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A Month as a Monk

Updated: Jun 20

I spent May of 2024 in a Buddhist monastery. Sure, I went to strengthen my meditation practice, but it was also a research trip on monasteries themselves. What I experienced was much greater.


I woke up from one of those disorienting nights where you forget where you are. I found myself in the musty basement of my mom's house in Connecticut. The mattress on the floor was flanked by stacks of boxes - a mix of treasured family memorabilia, old medical journals and obscure charging cables. Extremely groggy, I went upstairs and poured myself a cup of the ultra-weak coffee that my stepdad enjoys. After a few minutes, I had to admit that I was not just groggy. I was getting sick. This was supposed to be the day that I drove up to Vermont to start a month-long residency at a unique place called the Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth (or "MAPLE").





So I delayed for a day. Still sick (but hopefully not contagious?) I drove the four hours up 91 to northern Vermont. Pulling off the main road, a well-groomed dirt road brought me steadily uphill. Hand-painted wooden signs reassured me that I was on the right track, and after passing a utility area with a tractor and a woodshop, I parked at the main building.


I arrived in the afternoon and was greeted thoughtfully and pragmatically by multiple people. It seemed as though no one was in charge but everyone was responsible. I was oriented to the schedule, shown my room, and given a tour, all by different people handing me off like a partner at a square dance.


That evening I gathered a bundle of cushions, set up my nest in the meditation hall, and joined for my first sit. The session began with a bell struck suddenly and then gently reverberating for about ten seconds. After a while, the door to the hall opened and a bald-headed man walked purposefully into the center of the room. He bowed in four directions, then continued with what seemed to be prayers. Another bell rang and people began chanting a short mantra that I recognized. I joined in quietly.


After about two and a half hours of meditation with periodic stretch breaks, three bells marked the end of the sit. The group left quietly, each bowing from the center of the room before making an exit. I got back to my room, brushed my teeth and set an alarm for 4:15am. Laying down on the twin bed and staring at the ceiling, I felt like the new kid at school, unsure of what I have gotten myself into.


I had driven from California to Vermont, seeing the country for a month, and finally I was at the main event. I had spent the past decade building community homes to create spaces that help people grow. After starting 20 community living spaces for hundreds of people, we had shut down the company 18 months prior. If I'm honest, I'd been spinning my wheels ever since. I painted a hundred paintings and had an art show. I wrote a hundred pages and co-wrote my first book.


But I had this gnawing feeling that there's something real I needed to do. Something I need to give. I had reached a dead end. There was nothing else left to do. Nothing really worked. I was tired of my bullshit. Tired of feeling depressed. Tired of distracting myself, and ruminating about what I should do with my life. The only thing that really felt like moving forward was to get out of my comfortable apartment and go be a monk for a while. Just face it all. I needed to actually go and do the thing that I knew was necessary.


Now I was here at the main event. Time to be here. Here we go.


The Practice

The meditation practice is the meat and potatoes of this operation. So what is it, exactly? People at MAPLE mostly practice a meditation technique called The Jade Method. This is an entry point and handy set of reminders, broadly based on energizing the breath.


I had previous experience with a different technique taught at Goenka Vipassana retreats, so with the buy-in of the teacher, I practiced the body scan technique from that method. At least for me, at my current stage, the goal of meditation is to shift my attention from a stream of automatic thoughts to the direct sensations of the body and breath. As the attention progressively shifts, healing takes place (which I'll explain later). It's about being honest with yourself, and letting go of the constant project of trying to control yourself and/or the world.


Throughout the month, I slowly "starved" my thoughts of attention, and instead got curious about the sensations in my body. As more of my energy and attention shifted from thoughts to body, healing happened in my body, emotions were processed, and my thinking became clearer, more deliberate and less repetitive.


In cognitive science the notion of salience is about the thing that your mind finds most interesting, important or attractive. Shiny objects are salient. Potential mates are salient. And when you're sitting around doing nothing, thoughts about what you should have said to that person 3 months ago are salient. Meditation is about building and amplifying the salience of the breath and body so that you can engage with the reality of a moment without being pulled away by irrelevant thoughts. But then what?


As the salience of breath and body increases, it unlocks the opportunity to incrementally resolve suffering in oneself by choosing to let go of clenching and clinging, which happens as a physical process in the body (at least to start). This begins the process of genuinely seeking to give to the world rather than orienting one's life around what "I" can get from the world, or change it to my preferences. (I say this from personal experience, not second hand philosophy. I'll unpack more below.) To be clear, I'm still establishing myself in the early stages of all this, but I have gotten a taste.



Rendering of "meditation blueprint" by Midjourney.


