By Daniel Rudolph, Selby Beebe-Lawson
Editors: Linnea Schluessler and Manish Jain
This is part two of an ongoing series, the first article describes the indigenous pedagogy of the Gurukul System.
For centuries, monasteries have been hubs of education and scholarship, champions of learning. The word monasticism comes from the Greek word monachos which means “living alone.” But while the first Christian monks were hermits, make no mistake, this is just one element of monastic practice. The majority of modern monastics live in thriving cenobitic communities that emphasize community life and service to others. They often provide vital services to neighboring communities and are famously known to educate, encourage literacy, and preserve historical knowledge within their walls. It may come as no surprise, the first universities were created by Catholic monks. These monks spent most of their days communally meditating, serving others, and learning. As Annie Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” What are the patterns of monastic life, the daily, monthly, and seasonal curriculum of practices, that allow for the flourishing of human knowledge in the modern, technological era?
Across the world, there are many indigenous, ancient, and traditional ways of teaching and learning that have been discarded, overlooked and replaced in the general transformation of our education system(s) in the industrial era. This shift in pedagogy is directly aligned with shifts in societal priorities, and has led to the increased disconnection from and destruction of our human and natural ecosystems.
Monastic practices, on the other hand, are often exercised in routines that harmonize with natural cycles, that follow daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and annual patterns that guide learners into an intimate connection with and an appreciation for the rhythms of the natural environment. Monastics, although secluded within monastery walls, often describe experiences of being one with all that is.
In this essay, we come together to celebrate some of the monastic practices that have shaped our days–the emergent pedagogies that have offered us the deepest learning of our lives. The monastic practices that follow include personal accounts from a layperson with experiences in different Buddhist oriented monastic settings in the United States and abroad (Daniel), a devout Catholic layperson (Selby), and an interspiritual seeker (Linnea).
Monasticism is not inherently Buddhist or Catholic, but is practiced in many mystical traditions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Catholicism practice monastic traditions with striking similarities including: teaching, providing essential services, prayer and meditation, silence, scripture study and philosophy, rites of passage, and group learning through long-term communal living and short-term retreats. More than a retreat from ‘real life’ or simply a contemplative outlet of peace away from the hustle and bustle of the modern age, monasteries offer pedagogies that are more necessary now than ever.
Monasteries, whether housing a few monastics or thousands, are often microcosms of life: those within their walls develop a sense of self with dual perspectives of self as unique individual as well as self as member of community. Monastic practices are thus experienced in these two ways: for the progress of individuals towards holiness, salvation or enlightenment, and for the good of the community as a whole. These perspectives complement one another and translate into the cultivation of planetary citizens capable of empathy, solidarity and compassion as well as committed to personal growth. New monasticism has shown that these practices are not limited to a specific religious denomination or church. Many modern communities invite interspiritual practices that expand on traditional monastic wisdom in order to enable access through adapting these teachings to meet the modern world.
As we explore the pedagogies found in various monastic learning environments, we invite your inquiry into how these ancient pedagogical practices might be applied to different non-monastic, or quasi-monastic, settings whether that be a traditional or non-traditional classroom, alone or with other students. We invite you to read about these practices with openness and curiosity. In this article we will explore the following pedagogies: individual study, one-on-one meetings, rites of passage, retreats, and community living. Our hope is that each one sparks your imagination as you ask yourself, “How can this practice be adapted to fit my unique learning environment?
Introduction to Monastic Practice
“The problem of meaning resides in practice, not theory”Renato Rosaldo (quoted from Robert E.Buswell, The Zen Monastic Experience”)
Direct experience, through experiential learning, is a core aspect of monastic practices. Deep practice happens in the body, with the body enabling presence with what is happening in each moment. This is not to neglect the importance of the mind, but rather to emphasize the need to use it skillfully – shifting from incessant thinking to mindful, present moment, thinking. As is said in the opening chapter of the Dhammapada:
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow” 
Monastic practices support the seeker in the process of purifying their mind in order to live in a deeper relationship with the rhythms of nature and the nature of reality. When in deep relationship, as said in the quote, happiness follows [like a never-departing shadow]”. These practices often open the seeker up to difficult truths and harsh realities, which paradoxically lead to genuine happiness and fulfillment.
In this article we will be exploring various monastic practices, including: interviews and spiritual direction, pilgrimage, solo and group retreat, spiritual friendship and feedback, living in community, communal meals and manual labor. Presence, through the purification of mind, is the ultimate outcome for each of these practices. Although there is an outcome, and in some cases relative maps, the process itself is non-linear and unique to each individual practitioner. These modes of learning (practices) require deep faith and legitimate trust, both in the process and in the teacher. To dive deeply into the mystery both surrender and taking personal responsibility are required.
One-on-One Meetings with Master-Student:
“The interview was surrounded with much ceremony, and during special periods of practice would take place once a day, sometimes more. In these private interviews students would give an account of their experiences, both positive and negative.”(255, Buswell)
“Meetings with one’s spiritual director are prayerful in nature, with the director being present to what is alive in her or his mentee’s spiritual life … A spiritual director is not primarily a teacher or guru … he or she is primarily a spiritual companion”(xxxiv – New Monasticism)
|Dan’s Interview Experience |
The bell rings. One student shifts from the interview bench to the interview room, another student shifts from the meditation hall to the interview bench.
The student enters the interview room and sits in front of an experienced, trustworthy, teacher. The student shares their aspiration and an update on their experiences with the meditation technique that they have been using. The teacher listens deeply.
