Updated: Nov 1, 2020
In April, 2012, I spent thirty-six days on walking pilgrimage across northern Spain’s Camino de Santiago. In November, 2018 I spent seven days living alongside Zen Buddhist monks in upstate New York. Below are six parallel lessons about happiness that I took away from both experiences.
Going to a Zen Buddhist monastery to seek peace and inner transformation is a funny thing, because upon arrival you quickly realize there is actually nowhere to go. It’s pretty much just a bunch of grass, a few buildings with bunk beds, and some quiet humans in brown cloaks.
When I told one of my good friends my plans for the week, he looked at me and said, “I don’t get it, but what are you going to do there?”
He was right. Not much.
Yet one week later, after only seven days in a place where I didn’t go anywhere or do anything, I came home to the loud buildings of New York City with more peace and compassion in my heart than before I’d left.
This taught me a valuable lesson about happiness. That conditions for happiness can be created anywhere, and rather then looking to find peace and love out in the world, we should spend more time and energy cultivating peace and love from within. Once we understand the conditions necessary to support our individual happiness, we can then recreate those same conditions back home, in turn cultivating happiness and joy wherever we are, allowing us to stop running away from ourselves.
Now, we probably don’t need to stay in a Zen Buddhist monastery to learn this simple lesson. Any impactful life event, experience, or vacation can change our perspective and inspire such growth and self-reflection.
There is something about the monastery, though, that woke me up. As my friend so eloquently put it, there isn’t really anything to do at a Buddhist monastery. There also isn’t anywhere to go or anything to see.
I had always come back from vacations or major life experiences with my internal flame of adventure lit ablaze, only to feel it slowly burn out after settling back into days, weeks, and months of daily routines. My experience at Blue Cliff woke me up to the realization that I have a choice, every day, to live intentionally in a way that keeps that fire alive.
I realized that perhaps it is not happiness that we find on the road, but happiness that we create on the road, and so in a way significant life experiences give us a recipe for happiness. It is up to us to apply that recipe in our daily lives and communities upon our return.
Below are six conditions for happiness that I found surprisingly consistent between both the communities of Blue Cliff Monastery and the Camino de Santiago.
(1) The journey of inner transformation starts with intent
A recurring question asked by friends and family about both the Camino and Blue Cliff were,
"How did you hear about that? ” or “What made you want to do something like that?”
I didn’t always know how to answer, because in some ways it isn’t so different from planning a trip to the beach. One looks up warm weather and sunshine and picks from a list. Or, as my uber driver asked as we maneuvered through the narrow, winding back country roads of the Catskill Mountains on our way to Blue Cliff Monastery,
“How’d you find this place? Did you google ‘need some trees and grass?’”
Back in 2012 I was twenty-two years old, and on the train from Paris to St. Jean Pied de Port I reflected on my life’s journey and what I hoped to get out of the next month walking across Spain. It was at that moment that I decided this trip would change my life. Over one month later, it did.
Last November, on the train ride to a mysterious monastery in upstate New York, I wrote in my journal:
There is nothing I can think to gain from this week at Blue Cliff. Rather, there is much that I wish to let go.
One week later, I did.
Healing and inner growth don’t start when you step onto the trail to Santiago de Compostela or when you wake up at 5 am to attend sitting meditation alongside Zen Buddhist monks. It starts when you sit at home, alone, after school or work or a night out and realize that you are suffering. This is followed by the feeling that you deserve to be happy and that you deserve to heal.
This is intent, and this is the seed from which all journeys of inner transformation grow.
(2) Silence is sacred
Do you ever realize how much noise there is in our lives?
As children we are scared of the dark, but as adults we live as if we are scared of the silence. We wake up and play music or listen to the news, we walk around with headphones in the streets and subways, and in the spaces between we talk to each other, to ourselves, and to our computers and iphone screens.
We don’t take the time to stop and listen. Our lives are so loud that even if we take the time to slow down we can’t hear anything, and as a result our physical and emotional needs go unattended.
Ironically, it is in the silence that we create space for ourselves. Truth can be found in the silence. Peace can be found in the silence. Love can be found in the silence. We can find ourselves in the silence.
I unknowingly learned this lesson walking the Camino de Santiago, where, for over one month I didn’t have a phone or headphones or technology of any kind. For thirty-six days I walked 8-10 hours a day, sometimes more, with no phone. No text messages to check in on, no music to get lost in, no phone calls or voicemails or emails to get back to.
The first few days were a struggle, but I soon found that giving space for silence slowed life down. Without trying, I began to pay more attention to the present moment. Brushing my teeth, taking a shower, eating toast, acts which would normally be a means to an end, became destinations in and of themselves. By giving each moment my full attention, ordinary moments transformed into miracles.
I also began to experience moments differently. The more space I gave for silence the more I listened, and the more I listened the more I observed, until I began noticing things I hadn’t before, such as the hissing of hot air while making morning coffee and the saggy crunch of wet leaves grinding under my hiking boots. I tuned into the music of the wind and the birds and my breathing, and soon I realized that music always surrounds us, and that we always have the ability to change the channel.
In Zen Buddhism, silence is at the core of both an individual’s and community’s mindfulness practice. Every morning, a period of “Sacred Silence” is honored, typically from sunrise until 8 am.
At Blue Cluff I would wake up at 5 am and head to the meditation hall in silence, sit zazen alongside the monks and nuns in silence, and then go to breakfast, where the first twenty minutes of each meal was eaten in silence. This practice was observed at lunch and dinner as well, with the first twenty minutes of eating always in silence.
