuns have all shaved their heads and given up all possessions except a bowl and three robes (from what I understand). They sleep on a hard surface, with just a little foam protection. They take a vow of chastity.
Meals are eaten in silence, during the first twenty minutes. After that, a bell rings, and talking is allowed. I found the eating in silence awkward – where do you look, if you can’t interact with the person across from you?! (into your food, basically). But I think it was having a good effect on me without my realizing it. I don’t mind eating while doing nothing else, now that I’ve been doing it ever since I’ve been back, one meal a day.
What was so wonderful about Deer Park was that my life was kind of blown apart. In the time after meals, before the next activity, we would sometimes just sit with a mug of tea and look at the view of the valley and the mountains. I realized, this is my life. Just sitting there, just breathing, thinking, feeling. It seems strange but I think I realized that most of the time, I’m less present.
Since my week at Deer Park, I’ve attended a weekend retreat with a teacher called Howie Cohn, who said that at 25 he realized he hadn’t spent a single moment not wishing he was somewhere else.
Quiet and stillness weren’t all easy. Unhappiness seeped into many moments. I became hypercritical of my surroundings. I felt lonely and needy. The monks are all extremely independent – they didn’t seem to feel a need to make friends with visitors.
When the bell rang to end the 20 minutes of silence during meals, allowing talking to begin, most of the monks remained silent. I wanted to talk!
Whenever I started a conversation with a monk – which I did on many occasions – they were kind and gracious. And no matter what they were doing, they seemed gentle and kind of innocent; they had a childlike look in their eyes. They kind of glowed, silently – despite their withdrawal from socializing. Conversation didn’t seem important for them, like it was for me.
When I think of how I suffered from all the silence, I’m reminded of an episode that I think happened at a large family dinner many years ago. I was just sitting at the dinner table not saying anything, and a child cousin who was walking by asked me something like, “What are you doing? Waiting for someone to say something to you?” He said it very innocently and honestly. Everyone laughed. I was embarrassed. It was true. As I get more comfortable with myself, and increase my self esteem, maybe I’ll be able to tolerate silence better. I’m not sure if the silence at Deer Park was dour – but I do know that I’m insecure around it, and overly sensitive, in general.
When we meditated together at 5:45 in the morning every day, the monastics sat in one row, the lay friends (non-monks or nuns) in another. The monks sat in an order based on the date on which they were ordained. The monks generally practice and spend most of their time in their monastery at the top of the hill, and the nuns spend their time in theirs, at the bottom of the hill. These divisions between monastics and lay people, between monks and nuns, and these rules, were a challenge for me to accept.
And I became irritated with the way some of the monks spoke publicly – kind of meekly and quietly, with a constant deference, and sometimes, almost in a monotone. I felt like saying, “speak up!” or “get to the point!” I’m disappointed in myself for having these gut reactions.
On my second day there, during the Buddha’s birthday weekend, we had a question and answer period with the monastics in the morning. There was an English group and a Vietnamese group.
A guy called Chris, I think his name was, a project manager at an IT company who I got to know a bit, asked, “How can I be less judgmental?”
And that was just the question for me. I’m always appraising, criticizing, deciding what is good, what is bad. What do I like, what don’t I like. I was in that moment judging the monks for sitting at the front of the room, in front of the lay people, and judging them even for the way they speak! The poor monks.
The answers the monks and nun gave to Chris’ question were helpful. One said that “if you’re judging someone else, it means that there is something that is out of harmony within yourself.” Another said, “your judgments are usually wrong.” At another point in the discussion one of the monastics talked about the importance of loving yourself first as a pathway to caring more about others – can’t remember if that was in relation to the judgment question but to me it seems related. These were all good things for me to hear, especially at this monastery where I was judging everyone. I’ve realized that I judge people when I walk into a room, right away, without even realizing it. Usually negatively. It’s so instinctual. And even in this moment, I am judging myself for being too judgmental.
The conversations that I did have with monks are some of my most memorable moments from Deer Park.
I really liked Brother Phap De (pronounced like day). When I first saw him, he was coming around the dining hall from table to table on my first night there, when the hall was filled with lay people for the Buddha’s birthday weekend. He offered everyone an unusual fruit drink. “Try it, see if you like it,” he said softly to each person, as he went by, even though the meal was just beginning, and we were supposed to eat in silence. I was amazed because I thought the silence rule was unbreakable.
Brother Phap De was outgoing and made me feel welcome. He’d always have something to say when the quiet period of the meal was over. He was at least 80, I believe. When he was much younger, he was a Catholic priest. He eventually became disillusioned with the Church, defrocked, married, had a child, and became a stockbroker. I believe he was in his seventies when he was ordained as a Buddhist monk.
