In pursuit of more Zen in my life (and the best zen places in Sussex), I recently found myself at a Chithurst Monastery just outside Midhurst. To be honest, I’d seen some monks on St Anne’s Hill and was intrigued, so I followed my nose. After all, Buddhism has always felt compelling and I wanted to know more.
Cittaviveka, also known as Chithurst Buddhist Monastery, is tucked away down a single-track lane at Chithurst in a sleepy, very rural corner of Sussex. It was established in 1979 “in the lineage of the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism” and they welcome visitors. In fact, you can join them from 8:00 am until the end of the group practice session in the evening, such as evening pujas, guided meditations, Dhamma talks and midnight vigils. You can also stay as a guest and immerse yourself in monastery life but I was here for a guided meditation in the Dhamma Hall.
The tranquillity and serenity when you pull up at the monastery is tangible. There’s birdsong and silence. That’s it. Nothing else seems to stir and you find yourself tiptoeing to the main entrance. The Dhamma Hall extends this sense of serenity but also holds reverence. It has a high, wooden, vaulted ceiling and stone floors that ground your bare feet. Windows look out on the Sussex countryside and monastery quadrant. I grabbed a mat and some cushions but was surprised to see the hall fill up with both monks and lay visitors, alike. For a large hall, it’s warm, comforting, and reassuring. You feel enveloped in a sense of calm.
In search of a miracle
You can of course practice meditation more or less anywhere, but if I’m honest, I think subconsciously I may have travelled to the monastery in search of a miracle. Meditation with monks felt more celestial and perhaps I was looking for an instant installation of wisdom, the focus to achieve my goals – by tomorrow, a cure for the aches and pains of my 50-something bones and a tonic for my agitated mind? Not much of an ask then.
Our meditation practice was strikingly simple. We started with chants and then for the next hour focused on our breath and our being. Everything in the hall seemed to take on significance. The click of an achy joint, the rustle of a monk’s robes, the setting sun outside. The monks clearly value words, each one carefully chosen and savoured: transience, equanimity, honour. They felt weighty.
I’d like to describe my mind as a fluttering butterfly that I adeptly settled. But it wasn’t like that. It was more like a herd of rampaging and uncontrolled sheep crashing against the barriers of my mind as my thoughts hurtled about in a pointless rampage. I’d settle it into a state of calm for just a second before my sheep were off again on their own random riot and I realised this is a reflection of modern life: our shortened attention spans, constant social media scrolling like magpies looking for shiny bright things and the 24/7 access to high octane entertainment. A settled mind is a rare thing I decided, certainly in my case. I also realised I hold my breath a lot. A thought seizes me, and I freeze, unable to breathe. That can’t be good.
Did I get my miracle?
Towards the end of our session, our guide dropped a nugget of wisdom. I’m sure it wasn’t directed at me but it resonated in a way I wasn’t expecting and delivered an important lesson. As I opened my eyes, it felt a little ethereal and I realised a lot of the physical strains we all carry had slipped gently from my shoulders like a robe. As I left, I stopped at the tiny church almost next door to the monastery that dates back to the 11th century. I found more Zen there too until I finally headed for home, watching the sun set over the Cowdray ruins.
I can’t claim my mind was calmed but it was calmer and I’d remembered that these things take practice and patience. The rain had cleared by the time I left leaving a clear sky and sunset and that too felt like a reflection of my state of mind. I felt unexpectedly invigorated and inspired. And most importantly, determined to keep searching for pockets of Sussex Zen to incorporate into my daily life. If you’re looking for calmer life pursuits, you can certainly do a lot worse than visiting Midhurst.
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