“Tons of my problems come back to the fact that I’m constantly thinking about myself, and what other people think of me, and whether they think I’m weird or strange or ugly or whatever.
I hate that my mind is constantly, constantly focused on myself. I can’t escape the fear of everyone potentially judging the Christ out of me at every turn and it makes me nervous and scared.
I feel like if I could only get away from this, I would be okay. How can I do that?”
Eireannach, 19 (Ireland)
What a lovely question. I honestly think it’s wonderful that you’ve identified and decided to step out of what might be called self-consciousness. Many choose to perpetuate it for a lifetime. They may try to feel better by treating it with pride, inflate it into egotism, and don’t realise that they’re perpetuating it in a way that’s making them unhappy. You, on the other hand, have decided to identify and step out of it early on.
Self-consciousness – if you’re happy to call it that for now – is a natural human condition. I’ve met some great and wise teachers, and yet having gotten to know them, I’d happily bet that even they suffered from it. Typically children are un-self-conscious until they reach pre-puberty; then it enters, along with the psychological maturing process. Suddenly we are painfully and minutely aware of our existence. Where once we would have run wild and naked down a beach in joy, instead we may turn inward and cringe in the shadows.
The extent of this development varies culturally; some cultures are more self-conscious than others. It serves a purpose by creating a contemplative space in which we can examine what we’re made of, and how the adult world works. It’s a good time for extroverts to temporarily become introvert, and re-assess what role they’d like to play in that adult world. The following is an analogy, but sometimes it can feel like breaking out of an egg: very sensitive, as if the lights are sometimes too bright, the things people say too harsh.
In response it’s easy to feel defensive, go into overdrive, and either over- or under-express ourselves. As a teenager I would swing from being the life of the party, to being a depressed recluse. Take the time to learn to hear and meet your own needs, before emotions get out of hand (although when they do, it isn’t the end of the world). The rich emotional tapestry of daily life is changing and will never look the same; take it slow, get to know it and learn to get comfortable with it.
Remember to be your own best friend through this. Whether we like it or not, acceptance, gentle guidance and patience are the only things which have ever worked, when we want to change. It’s tempting to try shortcuts and it’s common to beat ourselves up, but such tactics only slow us down and prevent development.
One reason I liked your question was that I always ask myself, where is the question coming from? It can only be your place of selflessness, that wants to rid itself of self-concern. Self-concern wouldn’t want to rid itself of itself. So the fact that you asked means that you’re already coming from a place of generosity and connection.
Sitting still for a moment, allow yourself to feel the feelings that gave rise to your question. You said you felt nervousness and fear, for example. Remember to breathe, and without deliberately thinking, let yourself feel nervousness and fear of judgment completely. (It might be a bit uncomfortable, but it won’t kill you.) Locate the feelings in your body, and describe how they feel to yourself. Butterflies? Pins and needles? Shortness of breath? Every few minutes relax any tense muscles and breathe calmly, and realise that relaxation is something you can choose to do anytime you want.
The trick is to relax into it and explore the feeling, and it will dissipate. If you relax as a distraction away from feelings, they will only keep coming back.
This is the meditative aspect of guiding yourself to grow out of what feels like a constricting shell. You can do it wherever you are, and anytime you feel something coming up again. It might be several times a day.
There’s a practical or ‘worldly’ aspect to it, too. It differs from person to person; you’ll need to find yours. It could be a combination of lots of things, and usually changes as you grow older.
It’s one or all of the following: a project, hobby, job, passion, sport, activity or service, which you find attractive enough to want to immerse yourself in completely. It’s likely to be challenging and a bit scary, but something that you feel much better for having done. (So it isn’t drugs or gambling ) For some people it’s having kids, however it’d be a bit drastic to go that far only for the sake of self-liberation! For me it’s been travel, study, dance, learning filmmaking, and creating challenging work projects. (This was over a 25-year period – I haven’t been busy always.)
Giving yourself to a bigger cause, or working in a group, is a great way to lose yourself, and it serves both you and them. And believe me, you’re not too “weird” to do anything you want. The weirder the better, even; are there not a plethora of weird role models at the top? True, there are those who call others “weird” like it’s a criticism. That’s their insecurity and not a reflection on you, since they don’t even know you. The original meaning of “weird” is “destiny”. Once you know what you yourself want, what others think will roll like water off a duck’s back.
The other joy in pursuing interests you’re passionate about, is that you eventually meet people who feel the same as you. It might take years, but when you do meet them it feels like coming home to your “tribe”.
I used to be excruciatingly shy and self-conscious, to the point where if I realised I was walking the wrong way down a street from where I wanted to go, I was too frightened to turn around because I thought that people would laugh at me for it. So I’d walk all the way around the block, and then stealthily side-step into the right direction when nobody was looking. I also spent many years alone because I felt too much like an alien to know how to make friends!