More than the words, the teacher listens to the way the student enters the room, the tone in their voice, the way they answer questions etc. After listening closely the teacher gives the student inspiration, energetic feedback and/or compassionately encourages the student to take their next steps. Sometimes the teacher gives the student an assignment to work on and report back with their experiences for the next interview.
At times the assignment is very clear and practical and the student leaves with inspiration and excitement. Other times the student leaves the interview room perplexed, and even frustrated, trying to decipher the meaning of the teacher’s assignment.
The bell rings. The next student enters the interview room.
One by one each student meets with the teacher.
In a meditation hall with thirty people each student is working on a different assignment based on their individual capability and needs. The focus of the interview is to give the student feedback (verbal or non-verbal) to support them in moving forward on their path. The focus of the assignment varies on the level of the student, becoming less conceptual as the student advances. Within this some assignments are technical (such as practical tips to improve posture, work on a specific aspect of a meditation technique, breathe with more energy.) and others are more focused on unlocking the unconscious, through rational means.
The latter is well chronicled through the ancient practice of Koans. Koans have been traditionally used in Zen Buddhism dating back to ancient times. Personally, I (Dan) have never engaged in genuine Koan practice, and have heard that people often misunderstand the deep nature of the practice, so I share this relatively limited information on this mysterious practice with deep humility and welcome additional insights from more experienced readers.
“The master gives the student a koan to think about, resolve and then report back to the master. Concentration intensifies as the student first tries to solve the koan intellectually. This initial effort proves impossible, however, for a koan cannot be solved rationally. … Only when the attentive mind is relaxed, free from purpose and ego, and fully devoted to the task can it open up of itself.”(p.254)
“When the teachings go beyond the subject and skill; when the teachings are not standardized but customised; when the teachings become a deep source of inspiration to excel in the discipline being learnt; when then the teachings inspire you to be a better human being; when the teachings become a guiding light to live and engage in life – then, in this emergence, the teacher transforms into a guru (master) and the student into a shishya (disciple). This connection is also a lesson of the coexistence of toughness and tenderness. The bond and connection between the guru and shishya is sacred and comes with deep reverence and responsibility.”Miti Desai sharing her experience in the Gurukul System of Training.
In the Catholic tradition, spiritual direction performs the same function as the interview in the Buddhist tradition. Spiritual direction, also known as spiritual accompaniment, is a one-on-one meeting of director and directee to discuss the directee’s spiritual progress and determine ways to alleviate obstacles and encourage growth.
Traditionally there are two formats for this meeting: within the Sacrament of Reconciliation, commonly referred to as confession, or in a meeting outside of the Sacrament. By Sacraments, the Church means outward signs of an inward grace given by God.
Priests alone are permitted to do spiritual direction within confession. To receive this Sacrament, penitents form a line and enter the privacy of the confessional (small space for each meeting) one at a time. During the course of the Sacrament, the priest offers spiritual advice and gives a penance (a task or assignment to be done to complete the Sacrament. The penance may be a prayer, such as the Our Father or the Hail Mary recited a few times, an action such as praying for a specific person who has offended you, or a lifestyle change such as praying more regularly or taking up a new spiritual practice).
In contemporary practice, however, there are members of religious communities as well as lay persons who offer spiritual direction outside of the Sacrament. In such cases the direction, while still individual and private, takes place in a less formal setting. In all cases, spiritual direction, like the interviews that Dan mentioned above, is an encounter between a person more advanced in spiritual practice and a relative novice for the purpose of fostering the novice’s spiritual growth.
|Selby’s Experience with Spiritual Direction|
I have been Catholic for over sixteen years. Prior to that time, I always wondered what it would be like to tell my sins to a priest. I felt that perhaps it was none of the priest’s business. But having participated in confession for some time now, I would not like to live without it. It is difficult to admit one’s faults and to confess wrongdoing aloud. Most priests are not judgmental, but compassionate and helpful, since they too must confess their sins to another priest. Part of the Sacrament is absolution, a statement that the sins confessed and all others are forgiven by Jesus, with the priest as proxy. Such unburdening results in a sense of freedom and elation like no other. Sometimes I emerge from the confessional with the sensation of flying. In every case there is a new opportunity to abandon bad habits and to journey onward toward holiness with renewed determination.
The seal of the confessional is absolute, meaning that a priest may not reveal what is said to him during confession, nor even the identities of those who have met with him.
The one-on-one interview is an ancient pedagogy common to many traditions. Unlike the contemporary standard of one teacher for a class of students, one-on-one interviews nurture the unique journey of each individual. Thus every learner progresses at a pace and in a direction optimal for personal growth and development. This pedagogy is applicable in any tradition or learning environment.
Rites of Passage
Within the monastic life, seekers’ spiritual progress is often acknowledged by changes in status within the community. In traditional religious communities, one may arrive as an aspirant, later become a novice, and eventually commit to the community by professing vows. Each of these stages is celebrated with rites of passage, often accompanied by changes in religious attire. In educational environments, there is no less evidence of stages, rites of passage and even within graduation ceremonies, changes of garb. Rites of passage need not, however, be limited to time-honored traditions, monastic structures, or and formal rituals; rites of passage may be as individual and diverse as the learners and environments within which they flourish.
Pilgrimage, Group Retreats and Solo Retreats are ceremonies that are common to monastic settings that enable seekers to deepen into their communion with the divine and mature closer through extended practice and sustained inquiry.
|Thomas Merton: Life as a Rite of Passage |
Thomas Merton OSCO was a monk, writer, social activist, and promoter of interfaith dialogue. Fr. Merton, even while vowed to remain on retreat from the world for the rest of his life as a monk of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, was given permission by his abbot to dwell in a hermitage on monastery grounds starting in 1965.
