Living in a Monastery

It was 2020 and I was living alone in a studio apartment and working remotely. The covid pandemic had fully settled in to our society and I was feeling lonely, upset and not well. I had spent the prior year trying to get better from my clinical depression and in February 2020 I had left a 30-year relationship. And so, living alone was not a good place for me to be. I wrote a letter to the monastic brothers at Deer Park Monastery and asked if I could come and stay with them (and still continue to work remotely). Thankfully they said yes. And so I arrived with the idea of staying for a few months, and now it has been 3-years and I remain in the monastery to this day. 

In the beginning it was very pleasant. The monastery was not open to the public so it was just the monastics and a few lay people. We lived in community as if the pandemic was not happening. Sharing meals together, practicing together, and enjoying our 400-acres of chaparral and mountains in quiet and seclusion. It was just what I needed. A lifelong dream to live in community with a group of people sharing the same values and interests. Slowly we began to open up to the public again and our normal routine of retreats and Sunday Days of Mindfulness reinvigorated us as we were able to share the practice with so many who had been challenged through the pandemic. 

Our schedule here is pretty simple and consistent. We begin each day with sitting meditation at 5:45am, walking meditation, the breakfast at 7:30am and then working meditation at 9:00am. Since I was still working, my focus on working was to support Santa Barbara City College students. It wasn’t until a year into my stay that I resigned that position and decided to remain here at Deer Park. Following lunch and rest time, there may be a class at 3:00pm or personal practice time. Dinner at 6:00pm and most evenings to ourselves. This is the schedule I have followed pretty much every day for the past three years. Once a week we have a “lazy day” when there is no schedule and we simply enjoy whatever may unfold. 

Dorm room with bookshelf, dresser, rocking chair and desk.

I live in a 175 square foot dormitory with its own bathroom. I have been able to make it home. The room feels safe and comfortable. I do keep some of the worldly amenities that I appreciate like my HomePod and Espresso machine. The room is adorned with some calligraphies from Thich Nhat Hanh and an old rocking chair. Meals are served communally in the dining room and it is kind of strange to have only cooked a few meals in these years. The monastics have kept me off the work rotation so no cooking duties. 

Nature is ever present here! With so much open space, there are many trails and hidden places. Each day I step out and smell the chaparral, hear the birds singing, and the coyotes howling. To live and be in nature so much has been a great blessing. The seasons in SoCal are so subtle, but when you live in it every day we are able to see the changes. The multitude of flowers. The abundant sage. And so much wildlife, especially on the ground. I have spent the last six months taking photos of all the different species I find on the ground. From the tarantula to the snakes to the frogs to the rabbits. And of course, so many bunnies. 

Leaving my career and living at Deer Park has vastly improved my mental health. There have been some significant dark moments in past, even here at the monastery, but I now feel whole and at peace. Finally! This is partially due the friendships I have developed here. When you live with so many people (approximately 25 people), there aren’t many places to hide. Especially when they are so caring and interested in well being. I have practiced opening up to others more and allowing the community to hold me, to guide me, and to be a refuge. Even with 25-years of mindfulness practice, I have remained teachable and continue to learn about myself and how to hold relationships with others. 

This past summer I have been invited to teach at a couple local sanghas (here’s one of my talks). It has been almost five years since I’ve done any teaching and it felt good to step back into this with some confidence and sincerity. I wish to thank those groups who invited me and for giving me this opportunity to reflect and look deeply into the teachings, the mindfulness trainings, and my relationship to them. My friendship with my former partner continues to evolve and grow. And my children have visited and I have visited them. The gratitude I feel is undefinable. 

In addition to the daily schedule, friendships, and nature, the time here has also afforded me the opportunity to study the teachings further. To discover further what my bodhisattva vows actually mean. The insight has been that much more is available for me to discover. If I leave my heart open. During my time here, I have invited others to call me Brother Joy. The purpose to break down some of my ego and also to remind me of the name Thich Nhat Hanh offered me in 2005 – True Recollection of Joy.

Am I experiencing more joy? Do I know how to cultivate the energy of joy? What brings me joy today? It seems these regular reminders have helped and these moments of joy are more present. 

Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned here is that feeling good or bad, feeling depressed or not depressed, feeling angry or not angry, they are each the same. The feeling is inside of me and my job is to recognize it, take care of it, and to not pass any judgment on myself for how I am feeling. To be kind and to be patient. Today I don’t feel so good, and that is okay because it is impermanent. 

Two aspects of living in community are patience and acceptance. Patience because, well, things just move slower here – the schedule and the decisions. This is very different from my high-profile, stressful administrative positionI held at SBCC. I’ve learned to slow down and let go. The letting go is about acceptance. Living in community, particularly when you are a lay person in a monastic setting, means I don’t have much say in decisions. Everything from how to set something up to what the schedule will be for the spring. Of course they trust me and I am able to offer input but ultimately as decision about the monastery is made by the monks. And though I am relatively independent, the respectful practice has been to ask permission to leave the monastery to attend to activities outside the monastery. This is a small thing, and technically they can say no, but I always ask and they always say yes. It is truly a different way of living. 

My needs are few. I don’t own a car. I have no debt. They house and feed me. And in return I offer some of my expertise to them in the areas of technology, communication, and bookkeeping. It’s been fun to manage the network infrastructure here with its multiple wifi connections, dozen computers, and all the video streaming of events. It’s been good to hone these skills a bit more after working more in the management arena the last couple decades. Fortunately for me, technology comes very easy to me. 

So what’s next? It is unknown. I have no plans to leave, or to stay. Each day unfolds as it does. I remain open to possibilities. Take little steps in a direction here and there. But only hold things loosely and let them unfold naturally. Patience and letting go are my friends. And perhaps it won’t take me 3-years to write my next blog post. 

~ Brother Joy