Meditating With Monks

I am new to meditation, but as my regular readers know, I am working to incorporate it into my daily life. So when I had the opportunity to meditate with Buddhist monks at a Zen Center in Colorado for a week this summer as part of a yoga retreat, I jumped at the chance. It took me 11 hours to get to the Zen Center from NYC, and the meditation practice began with a wake-up bell at 4:30 am, but the experience was amazing! And most importantly, since I returned, I have been meditating every morning. I hope that I can keep it up.

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The meditation was in the Japanese Buddhist tradition. There were 5 or 6 monks and interns in residence at the Center, but guests were welcome and encouraged to attend either of the twice-daily meditation practices. The morning meditation practice began at 4:30 am with the wake-up bell. One monk was chosen to walk the property and ring the bell for 15 minutes. Everyone was awakened given the noise, even those who did not want to meditate. This was followed by 15 minutes of beating on a wooden block. The first seated meditation began at 5 am, followed by a walking meditation at 5:40 am, a second seated meditation at 5:50 am, and finally a bowing and chanting ceremony at 6:20 am. The practice was complete at 6:40 am, just in time to get cleaned up and head to the retreat’s 7:00 am yoga class.

Keep in mind that since I came from NYC, I had a two-hour time advantage, plus guests were allowed to join in at any transition point in the practice, so I typically started my morning with the walking meditation at 5:40 am and stayed for the rest. Even so, it was pretty early. Only a handful of us on the retreat took advantage of the opportunity to meditate in the morning, but many more joined in the second meditation practice of the day, which took place at 8:00 pm.

The meditation space was beautiful, as you can see in this photo I took, with a peaceful and simple design. Each meditator had his or her own defined area on a platform, complete with pillows. There were plenty of spaces for the monks/interns in residence and for guests. The monks used bells to signal the transitions to each part of the practice and no words were spoken other than the chanted words during the bowing and chanting practice. It was incredibly peaceful and serene. I always felt a little blissed out at the end, which I guess is the point.

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As the retreat entered its final days, I tried to figure out what I enjoyed so much about this particular meditation practice and how I could bring some of those elements home with me in hopes that I could continue the practice (in a modified way of course) at home. Here are the elements I identified as important for me.

  1. Defined Space: It was important to have an inviting and defined space for meditation. Whenever I walked into the mediation space at the retreat, my mind automatically switched into meditation mode. This is hard to do at home since I wasn’t able to add a meditation room to my apartment (as if!), but I did set aside a small area in my bedroom to use for this purpose.

2. Established Routine: At the Zen Center, there was a set pattern for entering the meditation space, sitting on the meditation cushion, etc. that helped trigger the body to relax. The routine reminded me a lot of what I like about the Bikram Yoga practice — the same postures in the same order each day. I am trying to use a routine to enter and exit my meditation each day.

3. Trigger Sounds: The sounds of the bells and the rhythm of the bowing and chanting also helped trigger a meditative feeling for me. To continue this at home, I purchased a small bell that I ring at the start of my practice and use an app that indicates the end of the meditation time with a similar bell sound.

4. Community: I enjoyed that the meditation at the retreat was done as a group. While each person was in his or her individual space, knowing that others were beside you was calming and reassuring. I have not been able to recreate this at home, although I keep asking my children if they want to join me…

So far, so good. Since I returned, I have been meditating every morning for 10 or 15 minutes. I hope to build up my practice to 20 minutes a day.

Readers, would you get up at 4:30 am to meditate with monks?

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