Three years later he was granted special permission to make a pilgrimage to Asia to meet international leaders of the Eastern faiths with whom he had been corresponding. Merton died in Thailand that same year.
Because of his prolific writing on contemplative life, peace, East-West dialogue, and social activism, Merton is a particularly well-known example of the applicability of monastic practices to the broader culture, including their counter-cultural influence. His life as a monk was itself a group retreat. His refuge in a solitary hermitage was a solo retreat. His travel to Asia was a pilgrimage. Each of these actions was taken only within the context of spiritual direction with his superior, the abbot of the abbey.
“The freedom to travel during the three-month-long haeje period, and to sojourn at any monastery in the country for as long as one wants, is one of the pre-requisites of the monastic life, and one that virtually all monks, especially the younger ones, take to heart”(Buswell, p.102, The Zen Monastic Experience)
The 20th century mystic, Peace Pilgrim, describes a pilgrim as “a wanderer with a purpose.” She walked a similar path as the monastics in the Middle Ages. She describes, “the pilgrims went out as disciples were sent out — without money, without food, without adequate clothing.” As her name implies Peace Pilgrim walked for peace.
The purpose of a pilgrimage can vary depending on the pilgrim. However, what remains is that a pilgrim “walks prayerfully, and a pilgrim walks as an opportunity to come into contact with many people and perhaps inspire them to do something for peace in their own way.”
The Judeo-Christian Biblical tradition views earthly life as a pilgrimage:
"The land also shall not be sold for ever: because it is mine, and you are strangers and sojourners with me.” (Leviticus 25:23 DRV) and “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, to refrain yourselves from carnal desires which war against the soul,” ( 1 Peter 2:11 DRV).
Pilgrimage in the Catholic tradition actually excludes those who live in a monastery. Technically, those who live in a monastery, known as monk or nun, take a vow of stability which anchors them to a particular place. Individuals not part of a community who attach themselves to a particular site such as a church or shrine are known as anchorites.
But there are religious communities which are mendicant, or begging, orders, which require that their members are out and about in the world. Similarly, making a pilgrimage to a holy site is a longstanding tradition in Catholicism. The Holy Land in the Middle East or Rome are common pilgrimage destinations, as are sites associated with saints or with mystical phenomena such as apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ.
Throughout Europe there are many roadside shrines and holy wells associated with locally-known saints. The Way of St. James pilgrimage route in Spain is a well-known path, actually a network of smaller routes, leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the apostle James the Great are said to be entombed.
Sometimes a pilgrimage route is hazardous in itself. At other times pilgrims increase the sacrifice represented by the pilgrimage by walking barefoot or on their knees. As oftentimes miracles are associated with holy sites, pilgrims make their way bringing prayer intentions, hoping for special graces and blessings.
In the same way that retreat represents time away from routine, thus intensifying one’s awareness of spiritual realities, pilgrimage removes one from familiar surroundings and securities, thus heightening one’s dependence on Divine Providence and the goodness of others. Having a holy destination is analogous to one’s path toward heaven and eternal life. Making a holy pilgrimage in this life reminds the pilgrim of the context of this life’s purpose as pilgrimage.
In early 2022, at the Monastic Academy, Peter ‘Xuramitra’ Park, a former executive director of the organization, went on a week-long pilgrimage from the Academy in rural Vermont to Burlignton, a journey of approximately 100 kilometers. Below is some scattered wisdom that Xuramitra experienced on his pilgrimage:
“Take one step at a time.”, “Cultivate faith and trust that I don’t need to figure everything out.”, “Open your mind up to possibilities.”, “Invite generosity and kindness.”, “Go longer, walk less each day, not have any plan.”
You can hear more about what this experience of pilgrimage was like for Xuramitra: One Step at a Time: Mitra’s Pilgrimage
The Zen Peacemakers, which was started by the late Bernie Glassman, have a practice called Street Plunges, which merges elements from pilgrimage and group retreat. Below is a short description of what participants do in a plunge,
“Street Retreat participants spend the week on the street, begging for money, finding food, shelter, and bathrooms. In doing this they are given a powerful opportunity to reflect on themselves and others. By spending this time on the street, participants come closer to the lives of those who live on the streets, reflect on giving and impermanence, and recognize the humanity all people share.”[Zen Peacemakers]
Swaraj University also hosts a unique form of group pilgrimage called the Cycle Yatra. During the Cycle Yatra “Seekers travel together on bicycles without money, phones, gadgets, cars, medicines, packaged foods or plans across communities (usually villages) in a group of 5-20 co-pilgrims.” They exchange their services and creative gifts in return for places to stay and food to eat. “The pilgrims agree to slow down, to take care of each other and to be fully present to whatever is happening now.” You can learn more about the Cycle Yatra in the Catalog of Radical Pedagogies and get a taste of the experience by watching this video on the Cycle Yatra.
Pilgrimage is a simultaneous inward and outward journey. Its outward appearance can take many forms. Common to all is travel toward something new or different, as well as the intentional leaving behind one’s accustomed routines, comforts, and securities. Pilgrimage requires faith and openness to encounter. The inward journey is the result of encounters, both anticipated and unexpected. One returns from pilgrimage changed.
This ancient pedagogy is a metaphor for education itself. Learners encounter newness as they journey through unfamiliar realms. The practice can also be made explicit, however, through opportunities that remove learners from accustomed learning environments. Pilgrimages enable a deep union with all beings and an intimate solo journey into the depths of being.
