What I Learned From Living in a Monastery
Reflections after one week of intensive meditation.
I have focused my meditation in these past days on the art of breathing, as I use my breath to draw every corner of my wandering, sleepy, or agitated mind back into my current moment of existence. By continuously drawing my attention to nothing but the rising and falling of my chest, I train my mind to notice the subtlety of every passing moment, building an association between my breath and the feeling of present moment awareness. Basic classical conditioning. Then, as I walk the monastery grounds, my breath gently guides my entire being into the calm, spacious energy of bare awareness. My heartbeat slows as my eyes soften, and I settle into greater recognition of the space around me. Through an inextricable entanglement of each of my senses, my mind and body absorb every bit of information that each moment has to offer.
In this state of awareness, I peer past the doors of standard perceptions, as the overlooked intricacies of our world expose themselves to me. I don’t just see a tree to my right, as I walk from the meditation hall back to my room at 6 a.m. I see sinuous roots erupting from the ground and soaring dozens of feet above me. Part of the earth and part of the sky. The animated patterns of bark climbing the trunk are only put to shame by the sudden dispersion of branches that scatter like repelling magnets over my head. And as the branches taper, the sun and wind mingle to illuminate the flurry of dancing green leaves, imbuing the structure with a sense of life and breath.
Utter beauty can arise from meditation, but often times the seated practice itself is a frustrating confrontation with the depths of my own mind, as I fight the urge to entertain myself with stories of the past or future. Recognizing this urge is a benchmark in my meditative practice, as I become able to watch these tendencies from a distance, simply noticing my mind’s desires to entertain itself. I am no longer fighting.
If I am aware enough to detect the fullest and emptiest feelings of my lungs, then I am devoting enough attention to my breath, and the thoughts that enter my mind during this time are received with a sense of distance and acceptance. Eventually, with gentle focus on my breath I calm the chatter in my head. I am no longer retelling stories from the past or planning for the future, and I softly release everything but the moment I find myself in. In these scarce moments, I relinquish my entire world. As I sit alone in silence with closed eyes, nothing exists outside of my own mind. And when I am no longer lost in mental titillations, I am left in a moment with absolutely nothing but the filling and emptying of my lungs. As I renounce thought, I let go of everything that existed before that moment and everything that exists after it, completely detaching from my past and my future. I see their intrinsic insubstantiality, and with this comes a strong desire to live wholeheartedly in the moment I am in.
As I witness the seamless flow of each moment into the next, I develop an eerie sense that nothing outside of the present truly exists. The passing of time is a strange phenomenon. We are all strapped into a train that never stops or turns back, staring out the window at an ever-changing scene. What we see and experience through the window changes ceaselessly, leaving the last scene to our memory and the next one to our imagination. Most of us desperately fight this fate, peering ahead to predict the next turn or staring back helplessly as the train distances from our object of focus. The scene right in front of us is all that truly exists, but something that transforms every moment is incredibly difficult to trust, so we dwell in the past or the future, which paradoxically feels more substantial. But if we simply look straight out the window and practice seeing only what is in front of us, we can take each moment in stride, loving it, letting it go, and welcoming the next one.
With just over a week of focused contemplative practice, I settle into a new perspective, as I attempt to understand my existence as a succession of singular events that appear and disappear endlessly. With greater clarity I recognize that to experience a life where I feel sincerely alive, I must learn to exist in the fluidity of the moment I am in. Letting go of thoughts from other times or places, even for just an hour, gives me a taste of what it’s like to be alive right now. Learning to live mindfully is truly just learning to live.
Gigi Falk, a sophomore at Duke University, is studying cognitive neuroscience with a focus in contemplative sciences. She is interested in exploring the intersection of mindfulness and neuroscience, in order to foster a deep and thorough understanding of meditation as mental training for a more fulfilling life. By exploring happiness and fulfillment as something that is internally driven and supporting such claims with science-based evidence, she hopes to contribute to the dialogue surrounding western meditation with a distinct voice.
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Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on July 15, 2016.