Life in a Buddhist Meditation Centre – ‘Those Community Feels’ by Carl McGregor

As mentioned in my previous post ‘My First five days’ one of the reasons for my stay at Nagarjuna Kadampa Meditation Centre is an attempt to find some head space in order to interrogate my own incessant inner monologue. As well as making time to look inwards I am also attempting to consciously gaze outwards and actually pay some attention to my surroundings and the other people within my current orbit. I was, and remain, intrigued to see how a somewhat ‘ring fenced’ community would compare to a more generic and every day ‘outside world’ community. If I’m frank with both you and I, I mostly drift through my daily existence with little or no real comprehension of the intricacies, contrasts or consistencies of my immediate environment. Whilst living here I am trying hard (and it is hard!) to absorb as much of the ‘day to day’ dross that we are conditioned to accept and dismiss without inquiry.

I think the best place for me to start is to share with you some explanation about the level of diversity that exists within this picturesque Tudor Mansion (I remembered! …its 14th Century).

Firstly, we have Buddhist Nuns (as you would expect), we also have the likes of me, a working volunteer who resides within the centre for an agreed period of time. Another obvious one; members of the public visiting the centre to enjoy the café, the grounds or to attend a pre-arranged meditation or teaching sessions. At certain times there are also weekend and weeklong retreats which means the house fills with ten to thirty short term residents paying to absorb themselves in everything that is Buddha.

There are a small number of live-in office staff whom I presume have an arrangement similar to that of a Landlord, a Bar Manager or a Chef who inhabit their place of work. I’ve watched a steady carousel of visiting Buddhist Teachers who stay one or two nights to share their knowledge with the paying public and then we have, living in a separate cottage within the grounds, a Husband and Wife team making up ‘Caretaker’ and ‘House Manager’ respectively.

Nothing really out of the ordinary so far. It’s not until one starts to dig a little deeper into the stories of those more regular faces wandering the expansive corridors that you can discover something which I found surprising. There are people that rent a room here as if it’s a normal apartment block, food is included in the rental as is access to meditation classes. I have met a friendly and engaging poetry publisher who has lived here for three months after moving from the Leicester Kadampa centre, I chat regularly with a kind and approachable 40 ‘ish’ year old man that looks a little like Rod Stewart and runs his own high end removals and relocation business, he has been in residence for nearly a year. Neither seem to be particularly devout Buddhists so their decision to live here was initially a little baffling to me. The only other long term resident I know well enough to mention is a man that I’d guess is mid 30’s and whatever he does for money involves leaving the centre at 6:30am in a high vis jacket. Despite looking very much like a typical ‘average Joe’ in jeans, jumper and a woolly hat, he offered me some coat hangers a day after my arrival and upon collection I caught a glimpse of his room which peaked my curiosity. Along one wall sat a huge array of Buddhist statues and trinkets set out to create some sort of shrine, this suggests ‘devoutness’ in my eyes but rather surprisingly not once in the many conversations we’ve shared has he mentioned Buddhism to me. Maybe this is why Buddhism is seen in a slightly different light to say Christianity, it’s a lot less ‘preachy’!

As you can see, we have a smorgasbord of characters; Nuns, working volunteers, public visitors, live-in staff, visiting teachers and long term residents. Aside from diversity in this respect, I share a dormitory with a young man from Manchester, a guy from Slovakia, a man from Norway and another from France. Others have arrived here from Germany, New Zealand, America, Argentina and the Netherlands. International diversity ticked off too!

Now towards the end of my second week, I find myself less baffled about the attraction of being a long term resident. A beautiful building, striking gardens with a smattering of woodland around the fringes, free parking, decent and free Wi-Fi, a local pub serving delicious food (see photo!) and easy access to Northampton should you feel the need for a dose of ‘hectic’ in your life. If not, there is always a quiet corner somewhere within the grounds for some soul soothing and reclusive ‘Me Time’.

Aside from the obvious and functional benefits I’ve listed what else does long term residency, or even a brief stint such as my own, offer someone?

It offers access to and non-judgmental inclusion within a diverse, mindful and respectful community. Perhaps it’s the awe inspiring building, perhaps the presence of outwardly happy Nuns, perhaps it’s something I’ve yet to fully understand. Whatever it is there is a distinct sense of peace and kindness that almost seeps from the walls and is inadvertently being absorbed by each and every person that treads the carpet (or exposed floor boards). Some people are here to ‘find themselves’, some are here to learn about Buddhism, some are seemingly only here as a ‘stop gap’ in their life journey. It doesn’t seem to matter where anyone has been or where they are going, this environment induces calmness, compassion and a sense of belonging.

Many of my working volunteer cohorts are travelling and the centre is just one of many locations they will put down their backpack during the coming months. A high percentage of said travellers are mid to late twenties and what embarrasses me a little is that fifteen years ago when I was a similar age, I would have laughed at the thought of living in a Buddhist Meditation Centre. I was way too cool and cock sure. However, these people are infinitely cooler than I ever imagined I was, and I can now see how they are much, much braver than I was at twenty something. I’d like to believe that what I’m witnessing is a shift in attitude of the younger generation, these interesting and confident people are, I believe, recognising the value of placing oneself within an environment that is truly nourishing and they are in no way ashamed of it either. I like that. I wish I knew then what I know now. Hindsight truly is a wonderful thing.

Final thought, what if my ‘outside world’ community is actually just a slightly more diluted version of my current ‘ring fenced’ community and I’m simply not mindful enough to notice it?

Perhaps I need to start paying attention a little more? Maybe I should be noticing the so called dross and trying to enjoy it? Could I be missing out by not being mindful of my simple yet mostly overlooked ‘everyday’?

Next time: “Life in a Buddhist Meditation Centre – Finding my Zen”

Much Love, Carl McGregor <3

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