I highly recommend trying this practice at home, maybe just for the first five minutes of your day as well as the first five minutes of your meals, and observe how it makes you feel.
(3) The transformative power of deep listening
One of the most beautiful aspects of walking the Camino de Santiago are the conversations between you and the people you meet, people from all different parts of the globe and paths of life. In this sense, I consider the Camino to be a spiritual highway, or a month-long therapy session.
The fact that most pilgrims are walking because they are healing a wound or searching for a truth makes each session even more powerful, for the therapist and patient lives on both sides of the conversation.
Quickly, one notices the constant that makes each conversation heal our soul. Deep listening – listening that arrives without judgement or intentions or advice.
Maybe it’s the fact that a pilgrim walks ten hours a day and is in no rush, or maybe it’s the fact that a pilgrim knows most people they meet will never be seen again and so they are less hesitant to share their story, or maybe it is simply the healing spirit of the Camino that brings out the best in us, but for some reason, on the Camino de Santiago, I felt listened to.
When I shared my story at 10 am on a random Tuesday in the middle of Galicia, I was listened to. And when, at 7 pm in a pilgrim’s hostel, a new friend shared their life story and vulnerability over a glass of wine, I listened.
At the monastery, I remember sitting in a circle of 10-12 people during a Dharma talk, where we would voluntarily raise our hands and share our thoughts and feelings about a talk given earlier in the day. Before starting the session, the nun leading the dharma talk addressed the most important practice of the one-hour session we were about to embark on: deep listening.
Just like meditation or physical exercise, she told us, deep listening is considered a practice, and our dharma circle was an opportunity to strengthen our practice. To listen deeply means to give our full attention, she continued, to listen with compassion, patience, and understanding. It also means listening only to listen, to be there for the other person as they share their truth. It does not mean waiting to respond, neither with words nor thoughts.
(4) Meditation as a manifestation
When I walked the Camino, I never thought of my journey as a walking meditation. I wasn’t even aware of the concept of walking meditation until I stayed at Blue Cliff Monastery and saw “walking meditation” on the kitchen whiteboard, scheduled at 2 pm on a Thursday. This, by the way, was followed by “raking leaves meditation” and “cleaning dishes meditation.”
To Thich Nhat Hanh and the monks and nuns at Blue Cliff, virtually any act can be an act of meditation. Doing the dishes, brushing your teeth, even going to the bathroom, if given our full attention and deliberate intention, can be an act of meditation and love. In fact, drinking a cup of tea is a common meditation practice among Zen Buddhist monks, an act that often takes upwards of an hour.
After coming home from the monastery, I realized that my time on the Camino de Santiago wasn’t so different. Slowing down and giving my full attention to each day had turned walking into an act of meditation, spread out over thirty-six days.
The requirements needed to strengthen one’s meditation practice is very simple: slow down and arrive completely to the present moment. There is no wrong way to meditate.
As my new friend, Brother Promise, a monk my age at Blue Cliff told me one night during a special conversation,
"It doesn’t matter so much how or what you practice, what matters most is that you practice.”
(5) Power of Community
Stepping onto the Camino each morning was like stepping into a spiritual river of positive energy, fueled by the undercurrent of each pilgrim’s intentions. There is something special that happens when one is surrounded by like-minded individuals, and although each person comes to the Camino for their own reasons, we all share the shell of the pilgrim and the quest for truth, and this fact alone creates a bond that inspires and reinvigorates even the most tired soul.
At the monastery, one would call this the power of a healthy sangha, or community, a concept at the very core of Zen Buddhism. I don’t know if you’ve ever meditated in a hall with over fifty monks before, but I promise you that the energy in the room feels very different then when you meditate alone in your living room. Without having to open my eyes, knowing the group was in the room made me feel safe, secure, and kept me going when I would have given up alone.
Without a loving and powerful community by your side, it is almost impossible to go far in life or stay consistent in one’s daily practice. One is only as strong as their sangha.
(6) Self-discipline sets us free
6 am sitting meditation, 7 am breakfast, 8:30 am physical exercise, 10 am walking meditation, 11:30 am happiness meditation, 1 pm rest period...
Every evening before bed I would check the whiteboard detailing the next day’s activities. Almost every hour of every day was planned out to the hour. Among the monks, roles were clearly defined for the day ahead, more specifically who was in charge of cleaning, cooking, and teaching.
On the Camino, although we didn’t have white boards with mandatory activities, the days, for the most part, were very structured. Every morning you woke up at the crack of dawn and tied your boots with a clear mission at hand. Throughout the day we thrived on seeing “to-go” distance markers showing the kilometers to go until reaching Santiago de Compostela. Small, incremental goals kept us engaged and motivated to make it to the end of the day.
On both the Camino and at Blue Cliff one would wake up at the crack of dawn, around 5 am, and immediately attend a morning discipline. On the Camino it was walking, at Blue Cliff it was sitting. Both days would be full of activity and community, and finish with an early bedtime, usually at eight or nine pm.
One would think so many rules would restrict those practicing them, but in fact I felt the opposite; both on the Camino and at Blue Cliff, following routines and practicing strict self-discipline gave me a feeling of accomplishment and control, which in turn set me free.
So, these are the six biggest conditions for happiness that I found consistent between two major life experiences that have given me the most happiness so far in my life. There are more, of course, but these are the ones that I decided to write about.
If you enjoyed this post, please check out Stranger in a New World, an e-book I wrote about my 2012 Camino de Santiago.
Yours, in peace and mindfulness,