Saturday, May 28, 2022

What A Monastery Can Teach Us About Isolation During The Pandemic

Forced quarantine is making us confront hard truths about ourselves. We can turn this into a critical moment of reflection, writes Priyadarshini Sen.

What A Monastery Can Teach Us About Isolation During The Pandemic
A nun at the Jangchub Choeling Nunnery in the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod in Karnataka works on a science experiment. Photo: Paul Syska

The contemplative religious order of a monastery has a lot to teach us during the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike monks, we were not spiritually prepared for this situation nor did we ask for one. Isolated in our homes now—the shadow of death a constant reminder of our mortality and fragility—we can perhaps turn this into a critical moment of reflection.

Last Christmas, I was at a Buddhist nunnery in the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod meeting with scientists who were keen to engage in new science learning and dialogue with nuns. Broadly understanding modern science as part of their monastic training brought me in touch with life behind the nunnery’s enclosure walls distanced from the rest of the world.

At the nunnery, life has a peaceful rhythm. The nuns wake up before dawn and then set about their daily chores with a youthful vigour. Their days are less about experimentation than disciplined patterns of everyday living that create space for purpose.

A nun from Ladakh told me her decision to embrace monastic life was spurred by the desire to live with intent. “We need social isolation to make room for one another,” she said. “Enclosure makes us aware how interdependent our lives really are.”

Such a cloistered life, where social contact is limited to community work in neighbouring villages, doctors’ visits or shopping for specific items, seemed daunting. But even more daunting was the thought of spending prolonged periods in “profound silence to confront oneself.”

But that’s precisely what life has thrown at us since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Forced quarantine is making us confront hard truths about ourselves. Admittedly, it’s difficult amid the anxiety that so many of us feel right now, but it’s impossible to run away from them. In a way, my experience at the nunnery prepped me for this time of stillness.

In the five days I spent there, I decided to embrace the natural rhythm of a monastic’s life.

I would wake before dawn to the chime of temple bells and chanting from religious texts—a loop of syllables repeated over and over—to recreate the sun’s movement across the sky.

The monastery’s stillness would wash over me as I remained in this meditative state for a few hours. As morning showed the day, I accompanied the nuns as they went about their daily chores. Some would be busy in the kitchen preparing tumblers of tea for the whole nunnery; others aiding in construction and farming activities around the premises; a larger number of them scrubbing and cleaning the monastery complex or helping out with administrative work. In the rhythm of activities, I’d forget the bustle outside.

The steady pace of the morning would pave the way for classes, readings, prayers, debates, community chores and studies through the day—all within the enclosed walls.

For the five days that I stayed there, the nunnery’s “quarantined” life made me realize how far it was from a meditative retreat. Not only did it present an opportunity to get over my fear of solitude, but also brought me closer to how we could transcend a life spent scurrying from this to the other. And to be honest, I left feeling far more grounded than I expected.

In one of my conversations with a nun from Spiti, who chose to embrace this life 20 years ago, I gathered she was inspired by the Buddhist practices of Shamatha (mindfulness) and Vipassana (awareness), which helped her break the worldly mould.

“Finding the time for self-realisation is difficult when you are preoccupied with regular duties and distractions,” she said. “Monastic practices provide the intimate space for reading and reflection since you are isolated from everything and everyone.”

She said it was a “moment of reset” when she entered the nunnery premises. Isolation became not a solitary act but a state of fluid happiness for her where “she could wrap around any experience she was having with a sense of kind awareness.”

Taking that cue from her, I decided to turn inward and cultivate a more mindful approach. The distanced observing of the way of life there brought me closer to all my different emotional and cognitive states. It was an exercise of befriending these states instead of cherry-picking the emotions I’d like to be more closely in touch with.

Seeing these nuns content or striving to be content in their solitary pursuits also made me feel we try too hard to let our identities define us instead of letting our needs, emotions and longings (which make us who we are) speak for themselves.

Even though it was too short a time at the nunnery for any real shift in perspective to take place, a sense of peace and clearing up of the inner space was beginning to take root.

A month into lockdown, which was meant to arrest the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the Dalai Lama said, “We should emphasise oneness, sameness. I think our little differences create problems.”

This, at another time, may have been just another statement coming from a Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk. But my experience of living in a nunnery for five days made me recognise the bigger lesson in isolation: to be more responsive to the needs of others. It was not only grounding, but also helped me recognise our common fragility as human beings.

(Priyadarshini Sen is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes for India and US-based media. Views expressed are personal.)