A Weekend at a Zen Monastery
My wife told me she and her yoga friend were going away for a weekend to a Zen monastery. Do I want to join them. At first I'm reluctant, them being quite educated in yoga and meditation, and me being an easily distracted slob.
After the initial distress, I realized this might be a great opportunity, and my curiosity was sparked. I had started to meditate quite regularly a few months back - I had started using Headspace during January, thanks to the recommendation of my collegue Stefan, and had meditated daily for 10-15 minutes per day, my intention being finding some more pockets of quiet time, maybe similar to the time I joined the National Day of Unplugging (which was an unexpected struggle).
So I told my wife I was in, not really knowing what I'm getting into.
We are having a wonderful train ride to Bingen, and meet Uli, my wife's friend, and we take her car to the monastery. The Benediktushof is located in Northern Bavaria, near the city of Würzburg. We enter the impressively large building and register. My wife and I are assigned a minimalistic room with two single beds, and I learn three unexpected things
- our stay here also involves an hour of work per day. Okay, fine, but I realize I had expected something more holiday-like.
- Holiday-like? Taking a glance at the schedule reveals that the first meditation session starts at 5:45 in the morning. I break into a minor sweat.
- also, we are supposed to spend the weekend in silence. While other guests around me are having second thoughts about this, the introvert in me opens a bottle of Champagne.
After a short introduction with organizational stuff, we start with dinner. The food is already prepared and smells great. It's all vegetarian, looking actually quite bland, but the food tastes surprisingly great. I wonder if the taste is enhanced by the fact we are not distracted by talking. We drink tea and still water. Before we actually started eating, a bell was rung and a bow as a gesture of appreciation was in order. I gladly obliged, being starved.
The first actual session after dinner involves two kinds of meditation, walking and sitting. We discuss various sitting positions, and I go for the half lotus, being a little smug, watching others go for the larger pillows, benches or even chairs. Losers! We do sitting meditations for 20 minutes, then walk for 10 minutes. And again. After a few rounds of this I become impatient. Is that all we're going to do for the next two days?!
Apparently yes. The Zen master is a seemingly humourless man in his mid fifties. He mentions that the variation of Zen practiced at the monastery (named "Leere Wolke" which translates to "empty cloud") is in fact a western form of Zen, eliminating the asian folklore and rituals, and focusing on the utter basics. He is accompanied by a deputy Zen master who rings the bell before and after the meditation sessions. We are again left in silence - I would love to listen to a lecture of some kind, my brain feeling utterly under-utilized. I'm in a state of mild panic.
The day ends, I feel quite exhausted, despite having done nothing. I fall asleep quite soon, maybe due to the 5:45 start the next day.
We get up at 5:15, get ready and meet outside. It's freezing cold and pitch black, then the deputy Zen master produces a clacking sound with two wood blocks, and we start the walking meditation. We, a group of about 50 people, move around in a circle about 20 meters in diameter. We do this for roughly 30 minutes. This is supposed to be a fast walk, but some people walk slower than I do, and this makes me a little uncomfortable.
It is interesting though to become aware of the muscle motion and mechanics of the body. The Zen master encouraged us to rediscover walking, maybe experiencing it as a continuous repetition of falling forward and stopping that fall - an unusual perspective. Then the wood blocks clack again, and people are either startled or bump into each other. The deputy Zen master explains that we are not in the Now - if people would have been really present, the clacking sound would not have come as a surprise.
After breakfast we resume the sitting/walking meditations from the evening before, and after a few rounds I'm pretty exhausted. I realize my body was not able to manage more than an hour of half lotus, and subsequently lower my ambitions, at first with a larger pillow, and finally with a small bench. I feel like an utter hypocrite.
I celebrate lunch, because at last something is happening. The food is again great, lots of vegetables we usually don't have at home, simple but surprisingly satisfying. Then it is time for work, washing up and laying the dishes for the next course. It feels great to have something to do. But I'm really tired. Then we are allowed a little break. I lie down and relax my back. Doing nothing is quite exhaustive.
The afternoon goes by with sitting and walking meditations. I'm beginning to surrender, and enter into a more trance-like state of mind, interrupted only by sensations of back pain due to the elongated sitting. But in the evening, finally, the Zen master holds a lecture about the history of Zen meditation, followed by a Q&A session. It feels weird to hear people talking again, but my brain is thankful for content. Afterwards I go to bed exhausted, but with feeling of pleasant emptiness.
The morning walking meditation feels less weird than the day before, and I feel a little more curious about it. Also, the sensations of "waiting for it to be over" are decreasing. I feel a little indifferent, but in a calm way. After breakfast and a few rounds of meditation we are offered another lecture plus Q&A, which is very insightful (I will talk about the stuff I learned here in another blog post). The Zen master is a little less reserved than the day before - we actually laugh quite a lot. The apparent bleakness and strictness of Zen scared me a little the day before, but today I appreciate its minimalistic elegance.
After lunch and another work session the retreat is over. We browse the bookstore next to the monastery, and I feel the urge to buy a lot of books about meditation and Zen. But the words of the Zen master resonate in me - you only need to experience the Now to meditate. There is no need to buy stuff or learn anything, you just practice. So I don't buy anything, but I am determined to start a regular morning meditation routine.
Then we depart, and the gloomy atmosphere from the evening before is totally gone. We all feel a sense of clearness and lightness. It's only been a few hours away from the daily hustle, but the effect is undeniable, although I don't feel better per se, as my back hurts and I'm really tired.
We hug Uli and say good-bye, get on the train and leave. I'm glad I had the discipline to pull through, I really struggled at some stages. But now, a feeling of calmness, a strange distance to problems and worries overcomes me - they are still there, but don't affect me that much. I even smile! This is a feeling I want to carry with me from now on.