The thing that first brought me out of my shell was finding people interesting. At the same time I had absorbed myself in hobbies I enjoyed doing, so a couple of people found me interesting in return. When they reached out to me, I dared to venture a stumbling conversation. Friendships developed, but I was still frightened and massively defensive (and as a result I could be verbally aggressive, as can be common with teenagers.)
Without realising it, I styled my appearance accordingly: aggressively “attractive” according to how I thought people wanted me to look. If you’re a young woman and you’re somewhere where everyone really is looking at you no matter what you wear, it’s near impossible not to be painfully self-conscious anyway.
My way of facing my fears was a bit extreme, and mixed in with my love for travel and people – I took up work as a model. While I wouldn’t recommend that, the theory works for everyone: it might be a drama class, singing class or anything in which you have to express yourself in a group at some point.
Other major things which helped me was working for charities abroad, and serving at a monastery. Again, these may be too extreme for some, but the simple practice of spending most of my day serving others was tremendously helpful in letting go of self-concern. Wherever you are, there will always be places and people which need your help.
It isn’t all about creating big dramas; the little things add up too. Make small social steps for the day which you wouldn’t normally do, like talking to the local grocer, dressing differently, getting a shoulder massage, or smiling at a stranger just because you feel like it, without expecting any particular reaction in return. Share a secret. You might even dare yourself to play the fool, just once, by being silly with friends or in public to see what happens. Playing the fool is one of the most generous and fun things you can do. In my experience it makes people laugh with you, every time.
My point in mentioning my experiences is to show that it’s possible to change from being very self-conscious, to being happy talking on stage in front of hundreds if not thousands of people. I’ve learned that it really, really doesn’t matter what people think of me, as long as I know myself and that I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m not doing it to please anyone else; I’m doing it because I’ve figured out what’s important to me. The fear that being open would make me completely alone was unfounded; in fact it had the opposite effect.
Very few people over the age of five are completely un-self-conscious, and to a degree it’s healthy to keep some of it. Don’t think that you have to change yourself completely, just because one thing is making you uncomfortable. Nobody expects you to be perfect. The difference is in your perspective, and perspectives change with practice.
Hi, I’m an 18-year-old recent high school graduate from France. I remember your article about staying in a Zen temple for a year. I am looking to do something similar. Could you tell me how you set that up, what you had to know beforehand, and that sort of thing? Thanks a lot, Ductile
Hi Ductile, That sounds exciting I’ve had similar questions from different people who are interested in longer stays, so I’ll give you the long answer, and hopefully it’ll answer them too.
Once I realised that I wanted to commit completely to studying Zen, it felt urgent. I rang up the first good monastery I heard of and said “I want to go there immediately!” The monk on the phone sounded bemused and said calmly, “well why don’t you start by attending an introductory weekend next month, then we’ll see?”
I was annoyed that he wasn’t taking me more seriously. There I was, ready to give my whole life to the Dharma, and he was suggesting a pesky beginners’ weekend? My ambition, I felt, carried more gravity than that. So why was I not being welcomed with open arms?
As the monk knew and I eventually found out, the answer is simple: you’ve got to start somewhere, and a weekend is a good start. The equivalent of my fantasy would be if someone with no experience decides they want to work in TV, so they ring up the BBC switchboard and expect to be given a job.
I’m not saying that this is what you think, and it doesn’t sound like you want to be ordained as a monk. It can be helpful to remember all the same, that even from a practical point of view monasticism is one of the most serious vocations there is.
The entire monastic community is signing up to work side-by-side with you day and night, seven days a week. In many temples there’s no privacy at all, and you eat and sleep in the same room together. In a relatively closed and sensitive community, every personality has a magnified effect on all the others and vice-versa. It’s a pressure cooker. If one person gives up, messes up or leaves – which happens as often as it does in any other job – it feels like a serious blow to everyone who is left behind.
So it’s safe to say that they’re going to want to get to know you before signing you up to a longer stay. Along I went to the introductory weekend, at a temple that someone had recommended.
The first question
The question to ask yourself after the introduction is not “do they like me”, but do you like them? Not in a sentimental way, but rather, do you trust them to be reliable teachers? Do they seem to know what they are talking about? Does the kindness and compassion they preach show in their day-to-day actions? Are they genuinely humble and yet confident? How do they handle conflict or disagreements? Do you feel respected and at ease? In some places (sects in particular), the question to ask yourself is are they manipulative or trying too hard to impress you?
Trust your gut feeling on whether it’s the right place for you. This can be tricky because most of us have mixed feelings when we start spiritual training. I was suffering and confused when I started out, and projected my pain everywhere I went. As a result, the main impression I got in my introductory weekend was that everyone was irritating!
