Seth Monk is a Boston-based (former) ordained Zen Buddhist monk. He has studied and practiced with world-famous Buddhist masters including HH Dalai Lama, XVII Karmapa, Pa Auk Sayadaw, Ven. Ajahn Brahm, Tenzin Palmo and Thich Nhat Hanh. Upon returning to America after his global studies, Seth began responding to the social and emotional needs of students, treating stress and behavioral problems directly through dialogue and leading guided meditation in the classroom. He began teaching in various schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a number of Boston area public schools, sharing his knowledge and the practices he spent the last decade cultivating.
Seth is the Founder and CEO of Returning Peace, an organization which catersto the needs of schools, businesses, hospitals, and private clients that are searching for methods to deal with stress and “dis-ease” through the teachings of clarity, kindness, and peace. On September 30th through October 2nd, Seth will be leading his first Educator’s Retreat offering accredited mindfulness and meditation for the classroom. The program will take place at the Rolling Ridge Retreat Center in North Andover, Massachusetts. Registration information is available through Seaside Counseling.
We caught up with Seth as he prepares to lead the upcoming weekend workshop…
Thanks for sitting with us today Seth. I’d like to ask you some questions about the upcoming Educator’s Retreat you are running this fall. Tell us, how did this all begin?
Well, it’s a long story but I’ll find a short version. After I graduated from college, I traveled to Germany and ordained as a monk in a Zen Buddhist Monastery. I think that’s the long part of the story. After eight years, I decided to move on and traveled to India and Australia to continue my studies and deepen my understanding of life. Upon returning back home earlier this year, I was asked by the Andover Youth Services to help support students with meditation. An opioid crisis in the town had seen the death of many teens in a few months time, so I began to visualize my role in supporting students. Over time I was invited into schools to teach meditation to students directly in the classrooms. As this progressed, I began seeing that my effect was very limited, only really reaching one class at a time. I felt that to really begin supporting students with mindfulness, I needed to reach the teachers. If a teacher can integrate some mindfulness into the classroom, they will reach hundreds of students in a sustained way, much more than I was able to do individually, so the Educator’s Retreat was born in this way.
What do you mean when you say “mindfulness in the classroom”?
I mean finding ways to help students bring their minds back to the present moment, back to their bodies and environment. I’ve found through meditation that when the mind is deeply present, it is happy and at peace. To be mindful is to reach a place where the mind remembers to stay here and actually enjoys the experience of the here and now. We see that most anxiety, stress, fear in general actually, are all centered in future outcomes. If we could slowly bring students back to the safety of the present moment and of their bodies, I think there would be a lot more peace in the student population and less need for medication.
Why do you think students have such a hard time staying present?
To be honest, we all have this problem, not just students. I’ve found over the years that it actually comes down to a belief system. We don’t believe that everything is okay. We don’t believe that there is peace to be found in the here and now. We don’t believe that we are okay as we are. We’ve been programmed to think that “doing” is the answer. If there’s a problem we try to fix it. The mind has a natural tendency to push away pain, so it makes sense. The problem here occurs because we don’t understand how the mind works. A peaceful mind is a still mind, so trying to fix our mind through action creates restlessness when we want stillness. It’s similar to old adage that you cannot fight for peace. You cannot do something to have peace, you have to stop doing and then you can find peace.
We need to let the mind rest. It’s difficult because we’ve built up so many defense mechanisms that when we stop doing anything, we get a kind of existential angst, fear comes up in a lot of people suddenly when they stop. It’s important to lead students into this place tenderly, so they can slowly see it’s okay when they take a moment to rest and breathe.
How do you help students see the value in non-doing?
Well, my Zen training is coming up here… I wouldn’t say that it’s non-doing, for even non-doing is doing. I would instead call it actively letting go. You are consciously resting the mind and with full awareness settling into that middle place where you can just be. I think that’s actually the best definition for what meditation really is, it’s being. You learn how to just be. This state of presence, of being, is present at all times in our awareness but it’s usually so clogged up with thoughts, feelings, activities, memories, that we don’t really see it. It’s something hidden in plain view. I remember during one of the wars, we were told on the news about the “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns”, well I would say that this practice is about the unknown knowns. Meditation brings you to a place that is so familiar, it’s something you didn’t even know that you knew until you visit it and then you’re like, “AH! This has been here all along!” It’s this place of presence and of being that really allows meditators to feel stable and well. If we could actively bring students to realize that they can just rest in the present awareness of the mind, they would have this infinite wellspring of safety that they could return to whenever they wished. We just have to show them the way.
And how does your Educators Retreat achieve your goals?
As I’ve said before, if we can get teachers to follow these practices and understand on an experiential level what’s going on, they can also lead students to that place. My goal is bring all of the participants on the retreat to a place where they really experience the peace of mind and the path to get there. Once you know the way, and you know what it feels like to be there, then leading others to that place becomes easy, especially for a teacher who’s job is leading students to certain places, intellectually or otherwise. The thing is, we still don’t know what this looks like in schools. There are many groups implementing their own styles, their own ideas and trying it out, but nobody has really fully figured out how this works, how to get this really going in schools. So the last day of the retreat, we will discuss together how to implement the practices in the classroom, and each teach will experience for one month in their classroom with a technique of their choice and report back to me their findings. This way, I can also collect some data about what’s working and I can pass it on. Eventually, my goal is to have teachers teaching other teachers. When it takes on a life of it’s own is when this self-organization happens and the educators themselves start taking the initiative to spread it in their own institutions. For now, I can only share the information and inspire others to move forward with it on their own.