Friday, February 5, 2010

Reflections on staying at the monastery

During January I posted a series of blog entries that were written while I was staying at the Santi Forest Monastery.  I thought for this post I'd write a short reflection on my time at the monastery, just to wrap things up.

One of the interesting things about having this blog is that I often sit down to write something with an idea of what I'm going to say, and it all ends up going in a completely different direction.  So, for this post, I deliberately haven't planned what I'll write - and I'm interested to see what direction my fingers take me!

Overall I'd describe my time at the monastery as - confronting, difficult, peaceful, slow, and sad. This is the third time I've stayed up there, usually for around three weeks at a time, and it is always a difficult time for me.  I get very envious of people who go on meditation retreats and say how rewarding or beautiful it was.  I sometimes think there's something wrong with me that I find it so very hard.

But, I try to remind myself that I have difficult things to deal with.  Because I've been living with this illness for well over a decade it's natural that in the first few years of really looking at my feelings and bodily sensations,  I'll find a lot of sadness and despair arising.  

Because I can't do normal, structured meditation, I've come up with my own structure for the day when I'm at the monastery. From whenever I wake up (usually around 8.30am) until 10.30am I lie in bed and either do a meditation, if I feel I can, or just drift in and out of an exhausted haze, trying to be with and recognise whatever sensations are there. 

At 10.30 I go up to have a shower in the communal bathroom, and then have lunch and help to clean up afterwards.  During this stay, I also had a little job, mopping the sala (hall) and setting up mats and bowls for the next day's lunch.  Then, from around 1pm until 6pm I go back to my caravan and either listen to dharma (Buddhist) talks, do some structured meditation, read a bit from Buddhist books, or rest.  

At 6pm, if I feel up to it, I go back up to the main house and have a cup of tea with the other residents. In the evening, I can do what I like - and I usually listen to an audiobook on my ipod (which has nothing whatsoever to do with Buddhism!)

So, that's my day when I'm at the monastery, and I do find it very confronting to be living so closely to my feelings, and my physical condition, without any distractions like TV, radio, family, friends, my mobile phone,  e-mail or the internet.

During this stay, I cried a lot, and felt a deep, dragging depression. It seemed like a heavy weight that I would carry with me everywhere.  There seemed to be no way to fight my way out from underneath the bleak despair.  I was really forced to feel it - day after day after day.  A couple of times, one of the monks at the monastery pulled me aside and said, 'What's up?'  He's a very perceptive person, and I suppose he could tell just by the way I looked that I was having a tough time. 

He spent quite a while talking to me, trying to get an exact feel for what I was struggling with.  He started off by saying, 'You know, it's good to try to just accept the pain, to allow it.'  I think I stopped myself before I actually rolled my eyes at him, but I'm sure I got my message across in what I said. 

'I know that! I know I'm meant to be accepting pain, moving towards it, allowing it...blah, blah, blah...all the books say it.  But, I can't do that, and that just makes me feel even worse, because I hate it so much.  All I feel is how much I don't want it to be there, and this terrible judgement for it being there.'

'Oh OK!' he said, 'So you already know that.  Well, then, what you need is  kindness and gentleness.  Forget all about meditation; forget about what everyone else is doing here.  That's not for you right now.  All you have to do is be gentle.  When you get up out of the chair think, 'Am I doing that gently?'  When you lie in bed, think 'Is this a gentle posture for my body?'  All you have to do is be kind to all of those feelings.'

He was a great support to me, and, after talking to him a few times I did feel like a lot of the fighting and resistance to what was happening subsided.  I was able to just allow the depression, sadness, and judgemental thoughts to be there, without fighting them so much or trying little 'techniques' to get rid of them.  It was  painful to allow these things to just exist.  

I laughed just then at writing 'it was  painful' - because this process is, unfortunately, not in the past - it is  painful.  And that's really what I've taken away from this stay at the monastery. I'm more able to allow difficult feelings to exist.

I got home and started to read a Stephen Levine book that I haven't picked up in about a year.  Stephen talks a lot about moving towards pain, and, since I've always had such trouble with that concept, I ended up putting the book down. I was judging myself too much (and feeling judged by Stephen!) for not being able to send my illness love, or accept it. 

But, after reading a few pages of this book after returning from the monastery, I burst into tears. I was reading a chapter about a  woman whose son had died.  Stephen talked about her including her grief in her heart, and all of a sudden I thought, 'I understand that, I know what he means.' And I had an awareness of how I was moving towards my pain - allowing it to tear my heart open.  I had a vision of me literally stepping into my illness.  

It was very sad, but also quite beautiful, because I had a realisation of how cutting myself off from my illness had cut me off to life.  Over the next few days I realised that although I think I'm 'getting no-where' with this meditation, and that my stays at the monastery are just a complete waste of time - things are slowly changing, and moving.

This is one of the more luxurious huts at the monastery
- I stayed in this one on my first visit.


  1. Maybe your stays at the monastery are doing more than you can know right now. Sometimes, it's exactly the mess and seemingly huge pile of failures that leads us to awaken. In some ways, I'm starting to think maybe that's the only way it happens.

  2. LOL...yes, you may be right. I suppose when we're wading chin deep through all the mess it never seems like it will end up in any kind of awakening. But, thinking about all the stories of awakened, or awakening people, I've ever read, going into the mess is the common motif. At this stage, all I can do is get through hour by hour...just keep going. That's about as much perspective as I can muster!!

  3. Beautiful post. Such honesty and truth. Bravo!

  4. Thanks Lucy. It's so encouraging to get comments like this. And a 'bravo!' too - I feel very chuffed!

  5. Once again Emma, your words have poked a hole into my everyday life.
    My meditation is self created too because I can only meditate while laying down and even though I sometimes fall asleep during it..I have come to see that that is healing for my spirit and body too.
    But I am not where you are yet about 'moving towards the pain' or 'stepping into my illness'.
    I hope you can write more later about this as I feel if I become anymore 'into' it that it will devour me. Yes, that is my resistance, my fight and even my deep desire to have my life to be as it once was...attachment...ah, yes.

    Thank you Emma for helping me once again.


  6. Hi Ama,

    I have the same fear of being devoured and utterly overwhelmed by my illness if I step into it, or 'allow' it to be. I fear that it will get worse, it will 'win', it will always be there for eternity if I relax my vigilant, fighting mind.

    At the moment I'm trying to be with that fear, just to allow it to be.


    Very difficult and challenging. I will write a post about this soon.

    Metta to you on your journey. It helps me to know I'm not the only one who struggles with this :)


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