The most common question I got when I told people I was temporarily moving to a monastery was probably “wtf do you do there?”
Do you spend the whole day meditating? Nah. Do you have to stay silent? Nope. Is everyone super serious? Well, people take what they do seriously (which is a good thing!), and there are many rules to follow, but it’s actually a pretty goofy and friendly place. It’s almost certainly not what you’re imagining it to be.
Before I get into the daily schedule, let’s paint a picture of the property itself.
A short tour
This is what the grounds look like in autumn:
Of course, right now it looks a bit more like this:
As a guest, I am provided a room with a bed, bedding (as much as I need), 2 side tables, a chair, a mirror, a wardrobe, and some coat hooks. I brought my art easel and my classical guitar from home, so this is what my room looks like once set up:
The view outside my window:
Okay, let’s get to the schedule – the rest of the photo tour will be interspersed with descriptions of the daily activities.
Awakening and Responsibility
Okay, I lied – before we can get to the schedule, there’s one more thing to explain. The Monastic Academy works within two modalities, which they call Awakening and Responsibility. Loosely, there is approximately 1 week focused on Awakening per month, and 3 weeks focused on Responsibility.
Awakening weeks are also sometimes called “retreat” weeks – this is probably what most people think of when they imagine Buddhist monasteries. During Awakening weeks, the focus is entirely on the meditation practice, and the only activities that happen during the day are meditation, eating, cleaning, and exhortations (“noun. an address or communication emphatically urging someone to do something.”). I’ve actually never visited during an Awakening week. I’ll experience it for the first time at the end of January.
Responsibility, most simply, means “working”. Where Awakening is a retreat into one’s experience and an intense deepening of one’s practice, Responsibility is taking one’s practice and using it to connect with the world and be maximally helpful within it. Because what good is striving for enlightenment if you aren’t helping the rest of the world?
Okay – now let’s get to the schedule.
The Daily Schedule (Responsibility weeks)
4:30am: Wake up.
Technically you can wake up at any point before 4:39am, but you must be sitting on your cushion by 4:40. I find that 4:30 tends to give enough time to wake up, curse my past-self for choosing to come here, stumble out of bed, throw on 7 layers of clothing (I’m a bit dramatic about being cold), and shuffle down to the main area.
This is where we start the morning:
I don’t particularly enjoy chanting. I used to actively dislike it, but these days it’s just a thing I do because it’s what’s done here. I’m told there are tremendous benefits to it, and I believe it, but I haven’t been able to connect with it yet. So I sit, and I chant, and I feel the vibrations in my body and listen to the voices around me and sway to the rhythm of the community, and when we finish I soak in the silence, and then laugh to myself because the buzzing of the fridge in the kitchen behind us suddenly seems impossible to ignore.
5:30am-6:30am: Sit (with interviews).
A few things to clarify here. The word “sitting” in the meditation world is what would colloquially be called “meditation” in the lay world – ie, sitting on a cushion (or a bench or a chair) and meditating. So if someone says “the sit is starting” or “I’ve been sitting daily”, they are referring to sitting in meditation. You can usually tell pretty easily from context whether someone is referring to a meditation sit or just to physically sitting.
Interviews are one-on-one conversations with the head teacher, or whoever is acting in that capacity at the moment. In very strict monasteries, you are only allowed to have an interview while in samadhi, which is a deep concentrated state; at the Monastic Academy, on the other hand, you can feel free to bring your frazzled, unfocused mess into interviews if you aren’t able to reach samadhi (and, thank goodness for that!). The intention of the interview is to discuss and explore your practice, and get guidance from the teacher.
It may be hard to believe, but I have had five-minute interviews which have given me months of material to practice with. Interviews are truly a remarkable experience.
So, when we finish chanting, we move into this room for the sit:
All of the sits are done in 25-minute increments, with an optional 5 minute break before the next sit, so an hour-long sit in the schedule is actually two 25-minute sits.
The head teacher sits in a separate “interview room” and rings a bell to signify that the first person should come into the interview, and when that person is done the teacher rings the bell again to indicate the next person should come. The interview order is known beforehand, and you are meant to maintain your meditation technique (whatever it may be – I’ll say more about meditation techniques another time) the entire time as you walk to the interview, have the interview, and walk back to your cushion. As people have their interviews, the rest of us sit in meditation.
I didn’t get a good photo of the interview room, partly because it’s tiny and doesn’t lend itself well to being photographed, and partly because I felt like I was desecrating it by photographing it – even though I asked beforehand if anything was off-limits for photography, and was given a clear go-ahead.
(Also, the glass on the door of the interview room had a bunch of fingerprint smudges, which was kind of hilarious and did not help in demonstrating the importance and gravity of the room.)
As a guest, this is the point where I no longer have to follow the schedule (until 7pm), though I do anyway.