“Most often confinement takes place in a small hermitage, where the monks will be undisturbed by visitors, or in an isolated building on the outskirts of the monastery.” “The vow is taken for a designated period, usually an entire retreat period (3 months), but sometimes as long as three to six years.”(Buswell, p.200)
Solo retreat, in Catholicism as in Buddhism, exists only within the context of the other practices. Most individuals who seek solo retreat do so with permission of or at the suggestion of their spiritual director. Most do not flee to the wilderness to find solitude with God, but rather seek hospitality within a monastic setting, many of which traditionally offer hospitality, including lodging, meals, spiritual direction, indoor and outdoor places of quiet reflection, and prayer and worship liturgies, for that express purpose.
The case of solitaries who do seek solo retreat in the wilderness is not entirely different, however. The Desert Fathers and many other saints throughout history, did in fact flee from everything to find solace and space for reflection and growth in a cave or crude shelter in desert or forest. However, theologically-speaking, they too were not alone. Catholics believe in the Communion of Saints, being all believers alive or deceased. Even the trinitarian concept of God is communal: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, one God in three persons.
The literature about saints is replete with stories of nonhuman beings who befriended and aided them in their human solitude. Ciaran the Elder was a fifth century Irish-born saint whose first followers were woodland creatures, notably a fox, boar, badger, deer, wolf, and many birds, all of whom helped him build his stone hermitage (much of which remains). These animals remained members of his community even as other humans eventually gathered. Visits from angelic beings are also not uncommon in the lives of mystics and saints, although many times God’s messages are spoken through animals. Even those individuals who seek solo retreat in complete renunciation of community find that community is inherent in reality, often in unexpected ways.
|Selby’s Experience: Merging with All Beings |
My tendency toward mystical experiences has resulted in solo retreats emerging unplanned in the middle of normal life. As a teenager at the ocean I had repeated mystical experiences of eternity (which I can still access in that environment). Sand, water with a seemingly infinite horizon, waves, dune grass, wind, sky, together created a multi-sensory event which I can only describe as an experience of eternity.
Because of my lack of maturity, this presented a crisis during my adolescence. If I had found a doorway into eternity, should I merge with it right then? Would that mean I would die? What would my family think? The thought of merging didn’t scare me, but I was at a loss to reconcile this window into a mystical reality with my duties and responsibilities as a sister, daughter, granddaughter, etc.
As a mature adult I have experienced this window into eternity with peace and serenity instead of concern. I don’t spend nearly as much time on the beach now as I would like. But when I do get there, regardless of weather, season, time of day, or population of humans or non-humans on the beach, I find myself in a solo retreat, experiencing refreshment, solace, a deepening awareness of senses, intellect, emotions, spirit. It is an intensely integrating experience.
At MAPLE Monastic Academy people generally go on solo retreats for 2-3 month periods. Currently (12/20/22) there are three people doing solo retreats. They are on their own, while also being cared for and held by the community. During this period they live in a small, one-room cabin, and get an opportunity to experience undisturbed periods of meditation and concentration.
One retreatant here, Daniel Thorson, went into a solo-retreat last year and came out to find that many things in the world had drastically changed, “It stunned him to discover that the many and various topics that interested him — global warming, electoral politics, the health care system — had been subsumed by a single topic of conversation, the coronavirus. That feeling of confusion deepened when, during his first week back, American cities erupted in protests over the death of George Floyd.” His experience was captured in a New York TImes Article titled, “Did I Miss Anything: A Man Emerges from a 75-day Silent Retreat”.
At the end of the solo-retreatants’ time in the cabins, the entire MAPLE community greets them with a celebratory ritual and they get a chance to come back and share the wisdom and insights (the medicine) they gained on their retreat with the entire community of people that are present. In the talks that I have heard from people just leaving the retreat, it is clear to me how potent the experience is for people’s spiritual development and meditation practice. It has been very inspiring to witness people go through these deep rites of passage.
Martin Shaw, in referencing his experience as a Vision Quest guide, expressed that the most dangerous aspect of setting out on a deep spiritual experience is not the experience itself, rather it is leaving the experience and coming back to a community where people do not relate to your experience or give you a chance to verbalize the wisdom gained. He described that the container a person returns to can differentiate the experience of being liminal or liminoid, with a liminal experience being, “a blissful, beautiful, challenging consciousness where you are catapulted out of the everyday” and the liminoid being, “the rupture without the rapture”.
Being held and heard by a community when undergoing these deep rites of passage is a great gift, which has been encouraged and practiced in monastic, and other settings, for a very long time.
All of these methodologies – interviews, group/solo retreats, pilgrimages – are made possible by the monastic community. It is very much the quality of the container, or culture that a person is part of, that enables the opportunity for transformative learning experiences.
Solo retreats enable individuals to focus their attention without distraction. Sri Aurobindo, Indian philosopher and co-creator of Integral Yoga, said that “the first principle of education is that nothing can be taught.” That does not mean that nothing can be learned. Since ancient times individuals have sought solitude in order to learn. Whether in hermitage, cave, forest, cliff top, cell, or in the midst of a crowded urban community, learners can benefit from listening to the wisdom heard in inward quiet. Learning environments that can accommodate individual quiet will surely reap benefits by use of this ancient pedagogy.
Simply put, a retreat is a break from the norm. There are various different styles of retreats in monastic settings. At MAPLE Monastic Academy they generally have one week-long Awakening retreat each month. During this time they pause out their responsibilities and duties and devote themselves completely to Awakening. During these retreats they remain in noble silence. This means that they do not speak, unless it is completely necessary. For the most part people do not even make eye contact or physical touch. At the beginning of the Awakening week they ceremoniously relinquish our cell phones and other digital technologies.
During the Awakening period much more emphasis is given to formal meditation practice where everyone sits in meditation for 12-15 hours each day, compared to the usual 5-6. You can see the difference in the pictured schedule. Due to the change in schedule during retreats each student gets more regular interviews with the teacher, usually one per day as compared to 2-3 per week during the Responsibility weeks (see schedule to the left).