However, despite this I could tell that the teachers knew what they were talking about. All my questions were answered with care. If a teacher didn’t know the answer, they were happy to admit it. Both teachers and long-term students seemed content and relaxed, and yet they weren’t going around boasting that I needed them or that theirs was the best school among all schools. There was no pressure on me to join, and there certainly wasn’t any pressure to pay donations.
A common complaint among beginners is that they don’t get as much access to the teachers as they would like. Again, this is something that builds up with time and patience. As in any school, beginners are often assigned junior teachers, and senior students then see more of the senior teachers. You wouldn’t expect to immediately get regular meetings with the abbot, although in smaller priories where there are only two staff, that’s more likely.
After the introductory weekend I signed up to a week-long retreat, which went equally well, although it was hard. I was learning so much and felt like I couldn’t get enough, so I started to attend as many week-long retreats as I could. Gradually over several years, I got to know the monks and they got to know me. It was a very slow process, because the monastery isn’t a social club exactly, and most of the time we don’t say anything at all.
After about five week-long retreats, I still felt that I would benefit from staying longer-term. So I spoke with the Guest Master and then the Abbot to explain why I felt that way. Together with other senior monks they then considered my progress so far, and whether they agreed that I would benefit. It wasn’t a case of whether I was “accepted” or not. It felt more like we were all considering together whether a longer stay was the right path for me at that time, and if so, if that was the right place for me to do it.
All I could do was be honest about how things looked to me, and then be open to the views of the hosts. It didn’t help to be attached in my mind to the idea that I had to stay “or else my life will be directionless”. Be confident that there are always other paths. The way to find the right one is to accept that you don’t know the whole picture, and to be willing for any of those paths to be the ‘right’ one.
To get back to how the admin worked: I asked to stay for nine months simply because my gut feeling was that that’s how long I needed to stay to learn the practice. The abbot responded, “Maybe. Start with three months, then we’ll see.” Every week, I reported back to let him know how things were going. My reasons for residency were reviewed a couple of times during the stay, and eventually it felt like the right time to leave.
Other temples have long-term residential structures worked out and you can apply formally, but the spirit of the process is similar. These days almost all of this info is easily available on temple websites. At the very least, there’ll be a phone number you can ring and ask them about how to get started. The most comprehensive online directory is Buddhanet, or you can simply google e.g. “Zen” and your area. If you ask enough people for their advice, you’ll soon figure out which places have the most solid reputation.
Do you need to know anything beforehand?
The less the better, I can imagine some teachers saying They taught us everything we needed to know at the introductory weekend, and on the website they said what things we might need. (Working clothes, toiletries. Obviously.) What I’d also learned to bring is a rather pedestrian list:
- A blindfold, to help me sleep on bright summer nights
- Earplugs. We shared a large room and people snore.
- Insect repellent in summertime
- Smart but comfortable clothes. Some people wander around in tracksuits, but I feel more respectful in trousers and a shirt.
- Wet tissues to clean up fast, because often there’s little time between a work period and a talk.
- Small packs of tissues to salvage my hayfever with, and pockets in all my clothes to keep them in.
- Shoes that are quick to slip in and out of, since we take our shoes off when popping in and out of the cloister. You’ll also need a pair to get muddy in outdoors.
- For long stays: small things you might want to gift to new friends, e.g. small packs of chocolate or little souvenirs.
- My friend Jason is very fluffy coming back from retreat just now, and would like to add that men tend to forget: a razor, nail scissors, dental floss and tweezers.
What I realised I didn’t need was
- Books – the emphasis was on practice, not reading, and we were encouraged to take a break from what we normally do (for me, that’s reading.) There are books there, as well.
- Computers and a phone. It’s liberating to take a break from these things we enslave ourselves to every day. The temple was out of range anyway, and there’s a guest phone when you need one.
- A stinky deodorant. It’s really embarrassing at close quarters. Stinky sweat is embarrassing too, of course. See “wet tissue” entry above and bring toiletries that don’t smell.
That’s enough about deodorants. What about the intellectual stuff?
From a point of view of zazen practice, I’d suggest that the less you know the better. Some of my fellow trainees had taught Buddhism for 25 years, but it was all intellect-based so they felt that they had to start from scratch. What the monastery does is point you back to your sitting cushion, and you don’t need anything to do that. They even supply the cushions (or chairs, for the many trainees who can’t sit on the floor).