The exercise period is mandatory for all residents, and highly recommended for guests. It is still a time for practice – you are meant to exercise so vigorously that you can’t help but be entirely in your body.
They have some exercise equipment for use:
You can use the equipment, or do your own exercise, or do an outdoor activity (in the winter this would most likely be snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, or shovelling). I usually run on the treadmill or do exercises in my room, but I’m considering using that time to learn to walk on my hands, or learn some new solo dances.
I have found that if I do long periods of sitting meditation and don’t do physical exercise, I start to actually feel a bit crazy – and I’m not trying to use that word lightly. I begin to feel like there is an angry, restless, foreign energy inside me trying to claw its way out, and even a 5-minute vigorous run can put it at ease.
7:35am-8:15am: First meal.
Honestly, I think I’ll let the photos speak here.
We eat two meals a day, and they are hearty. I’m actually trying to remind myself to not overload my bowls because I just end up feeling stuffed by the end.
The morning meal is eaten in silence – actually, everything up until this point is meant to be done in silence (…aside from the chanting). Each person has two bowls, two cloth napkins, a fork, and a spoon, (cups are optional,) and there’s a particular way they need to be set up at the table prior to a meal. Each meal starts with a chant (I’ve grown unexpectedly fond of this one, but possibly just because I know I’m about to eat delicious food) and the morning meal ends with a chant as well.
8:15am-8:30am: Cleaning and chores.
This is where we tidy up after the meal, wipe down the tables, wash the dishes, and so on. There’s not really too much to say about this ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. It’s usually supposed to be done in silence as well, but in my experience it’s sometimes just a time to crack dumb jokes with each other. (To be clear, it shouldn’t be, but I guess the excitement of the day gets us carried away sometimes)
This is when I turn my computer on, catch up on my notifications, and plan my tasks for the day. I’m intentionally not strict with myself about this, because I have been working so intensely over the past year that I actually want to see what will happen when I just let myself do whatever I want to. I have some consulting work which takes precedence over my willy-nilly do-whatever-I-want projects, but most days I tend to have time to do both.
For the residents, this is when they do monastery-related work. I’m not totally sure what that entails, but it’s everything from organizational planning, community outreach, marketing, fundraising, and daily operational tasks like laundry. In the past there was also a bunch of software development because they had some meditation apps, but I don’t believe that’s being done anymore (I may be wrong).
There is good wifi all over the monastery, so I tend to work in all sorts of different locations. Here’s some examples:
1:05pm-1:45pm: Second meal.
The second meal is similar to the first except that it isn’t silent. Sometimes we listen to a recorded talk and discuss it, and other times we have a specific conversation topic for the lunch period and go around the table sharing thoughts and asking each other questions.
This is the last meal of the day. Those who want can pack a tupperware of food for themselves for later, but if you don’t do that you are not allowed to just go to the fridge whenever you want to get food. (They aren’t cruel – if you unexpectedly need food but didn’t pack a tupperware, they will make allowances, but “I feel peckish” is probably not going to cut it as a reason. Incidentally, I am struggling with this a lot, because food is often how I soothe myself.)
1:45pm-2:30pm: Cleaning and chores.
2:30pm-3:00pm: More work.
This is actually a flexible half-hour which can be done at any point between 2:30 and 5:30, because at 3 pm it’s…
3:00pm-5:30pm: Free time!
You can do whatever you want in this period, as long as it doesn’t break any monastery rules (I’ll explain those another time, but basically, don’t expect to sit in a lounge and drink beer). You can also leave the property at this time if you want to.
5:30pm-7:00pm: Work OR sit OR another practice.
This one’s a bit iffy to explain, but this is basically a block of time that changes daily. Two days ago it was an extra meditation period. Yesterday it was a work period. Today we will be doing Circling, which is a type of social meditation.
This is when I, as a guest, have to be back on the schedule. This is just a silent sit, done in the same room as before.
7:30pm-8:30pm: Sit (with interviews)
Same as the morning one.
This is a shorter chant period than in the morning. When it ends, we are back in silence until the following morning.
The attentive (or retentive) reader may note that there are exactly 8 hours between the end of the evening chant and the beginning of the next morning’s chant, so it is impossible to get a full 8 hours of sleep per night. This is intentional – this place is all about subtle discomforts – but I’ll save that for another post.
Welp. There you have it. Rinse and repeat, day after day after day.
There are some alterations, like Sunday afternoons when we drive into Burlington to hold the community sit (a talk and guided meditation for the Burlington community, which is also streamed online!), or Mondays which are “days off” and have no schedule at all.
I know I dumped out a lot of information here. Mostly I’m just incredibly excited to be here (even though I already hate it sometimes) and I want to get as much of it as I can out of my brain and into words.
Next time I’ll try to stop before I hit 2000 words.