Health and Wellness Coaching
Change your mind to change your life.
Better Living Through Meditation
By Lauren Yanks. Published in the Poughkeepsie Journal.
Link to the original newspaper article.
Turning 40 was an important milestone for me. I felt like I'd finally stepped into full adulthood, and it was time to let go of any lingering childlike tendencies. I wanted to mark this letting go with solemnity, so I decided to spend my 40th birthday at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper. For one meaningful day, I'd be ensconced in the Zen way of life.
Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that believes enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition rather than through faith and devotion.
Although it is mainly practiced in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, it has slowly been growing in the West for many years, incorporating a certain Western style into the training.
Opened in 1980, Zen Mountain Monastery is a monastic training and retreat center that offers a variety of programs for people of all backgrounds. The beautiful and austere surroundings felt like the perfect place to leave childish things behind and move forward.
Although I had visited the monastery many years before, I knew very little about Zen practice. I arrived right after dinner and found everybody - the monks and the students of all levels - to be welcoming and stoic. I was given some pointers before sitting for the two sessions of evening meditation, about half an hour each with a short break in between.
In the meditation hall, about 30 of us were positioned in neat rows on individual mats. Everybody sat quietly without moving. While meditating, you're supposed to watch the mind as it stops paying attention to the moment and starts thinking about what you did yesterday or the new sneakers you'd like to get.
While sitting for the first meditation, I tried hard to count my breaths and stay in the moment, but my mind kept harking back to the French onion soup I had for lunch (delicious!) and other absurdities. My mind certainly needed more discipline, but just the process of watching my thoughts was helpful; it made me realize how thoughts are recycled information that can stir up a whirlwind of emotions.
During the evening's second meditation, my mind was more focused, although I still thought about all I had to do the following week and other random bits of nonsense. Afterward, we went to bed without fanfare about 9 p.m. I stayed in a comfortable yet sparse room and got a good night's sleep - until 4:30 a.m. when everyone is awakened for morning meditation by the sounds of a light, friendly bell. My body longed to stay in bed for at least another two hours, but I climbed out of bed and made my way down to my mat.
Perhaps it was the sleepiness, but my mind seemed more focused and present for the morning meditation. In fact, it felt like a wonderful way to wake up every day; it creates a mood of mindfulness as one goes about daily life. I found it to be very healthy - definitely healthier than the many cups of tea I usually wake up to each morning.
After meditation and some chanting and bowing, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast of fruit and eggs. I chatted with the students and monks while eating, and then it was time for work. In the morning, everybody works for a couple of hours in silence.
I was assigned to the kitchen, where I peeled carrots and chopped tomatoes and other vegetables for lunch. I rarely cook and don't spend much time in the kitchen, but I found working in silence with a group of focused people to be very pleasurable. If only I could be present like that for every task in my life.
After kitchen duty, I had time to interview a few people about their lives in the monastery and what brought them to this place. The abbot of the monastery, Ryushin Marchaj, is originally from Poland but has lived at the monastery since 1992.
"I was attracted to meditation and the rigorous way of studying my mind," he answered when I asked what drew him to Zen. "I learned I had a way of taking care of my anxiety about life and death and basic fears. I was in pain, and Zen offered me a way to take that on directly and personally. I had what I needed to heal that within myself."
Valerie Meiju Linet has been living at the monastery for a year and a half. She first started coming when she was a student at Vassar.
"I was just in a lot of pain and trying to find some peace," she said. "Meditating helped me to find a stillness in my body and mind that was amazing to me. It's been really helpful in my life to be here."
Linet was a social worker at the rape crisis center in Poughkeepsie for three years before coming to live at the monastery. Now she works as the gardener and is the editor of the monastery journal.
"I feel very present here," she said. "I'm excited to see how this spiritual practice will manifest when I leave here at the end of the year. The practice is just bearing witness to your own humanity, and peeling back layers of the mind."
Christian Panas had been at the monastery for just more than six months and plans to stay for 14.
"I chose Zen because of its focus on just sitting and taking note of your own thoughts," he said. "I tend to go into things pre-judging, so I'm going in not actually encountering the thing, but my idea about the thing. This place gives me the opportunity to work towards waking with wonderful teachers in a wonderful environment."
For a couple of years before entering the monastery, Panas often felt overwhelmed by anger and depression. When asked about how he's feeling now, he lights up.
"I find that my suffering has decreased remarkably," he said. "When I'm getting worked up, I realize it's just my thoughts."
After my interviews, I went into the abbot's office and thanked him for a great birthday. Even though it was a quick visit, it was a gentle reminder of what truly matters.
"Buddhism teaches us that we can live a free and joyful life regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in," he said to me. "Our happiness is not conditioned by money or relationships, but by our state of mind and our understanding and appreciation and the nature of our mind."
On the drive home, I decided to pull over and take a deep breath. While admiring the snow-covered trees and glorious mountains, I felt a renewed sense of excitement about life.
"I think I'll be back for my 41st," I said aloud.
Lauren Yanks writes about healthy living for a number of publications and teaches English at SUNY New Paltz. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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