Jon Waterlow is a writer and podcaster who spent one month in a Buddhist monastery on a hilltop in Nepal, entirely cut off from the outside world. In this post, he shares his experience, and the lessons he learnt, with Misfit Press.
‘Couldn’t you just bribe the guards or climb over the wall?’
I looked blank. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard something like this, but it still didn’t make sense. What was so disturbing about spending a month inside a Buddhist monastery on a hilltop in Nepal, cut off from the outside world and meditating for hours each day? But as soon as I mentioned there’d be no internet or phone-calls, my friends rapidly began plotting my escape back to the world of connectivity, fearful, perhaps, of what that much time spent in my own company and away from the IV-line of news and social media could do to a person.
But that was the point of going: to step outside of my everyday life and to experience something very different, something focused on understanding where I am, who I am, and what’s actually important to me from the inside out, rather than only through the reflections of myself I see bounced back from outside. Internal reflection is frightening only when you’re afraid of what you’ll see; silence is only troubling when you’re scared of hearing the voices in your head. Then again, if I wasn’t scared as I boarded the plane, it turned out I was pretty naïve.
I heard about Kopan Monastery while interviewing someone for my podcast at a conference on psychedelics research; consciousness exploration comes in many varieties, after all. My own personal exploration really began in the Amazon rainforest, drinking the ancient plant-medicine, Ayahuasca, as I tried to deal with the intense depression that’s stalked me throughout my life, and which I’ve written about elsewhere. After the interview, something about Kopan stuck in my mind, and just a few months later I found myself staying up late to make sure I was online when bookings opened for their November Buddhism and meditation course.
Kopan Monastery sits atop a hill overlooking the appropriately-named town of Boudha, with Kathmandu’s dusty sprawl washing up against the Himalayas on the other side. My friend Laszlo, who I met there, said we were on a little castle in the clouds, separated from the world outside… It was a beautiful view, but that separation was always in the back of my mind: could anything I learnt at the monastery survive contact with the world outside, away from the peace and regimentation of Kopan?
For a month, our days began at 5:30am, before dawn, and each day included 2–3 hours of meditation, about 4 hours of teaching on Buddhism, an hour-long discussion group, and the rest of our time given over to reading and reflection. For 9 days we were restricted to a single meal. This wasn’t a silent retreat, but we had to keep silence from 9pm until after lunch the following day, with a few full days of silence thrown in for good measure.
I learnt a lot at the monastery, not least that an all-vegetable diet can be both delicious and leave you disastrously constipated. But I also discovered how much negative talk and automatic thinking conditions my experience of life, what it really means to be ‘present’, and how easily we become trapped in unhelpful storylines about who we are and what we can do in life. Too much happened in that month to summarise here, but I wanted to share a few of the most important insights I stumbled into, and which I think might be of help to others who maybe don’t want to spend their days chanting in Tibetan and being unable to take a satisfactory crap. Let’s begin with the silence.
What they don’t tell you about silence is just how fucking noisy it is. Not only do the sounds of the world around you take on a brighter, richer timbre because they’re no longer being drowned out by voices, but, for me at least, the voices in my head seized the opportunity to shoulder their way to centre-stage. I began to really notice how many thought-routines just seemed to run themselves without my conscious involvement – most of them negative.
In the silence of the monastery, I could really hear the thoughts which quietly scurry around my head, conditioning how I feel and think, just outside my conscious awareness.
First, there was judgement, and lots of it. I’d see an overweight person and the thought ‘fat!’ would pop up in my mind, laden with dislike and rejection. Then I’d see someone else and think ‘geek!’ with equal quantities of derision. I think of myself as a pretty easy-going, open person who treats the people I meet without prejudice, so noticing these knee-jerk judgements shocked me.