The Schedule

Below is the schedule for a "normal" day during what they call a "responsibility period." This period (usually three weeks a month) is focused on taking responsibility as an active contributor in the world. In contrast, "awakening periods" are focused on meditation and the entire day is devoted to staying in the meditation practice as much as possible. Awakening periods at MAPLE are typically one week per month, but it was two weeks in May (when I was there) in honor of Gautama Siddhartha's birth, enlightenment and death.


4:40am - meditation + chanting (otherwise silent)

6:30am - exercise period (silent, choose your own adventure)

7:35am - breakfast (silent)

8:15am - work (tasks vary by person, I worked on my laptop)

12:35pm - lunch (silent)

1:15pm - chores (aka cleaning)

2:00pm - self practice period (aka free time. I usually either worked, napped or both)

4:30pm - evening schedule (varies, was mostly a lecture series on AI and buddhism)

7:00pm - meditation

9:30pm - typical bedtime (usually goes until 11:30 during retreat)


On these "responsibility" days we would meditate for over 4 hours, and if needed I could work on my laptop for up to 9 hours. It is rare and incredibly valuable to be able to meditate for 4 hours a day and also get 9 hours of normal work done. This is such a valuable and critical quality, and seems rare among monastic communities. After only a few days, my mental clarity also quadrupled, so I could get a huge amount done in each day.



Rendering of "monastery clock" by Midjourney.

The Forms

Formal conduct is used in many situations at MAPLE, which exists to help people stay in integrity, maintain the practice, and respect ethical guidelines. These practices, rules and norms are called "the forms" at MAPLE. As a guest, I was gently corrected fairly frequently to help me learn these forms. I knew these guys weren't messing around when I was gently informed that my napkin was placed with the fold in the wrong direction.


Dress code: dark and neutral tones, loosely fitting, without graphics.


Meals: only breakfast and lunch are served. Meals are silent, and are held as a ceremony to continue the meditation practice. Each person has a bowl which is wrapped in a specific way with a cloth napkin, and every morsel of food is consumed. Bowls are cleaned at the table with just some water and the thumb, and then the water is drunk. Food is simple and nutritious, but not culinary. Little trinkets are sometimes secretly placed into other people's bowls between meals.


Noble Silence: a specific form of silence intended to not disturb your fellow meditators, and to reduce opportunities to get carried away in thought. During the entire retreat, noble silence is in effect, and during normal times, it is practiced in the morning, at meals and in the evening.


Head Monk: this is a role focused on upholding the forms, keeping the schedule tight, and offering corrections to people who make mistakes or are late. During silent periods, the Head Monk will sometimes speak to deal with logistics.


Bells + Time: everything happens on time at MAPLE. You are constantly keeping track of the time and the schedule to make sure you don't disrupt the group by being late.


Formal Postures: during meditation times, there are three formal postures: seated on the ground (cross-legged or kneeling) sitting in a chair, or standing upright. Formal postures are also taken at meal times, so there is no leaning into the chair backrest. Continuous, gentle effort is an important aspect of the practice.


Shawls: A small shawl, worn diagonally like a sash, is given to people when they do a retreat at MAPLE, which is a long-standing Buddhist tradition. The shawl is draped down during meditation.



"Monastic forms and conduct" rendered by Midjourney.

The Teacher

MAPLE is generally based in Buddhism but doesn't officially prescribe to a single lineage. The head teacher Soryu Forall went to Sogen-ji temple Japan at 19 years old, training intensively and ordaining under Zen Master Shodo Harada. He also trained at a Kagyud Tibetan monastery in India, as well as an ancient Ch'an monastery in eastern China called Xue Feng Si. Soryu continues to return to Japan to continue his training for many months each year. The guy has devoted his life to training and teaching Buddhism. I found Soryu to be a rare breed. The guy is the real deal. If he were speaking Japanese and it was 200 years ago, he would make perfect sense.


Each day, participants have an opportunity to meet with Soryu to touch base about their practice, both in small group settings and in brief individual meetings. Soryu is very deep in his practice during these interviews, which almost feel otherworldly. I was pretty nervous and intimidated because it was clear this guy could see my soul, and I couldn't hide. I found the instruction extremely valuable. Having a skilled teacher helps to navigate an otherwise esoteric experience and allows you to quickly make important adjustments.


The Retreat

Two weeks of the month I spent at MAPLE was a meditation intensive. "Retreat" doesn't quite capture it. The whole point is to soberly face the reality of ourselves, not to retreat, distract or avoid. We fully threw ourselves into practicing 18-19 hours each day, leaving it all on the court, so to speak. Each morning at 4:15am, someone hits a metal pipe with a hammer while walking through the residential halls to wake everyone up, since we didn't have our phones. There is no reading, no talking, generally no doing anything except eating, sleeping, meditating, walking and exercising. The day ends with a multi-hour impassioned "exhortation" (or dharma talk) given while the group meditates, which would usually go until around 11:30pm.


