Self-Isolation – Himalayan Monk Style

Keep it simple, keep it calm, keep it routine.

As the world’s population gets to grips with the practice of wholescale self-isolation to stop the spread of COVID-19, I have been reflecting on the disciplined calmness of the Himalayan monks.

I visited several of the monks’ high-altitude sanctuaries on a trip to the Kingdom of Bhutan last winter.

Across the vast Himalayan regions of Bhutan, Tibet, India and Nepal, the practice of asceticism, through a disciplined and devoted monastic routine, takes the concept of self-isolation to a new level. In dedicating themselves to abstinence from sensual pleasures in the pursuit of higher spiritual goals, they adopt a quiet, frugal and reflective routine overwhelmingly different to our more complicated, hectic modern lives.

‘Calm’ is the new super-power.

In their quest to focus their routine around meditation, spiritual enhancement and a peaceful environment, the Himalayan monks have for centuries smashed all records in the Perseverance of Self-Isolation League.

The monasteries and accompanying low-key retreat facilities that I briefly visited brought me closer to understanding how remarkably committed the most disciplined of isolationist Bhutanese nuns and monks are. Some, following the legendary Guru Padmasambhava, who is said to have mediated in 1692, at the modern-day site of Tigers Nest (Taktsang Senge Samdup), for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days, 3 hours and 3 minutes, often adopt comparable periods of self-isolation.

At the mountain retreats, our hosts presented us with the chance to meet and understand those augmenting their own lives through the same or similar periods of isolation.

How do they survive and thrive?

By following a strict meditative routine, focusing on scripture, prayer and contemplation. Pacing each hour and each day, by way of gentle meditation and strict routine. Concentrating on the simple metronome of their own breath, in rhythm, either alone with a mantra or during a collective drum-enhanced, scripture-reading, chant routine.

Phongchu La Temple Retreat, Mongar Bhutan – housing 9 people self-isolating for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days, 3 hours, 3 minutes.

One’s own sense of the boundaries of time expands when one experiences the monastic chanting schedules that are ritualistically sounded out as they repeat the chosen scriptures of the day. The monks’ extraordinary ability to focus on these mesmeric recitations leaves one in a state of gentleness, with a clearer mind and all-round feeling of chill.

May I wish you all the best of health during your own period of self-isolation. May you succeed in keeping, with or without other members of your family, a spirit of calmness core to your longer-term chances of survival.

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