Bring the Monastery Home
Before you’ve tried it, meditation might sound easy. Who needs meditation instructors or training when all you have to do is sit there and pay attention to your breath, right? But when you give meditation a try, you’ll notice that while the instructions are simple, actually following them is hard. We get distracted by stray thoughts, to-do items, and plain old daydreaming. When I first started meditating in college, I grew angry at myself because completing such a simple task was extremely difficult for me. After I completed fifteen or twenty minutes of meditation training, I felt like I had been thinking the entire time; I wasn’t sure if I had noticed my breath even once. It seemed like there had to be something wrong with me.
I realized that getting angry at myself wasn’t going to help improve my meditation training and that I needed help. If you want to hone your tennis game, or learn to play a new instrument, you might enlist a tennis coach or a music teacher. I realized it was the same for meditation; I wanted the help of a meditation teacher. So I spent over two years training with Soryu Forall at the Monastic Academy.
Soryu has done about 25,000 hours of intensive meditation training, much of it in Asia, in formal monastic settings. His methods as a meditation instructor are informed by his background in several contemplative traditions, but he also draws from his familiarity with economics, environmental science, and sports. (He is a superb cross-country skier, and one of the better tennis players in Vermont.) He has a bold, vibrant laugh and a stern presence, and can switch between them at a moment’s notice. As a student, I was petrified by him, and I adored him; a ripe and potent soil for growth.
Working with a Meditation Teacher
Good meditation instructors work just like in any other discipline: they give the student exercises; the student reports back on their progress or demonstrates it directly; and the teacher gives the student new meditation instruction when the student has completed the previous teaching. Rinse, repeat, succeed. At the Monastic Academy, Soryu Forall teaches through private, regular, one-on-one interactions called “interviews.” Interviews are usually held in the morning and evening meditation periods. The group sits in the meditation hall, and, when the time comes, a bell rings that signals that it is your turn to go to an interview.
A few months before I ended my period of meditation training at the Monastic Academy, Soryu gave the monastics a talk that changed the way I perceived the interviews. In this talk, Soryu shared a very specific format that we could use to make the most out of the interview period:
When we entered the room, we would state the meditation technique that we were practicing (such as following the breath, doing a body scan, etc.).
Then we would state what we were working on — our understanding of the assignment that we had been given in the last interview. The meditation technique is what you do while meditating; the assignment is how you do the technique. For example, we might both be using a body scan as our main technique, but I might be instructed to cultivate my concentration on body sensations, whereas you might have been told by the meditation teacher to develop equanimity with body sensations.
Describe and Demonstrate
After we have stated our technique and our understanding of what our assignment had been, we would have the option of reporting or demonstrating our experience to the meditation instructor, giving Soryu a chance to see what our practice was like on that day, in that moment.
This entire process could take as little as twenty or thirty seconds. Soryu would respond to what you said and did by either clarifying what the assignment was, or, if you had completed the assignment, by giving you a new assignment.
Having a clear mental model of what to do and why helped me to make the most out of the last two months I spent at the monastery. I followed this format each time I went to the interview room for the last two months of my meditation training. I think I completed as many assignments in those two months by using this process as I had completed in two years without it. The effects on my meditation practice were noticeable. I found that my practice in the meditation hall was more interesting, engaging, and powerful. Suddenly meditation was fun and exploratory, like trying to win a game or solve a puzzle, rather than a boring task or obligation.
Bring the Monastery Home
Since my meditation training period at the monastery has ended, I’ve been trying to find a way to bring the experience of working with expert meditation instructors to the world. I’ve found that working with coaches can be expensive, and meditation apps lack personalized support. So I teamed up with a fellow monk from the Monastic Academy, Toby, to try to offer a helpful solution. At Brightmind, we’re working on a novel, powerful way of teaching meditation that aims to give everyone a taste of what it feels like to work with meditation instructors. Just learning a technique isn’t enough. To deepen your practice, and see the benefits of meditation, you need deliberate practice: specific assignments for applying the technique. It’s not just what you do — it’s how you do it.
Not everyone can join a monastery. Not everyone has the privilege of working with a teacher like Soryu Forall — and certainly not of working with him day after day, for years. If you don’t have the time to visit the Monastic Academy for a retreat or for its coworking program, the Brightmind app aims to provide you not only with deep knowledge of the practice of mindfulness, but also specific recommendations for how to practice, based on your interest and needs. By working with Brightmind, you can do deliberate meditation practice at home or at work, anywhere, at any time. Don’t let not having a meditation instructor or specific meditation training hold you back—start your journey today.