I’ve been obsessed with myself for as long as I can remember. My therapist validated this for me when I asked her a few weeks ago if I was one of the most self-aware clients she met with.
“Yes, you’re self-aware,” she told me, “but in fairness, you also spend an excessive amount of time thinking about yourself.”
She was right. I don’t know if that’s a negative or a positive, it’s just the truth.
When I signed up for a silent meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York, I thought my expectations were low key: drive there, unpack. Then meditate, relax, repeat. I’d been meditating for almost two years, I knew a little about the concepts of Buddhism. I think you’re supposed to try and not have any attachments to your feelings, or something like that.
I was at friend’s dinner party when I learned about the retreat. My friend Kim was with me in the kitchen, dipping veggies into hummus, when we saw a flyer on the fridge. There was a picture of a crystal blue lake next to a dense forest and underneath the picture it said, ‘the monastery is quite remote and on the road less traveled.’
Skimming the details of the flyer I said to Kim, “Let’s go to this!” She wasn’t a tough sell. She practiced yoga and went on retreats out of the country in India or the Bahamas. Sometimes she went somewhere in Manhattan to chant.
We reserved our spots online a few days later. For the next several weeks we had some version of the same conversion:
Kim: I can’t wait to go to the monastery!
Me: I know me too!
Kim: It’s going to be so great! I wish it was July already!
Me: I’ve never done anything like this before!
Kim: You’re gonna love it!
Summer arrived and I received an itinerary in the mail along with a map to follow to find the monastery off of Route 17 in upstate New York. The temple was two hours from my house in New Jersey. On top of the page were the words *all activities are optional* but they all sounded like things I wanted to experience—silent meals with the monks, meditation, and optional writing workshops.
As I packed, I discovered I hated everything in my closet. Spending two nights in a monastery with actual monks was registering in my mind as a luxurious mountain resort getaway. The itinerary indicated sturdy shoes and sweat pants would be ideal for the day time and a hoody or cardigan for the evening, but there was no way I would be caught dead in crocs and some Mr. Rogers sweater. I daydreamed about going to the Catskills swathed in Lululemon, and sitting by a tranquil lake. I didn’t know who else would be there for the weekend, and while I wasn’t going there with any intention of meeting any men, I still wanted to look cute just in case.
I left with a bag of leggings, and a pair of heather grey jogger pants with a skinny tapered ankle. I also packed a few simple v-neck t-shirts and some light weight sweaters. My toiletry bag was filled with what I consider travel essentials: facial oils, concealer, an eye lash curler and mascara, lip balm, vanilla body lotion, and a blow dryer and flat iron.
On the day of the retreat, Kim picked me up in the afternoon with another friend of ours. Laura had gone to the same retreat the year before and I took it as a good sign that she wanted to go two years in a row. When I got into Kim’s car, I turned around to face her from the front seat and asked her what I considered a pretty pressing question, “Any cute guys there?”
“God, I hope the hot monk is there again,” Laura said.
“Wait, the monks are hot?” Kim asked.
I immediately remembered the Sex and the City episode where Samantha wants to sleep with the Franciscan priest she refers to as Friar Fuck.
“Some of them are. This guy there last year, Ryan, he was a babe. He was our guide the entire weekend.”
Kim pulled off the main highway after an hour of driving and headed down a dirt road into the woods. Thirty minutes later her car rolled toward the narrow entrance of the monastery through an elliptical arch on a pebble-covered driveway.
“This looks like a scene from Lost in Translation,” I said. Kim and Laura didn’t respond. It wasn’t the most eloquent thing I’ve ever said, but I didn’t know how else to describe the Japanese-style architecture on the property.
We found a parking lot where we left Kim’s car. The three of us walked toward the monastery, which was an elegant white building with rock gardens and Buddha statues surrounding it. We walked inside and a plump female monk told us to remove our shoes. Then she pointed to a piece of loose-leaf taped to the wall. “Bedroom assignments are here. Go find your room and get settled in before evening meditation.”
“Thank you!” we chimed in unison.
Our room was the last one on the right down a long, dimly-lit hallway. The door was ajar, and I flicked on the light as we entered. Inside was a set of bunk beds with thin mats in lieu of mattresses.
“These look like dog beds,” I said, poking the mat.
I grabbed a top bunk and Kim took the bed underneath. As we were unpacking there was a knock at the door, and Laura popped her head in our room. She was wearing a long robe like the monks wore.
“You guys needs to hurry up and change into a robe for meditation,” she said.
“Do we go naked underneath?” I asked, and Laura smiled at me and shook her head like, no, you idiot.
