Natalie Skowland – It was bitterly cold around 15 with snow covering the ground. Our steps were calm, molding carefully into the snow beneath us, the silence like a soft embrace. We were a large group, perhaps 20 or 30 strong, and yet no one said a word. The only sounds were of pine branches creaking, segments of the icy river bubbling over stones and a bird singing its high winter song. In the union of my inner quiet with the stillness around me, an unexpected feeling hit me: the connections between us all, silent together as we walked through the woods, experiencing the same wilderness in a diversity of ways.
I spent a week in early January of 2017 at the Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, New York with nine other Davidson students. Blue Cliff is a Buddhist monastery that follows the teachings of Thich Nhat Han. The monastery houses both monks and nuns who have devoted a period of time, or their whole lives, to the pursuit of mindfulness and simplicity. Although all of us students came with different interests and prior experiences, we united around a common desire to explore the practice of mindfulness and how we might incorporate it into our lives at Davidson.
Days began early, with a morning meditation at 6 am—before the sunrise., We then followed a daily routine grounded in the rhythm of intentionality and gradual transitions. From mid-morning walking meditations through the near-by forest to mealtimes spent savoring each bite of vegan fare as it entered our mouths, I found my experience at Blue Cliff itself to be a meditation on my life- style. I considered anew how I would live my life if I truly prioritized compassion for myself and the communities and natural environments around me. I refer to meditation, though, in the most human sense of the word—a practice that is just that, a practice. My time at Blue Cliff was far from a pure, perfectly “holy” experience. Rather, my desires, preoccupations and insecurities remained with me, reminding me that I have a long way to go before I can live fully in the present.
Maybe, though, the practices of mindfulness and meditation don’t actually aim for perfection. Instead, they give us tools to live more fully in a flawed and uncertain reality, and even accept our own shortcomings with less self-judgment. When we think of monasteries or other spiritually-endowed communities or locations, there is often an expectation that something close to divinity exists in those spaces—it feels wrong to laugh at potty humor or crave goat cheese when I’m supposed to be pursuing the questions of meaning and spiritual under- standing 24/7.
To me, one Blue Cliff monk, Brother Bodhi, especially exemplified this balance between a focus on spirituality and an embrace of our fundamental humanity. Brother Bodhi had a laugh like a goose and eyes that bugged out when he got excited about something. He could both ice skate on a frozen pond with glee and engage in conversations about Buddhist teachings on conflict resolution with sincerity. His energy and zest for life was contagious, his exuberance so far from the traditional image I held of monks. His love of laughter and play was reflected in almost everything he did.
Of course, our time at Blue Cliff had to end, and so soon we returned to Davidson, a community I hadn’t interacted with since last May since I spent last semester in Bolivia. Returning to Davidson, my intention to continue practicing mindfulness in my daily life has been partially fulfilled. While I’ve remained more aware of how I am feeling and have been able to focus more on self-care than I have in the past, I quickly slipped away from meditating regularly and eating mindfully (truly focusing on my food rather than simultaneously thinking or doing something else). As one nun had warned, it is difficult to live a monastic lifestyle in the outside world. Our culture is so built around rushing, achieving and exhausting ourselves mentally and physically that withdrawal from such a lifestyle is not easy. My first week back at Davidson this semester I was hit hard by my overfilled schedule, and upset that I could not find time for myself. Yet, as the weeks have worn on, I’ve readjusted little by little to this unhealthy pace.
Most importantly, though, my time at Blue Cliff reminded me that, despite the overwhelming political realities, the piles of homework and the onslaught of emails that I face each day, there are spaces in this world that will allow me to slow down and rediscover the present. Some of those places are tangible, such as a monastery or my favorite hiking trail. The intangible space that I can always reliably return to, however, is within me— my breath. When I feel overwhelmed or immobilized by stress, I can always take a moment to center myself, sit up tall and breathe in, and then release. Often, just the simple reminder that I am still breathing can help me refocus myself and find a greater sense of calm in difficult situations. As many monks and nuns would recite during daily meditations at Blue Cliff: “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” And in that moment, my breath is my consolation, a truth that I can feel rushing in and out of my living body.
Natalie Skowlund, ’18, is a Political Science major, Spanish minor from Oswego, Oregon. Contact her at naskowlund@da- vidson.edu