What I Know About... Living in a Monastery

Feeling disillusioned and unsettled Eileen Meehan, 32, went to spend time at a monastery that would change the course of her life
Wednesday , 19 October 2011
What I Know About... Living in a Monastery

“It was when I failed my first-year exams at university in Ireland that I developed an interest in meditation. It was the first time I’d failed anything, so I was very unsettled by it. Then, when my brother returned from travelling, I picked up one of his books he’d got on his journey, called The Power of your Subconscious Mind, by Dr Joseph Murphy (Dhs37, Pocket Books). Reading it made me realise how little of our brain we actually use.

After finishing my degree, I worked in marketing in Dublin, but I continued with my research into meditation and spirituality, because it offered me something I couldn’t find anywhere else; peace and happiness. We all inherently know that material things can’t really make us happy, but we still constantly strive for them and after a while I began to feel disillusioned with it all.

By the time I was 23 years old, I decided to go and do some volunteer work abroad. I settled on teaching English as a foreign language in South Korea as I was hugely interested in Asian culture. So on a rainy October morning, I left Ireland behind and began a new life on an island just off the coast.

I fell in love with the country, especially the people. In Seoul, they were quite Western influenced, while the further afield you travelled, the more in touch people seemed to be with their spirituality. I spent my weekends visiting the different temples around the country and going to Dharma talks in Seoul. I then decided that I’d like to spend some time at a monastery. The idea came to me after I met a monk at one of the Dharma talks who seemed so at peace with everything. There were no pretensions around him, no ego; he was completely calm and I wanted to feel that. So I chose a monastery associated with my Zen community in Seoul. It was about Dhs40 a day to stay there and was in the middle of the countryside on the top of a mountain. The monastery had monks from all over the world living there, and it was here that I really learned the art of meditation.

I felt completely at home there instantly, despite having to sleep on the floor, only being allowed to wear a habit of grey robes, having no TV and living on a very basic, vegetarian diet. Our day started at 3.30am, where we’d do 108 prostrations, which involves bowing to the ground and getting back up again 108 times to show respect to the Buddha and his teachings. This was followed by chanting and then meditating for a few hours before breakfast. The meditating itself did take a while to get the hang of. They say you have over 50,000 thoughts running through your mind everyday so emptying it of everything isn’t easy, but the brain is a muscle and like all muscles in your body, it can be trained.

All the meditating, chanting and mealtimes were carried out in silence, which was a challenge. There was even a structure to the way you had to eat your food. You had four different bowls, rice in one, soup in another and so on, and you had to make sure all were cleared and cleaned by the time the gong was sounded. This might sound strange but because you’re so focused on one thing, your mind can’t wander off – so the monks were constantly training our brains to focus. We would then do some more meditating and chanting in the afternoons, followed by chores, which were divided up between us. Mine was weeding the gardens, which I thought I’d hate but I actually really enjoyed.

I wasn’t completely shut off from the world; we had access to the internet and I could send the odd text message to friends and family but most of the time I kept my mobile off. It was a sparse way to live, but at times I thought I could shave off all my hair and live there for years. In that closed-off world, I didn’t worry about hitting my deadlines or how much money I was making or whether I’d ever meet ‘the one’. In a selfish way, it was all about me, but that’s the crux of it. To find real happiness, you have to be happy with yourself first.

I moved to Dubai about a year and a half ago, where I began to hold meditation classes. I enjoyed being able to use what I’d learned on my travels and it was my way of giving back. Although I’ve since moved on to a new job in training and development, I still meditate everyday just for myself. It helps me in all aspects of my life. For example, whenever I have a problem or I’m feeling stressed, I’ll meditate as I find it gives me clarity to see things for what they really are. It also helped me get over a break-up, as it reinforces in you that the most important relationship is with yourself. People are always looking externally for happiness and love, when this can only come from within. Love yourself first and everything else will fall into place.”