Once I paid attention to them, though, it didn’t take long to realise that these thoughts all reflected insecurities about myself: I’ve been bullied (by others, then myself) for being overweight, for being a geeky loser, for being ‘posh’, and more besides. It turns out that, over the years, the bullies had won: I’d not only internalised these judgements as insecurities about myself, but had unconsciously adopted and projected the same value system outwards. In the world’s least successful defence mechanism, I’d come to ‘protect’ myself from judgements by labelling these traits ‘bad’ and trying desperately to avoid them whenever they appeared – ‘Don’t be X, because X means you get bullied’. I’d let myself be programmed by the bullies and now carried their BS forward into the world, even if I didn’t actively set about hurting anyone directly.
Since this realisation, following the lessons of meditation, I’ve (just about) resisted the urge to beat myself up further for being a judgemental bastard, but instead I try to pay attention to the moments when these thoughts pop up and label them ‘thinking’ and ‘judgemental’. Gradually, by giving them space to wear themselves out (rather than friction to enflame them further), they’re beginning to fade, or at the very least they no longer secretly colour my interactions with the world.
Second, my mind just wouldn’t stop grasping for things to worry about. Something that yesterday seemed totally fine would today seem intolerable, or to be teetering on the edge of disaster. I worried about how to book travel for when I left the monastery, given I had no internet access; I worried about whether the jobs I’d signed up to do were a terrible idea; I worried about whether I should switch rooms or discussion groups to ensure the optimum experience (whatever that meant); and I worried about whether I could ever really love anyone without fear and selfishness. My mind seemed to be lurching around like a drunken maniac, smashing into the scenery and crying out for more fuel to drive its frenzy.
But it wasn’t just me (and if conversations at the monastery taught me anything, it’s that it’s never ‘just me’). Like a pet that simply doesn’t process the fact you’re trying to block its way to the food on your plate and keeps ducking and weaving to get past, undeterred, the mind just keeps on grasping for things to feed nervously through its damned mind-fingers. It grasps for things to dwell on and freak out about, as though in the modern condition of fast-paced living and instability, if we’re not worrying about something then the mind’s not doing its job. But being on constant alert is exhausting. And insisting that there must be something you’ve got to be alert for is simply a road to misery.
One of the fundamental things our minds do is what the psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls ‘nexting’. It constantly predicts what’s likely to happen in the immediate future, from the trajectory of objects through the air, to the word you’re likely to encounter after ‘It was a dark and stormy’. That constant state of prediction is automatic and, as Gilbert puts it, ‘It is only when your brain predicts badly that you suddenly feel avocado’.
Or surprised, see? And yet, the unquiet mind is constantly nexting well beyond the immediate future – mine, at least, seems determined to integrate the theory of infinite universes by creating all of the most unfortunate ones and exploring them in gory detail as the likely outcomes of my present actions. As Mark Twain – always a good source of wry insight – put it, ‘I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.’
At the heart of this lies a distinction that I’ve encountered repeatedly since I began to meditate and to work with psychedelics in order to, if not overcome, then to try to integrate my depression into a more balanced way of life. This is the difference between intellectual and emotional understanding.
Intellectual understanding is the balance-sheet of pros and cons that you set out, total up, and then think you’ve found the answer… and yet you still don’t quite feel sure of it. It’s when you understand that it’s unhelpful, unhealthy and illogical to hate yourself or to eat mountains of junk food, and yet you do it all the same. It’s the relationship that meets your needs on paper, but which doesn’t leave you happy. It’s knowing the stats on motorcycle accidents, but only giving up riding when someone close to you dies in one – because when that happens, emotional understanding kicks in.
Emotional understanding is that beautiful yet elusive sensation that something is simply right. Not the kind of argumentative ‘rightness’ that fuels political and prejudicial standpoints, but the sensation of peaceful stillness that occasionally taps you on the shoulder when you’re doing something you love, spending time with dear friends, or simply when you draw a deep breath and notice the colours of the leaves on the trees. It’s that sense of releasing into a decision which, until that moment, has seemed fraught with complications and second-guessing; it’s the moment you let go and realise that, at some level, you knew what you wanted to do all along – from choosing an ice cream flavour to deciding to quit your job, you find that stillness of knowing.
