Playing Monk in Switzerland

It’s unusual for me to find that it’s my turn to blog and not have a topic or two that I’m bursting to write about. When that happens, I virtually leaf through Spiegel online and its English section, The Local and Deutsche Welle. My Facebook feed also sometimes triggers some inspiration, so the common piece of news that has led me to today’s topic is Switzerland’s vote to reinstate an immigrant quota.

I’m not actually setting out to discuss this disturbing vote, but I’ll summarize it here: basically, a very narrow majority of Swiss (50.3%), mostly in the rural German parts of the country, have bought in to the fears that Switzerland will become overcrowded if they don’t put a cap on the number of foreigners coming in. That cap has been set to 80,000 immigrants. The short-sighted truth is that these voters succumbed to some scare-mongering thinking that these immigrants were only refugees, migrant workers and benefit-sucking immigrants. Sadly, Switzerland’s history of keeping refugees out is just as disturbing today as it was during the Holocaust. 284,200 Germans currently live in Switzerland. That’s second to Italians. As Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said, this referendum is going to “cause a lot of problems for Switzerland.”

So I guess I had a lot more to say about this topic of immigration, and I’ve gotten all heated up thinking and writing about it just now. In fact, I wanted to share another Swiss experience I had last month which was all about learning to release stress and find my center. To mark my husband’s 40th birthday, he and I decided to finally go on the Zen Meditation weekend course that we had been talking about for more than a year. I have to admit that I was kind of hoping to pick a European city we hadn’t been to yet and use some hotel vouchers we’ve had for a while, but it was his birthday after all. Learning to meditate would be good for us both and could help us live another 40 years healthily and happily together.

My husband found a weekend course at a Jesuit center in the Swiss canton of Zug, which is about three hours south of us. The Lassalle Haus-Bad Schönbrunn offers a range of courses from yoga to meditation, spirituality to singlehood. In an unusual step, I didn’t participate much in the planning of this trip. My husband found the course, booked us on it, and simply asked me to print out some directions on the family printer. It wasn’t until a couple days before we were to go that I started asking him more details such as what we should pack and what exactly we would be doing. We just needed comfortable clothes in natural fibers – similar to yoga – that we would be OK sitting in a single position for a long time. I also asked him what we would be eating, and we speculated that we’d be eating vegetarian. (We were right, and all of that Swiss vegetarian food we ate was delicious!) He then reminded me, almost hesitantly, that we were not allowed to talk during the course. We were only allowed to speak to our instructors if we had questions. We were otherwise not allowed to talk between meditation sessions, during meals, and not even when we were alone in our room. As we sat in our small room, right before the course program started, we were looking through the schedule when I asked my husband what a word on it meant: Schweigen. He laughed when he explained that it meant “silence.” And here I was looking for Stille.

The experience was intense. Part of me thought that I could just check out and “relax” in the silence. That wasn’t the case and those were mere naive thoughts. In the beginning, having freshly received the instruction of our course leader, I did focus: “eeeiiiiiiiinssssss [exhale]eeeeeeee [inhale],” “zweeeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiii[exhale]–oh, dude, I think I just did it, oh damn it, have to start over.” I might have gotten to the number two a few times more, but that was at the beginning. There were many moments thereafter when I spaced out and would daydream, as if I was at a table with people who were speaking a foreign language I didn’t know, and then there were other moments when I thought I couldn’t stand it for another minute and just prayed the gong would be gonged, and I could finally move my leg again. I was able to sit through a few urges to itch, but as the weekend wore on, my will got weaker, and my knee was killing me.

I confirmed to myself that I was not a Zen master type, but regardless of falling short in this regard, I could see how powerful the ability to center and clear one’s mind could be – certainly in finding focus, inner peace and managing pain. I also found it profoundly fulfilling to share this experience with my husband. As he pointed out when we first arrived at Lassalle-Haus, the simplicity of the accommodation allowed us to immediately focus on what was most important and relish in the sense that less is more. The weekend was no wellness weekend, but we nevertheless returned home feeling rejuvenated and fortunate.

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