In the room where the robes were kept, Kim and I inspected the garments, grabbing two that were taupe colored.
“Yours is more flattering,” I said to Kim. It was fitted in the waist area, enhancing her boobs.
“Dude, they’re robes,” Kim said, but she took it off and tried on another one instead, looking at herself in the full-length mirror on the wall while I settled on a fitted maroon robe. We tip-toed behind Laura into the meditation room, the Zendo. Laura bowed upon entering, so we did too, like little copy cats.
Two-dozen or so people were already seated in the Zendo, on cushions or chairs. I sat on a cushion, crossed my legs, and closed my eyes. I sat upright for several minutes, inhaling the incense that was burning. After about ten minutes, my back started to hurt from sitting up so straight, so every few minutes I’d hunch over to ease the pain.
A monk strode into the room and bowed several times to the statues surrounding the Zendo. Next to me Laura whispered, “That’s Ryan.” He had a light brown hair shaved close to his scalp, and full, juicy lips that looked swollen, almost like he’d been up all night making out.
Ryan explained that the meditation would begin with the four prostrations, which was bowing four times in four different directions. Then we would do Fast Kinhin, a swift walking meditation around the perimeter of the room. Afterwards we’d be seated to start chanting, followed by sitting for 45 minutes of silence. When Ryan was finishing up his instructions he said anyone whose back was already throbbing from sitting on the ground could grab a chair during the Kinhin.
A gong sounded. I stood up and bowed four times, mimicking the people across the room from me. One by one each guest began to walk in varying speeds around the room, while Kim and I stood there frozen.
“I want a chair,” I said to her.
“Same,” she replied.
We stared at Ryan and he stared back at us. A young waify looking monk next to him beckoned us over to them so we headed in their direction, and several other people followed. I guessed they wanted chairs also.
“You guys just caused a huge car accident,” Ryan said to Kim and me as we approached him, “You were supposed to grab your chairs as you walked by them during Kinhin.”
I hopped in line behind Kim, speed-walking around the room. For several laps of the Kinhin I galloped to keep up. I thought Kinhin could also be referred to as ‘jogging’. After a half dozen laps, a gong sounded, and everyone returned to their seats. The female monk who greeted us upon our arrival hollered in a robotic sounding voice, “Turn to page 17 in the booklets to your right!”
Between the gongs, the incense, and the robes, I wondered if this meditation was going to turn into a party like in Eyes Wide Shut. I grabbed my booklet and turned to page 17— the entire room of guests had begun to bellow in unison with the monks as they read the names of Zen masters aloud. Everyone’s chanting sounded like a thunderous roar. I started to laugh. I didn’t think anyone could hear me over the drone of the chanting, but I looked at Kim and she was laughing, too. After a few seconds, I forced myself to stop laughing. I tried to chant along with everyone else, but the sound of my own robotic chant caused me to laugh even harder. For several minutes, their chanting continued and I repeated a cycle of making myself stop laughing, getting a hold of myself, chanting, and then cracking up again.
Once the chanting stopped, I welcomed the opportunity to shut the fuck up for 45 minutes. My mind was racing. I thought about Ryan, and whether or not he thought Kim and I were complete dipshits. I thought about why I wasn’t having the time of my life relaxing like I assumed I would. For the last twenty minutes of the session, I zoned out.
It was almost 8 o’clock when the meditation ended. As I was getting changed in my room, I thought about the previous summer, when a woman I knew lost her father to cancer. Several of my friends and I went to the wake, and my girlfriend Dana was overdressed in a black cocktail dress and satin black pumps. Dana usually dressed like a character on The Brady Bunch.
“You look like you’re going to a sweet sixteen!” I kept whispering to her.
I was a novice when it came to meditation. I didn’t know shit about Buddhism. Meditation was the solution for my stress and anxiety, and I failed to acknowledge until now that Buddhists used it as part of a religious practice. If I could take away anything from the meditation I just encountered, I thought I may as well have been wearing a cocktail dress and pumps underneath my robe.
Everyone was going to the guesthouse to get acquainted. I walked into a large family room that had shag carpeting and wood paneled walls. The perimeter of the room was lined with light pink velour sectional couches, and we spent the rest of the evening going around the room to explain why we decided to attend the retreat.
Several people shared the struggles they were experiencing in their personal lives, and a theme of sorrow and pain seemed to bounce off the candlelight that flickered against the walls in the living room. When it came time for me to introduce myself, I wasn’t sure what was going to come out of my mouth.