One of the things that surprised me the most was the other trainees. In my solipsistic mind, I’d imagined that they’d all be like me – i.e. in their 30s, single-minded in a sort of masculine way, flown in from all over Europe, and dressed in black. But there were all sorts. Most were actually easy-going retired men and women from the local area. Don’t be disappointed if it isn’t what you expect
Another piece of advice I’d give myself in retrospect is, don’t take everything that all teachers say to heart. Not even masters are necessarily clued up about how emotional psychology works. Insight into the Dharma is not the same as worldly awareness, and understanding compassion doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to put your interests first. I gratefully soaked up every word of every formal Dharma talk; but there were things said in between to trainees personally, that were not always on the mark. Ultimately the only person who can know you and stand up for you, is you. Concentrate on your own training, while being kind to those you find yourself working with. Keep a non-judgmental and humble beginner’s attitude, but at the same time, trust yourself.
I hope this answers your questions. If not, please ask more.
Have you learned to meditate, and you’d like to do it every day, but you’re having trouble disciplining yourself to? If you’re on facebook, join us on the 28-day challenge!
Most of us get lost in drudgery from time to time. I know I do. Real life will not always be exciting, and Zen students in particular are encouraged to sit still for some time every day, as if letting leaves settle from the storm.
When we do, a vibrant aliveness emerges. However, being human, I’m not always good at letting the leaves settle. Particularly when hard times hit – maybe I won’t have seen sunshine for weeks, and I’m facing more challenges than normal – I’m prone to depression and a ‘giving up’ state of mind.
When this happened a couple of days ago, I listened and asked myself, is this really all I’m aware of? Perversely, I kind of wanted it to be. Depression is real – but it can also be a convenient story which puts my problem in a box so I don’t have to do anything about it.
But then I opened up awareness, and noticed a whole load of other things which complicated the picture. I’m thinking I’m depressed, but actually I’m really enjoying the sun on my skin, a connection with a friend, an idea I just got. So there’s more to the story.
These are the things which make me feel alive. What are yours?
- A good story
- A good friend
- Groups of people coming together to make good things happen
- Single-minded passion for a cause or subject, in me and in others
- When I’ve made something well
- When others want something I’ve made
- Seeing other people flourish
- Meditation (the act of)
- The breathless understanding that space is infinite
- Fashion! Vibrant, creative, expressive
- Dreams, which bolster me to dare to reach for the stars.
- Exercise (the effects of!)
- Good dub, electronica & ska. The beat runs through my hips.
- The desert and the desert sky
- Tropical air, like warm folds of fabric
- Snowfall. Perfect silence
- Preface your ‘helpful’ comment with “I’ve been meditating for 20 years” in order to make people take you seriously. You sitting on your bum, even if it was in a temple, is no guarantee that everything that comes out of your mouth is true. Let people judge what you say on its own merits.
- Appoint yourself the judge and jury of ethical questions. Ordaining as a Buddhist unfortunately does not automatically make you wiser than anyone else. I think we all know what some Buddhists get up to, including you.
- Build up your case for the Truth with big fancy arguments. The truth is strong enough to stand on its own. And even if nobody gets it, it’s not like it’s going anywhere.
- Go out of your way looking for places where you are ‘needed’ to defend Buddhism, your preferred kind of Buddhism, your whole Sangha, and all the little people who don’t seem to be standing up for themselves. This is a false saviour mentality and a helpful distraction from something you really should be doing, which is probably somewhat less heroic, like doing the dishes or walking your dog. Sorry.
- Say snide things about others, even (especially) anonymously, or on private message to your best buddy.
- Give personal unsolicited advice. It never, ever, ever, works. Particularly if you think someone needs it. Its real-life equivalent is to march uninvited into someone’s private room and rant at them.
- Insist on continuing your unsolicited advice when someone starts crying and/or shouting. This can be hard to notice online – please read carefully and err on the side of caution.
- Defend unsolicited advice with “I was only being helpful”. If people did not find it helpful, you were not helping. Fact.
- Say “Sorry but” or “I wish you well” (or “metta” or whatever) when you’re actually thinking “what a plonker”. (If you said it straight after unsolicited advice, you definitely didn’t mean it.)
- Inflate your status by saying that you are great friends with monks, or even worse, by saying that you once were a monk – even if it’s true. Do monks need to preface their teachings with “I am a monk, and I’m great friends with so-and-so”?
- Comfort yourself that when people don’t recognise you as the second coming, it’s because they are deluded. If nobody’s listening to you, it’s probably because you have poor social skills.
- Think that being Buddhist is a licence to do away with social niceties such as introducing yourself (what’s the ‘self’ anyway?), caring about hurting others (‘feelings’ aren’t Truth!), and giving compliments (all things are subject to change, so who cares if someone makes an effort to look nice?)
- Assume that celibacy is a higher calling
- Assume that sex is a higher calling
- Be smug that your calling is better than anyone else’s
- Think that anyone else’s calling is better than yours.
