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Lessons From The Monastery

I’m privileged to be on retreat at Deer Park Monastery. Today is Lazy Day – a day in which the schedule is dropped so the monks, nuns, and lay residents can relax. I’d like to use this lazy interlude to share lessons from the monastery that caregivers may find useful.

Don’t do it alone

Monastery residents seldom do things alone. They cook in teams, clean in teams, follow a common schedule, and care for one another as a family.

Outside the monastery (and particularly in the West), we may be surrounded by others but we remain alone. Our freedom to do what we want when we want leaves us without the deep belonging and security enjoyed by monastics. Monks and nuns trade some individual freedoms for collective support.

Caregivers can learn from this monastic collective action. When we form supportive communities of other caregivers, we trade some individual freedom (time) to gain the support of others who understand the challenges and complexities of caring for others.

In my chaplaincy work, for example, I meet monthly with a group of fellow chaplains. We share our dilemmas, we listen deeply, and we hold each other accountable. We agree to speak the truth whether that is the truth of correction or praise. We trade four hours a month we could use individually for support we receive collectively.

How do you find and offer collective support? How might that support enhance your caregiving?

Trust Your Anchor

Zen monks and nuns anchor themselves in their breath. Whether they are meditating or walking, working or resting, they remain aware of the breath moving in and out of their bodies.

This anchor of conscious breathing gives them the stability to face what comes. When times are easy, the breath anchor deepens their joy. When times are hard, they aren’t swept away by the storm.

The breath is useful because it’s always available. But it’s not the only possible anchor. Some use mantras or prayers. Others use posture or balance.

What anchor do you use to bring yourself back to the present moment?

Work when you work. Rest when you rest.

The monastic community just hosted a five day retreat for over one hundred people. They cooked, cleaned, taught, and tended. They had the meditation hall ready at 5 am and worked ceaselessly until everyone went to bed at 9 pm. It was a lot of work.

When the retreat ended, the monks and nuns rested. They enjoyed two days of hiking, napping, and eating healthy food. Monastery bells went quiet. Meditation became optional.

Do you have clearly delineated times of work and rest? Or does your work come home with you? If you care for someone at home, can you find moments, hours, or days of true rest?

Mark Transitions

From the deep slow bell that greets the rising sun to the temple bells that divide periods of meditation, bells mark monastery transitions. There are bells calling the community to meals and others waking them up.

Beyond bells, transitions are marked by ceremony. A new monk declares his aspirancy in a ceremony, has another when he becomes a novice and another when he fully joins the community. There are ceremonies to open and close retreats, to bless meals, and to begin periods of work.

Marking transitions allows monks and nuns to leave what is done so they can full engage with what’s happening now. They don’t try to hold on to the past. They intentionally let it go so that all their attention can rest in the present.

Caregivers have many opportunities to mark transitions without using bells or other visible means. We can use small everyday actions:

  • When washing our hands before touching a patient, we can allow the warm water to wash away any residue of where we’ve been so we can be present here, with this new person.
  • We can touch the cool door handle for a moment to freshen ourselves before entering a room.
  • We can pause while closing our laptop in order to let go of the interaction we just charted.

How do you mark transitions in your life so that you’re fresh and present?

Find Joy

In the popular culture, monks are seen as dour, hair-shirt-wearing hermits while nuns are portrayed as angry school marms. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Dalai Lama (a monk who packs stadiums) recently wrote a book on joy. His joyful countenance confirms his depth of practice.

At Deer Park Monastery, the goal of meditation is happiness. The happiness monks and nuns find on the meditation cushion gives them the ability to help others. Without joy, they are just people living apart from the world. With joy, they heal and inspire wherever they go.

Contemplative caregivers also heal with joy. Many people can learn the concrete skills of their discipline, but contemplative caregivers create the conditions necessary to augment those skills with joy. This authentic joy can heal even when disease and death are inevitable. Our joy can help those we serve endure their suffering.

How are you cultivating joy in your life? Do you recognize and nurture your joy as a therapeutic tool?

Wrapping Up

These are just a few of the lessons we can learn from the monastery. Your own contemplative practice will reveal gems you can use to sustain yourself and help others.

May your path benefit all.

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