I intend to follow all of the rules and guidelines for meditators except one. I will write in the evenings to record this experience for my own record and to share with others. Because I cannot talk, I cannot read, I cannot check email or use a computer, and in fact, there is very little that I am allowed to do other than meditate, I predict I might have a lot to write.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of Northern Thailand’s most sacred temples. First established in 1383, the temple’s story goes that a white elephant carrying an ancient relic stopped and died at this location thereby choosing where the temple would be built. On a hot day with a heavy backpack on, I was greeted by a 306-step staircase leading to the top of the mountain, where rests Wat Doi Suthep. Sharing this mountain’s summit is the International Buddhism Center, which offers meditation retreats from 3 to 21 days. The Buddhism Center has two resident monks and a staff of many more, along with the monks and nuns living in its larger compound. The smiles of the two monks are both copious and contagious, and they set the atmosphere for the week ahead.
Before starting, I attempt to prepare for my newest adventure by reading the highly reviewed “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. This book, similar to the center at Wat Doi Suthep, focuses on vipassana meditation, loosely translated as “insight” meditation. Vipassana meditation is one of two major types addressed in Buddhism, the other being samatha, which can be translated as “concentration” or “tranquility”. That said, the vipassana meditator still uses concentration as a tool by which to achieve greater awareness. Many vipassana meditation techniques focus on breath, and through this concentration, one will hopefully attain mindfulness with bare attention to the process of breathing. In other words, vipassana meditation should teach us to see the functioning of our own minds in a calm and detached manner to gain insight into our own behavior. It will not bring me into a trance. The goal is not to become psychic, and it is not to learn levitation. It is not to run away from reality. The goal is awareness, and concentration and relaxation are necessary steps. Finally, through awareness, hopefully, this practice of meditation will purify the mind and eliminate greed, hatred, and jealousy. Lofty goals.
I arrive in the early morning and am handed a standard form to fill out and return to the staff. Name, surname, passport number, the usual is presented on the form; however, one question in particular catches my attention. Why do I want to meditate? The vague yet most truthful answer is my curiosity; however, when I think more, there must be other forces driving me to meditate. Why else would I wake up well before the sun, eat only breakfast, lunch, and no dinner, and sit cross-legged for uncomfortable periods of time? Maybe, in a week, I will better learn why I chose to meditate.
Arriving early to the center allowed me the opportunity to meet another meditator from France before starting. After a quick conversation, I am very aware that this is the last person I will talk to before remaining silent for a week. There are several others that wander into the center, but by the time they arrive, the mood already shifts and no one talks. Now, I am left to wonder how their voices sound, what accents they might have, and where they are all from.
Before being shown our rooms, we receive a crash course on sitting and walking meditation from one of the monks. Dressed in his burnt orange robes, he goes over the basics as I have my first opportunity to practice sitting cross-legged on the ground for a little over an hour. For sitting meditation, I am pleased to learn that sitting cross-legged, in the lotus position, or more comfortably in a chair are all acceptable positions. While sitting, the monk suggests we place our cupped hands with palms facing upwards in the middle of our laps. Then close our eyes, and focus on our breath. From reading various sources before coming, I know there are several ways to facilitate focusing on breath. The method used by this center is to focus on the abdomen rising and falling, and to think those words as we meditate. Rising… falling… rising… falling. About at this point of the demonstration, my right foot is fast asleep and well past the tingling phase.
The monk moves on to the basics of walking meditation, during which we are to think standing… standing… standing… intending to walk… intending to walk… intending to walk… right goes thus… left goes thus… right goes thus… left goes thus… standing… standing… standing… intending to turn… intending to turn… intending to turn… turning… turning… turning… turning… standing… standing… standing… intending to walk… intending to walk… intending to walk… right goes thus… left goes thus… right goes thus… left goes thus. Walking meditation moves back and forth covering an area of about ten meters.
Now that both legs are in deep R.E.M. sleep, I stand up slowly experiencing a bit of a head rush and significant pain as I straighten my knees. On our way to our rooms, we are given a quick tour of the center. The patio where we eat, the meditation hall, and the reporting room are all conveniently in the same building. All areas are very simple but relatively clean and very welcoming. Just outside this main building is a small garden where the landscaping is haphazard at best. Two of the trees are surrounded by concrete benches, spots that might be choice locations for meditating. Throughout the monastery, stray dogs and cats roam freely as monastic teachings say to care for all living beings. We continue down several flights of stairs, easily over 100 steps, and a steep pathway where there is the small chanting hall and our rooms. This might end up being beneficial as the walk up these stairs might be my only exercise. The monk gives us keys to our rooms and tells us that the opening ceremony will begin in a half hour.