“This year started off pretty rough,” I confessed. “I ended a relationship that was causing me a lot of pain. I’ve never broken up with anyone before while I was still in love with them,” I continued, “but I wanted more than I was getting. I wanted to get married. I wanted to have kids and a family, but not with him. He didn’t want any of that with anyone. So I decided to move on.”
The only sound in the room was my wavering voice. “Admitting I want that life for myself scares the shit out of me. I promised myself I’d be open to whatever happens this year. I’d say yes to things that make me uncomfortable. When I heard about this retreat I knew nothing about it except there was meditation and was in the Catskills. So I signed up and here I am.”
“Thank you Lauren,” everyone murmured, and my cheeks flushed. Feeling vulnerable, I reached into a bowl of candy and started to chomp on some M&Ms.
The last person to introduce himself was a guy seated across from me named Josh. He spoke about his girlfriend, who had killed herself two weeks earlier. She’d shot herself, and Josh repeated over and over that he had no idea she wasn’t doing well. He repeated almost everything he said— she’d been anorexic for several years. She’d recently miscarried. He didn’t understand what her issue with her body was because he thought she was a knock-out.
“And even though she knows I’m struggling, a friend I came here with isn’t speaking to me right now. She overheard me say I’m not attracted to women unless they’re a size zero. She said how insulting that was to her and she called me a dick,” Josh continued, “I feel like such an asshole.”
Josh held eye contact with me the entire time he was talking. I don’t know if it’s because he was seated directly across from me or what. The gathering broke up after he was done talking, and a few people walked over to console him.
Later that weekend I bumped into Josh on my way to the lake. I told him I was sorry to hear about his girlfriend. Then I told him he shouldn’t beat himself up too much over the size zero comment. “That’s more her issue than it is yours,” I said.
Still holding my eyes he said, “What do you mean by that?”
“I don’t know any woman who doesn’t feel self-conscious sometimes about their body. I know I do. If I am feeling particularly self –conscious a statement like that can make me feel like garbage. It’s my issue with myself, not anyone else’s.”
“Thanks,” he said, “But that stuff probably doesn’t happen to you very often. You’re a very beautiful woman.”
Well I’m way bigger than a size zero I almost blurted out, but instead I smiled and excused myself.
One of my most shameful fantasies is to be the most beautiful girl in the room in every single room I walk into. I don’t share that fantasy with anyone very often, because... gross. And every once in a while when I am craving validation or attention, I get it. It’s an overrated feeling. My inner response is embarrassment. This situation was no different.
Kim wanted to get some water before bed. We wandered through the sliding screen door at the monastery and followed the voices of some of the monks who were hanging out in the kitchen.
“Hey, ladies,” Ryan said to us as we entered the kitchen. He was leaning up against the counter, talking to another young man in a blue robe. All the guys in the kitchen looked like they were in college, possibly younger. They were all cute and I couldn’t understand what the hell they were doing at midnight on a Friday, living in a monastery. As though she were reading my mind, Kim said, “What are all you young guys doing here? You want to be monks?” She started asking the guy who was getting her a glass of water questions about Buddhism.
I turned to Ryan and said, “What do you guys do around here for fun on Friday night?” I hoped whatever it was an invitation was extended to us. I pictured a group of us hanging out together by the lake, smoking cigarettes. God I hoped someone had cigarettes. Then Ryan and I could go skinny dipping, or at least kiss a little, and then fall asleep under the stars, far away from five a.m.’s morning bells.
Ryan’s answer was the exact opposite of what I hoped for.
“We’re cleaning up from dinner and prepping the kitchen for breakfast tomorrow,” he said. He kept talking to me, but I didn’t hear anything else he said. I wanted him to ask me what room I was in, if I wanted to go for a walk outside, hell, I’d even settle for a tour of the monastery. But he didn’t ask me anything.
Back in our room, Kim and I got ready for bed. She insisted we sleep with the light on because she was scared mice would crawl on us while we slept.
I awoke groggy a little after 5 a.m.
“Ugh,” Kim groaned from the bunk beneath me, “I woke up so many times last night. I want breakfast. We have to meditate first though.” I wasn’t awake enough yet to bow and chant.
Upon entering the Zendo, I gave a brusque bow to the Buddha and rushed to find a seat. I didn’t take a chair with me this time. I intended to sit the way I was used to meditating at home. After a few minutes Ryan entered the Zendo, his navy robe swinging back and forth as he marched into the center of the room, and I wondered what he had on underneath.
The morning meditation didn’t involve the speed walking, and I skipped three of the four prostrations when they began. I stood up for the first bow toward the Buddha across from me, and wondered what the hell am I bowing to? This isn’t my religion. Up until this point, I considered myself easy going. I thought I went with the flow. This meditation retreat was proving otherwise.