I’m certainly not a native of that place of stillness, although at this point I think I may have earned myself a multi-entry visa. There are many ways to get there, and one of the routes is working with plant medicines such as Ayahuasca. It was only while sitting in a darkened hut in the Amazon, clutching a basin I’d recently and impressively vomited into, that I found the emotional understanding that allowed me to no longer hate myself. At the monastery, mercifully without the involvement of projectile vomit, I kept finding myself unexpectedly back in that place.
But none of this has to be approached with solemnity and seriousness. Humour, compassion and not taking everything – least of all yourself – seriously is at the heart of emotional understanding. Buddhist teachers are frequently pictured laughing, and images of the Buddha usually show him with compassionate amusement playing around the edges of his mouth. There was certainly a lot of laughter at the monastery, often during the deepest and potentially most disturbing discussions about death. It’s something I like most about Buddhism because, even while it turned out to be more of a religion than I realised (complete with intensely-realised hell realms and strong assertions based on absence of evidence), even the most senior teachers refused to take anything very seriously. Or, rather, they could simultaneously emphasise something’s seriousness while having a grand old laugh about how silly it all is, too.
One of the monastery cats would occasionally interrupt the teachings by plonking itself on the teacher’s lap, purring into the microphone, and then wandering off to demonstratively wash its genitals on the Dalai Lama’s ceremonial throne, right in front of his (smiling) portrait. And it didn’t matter. At all. It was just a cat being a cat; there was no scandal or cries of ‘sacrilege!’, and we all just laughed and got on with things. The cat was catting, and the only way for this to become a problem was if we created a storyline in which its actions meant anything more than that.
Humans, though, are inveterate storytellers, often to our detriment. To paraphrase the speaker and deeply-insightful coach Philip McKernan, we are masters of two things in life: Complicating our lives, and then coming up with stories for why we did so. Written in all-caps in the journal I kept during the course is a message which I can never repeat too often: DROP THE STORYLINE.
Easier said than done, of course, but life in the monastery provided an ideal setting to try. Arriving there created a concentrated version of that refreshing feeling we get when we move to a new town or start a new job: nobody knows who we are yet, and we have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We choose what we share about who we are, and discover in the process which elements we default to, take the opportunity to avoid, or which surprise us when they turn up.
At the monastery, few people asked about jobs and responsibilities back home, which felt both liberating, but also created a sense of being untethered and weightless – what I think of as the nervousness of freedom. It’s a pretty cool way of tuning into the present moment, but it’s also disconcerting – as though you’ve disowned some parts of yourself somewhere. Who are you in a totally different context? I asked myself. And, I wondered, is what emerges to answer the question in some sense your ‘essence’, or is just the side of you that turns up in the context of being in a Buddhist monastery?
I think it’s both. No part of your personality isn’t ‘you’, and in the monastery we were so relentlessly hammered with the impossible challenge to find any evidence of a solid, inherently existing self, that all these fragments of storyline became as valid or irrelevant as all the others.
So what’s left of ‘me’ when there’s only this moment?, I wondered. What am I when the only determining factor is what I choose to do right now? If I’d gone to the monastery to get more in touch with myself, instead I found that any concrete sense of ‘self’ was rapidly unravelling, yet this was an increasingly joyous sensation as the various cages I’d shut myself into (I am this kind of person; I always do these things) turned out not to be locked after all. These discoveries – which, don’t get me wrong, constantly flickered in and out of focus – were also hilarious, like realising you’ve been holding your breath for absolutely no reason. When you drop the storylines, as my favourite Zen proverb goes, ‘Nothing is left to you at this moment but to have a good laugh.’
But these moments could also be empty. Each morning, after meditation, I did yoga on the roof of the dining hall, in a small group led by a wonderful, warm teacher called Vanessa. I learnt a lot from those classes, but something strange kept happening at the end of the session. After taking the final Shivasana pose (totally relaxed, lying on your back), as I slowly turned onto my side and opened my eyes, I’d see my left hand, lightly brushing the grey rooftop. And it seemed like the realest, most truthful thing I’d ever seen. There was nothing except my hand and the hard surface beneath it. There was no real sense of my surroundings, just the breeze and the sun, and the firm, cool concrete beneath my hand. There didn’t seem to be anything else in existence, or anything else to existence, in that moment. No storylines, no responsibilities, no guilt or joy or thinking. Just a peaceful awareness of being, like pausing when you’re in the middle of nature, in the middle of nowhere, and realising that you are alone yet deeply connected with the world.
