The Monastery Series, part 4: the bow

After registering for the ten day metta meditation silent retreat, I quickly searched and found that “metta” is a Pali word generally translated in English as “loving-kindness.”  (Yes, I queried the internet after signing up.)

And, shockingly, that was the end of my research.  I dismissed a million questions, like, Doesn’t it matter that you don’t know the teachers? Shouldn’t you probably own a Buddha statuette before doing an extended sleep-over at the monastery?  And shouldn’t you have at least tried doing ONE metta meditation before signing up???

Now, with the generous gift of hindsight, I know that my spirit knew what it wanted.  (Yes, I just typed the word “spirit.”)  Obstinately defying all standard logical practices, I convinced myself that this retreat would be perfect - because I wanted it to be.  

Perhaps I believed it into being.  Because the experience I had there was indeed perfect - it was exactly what I needed, and much more.

Co-existing while in silence turned out to be far easier than I’d imagined.  Retreatants and staff alike communicated non-verbally using eye contact and body signals.  My favorite method was the bow:  hands together in prayer position, moving the head toward the heart.  For example, as instructed, if someone needed to eat before doing his kitchen chores, he would simply bow and move into the line as others made space for him.    

My daily chore was to clean the showers in my dormitory hall.  I decided to grasp the spirit of the exercise - this was a “work meditation” after all - so I scrubbed the tiles rigorously, walls and floor, and generally I wound up soaked.  One afternoon, one of my dorm-mates came in to the bathroom to wash her hands at the sink while I gathered up my cleaning supplies.  She turned around from the sink and bowed deeply to me for a full five seconds.  I knew she was expressing appreciation for my work, and I delightedly smiled back at her, bowing my head.  

Another day, I was standing in the breakfast line in the dining hall, thinking about cinnamon.  Suddenly I lost my balance and fell slightly to my right, realizing after-the-fact that I’d just had a collision; before I understood what happened, a lovely person appeared in front of me and bowed deeply.  I understood that she was beautifully expressing a silent apology.  It was perfect.  

I have very much returned to my regular life but I still feel the inclination to bow - outside of yoga class and my own meditation practice.  A bow sometimes pops out of me before my mind is aware of what I’m doing, and I worry that people will think I’m unhinged or cultishly religious.  I do it anyway.  

For me, the bow represents a sublime gesture of love, humility, gratitude, respect, appreciation, and interconnectedness.  It doesn’t feel Buddhist or religious; it is holy and secular, simple and complex.  It says so much without saying anything at all.   

There is a beautiful photo in the Gratitude Hut at Spirit Rock:  it depicts the Dalai Lama and one of his teachers meeting each other.  The two monks bow so deeply that their heads nearly touch the floor.  Beneath the photo in the Hut, the caption explains that they are trying to bow lower than the other out of love and respect, which still moves me to tears.  (Similar photo below.)

To close the Monastery Series, I offer my metta phrases:

May I be peaceful and happy.

May I be strong and healthy.

May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm.

May I care for myself with ease.


May you be peaceful and happy.

May you be strong and healthy.

May you be safe and protected.

May you be well and at ease.


May all living beings be peaceful and happy.

May all living beings be strong and healthy.

May all living beings be safe and protected.

May all living beings be well and at ease.

*hands together in prayer position, head moving toward the heart...I bow to you.*