After the chanting, which I managed not to laugh through, I hunched my back and sat cross legged with my eyes closed. I meditated for a long while in deep silence. The sliding patio doors surrounding the perimeter of the Zendo were opened, and I could sense the sun rising as the room got warmer and brighter as the minutes passed. Chirping birds and loud insects provided the soundtrack to the morning, and I opened my eyes to look outside. A doe was in my line of vision, eating wildflowers. I stared at the deer eating its breakfast, and after a minute she looked at me and we held eye contact until something spooked her and she ran away. The private interaction with the deer was the first time since I’d arrived at the monetary that I felt something besides annoyance or the need to be cute in front of Ryan. I kept my eyes opened for the remainder of the meditation, enjoying my own silent company. The meditation ended when a monk slammed a mallet onto a gong.
My temples throbbed on the walk to breakfast. I couldn’t wait for coffee. The dining room had several long, mahogany tables to kneel at, and the meal was to be silent. One by one, bowls and plates of food would be passed back and forth, assembly line style. We were instructed to ask permission to take the food from our neighbor, wordlessly, every single time a bowl was handed to us. A monk taught us hand motions that meant “yes,” “no,” and “stop,” but I forget the hand gestures and instead I ended up just nodding my head yes or shaking my head no.
After breakfast was served, a weak cup of coffee was poured into my mug. Brown sugar and warm milk were the only accompaniments, and I struggled swallowing my beverage. I peered at the other guests seated near me. They all looked so satisfied and grateful for their breakfast. I nibbled on some oxidizing apple slices and some room temperature, plain yogurt.
Once everyone finished eating, a kettle of warm water was passed down the table. The guests were pouring some into their bowls and using their index fingers to wash the interior of the basin. Aghast, I also put some of the water in my bowl, and with the flick of my wrist I whisked the water in a circular motion to clean the uneaten chunks of food off of the sides of my bowl, not wanting to use my fingers. Kim glanced at me and did the same thing with her bowl. A monk stood up and monitored all the guests washing their bowls. Then she mimed gripping a bowl in her hands and lifting it toward her pursed lips, and tipped the invisible bowl to show us we were being forced to drink the chunky breakfast liquid in our bowl. This was customary— not one speck of food was to be wasted.
I looked at Kim after I gulped the water from my bowl and said, “Dude, we need to talk about whether or not we’re staying here much longer.”
She didn’t answer me. Instead she carried her bowl into the kitchen and rinsed it out in the sink.
When breakfast was over I found Kim in the kitchen and said, “Now what?”
She told me she was going to take a yoga class for an hour and asked me where she could find me once she was finished. I told her I’d be sunbathing on the dock.
We parted ways and I wandered through the dim hallways of the monastery. Inside my guest room I put on my bathing suit. The novel I’d packed for the weekend was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which I’d been reading in small increments for the last six months. I was reading it slowly because it was so emotional and I cried almost every time I read it. For reasons I didn’t feel like over-analyzing, I was not in the mood to read that book that afternoon. Instead I grabbed my earbuds, hoping there was a wifi connection by the lake so I could listen to music.
The dock was located on a grassy section of the guesthouse’s back yard, at the foot of a small hill. I spread out my towel, kicked off my shoes, and sat down to dip my feet into the water. My assumption was that the lake water would be murky and slime filled, but like everything else up until this point, I was wrong. The surface of the lake was pristine, and underneath the surface I saw smooth, oblong rocks and soft looking plants that had small, delicate minnows swimming between their leaves. I’m usually an ocean or pool girl, but the water was so inviting, I slid into the water.
I dozed off for a little while after that, and when I awoke my back hurt from lying on the wooden planks. I looked toward the monastery and saw Kim crossing the lawn of the lake house toward me. I remembered the previous summer, months before I broke up with my boyfriend, how I’d scrutinize every moment that felt “off” between he and I as a sign to end the relationship. I’d shared my feelings about this with Kim, and she’d told me she didn’t think every single feeling I was having was a sign to be interpreted. “You’re not going to be able to figure out the meaning behind everything that happens to you,” she’d reminded me. “We’re not the powerful.”
“How’s the water?” she asked now, dipping her toe in the lake.
“I went in!” I said, and then asked her how yoga was.
“It was okay. Ryan led the class.” Kim replied. “I can’t figure him out. Like, he’s a really good-looking guy— he used to be a high school principal and he owns a house at the bottom of the mountain. What do you think made him decide to turn into a monk?”
“Spiritual calling?” I guessed.