On the rooftop, there was simply a body, a consciousness, and the world: no storylines, no socio-cultural matrix to escape, and nowhere and nothing else to be. I was here.
But what did ‘here’ mean, really? And, come to that, what did I mean by ‘I’, or ‘was’?
You can hardly take two steps through the internet these days without someone telling you that you must be present – that you need to stop worrying about the future or dwelling in the past, and instead focus on right now so that you’re actually able to enjoy and appreciate (or at least engage with) life as it happens. There’s a lot to be said for this perspective. And, of course, it’s the very heart of meditation practice: to centre yourself on your breath and turn your attention inward, rather than letting thoughts run wildly and exhaustingly through your head. So it came as a bit of a shock when the course teacher told us ‘You can’t live in the present, because you’re impermanent’.
At first, I didn’t understand what he meant at all. But, as he went on, light gradually dawned. We can’t dwell in the present because the present just keeps on going, whereas we inevitably age, decay and die. More importantly, because we’re always changing, it’s meaningless to talk about being in a constant state of presentness. Nothing is fixed. Our perceptions and experience of the present moment are always changing, and we delude and even harm ourselves if we try to ignore this.
Confused? I was. Perhaps the best way to untangle the philosophical gymnastics is simply this: ‘being present’ is not a fixed state. Instead, it means to be conscious of and alert to the constancy of change, in ourselves and the world around us, and not to keep trying desperately to hold things in place. At a deep level, we know this to be true: we know that the ‘me’ from ten, or even just one year or one week ago was different to the ‘me’ of today; we know that we’re ageing, but we usually don’t like to think about it. We know that life and time keep moving on, but we so often try to hold them back, fearing change and exaggerating the positive qualities of things past. But we can’t hold onto them; it’s as realistic as trying to hold onto a river.
It’s easy to freak out about this and think, ‘Well, if everything’s impermanent, then what’s the point in doing anything?’ Indeed, when Buddhism first began to filter into Western Europe, it was common to confuse this perspective with nihilism – even Nietzsche dismissively caricatured it this way, despite his own philosophy sharing a surprising amount of common ground with Zen Buddhism.
But an awareness of the constancy of change and our own fundamental impermanence can actually be profoundly liberating. If we’re always changing, then we can’t get stuck. It’s not possible to be ‘an anxious person’ or someone who’s ‘always anxious’ or ‘always depressed’. These are stories of permanence that we tell ourselves, but they’re not true. The truth is, we are free to choose how we are from moment to moment.
Andy Puddicombe, creator of the phenomenally successful Headspace meditation app and erstwhile Buddhist monk, points out that while we often fixate on the moments when anxiety or fears turn up, we almost always forget to notice when they disappear. We mark the periods of discomfort, yet we’re rarely mindful of when that discomfort fades. In the monastery, I became increasingly aware of this tendency to generalise our current emotional situation to the status of a general condition (‘I feel sadness’ suddenly becomes, ‘I’m always sad!’, and then rapidly escalates into the self-flagellating ‘Why am I always sad?!’), but I saw this more by observing others than seeing it clearly in myself.
It seemed paradoxical: in the monastery we were living a super-controlled and repetitive existence – every day we did exactly the same things, yet our experience of each day could be radically different to the last. In my daily discussion group, I began to notice how often people would say that ‘Recently, everything’s been really tough, really challenging’. Yet the very same person had only yesterday been all smiles, declaring that ‘Everything’s been going really great lately’.
The regimented life of the monastery didn’t make our emotional states constant at all – it actually exaggerated and threw into stark relief how the experience of our lives is created inside, and just how changeable that can be. And, more importantly, that unless we are mindful of that impermanence, we instinctively generalise a temporary state of mind into a story about a constant state of being.
