I had finished University, had a good job, money, and status, but something was missing. That is probably why I spent all of my weekends binge drinking and chasing girls. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun, but year after year of this same pattern left me lost and unfulfilled.
That’s when I got an email from my brother, who is a Buddhist Monk, challenging me to make the trek and see the place he now calls home. He wrote, “When in your life have you really stopped and asked the question- what is important in my life? How shall I get it? What do I have to change? Am I really happy with this life as it is? A job and a new location won’t make you happy; it won’t give you the tools you need to transform your life.”
So there I was on a plane to France to a place called Plum Village, a monastery for monks and nuns founded by the Vietnamese Zen-Master Thích Nhat Hạnh. Life at Plum Village was the opposite of the life I had been leading at home in Australia, and my brother knew this. He knew sharing a small, run down hut on the edges of the forest for three months would lead to a new way of thinking. It would be a summer with him and the Monastics in Plum Village spending some time “stopping.” I had never stopped before. I was a chronic do-er and I had grown accustomed to covering up all of my emotions in something, or someone, else. This was going to be difficult-no alcohol, sex, phone, TV.
It all started with a Vietnamese song called “hey you why you running around in circles.” The first time I heard it, it felt like it was written just for me. I had been running around in circles my entire life and never really realised it. It was only in solitude that I was able to look deeper and establish a greater connection with myself. Somewhere between the dharma talks, sitting meditations, morning yoga sessions, slow walks through the forest and afternoon deep relaxations, I started to drop my perceptions and my well-entrenched ego and began to see things differently.
It’s interesting how three months without the usual distractions of everyday life impacts your thoughts, desires, habits and needs. I spent the bulk of my life worrying about what I was putting into my body in the shape of food, but never once thought about what I was putting in my mind. It was only when the noise ceased that I got the chance to really connect with myself. It was this quiet and solitude that allowed me to identify my true sufferings and my deepest aspirations. I saw so clearly that I had perfected the art of running after one thing then the other, never taking the time to think why I actually started running in the first place. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “the trick is not to run away from our suffering,” but I had never given myself the space to discover what I was running away from, or to.
This summer with the monks gave me the space I needed, physically and mentally. I began practicing yoga and meditation, feeling and seeing the effects on my body and mind. The noise in my head was becoming more and more faint. I spent time playing soccer and cricket with the monks, not for competition, but for fun. I found myself in deep conversation with people that spoke little to no English. I made friends with people that I would have normally judged and stereotyped. I never thought I would be the kind of person that could enjoy doing any of these things, but I was that kind of person - I just hadn’t realised it yet.
When you don’t know yourself, who you are and what you want, you just become a product of your environment- a leaf that gets blown each and every way until it lands in a big pile of mud, and gets stuck. I was a leaf getting blown each and every way and I was completely stuck. Spending time in solitude allowed me to get to know myself, my sufferings and my desires, and I realised that happiness starts and ends with you.
Evan Sutter is the author of the book Solitude: How Doing Nothing Can Change the World and co-founder of The Happiness Compass. Solitude features a foreword by Sutter’s brother and Plum Village Monk Br Tuy Niem and inspirations from Bertrand Russell, Matthieu Ricard, Peter Singer, Alain De Botton, Jon Kabat -Zinn, Alan Watts, and Thich Nhat Hanh. It delves deep into ego, envy, fear, society, impermanence, community, mindfulness, sex and desire, alcohol and drugs, attachment and, essentially, happiness.