‘What is it all for?’

Through the course Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life, students find liberation through discipline.

A group of students sit on the stone steps beneath a giant golden Buddha
In Thailand, students visited monasteries, temples, and cultural sites. Here, the class sits in front of the Phra Buddha Maha Nawamin of Wat Muang. (Image: Justin McDaniel)

No talking. No humming or singing or dancing. No jewelry or makeup. No spices, no stimulants, no physical contact. No gestures. No making eye contact on Locust Walk. Perform one daily act of kindness. Journal every 30 minutes. Meditate for 25 minutes every day. Walk for 30 minutes every day, minimum. No phones, no computers, no technology more advanced than a light switch. No eating after sunset or before sunrise. Up at 5 a.m. Lights out at 10 p.m.

For one month during the course Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life, 15 Penn students adhered to these rules—or tried to. Justin McDaniel, professor of religious studies and the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Endowed Professor of the Humanities in the School of Arts & Sciences, has been teaching this course for nine semesters. This fall it was a Penn Global seminar culminating in a trip to Thailand. McDaniel’s main rubric is a mix of genders and majors, childhoods and creative interests, background and life experiences. That’s what makes for a vibrant class, he says.

On campus and in the world, “we generally go out and look for ourselves,” McDaniel says. “I want students to meet people and really get to know people that are very different.”

In class, they discuss the New and Old Testaments, Sufi and Taoist readings, secular poetry, and writing from the Buddhist tradition. They listen to jazz, classical music, and chanting. Students keep a journal and do independent research projects on religious figures—monks, nuns, and saints from a wide variety of traditions.

But the hallmark of the course is the month-long vow of silence, which is somewhat infamous on campus. Before taking Living Deliberately, Gabriela Bonina, a fourth-year philosophy, politics, and economics major thought, “Oh, God, people have to live in silence for a month, and they can’t wear anything but black. Who would ever take that course?”

Yet the ascetic life has its own pull. In contemporary culture, “I think you see it all over the place,” McDaniel says. “We articulate an urge for monasticism in so many ways, whether it’s an exercise routine, or decluttering, or local eating.

“There is this urge for simple living,” he says, “that shows a reaction against the distractions and the chaos and the desires of the world.” In the past, people would turn to religion. But, McDaniel asks, how do we adapt to a world of choice?

‘Going through the motions’

Bonina grew up in Ashburn, Virginia, where her childhood was structured by baptism, confirmation, Communion. “Even today, I can tell how important religion is to my mom,” Bonina says. “She’s putting a rosary over my door when COVID starts; she’s telling me to pray every night.”

In the meantime, Bonina was taking philosophy courses and questioning her own belief. Religion, Bonina says, “can almost lose its purpose in the way that people kind of follow it.” Catholicism was a dominant part of her upbringing, she says, but didn’t make her feel connected—not to God, not to herself.

But while studying in Rome, Bonina went to mass in the Vatican. She says she took Communion. She dipped her fingers in holy water. She had an experience.

“I started having a change in spirit, where I was wondering if there was a way to combine philosophy with religion in a way that was fruitful for me,” she says. Applying to be a part of Living Deliberately helped her to think through these complicated feelings, Bonina says.

After living through the pandemic, Living Deliberately sounded appealing to Sophie Ouyang, a nursing student from New Hyde Park, New York. Ouyang “was just going through the motions,” she says, “not feeling like a college student.”

Four students watch a a cooking demonstration as a man stirs mushrooms and peppers in a wok on a gas stove.
Students watch a cooking demonstration. During Living Deliberately's month of silence, restrictions included an $80 weekly budget and no processed foods. A vegetarian stir-fry like the one would above would have been in permitted, although no spices were allowed.  (Image: Justin McDaniel)

After taking college classes from her Long Island bedroom, Thailand felt magical, Ouyang says. It was one thing to learn about a different way of life in class, “but to be there and experience it was very beautiful to me,” she says. She also noticed different customs in Thailand. It was quieter there, less yelling. Thai people will sometimes laugh when they’re angry in order to lighten the mood, she says. In 10 days, Ouyang counted one car honk.  

The art of single-tasking

“Students, I find, get overwhelmed by choice,” McDaniel says. Long-term goals, short-term goals. Libraries, museums, book talks. One week there were three Nobel Prize winners speaking at Penn, McDaniel says. “We live in a very large and culturally dynamic city. And then shockingly, students almost never participate.

“One of my former students said this course is about the art of single-tasking,” says McDaniel. “When you eat, you eat. When you walk, you walk. Concentrate on what you’re doing right now, without judgement, in a steady, slow, purposeful way.”

Students pose in the interior of a Buddhist temple, with a large Buddha and hanging light fixtures
Students visiting a Buddhist temple, where interiors are often ornately adorned.  (Image: Justin McDaniel)

Before taking the class, Christina Volpe dabbled in guided meditation. Volpe, a third-year double-majoring in biology and religious studies from Muncie, Indiana, is a self-described “hyper” person. She found it hard to sit still. And during the month of silence, Volpe didn’t have access to her phone, to a calming voice coming through an app, telling her to count her breaths.

