"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.
Of course, not all stops on the spiritual map invite being thwacked (gently) on the back by a stick as in the evening zazen at the Zen Mountain Monastery. At Deepak Chopra's popular Center for Well Being in downtown La Jolla, California, the Ayurvedic holistic practices of Indian Hindus have been translated into American; guests there luxuriate with Abhyanga, a massage technique in which the body is kneaded from head to toe five times in succession. The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, whose self-discovery workshops date back to the sixties, features those eternal verities, hot tubs overlooking the Pacific for percolating late-night dips. The 40 guesthouse rooms at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky bluegrass country, are booked as much as a year in advance; here meals are taken in silence while a tape of devotional readings plays overhead. In the past few decades, some of the loveliest—and crunchiest—towns in America have been recycled for their reputed good vibes: Ojai, Sedona, Boulder. Still more places are needed. Hard-core seekers now include everyone from a fashion model to an ex-nun, an acupuncturist to a type-A film producer.
Embarking on an ascetic journey has become just another variation on America's extreme-sports craze—extreme spirit, if you will. Even at the Catskills boot camp it was obvious: one of the guests assigned to my five-bunk dormitory was a Florida dad whose next planned vacation was a visit with his son to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. "My second choice for this weekend was Vegas," he told me, just as the 9:30 p.m. bell chimed, imposing a curfew of silence (except snores) until dawn. "I'm sure my bank account will thank me for coming here instead." His smile suggested that he was accruing spiritual points as well.
Brad Gooch's Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America (Knopf) will be published in April.
Zen Mountain Monastery Mount Tremper, N.Y.; 845/688-2228, fax 845/688-2415.
Chopra Center for Well Being 7630 Fay Ave., La Jolla, Calif.; 888/424-6772 or 858/551-7788, fax 858/551-7811.
Esalen Institute 55000 Hwy. 1, Big Sur, Calif.; 831/667-3000, fax 831/667-2724.
Abbey of Gethsemani 3642 Monks Rd., New Haven, Ky.; 502/549-3117, fax 502/549-4124.