I worked all summer, I worked nearly everyday and between a summer romance and my utter drive to exercise and fast; I became prepared for the adventure I was about to find.
On the 30th August 2013 I got on my very first plane, all by myself and saw the clouds in all there beauty…And I never wanted to look back.
I landed in Naples and headed to Rome after a ritardo (delayed) train. An arduous juggle with Rome’s termini coach station at midnight and a luckily helpful hostel owner saw me safe at last. I spend two beautiful days weaving among the heated tourists (of which I was now one) and marveling at the beauty of the ruins and grandeur to be found at every turn…and overcrowded rivalry between the church and the persistence of the Roman Empire. Two weeks ahead of me and I’d never felt happier in the blissful sun wondering why everyone there did not share the smile that spread across my face.
The downturn was apparent, Rome now the design of tourism, each corner stifled displays of the same water stalls you had seen on the previous and on every street a more inventive way to busk or to encourage tours. ‘Are you Russian?’ No sir, I’m not.
After this the real journey began, the one I had prepared for all summer, increasing fasting times and numerous exercise saw me travel to the hills in Frasso Sabino near Rieti, speaking little Italian and having to navigate a coach station in Rome…I arrived at Santacittarama. This Buddhist monastery was to be where I spent the next two and a half days.
My days were as followed:
4am- Rise and shine sunshine..Shower and dress.
5am- Morning Meditation…our ascent to the main building lit by stars that shone in their own magnificence. I’ve seen stars…but nothing like those. The first meditation was difficult…an hour among chants and prayers and the sound of material shifting as the first time guests attempted silent shuffles, by the second day one woman had read she may sit at the back on a stool and that the process was not necessary, but I have always been stubborn. And I got a lot more mindfulness from it that I expected…even if that involved watching time disappear at the hands of a well placed clock. It became easier by the second day when my initial homesickness had been poured onto the pages of my notebooks, my thoughts in such a short-time so well re-arranged and despite missing all that was of some comfort my mind was clear happy and filling with a new sense of beauty. I would recommend those 4am’s to anyone with an alarm clock. Just once.
6am- Cleaning the accommodation. The facilities were more than I expected for a monastery. There were two dorms, one male and one female with some shared and some single rooms with two simple bathrooms and a small laundry facility. Each was livened by a thai woman who would stay there whilst visiting, and they were the friendliest people I had ever met, one even accompanying my return journey to Rome. I had no hesitation about doing the best job I possibly could to make this place sparkle in its warmth.
7am- Breakfast prepared by thai lay women. Fruit, cereal and more coffee than the number f us could ever drink. The Monks were called first and we were blessed as they sat to eat and then dismissed to do so ourselves. The fresh mornings under the growing sun were a welcome cool as we ate, attempting to cross a language barrier was not easy…but you find there is more in common with others that just words. we were all there for some reason of our own. My flatmate there for peace of mind, her busy life as a criminal psychologist to hectic…by the second day we both agreed we would stay one more. The silence wasn’t so bad, the peace blissful but the fulfillment lead to a new desire for life.
8am- Morning meeting in which each visitor was given a task. In this time I saw part of the creation of a monk house, a small but insulated house in a section of the woods build with trees from the land and put together by only the hands of the Thai women, monks and visitors…These could be built in just a week!
12pm- Lunch (On one occasion it was my task to help prepare the meal, in this time I found that snails are called lumac, or in this case un piccolo lumac (little snail). Not because they were eaten, but because I had to rescue one from a Salad.)
After lunch we fasted and had individual meditation time in which one of the monks, in such kindness, found me a book on meditation in English to read, however, I must admit I spent the time writing and exploring the grounds with the other guests. The land in the hills was beautiful and Italian quickly became a part of my brain thanks to a very wise visitor named Roberto who was kind enough to encourage a mix of English and Italian and three psychology students from Milan who I became very fond of in my stay for their humor and happiness and who seemed in return to have great curiosity as to why I should go to Italy to stay with monks speaking so little of the language…we ended up talking about computer games, it was amazing. On the land we saw the monks houses adorned humorously with skulls and further a field a graveyard and ancient remains of catholic ground marked by a priests robe and sculpture of jesus.
4pm- Tea with the monks made from fresh herbs from their own Garden (or teabags if you weren’t allergic to caffeine and preferred). On the first day of my stay I got to hear a monk in partial English tell of the Buddhist teachings, I fear he held back on some depth but not less it was a mindful experience, we were told to focus on moments and it is something that has very much stayed with me, I remember each well from the feel of the cup and it’s welcome coolness to the resident stray cats which followed us around.
7pm- This was time for evening meditation. In a small room we sat, waited for the monks to take their places in order and after a set of chanting and ritual dissolved into an hour where fidgeting from our uncomfortable positions quickly ceased to a state of mind that was beautiful. This would finish and hour and a half later, our sleepy faces send to bed to arise 7 hours later to begin a new day…Buona notte’s were whispered and we headed to our separate spaces, the hills alive with crickets and wildlife…the colour blossoming in the sound outside my window.
This was my stay at the monastery, I left accompanied by Thai women, one who drove me to the village and another who was headed back to Rome herself and accompanied me on the bus, we did not need to share a language to share and appreciation of the company. Each second of my return trip I focused on the beauty of my journey, something I had been too hot and bothered to notice before. It may have been a very short time but I would recommend a monastery stay to anyone, in any country, speaking any language.
My optimistic philosophy from this, 4 months belated, is: If you see a rose more beautiful that anything that has caught your eye in recent times, or a sky more blue. Stop and take a moment or two to think about what it really is you see. Nothing is quite ordinary. It’s all very new when you feel that way.