Welcome to my new blog! My name is Jacob Waldor. I grew up in Short Hills, NJ and have attended Pomona College for two years. Recently, after finishing my sophomore year, I decided to take a semester off from Pomona to pursue Buddhist practice and other ways of increasing happiness through self-development. Though I might ultimately find the life that a Western education offers desirable, going to college does not make sense to me now. I think the task of seeking long-term happiness deserves my attention; college, on the other hand, directs my attention to solving problems that rarely seem to relate to my happiness. To this end, I have already spent time at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, and in the near future, I plan to spend two months in Thailand going to retreats and monasteries, a week or two at Wat Metta near San Diego (Thanissaro Bhikku’s monastery), and three months at the Monastic Academy in Vermont. I also have been closely reading Thanissaro Bhikku’s works over the past several weeks for encouragement and to assist my meditation practice. In this blog, I plan to relate my experiences on this journey. When possible, I hope to have a post every two weeks; in cases where I am in places where I cannot post, I will try to post right after those experiences are over.
After finishing the spring semester at Pomona, I spent about four weeks at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Mill Valley, CA as a guest student. I will first provide an objective description of life at Green Gulch and then get into my personal experience. At Green Gulch, we woke up at about 4:25 AM for two 40-minute periods of zazen followed by a service. After breakfast, guest students did dishes and then another job, usually on the farm or in the garden, until lunch. We were asked to honor “functional speech” during work. Afternoons were similar, but we would have about two hours of free time before late-afternoon zazen. Usually, we were free after dinner, but sometimes there were optional Dharma talks or classes. We had Thursday afternoons and Fridays off each week.
When I arrived at Green Gulch, my doubt about taking a break from Pomona disappeared. I immediately felt that living at Green Gulch would be far more productive than college because concentration and peace seemed to come naturally at Green Gulch. In addition, I met people who complicated my views and helped me on my journey to happiness, showing me that college is not the only place to have meaningful friendships. The work, especially that in the farm and garden, was arduous for me. I had trouble focusing on the work while doing it, often spending it thinking about what I wanted to do in my free time. However, in general, it was easier for me to remain alert and mindful while doing the work at Green Gulch than in college.
As time went on, challenges came up. A challenge I faced at Green Gulch was my need to plan the journey that would happen after I left — when I arrived, I still hadn’t decided that I wanted to go to the Monastic Academy and Thailand. The task of planning distracted me from the task of developing mindfulness at Green Gulch. A lot of the time, I would find myself lost in fantasies about the future. I also spent a lot of free time wrestling with my Getting Things Done (GTD) system, trying to find appropriate ways to avoid forgetting things, organize projects, and conduct my life in a way true to my values. Because of challenges such as these, my time at Green Gulch was somewhat of a roller coaster. However, I believe that the environment at Green Gulch — and the lack of homework — allowed me to deal with these challenges more skillfully than I would have in college.
Although I made progress with these two challenges while at Green Gulch, I believe that the most significant growth came from simply being in a kind environment. This environment, supported by my mindfulness and ardency, allowed me to improve interpersonal skills and heal traumas. Mainly, I realized I suffer a lot because of excessive resistance to communicating my needs to other people and tend to assume that other people will not understand my challenges. I also got better at being a leader, even if that just meant telling new students where the unusually shaped bowls go after we finished washing them.
The biggest shortcoming of Green Gulch was the lack of sophisticated instruction from good teachers. Guest students do not have much opportunity to speak with teachers; in addition, I believe some of the things teachers said during Dharma talks missed the point as to the essence of Buddhism — for example, emphasizing non-conceptual awareness rather than encouraging skillful perceptions — leading me to distrust them. However, at Green Gulch, a friend of mine from college who was also living at Green Gulch introduced me to the writings of Thanissaro Bhikku, a Thai forest monk, and he became my main teacher. He challenged me to use my own capacity for insight to figure out how to alleviate the stress in my life instead of applying techniques that others say should work. This encouragement gave me clarity for my meditation practice and led me to learn how to enjoy the work on the farm which I had found stressful at first.
I hope that relating this experience will help anyone who is looking to pursue things similar to this. I would appreciate any feedback you have about this post. For example, if there are aspects of my experience that you would like to know about that I have not focused on, I would appreciate it if you tell me. Also, if anything I write seems wrong, please tell me.