How I Found the Pause Button in a Zen Monastery

Tassajara bridge, by Shundo David Haye

The best thing about the monastery is that it’s off the grid. No wifi, no cellphone coverage, no way they can track you down. Just a phone booth under a tree. Outgoing calls only.

After a while, the urgency evaporates and you give up standing in line and go for a long walk in the wilderness instead. Or hang out in the cool of the library, or visit the hot springs and soak in the sulphurous plunge, or sit quietly in the cool dimness of the meditation hall, watching the flickering candles and realizing that your life could be like this, easy and open. That’s when you start to seriously consider cancelling all your appointments and just staying here for a while. The taste of freedom is very sweet.

The first time I visited Tassajara, I was a city girl, a journalist, rattling off stories and wisecracks, edgy and overstimulated, juggling information with my phone, camera, laptop and modem (I know, but it was a long time ago). On the newsdesk, I was exposed to a lot of incoming information every day—about as much as the average cellphone user in this day and age. And it was beginning to have a deleterious effect on my life. I could feel myself becoming more dissociated, less empathetic, and less creative. I was hardening into a one-trick dog-and-pony show, and I came to the monastery because I needed a break from the self that I was becoming.

Tassajara wildflowers, by Shundo David Haye

After waking up the first morning with something approaching panic (“What will I do all day if I’m not always on?”), it was a revelation to discover that I had stumbled upon a much easier way of being. In this peaceful space, I could risk accepting things as they were, rather than rushing around trying to make things better. The monastery hit the “pause” button and stopped me in my tracks, teetering in my stilettos on a narrow mountain path. (That’s a metaphor — I wasn’t quite that unprepared.) But even in walking boots, this was very different from my city life. There was silence and stillness all around me, and everything happened more slowly than I was used to. Walking rather than driving, talking rather than texting, reading a book rather than watching a screen — it was all so comfortingly organic. And in this analogue world, I was more attentive to my fellow-humans, more interested in them, and more open to their quirks and their wonderfulness than when I spent my days clicking “likes” in the floating world of the internet.

That first visit to the monastery opened up a door that had always been waiting for me . I began to realize that I had grown bored with the two-dimensional existence I had once found entertaining. And that realization started me on the path to eventually being ordained as a Zen priest.

So while I don’t think a weekend in the monastery will convince you to give up your career and shave your head, I do know that a Zen Buddhist monastery is the perfect place to experiment with being free from the digital demands on your attention.

Tassajara creek, by Shundo David Haye

Here’s the deal. The Buddha taught that suffering is caused by wanting things to be different. Sit still and meditate, he said, and just notice your likes and dislikes rather than clutching at the good things and pushing away the bad ones. Got that? Likes and dislikes cause us suffering. Meditation trains the mind to respond less compulsively to likes and dislikes. The more time we spend sitting quietly, the less we tend to fly off the handle or run away when we find ourselves in a situation where we don’t feel comfortable.

You’ve probably noticed that this is the exact opposite to what we do online. The internet retrains the brain so it’s even more reactive, even more likely to respond to likes and dislikes. Every time I click a link, someone’s making money out of my distraction, so there’s a whole industry focused on encouraging me to jump to the next thing: “You might also like this.” In that digital universe of clickbait and backbiting, my malleable brain is schooled to keep on clicking, jerked around by hunger and rage. Settling down to sit in meditation, I often discover that my mind is flickering with imagery that both fascinates and repels me.

The Japanese-style hot springs at Tassajara

So how can we practice mindfulness when we spend most of our lives in a state of artificial stimulation? How can we authentically meet each other when our friends are all looking at the palm of their hands? Tara Brach suggests the sacred pause, a phrase that really struck a chord with me. But it’s not easy to slow down. I find that amazing technique, airplane mode, a useful resource, and I’d like to have boundaries in my relationship with my devices, using old-fashioned single-task machines like alarm clocks and cameras rather than a piece of technology that is expressly designed to seduce me into having a quick look at social media. But life is very short when you’re wrestling with a paper map in an unfamiliar city. Sometimes I just need to get far way from wifi, put down the screen, stop for one moment, and breathe.

During Labor Day weekend, Djinn will co-lead a three-day retreat in the digital oasis of Tassajara: No cell-phone coverage, no wifi, just a rare opportunity to revel in direct experience without any two-dimensional distractions. She suggests you bring an alarm clock.

Opening to the Fullness of Our Life: A Zen and Yoga Retreat, Tassajara, September 1–4, 2017.