I sat cross-legged on the grass gazing out upon Austria’s verdant rolling landscape. An eager student of meditation, I was keen for my fundamentals class with Lama Thierry at Gomde Buddhist Center to begin. However, just as a gentle gong resounded, the roaring motor of an industrial-sized lawn mower broke my concentration. The mower’s conductor swung the steering wheel left to right, careening the machine through the meadow, spraying blades of grass in all directions as the engine screamed and the metal blades clacked.
I felt disturbed. Lama Thierry only smiled. “It’s the perfect metaphor,” he said, remaining completely at ease, amused by the lawn mower’s echoing hum. I wanted desperately to be on his level of zen, which is why I’d sought out this experience in the first place.
For weeks, these fields had stayed silent. Of course the moment I actually tried to embrace my inner Buddha, the challenges of modern society became even more evident.
You lived with Buddhists? Say what?!
“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”
Yup, that’s right. I lived at a Buddhist center for almost a month. What inspired that?
There are many reasons I’d love to give you for that choice. I felt burnt out after chasing success in my career for many years. Big city life finally wore me down. I was reevaluating my value system to gain a clearer sense of purpose. All of these things are true, however, the most true is this:
I’ve been in pursuit of love my whole life, but feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness began creeping in as I came to see my inability to secure a great relationship as a failure. I got dumped in harsh ways twice over. Internet dates grew exhausting. There were plenty of things that hurt my feelings -- like the time a friend uninvited me from her bridal shower because single people weren’t allowed, ouch. The worst part, though, was feeling I’d lost myself. Where was the girl I used to be who traveled the world unencumbered on her own? She was gone. The former, more confidently independent version of myself had become a victim of her own expectations. I was part of the over 30 club and didn’t own a Kitchenaid mixer. Did that make me not enough?
I started seeing a therapist thinking it would be a quick fix to my disappointments … perhaps an hour session would work like a soul massage where you walk out after feeling refreshed. Nope. Instead, I ended up spending the better part of a year working through my most deep-seated issues and trauma that I didn’t even realize were holding me back from attracting the right kind of love for me. Through that process, I felt scraped to the bone. Meanwhile, no one knew about my quiet struggles, my depression, my loneliness, except me. What I needed more than a Kitchenaid appliance was a break. I guess going to a Buddhist center is an apropo way to mix things up when you’re out of alternatives. More than that, I kept coming back to the question of reality: is this “reality” we’ve imposed upon young women — that securing love is the ultimate measurement of their societal success — actually something that we must follow? I suspected not.
Take the first step and the path appears
I’ve heard somewhere before that when you’re ready for a new life circumstance all the steps to lead you there magically appear. I don’t have empirical data to back this statement, neither do I know who actually said that, but from experience I can say that’s mostly true.
Somehow I stumbled upon WorkAway -- a volunteer work exchange platform -- and from a place of feeling dead inside, I started to feel alive again just scrolling through the site’s pages fantasizing about all the cool work exchange opportunities out there in the world. If you don’t know what WorkAway is, it’s a volunteer work exchange platform where you cohabitat with a host who provides you free room and board in exchange for a few hours of weekly work. If you saw the options on that site you’d freak out. Who wouldn’t be stoked to play with huskies in the Arctic Circle or work on a yacht sailing through Greece?
In my search, I landed on the page for Gomde Buddhist Center located in the north of Austria. What I read about the place spoke to me, but of course the first thing that came up was … I couldn’t possibly! But couldn’t I?
When I closed the laptop lid and went about my days in Los Angeles, I was unable to shake this deep feeling that I belonged at Gomde. I felt that from the chaos of Los Angeles, I was being spiritually called elsewhere to make peace with myself in a beautiful place. I can’t argue with intuition. Plus, Buddhist culture and learning about the Buddhism core beliefs had always peaked my interest, so I decided to apply just to see what would happen. When I found out my request got approved, I felt overwhelmed by excitement and dread. It’s a crazy thing that the stuff most aligned with our truest callings is also the stuff that scares us. I said yes and immediately thought, “Oh. Crap”.
Is Buddhism the answer to everything?
