Life under lockdown: How monks and nuns find liberation in isolation

Few people understand the life-enriching power of isolation quite like monks and nuns.

Lodro Gyendon has long been drawn to an isolated life and, after visiting monasteries for a few years, became an ordained Buddhist monk at Gampo Abbey four years ago.

The isolated community perches on a cliff in Pleasant Bay, just north of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and about a three-hour drive from Sydney, N.S. About 20 people live there, ranging in age from 23 to 83.

From his office, Gyendon sees alder trees, windswept black spruce, and beyond that the ocean. On the day he spoke to CBC, snow had just fallen and a fog hid much of the world. Robins and flickers flitted about the grounds looking for breakfast.

Gyendon says monks and nuns seek the communal isolation of monastic life to deepen their understanding of the nature of reality. “To do that, you need to be away from a lot of the things that distract us from the sometimes challenging, but powerful, work of opening our hearts,” he says.

When he first entered the monastery, he was surprised by how quickly his body lost the rhythm of clocks, electric lights and calendars and found the older schedule of the sun rising and setting, the moon waxing and waning, and seasons blooming and dying.

Wearing a monk’s plain robe, he lost the ability to express himself through clothes, or through the “performance” of being human in front of other humans. He missed buying things, or stopping for coffee in a café. He missed distracting himself with news, music or TV shows. But he still didn’t feel truly isolated.

“It’s almost like you’re not alone, because you’re constantly with yourself,” he says. “I’m sure a lot of people are experiencing that now: this boredom with oneself. It was a really powerful experience, because I had to learn how to be friends with myself. I had to learn to love myself. I think that’s one of the biggest things we do on the spiritual path.”

But over time, that boredom with himself was replaced with a fascination with the freedom to explore the human condition. “I could actually go deeper into that and discover something about reality, to discover something about my mind. At this point I find it incredibly liberating.”

For those of us unexpectedly living a similar isolation during the COVID-19 lockdown, he says it may be hard to see the positives, as what we have lost is clearer than what we can gain. He urges us to be soft and gentle with ourselves. If you need to rest, rest. If you need to feel sad, feel sad. If you find joy, enjoy it.

“This whole experience has created a huge pause for us and made us slow down. And that’s really wonderful. But … people are dying, people are sick, people are losing loved ones,” he says.

“And so the pause is not just a vacation; it’s also a really poignant time to think about what’s important about life. How do we want to move out of this? There’s no going back to what was before.”

‘Moon’s eye’ view

He warns the return to regular life may be difficult. He first left Gampo Abbey to share pizza with friends and family. What once was a familiar experience became a bright, noisy chaos that overwhelmed him.

“That was a groundless experience. I started to ask myself, ‘What are you doing? If you can’t even have pizza with your family, what’s going on?'”

He found taking a “moon’s eye” view helped. He stopped seeing things from his own perspective, and instead looked at everyone at once. His own discomfort faded into the broader celebration.

“At the same time, I can feel how familiar it feels to be really caught up in trying to look right, trying to seem cool, trying to seem like this or that type of person. And I don’t miss that at all!” he says with a laugh. “I feel whole in a really deep way, because I don’t need to distract myself from myself.

Little has changed at the remote monastery. At the abbey, they live alone in a retreat cabin. But they also head into town to buy food and supplies for the others. No one else enters or leaves.

Gyendon says they are all deeply attuned to the wider world.

“We can all feel what everyone in the world is going through now. We can feel a sense of fear and anxiety that all beings are experiencing right now. I think it’s our job to touch into that and allow ourselves to experience what humanity is going through,” he says.

They’ve noticed how fear and anxiety spread faster and wider than the virus. “We’re taking this attitude that if those things can spread very quickly, it’s the same for things like compassion and love and understanding.”

‘We’re very social’

Meanwhile, 500 kilometres to the southwest, the Orthodox Hermitage of the Holy Annunciation sits on an old hilltop farmstead overlooking the LaHave River near New Germany, N.S. Three monks live inside.

“Monastics are not naturally drawn to self-isolation and social distancing. It might be a bit of a misnomer out there that we’re anti-social,” says Father Nathaniel, who like others at the hermitage goes by one name. “The truth is the opposite: we’re very social. It’s just with the bigger society out there — we’ve found something better.”

Father Jean-Baptiste agrees. Five years ago, he lived in a nice house overlooking Halifax harbour and had a good job. But he felt called to isolation and followed that into a monastic life. For him, it was about embracing a richer and deeper existence.

“I tasted something that was so much greater — a love, a peace of God that I felt,” he says. “Monks are like naive teenage lovers: we just jump right in and follow that hope that we felt.”

He says that deliberate entrance into isolation differs greatly from the unwanted COVID lockdown around the world. But he believes unordained people can also embark upon “the last adventure humankind can do.”

“That adventure is not going around and finding entertainment, finding distractions, but it’s putting aside all the ambitions we have, putting aside all the possessiveness of the world; no longer being a slave to that, but becoming a true hobo, a true wanderer,” Jean-Baptise says.

Spiritual growth in alone time

He notes they are isolated from the wider world, but not from each other: a situation many families and roommates are now experiencing. He says living together in close quarters is actually one of the hardest parts of monastic life — not the isolation.

“And this is where people will learn they’re not maybe as perfect as they thought they were,” Nathaniel says. “They’re going to annoy other people and it’s going to be their fault, and they’re going to have to ask for forgiveness. And this is going to be good, if we can all manage that. I’m not perfect and neither are you, and that’s OK.”

While many of us experience lockdown as a loss — loss of work, of school, of socializing, of parks — the secret is to focus on the potential gain, the monks say.

“In my experience, spiritual growth has only ever happened in alone time. It’s never happened for me in a larger social group,” Nathaniel says. “I would say this is a perfect time for people to go inward a little bit and do some spiritual searching. This is precisely the situation where something like this can get done very meaningfully.”

To do that, they recommend creating a “sacred” space in your home: a corner where you go to choose isolation, even during lockdown, and use it to pray or meditate. Live here and now, not in a mourned past or an imagined future.

“That means to resolve that we’re in isolation now. We have that horrible pandemic. Some of us are laid off or there isn’t even work to go to at the moment. We are at home,” Jean-Baptiste says. “It’s self-abandonment. You’re abandoning yourself to the situation at hand and living in the present.”