A Week in a Buddhist Monastery: An Exercise in Patience and Forbearance
November 21st, 2023
I first encountered meditation in my mid-twenties. Surprisingly perhaps, it was while working at the international management consultancy firm, McKinsey & Company. I was part of a project which was analysing how the performance of executives was impacted by how they spent their time. With the key caveat that correlation does not always equate to causation, the most striking finding for me was that almost all the top performing executives meditated. Furthermore, they didn’t just meditate before/after work, or at weekends, it was incorporated into their working day.
Work at McKinsey is largely project based, so there is a continual cycle of working with one team, and then moving on to work with another. A year or so into my time at the company, I joined a team which seemed ‘different’. It was calmer. Although work was still conducted at a fast pace, it was more relaxed. Deadlines were still set and met, but the atmosphere was ‘loose’ rather than ‘tight’. It turned out that everyone on the team (apart from me) meditated regularly.
Up until this point, I’d had a very narrow/biased view of meditation. To me it belonged in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, or to the counter culturalists who wanted to ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out’. Now I was seeing it in the ‘mainstream’, and it appeared a useful aid to performance. So, for the last 20 years or so, I’ve ‘dabbled’ with meditation. In a good week, I may meditate five or six times for around 10 minutes each time. More typically, I manage three to four 10-minute sessions and a smattering of ‘micro-meditations’, where I pay attention to the inhale and exhale of 10 breaths.
I’ve persisted though; in part, because my experience at McKinsey established a belief that mediation aids performance. Given my desire to perform well in various areas of life, I therefore felt it was something I should do. It’s also piqued my curiosity. I find it intriguing that something that appears to be so simple;
‘Just focus on your breath’
can be so difficult to achieve, on account of distractions by thoughts, feelings and other sensations.
Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meditation. The very thoughts and feelings that prevent me focusing on my breath are often ones that I’ve been unaware of or have tried to dismiss too soon. Creating the time to meditate allows me to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings and either accept them more fully, or attend to them more constructively. On the rare occasions when prolonged focus on the breath is achieved, I perceive that I’m subsequently calmer and able to think more clearly.
So, with this ‘amateur’ interest in meditation, how did I end up at an intensive, week-long meditation retreat at the Samye Ling Centre (the largest Buddhist monastery in Western Europe, situated in the rural lowlands of Scotland)? Well, old friends will tell you that a personal motto of mine is;
‘If you don’t have a go, you’ll never know.’
Having just gotten over a potentially life changing illness, my (often naïve) enthusiasm for new experiences has been reenergised. Added to this was a growing interest in Buddhism. My perception that it advocates universal compassion on the one hand and emotional non-attachment on the other, interests me in relation to both intimate and professional relationships. I’m also a great believer in the inherent value of immersing yourself in a completely different way of life (even if just for a few days). Doing so invariably broadens my perspective and helps me appreciate what I truly value. If I’m lucky, it can also make me aware of, and then question, truths I’ve (often unconsciously) developed in my ordinary life with respect to ‘how life is’. In terms of the retreat, each day was structured around six 60-90 minute sessions, so 42 sessions in total. The first session on each day started at 5.30am and the last finished at 8.30pm.
The first session felt quite auspicious, around 140 people were assembled in what to me was a very elaborately decorated temple: lots of gold and hundreds of statues of the Buddha. Then our teacher for the week, a purple- and orange-robed lama, who had flown in from Nepal, entered the temple with his translator. Gongs sounded, chants were made and the more ‘serious and knowledgeable’ attendees (of which I was not one) performed a series of prostrations and genuflections. An overview of the week and some very basic rudiments of meditation were then outlined.
Of the remaining 41 sessions, 40 of them basically involved non-directed meditation, or the lama sitting at the front of the temple and (via a translator) telling the assembled that we could NOT learn ‘real’ meditation because;
“you are fixated with happiness and most of you have mental health problems.”
Instead of teaching meditation, he gave what, to me, were very different perspectives on some fundamental human characteristics. For example, in his view;
“Kindness is understanding your stupidity and then showing continual endeavour to reduce it. The general Western approach to kindness is spoiling the individual.”
From my perspective, time was also given over to publicly criticising the monks and nuns of the monastery and hours were spent talking about a yearlong retreat which only a handful of people seemed remotely interested in. Questions could be asked, but they had to be submitted in written form. There was also some sporadic, but very in-depth analysis of (what seemed to me) an obscure Buddhist text.
In short, it was bizarre. People were leaving early and many (including myself) were asking why a meditation retreat had been organised, if it was not considered possible for us to meditate. The need for a translator compounded the frustration, as there could be over 20 minutes of incomprehension before the lama stopped speaking and the translation began.
And then came the 42nd and final session and the lama’s answer to the final question; ‘Can you give some insights into how to meditate?’.
The lama proceeded to introduce the six Buddhist perfections:
He stated that the order of the perfections was very important. He then proposed that many of us may well have found the week frustrating, because it was uncomfortable sitting for hours and not understanding what was required to meditate. If so, this was good, as this was developing the third perfection of patience. By sticking at it, and returning to the temple, session after session, we had also been developing the fourth perfection, energy, grit, forbearance and perseverance. These are the key precursors for meditation: you can’t hope to meditate without patience and energy. Finally, at the very end, he gave a 10 minute insight into how to meditate and then it was all over! As a trainer and facilitator, I had deep admiration. On the basis that the lama’s approach was intentional, in my view it takes real resolve to try and frustrate 140 people for almost an entire week, in order to illustrate a point.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. Ultimately, it gave me some valuable insights for meditation, which was my primary aim for the week. Like with so many memorable experiences though, the most valuable insights were unexpected. Firstly, it was a privilege to gain a completely different perspective on fundamental issues such as kindness, happiness and suffering. It highlighted that certain ‘truths’ I have are WEIRD: they are based on experiences and research from largely Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic countries. Alternatives exist.
Secondly, it provided a valuable reminder that cognitive understanding is not the same as knowledge. Experience and the emotions that come with experience are crucial too. For example, before the retreat, I understood and agreed with the value Buddhism places on accepting unpleasantness. I cognitively accepted that it is often my response to the event (rather than the event itself) that creates the most suffering. When I suffer the most, it’s due to the effort I’m making to resist the way things are, because I want things to be different. However, experiencing almost a week of persistent frustration made me really know this to be true. For me, the author Arnold Bennett summarises it well;
‘There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.’
Finally, I valued experiencing a series of dichotomies in relation to my emotions. During the week, I felt: • Pride, hubris and humility • Frustration, boredom and the energy/motivation that comes from gaining insight • Loneliness and connection • Confusion and clarity • Dread and excitement • Resentment and admiration • Sadness and happiness • Guilt and compassion In short, by the end of the week I felt a fuller, more authentic human being. Going forward, it will be interesting to discover the extent to which this fullness can be retained, back in my ordinary, WIERD world.