What You Can Learn From Doing Nothing

Watching the sun set before evening meditation

To say that my time at the monastery changed my life would be the easy way out because even the very fact that I chose to step out of bed with my left foot instead of right this morning was also “life-changing.”

So let me rephrase that. While my decision to spend time at the monastery changed my life, the time I spent there enhanced it.

How I ended up there

Thank you, Professor McDaniel. Somehow my Intro to Buddhism professor managed to not only keep an entire class awake at 2 pm, but also made them form opinions about Buddhism. Between my professor, my parents and a newfound interest in Buddhism, I knew that I needed to start meditating again. I wanted to learn more about how to create space without physically moving. Raised in an environment that fostered meditation and mindfulness, I asked my professor for some suggestions of good monasteries or Zen centers in California or London. From that list, I vetted each monastery, listened to the head Abbot’s talks, and called around to see who would have the space to accommodate a 19-year old during peak visiting season. Couple phone calls later, it was decided I would be going to Wat Metta (Metta Forest Monastery) near Escondido towards the end of August.

Understanding monastic life

So what did you do? There is a common misconception that living in a monastery means pure relaxation, similar to a week in the Bahamas. Don’t get me wrong. Life in the monastery was cathartic and relaxing, but not in the same manner as your tropical getaway. My daily schedule was more rigorous than my normal work day. My day started at 4:30 with an hour of independent yoga then morning group meditation at 5:30. From 6:45–11:00, all my concerns related to food: my morning chore was to help prep dishes in time for the monks’ 8:30 alms round, followed by serving food and chanting while the monks ate until 9:30. After the monks ate, we brought the remaining food to the kitchen, where we (the laypeople) ate and then proceeded to clean the dishes. 11:00 am to 5:00 pm was known as “the afternoon” or when it hits you that you’re in a forest in the middle of nowhere. Normally, my afternoons consisted of some variation of 4 hours of meditation, 1 hour of reading, and 1 hour of personal hygiene. Following the afternoon was a Q&A session contingent on the Than Ajaan’s presence at the monastery. If he wasn’t there, we went straight into afternoon chores (cooking prep for me). Around 7, we stopped and had an hour break before the final hour of evening meditation. By 9:20, my eyes were already half shut as I walked back to my tent in the dark, barely moonlit night more than ready to call it a day.

What I learned from meditation and mindfulness

Doing nothing takes a lot more effort than doing something.

My parents have been trying to make me meditate before I could even spell meditation. “Savi, just come here and sit still.” Like every overactive child, there was too much of the world to explore to just sit. Parents, I tell you. They just don’t understand what it’s like to be me at all. My special snowflake mentality perpetuated throughout all of my tween phase and the majority of my teenage life. High school sped by so fast that only after a temporary burn out while finishing my first semester in college did I realize that I never took time to stop. I couldn’t do it, and I soon realized that I wasn’t alone. As a society, we’ve become so comfortable with the bombardment of stimuli to the point that we prefer electrocution over our thoughts. Before I could even begin to focus on my breath, I needed to learn to stop moving. After 18 hours of meditation over the span of three days, I managed to make it through an entire hour without moving my body.

I have never expended that much mental control in my life. This is not some teenage exaggeration. This is not a demonstration of my privilege (intentionally). This is a testament to the rigor of such a simple task. My respect for the monks exponentially increased. After that hour, I felt the same exhaustion as I did as if I had been kickboxing non-stop the entire day. Just a reminder that I hadn’t even started meditating yet. Once I found a comfortable breath, I began working on clearing my mind and just focusing on breathing….and I’m still working on it.

Embrace the void as much as whatever fills it.