In the more traditional Korean Zen monastery, Songgwang-sa, that Robert Buswell spent time in, they would have a three-month long retreat built into the annual schedule during the winter season. He describes, “During the retreat seasons, no monks in any of the monastic units are permitted to leave the monastery for anything other than temple business or the most urgent of personal matters, such as a death in the family. In the meditation hall, monks are following a rigorous schedule of upwards of fourteen hours or more of sitting meditation practice per day” (p.39). In a later section in the book he goes on to share that sometimes the monastery alters the schedule and incorporates three-year retreats into the flow of the monastery!
|Dan’s Experience: Cultivating Faith through Retreat |
Silent meditation retreats have been transformative for me in my spiritual exploration. From March 2021 to June 2022 I had the privilege to sit ten week-long (or longer) silent meditation retreats. These periods have enabled me to deepen my meditation practice, to see my negative patterns/habits more clearly, and ways that I can rid them and rouse their positive opposites.
One example of this was during the October 2021 retreat. During this retreat I was the leader of the Buildings & Grounds team and was tasked to fix a leak in the roof of the meditation hall. It was a complicated solution to figure out, but ultimately a simple task. This happened on day one of the retreat. After receiving the task – I quickly came to an appropriate solution. But, there were still five more hours of meditation before I could apply the solution! Even though I already knew what I needed to do, during these five hours my mind was incessantly thinking about the task and what I needed to do and pulling me away from being present.
This was a clear experience of the hindrance of anxiety and a lack of faith! Through being in the retreat, and forced to sit with my experience, I was able to see very clearly the embodied impact that this anxiety had on me: my breath shortened, energetic awareness was predominantly stuck in my head and not flowing through my body, heart rate increased, I was more fidgety and unable to sit still. This embodied sense was familiar to me, as was the anxiety and worry I experienced.
There was a deep clarity within me that this was not good for me or useful. Through openly expressing this experience to my spiritual teacher, Soryu, he supported me in guiding me to see the wisdom and to cultivate the positive opposite: Faith.
Thanks to his encouragement and guidance, I was able to see the distinction between incessant thinking and mindful thinking. I was able to note the difference in my body when I was operating from a place of anxiety and faith. When faith was present, I was more still, my breath was deeper, heart rate steady, I was able to notice the energy in my whole body and the surrounding environment with greater attentiveness.
It became clear to me that it is much better to be filled with Faith than it is to be filled with worry! Prior to this experience ‘Faith’ had just been a concept that I used but had never consciously embodied. Now, through direct experience, I felt that could communicate precisely and authentically about ‘Faith’ as well as about ‘Anxiety’. It was very empowering and humbling!
Also, resulting from the space and time that the retreat enabled, I was able to inquire into the roots of my anxiety. My mother’s patterns of anxiety. The pressures that she faced raising children in a culture rift of genuine community. I was able to connect my suffering to the suffering of the world. I was able to see how my suffering was perpetuating the suffering in the world and was empowered with tools and practices to lessen my suffering. It was such a gift to be able to do this in community and on the final day of the retreat (and succeeding days after) to be given space to express these insights and further process and make sense of them.
Understandably, most modern people that are not in monasteries do not have time or interest in the rigor of an extended Awakening retreat. Adam Bucko and Rory McEntee describe a path for modern folks in their book ‘New Monasticism’. They describe ways to incorporate retreats into the weekly, monthly and yearly schedule.
Each week they encourage a retreat from the normal flow of the week (a Sabbath day), “this could be a day of mostly silence spent in nature, spiritual reading and reflection or perhaps a day of fasting and prayer.” They recommend doing this more rigorously each month for a day or weekend. They describe it as “a day, or a weekend, where one completely lets go of everything, enters silence, at times fasts, and dedicates one’s energies to the practice of contemplative prayer and reflection”. They continue on, “it is highly recommended that each year a new monastic go on an extended retreat” and describe, “The goal of these yearly retreats is to immerse ourselves in our practice, following the maxims of the early desert Fathers and Mothers who said, “Enter your hermitage. Your hermitage will teach you everything.” This extended retreat would be similar to the week-retreats the Monastic Academy hosts, the commonly known Goenka Vipassana Retreats, longer retreats etc.
“Enter your hermitage. Your hermitage will teach you everything”Desert Fathers
Group and individual retreats also hold places of honor in the Catholic monastic tradition as well as within Catholicism generally. The origins of Catholic monasticism are found in the Desert Fathers, hermits who fled from civilization to encounter God without distraction in the wilderness. Throughout history Christian individuals have sought time away with God in desert, forest, and occasionally in bizarre locations such as the top of a pillar.
Though housed communally in a monastery, monastics remained on retreat from the world around them. The monastery itself, then, is a form of group retreat. Perhaps it is for that reason that in contemporary practice many people seek hospitality within a monastic setting to go on retreat individually or in a group. Likewise, monastics also seek interruption of life’s routine with personal retreats of varying lengths.
The concept of sabbatical rest is embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition as a Biblical prescription. In the Genesis account of creation, God rested on the seventh day and hallowed it as a day of rest, a sabbath. Every seventh year was considered a sabbath year in which the fields were not planted and thus allowed to regenerate. This concept of sabbath has been enshrined in educational institutions wherein professors take sabbatical leave periodically. Today most Catholic priests are required to spend one week each year on retreat, while lay persons are likewise encouraged to find times and places of retreat as well. It appears that humans and the land they inhabit both benefit from times of retreat.
|Openings for Mystical Experiences|
I grew up in New York City. Ironically, I developed great closeness to the natural environment even from within that context of skyscrapers. I spent some of every day in Central Park. Places of group retreat for me were church services. There we were called away from both the concrete and the verdure to think about God for an hour. When I was nine, our church burned to the ground. We resumed services in the basement of a nearby Jewish synagogue and in the gymnasium of a community center. I learned early on that community is people, not buildings.
