Learning to Drink from the Monastic Waters
By Paul Engler
It’s hard to overstate the importance of “monastic retreats” and “meditation retreats” in my life. Not only have they been the source of some of the greatest conversions and most powerful mystical experiences I have experienced, but also they have been the places of great revelation where I’ve concocted the plans to do all of my biggest undertakings, including forming the Center for the Working Poor.
Twice every year I do a retreat for about 10 days in a monastery or meditation center. On the more extreme end, every once in a while I’ll do a retreat that lasts for 20 or even 40 days. My practice is a bit different from that of other people who do a lot of retreats, because I am inter-spiritual. My primary spiritual lineage is Christian mysticism and Christian contemplation. Ten years ago, I did a 40-day Ignatian retreat in the Christian mystical tradition, and I enjoy doing Centering Prayer retreats in the lineage of “contemplative outreach,” following my late teacher, Thomas Keating. That said, I often end up doing Buddhist meditation retreats instead. Two years ago I did a 22-day sesshin in the Soto Zen tradition, and the most common retreat I end up doing is the 10-day Vipassana retreat as taught by S.N. Goenka. When he died in 2013, Goenka left behind the largest network of retreat centers in the world—facilities that host a very accessible and popular 10-day silent retreat, attended internationally by more than one hundred thousand people each year.
As those who have read my last two or three years of updates will know, these last few years have been very challenging for me, and the last twelve months have been as well. Facing personal challenges, I have reinforced my pattern of retreating to the monastery and emerging a new person. Every time I throw myself into the monastery and strip myself of the creature comforts of modern civilization, it makes clear that, in my regular life outside of the monastery, it is all too easy for me to seek comfort in distraction. My drugs of choice are caffeine, Netflix, social media, emails, and online board games. I won’t embarrass myself by admitting how big a rabbit hole I can fall into with some of those online strategy games, but if you’ve ever heard of “Marvel Snap” or “Dominion,” then maybe you know how addictive they can be!
Going into the monastery forces me into an abyss of silence and meditation, with nothing to distract me. When I am in that place, I see how and why distraction works. Generally, it dulls the pain I might be experiencing from the challenges in my life. Distraction allows me to stop ruminating about my problems. It’s comforting. In contrast, when I enter a monastic retreat, I have to give it all up and throw myself into extreme introspection. Whether it’s the internalized voice of my teacher, Thomas Keating, or the actual recorded voice of Goenka playing over the speakers in the meditation hall, there is someone there telling me again and again and again: Pay attention. Be aware. Be detached. Notice your thoughts, your feelings, the sensations in your body. There is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
That’s not how I thought it would be when I started doing retreats. I did my first 10-day retreat when I was 20 years old. Before then, I thought from all the images I had seen of monks sitting peacefully together in monasteries in Tibet that the experience of meditation would be like hanging out on the beach. I thought I would sort of zone out. I thought it would be a peaceful experience, maybe like taking some mellow drug.
A woman who lived in my dorm hall at Hampshire College who had lots of chronic anxiety and a reputation for being high-strung came back from a 10-day Vipassana retreat blissed-out, with a totally different way of behaving that pleasantly surprised many of us in our activist community group on campus. She raved about how this meditation retreat had changed her. Seeing the impact, most of us, myself included, were thinking, “I wanna take whatever drug she’s on.” I thought that the experience would be easy and relaxing, and that I’d end up like her without much serious effort. So I signed up for a 10-day Vipassana retreat in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, a one-hour drive from Hampshire.
It was a rude awakening when, soon after, I found myself enduring the most challenging, physically painful, and emotionally intense experience of my life.
On the first day, they made us vow to be totally silent throughout the retreat. Except for the sparse moments of instruction and dialogue with the teachers necessary to learn the technique, everyone around me was completely quiet. Apart from a few minutes of chanting that they beamed at us a handful of times a day, the experience was complete “noble silence.” The eating, walking, resting, showering, brushing of teeth, and meditating were all done without eye contact or communication with the 70 or so retreat participants and volunteer staff members.