One translation of the ancient Chinese poem Sandōkai says, “with the ideal comes the actual”. The poet’s name, Shih-t’ou Hsi-ch’ien, is translated as “He who hopes for improvement”. I can’t blame him. Maybe, before becoming a Tang dynasty Zen master, he was an over-achieving perfectionist just like many of us.
It is in the human DNA to keep striving; or if we do not strive, to judge ourselves negatively. She who strives and achieves is considered successful; she who does not is labelled lazy or unfortunate.
To take a small example, my last blog post was written months ago, in a digital world where the ideal is to post twice a week. I was waiting for a time when I’d have the time to write ‘properly’ – at length, with flashing inspiration and far-reaching research. Frozen by my own ambition, I achieved nothing.
My teacher is an erudite writer and lifelong student of the Zen tradition, and yet the advice of his that comes to my mind the most often, is also the most mundane: ‘Set yourself the task of doing one thing every day. Even if it’s only putting a nail in the wall to hang a picture’.
Think of someone you admire, who has achieved an impressive body of work. At any one time, were they doing anything other than having one thought? Or picking up a pen or an instrument? Saying a single word, or putting one foot in front of the other? They too built their lives around the mundane chores that keep us alive, by doing just one thing at a time. That person’s life is just like yours.
Ideals play their part, but we give them far too much credit. All you ever need to do is focus on the one thing you’re doing now.
I am 40 tomorrow and reaching record levels of simultaneous panic and introspection.
I am, of course, not who I thought I’d be. Taigen Dan Leighton, Zen priest and author of Visions of Awakening Space and Time, asked wisely “did anything ever turn out the way you thought it would?”
We yearn for predictability because it gives us an illusion of comfort, but in reality it isn’t what we want. I know no-one who is unequivocally happy as a result of achieving what they imagined they wanted. There is temporary satisfaction, yes; but also always a hidden twist in the landscape, that can’t be seen until we’re right in front of it.
The good news is that this releases us from trying to control the future. You can only do your best, and your best is enough.
I figured that once I’d attained enlightenment, I could doss around and enjoy the rest of my life in bliss – in the same way that some people view retirement – however this myth was quashed when I asked my teacher, a Zen master, “are you still learning?” and he replied “yes of course.”
So there is no end to self-improvement. That’s good, right? Nobody likes endings. Did I even want a happy ending? Or how about eternity? Vampires, holders of eternal life, don’t look too satisfied either.
In truth there is nowhere to go, emotionally, but to accept what I’ve been given. Which for now is a little disappointment, that I am not Secretary General of the UN or editor of the NYT; a little fear, that this means I’ll be branded a loser; and a worry, that I’m going to develop an irrational craving to cover it all up with a red sportscar.
On the other hand the worries that media and busybodies say I should have, i.e. that I’m unmarried and CHILDLESS, don’t bother me at all. “It’s a shame”, I’ve been told. Shame that what? That I don’t fit into their personal picture of how everyone should be?
The idea is, “Oh no. If I don’t have a family and a job, then I have nothing.” This ideal is then projected into “well-meaning” (read: patronising and interfering) judgments on others.
The reality is that you can be fulfilled; but the contents of that fulfilment are usually beyond what most of us can imagine. I would tell you mine, but each person’s love is different.
So dream, for God’s sake. Dream for all you’re worth, do your best, and then wait in wonder.
One of the most beautiful book titles I ever came across is Only Don’t Know. The sooner you can embrace those three words, the sooner you’ll be fulfilled.
Other links that will change your life:
Whatever you’re not doing on Valentine’s eve – it’s ok*. Contrary to what advertisers would have us imagine, most people will not be reclined in sexy togas, giggling and feeding sugar-coated grapes to our One True Love: our soulmate with whom we will live in happy contented monogamy for the rest of our lives.
Get real. We will be doing exactly what we do on all the other nights of the year: rocking colicky babies. Letting the dishes pile up. Sitting alone and lonely, checking what’s on TV. Worrying about how we’re going to pay the bills. Those who have partners are not more likely to be in love with them just because it’s Valentine’s night – they’re just as likely to be dissatisfied with them, or not be with them at all.
Life is not an advert, and thank God for that (we’d have whiplash from the L’Oreal hair-flicking and sweaty blisters from running through the fields hand-in-hand). Real life has everything in it. The humdrum, the loneliness, the worry and the love.
True love does exist. Our problem (other than that advertisers are manipulative and clueless) is that true love is beyond what we imagine, and what we think we want. There was a time when I got everything I thought I wanted: “my soulmate”, tall dark and handsome, as many “romantic” meals as I could eat, a beautiful diamond engagement ring. But I was unhappy. I challenge you to find anyone who got true lasting happiness from getting what they thought they wanted.