I have very clear memories of mystical visions, images with which I have been gifted starting in childhood. One such image took place in the context of a church service conducted in the synagogue basement. Upon returning to my seat after receiving communion (the Anglican version of Catholics’ Holy Eucharist), I knelt to pray. Though my body knelt prayerfully, I could see myself with arms up stretched, reaching toward God. Every part of my spiritual being was reaching up, up, up. It was a personal moment, but experienced within the context of the group retreat.
In the Catholic context, group retreats may be organized for a variety of purposes, in many styles. They may be silent or directed, gathering participants of common intention as for the discernment of vocation, or by age, experience or locality. Some utilize traditional formulae such as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola; others explore a seasonal theme such as Advent or Lent. Common to most, as in the Buddhust tradition, are extended times of prayer and reflection, opportunity for spiritual direction, times of group liturgy, common meals, and periods of quiet contemplation within or around the monastery grounds.
Group retreats combine the benefits of solo retreats and community. The bonding resulting from shared experience adds to the personal insights gained by each learner. A classroom can be, when thoughtfully led, a place of group retreat. When elements of this ancient pedagogy are incorporated into learning environments, groups of learners can also experience both individual insights and the bonding of shared experience, even when in silence!
Harmony through Community
“ The direct experience in my individual being has led me to see the disharmony that exists in the systems that are currently running the world and how personal preferences are leading to the destruction of our ecosystems. It has been very powerful to see how these seemingly small acts of giving and receiving feedback, while living in community, are fractally linked to the wider rings of systems transformation.” – Dan’s experience living in monastic community
Spiritual Friendship and Feedback
With the right mindset, everyone is a teacher. When living in a community teachings happen more frequently, both directly and indirectly, from experiences and interactions with all of the members of the community, not only the teacher.
Traditionally Monastic life has been accompanied with living in community. The temple that Dan ordained at in Thailand was in the lineage of the Thai forest tradition, and followed very closely the Buddha’s teachings. Many of the monks there saw the monastic community (the sangha) as their family. For Dan, it was one of the deepest experiences of unconditional love that he had felt in his life. He had the feeling that nobody wanted anything from him, nor for themselves, and that each person was there to serve the community.
In this lineage the monastery abided closely by the Vinaya, or basic code of monastic discipline set forth directly from the Buddha. This code consists of very specific rules, 227 for monks and 311 for nuns. Before entering the monastery Dan was not aware of these rules, therefore, without knowing, he regularly broke many of them. As you can probably guess, he received a lot of feedback! This was difficult and stressful for him, especially in the first few days. Some examples of rules he broke included: drinking while walking, how he wore his robes and handled his alms bowl, and talking to a female without two other monks around etc.
Dan describes this experience at the temple in Thailand more extensively in another article, Pedagogy of the Temple, and he shares a bit about his at MAPLE Monastic Academy relating to giving and receiving feedback in the blurb below.
|Dan’s Experience – From Defensive to Seeking Out: Opening Up to Feedback|
During my first weeks at MAPLE receiving and giving feedback was rather challenging for me. I noticed that I often reacted defensively when someone gave me constructive feedback. Sometimes this defensiveness was subtle and unspoken other times more charged and expressed. Even simple things – like being told that I had missed a column of the floor I was mopping, or that I did not scrape all of the food out of a dish before putting it on the dirty dish rack – would trigger me.
Additionally, I noticed that I was not able to fully receive positive feedback and that I would often brush it off and reactively respond by trying to reciprocate and offer feedback back. And that giving feedback (both positive and constructive) was an edge for me.
Feedback is a major part of the culture at MAPLE and is seen as a deep act of spiritual friendship. I had never been in a culture – work, personal or otherwise – where feedback was encouraged and celebrated. At MAPLE we even have specific practices and processes (i.e. Feedback Nights) where the community is supported in deepening their collective capacity to give and receive feedback and given space to practically apply this.
After being at MAPLE for over a year I have noticed my ability to give and receive feedback improve. It has been deeply transformative for me personally and also as a leader and friend. Through struggling through this process I have developed a deeper confidence, sense of integrity and trustworthiness and now often seek out opportunities for people to give me feedback. However, as I write this, I acknowledge that giving feedback (especially critical) is still an edge for me that I am working to get better at.
Through this direct experience I can see more clearly the link between giving/receiving feedback and being a good friend. This connection has been very transformational for me in my path! I can see more clearly why the Buddha placed such a deep emphasis on Spiritual Friendship and the art of Giving Feedback.
Through living in community we rub up against each other quite often! This commonly results in conflicts. Often ego, selfishness and personal preferences are at the core of these conflicts. Through these conflicts we are forced to reflect on our actions. For me it has been very interesting to explore the times when my personal preferences do not align with the needs of the community. It has been a tangible experience of harmony.
While there are some Catholic communities which combine the communal and hermit life in such a way that each member eats alone in his personal cell, most communities have common meals in a common dining room called a refectory. In a monastic setting, most food is commonly grown or raised on site. Many communities have gardens and, if animal products are consumed, farms. Some monastic communities have dietary restrictions as part of their aim of simplicity.
During common meals in a refectory, three possible atmospheres are chosen: silence, spiritual reading out loud by one member or conversation. Some communities observe a schedule of each of these options. Schedule or calendar is the determining factor not only of the ambiance of the refectory, but actually of the choices of foods served.