A silent retreat isn't just about not talking, it is about removing as much as possible that could distract our attention from doing the meditation practice. The goal is to practice every waking moment; and in fact, more advanced practitioners were trying to keep the practice going while they slept. The progress is compounding. If you had a strong 2-hour sit, you'll be more clear-headed and able to follow your breath as you walk out of the meditation hall. If you follow your breath intently while walking, you'll be less likely to get caught up in thoughts, and you'll set yourself up to be in a better position to maintain mindful awareness through breakfast.

Prior to the retreat, Soryu was building it up as the culmination of not only that year's training, but the entire 12-year history of MAPLE. The pressure was on. The goal was to enter samadhi, break through to the dharma and make as much progress as possible toward realizing enlightenment. Many hours of exhortations were given to spur us on and encourage our steadfast effort.


This rigor and vigor really struck a chord for me. What Soryu was saying in the talks made sense to me. We all have to ask ourselves: at what point in my life am I really going to sprint flat-out with every calorie I have and really go for it? There have been many times when I applied myself 80% or even 95% and generally I view that as full effort. So for the retreat, at each point where I could have said "aww, I'm gonna take it easy for this one" instead, I re-doubled efforts.


"Diagram of a meditation retreat" rendered by Midjourney.


The Impact

I hesitate to write too much about my personal experiences and the impact this month has had on me. I don't want to make it into a memory, and look back at the past. I want to keep the practice fresh in this moment, not turn it into a story or a thought. What's most important is to keep doing the practice as much as possible, and focus on what is happening right now. I would be happy to share more in person, and particularly to practice with more people as I head back home.


Caveats aside, I'll share a bit.


After maybe 10 days, the volume of my thoughts began to soften. The energy and attention that had been spent ruminating was available to witness the breath and body. There were three main centers of pain: one in my neck, one in between my shoulder blades, and one in my lumbar spine. Eventually, the quality of the pain changed, and the mental suffering about the pain was dramatically reduced. Now calmer, I was able to observe the pain more dispassionately because I wasn't fighting so hard to avoid it or get rid of it or feel sorry for myself. I noticed that much of what seemed like pain was actually bracing against pain, and was a kind of muscle clenching. After some time observing this clenching for what it was, I would get lucky and find a way to let go.


This process of finding a way to let go of these self-generated afflictions is very central to the practice, at least in my experience. As afflictions are released, the body can sit in a clearer and more comfortable position. The mind is no longer struggling and fighting against the affliction, and so that energy is now available to reinvest in the practice. With that tension relinquished, the mind and heart feel calmer and clearer - more of an open canvas and less of a shitstorm of struggle.


After days and eventually weeks of these afflictions being released, it had a significant impact on my physical body, my emotional state and my mental clarity. With less ruminating thoughts, I fell asleep quicker, and tended to have clear dreams every night, many of them lucid. The back pain I've had for over 15 years was massively reduced and in some places temporarily eliminated.


Eventually the storm of struggle and messy thoughts began to move on. It was still there, but the center of the storm was no longer directly me. The calm that replaced that storm was frankly quite extraordinary. What you might call a field of peace and problem-less bliss began to wash over the upper parts of my body. This field feels like it offers final resolution to our worldly human problems. The lower parts of my body were still in the storm, and I was never able to fully immerse myself in the field. That field seems fairly incompatible with thoughts, and you can actually feel your thoughts in your body which interrupt the field.


There was one place in my head -where the nose and eyes meet- that could not surrender to the field. This place felt related to my concept of self that we imagine to be located in our brains. This part felt very threatened by this field of bliss, like it would be annihilated if it let go into the field. Like my mind would literally be blown and I just wasn't down for that. It actually felt impossible to let go even though I wanted to and was giving it my all. This will have to come in time with more practice. As I get the hang of what it feels like to let go with other easier parts of my body, next time I'll have a better chance of letting go of that tricky spot.


--------


Putting all the whiz-bang meditation phenomenon aside, the real impact was that I really had to admit it. I wasn't going to "figure my life out" by thinking. And actually, focusing on "my life" is itself a trap. The 18 months of failing to figure out my life were actually correct. I'm not going to figure my life out. It's time to let go.


Letting go of that project is a relief, and although I can't say I've totally given it up, I see that life doesn't end just because I look at it differently. It doesn't mean I stop trying to be helpful or stop making an effort to be skillful. It just means I can catch myself when I see that I'm working on the project called My Life which is an attempt to Acquire (experiences, resources, relationships, etc.) Instead, what I can always do now, is to look for where the opportunity is to find the way forward that has integrity and is driven by care and love and courage and respect.


This is all still in progress, so these reflections aren't perfectly formed. And that's the way life is most of the time. But the meditation practice is a way to build more clarity by releasing what's unnecessary and being straight with ourselves about whats really going on.


