After two weeks of boredom, lounging around, watching TV & doing yoga, I was chomping at the bit to get to my next stop, Santacittarama, a Buddhist monastery thirty minutes away.
A couple of years ago, my manager of the time, had given me the book Holy Cow to read (do read it if you have the time). It is the true story of an Australian woman, whose journalist boyfriend, had been sent to work in India for a year. Accompanying him for the duration, the book chronicles her time there, adapting to her new environment & her exploration of the different religions throughout the country.
I was so hooked on the book, that the minute I read the last page, I immediately found myself googling ashrams. I felt rather disillusioned by the ones I was finding. All seemed to be aimed at tourists & demanding fees. This wasn't quite what I had in mind. Then, finally, I found Santacittarama. A beautiful small Buddhist commune in Italy, just outside of Rome. I was so enamoured by it, I swore to myself I would go visit one day.
It had now taken me nearly two years, but finally I had made it to the monastery. Hidden a twenty minute walk down a bumpy road, away from the main street, Santacittarama sits surrounded by a forrest. Everything about it, from the main building, to the ten foot statue of Buddha in front of it, all blends perfectly into the nature surrounding it. As if there was no doubt that it should be there.
Upon arriving, I met a novice monk, Vidu, a Sri Lankan, who seemed to take me under his wing, throughout the entire experience. This was his third attempt at becoming a monk. Novice monks must practice the monastic life for two years, before they can officially become a monk. Whilst the elder monks dress in terracotta robes, the novices wear only white. Some, like Vidu, stay for a few months & then find they wish to return to lay life, only to return some time later, in order to try again.
Another novice attempting to make the grade was Giuseppe, a twenty three year old Italian guy, who'd just returned from a week's visit to his family. Unfortunately, this break from monastic life had brought on the realisation that perhaps, he wasn't quite ready to renounce the modern world quite yet. He soon became my favourite.
I thought I would really struggle following the monk's routine, but after a few days, it all just started to seem quite natural. Although, I will admit, waking before five in the morning, was not any easier on the last day, as it was on the first.
The day generally flowed as follows:
• 5am - Morning chanting for twenty minutes, followed by one hour of meditation.
• 6:20am - Return to the woman's house to clean. Admittedly, this was where I crept back into bed for a nap.
• 7:15am - Breakfast. A buffet affair, usually consisting of biscuits (the quintessential Italian breakfast), fruit, mixed cereal, warm milk & quite often, a Thai rice soup, which I chose when on offer, in an attempt to be considered healthy.
• 8:15am - Work meeting. This was where we discussed, with one of the head monks, who was to do what for the day. Anything from picking fruit, to cutting iron (yes iron).
• 8:30am - Work Time. The best jobs were the fruit picking or any work in the kitchen. Basically, anything that involved access to food.
• 11am - Lunch time. This is the one & only main meal for the day. After midday there was no food to be consumed. As this is once again a buffet affair, it was customary to pile one's plate high & then go in for seconds.
• Noon - Free time. You can leave the monastery. Hang around to meditate, read, study. Do as you please. In my case, it was walking up the road, in the rain, finding a tree to sit under & attempting to get some internet on my phone.
• 5pm - Tea time. This is where all the guests gather in the kitchen, to sit & drink cups of tea, with a head monk present, so we could abuse him with questions. There is also dark chocolate on offer. On one of my first days there, I was chastised for eating a banana at tea time. Fruit is a no go, but hey, chocolate is fine.
• 7:30pm - Evening chanting for twenty minutes, followed by one hour of meditation.
Getting used to not eating after midday was surprisingly easier than I had previously envisioned. Before going to the monastery, I was planning on stocking up on secret supplies of chocolate & biscuits, to hide in my bag & snack on when no one was around. But once there, it was surprising how full & content I found myself. Although, the few squares of dark chocolate at tea time did help.
The other surprising thing I found, was how funny the monks were. A mix of Thai, Sri Lankan, English, Czech & Italian, I was expecting it all to be so silent & serious, but it wasn't at all. Yes, there were times of great silence, but the majority of the time, everyone was smiling & laughing & they really knew how to crack a joke. It made the whole environment seem so light & welcoming. I really felt at peace there.
After years of infrequent yoga sessions, I was ready equipped to handle sitting straight backed & cross legged for a duration of time, so when it came to the twice daily meditations, I found myself quite at peace. However, although I had mastered the pose, my mind on the other hand, was quite a different story.
The majority of my life has been consumed by over thinking. To the point I would become lost, in a dark hole of my own self doubt & worry. One thought leading to another & another, until the subject matter had changed beyond all recognition. Here I was, at the fountain of enlightenment, attempting to learn how to still the mind. In essence, it was everything I'd ever longed for. In practice, it was seemingly impossible.
My first two attempts literally brought me to tears. Thankfully, with everyone else around me still with their eyes closed, deep in concentration, I was able to wipe them away, before anyone could see. It was surprising how strong a reaction it had evoked. Equally so, the monk's daily blessing at lunchtime, thanking all the people that had helped provide them with food, from the people who'd cooked it, to the people who'd donated it, all the way back to the people who'd grown & produced it. The strong harmonic murmur of nine monks, chanting in Pali, reverberates through you like nothing else. My eyes welled up, quite embarrassingly, a fair few times in the beginning.
Although I never found the ultimate end to suffering, I did find some form of enlightenment. A small, but profound clearing in my mind. I gradually found some acceptance of my situation & some faith that all would be good again, given time. I looked into myself & saw all that I truly wanted, was to some extent, all that I had given up. A home. But, now, it was time to find that sanctuary within myself. This, as you can imagine, is far harder than it seems.
I saw that I'd lost my faith & my passion in the past few years. Trying to find my happiness in material possessions & constantly wondering why, when surrounded by such things, I wasn't happy. I realised now, that happiness can't be outsourced. It doesn't come from expensive cars, big houses & a stocked wardrobe. That whilst life can seem so full on paper, it's often marred by emptiness within ourselves. I didn't want to lead a life that looked great on the outside anymore. I wanted to find true contentment & real happiness.
There were people I wanted to help & support. Places I wanted to go. A body I needed to start treating better. I sat in meditation, legs crossed, palms of my hands resting in my lap, back straight, eyes shut & I saw myself, happy & content.
Feeling as though I'd finally seen the whole picture, I left Santacittarama & all the monks I'd grown to love, with a feeling of excitement. I knew what changes I wanted to make & I felt ready to implement them. Booking a flight home to England, I looked forward to starting a new chapter of my life.