All Catholics live according to a liturgical calendar of seasons, within which there are feasts and fasts. The word Catholic means universal, and this same liturgical calendar, with only minor local adjustments, is observed throughout the world. Two of the liturgical seasons, Advent which precedes Christmas, and Lent, which precedes Easter, are penitential periods of reflection and austerity. This liturgical schedule is deeply rooted in the cycles of earth and sky, thus reinforcing ties to community, both human and ecological.
The refectory will reflect this mood with few decorations, simple food, perhaps smaller portions and days of both fasting (limited food) and abstinence (no flesh food or removal of another food enjoyed if meat is not regularly eaten). Even during Advent and Lent there are certain feasts and solemnities (the highest ranking kind of feast) that penetrate the time of penance, bringing isolated relief and joy. As the name implies, feast days are days to celebrate, including the ingesting of rich foods, cakes and desserts. All aspects of the Catholic faith can be experienced within one complete passage of a liturgical year.
The followers of the Rule of St. Benedict, Benedictines, have a motto: ora et labora, Latin for pray and work. Everyone knows about the praying that goes on in monasteries, but few recognize the work. From Biblical times onward, Christians have been encouraged to work when able.
|God in the Garden: Selby’s Experience|
The two places outside of the chapel where I feel closest to God are certainly the garden and the barn. Doing manual labor, shoveling goat poop to be exact, even that composted for over a decade into rich soil, is not some people’s cup of tea.
But it sure is mine. Whether the goat poop is fresh and fragrant, or dry and dusty with age, it represents a rich resource of potential nourishment that I know will encourage seeds, those most cosmic and creative containers of future life, to release their gifts.
To me, goat poop is wealth. Better than any amount of money in the bank, it means that food can be grown. It represents hope and trust.
The apostle Paul was involved in a tent-making business to support his life of missionary preaching. Traditionally all those whose lives are devoted to seeking God and prayer in a monastery have also gardened, farmed, cleaned and maintained the monastery, procured firewood for heat, welcomed guests, prepared food, washed dishes, spun cloth, tailored and mended habits, made medicines, copied and decorated books, often all while observing silence. A balance of prayer and work is sought, neither to the exclusion of the other, both as means to practice the presence of God, to increase awareness of the divine in all aspects of life.
ora et labora (pray and work)
Manual labor is also a tool to increase humility. More than a few saints have achieved great holiness by being the door attendant at the entrance to the monastery. Their ranks include St. Andre Bessette, St. Faustina Kowalska, and Bl. Solanus Casey, to name a few. If a monastery is to remain self-sufficient financially, the monks or nuns typically find an enterprise through which the monastery can earn a living. Some have stayed in the tradition of the scriptorium where hand-copied books were produced. Modern descendants have entered publishing or the production of inks and toners for computers. Others have stayed with the agrarian tradition, selling honey, jams, cakes or other sweets. Some have focused on the heritage of hospitality, welcoming guests, travelers and retreatants. Some form of work is done in addition to the simple, humble, manual labor associated with personal and communal life.
Work practice is very important in many traditional Buddhist monasteries. When Dan was in the temple in Thailand one of the senior monks taught him how to sweep and mop mindfully, aligning the breath with each motion. Similarly, at MAPLE Dan has experienced deep teachings on incorporating mindfulness into work – Awakening into Responsibility. The work, in and of itself, is seen as a form of meditation. Shinzen Young, in The Science of Enlightenment, explains this in a story from his time in a Japanese Zen Monastery;
“Finally I got it! The menial tasks I had been assigned to do around the temple were meant to be an exercise in meditation. Whether washing dishes or cleaning toilets, my job was to try to stay in samadhi. When my attention wandered from the activity, I was to bring it back over and over again to my task. … Suddenly it made sense. I stopped thinking of my jobs at the temple as meaningless waste of time and began to see them as fascinating challenges. Everything shifted: “How deep can I get this morning as I wash these dishes?” “How deep can I stay as I rake the sand.”
One of the major benefits of work is that it enables people to be in their bodies and not in their heads. Many of our modern systems of education emphasize learning that happens in the head and often neglect the body. There is great wisdom in the body. Our bodies are connected to the patterns around us and are a tangible connection to our ancestral history.
Dan’s teacher at MAPLE, Soryu Forall, often emphasizes that meditation is a physical practice that happens in the body NOT in the mind! Many of us that have passed through modern systems of education are subsequently often cut off from the wisdom of the body and the connections to natural patterns. This is exacerbated in the emphasis and incentives that society generally places on white collar (head) work compared to blue collar (hands) work. Often blue collared work is looked down upon and seen as less.
Monastic settings emphasize the importance of blue collar work and being in the body. It can be claimed that many of the existential problems that humans are facing today result from this over-emphasis and incentivization of being in the body!
|Community with All Beings: Selby’s Mystical Experience |
Humanity is not the only community to which we belong, however. I was reminded of this during a mystical experience in the woods when I was seventeen. I was staying with friends in a cabin on the West Branch of the Penobscot River in North Central Maine. I was on vacation from my life in New York City where I was studying dance seriously and performing with a dance company. I was at the cabin in order to help friends build a geodesic dome as their home.
One afternoon I donned a leotard and went out into the dirt and gravel driveway in front of the cabin. I had a very lofty goal. I wanted to dance outside, but only using movements that originated authentically from my inner being. I did not want to use any steps I had learned or performed. I started down on the dirt, curled up in a tiny ball, still on my feet, but wrapped around my knees with my head down.