My room exceeds expectations. There is only a small twin bed with a very hard mattress, a stiff pillow, blankets, and a mat to sit on during meditation, but the room is very clean, has screens on the windows and door, and is relatively spacious. The blankets are colorful and numerous, and make me think I should’ve come at a different time of year when a short walk doesn’t make me sweat profusely. I take a quick, cold shower to at least temporary relieve my body of sweat and head to the opening ceremony.
After only a short walk to the ceremony, I am again dripping with perspiration. The head monk waits for us in the reporting room in the main building, and we all file in and find a pillow to sit on. There is some ritual to the opening ceremony involving incense, candles, and vases, and we all just do as we are told. The monk imparts some more advice about what we should expect and the challenges we will face in the upcoming week, and gives us our first homework assignment. We are to lay in bed before sleep, place our hand on our abdomens between our navel and chest, and feel our stomachs rising and falling, rising and falling. After standing up at the conclusion of the ceremony, the monk notices my discomfort and tells me it will get easier.
Later in the day, chanting reminds me of Hebrew School as I am given the transliteration of the Thai words and follow along with the melody provided by the monk. This triggered memory of my childhood makes me feel more comfortable despite my legs again beginning to twitch a little with discomfort.
I get up well before the sun today and will do so for the next many. First thing, the day starts with a Dhamma Talk where the head monk teaches us lessons and tells us stories to best illustrate his ideas. Along with the broad themes of happiness and sadness, he also speaks of the challenges of meditation versus the challenges of every day life. He describes previous students who had difficult jobs, who faced difficult situations at home, and others who experienced great happiness, which he illustrates through a marriage proposal story. At the end of his talk, he hands out a piece of paper with the following written on it about Metta or Loving Kindness:
Loving Kindness for Self and Others: May I be happy, free from suffering, free from enmity, diseases and grief, free from troubles, difficulties and dangers and be protected for all misfortune. May all sentient beings be happy, free from suffering, free from enmity, diseases, and grief, free from troubles, difficulties and dangers and be protected from all misfortune.
From the moment the dhamma talk finishes, the day seems to be full of distractions. I am usually less aware of how much my mind wanders; however, this fact becomes overly apparent as I practice the meditation techniques I was taught the day before. My first couple goes at sitting meditation had me thinking about almost anything except for rising… falling… rising… falling. I hear the stray dogs playing in the garden. I hear running water just outside the window. I feel the mosquito bites around my ankle and on my back scream for attention. I sense a fly on my forehead. I remember that the NCAA National Championship game is occurring today. I feel hot. I hear a door open. I smell Thai cooking. I hear a cat meow. I hear someone knock something over. I try to go back to rising… falling… rising… falling.
I quickly learn that meditation is like an endurance sport. Concentration, discomfort, practice, and most importantly, desire are all components of finding success. Luckily, I can relate to endurance sports through my cross country training and half-marathon running. Unfortunately, in the sport of meditation, there is only minimal energy release. I feel I am burning calories by just thinking as I’ve heard chess masters can burn thousands of calories during a top level match; however, in my case, I don’t think I am expending as much energy as I am used to. Before this week, I was walking many miles each day or I was hiking or I was being active by zipping through forests or cooking dinners. The pace of life has just slowed down dramatically. This afternoon, I feel going for a run around the monastery would relax me more than anything, but alas, it is against the rules, and except for the one about writing, I plan to stay disciplined.
With walking meditation I have more luck. The physical movement associated with walking with the greater variance in thought between standing, intending to move, and moving, facilitate my prolonged focus. The running water and the dogs barking slightly dull in the background. I am still easily distracted, but not at the same level that I experienced with sitting meditation.
In the afternoon, I have the opportunity to talk for about 10 to 15 minutes with the lead monk, who actually does most of the talking during this session. He reiterates that difficulties in meditation are normal and that with enough practice, I will improve. I tell him that walking meditation is easier than sitting, and he understands and gives me another step to consider when walking. Instead of simply thinking right goes thus and then left goes thus, I should think about lifting and putting each step. In other words, break up the process of walking even farther and divide each step into two parts. His smile throughout our session more than his words is what makes me feel comfortable and confident about continuing.
