by Meghan Wayland
LOWELL — Daniel Thorson meditated through the first two and a half months of the coronavirus outbreak in Vermont. For 75 days — from mid-March through the end of May — Mr. Thorson engaged in a mindfulness practice punctuated by exercise, walking in the woods, and reading Buddhist scripture. There was no talking, no electronics, no news. Every day was exactly the same. Sit. And sleep. So when, at the Monastic Academy for Preservation of Life on Earth (MAPLE) in Lowell, Mr. Thorson emerged after a spiritual self quarantine and tweeted: “Did I miss anything?” he thought his then hundred-or-so Twitter followers would pick up on his sarcasm.
Of course Mr. Thorson knew he had missed some things. The world had shut down amid the global pandemic, unemployment skyrocketed, spring finally arrived, oil went bankrupt, beer sales soared, a 30-pound piece of the moon went up for sale for $2.5-million.
But instead of Mr. Thorson’s feigned ignorance dissolving in the ephemera of tweets, his story went viral. It was first picked up by the New York Times, then by other national and international news outlets, which — using his vacant tweet as evidence — portrayed Mr. Thorson, 33, as a doe-eyed elite unaware of the real, hard knocks of life with corona.
The weeks that followed have been strange for Mr. Thorson, a staff member at Lowell’s monastic academy and philosophy podcaster. He said the portrayal of him as an oblivious millennial has been grating. He said he was anything but oblivious about the coronavirus — he warned staff and residents of the pandemic before his retreat.
“I was extremely aware of COVID before it was a Wuhan virus, before it was anywhere near the U.S.,” he said in a phone interview in mid-June. “I was telling people, it’s not here yet but it’s exponential, and it’s going to be here eventually.”
On his Emerge podcast, Mr. Thorson has been researching and having conversations about the threat of systems collapse for three years. He said his work explores the potential — and potential effects — of economic crises, pandemics, and climate change. He said the fact that he was meditating when the pandemic struck isn’t simply an interesting synchronicity.
“One of the reasons I moved to the monastic academy is because I’ve lived my life knowing a crisis was going to happen,” he said. “This is why I sit.”
In his own words, meditating allows himself and others to “let go of all the ways we want the world to be so we can show up for the world as it is.”
With fame comes scrutiny, and Mr. Thorson has experienced a good amount of both. People have accused him of being, in essence, a spoiled white guy “traipsing away in the mountains,” retreating in order to protect himself from the world. Instead, Mr. Thorson sees retreating as a way to protect the world from him — for now.
“I’m getting trolled on the Internet like I’m the definition of white privilege,” he said. “People are saying what a jerk that I missed the pandemic.”
Mr. Thorson said he experienced similar reactions as an organizer during Occupy Wall Street when he — along with thousands of others — put his “real” life on hold to create an autonomous zone in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in 2011.
He said he’s never worked harder in his life than he has in his post at the monastic academy. Room and board are paid for but not free. He is either fully or partially responsible for fund-raising, outreach, managing building projects, and keeping the kitchen stocked on campus, among other things. He wakes up every day at 4 a.m.
“It’s lovely to be here but it isn’t easy,” he said.
Outrage that he presumably hasn’t suffered as much as everyone else during the pandemic is understandable, he added, but it’s also evidence that living in community makes people more resilient — makes it easier to stay level during extremes. Of course he wasn’t as impacted by the coronavirus in the same way as most others, he said.
“It’s not a mistake,” he said. “It proves the model works. We cut each other’s hair, we feed each other, we take care of each other.
“People think I must be very wealthy in order to be able to do this,” Mr. Thorson said. A New York native, his parents were professors and he doesn’t have student debt. He insisted the monastic academy was accessible given that it offers deep scholarships and is a free place to sleep and eat during extended commitments to volunteer, study, and work. Anyone is welcome, he said.
“We should have more places like this,” he said, adding that he wants to build a world in which that’s true. “It ought to be an opportunity for all.”
MAPLE is open to locals, Executive Director Peter Park said Saturday. Guests are welcome for chanting, meditation, breakfast, and lunch. Morning chanting starts at 4:40 a.m. followed by meditation, or “sit,” from 5:30 to 6:30 a.m. Breakfast is at 7:30 a.m., lunch is at half after noon. There’s also an evening meditation from 7 to 8:30 p.m., and everything is donation-based.
Originally the Center for Mindful Learning was a non-sectarian program to teach mindfulness in public schools, Mr. Park said. Over the years the focus shifted to offering a nine-month intensives, then a residency. Under different auspices, the academy has been located in both Johnson and Burlington.
Mr. Park also spent 75 days in silent retreat around the same time as Mr. Thorson, but his story never made headlines.
He said Saturday he grew up in the states as a Roman Catholic after immigrating with his parents from Korea in the 1980s. He studied Buddhism in graduate school and was friends with Mr. Thorson and familiar with the group Buddhist Geeks — a group to which Mr. Thorson belonged.
“I generally trusted Daniel because he had spent his adulthood exploring important questions and being active in social causes,” Mr. Park said. “I figured if he was doing it, I couldn’t think of anything more beneficial to do.”
Mr. Park has been executive director at the academy for about two years. Participation is growing. There are currently 15 residents and five apprentices at MAPLE. Participants tend to be in their 20s and 30s, although people from all ages come to the academy. It’s just that younger people generally have less tying them down — no kids, no mortgages, Mr. Park said.
Regardless of age or circumstance, Mr. Park said: “Everyone here has to sit in silence and face their demons.”
Mr. Thorson has committed two more years of his life to the academy where he says he’ll continue to form a deeper relationship with himself in order to form deeper relationships with others.
Two days after Mr. Thorson emerged from his remote cabin, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis cop. When asked if all that sitting in silence made him feel truly more prepared for a world in crisis, he said: “The only way to relate to these huge events unfolding is if you’re solidly grounded in your own body and love and care.
“We need a diversity of approaches in order to make structural changes,” he said, adding that, at the monastic academy, he’s actively creating an alternative to dominant society.
“I see it as resisting the current system, building consciousness, and building new institutions that can replace the old.”