I stayed there for a very long time, unable to find the authentic movement I longed to do. A friend came out and cupped his body over mine. No words were exchanged. After a few moments, he returned to the cabin. Somehow that unlocked my access to my authentic movement.
I arose and began to sway in the breeze, dancing with the trees. My movements were fluid and in complete consonance with the movements of the trees as the wind moved through their long limbs. I found my hands in gestures of blessing and discovered that I could see an enormous image of Jesus among the trees. He was swaying and blessing and was so, so extraordinarily tall. I felt blessed and holy. So much so that I wondered if I could ever speak again. This experience was so far beyond words, I would have to ‘come back’ in order to speak.
I danced with the community of trees, nonhumans, and spiritual beings for some time. Eventually I returned to the cabin, and after a small crisis similar to my earlier one at the ocean, decided that it would stress my family too much if I never spoke again. So, after some time of silence I ‘came back’. Even more recently, when I have walked in the woods and noticed the tree tops swaying in the breeze, I have remembered the community of beings with whom I danced and perhaps shall dance again.
Conclusion: Being of Genuine Service to All Beings
“There are many members indeed, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not thy help; nor again the head to the feet: I have no need of you.” and “If one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it; or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:20, 21, 26 DRV)
“Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.” - Buddha
All of the pedagogies mentioned in this article – interviews, rites of passage, living in community – are all acts of service. The common intention behind these practices is to cultivate a deeper relationship with reality. To see things clearly. With this clarity the cycles and patterns, in our inner and outer worlds, become more apparent.
In reality, we cannot escape community bonds of family, locale, origin, age, region, and many other factors. Yet we resist the acceptance of our membership in a planetary being-ship. The Catholic concept of the Common Good speaks precisely to unifying the dual perspectives as individuals and community members. Community is not simply a monastic practice, it is the nature of reality. Monastic practice of community is a precious tool for sharpening our focus on this reality.
This way of seeing is very important. With this lens it is possible to genuinely assess a situation, and act accordingly, in a life affirming way that honors the interconnected nature of all living beings. This is a useful skill for all learners that is applicable in most all settings.
In our current systems of consumption people often base their decisions on their personal preferences and do not consider the impact their decisions have on a systems level. This disconnection is leading to unprecedented ecological and cultural destruction. These practices are urgently needed.
Monastic practices, while applicable in any learning environment, and loaded with potential benefits as pedagogies in this modern world—are not enough. Little is to be gained by simply applying these practices within the context of systems, educational and economic, whose functions and structures were born of cosmologies, paradigms, and mindsets reliant on the domination of some people over others.
Many of the current fads – Social Emotional Learning, Mindfulness in the classroom etc. – are missing the mark. Not due to the ‘What’ – the content in the curriculum – but, rather as a result of the ‘How’ – how the content is being taught. There are many reasons this has been the case, including the nature of the system itself (hyper-competitive, outcomes based, more transactional than transformational) and the resulting pressures that teachers face and themselves have grown up with as the norm. In integrating these pedagogies, it is important that we simultaneously are reflecting on and working to improve the larger systems that they are a part of.
‘How’ matters on a systems level just as much as it matters on an individual level. The use of spiritual practices when devoid of actual openness to change often only distracts from a deeper exploration about the purpose and practice of education. As these practices have spread, spiritual bypassing has become increasingly prevalent, where practitioners and activists talk about these truths and realities in self-righteous, entitled, idealistic and grandiose ways, while not actually embodying the essence. There is often an over emphasis on ‘me’ and ‘my achievements’ and a lack of the sincere, deep, humility, which is central to truly advancing on the path of realization.
During the Industrial Revolution students were being prepared to work in factories in order to increase the wealth of factory owners. What do we now consider the purpose of education in today’s context? While this question is not the focus of this article, it’s continued asking undergirds the presentation of monastic practices as ancient pedagogies for a modern world. In these current systems of education this sense of ‘me’ and ‘my achievements’ are emphasized to prepare children to be competitive and successful in the ‘real world’.
In our vision, as have been taught in monastic traditions for millennia, notions of re-imagined education must include: opportunities for inward and outward transformation, encounter with and openness to difference, relatedness between individual and community, cultivation of a sense of deep humility and not-knowing, connectedness to the world and natural environment all flow through these practices, journey towards zero (simplicity, minimalism) …
Are there any other elements that you would add to our list? Are any of these elements already present in your educational setting(s) (individual and or group)? If not, why not? Are there any elements that we listed above that you do not think are useful? Do you see any tangible ways that you can make changes to your learning space(s) to incorporate the wisdom from ancient monastic practices?
We would love to hear your responses to these questions and any feedback (positive and/or constructive) on the article!
Daniel Rudolph is interested in exploring alternative, experiential learning opportunities for people of all ages. He is passionate about enabling community public spaces for meaningful, transformational gathering. For the last year and a half Dan has been a resident at MAPLE Monastic Academy participating in an awakened leadership training program. During this time he has continued his self-directed learning of juggling, sacred clowning and mindfulness meditation.
You can reach out to Dan via email (email@example.com) or LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/daniel-rudolph-79551b88/).
Selby Beebe-Lawson is a grandmother, originally from Manhattan, currently residing in Maine in a four-generation household. Among the original artists-in-residence to inhabit and name the DUMBO loft section of Brooklyn, Selby is a boho dancer/choreographer, musician, goat herder, education re-imaginer, gardener, visual artist, president of a charitable and educational nonprofit, co-founder of two communities, and daily gleans from local compost and recycling bins to feed the hungry and create teaching, publishing, and construction materials. A Roman Catholic layperson, Selby has begun a spiritual adventure of transformation with Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. firstname.lastname@example.org