At some point during the day after my chat with the monk, my curiosity wants to know more about my fellow meditators’ stories. The only story I have begun to know is that of Aurelieu, my French friend, who I met briefly before the start of the silence. He is currently staying in Thailand and learning the art of Thai massage. He has been traveling for about five months and plans to travel for one year in total. In addition, he is curious about meditation for many reasons including its strong link to Thai massage. This, however, is only one small part of one person’s story. When I first arrived, there were 12 others staying at the monastery and three more joined today. That leaves 15 reasons for why people wanted to learn to meditate. Some faces look more troubled while others look very relaxed and at peace. Some of my fellow meditators smile while others will not smile back even when I smile. When my mind is wandering, I find myself making up stories for the others although I think it’s best to keep those to myself.
With the wind picking up in the evening, we all chant together again, after which, we learn part of the story of the second and younger monk. He has only been at this center for 3 weeks and has recently graduated from university, and thus he admits to still being a full-time student of meditation. It is also comforting to learn that he is very hungry at this point seeing as we are not allowed solid food between noon and dawn. After sharing his story, he teaches us a couple Buddhist customs and traditions so that we can better understand some of the activities that are surrounding us.
Before retiring for the night, I try to feel slightly fuller by silently drinking coco and tea with some of my fellow meditators. Afterwards, the last thing I do is walk up to the Doi Suthep temple and look out at the lights of Chiang Mai, an expansive, yet flat city. With the wind in my face and the temple lit up behind me, I gain a small bit of confidence that tomorrow I will find more meditative success.
No one other than me is controlling my thoughts; therefore, I must be able to control my mind. Then why can I not concentrate on something as basic as breath for periods of 15 minutes at a time? Why when I try to focus on something so simple does my mind misbehave and wander off? Controlling the external world is impossible; therefore, we are taught to control our internal world, our minds. Force the mind to concentrate on a specific task or object and attempt to not lose that focus. Today, I want to prove to myself that I am able to do this even if currently only for a very short time.
I wake up this morning and instead of a Dhamma talk, I have the opportunity to practice meditation. I go up to the garden as to not be tempted to get back into bed, sit on a concrete bench surrounding one of the trees, close my eyes, and start quietly reciting rising… falling… rising… falling. Not long after I begin, focusing on my stomach’s movements has made me aware that along with rising and falling it is churning with hunger. I have not eaten since yesterday’s lunch, and my body and especially stomach are making this abundantly clear. I am hungry. But I try to bring myself back to rising… falling… rising… falling. I spend fifteen minutes sitting and then move to fifteen minutes walking. Then back to sitting; then back to walking. Now, I’m about 20 minutes from breakfast, the smell of the food is wafting in my direction, and I don’t even attempt to focus on anything else. I go get a big cup of tea and prepare to eat.
After a private tour of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a shower, and a couple more attempts at meditation, I eat lunch, after which is the only time of day that I come close to approaching a full feeling in my stomach. It is during this lunch that I notice I am taking myself much too seriously. Yes, meditation is a difficult task that requires intense focus and effort, but I need to relax more and possibly try approaching the entire situation with a lighter attitude. I need to smile more. I need to not worry about how long I can sit cross-legged. I need to better enjoy the tasty but limited food. I need to take naps in the middle of the day if tired. I need to have fun. I need to let go.
After lunch, I go to the meditation hall in the main building and put in some practice time. I feel that I am doing better than before in that the percentage I spend letting my mind wander has decreased substantially. That said, I still hear the running water and the cat’s meow and doors opening and closing. I still hear the twitter of the tropical birds whose tweets are unfortunately not hindered by the 140 character limit. And I still hear Thai chatter in the distance. Every fifteen minutes, I switch between sitting and walking meditation for close to two hours. Afterwards, I return to the reporting room to discuss my progress with the head monk. The monk adds a wrinkle to both meditation types. In sitting meditation, I am now to think rising… falling… sitting… rising… falling… sitting, and in walking meditation, I now break up each step into three parts being lifting… moving… putting. In addition, instead of practicing both types in only 15-minute intervals, I am to try to sustain 20-minutes.
I return to my room for a quick nap and wake up to the crack of thunder outside. I use the sound-numbing heavy rain to my meditative advantage, find a seat outside my room under an awning, and practice using the monk’s new instructions. The thunder storm continues intermittently the rest of the day and through our chanting session in the evening. At day’s end, I try to fill myself up on Ovaltine and tea so as to not fall asleep with a completely empty stomach.
