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Living in a Zen Center: A Personal Report

Photo by Eduardo Izquierdo
Editor’s Note

A few weeks ago, I received a curious and adorable little hand-written letter from Cat. At the time, she was on her 3rd months living in a Zen Monastery. Without Internet connection, she sent us this important self-reflective story—on what she had learned—in this little envelope. I believe this is one of the most important and beautiful articles you will read. Spend some time, and soak in its beauty and wisdom.

Simplify, simplify. ~Thoreau

The contemporary western world can feel rushed and complicated.

With speed and productivity woven into this culture, our bodies move with a habitual hurriedness, our minds fill with an endless stream of errands, expectations, goals to conquer, a life to plan ….

For many years, my days were spent rushing from one moment to the next as an ongoing effort to make progress in each category of an accomplished life. The alarm would sound: chime, chime, chime and a billion responsibilities rushing in, tugging me out of bed:

Monday mornings … snooze
… snooze again.
By the time my eyes would open, I already felt behind.

Traffic.
Coffee.
Work.
More coffee.
Squeeze in the gym during lunch.
Race around in high-heels.
Attend to the iPhone.
Attend to multiple things at once.
Traffic.
Eat in the car.
All other life categories {family, friends, leisure, insert here}.
Sleep quickly.
Go again.

I was an expert of doing,
Progress,
Planning,
Fast moving,
Multi-tasking productivity.

Space is boredom,
And downtime is for softies (the liberal arts kind).
I was neither.

This was the rhythm of movement – the song I hummed – until a few months ago.

Zen Speed

At the moment (of this writing), the routine I’m living is a vast contrast from the above. As a resident Zen student nestled away in the mountains of Carmel Valley, the external noise is turned (way) down.

The Zen Center is a training ground for the study of self, mindful awareness, a place to renew. There is no online connection, no cell phone reception.

The creek flowing alongside the community and the rub of gravel beneath my feet have replaced the iPhone chimes.

There is less of a hurry – a seemingly impossible task here – as it is practice to stop and bow to students and teachers while in passing. Amongst the presence of these fellow meditation practitioners there is a deep resonance of spaciousness and compassion.

The calm, tea sipping Zen students have been an inspiration to reconsider my daily coffee habit.

The movement here is (much) slower.

And with the volume of the outside world on low, it’s easier to tune into our own inner noise. With busyness as no longer a self-distracting anthem, honoring our spirit becomes primary.

Inner Noise

When I first arrived, my state of mind was no different than the incessant thinking mind of the busy world I departed from.

The story I told in my head about the hundreds of dishes to be washed at the monastery – the same story I used to tell about the hundreds of emails to be read at my home office.

The narration of my external world was just as preoccupied and unsettled, despite the immersion into a peaceful, retreat setting.

My habitual pace of thinking, thinking, thinking – striving for tomorrow’s meaning and chasing some goal in the future (plan, plan, plan!) – would continuously crowd the present moment experience, regardless of where I lived.

This new Zen life would remain in this (same) forward leaning, monkey-minded pattern until I changed my conditioned habits – the thoughts and responses that distorted the experience.

A Simpler Way

Wherever you go, there you are,” as the saying goes.

This monastic setting has been my home for almost three months now. Our physical container does facilitate a part in finding inner peace; a supportive environment of teachers and community can be very nurturing to our wellbeing and personal growth.

But, the sustainable element for living with ease has less to do with location and everything to do with our own daily practice.

Whether we’re living an urban life in Taipei, in the suburbs of Phoenix or on a beach in Maui, ultimately simplicity begins within each of us.

With awareness and a daily commitment to nourish our inner life, peace will then manifest its way out.

You can begin, right now, to pay more attention with these small practices for a simpler way of life:

1. Be in Your Body

We often get caught in our habits of productivity. Compulsive thinking is followed by reactive and unconscious doings. And we no longer inhabit our bodies.

Our state of being can be momentously carried away by the turbulence of our chatty minds: sweeping us away into a reference of the past or a future fantasy la-la land, while our bodies remain in the present. Simplicity escapes. Anxiousness takes a seat.

When our minds begin to take off, we can return to the current moment by attuning to our bodies.

Acknowledge, right now, a part of your body: wiggles your toes, touch your fingers, and shrug your shoulders.

The present – where our body lives – is much less complicated when we are attentive to the bare moment without any extra thought.

The next time we feel overwhelmed by the pace of hurriedness, we can remember to stay grounded in our body, and in turn, we become more rooted in the present.

2. Invite Simplicity

The door to simplicity opens itself when we actively welcome it in: this means doing less in a hurry, so we can actually experience more.

We can invite simplicity to counter the impulses to split our attention by engaging in doing one thing at a time, and, to truly show up for it.

