How a city monk taught me to silence the outside world and listen to myself



By: Adrian Smith

Photos by: Eric Zdancewicz

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.

Apps like Headspace, Meditation Time and Breathe guide users through mindfulness techniques, but how do they differ from a more traditional practice?

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“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.

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“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 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.

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

“We human beings are getting stressed out, creating our own sufferings and pain because we’re constantly stuck in ‘doing mode,’” Saranapala laughs. There are times I feel I’m being unproductive when I meditate in the morning before getting into my day, or if I take a break for it at some point in the afternoon. I feel I’m not doing anything productive. Satipatthana, he teaches me, is about silencing the mind. Understanding how the mind works. It’s not about doing something. This meditation is all about being.

Satipatthana, he teaches me, is about silencing the mind. Understanding how the mind works. It’s not about doing something. This meditation is all about being.

When we’re not in the middle of something we feel restless and bored. People need to call someone to pass the time, scroll through their smartphones. We need to text our friends, check our emails, talk to someone. Our ‘doing mode’ creates the stress in our lives—creates that tension. “So what we’re doing in this meditation,” he corrects me, “is shifting attention from ‘doing mode’ to ‘being mode.’” Saranapala smiles gently. “You just be, and see what happens.” But there’s a certain way to do it, he cautions me. The first step is through ‘present moment awareness.’

“You just be, and see what happens.”

The city monk gets me to focus on what’s happening around us. I notice the long, narrow, ruby-red carpet leading to the front of the room, the plants and podiums at the altar. I notice the ceiling lights in white shades hanging above us, the beige walls, as well as the windows letting in light from outside. In this moment, I realize we’ve been at the temple just under an hour without actually doing any guided meditation, yet somehow I feel the same sense of calm just from speaking in depth about what the practice of mindfulness really means, why it’s of benefit to everyone and how simply we could be looking at things we instead choose to complicate.

“In this moment—what’s happening?” Saranapala speaks slowly in low tones. “You feel a lot of sensations. Maybe you sense some noise in the background. Or you hear the birds singing and chirping outside, maybe you hear someone talking.” He waits a moment. “Oh, there’s a thought. Now you’re thinking. You’re thinking about something outside, something you heard. Maybe that makes you think of your girlfriend.” He lets out a boyish chuckle before continuing. “The very moment you think of your girlfriend, what happens? The memories begin to fly. Maybe you think of you guys kissing, places you two have gone out, watched movies, maybe arguments you’ve had. Now there are two things happening. You’re wanting. If there’s a memory you like, you want to keep it. If it’s a memory you don’t like, you want to get rid of it.”

These two things happening at once agitate our minds, which, the monk stresses, is why we feel out of sorts. It’s something that builds up every day, so eventually there comes a moment we feel uncomfortable. We get disturbed, or annoyed. We get irritated and angry. We get upset. Our minds become filled with negativity. Instead of succumbing to this, Saranapala advises that the moment we begin having those thoughts—that’s it. You just notice it, and then let it go. There’s no reason to go beyond that and hold onto our thoughts, although I admit it’s something easier said than done. Meditation is something I’ve been practicing since the end of last year, and I still find myself stuck up in my head. Our minds have the tendency to comment on everything, to internally interpret things, but the moment we go beyond these initial commentaries, we add more negativity to those thoughts. Saranapala asks me to hold my phone straight out for a minute. During the first bit, I can’t understand why we’re doing this, but a few moments later, I quickly feel what he’s driving at. After 30 seconds or so my arm feels like it’s going to collapse, but I keep holding the phone out like he asks me to. Slowly, the tension in my arm builds up, causing it to shake and feel tightened. The pain takes me away from what’s happening in this room, in this moment. I can’t stop thinking about my arm.

Saranapala asks me to hold my phone straight out for a minute. During the first bit, I can’t understand why we’re doing this, but a few moments later, I quickly feel what he’s driving at.

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“Now imagine my friend,” he starts speaking again. “If you kept holding this phone for one hour. Holding it out like this for a whole day, a whole week. A whole month like this, the whole year like this. What would happen to your arm then?”

“It’ll fall off.”

“Do you really need to hold this phone up?”

“I don’t think so.”

He laughs. “What I’m saying is, even if it’s a minor thought or memory—if you hold onto it, it’s only going to become heavier and heavier. Just let go of the past emotional baggage, the future emotional baggage…you’re right here, you’re just right here.” Saranapala calls this ‘mindfulness-based suffering reduction, which is the whole objective of Satipatthana meditation. When we talk about the present moment experience, we need to do that without judging. We need to have more patience—to be patient with ourselves. And it’s not something that’s going to happen immediately. If you’re doing the meditation with that purpose, it will never work. We simply need to go from moment to moment without judging an experience, having much patience.

We need to have more patience—to be patient with ourselves. And it’s not something that’s going to happen immediately.

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‘Kindfulness’ is a new word the city monk would like to introduce to the world. It means as we become aware of the present moment, as we become mindful, we need to also be kind to ourselves, to care for ourselves, because when you observe with a mind full of awareness, kindness, and silence—everything becomes clear. It’s the only way to develop inner joy and happiness and experience peace of mind. When we eventually sat for meditation, it felt the same as when I practice alone in my room. Like the apps I use, he reassured me thoughts would wander through my mind but to pay them no attention and instead let them float by. Just like Meditation Time, or Headspace, he reminded me not to get upset with myself or frustrated for having ‘unproductive’ thoughts.

Speaking with Saranapala helped put me in a calmer state. It prepared me to meditate once the time came instead of worrying about if I’m doing it right, or if I’ll be able to keep quiet.

My body felt relaxed, my breathing was slowed and he had me concentrate on each individual breath while being aware of what sounds and sensations I heard or felt around me. These aspects of meditation didn’t change. What did change was my entire understanding of how one should approach mindfulness. Speaking with Saranapala helped put me in a calmer state. It prepared me to meditate once the time came instead of worrying about if I’m doing it right, or if I’ll be able to keep quiet. He taught me why mindfulness should be practiced and the spiritual fulfillment we can hope to achieve from taking it seriously.

Sure, meditation apps make for a good jumping off point for mindfulness. Yeah, they’ll teach you a particular tradition, and how to perform a certain technique—but if you’re serious about helping yourself reduce stress, anxiety, become more compassionate, empathetic, mindful, or just want to slow down once in a while—it’s best you take the time to truly understand what you’re aiming for, instead of only vaguely understanding what you’re doing.

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