When I asked why, he told me that he didn’t need another love affair, and he didn’t need any more money. He said that he saw Thich Nhat Hanh as a kind of St. Francis of the modern age. He said he had a realization: “I’m going to follow Thich Nhat Hanh.”
The funniest part of his story was that it was a woman to whom he was engaged who brought him to Thich Nhat Hanh’s main monastery, Plum Village, in France, for the first time, a few years before he became a monk. When he and his fiancée split up, he got really into Buddhism and eventually felt a great relief that the relationship was over. Then his ex-fiancée told him that she wanted to get back together. But he was already on the path to monkhood. The kicker: she has a new partner now, but, Phap De says, she won’t be bringing him to visit the monastery!
At one point, Brother Phap De asked me how old I was, and then said, “Well, 27 is a good age to become a monk.” I told him that I had never had a serious relationship and that my desire to have one was much stronger than my desire to become a monk. “Ah, your desire?” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Then I remembered, oh right, desire is the root of suffering, in Buddhism. Maybe I didn’t choose the right word, I thought.
(I can’t help but remember a quote by William Thackeray: “Which of us has his desire? Or having it, is satisfied?”)
But then he said something like, “Well, 27 is a good age for a serious relationship, I suppose.” He said I should make sure to choose someone who is also “in the practice.”
I asked Brother Phap De what he would say if he had one life lesson to share. This is his answer. Asking people this question is my roomate Vincent Turgeon’s idea. He asks the same question to many people that he meets through his travels.
I also got to spend half of a hike with a Swedish monk called Brother Phap Ho. He was a giant of a guy, over six feet tall, with dark black glasses that contrasted with his light skin tone. He was great to speak with – and dispelled some of my preconceptions about how I thought the monks were. He told me about how most people wonder how he was able to give up his old life, but how for him, it wasn’t really a challenge. Becoming a monk just felt like the right choice. He was a family lawyer in his late twenties in Sweden, but he didn’t always feel like a lawyer. He said he felt more like he was just trying to help people make the best of sad situations.
He also asked me a question. It was something like, “Do you know what you want to do with your life?” And I realized that I didn’t know.
And I told him that I thought back to something Brother Phap De had said during the question and answer session, that morning – that everyone needs to ask himself, what his priority is, truly. I said I was a journalist and that I liked it, but that I wasn’t sure what my “priority” was.
I had an evening to myself in San Diego on the day that I left. I decided to walk to the part of the city where the gay bars are, Hillcrest – about a 40 minute walk from my hostel, and along the way, I stopped to buy a veggie burger. I had to wait for it.
I sat there, and I felt the part of me that was impatient, the part that thought, “Hurry up hurry up hurry up, now I will have less time at the bar.” But I also felt a lightness, openness, I felt the impatience but I was less caught by it, submerged in it.
I sat and waited, concentrating on my breathing, on my surroundings. The healthy-fast food joint was small and cramped. Next to me, two women chatted about the fact that one of them was pregnant and how quickly – or not – her friends had noticed.
After, as I walked, I noticed the clean, posh apartment buildings, and the streets lined with trees, at dusk.
I find being mindful – accepting, and being aware, of the present moment — very challenging. I find it boring. I’m walking down the street, trying to focus on the appearance of the trees or the buildings, or willing myself to feel the breeze on my cheek, to concentrate just on the sensation, as opposed to thinking — and I just try too hard. I’m always trying too hard. I feel like I’m trying to grab a fistful of air and hold onto it – but there’s nothing there. And in that moment, it feels like thinking about something else would be so much more interesting! But if I’m doing sitting meditating for several minutes, focusing on my breath, I often realize that I eventually feel a little better, a little calmer. The desire to move gets less intense. Maybe once or twice, it even goes away. It’s like there is some space that opens up inside of me. My Buddhism teacher in Regina said in class once, “boring is good.”
When I first started meditating, I couldn’t bear it. My back hurt, and I wanted so strongly to move – I’ll always remember how intense that desire was. My mind has never become completely calm, but it has become calmer. My thoughts are almost always trotting along.
Something makes me keep coming back to it. When I get up after meditation I feel like my perspective has shifted a tiny bit, like I have slowed down a little, like my anxiety seems quieter, further away from me. Like I am observing it, as opposed to being in it. This often happens even when the desire to move never goes away, through the whole sitting.
When I got back to Regina, and was alone, in my apartment, I noticed a change in my perspective, like when I get up after a sitting. My life seemed suddenly very fast-paced.
I became aware of all kinds of things that I wanted to do – physical desire, hunger for food, the wish to check my phone, to go on the internet, and accomplish things. My to-do list started to hover in the back of my mind again, and as usual, I was unsure of what to do, in what order.
This hummingbird feeder was just outside the monks’ dining hall. You can see the meditation hall in the background.