Common Ground Travel

A Taste of Monasticism

As we’ve mentioned on this blog before, we at CGT are into spirituality and meditation, and recently I had the opportunity to spend a few days living among monastics at a small monastery in the south of England. I’m keen to share my experiences and insights.

I’m aware that spending two days as a tourist monk doesn’t qualify me to critique their life or the effectiveness of their spiritual system, but I was left with some initial impressions. So for what it’s worth, here they are.

For one thing, I realised that being a lay person is very challenging. By this I mean that living an ordinary life in society is difficult: we have many obligations and commitments, we live among all kinds of people, and constantly our attention is being pulled here, there and everywhere. It’s a recipe for emotional difficulties and health problems, which unsurprisingly abound.

As such, I gained a huge respect for lay people, especially those who maintain a regular spiritual practice. It’s not easy to wake up spiritually in the hustle-bustle, nitty-gritty world. This respect extends to myself as a committed yogi.

Yet at the same time, paradoxically, this difficulty gives lay people an advantage. We have constant opportunities for bringing our spiritual learning and transformation into the real world. The difficulty is itself a form of practice, and monastics don’t have that opportunity. They simply don’t meet with the same challenges that we do.

Being a monastic can sure help you become a proficient meditator and reach profound meditative states, but what use is a deep meditative state if you can’t bring it into ordinary life? Besides, nowadays there are apps with guided audios, online meditation classes, local teachers from all sorts of traditions, and more. Lay people, if dedicated enough, can exploit humanity’s greatest spiritual teachings while leading an ordinary life. The gap between lay life and monastic life isn’t so great in that respect.

I also realised that life as a monk isn’t what I thought it was. I found many of them to be, frankly, lifeless and antisocial. They had no fun! This is natural, since in the monastery where I stayed, the monks adhere to strict rules that severely restrict sexual activity, entertainment, stimulants, and freedom. On one hand I understand the reasons for this, but on the other I found the rules to be repressive and old-fashioned, even chauvinistic.

If spiritual awakening entails rigidity, self-repression and no fun, I don’t want it. I want to enjoy life and everything it offers, not live in a bubble. As such, I’m an advocate of the Tantric approach: embracing life to the full as you awaken your consciousness. And living in the ordinary world means you can easily take that approach.

I brought these impressions home and felt re-energised and reinspired to work on my worldly projects and drink in the enormity of life, all the while maintaining my spiritual practice and a firm dedication to the path.