“If everyone wears the same robe and follows the same rules, how can they find out who they truly are?” one student asked during our orientation of Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, California. 

“When everyone wears and does the same thing,” our practice leader replied, “you can see everyone’s individuality more clearly, like how they walk, bow, talk and carry themselves, rather than judging someone’s shirt choice on a random day.” 

It was the beginning of a five-month apprenticeship at the Soto Zen practice center, and I had arrived in white Feiyue shoes with a multicolored icon, bright red-striped socks, graphic T-shirt, neon green zip-up, and lightning yellow backpack. At the time, the black robe represented an opportunity to let go of my constant desire to choose and to give myself over to the center’s rigid work and practice schedule. My friends and family have deemed me the most indecisive person they know. I struggled with what psychologist Barry Schwartz called the paradox of choice, which he used to describe the way that the variety of options available to consumers increases their anxiety rather than meets their needs.

At Green Gulch, we’re told to think of the “schedule as teacher.” (The phrase predates the center, but I do not know its exact origins.) Since every activity and its start and end time were predetermined, we only had to be concerned with the moment-to-moment experience, or in Zen terms, shikantaza. If I chopped an onion in the kitchen, for example, I did not need to think or do anything except chop the onion with my whole heart and mind and remain aware of my fellow cooks. 

Ending precisely on time was just as important as starting; if I only swept half the floor when the bow-out bell rang, I had to put down the broom and leave the task unfinished. This rule shifted my attention back to the present moment by taking away the feeling that what I was doing was a means to an end. It didn’t matter if I accomplished something, only that I spent the designated time doing the work.

After following the schedule for a while, I had started to notice the extent to which I felt compelled to fill every free minute with something “productive.” But taking that lesson outside of the monastery ground—from “on the mat to off the mat,” as my teachers say—was harder than expected. For the first month, apprentices were required to stay on the property. After that, we could leave on our days off.  After the probationary period, I spent the first three weekends visiting friends in San Francisco and the East Bay. They asked me if I was jarred by the starkness between the rural monastery and bustling city, and I told them that the hardest part was deciding between all of the different things that I could do at any hour. 

On the third visit, I went to Coffee Conscious in Berkeley, my favorite Bay Area café and vegan donut bakery. As a vegan, I found the eatery both miraculous and overwhelming as my choices increased tenfold, and I fell back into my old habit of indecision. I asked the grumpy barista about his favorite donuts, and then I asked a series of follow-up questions. Amid my inquiry into glaze vs. chocolate vs. cream, he cut me off and said: “First thought, best thought!” 

I didn’t understand. 

“It’s a Buddhist thing,” he explained. “Allen Ginsberg used to preach it when he lived here. What was the first thing you wanted when you walked in?”

“The yam roll caught my eye—”

“Great. You’re gonna buy that.”

I ate it with intention and reverence, a small bite followed by a small sip of coffee, and let go of the thought that choosing the yam roll means I do not choose the other pastries. My first thought, or my subconscious mind, had already decided before my conscious mind started to deliberate. I savored the yam roll as a gift from circumstantial forces much larger than myself. 

When I returned to Green Gulch that Saturday, I decided to further commit myself to my schedule-teacher and “first thought, best thought” practice, and I resolved to no longer leave every weekend. In my prescribed Zen schedule, I found ever greater joy and liberation. 

I so thrived under this Saturday through Wednesday schedule that I started to expand the routine to create rituals in my free time and days off. It developed organically, and I soon found myself following a detailed schedule of my own design.

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On the official weekly schedule, following two hours of morning zazen (sitting meditation and service) and 20 minutes of soji (temple cleaning), there is a free period from 7:15 a.m. until someone strikes the han (a wooden bell) at 8:30 a.m to announce the community work meeting. During that period, I would do ten pull-ups, brew a cup of peppermint tea, read in the tea garden, and watch the sky wake up. The monastery’s routine focused on embodied practice, and this period became an outlet for enjoying words and listening to morning birds. We had another free period from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. that I struggled with because of the number of possibilities. So I began to spend the first 30 minutes playing piano and another hour transcribing jazz guitar music. Then I would attend to worldly affairs (email, Skype with family and friends) for as long as necessary, and spend the remaining time walking to the beach or along a hillside trail. This flexible afternoon became a refreshing counterpoint to the fixed morning.

I also began to dedicate my Thursday mornings (my day off) to writing. I had read Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, a collection of artists’ creative routines, and forged my own daily ritual from the most common practices. At 6:30 a.m., I would wake up, brief yoga, wash, dress, and set out coffee, dark chocolate, a notebook, and a pen in the library next to the window. Like the series of bows and mudras (symbolic hand gestures) I rehearsed upon entering the zendo (meditation hall), I established a ritual for entering my writing practice. By 7:00, I would start writing and continue for three to four hours in solitude and silence. I would also plan a midday commitment that would serve as a hard end time. 

I felt more freedom with these limitations, so much so that when my apprenticeship ended a month ago and I reentered the “real world,” I decided to keep it going.

Flying home, I followed the airport’s inflexible schedule, which far exceeded the number of rituals at Green Gulch, though it lacked the intention. Onboard, my neighbor and I struck up a conversation about the flight’s extensive movie library and its paradox of choice. We noticed someone wearing all black and hypothesized that she suffered from “decision fatigue.” Before my monastic schedule, I had used these buzzwords to criticize the conventional American lifestyle and diagnose my supermarket exhaustion. But now I believe that this stress predates any market economy, arising the moment our basic needs are met and we are left to wonder, What’s next? Am I just passing time until I die? The schedule can teach us how to dignify our impermanent existence and not spend too much of our time worrying about how that time is being spent.

I now know that I prosper in these containers. But it’s just as important that I view them for what they are—temporary retreats where I can learn how to create my own refuge wherever I go. Creating my own schedule within the gaps of the monastery’s routine, I found the type of individuality that our practice leader promised. Now the challenge is to bring this craft into my life outside the monastery, doing each task—be it music, writing, teaching, cooking, biking, sitting, or anything else—for its own sake, for the intrinsic bliss of practicing.