Two weeks in, she went to McDaniel’s office hours. She says she told him, “I can’t do it. He was like, ‘Well, have you been doing it?’”

Now, Volpe starts with her heartbeat. She can feel the blood pumping through her veins, the major arteries, into her neck, her hips, her scalp and fingers, back to the heart. This way, she’s able to zero in on the rhythm. In Thailand, the group took a meditation class alongside monks. “We just sat still for 20 minutes,” Volpe says. “I didn’t move, and I was shocked that I could do that.”

Because she always can access her own heartbeat, Volpe can meditate anywhere. She finds comfort in that. “You realize so many burdens you put on yourself,” Volpe says. “I am the one that is making this stressful. There is a lot to do, yes, but I don’t have to stress.”

Liberation through discipline

“Scholars of religious studies, we can’t quite figure out why we have the ascetic urge in culture,” McDaniel says. “Why does celibacy exist? Fasting? Some aspect of restriction exists in almost every religion, he says. “Why do we think the path to paradise, liberation, is through denial? It seems to not make any sense.”

In a monastic environment, “everyone has the same clothes; everyone has the same rules. All of those basic things are taken care of. You have a freedom to play intellectually because you’re removing the need to ego-feed every day,” McDaniel says.

“You find liberation through discipline. Think about it with children. A parent will set up a little barrier, whether it’s a sandbox or a gate, and make sure the child is fed, clean, and happy but wants them to play within that space,” McDaniel says. “If you set up these rules and ask students to live within them, it’s amazing how creative they become.”

Each student had different rules that they struggled with, from the lack of touch to the lack of spices. The “no technology” rule was tough for Bonina, whose humanities course load was heavy on writing. Students use typewriters for their papers and whiteout to fix errors, but everything else has to be done by hand. Bonina describes “doing my own citations manually, being in the library for hours, meticulously note-taking.” It took more time, she says, but her work improved because she connected with the material and put in more effort. Rereading her papers, Bonina thought, “Well, this is actually really good!”

McDaniel is grateful for the support offered to his students during the unconventional class, from professors who offer work-arounds to waitstaff that “have to deal with my students holding up notes because they can’t speak,” he says.

Seven students smile under the canopy of a motor-powered boat travelling on a river
Travelling by boat to their hotel on the River Kwai, where the students spent their New Year.  (Image: Justin McDaniel)

For Nery Rodriguez, a fourth-year from Brooklyn studying economics, silence was the hardest restriction. Then it became liberating.

While riding shotgun in a friend’s car, another person cut them off. Her friend was angry, yelling at the rude driver, the danger, the injustice. “I remember thinking that if that happened to me, I would let it happen,” Rodriguez says about the experience. “Little things that would upset me, no longer did.” The month of silence “takes away the need to respond to everything around you,” she says. “It made me feel more human, in a way.”

Finding meaning

As humans, our job is to make meaning, McDaniel says. “That takes beauty; that takes time.” Most of these students have complex lives that are maintained by hundreds, even thousands of people around them: people serving them food, people fixing plumbing, he says. “To see the complexity of their world and have awareness for all those people that contribute to their lives helps them make meaning.”

All of the students say they became more observant, more centered, or more focused on what they could control and what they felt was important. But while changes do occur during the semester, McDaniel is playing the long game. “I’m not worried about their 19- or 21-year-old selves,” he says. “I’m worried about the 45-year-olds. That’s when most of them will have less years ahead of them than years behind.”

When you’re young, you’re hopeful that life will change, he says. At middle age, “life is pretty much what you got.” At that point, the former students might have mortgages and children and dying parents. Windows of possibility and promise will close. Aging can present an existential crisis and the resilience to persevere doesn’t appear overnight, McDaniel says. “You have to practice making meaning every day,” he says, “I want them to start that now, to take the process very seriously.”

Four students pose with coconut drinks
Sightseeing in Thailand. (Image: Justin McDaniel)

At the course’s end, Rodriguez still journals, she says, trying to become more aware of her surroundings and emotions. Volpe meditates. Living Deliberately helped Ouyang see that “the only moment that I have is now, and that’s the only thing I can control,” she says. “Everything around me is all that there is.”

Throughout the class, Bonina was fighting against her near-constant urge to accomplish, to check all the boxes. “I’m a doer,” she says. “That’s something that we put on ourselves: these implicit expectations of how we should be productive.” Everyone else is doing things, too, and there’s a compulsion to keep up.

At the end of her month-long experiment, what Bonina missed most was not her to-do list but talking on the phone with her family, she says. Productivity is one thing, she says, but “what is it all for, you know? I don’t think we ask ourselves that enough.”