"This practice is both deeply real and totally extraordinary." Rendered by Midjourney

The Mission

Many modern or Western "retreat centers" and even Buddhist teachers are shy to claim enlightenment as the real goal. It seems like a far-off concept, and instead the real goal is to cultivate a bit more mindfulness to make our lives a bit more peaceful. Secular Humanism is the dominant worldview of Western cultures, and many spiritual traditions are molded to fit within it, rather than to offer a unique worldview that is radically counter-cultural. It's not that secular humanism is bad. It's just incomplete. It's not enough. It's incapable of getting us where we need to go.


MAPLE is not trying to fit into the Secular Humanist frame. It is focused on addressing planetary existential risk - global threats like climate change, AI etc. Their contribution is based on cultivating a different worldview that might have the potential to divert humanity from self-destruction. Given the severity of the planetary situation, and the decades of failure by governments, markets and civil society, we are in a "Hail Mary" moment.


There must be a set of beliefs, views and values behind all of the actions that we, as a civilization, are taking that is leading to ecological death. We intuitively know that we don't have to destroy the planet. We could take different actions. If we deeply look at our values, swallow our pride, and go to the root, perhaps we can see the error of our ways and adopt new views that might contribute to life rather than destruction.


Our civilization has massively increased in intelligence over the past few centuries, and along with accelerating intelligence, we have accelerated destruction. We are clever, but we are not wise. Intelligence is just knowing that smoking is bad for you, but it doesn't mean you stop smoking just because you have that knowledge. Wisdom is acting on the intelligence, and not smoking. We don't need more intelligence. We need more wisdom. We need to actually do the right thing, not just talk about it, or think about it. Intelligence can be wasted solving trivial or selfish problems. Wisdom helps us choose the right problems on which to focus our intelligence.


With the dawn of artificial intelligence, there is the potential to increase the overall "quantity" of intelligence on the planet, but it seems that this intelligence is still pointed on the same projects and problems that are leading humanity toward a collective Darwin Award. So why is Buddhism relevant to AI? Because it sits squarely at this junction of intelligence and wisdom.


AI work brings up some deep questions which thousands of years of Buddhist practitioners have already been exploring to the depths:


What is the nature of consciousness and sentience? What is the nature of self?  Is each self an agent with free will? If we humans are not actually selves, who are we to say that AI beings are not selves? Should we treat AI with the same compassion that we would give to the human babies that we rear?


Most importantly, is there an opportunity to cultivate true wisdom in AI agents such that they actually increase wisdom? How might AI beings help humanity adopt views and values that will reduce our suffering rather than create an even larger hamster wheel of dissatisfaction? Could we create monasteries for AI beings to practice mindfulness?


(MAPLE is launching a 30+ hour "Buddhism and AI" course soon. For a much better articulation of these concepts, that will be a great starting point.)






How do we cultivate wisdom at a larger scale? How can wisdom shift our culture so we make better decisions? This is the question that led me to drive across the country to visit MAPLE in the first place. And the short answer is, for me, more monasteries.


The Modern Monastery

I got a taste of how meditation can actually reduce suffering in my life. I saw how I initiated those shifts myself, supported by a group of people and a set of intentionally designed life circumstances. The people, the place, the circumstances and the practice together form the monastery. I was drawn to MAPLE specifically because it seemed to be engaged in the current problems of the day (existential risk and AI) and because it offered a "coworking residency" whereby I could work on my laptop 8 hours a day while also practicing 4 hours a day during the non-retreat times.


As I've initiated my descent into the "normal" world, it's very clear how supportive the monastery is for the practice. It's easy to get swept up in the disorganized lifestyle of randomly doing things and reacting to all the pings of modern life. My practice has dramatically reduced in terms of potency and time spent, and my job is to keep kickstarting it.


But its also my job to use my logistical energy to create durable supportive circumstances for myself and others. So this leads to the question- what is in between full monastic life and full modern shitstorm life? How can the elements of schedule, structure, practice and community be formed into a lifestyle that is compatible with working, raising children and taking responsibility for the functioning of society?


For ten years I created community living spaces for a few hundred people along the West Coast, but we never had any kind of mindfulness practice explicitly built into the core of the communities. Our intent was to further personal development, and that definitely happened in many cases, but MAPLE gave me a deeper experience.


I'm very curious and motivated to make attempts and prototype this "modern monastery."


A few glossy concepts of a Modern Monastery, generated by Midjourney.


As I head home to the Bay Area, I'm very keen to collaborate with other people who want to put this practice at the center of their lives. I've started drafting an idea around a one-month residency that is quasi-monastic but also compatible with normal work (at least for people with remote privilege).


If you'd like to explore ways to create structure, schedule and community in the greater Bay Area for this practice, please reach out!



Another Midjourney rendering of a Modern Monastery, just for funsies.


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