How a City Monk Taught Me Silence

June 30, 2016

Those who want can now use meditation apps on their smartphones to help them meditate at home or in the office.

Apps like Headspace, Meditation Time and Breathe guide users through mindfulness techniques, helping them to relax, regain focus and reduce stress throughout the day. Although these apps teach people the basics of meditation, they’re only the basics. Meditative apps, which are created by companies with their own ideas of consumer value and branding, fail to distill the essence of what a consumer needs to absorb from meditation. To understand this essence for myself, I decided I’d visit a Buddhist temple to speak with someone who has a greater, more traditional understanding of mindfulness.

“We are practicing this meditation technique, let’s say, for peace of mind,” Bhante Saranapala begins, dressed in long orange robes at the front of this room. He sits comfortably on a cushion by the large stone statue of the Buddha. Saranapala has been a monk for over 30 years, beginning monastic life at the age of 10 back in Bangladesh before spending his last 20 here, teaching guided meditation at the West End Buddhist Temple in Toronto.

He’s known around as the ‘urban city monk’ in the community, where he teaches young people and professionals how to be mindful. Facing him from my seat on the floor, I listen quietly as he explains how we practice meditation for day-to-day stress relief, to experience freedom from anxiety, depression, and frustration—but most of all to purify the mind.

Saranapala has been a monk for over 30 years, beginning monastic life at the age of 10 back in Bangladesh before spending his last 20 here, teaching guided meditation at the West End Buddhist Temple in Toronto.

“To do this,” he says, “there is one technique you need to know—Satipatthana.” As he goes over the foundations of the practice, I realize I’ve lacked a fundamental knowledge of key terms, stories and the historical roots of mindfulness—ways of looking and thinking about things that could be have been helpful before even sitting down to meditate. ‘Satipatthana,’ I’m taught, comes from three Buddhist words: Sati (meaning mindfulness, attention, or awareness) Upaya (inside, or within) and Tanha (to put, to keep, or to place).

Together, this means ‘to keep attention inside.’ At this point in our conversation, I notice that, whereas apps I’ve used taught me how to meditate—things like focusing solely on my slow breathing and placing emphasis on trying to quiet inner commentary. Being in an actual temple, speaking to a practicing monk, offered me a complete understanding of why one practices those techniques to begin with. And it’s done on a human level, not through a pre-recorded a voice system that repeats the same instructions, monotonously, every day.

Saranapala had me understand that every complaint is based on external things, using a matter of fact-ness in tone that instantly felt reassuring. Whether it’s a story, an image, a perception, an attitude, or memory—we concern ourselves with those issues outside of us. We believe we can be happier by getting this or that, then chase after these material things only to find we aren’t any more satisfied once we get them.

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