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A Journey through the Dharma and into the Belly of the Beast: Jonah Martindale ’20 at Crestone Mountain Zen Center

Above, is a photo taken by my friend Holger Bartles, a long time Buddhist practitioner and professional photographer. Holger was happy to take my photo when I asked him, his willingness to help me out, speaks to the general tone of Crestone Mountain Zen Center (CMZC), and how everyone here operates.

Getting to the Zen center was no easy task. The plan was I had to fly in to Denver airport, take a shuttle to a bus station, take that bus 4 hours up into the rocky mountains, and then be picked up at a town near CMZC by one of the residents. However, this complex travel agenda did not go as planned. After frantically searching for my bus to go up the mountain, by the skin of my teeth I managed to board on time. Then, I ended up missing my bus stop and arrived at a town two and a half hours away from CMZC. Despite the major inconvenience, one of the residents decided to drive the two and a half hours that night to pick me up. A great indicator of the kind of people I would be spending the next couple of months with. Once I finally arrived to the center, it was late at night and I was half asleep, but nonetheless I could feel that I had entered a special place.

The daily schedule, is the most intense, disciplined, and rigorous routine that I have ever had to adhere to in my life. With an initial wake up of 4:30 am, Meditation for two hours, various work periods, ceremonial meals in silence, all concluded by a nightly meditation for about an hour and half ending at 9:00, leaves me feeling an entirely new level of exhaustion, which is as though I have had two days in one. However, as intense as the schedule is, it is also a practical and realistic one in the sense that while we are pushed, we are not being run down. We get multiple breaks a day designated “Study/exercise” which while in the beginning of getting used to the schedule, I would usually spend napping. Initially getting used to the 4:30 wake up was absolutely brutal. The wake up was one thing, but having to sit meditation for around two hours brought a whole new set of challenges, primarily not passing out. However with in the first week, I was able to stay awake.

Adjusting to the schedule and practice of Zen, has been incredibly challenging, but yet has felt very natural. All of the residents here have not only been welcoming, but I would consider them to now be friends. I have had a serious interest in studying Zen for over a year and a half, and everyone has been happy to talk about there experience and answer the many questions I bombard them with. Among learning and practicing Zen, a large part of my intention for coming here has been to learn and cultivate the ability of discipline and following a highly demanding schedule, which is something I have struggled with in the past. This has worked out great, as I have not only been strictly and consistently following the schedule, but also have been being assigned responsibilities such as being in charge of getting up even earlier than 4:30 to ring the wake up bell.

Last but certainly not least, is my experience and how I’ve been impacted from meditating around 3 hours a days. Zazen, the name of meditation in Zen Buddhism, alot of the time is not what people, including myself, would think meditation of being.  The mindset and and way Zazen is done, primarily focuses on breath. You count your breath up to 10, and then restart. Additionally, the idea is that you don’t focus on anything. If a thought or feeling comes up you do not repress or engage with it, you just let it come and go. This has subtly, and in other ways not so subtly, had impacts on me. What I can say for certain, is that I feel more present and grounded in my day to day experience.

All in all, this is a truly amazing stay at CMZC, and has been everything I’ve intended to experience and more. While adjusting to the schedule, and various other aspects have been quite difficult,  I ultimately feel grateful for how much of an impact it has had on me staying at CMZC thus far. I certainly intend to continue practicing Zen long after I leave here, while also being sure to keep in touch with the people here who I feel I have formed meaningful connections with.

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