"You'd be surprised how many guests we got from a single mention in a magazine on spas," said the resident woman monk leading my Introduction to Zen Training Weekend at the Zen Mountain Monastery near Woodstock, New York. "We were listed under Great Escapes. Of course, we're anything but a spa escape. We're the opposite."
Her words resonated at 5:30 the next morning—just like the ceremonial bell that had beckoned us to the Meditation Hall—as I sat cross-legged on one of a long line of black cloth mats. A monk in a brown robe, his head shaved to a glisten, paced the vast wooden room while leading 60 other monks and spiritual sojourners through zazen, the basic Zen practice of remaining still and emptying the mind of thought. At one point during our meditation, he adjusted my misaligned posture, putting my neck in an uneasy confluence with my shoulders. "I forgot to pack my anti-inflammatories," joked a Manhattan psychiatrist later that morning as we washed and dried a stack of dishes together. (Guests and residents "give back" 90 minutes each day by washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, or clipping grass.)
The buzz among new and seasoned spiritual tourists—usually divulged in an impressed, hot-tip sort of tone—is that this Catskills monastery is the boot camp of meditation. Here, guests paying $195 per weekend learn to apply "mindfulness" to an entire agenda of activities—walking, calligraphy, computer programming. It's not intended to win new converts to Buddhism, but after three days, the adjective zen began to seem apt for almost everything: the slanted view through the window from my upper bunk bed; a tap on an acupressure point by a monk; the act of scrubbing wheat gluten from a pot.
Having spent five years researching a book on contemporary spiritual America, though, I was a veteran of the "anything but a spa escape" concept. Through my visits to ashrams, monasteries, and religious retreats across the country, I'd learned that more Americans are seeking spirituality now than at any time since the Second Great Awakening of the mid 19th century (a movement that gave rise to new Christian sects such as Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists). Destinations where contemplation is the main activity are now items on to-do lists, especially for those belonging to genus Boomer. But sixties types turning 50 are joined in their sense of religious depletion by twentysomethings dealing with so-called quarter-life crises. Both are forming Bible groups and going on pilgrimages in numbers that make the new millennium look like the Third Great Awakening.