“I mean, yeah. But still.” Kim said, exactly what I was thinking: homeowner, good looking, and good job. Could this guy still be swayed back to civilization?
We complained back and forth to one another about how bizarre the scene at breakfast had been. She told me how the monk that showed us how to drink the water from the bowl kept nonverbally chastising her throughout the meal.
“She kept pointing at me!” Kim said, while imitating the jabbing motion the monk did with her index finger. “I can’t even imagine what lunch is going to be like.”
“I have an idea!” I said, trying to sound like I’d just thought of it, “Let’s skip lunch and dinner here and instead take your car down the mountain and try to like, find a restaurant or something.”
Kim needed no convincing. “I want to lay out for an hour or so before we go. Maybe we can leave and check into a hotel or something and go to a spa,” Kim responded.
“We have to bring Laura home tomorrow!” I said, although the idea of a hotel sounded tempting. “When we get to the main road, I’ll google a restaurant and we can eat dinner and maybe find a Starbucks. If I have it my way, I don’t plan on eating another meal here with the monks again.”
“You’ll have it your way,” Kim assured me, “And I’m sleeping in tomorrow. I’m done meditating in the Zendo.”
As Kim took a quick shower, I heard the bells ringing in the hallway for evening meditation. Someone knocked on our door, but I didn’t respond. I assumed it was Laura. The hallway was empty as we crept through it and we heard the monotone chanting in the Zendo above us.
We found a diner a few miles from the main highway. I told the hostess we needed to eat right away, because we had just broken out of a monastery and we were starving.
“Right this way,” she told us, and led us to a booth.
I told the same thing to the waitress who took our drink order. Kim and I split mozzarella sticks and then we both ordered cheeseburger deluxe platters. Once our plates were cleared we got milkshakes for dessert.
After we finished eating, we occupied the booth for another half hour, drinking coffee and taking advantage of the network availability on our phones. Kim kept trying to call her boyfriend and I uploaded various pictures I’d taken around the monastery onto Instagram, tweaking various filters and planning how to caption the photo when I got home.
“I refused to bow this morning during the meditation. I don’t know who I am bowing to. I don’t understand what the monks are chanting. I didn’t want to conform to something I don’t understand,” I told Kim as we paid the bill.
“I get it,” Kim assured me, “This has happened to me on almost every yoga retreat I’ve ever been on.”
“Then why do you go?” I asked, feeling a tad betrayed by her lack of forewarning.
“Because I do my own thing if I want! Take what I want and leave the rest behind!”
I stared at her in awe for a few minutes. Then we walked to the car.
The next morning the bells clanging at 5 a.m. woke me up, but after a few minutes I was able to fall back asleep. There was no knock on the door from Laura that morning either, who had agreed the night before to be packed and ready to go whenever we decided to leave. A couple hours later, my stomach was growling and I wanted to poke around for some food, so Kim and I got up and scurried down the dark hallways toward the kitchen.
I found a bagel and spread some peanut butter on each half. We could hear the chanting going on in the Zendo. Kim and I were discussing our exit strategy when the door to the kitchen opened and Ryan walked in and asked, “What are you two doing in here?”
“Eating,” I said.
Kim said, “Hey! We have a bunch of questions for you!”
She asked how long he’d lived at the monastery and why he chose this life for himself.
“I mean, are you allowed to date still?” Kim asked him.
“Yes I can still date. I mean, we’re not encouraged to bang any of the guests here, that’s a no-no, but dating is allowed. I haven’t been fully ordained yet.”
“Are you going to be?” I asked him.
“I’m still figuring that out,” Ryan said.
“Give me your phone number. We can plan a meet up to grab dinner the next time you travel down to the main road,” I said.
“Cell service sucks up here. Take down my email,” he said, pointing to my phone. Kim and I let him know we were leaving. Ryan gave us bear hugs goodbye, engulfing us in the folds of his navy blue robe.
“You still have a chance girl, he isn’t ordained yet!” Kim said.
After we packed the car, I told Kim and Laura how disappointed I was for how little meditating I did that weekend. I continued to wonder why I hadn’t made more of an effort to meditate while I was on the retreat. Wasn’t that the reason I wanted to be there in the first place?
“Nah I think you wanted to meet someone new,” Laura said from the backseat.
“You’re right,” I said, “I didn’t know that though, until I got there. I expected to love it here.”
“Their practice just isn’t for you, maybe,” Kim said. “You like to meditate your way.”
Once we got to the main road, we found a cafe, and ordered breakfast and coffee. We ate in silence, like at the monastery, but this time it was deliberate. This time we didn’t wash our bowls with our fingers or swallow the dishwater.