Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Monk No More

It has been quite some time since readers of this blog last heard from me. Many people have written or approached me to say how much they would like for me to continue writing here. I can only say that it has always been my intention to return to this blog, and add (feebly, in my defense) that life since I last wrote anything here has been, well, a bit of a rollercoaster.

About a month-and-a-half ago marked my one-year anniversary of being back in New York City, following a two-year odyssey of living as a temporary monk at a Buddhist monastery in the remote wilds of Eastern Canada. It was while living that frequently charmed life — nestled between ocean and mountains and supported by the insular rhythms of monastic rituals and hours of daily contemplative practice — that I wrote most of the essays that appeared on this blog to date. And it was through that particular filter of experience that most of you saw me and got to know me here.

That life now seems like such a distant memory to me that it’s sometimes hard to believe I was actually living in the monastery, wearing maroon robes, a year-and-a-half ago. So much water has passed under the bridge of life since then, and so much has changed. As Heraclitus said, "You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you."

People in New York City often have a wide-eyed expression when I tell them about my time in the monastery, and (assuming they aren't looking at me with suspicion or pity) they seem to regard it as proof of some special ability on my part. “Wow, that’s amazing” is usually followed quickly by “I could never do that” or “I can’t sit still” or “I would go crazy” or “I can’t imagine being without my iPhone.” Little do they know that I can’t sit still either, and sometimes I went crazy in the monastery, and even though I lived an hour’s drive from the nearest cellular signal, I still had my iPhone at my side and used it as a WiFi device to check my email and Facebook accounts. You can take the monk out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the monk.

With most New Yorkers, the next series of questions usually goes something like this: “So, when you were living in the monastery, were you celibate? Really? Wait, so you mean you didn’t have sex with anyone? No one? For two whole years? Not even once? You’re kidding! Oh my God! I would die. So, wait, I hope it doesn’t make you uncomfortable that I’m asking you all these questions? Are you sure? Okay, so, I mean, did you at know? Oh my God, I would die!” Well, here I am. I did not die, and neither would you. Personally, I think a two-year sabbatical from sex and romance did me a lot of good.

Actually, I like to think it did me a lot of good but I don’t really have any proof of that. My post-monk intimate life in New York has certainly not been anything that I would hold up as a role model for anyone. About a month after I landed back in the city I met someone and fell deeply, madly in love — in the intense, all-or-nothing way that perhaps only someone who has been starved for intimate connection for several years can fall in love. But love, as it often does, stayed for a little while and then abruptly went away, and I was left holding a bag with the broken pieces of my heart in it. Only I now had another person’s name written on each of those pieces and I couldn’t seem to wipe it off. When I came back from the monastery, my heart was wide open and strong, wider and stronger than it has ever been. But by the time love was done with me, my heart was shriveled and bruised and enfolded upon itself, and I felt weaker than I have ever felt in my life.

It has taken me some time to be able to look back on that experience and say that it was probably exactly what I needed, and that it arrived and departed exactly when it was supposed to. But I can say that now, and there are even occasional moments when I can say it and actually mean it.

Once people have gotten past the sex questions, they usually want to know what was it that led me to go to the monastery, and what did I learn while I was there? What did I get out of it? Did I find enlightenment? Have amazing spiritual realizations? Achieve inner peace? “You seem, like, so Zen, so chill. That must be from your time in the monastery.” No, actually, I was always pretty much like this. It’s just my outward persona. And you can ask my close friends about how Zen and chill I really am. They know you can scratch off the polished Zen facade and you'll find someone underneath with all the neuroses of Woody Allen and all the maudlin narratives of Adele, just waiting to come out.

I used to say, when asked, that what I brought home from the monastery was a sense of being more comfortable in my own skin, and a stronger feeling of compassion for others. But I don’t even make those small claims anymore. Since my return I’ve been tested enough times — by love, by family, by friends, by the noise and greed and rush of New York City itself — to know that my compassion often flies out the window when it’s needed most, and I can still find myself at times wanting to be in a thousand other skins than my own. La piel que habito no es siempre lo que quiero habitar.

As for why I went to the monastery in the first place, well, it had something to do with wanting to explore my spiritual development — which is to say, my growth as a human, as a being, as a human being — in an intense, all-or-nothing way that no other environment or path seemed to offer. (You see, I suppose I fell into monkhood as blindly and whole-heartedly as I fell in love.)

The other day I came across a quote by one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Ken McLeod, who seemed to sum it all up:

“As long as you limit your experience to what fits into the world of society, you will explore your spiritual potential only to the extent that it doesn’t impinge on your life in society.”

Going to the monastery was a way of trying to explore my spiritual potential to the fullest extent I could at the time, no holds barred. Frankly, nothing — except, perhaps, joining the circus — could “impinge on your life in society” more than moving to an isolated spiritual community and donning the robes and following the vows of a monk — the epitome of someone who walks away from society and all its materialistic expectations. Going to the monastery was going against the stream of everything society said I should be doing instead. And it was an immersion into the formalities of spiritual practice that I realize I may never be able to duplicate in my life outside the monastery. I also recognize that it was an experiment that not everyone has the luxury of making, and that I was fortunate to have had the experience, however challenging it may have been at times. And in the end, I’m keenly aware of the fact that I came out of it with nothing in particular to show for it. Only a deeper sense of connection to the world and to myself, and a deeper willingness to work on myself and nourish my strengths and know my weaknesses — to accept myself, warts and all.

And for now that is enough.