The retreat also included a rigorous daily schedule where only two meals were eaten. These were served early in the day, between sunrise and noon, a schedule that replicated traditional monastic patterns of intermittent fasting. Such fasting has lately become a bit of a fad in our society, but it has been practiced for thousands of years in Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist monasteries. Other than that, the retreat center provided a room to sleep or sit in with a simple bed and no decorations, plus a walking path that took you through some farm fields and a small forest. The facility was gender-segregated, as was the dharma hall where we meditated. Four times a day, there were adhitthana sessions—”hard sits,” where you tried to go for an hour without adjusting your posture. In total, twelve hours each day were spent meditating.
In summary, it was not zoning out. It was zoning in. Way, way in.
For most people, sticking to the task of trying again and again to bring yourself back to your breath and to observe bodily sensations requires an incredible act of will. Patiently maintaining your detached awareness — both stretches of extreme boredom and intense waves of emotions, brought on by the thoughts and memories that inevitably arise — is a tall order. At times, doing it for 12 hours a day seemed like torture. Despite your best efforts, the mind wanders to many different places. Memories from your past that you may not have processed come spontaneously to the surface. Grief, trauma, and memories of intensely joyous moments from childhood all roll in, as scenes from the past are, seemingly out of the blue, suddenly vividly present in the stillness of the meditation hall. All the while, the constant stream of compulsive thinking that might ordinarily serve as background static in your mind is turned up ten notches once the regular distractions of life are stripped away, and so you notice the constant intrusions in a way that would have been impossible just a few days earlier.
As the retreat goes on, this process becomes a perfect container for what Thomas Keating calls “the unloading of the subconscious.” Psychoanalysts talk about how, in therapy, participants are able to project subconscious material onto the mirror of the therapeutic relationship. In Goenka meditation and in Centering Prayer, a similar process of unloading takes place—except you become your own therapist. The meditation allows you to strengthen your powers of internal observation and be attentive to the continuous exercise of your mind. You can finally observe, with intention, the ways in which you relate to all of the material that surfaces and flows through your stream of consciousness.
For me, at 20, and coming from a stoic family with German-Catholic roots, I soon learned that I had plenty of unprocessed stuff to churn through. When I was still in elementary school, my mom had been thrown into being a single mother after the deaths of my father and then my grandmother, who had been like a nanny to me for years of my childhood. On the retreat, all the grief from the deaths in my family, all of my fears from struggling as a dyslexic elementary student, the violence that I experienced from being bullied in my neighborhood, the extreme anxiety and occasional depression that hit me in middle school when I was isolated from my peer group, and the tremendous anger I felt in adolescence that I had never processed in therapy or, quite frankly, anywhere with anybody—all this junk came flooding out. I would wake up at night crying from dreams that were incredibly emotionally charged, my body being energized as if the nightmare had been something I had just experienced in the next room.
All this pain came up and I could not distract myself. I couldn’t numb it out. I could only zone in. The mediation teachers repeated again and again: “remain aware, remain aware.” It was painful to do that, but as the retreat went on, I could also feel something working. Patience, persistence, hard work, faith, hope, love, and compassion—the virtues which in Christian contemplation are called the gifts of the Spirit and in Buddhism are called the paramitas, or perfect virtues—are reinforced through the long periods of meditation, through chanting in the morning, and through dharma talks at night.
Part of the unloading of the unconscious that I experienced was that my body seemed to be in crisis. The stored up trauma and pain of the past—what Goenka calls “sankharas”—discharged through my body in a wide variety of physical sensations. These ranged from the feeling of subtle trickling down my spine, to stronger feelings of heat, pressure, and pain in my extremities. Sitting for so long created incredible amounts of pain in my body. Sometimes, after not moving for an hour, it felt like I had watched my knees being nailed into the ground. Amid the pain, I couldn’t stop thinking about leaving. I often asked myself, how did I come to be in this dharma prison? To make things worse, everyone else looked so peaceful. It was only at the end of the day, when I was waiting in line for my brief audience with the teachers and eavesdropped on the people whose sessions with the teachers were before me that I realized that everyone was suffering. (At the time, I felt a bit guilty about eavesdropping, but later on I realized that the teachers encouraged people to overhear such consultation about the Dharma.) But even learning that I was not alone in going through the physical pain and intensive psychological unloading was only a small comfort. I kept thinking: Why, God, did we choose to do this to ourselves?