If you watch carefully, you may notice that your happiness does not ebb and flow in direct proportion to the people in your life. People sometimes influence how you feel, but they can’t manufacture happiness for you. And they don’t need to. It will come from you, when it comes.
You are what you do, not what you have. Today it so happens that I’m happy even if I’m going to be alone on Valentine’s. (Perhaps I’m happy because I’m alone on Valentine’s?) I’ll probably think about working out but instead make myself a nice meal, and go early to bed with a book. Maybe the happiness won’t last. That’s ok, too. It’ll come back when it’s ready.
I’m not being cynical. Relationships can be great. But so can solitude; and we have no control over either. And while you don’t get to choose between relationship and solitude, you do get to choose if you want to make the most of it.
Tonight – and on all the other nights, why not? – take a deep breath and try accepting what you have. Accept your take-away box, the dissatisfaction, the loneliness, aches and pains. The appliances which don’t work, the noise downstairs, the people who don’t make you happy, the deal you didn’t close and the things you don’t have.
Forget your ideals and comparisons to what you imagine all the rest of us are doing. Occasional, realistic plans are good; constant fantasies, on the other hand, lead to despair. Fantasy kills reality. In reality there is truth, and in truth there is hope.
Acceptance is a door into which peace comes when invited. Through that door there’s a field where possibilities can grow, that are beyond your imagination. So drop the fantasies and sit with an open heart, wherever you are.
This post is dedicated to everyone who is alone on Valentine’s.
* Unless it’s criminal, of course.
Anita Moorjani, Dying To Be Me. An ordinary woman in an ordinary life stumbles on the magnificence of existence.
Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light. A blind boy stumbles on the magnificence of existence and finds joy despite being a prisoner in concentration camps.
Victoria Coren, For Richer, For Poorer. Stunning and brilliant blonde doesn’t find love and has lots of fun playing poker, instead. True story.
Books and news websites, in general – the vast majority of people who are doing exciting, useful or fun things are not in perfect, contented relationships. Coincidence?
At 8am every morning at the monastery, after an hour’s meditation and the morning ceremony, it was “temple clean up” time. Teams were dispatched with mops and buckets to the cloisters, cupboards, common rooms, Master’s vestibule, the Ceremony Hall and the Buddha’s altar. Two teams were dispatched outside to weed the lawn and rabbit-proof the trees.
We “lay trainees” gathered in the dining room before the appointed time and stood there in silence, waiting for the Chief Novice monk to delegate our tasks. As she entered to briskly read out our names, I hoped as hard as I could (other religions call it prayer) that my task would be a pleasant one. I definitely didn’t want to do the rabbit-proofing; you had to go through the palaver of dressing up to go outside, it was cold, and the proofing wires hurt my fingers. Cooking breakfast on the other hand was a cushy job – it was warm there and the status seemed higher, because you were trusted to help with the cooking.
But instead, every morning of the first three months of my stay, my heart sank: I was dispatched to clean the public toilets. It was boring, it smelled, it had no status whatsoever, and it was really hard work. There was no possibility of doing a quick job of it then bunking off. If you want to find a put-upon Zen trainee in the morning, look in the toilets. They’ll be there on their knees scrubbing the porcelain and lifting other people’s hairy tufts out of the shower drain.
Back then I was still convinced that monks were magic. So I felt obliged to carefully scrub every tile and every crack between every tile, because otherwise they’d just know what a bad person I was, and I’d surely be villified and cast out of the temple! If a monk entered, I’d even arrange my face into a put-upon expression so they’d understand how seriously I was taking my task.
Oh how I hated it. I wondered if a monk had somehow noticed that I hated it, and had given it to me on purpose as a test of faith. I wondered why I of all trainees deserved the lowliest job – did that mean that I was the lowliest trainee of all? I ran through a list of all the people whom I must then be lowlier than. Or could it be a perverse universal will deciding all this? It was far too much of a coincidence that I got the worst job every day.
I started plotting. Prayer clearly didn’t work. I became really helpful in the kitchen at lunchtime, in the hope that I’d be asked there in the morning, too. I dropped hints to the Chief Novice about how wonderful other work was. I tried to volunteer to dig ditches instead. I pretended to embrace toilet cleaning, just in case it was intended as a punishment, so they’d realise that my task must be changed. Finally, I tried the classic man-about-the-house trick: doing it badly. But it was all to no avail. ‘Mia’ and ‘the toilets’ were inextricably intertwined at 8am.
