At a recent retreat or day of mindfulness and meditation at a nearby monastery, an interesting question arose from the audience. Members of the outlying communities had driven in to visit the monastery, where a number of full-time nuns and monks practice every day. Someone asked, “I feel such peace when I visit your canyon (the monastery is located inside a group of mountains). When I visit any another canyon, I don’t feel that same peace. Is this canyon a special place?”
I think there are several different way to look at this question, and perhaps see several layers of answers. Some answers may ring more true to some people and another answer to another person.
In terms of the physical place, you have the actual canyon with a monastic community. Retreat centers tend to be in beautiful and natural surroundings, to allow nature to do it’s own form of healing medicine as well. This particular community mentioned above has their own little valley, surrounded by beautiful mountains, many birds and other creatures. Living in this center, there is a practice community of monks, nuns, and laypersons, intentionally and purposefully choosing to live on a mutually agreed to wisdom path.
Of course these are all regular human beings too, with their own issues and afflictions to work with. However, they are choosing to take a path that aims to help relieve suffering in themselves, and those around them (those who intentionally reduce their own suffering, and increase their inner peace and joy, can’t help but relief suffering in those they in contact with). It is like a ripple in a pond, what you do to yourself, harmful or beneficial, affects everyone around you. Helping others will come naturally, not in a forced way (like converting others or other coercive methods). This joy and equanimity, or solidity that a trained mind consciously cultivates, ripples throughout the communities it touches and interacts with. Sometimes in an obvious way, but probably more often like an undercurrent influence. In so doing, this spreads the fruits of the particular practice and plants new seeds with that same intention…To help relieve suffering, decrease harm, and increase joy and peace throughout the wider world.
There is also the visitor perspective. The person going to a retreat at a monastery, the practicing “lay person”, who come for a brief retreat from their day-to-day busy lives, to get nourishment and recharge by a community that practices peace. Lay practitioners are likely very busy meeting the needs of their local communities, their children, spouses, colleagues, perhaps volunteer activities, and finally making sure they earn enough money to pay the bills. These are all a lot of obligations, pressures, and potential sources of stress making it very hard for many to carve out time in their days to take care of their own minds and bodies.
The “marketplace” or cities and communities and world we live in, is for the majority of the world a busy place that sends many subtle and not so subtle messages that are often quite different than what you’d find in a retreat center or monastery. Messages like, “appreciate all you have today”, or, “enjoy this moment”, or “you can let all your muscles relax” now, or, “enjoy listening to the birds, while seeing the sun and gentle breeze play with the leaves”, etc. How many billboards and advertisements remind us of those types of simple joys? Usually the advertisements tell us we need to work more in order to be more happy, or we need a product or something else, or we need to be somebody else, or have x amount of money, work longer hours, put in more “face time”, or else look like a slacker. Get more degrees, or accumulate more daily, “likes” in order to belong and be happy.
These types of messages don’t encourage, or lead to more contentment, and accepting, appreciating what we have right here and now. Many in a subtle way might encourage us to be something else, or get something or some status, thus in a way saying we’re not good enough where we are, or who we are. And of course we don’t just get these types of messages through advertisements, but also through parents (well intentioned as this may be), schools, and through many other channels.
So when folks like myself go on a retreat, or go into nature, we know we have given ourselves permission for the duration of the retreat, to let go of expectations, societal judgements, and obligations, and literally “retreat” from it all. This consequently makes us more receptive and open to receiving that peaceful feeling the visitor to the monastery was referring to. If we had that attitude and mindset outside of the retreat, we can also discover that feeling peaceful is not limited to certain locations. It of course is harder to maintain this mind once we return to the marketplace.
A practice community asks us kindly to not use phones, and other things that compete not only for our decreasing attention and time, but are also reminders of the obligations and expectations waiting for us. So in that sense, the practice community may be for many people the only entity giving permission to take care of ourselves and to take a break from all the hustle and bustle of life.
I sense that it is true that a physical location can become, “special” in the sense that it is filled with a community of people who all agree to orient themselves, and move their energies the same direction, as opposed to the more scattered intentions and energies moving every which-way, that is more likely found in the marketplace. A community orientation of more peace, joy, and contentment, and less harm, suffering, and dissatisfaction in itself makes a huge difference in the feel of a place.
In the end of course, the underlying intention is to not have any “inside” and “outside” of the monastery walls, both literally, as well as in our own minds. To cultivate more and more of that intention that is incubated and cultivated in monasteries, into our own minds and then into the wider world and the marketplace. So that no matter where we go, what canyon or surroundings we visit, we can give ourselves permission to see and feel and experience that sense of peace that is available at any moment.