Yes, congratulations you’re done learning, growing, and exploring. You can die now. Just kidding. After living at Gomde and studying Buddhism in a couple other places, I don’t feel I can say whether it’s right for you. After all, only YOU can decide that for yourself. However, so many Buddhist philosophies have helped me a lot. And it continues to help me as I continue to get my confidence back about being alone.
There was so much I gained not just reading about Buddhism but also living amongst the community. As I observed, though, if you ask a Buddhist if they are Buddhist they’ll humbly shrug their shoulders. Coming from a place like Los Angeles where people are in competition to show each other who is the most spiritual, it was refreshing to meet people who were actually devoted to a spiritual practice with authentic humility.
Anyway, I loved my experience at Gomde so much that I ended up staying there for nearly a month, and I keep daydreaming about going back.
While I was there, I learned the most about Buddhist culture by making observations and asking everyone I could super prying questions … which they answered with honorable kindness and patience.
And they weren’t light questions either:
Are dead and paralyzed people considered sentient beings?
If good and bad are illusions of the mind, how does karma really exist if there isn’t anyone determining what good and bad is? If we are the ones who know good from bad, what about psychopaths who lack a sense of remorse?
If reality is an illusion - because everything we see is just a perception of the mind - how the heck do you maintain an awareness of that and not get depressed?
Yikes, right? Beyond my intensely curious questions, the center also organized basic trainings for me and fellow WorkAwayers. They were led by people like Lama Thierry, a spiritual teacher from Switzerland who at one point traded in his lifestyle as a punk to become a monk who spent several years in retreat before he started teaching. To say this guy was cool is an understatement.
I am STILL trying to unpack Buddhism. I went on to volunteer at another Buddhist center in London and have spent a lot of time in Thailand studying there as well. Meanwhile, I reflect upon what I learned at Gomde and share it below not because I think I’m now a Buddhist master, it’s honestly so complex I feel I’m only scraping the surface. Maybe I hope what I write intrigues you enough to either explore it further yourself, or hopefully it inspires you to go to Gomde as a WorkAwayer.
Without further adieu, here’s what I discovered so far about Buddhism. Oh and you might want to start with this basic video on Buddhist fundamentals just to clarify some things first.
Intention is Everything
Before coming to Gomde, I thought the people in California (where I’m from) were laid back … and then I lived with Buddhists and learned a whole new level of chill.
They have a way of looking at problems that changed my perspective about everything. One person at Gomde told me, if your original intent isn’t bad then the action itself isn’t bad either.
For example ...
I dropped and broke something in the kitchen and was told … no problem.
I knocked over an entire thing of patio umbrellas and was told … no problem.
I burned the porridge during breakfast one morning then served it to the guests unknowingly and was told … no problem.
Never was I made out to be wrong for the accidents nor was I made out to be dumb for being clumsy (which I am). It makes sense: I didn’t intend to burn the porridge; I’m just not used to cooking large proportions, and I didn’t realize you have to use low heat and constantly stir it or else it chars. I didn’t taste the porridge before setting it out, so I was oblivious to the horrible flavor I’d created. Did I feel bad about burning it? Of course! If I’m cooking for people, I want to please them. So when I found out about my mistake, my inner critic was going to town.
I’ve held down jobs before led by angry bosses who’d go insane if I even misspelled a word in an email. So it was refreshing to be in the presence of people who comforted me when I made mistakes and celebrated me when I improved. The next time I made porridge it was a hit, but even if I burned it again it wouldn’t have been a problem.
Consider: if something someone does upsets you, was their intention to cause harm? If not, can you forgive their humanity?
Not All Buddhists are Squares
Before arriving to Gomde, I felt the doom of sobriety and lentils closing in on me. So the night before, I doubled down by eating my weight in meat, wine, and pastries.
When I arrived at Gomde, the chef showed me around the property then offered me a cappuccino. As we sat in the kitchen together he said, “if you drink any of the wine or beer in the fridge, we kindly ask that you please leave something in the donation box.” When I glanced over and spotted the well-stocked bar, my face must have looked shocked. To which the chef responded, “oh come on. We’re Buddhists not boring.”
That night, we had roast for dinner served with Austrian cheese-filled sausages. On another night, nuns visiting from Nepal made us pork dumplings. Not all stereotypes are true.
Consider: who are you judging based on what you think you might know about them that may not necessarily be true?