But whenever my questioning about why I ever came to the retreat reached a peak, I would wake up the next morning to find that my mind had settled. I would be strangely calm. The processes I had endured had kicked out some of what it meant to be “Paul.” And, freed of a little bit of my ego, I would walk out into the field like I was a baby who was seeing the world for the first time. The grass and the leaves seemed to have an amazing brilliance in their design. The colors seemed so vivid. In those moments, the basic sensory experiences of life became almost divine. It was amazing.
But then, an hour or so later, I would be back to ruminating about when it was all going to be over and I could leave the retreat center without feeling ashamed about breaking the vow I had made to stay all ten days.
This went on until the end of the first week. Then, on the eighth day, I started realizing that it would be over soon, but that I didn’t know who I was going to be after I left. I was experiencing such a roller coaster of experiences—pain and unloading and mystical insight. I thought maybe the monks or the teachers had slipped psychedelics into the water. I was scared that I might never return to normal.
After the last day of sitting, I went in for my audience with the teacher and I asked, “What have you done to me? I’m an emotional wreck. Am I going to be like this for the rest of my life?”
The teachers were surprisingly unphased by my panic. They had seen it before. They assured me that going through the retreat was like an obstacle course; that while the challenges were real, it was a safe place to encounter them; and that if I fell off of an obstacle, it was not going to hurt me. They said that as I processed all these sankharas—all these sufferings—that were passing through me, when I went back home, I was going to feel much better. “Trust me, the Dharma works,” the teachers said. And true enough, when I came back from the retreat, it was like I was a new Paul.
I felt light. I felt joyous. I didn’t realize how numbed out I had been before. I felt like I had a new relationship with basic sensory experiences, and with my thoughts too. It was like I had been transported back 1000 years and had briefly lived a life like those of the monks and mystics of old. Now I was back swimming in the waters of modern civilization. But even so, the taste of that earlier life had transformed me.
After that experience, my heart was open. I fell in love with a woman. I started meditating two hours a day. And I was never the same after.
Certainly, there have been many ups and downs in my life since. I’ve had quarter-life crises and midlife crises, career crises and breakups. I’ve been a part of movements that went viral and then collapsed. I’ve been through economic downturns and pandemics, emotional upheavals and ego devolutions. I’ve even experienced some of what the Buddha called the harbingers of enlightenment: sickness, old age, and death. But whatever I encounter, I still go back to the monastery once or twice a year and take a drink from the waters that have been preserved for thousands of years by the mystical and monastic traditions. Each time I am scared that I might lose too much of myself, and that I might break under the pressure of deprivation and discipline. But even though I always have those doubts, I still come back a new Paul, refreshed, attuned, more mindful, and lighter.
Because these retreats have been so powerful in my life, there was a time when I thought, “Maybe I should be a monk?” But ultimately I realized that, however profound those spaces of contemplation may be for me, I’m not meant to stay there. While I find it very valuable, being on retreat is still very hard for me. Upon reflection, I realized that, like the Franciscans, my vocation is to go back and forth—that I should do what I can to discover the heart of contemplation, the heart of God, and then, as best as I am able, to bring it back into the world.
This year, although my vocational work has been going well, I found myself having just broken up with my recent girlfriend and feeling pain that my community was in a period of instability. I felt lost. So I went again for 10 days to a Vipassana retreat, this time in the forests of Northern California, to take a drink from the monastic waters. Once again, I reemerged grounded and feeling that I am doing what I need to do before I die. And I felt grateful for the blessing that Saint Francis gave us with his last words: “I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what is yours.”
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