Each day offers an opportunity to practice inviting simplicity: sharing a meal with a loved one (and really being with that person: listening carefully, cell phone away); or taking a 15-minute mindful walk and just noticing the surrounding life; or stepping outside of the office to feel the sun on our face; or simply granting ourselves the permission for non-doing – opting to have no agenda at all – for a few hours on a weekend.

We can more often choose to do one thing well versus five things half-well, half-aware, half-present. If we have 20 minutes to spare today, we can start to invite simplicity into our routine by deciding to just do one thing with our complete attention.

To consciously make space – instead of squeezing several ambitious tasks into every spare moment – is to cultivate an invitation for more sanity, serenity and simplicity.

3. Reflect on Intention

Spend a few minutes each day reflecting on your deepest intention. There are many questions behind the word intention that can guide this introspection: What is my deepest value? What does my heart call out for? What inspires me? How does freedom look and feel to me?

In the busyness of our lives, it’s often easy to forget the fundamental motivation for how we choose to live. What are we doing in and with our lives? Reflecting on your life’s deepest values can become a daily ritual when you’re driving to the office or taking a shower or journaling before bed.

When we are clear on our intentions, our lives move with a purposeful ease.

4. What’s Your Un-Status?

Imagine eating a delicious meal and simply eating that delicious meal.

Or imagine enjoying a relaxing day at the beach and just enjoying that relaxing day. Or having a funny moment with your child and just having that funny moment with your child. How much simpler would your experience be if the intimacy remained with that other activity, thought or person?

Facebooking, Tweeting, Social Media-ing what we are up to – how happy, frustrated, productive we are at any given moment – is an addictive activity of the masses. This frequent reporting to the world also opens to the complexity of noise that is an added layer of comparison and distraction.

We don’t have to let the world know what we are up to, all the time. We don’t have to check up on the Facebook World to know what everyone else is up to, all the time.

Sharing is beautiful, but so is being with the actual moment in all its wholeness.

We can be more engaged with ourselves and those we are with by being completely present.

Elect to “un-status” from time to time – for a day, a week, or even a month – and notice the space that arises.

Parting Words

In the midst of all the demands, responsibilities and complexities of our technologically crowded lives today, awakening to our real life – to really live – requires deliberate simplifying:

To notice,
To slow down,
To do less,
And open more.

To breathe,
Be aware,
And savor the fullness
Of being awake.

This is an ongoing practice, the less blurry version of our day-to-day lives – a rhythmic beat that flows not only for the liberal arts kind, but for the fully human kind.

Today, how can you practice to simplify, simplify?

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About the author

Cat is a recent corporate escapee, now practicing as a full-time Zen Student. Her home, for the next year or so, is on various meditation cushions in the world.

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10 thoughts on Living in a Zen Center: A Personal Report

  1. What an amazing journey Cat is on – I almost feel envious fo the opportunity she has. This morning I say outside in the garden with my cup of tea, and just say. It felt great, but it wasn’t long until my mind hurried me along in doors – there is work to be done. My intention is to enjoy a cup of tea outdoors at the end of my day too – hopefully my mind will stay calmer for longer this time.

  2. Beautiful post! Your experience at the Zen Center is truly inspiring and I hope to one day take a beautiful retreat such as this! Thank you for sharing your insight and wisdom you have discovered and rediscovered while being there :)

  3. I love this post so much. The fact that it arrived on paper makes it that much more special.

  4. I’m so glad that more and more people are understanding this core value. Simplify! so important. You really have taken a huge step in your life! And your points are so clear.

    in my work I’ve allowed my mind to “think” through my heart and soul. I like to think that thinking is not simply a mental activity. As you mentioned, there is presence in our bodies. I believe that true thinking is a mind/heart combination. That’s when truth emerges ahead of ego.

    Thanks, Cat. Congratulations to you and enjoy your new life!

  5. I’ve been learning to slow. it. down. Life seems so much fuller when you take the time to go slowly and observe more of the world rather than watch it flying by you.

  6. Molly

    Amazing! Tassajara is in my greater backyard and yet I’ve never slowed down or found the time to go, even for a day. What a wake up, thank you Cat and TSN!

  7. Living in peace and harmony is more and more desirable these days. Often we want to relax, to find ourselves but we do not see a way to it. In the article I like, is that you can feel the peace and harmony, it is something that you got through your stay at the Zen Center. I have my own Zen Center in my home, which I created in my head, and I encourage you to create your own oasis of calm every one of you. Beautiful article, thank you.

  8. Wonderful article. Really a huge step and reading it was inspiring ..

  9. Jo

    Question is, what is life after zen center? You can’t live there forever unless u become a monk … Back to rats race again?

  10. Very enlightening article! I really enjoyed reading this

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