We choose a vase of the highest quality, place it on a pedestal, and polish it everyday, cautiously tending to it as if it were a newborn child. We appreciate a vase for its capacity to hold whatever we chose to fill it with. We pour water in the vase, add flowers, maybe a couple stones, or some nutrients. Three days later, we notice the flowers wilting and either decide to adjust, replace, or revitalize them. We obsess over the flowers and the beauty they add at their finest complemented by the vase. We obsess over the purity of the water in order to protect the flower and prevent dust from feigning the vase’s beauty. However, our obsession with the vase itself or its contents makes us forget the purpose of the vase. The vase was not destined to hold your flowers. It was created to house an empty space. You may use that empty space to place flowers of your choice, but without that space there would be no place to showcase your flowers. Without that space, there would be no opportunity to care for these flowers and increase their longevity or to remove the flowers as they start to die. Treat your mind like a vase. Don’t let it sit with dirty water, mossy stones, or old flowers. Allow it to have the space to accept its next gift. Empty the vase so that those next flowers are not tainted by the flowers of the past. Remember that the vase remaining empty requires as much of a conscious effort as the vase being full.

Clear your mind so you can open your heart.

When you start to appreciate the void, you also allow yourself to see the world without judgment. Decisions that were once impossible to tackle start to have an answer. Internal conflicts start to fix themselves. Stress that not only plagued your body but also your energy slowly dissipates. The burden of daily life becomes lighter. Yet, none of those felt as fulfilling as losing my prejudice, pre-conceived biases, and social pressures. After being overwhelmed with “I can’t believe you’re only 19” at least once a day in London, it was nice to be around people who didn’t care about my age. No one cared about what society prescribed for a 19-year old, rather they focused on the competency of the woman in front of them. Not even once at the monastery did I ever feel judged for my age, occupation, or experiences, nor did I judge others based off of theirs. I honestly just didn’t care. It didn’t matter what you did in the past or what you were going to do in the future. All that mattered was what you’re doing now, in the present. Were you helping or hurting? All people cared about was whether you were doing good and wanted to provide guidance rather than punishment if you weren’t.

Appreciate and accept the natural ephemerality of life.

During my time, I had the opportunity to passively participate in a Thai funeral of a beloved, dedicated supporter of the monastery. Although these evening talks had a particular emphasis on death, in general, most of the talks and even the Canon itself constantly reference death. Death always has been a sensitive topic, so to hear the word used nonchalantly and frequently initially made me uncomfortable. Regardless of your personal beliefs in what happens after death, we can all agree that we will die. Death is inevitable. You cannot escape it. Rather than trying to cheat it or worry about when the time will come, just accept it. Accept that you will eventually die, and given that you will, you now have a life with an expiration date. You do not know when your last breath may be, but you still have the next. So what will you do? How will you live? The ephemerality of life allows us to make choices, see those choices turn into a path, see that path have an outcome. If you treat yourself and those around you with kindness, have faith in others, and accept everyone around you, then you live with no regret. When you live with no regret, you can remove the fear associated with death. The fear of leaving. The fear of being forgotten. The fear of not having lived.

Build a bridge.

Think of your self-esteem and inner peace as a fine string tied across two skyscrapers, and your job in life is simply to walk on the high-wire and, hopefully, make it to the other side. If you chose to isolate yourself from the world, you will survive with a thin wire only capable of supporting one. However, as tempting as isolation may sound on a Friday night after an intense week at work, most of us don’t actually enjoy prolonged periods without human interaction (surprisingly, Netflix counts). It’s easy to forget that even the monks are voluntarily sacrificing the comfort of family and friends in pursuit of concentration (jhana) that will lead them to enlightenment. So, if you know that you need to get to the other building, but that other people are going to walk all over your wire, compare it to theirs, and possibly try to cut it, wouldn’t you want to reinforce your wire? Forget the metal wire. Don’t try to strengthen your wire by entangling other wires. Build a graphene bridge so that even if everyone in your life were to betray you and stomp down, your bridge would still stand. Naturally there will be scratches and chips in your bridge as some people impact your life more than others, but at the end of the day, your bridge will still stand.

Before I finish, I just wanted to remind everyone reading that these views and experiences are specific to me, and this post is merely a brief reflection of these experiences. I want to thank the Metta Forest Monastery (Wat Metta) for providing this opportunity by accommodating me and express the sincerest gratitude for the kind souls who I encountered during my stay, both monks and lay people.