As someone with a long history of depression, this struck very close to home. During the hardest times, it feels like life’s always been this way and ‘obviously’ always will be. I’ve often heard people point out that suicide is ‘a permanent solution to a temporary problem’, but in a state of depression, the problem feels anything but temporary; suicide therefore increasingly seems like the only truly reliable solution to end that state.
But there was a flicker of hope in what I was learning: if this perceptual warping is true of all perceptions, then the depressive sinkhole is neither unique nor inescapable. It’s so hard to imagine practising ‘right thought’ while severely depressed, but if this is ultimately something that can be usefully practised every single day in any emotional state, then there’s a way to turn those mental reps to my advantage when depression turns up. The present becomes the training ground for the future, while the condition of the past does not have to control the now: just because we’ve been overweight in the past doesn’t mean we can’t go to the gym now and consciously start to change.
As professional ‘noticer-of-stuff’ Seth Godin puts it, ‘When we buy a stake in the future, what we’re actually buying is how it makes us feel today.’ Seth was writing about selling products, but we all sell ourselves on an image of the future, and that future is tethered directly to the present and how we feel about the image right now. Which is why emotionally over-investing in an image of the future can be so damn destructive: the tether starts to pull us off course, away from the needs and changing experiences of now. It’s like sending someone upstream with a rope to moor your ship at your goal line on the riverbank. We cast off and feel the security of knowing we’re linked to our goal and will be able to moor there in due course. But the river keeps flowing along its own course, and that rope keeps pulling us out of the flow; by the time we reach our tethering point, we’re yanked out of the stream and held against it, rocking and juddering unsteadily, rather than moving with the current of events.
These ideas and images continued to float around my mind, not quite holding shape or sense, until I was listening to Aubrey Marcus on a podcast. Aubrey, who embodies the ancient archetype of the warrior-poet, pointed out that because we’re only ever truly in the present, it’s nonsensical to try to throw our grappling hooks into either past or future. Instead, he said, ‘Whatever was always will be to a certain degree, and whatever will be is.’ I did a comic double-take and tripped over a paving slab (as one always should when getting some kind of deep insight; best keep these things leavened with humour and remember that life is in many ways just one glorious pratfall after another). The past continues to reverberate into the now; the future is only going to grow on the basis of the present and the actions we take within it.
But this doesn’t mean we’re simply drifting through space impelled by some barely-recalled force from the past, incapable of exercising any agency to steer our course. No: we can plant seeds in the soil of the present (and the past, with all its storylines and cloud-cages, can decay into fertile compost). It might be a long process and often one that stinks. But there will be change, because, after all, we’re impermanent. Cue Zen laughter here.
BACK TO THE REAL WORLD?
It’s been challenging in myriad ways to return to the world outside the monastery gates – to not slip straight back into familiar storylines, patterns, pressures, and the endless stream of news feeds – but one thing’s for sure. I rarely confuse these things with being ‘The Real World’ anymore. They’re no more inherently or concretely ‘real’ than anything I experienced at Kopan.
‘Reality’, such as it is, is something we generate in our minds: despite the beautiful and peaceful surrounds of the monastery, I could still regularly place myself in hell thanks to my mind grasping for worries and fears; in the outside world I can (with effort, I admit) put myself in heaven by refusing to inhabit storylines of desperation and fear about work, money, or the expectations of other people.
Coming back from the hilltop wasn’t really to leave a castle in the clouds. Meditation doesn’t end when you stand up and open your eyes. It’s all practice in what Joseph Campbell called ‘The Art of Living’; you might do physical reps in the gym, but you don’t lose what you gain – be it physical, mental, or the discipline to work out at all – as soon as you walk back out into the streets. We still have to practise the practice, of course, or we get rusty, and taking yourself to a place designed for that purpose can help a great deal. But it’s not essential, and nor is it a very appealing idea to stay there and never take your practice out to play.
And even if I’d wanted to shimmy over the monastery walls, there would have been no point. There’s no running from yourself; wherever you go, there you are, and until you can be pleased (and amused) to see yourself, you’re still tied to the riverbank as life streams past you. The only thing that remains is to let go. And laugh.