After Gomde, I did stay for a few days at another Buddhist center and their rules were a lot more on par with my expectation (no music, no meat, no booze). Which leads me to my next point ...
Not All Forms of Buddhist Practices Are The Same
My first day at Gomde — where they practice a Tibetan style of Buddhism — I sat silently in the shrine during meditation. Then suddenly, CLANG! Right in the middle of the practice, someone bashed together a pair of symbols while BANG someone pounded a life-sized drum. Then, people started blowing on conch shells and ringing bells. It was calamitous and I must have jumped three feet into the air above my bean bag seat cushion when the noise caught me by surprise. I’d practice Transcendental Meditation and Zen Buddhist meditation, but neither of those were like this.
I learned later that part of the intention behind the Tibetan Buddhist style meditation is to break our connection to things we might perceive as permanent or solid, ergo cutting through the silence with sound. Woah, cool right? In a larger context, this has helped me to understand that cliche phrase: the only constant is change.
Consider: Imagine what it would be like to break free from our steadfast grip on how things “just are” and adopt a mindset where you begin to see things as more flexible. Do you have to be who you were told you always were? Or could that change too like everything else?
The Root of Suffering
While at Gomde, I read a book called Love, Sadness, and Openness, the Buddhist Path of Joy by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. In it, he writes that much of our suffering is caused by being stuck in an endless cycle of hope and fear. We hope for the best in a future that is uncertain and feel afraid because of the marks the past has left upon us. Meanwhile, we remain discontent because we push away what we don’t want and pine for what we do want but don’t have.
“When our minds are confused by thoughts and drunk on emotions, the results of our actions are going to be painful for ourselves and for others,” Rinpoche writes.
Ultimately unless we can get a handle on our minds and learn to live more presently, we will always feel discontent. We will always be prisoners to our desires and fears, seeking one thing and escaping another.
Consider: how present are you right meow?
Breaking up with reality
Imagine this mind bender … During lunch one day at Gomde, an Austria Buddhist guy explained to me that technically reality is an illusion of our minds. Information enters our brains then the mind spits it back out through our eyeballs as vision. Let that sink in for a second.
Here’s what I think is helpful about seeing the world in this way:
If we can acknowledge that our minds play a role in what we see, then we can acknowledge that our minds also play a role in what we think, which inevitably affects what we experience. Not everything is as we think we see it.
Consider: If our thoughts and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are creations of the mind, are they true? If they are true, are they helpful to focus on? If not, do we have to focus on them?
Maybe that what we call reality isn’t real after all. If it isn’t then we don’t have to accept our current circumstances, we can change them by stepping little by little out of helplessness.
Two Last Thoughts
I’m going to put these last couple teachings down as honorable mentions. I learned so many things at Gomde — and continue to try to understand Buddhism — it would impossible to go into each thing in depth without writing a novel. What do you think of these other nuggets?
Even when we acknowledge now, it’s already gone.
Thoughts and emotions are just wisdom speaking to you. Notice what comes in without labeling it or taking action, then take time to choose what happens after this.
When you commit to something that benefits your being and aligns with your soul, it’s important to be selfish. Imagine: a doctor becomes a great doctor and saves other peoples’ lives because they initially committed himself or herself to studying medicine. Same goes with spirituality and personal growth. Taking time out for you is important, imagine the people you’ll impact?
You are already a Buddha.
Thinking back … which I know I shouldn’t
It’s funny to preach the importance of present mindedness in a blog post about the past. In reflection, though, I know I benefit from considering and sharing the lessons.
Ultimately, life is always kind of like this: we pursue stillness and create more noise, follow our bliss and end up unhappy, act out of love and end up hurt. I’d come to Gomde inspired to find answers and ended up with more questions. Do I feel better about being alone? Yes, and I’m still working on that. I still pine for the love of my life, but everyday I’m learning to let go of societal conditioning that says marriage has to happen right away or else I am not enough.
I’ll leave you with this final thought from Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche:
“We have to start thinking in a more meaningful way. Then we’ll automatically move in the right direction. Meaningful thinking means taking to heart that nothing lasts and nothing is as we perceive … By coming to understand the impermanent and illusory nature of everything, we slowly but surely set ourselves free.”