One day, scrubbing the porcelain, I felt something shift inside. I was giving up. No thoughts or tactics had helped me, and no-one was coming to the rescue. I was stuck there, alone, while everyone else had much more fun jobs. I thought nothing for a while, and just cleaned. Then I thought I might as well do a good job of it, while I was there anyway. In fact if I poured all of my heart and soul into it, I’d feel much better. And why shouldn’t I be doing it? Someone’s got to. Wait – aren’t I lucky, in a way, to be fulfilling a role? Toilet cleaning is worthwhile. Before it was discovered, people were dying of typhoid en masse. I was slowly but surely saving people’s lives!
I became proud of my job, but only just enough for a normal level of mental comfort to return. I didn’t think it was better than all the other jobs, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. They were all vital. My favourite part was that we were all working together to create a community. As I carried the recycled tissues outside, I passed the cloister-sweepers as if in symphony. We nodded to each other in happy recognition.
I also thought I’d try an experiment. Whenever I found myself miserable about cleaning, I would turn it around 180 degrees and decide to be happy doing it. To my shock, it worked immediately! I was happy because I’d decided to be happy! If only I’d discovered this simple knack 20 years earlier, but no matter.
Whenever the tasks were distributed after that, I decided that no matter what task I was given, I would accept it wholeheartedly. Rabbit-proofing? Great! Basin-scrubbing? Wonderful! Cooking? Sure! Life was so much easier when I yielded my will to whatever my fate was that day. As a result of judging jobs less, I judged people and myself less. I stopped worrying about why things happened the way they did – that just wasn’t important. How I dealt with it was the thing that made the difference to me; and that wasn’t rocket science, it was simple acceptance.
Of course, as soon as I was happy about cleaning the toilets, I was relegated to the kitchen.
A reader asked an interesting question about celibacy and relationships,
“I’m curious about whether you think men and women can develop a deeply loving relationships with each other, including a tactile, co-habiting relationship, without that relationship ever crossing the boundary and becoming a sexual relationship. I guess this is a variation on the question in ‘When Harry Met Sally’ about whether men and women can ever really be just friends. I believe they can.
Is it possible to develop a deeply loving hetero/homo relationship without physical/sexual consummation, especially if you wish to abide by Buddhist principles? Is it possible for such a relationship to be based on mutual celibacy? Do you think that a relationship may flourish and bloom if couples were to abstain from sex for weeks or months, so sex is not a distraction, and allow the relationship to become ‘centred’ again, and then resume sex at a later point?”
‘When Harry Met Sally’ originally had a different ending. Harry and Sally didn’t marry, but stayed friends. Both the writer and director thought that was closer to the truth.
At the monastery I train in, male and female monks live and work side by side, 24 hours a day. There are some very deep friendships there which don’t play themselves out sexually. They have chosen to be a celibate order, so if they wish to have a sexual relationship, they would have to leave their equivalent of work, family and spiritual vocation in order to pursue it. (In this post I’m mostly addressing your question, “is it possible”. The reasons for celibacy are another topic.)
To help with celibacy they’re not tactile either, so this example won’t entirely answer your question. One thing worth knowing though is that intimacy doesn’t require physicality. I guess that sounds crazy to some, because it did to me, until I experienced myself how it really was possible to be very close to others without sexuality having to play itself out.
The next thing people tend to imagine when I tell them about that scenario, is the insane amount of sexual tension there must be. I hate to disappoint, but there isn’t. Sexuality isn’t an unknown wild force that we have to either a) suppress, or b) leave to rage out of control. Like any strong emotion, if we get to know it patiently and intimately through meditation, it stops dictating to us what we want to do.
For example I used to think that if you’re attracted to someone and it’s mutual, then you have to act on it. Visceral emotions backed this belief up. When practising celibacy however I found that being attracted to someone without acting on it was like standing in a storm, but choosing not to get blown off my feet. Then with practice, it became effortless. It just popped up as an awareness, “Ah yes I’m attracted to you, but it’s no big deal and it doesn’t mean anything.”
To my surprise I found that that’s where a clearer and deeper trust and closeness emerged, which I’d never experienced before. Crucially, I realised that I’d been lying to myself. There are people whom we don’t want to sleep with, but we do anyway, and when that happens the dust gets kicked up and all sorts of stupidity emerges. Holding back until I was sure was more honest, more dignified and made me a lot happier.
Realising that it’s a choice makes new monastic trainees a lot calmer. They’ve committed to celibacy, so there’s no point in entertaining all the pre-sexual games we “normal” people play such as flirtation and obsessive fantasy. In their position, to play them would be to lie to themselves and split the mind: committing to one thing, but then deliberately telling the body something else. To someone who wants peace of mind, that isn’t an option.
That doesn’t mean that sexuality goes out the window. Unless you’re naturally asexual or have attained a near-mythical ‘higher state’, it’s still there as an integral human emotion. Shamanic practitioners say we can channel that same energy into creativity and affluence.
