Why I Spent My Summer Living in a Monastery
‘Afternoons are unscheduled, and guests generally pass the time in the meditation hall or library.’
At 4:30 a.m. I awake to the sound of my alarm. My weariness dissipates as I walk to the meditation hall, cool English air permeating my cotton pants and t-shirt. Crossed-legged with a small brown book in hand, I join in fifteen minutes of Buddhist chants before the ringing of a standing bell invites all the women of the monastery to begin our first hour of meditation.
Chores begin at 6:30 a.m. With my hair pulled back and thick yellow gloves on, I spend the next forty-five minutes cleaning our living space. Bathrooms, shower, windows, floor. My routine has become systematic, and in the ease of simple regimen, I find myself unbothered by the tasks, able to enjoy the modest pleasures of cleanliness.
At 7:15 we meet in the sala for a reliable breakfast of fruit and oatmeal, lovingly called gruel. Propped up on a meditation cushion, I notice the consistency and flavor of my food, a fairly easy task when you haven’t eaten since noon the previous day. The next few hours are spent in the kitchen, preparing lunch for the monastics and visitors.
While each of the monks and nuns fills their alms bowls and migrates to their private quarters, I sit in meditation, observing the feelings of hunger and impatience. Finally, seated on the floor with my back resting against the wall, I indulge in my last meal of the day.
Afternoons are unscheduled, and guests generally pass the time in the meditation hall or library, but I often find myself following sheep through hilly wheat fields or trees through canopying forests. Tea at 5 p.m. brings the community together once again before our evening meeting in the temple at 7:30. In this final gathering of the day, we sit for a period of chanting before the standing bell propels my mind into its familiar meditative state. Here it will rest for one hour before being released by the same sound.
Contemplative practice had fallen into my lap last year when I enrolled in a course on the history and psychology of Buddhist meditation. Something about these teachings made perfect sense to me, addressing the most fundamental questions that had subtly woven through my life for as long as I can remember.
In the months following this discovery, as I developed a modest meditative practice and rudimentary knowledge of Buddhism, an unshakeable curiosity was planted within me. A deep sense of something greater. Eventually this calling led me to a number of individuals that were able to guide me, and after dozens of emails, phone calls, and lunches, I mapped out a summer that I hoped would satiate my longing curiosity. At first, the idea of spending my summer at a Buddhist monastery was just a passing thought, a sort of joke or dream. But each time the thought crossed my mind, the possibility become slightly more feasible.
Now as I write from the small library of Amaravati Monastery, surrounded by the aroma of old books, I am unable to imagine spending these summer months any other way. Situated about an hour north of London, Amaravati has been my home for the past ten days, where I have been given a bed and food in exchange for daily chores and adherence to the contemplative practices of each day. And with countless resources and ample time for meditation, I am able to delve deeper and more fully into a world previously unknown to me.
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 6, 2016.