Sunday, October 19, 2014

On Being a "Temporary" Monk

Someone recently asked me to reflect upon and share some thoughts about my experience as a "temporary monk." The essay below was written in response to that request. I was further inspired this morning by seeing my teacher from the monastery, Pema Chödrön, in an intimate conversation with Oprah Winfrey on her Super Soul Sunday program. The interview concluded with an assembly of footage filmed at the monastery, Gampo Abbey, which brought back many pleasant memories of the time I spent there.

Photo by Sunny Shender. The tiny robed figure
standing in the middle ground was me.

When I tell people that I was a monk for two years and that I lived in a monastery in the remote coastal wilds of Nova Scotia, their reactions usually fall into one of two categories.

For the majority of people, who don't have experience with long retreat practice or monasticism, the standard reaction is: "Oh my God. You did that for TWO WHOLE YEARS?" Watching their faces, you can see their minds boggling as they try to imagine spending such a long and intensive period of time immersed in practice, in such an isolated place, and being silent so much of the time.

For a small minority of people who do have experience with these things, particularly with monasticism, the standard reaction is more like: "What? ONLY two years? What happened?" Watching their faces, you can see them wondering why I couldn't hack it for longer than that.

One of the things that's often hard to explain to both of these audiences is the fact that the monastery where I lived offers something fairly unique among monastic institutions in the West, which is temporary ordination. Rather than diving headfirst into a lifelong commitment to being a monk or a nun, Gampo Abbey offers people the opportunity to come live at the monastery and hold temporary monastic vows for a year or two.

Like quite a few others, I came to the monastery for a year, and ended up staying for two. I went there with an open mind, not really sure whether this whole monastic thing was really for me or not, but interested in exploring the question. Eventually the answer (which, in my case, was "no") emerged in my heart quite clearly, in its own time. For a few people I knew at the monastery, a "yes" answer came to them, and they ended up taking lifelong monastic vows. So, while temporary ordination is a doorway, the door doesn't lead everyone in the same direction. It depends on their calling. Holding temporary monastic vows gives people time to listen deeply to their inner voice and hopefully find the answer that is truly authentic to them as individuals.

This is a wise approach, because I think Westerners practicing Buddhism often have romantic ideas about what it's like to live as a monk or a nun. Holding temporary vows for a while gives people the chance to burn through some of the initial romantic glow and figure out whether their calling toward that life is deep and genuine and lasting.

And in many cases, people aren't even trying to explore that question; they just want to come live at the monastery for a year and immerse themselves in a retreat-like practice environment before returning to their lives in the "outside" world. That, too, is deeply transformative, and the effects are felt for the rest of their lives. In some southeast Asian Buddhist countries it's not uncommon for young people to go live in the monastery for a year or so before moving on into adulthood.

People often ask what led me to take such a dramatic leap, to move to a monastery in Canada for two years. The answer isn't that complicated. I wanted to go deep. I'd already been practicing meditation and studying Buddhism for about a decade, and I wanted to explore to what deeper level of practice and experience I might go if I could live for a period of time in a container that's completely dedicated to that. It's just quite simply a different experience when you're squeezing in meditation for 30 minutes before your day job and other obligations, versus living 24/7 in a practice environment.

The other question people often ask me is what I got out of it. The answer to that one is more complicated. Someone once asked if I got enlightened at the monastery, and I threw back my head and cackled with laughter. "No."

My life at the monastery was full of beautiful revelations, and also full of puzzling contradictions. Not unlike life itself, I suppose. Before moving to the monastery, I worked for 20 years in the fast-paced world of the advertising and marketing industry in New York City. But that hectic lifestyle, for all its stress and challenges, never gave me the severe acid reflux that I developed during my second year at the monastery. Who could have predicted that?

I learned at the monastery how to listen more deeply to my body, how wise the body is and how important its messages are. If anything, I can put that stake in the ground and say, "This is what I got out of it." But you don't have to go live in a monastery to learn that lesson. Develop a regular practice of yoga and meditation, and the wisdom of the body will begin to reveal itself to you.

I like to think that I also returned from the monastery with a little more compassion in my heart, and that my life now is a little more grounded in my own values. Those are intangible things that it's hard to put your finger on, and they may not sound like much, but to me they're worth the price of admission.

Life since I gave up my temporary monastic vows and left the monastery has been full of challenges and blessings. I'm back in the hectic, fast-paced life of New York City, working full-time and writing books and teaching meditation on top of that. It isn't always easy to juggle so many things, and sometimes I miss the tremendous sense of space and silence and the slower pace of life that I experienced at the monastery. But, curiously enough, almost as soon as I left the monastery, my acid reflux disappeared and my body started telling me that I was back where I'm supposed to be.

For now. Life doesn't make us any promises of permanence, about anything. For me, I suppose that's why the chance to experience temporary ordination as a monk and then return to "the world outside" was such a gift. The process of unpacking and comprehending the meaning of that gift is one that continues to unfold in my life on a daily basis.

Photo by Ingrid Hindmarsh

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