Either way, it doesn’t mean that we must have sex. Plenty of people don’t, and remain very happy (if not happier, even, than the average person – since they’re not kicking up all that dust )
Of course it’s easier to accept all that when you’re sitting on your own. Choosing to be in a celibate relationship with someone who also has a sexuality – so anyone, really – increases the difficulty exponentially. Certainly it’s possible, but for intimate partnerships without sex the following would need to be in place.
1. You’ve mutually agreed on celibacy and on how far you’ll go physically.
2. You’ve both developed self-awareness and control to the point where you’re able to carry through your intentions.
3. Each person has decided this of their own accord, for positive reasons; not because they think they should, are doing it to get something, or think they don’t have any better choice.
As for “just friendships” this is equally valid, only it’s less likely to be spoken about in detail (that might be weird). I have a handful of close straight male friends, but it took some doing. First everyone involved had to let go of the idea that if you fancy each other, or if you feel a little insecure or a little horny etc., then you should try to have sex. That belief has an unfortunate tendency to undermine good friendship. It’s so much easier when – usually through bitter experience – everyone’s developed a clearer idea of
1. What they want
2. The things that can support or undermine that
3. An internal source of security in their lives, which doesn’t depend on the desire of or for others.
My friends and I don’t try to hide the fact that everyone has a sexuality, but we definitely don’t give mixed messages either. In some cases we both assumed that we’d “just” be friends because there were no signs of mutual attraction. In other cases there were some signs, so one of us would say early on in the friendship something along the lines of, “are we friends, or is there something more?” I used to be terrified of conversations like that, but once you’ve ticked all the above bullet points, it’s just an honest and respectful conversation which actually feels like a relief.
If the answer to that question is friendship, the reply might be “I’m attracted to you, but it isn’t something I want to pursue in that way.” The other person is then hopefully secure enough not to take that personally; chances are in fact that it isn’t personal. If they can’t accept the answer then they can’t be present as a friend because they’ll always be thinking of “something more”, blaming the other person for their feelings of abandonment, or worse – and commonly – both.
Is it Buddhist to be celibate?
It is when Buddhists do it From a scriptural point of view this can be a tough call, because the Buddha’s advice was largely geared towards celibate monastics. But he also respected families and non-monastics, and there are traditions where monks have families. So far as I’m aware, no genuine Buddhist teacher has claimed that celibacy is the right thing for everyone to do at all times.
To me, the answer lies in how you do it. It’s freeing to recognise that sexuality is an emotion, not a need – regardless of what our reptile brains are telling us. You could be celibate for the wrong reasons, or sexual for the wrong reasons; likewise celibacy could be right for you, or engaging in sexuality could be right for you. Some key guidelines are, is it the right thing to do from both yours and others’ point of view? What impact might it have on yours and others’ lives? Will it be beneficial? What is the wish that underlies your choice? Is anything being suppressed or forced? Are you subconsciously holding on to prejudices such as “celibacy is virtuous, sexuality is filthy”, or vice versa – “sex is normal, celibacy is uptight”? Are you letting fear of solitude, physical aversion or spiritual greed influence your choice?
I got so much from a period of celibacy, as have many other Buddhists I’ve spoken to. It’s like stepping back and getting a bigger picture, before re-entering the human fray with more clarity and direction than before. There’s no reason why two partners in relationship couldn’t do that as you suggest, if they decide to together. There are certainly couples who are doing it successfully.
I’d be careful though of choosing celibacy because it might be a Buddhist thing to do. The initiative should come from a place inside, in response to your particular circumstances. You and your circumstances are always changing, so it isn’t a choice that it would be healthy to decide on in the abstract, or in advance.
There can be the temptation to fantasise about celibate relationship. Perhaps this is more common among those with ambitions in spiritual training. We’ve figured out that sexual fantasies aren’t constructive, so we use celibate fantasies as a loophole! Alas these are just as unhelpful as the sexual ones. They undermine your perception of reality, and ability to make the best of what you already have.
What’s the point of being in a relationship if you’re not going to have sex?
This wasn’t in the original question, but I’ve often heard it asked. If you can’t see the point in celibacy then it probably isn’t for you, so there’s no need to worry about it.
The wording of the question suggests that sex is the only point in having a relationship however, which would be worrying. Removing sex from the equation – at least temporarily – can actually increase intimacy and trust, and I’d be wary of using sex either as a shortcut to ‘get’ them, or to deflect a fear of them.
Having said that, for many couples, even if sex isn’t of absolute and central importance, removing it from the equation altogether would be like removing something integral and natural to the way they relate to each other.
Each couple, and each individual, has to find their own way.
Article in the Guardian: Men and Women at the Monastery