The day began with a rude reminder that I’m still surrounded by jungle. Probably due to a myriad of reasons culminating in last night’s thunder storm, a certain large-winged insect found the conditions perfect to emerge and mate. The sky was thick with wings, so much so that I was careful to breathe only out of my nose to avoid eating any early morning protein. Before noticing these bugs’ presence, I go to the outside sinks to brush my teeth and wash my face, and when my mouth is full of suds, I realize that by turning on a light, I have made these winged creatures of the night very excited. The light continues to attract more and more flies, but I cannot turn it off until I am done at least rinsing my mouth using my water bottle. These creatures seem to lose their wings, become long crawling insects, and eventually find their mates. I observe this complicated process happen repeatedly as we sit and listen to the head monk during his morning Dhamma talk.
From the many Dhamma talks given by the monks, I am beginning to formulate a better idea of Buddhism. Unlike other religions, Buddhism did not start with a divine message, and it is not a system of faith requiring allegiance to a supernatural being. Instead, it is based on an individual’s experience of using his own energy to eliminate evil thoughts, words, and actions, and to purify his mind by making himself enlightened or awakened.
After the talk, we try to step over the unavoidable wings on our way to breakfast. Food at the monastery is simple, usually consisting of rice, noodles, soup and some sort of vegetable. A little protein is added to each meal in the form of eggs or tofu, and if I’m lucky, both. I cannot determine exactly how tasty each meal is because my hunger level makes almost everything taste good.
I practice the new techniques I was taught for both sitting and walking meditations on both sides of eating lunch. In my one-on-one monk chat today, we add yet another wrinkle to walking meditations. Now, each step is broken to four components being heal up… lifting… moving… putting. As I practice sitting meditation, one of my greater challenges is to remain perfectly motionless. Sitting still when fully enthralled with a movie or book or game is difficult for me, so one could imagine that sitting still while only focusing on my breath is almost impossible. I make that the goal of the day. Sit still for 20 minutes in the cross-legged position with my back well-postured, regardless of how my body may feel. Although the goal is eventually achieved, it comes at a price. Upon standing up after a successful 20 minutes without moving, I cannot feel the ground beneath my feet and am careful not to lose balance. I take a closer look at my feet and am relieved to find that they have not lost any color; therefore, I conclude I am not blocking blood circulation by sitting cross-legged. That said, I am definitely blocking a nerve. The monks have told me that over time, as my tendons become more flexible, I should experience this sensation less and less. More than the completely numb sensation, the more painful feeling occurs as my legs “wake-up”. However, despite the discomfort, I am excited about my meditative progress.
The post-chanting talk by the head monk was on the meditation condition known as monkey mind. Monkey mind is the inability to control one’s mind from wandering while trying to meditate. The take home message from this short talk was not to get flustered when our minds wander and instead calmly explore why it wandered before returning back to rising… falling… rising… falling. For example, when my legs start hurting me, try to understand that feeling, and then possibly I can have pain without suffering. My legs will continue to hurt but I will hopefully be able to think past them. I end this day with this positive tip, a dinner of Ovaltine and tea, and shooing a cockroach out of my room before retiring to bed around 9pm.
First concentration, then mindfulness. Mindfulness means being clearly and immediately connected to the present moment. Concentration provides the techniques for how awareness and mindfulness can be achieved, and through meditation, I am now practicing concentration. I concentrate on my breathing and how my body reacts to it, and I concentrate on how to walk one step at a time. When my mind becomes distracted, I notice the distraction and then return to rising… falling… rising… falling.
Today, I try to step out of the distractions. In other words, when I hear a sound, instead of conceptualizing who made the sound, where it comes from, and what the repercussions might be, I try to simply be mindful of the process of hearing. I want to view the sound as waves hitting my ear drum and the signal being transferred as a mechanical signal to a chemical signal to an electrical signal and then to my brain. I want to process sound as only noise and try not to conceptualize beyond that noise. This is what I am learning mindfulness to be. Mindfulness is not necessarily avoiding hearing the sound all together, instead, it is how I hear the sound. The same can be said for the pain in my legs. And the same can also be said for the food that I smell or breezes that I feel or thoughts that I have. I should recognize that I am having a thought, step outside of it in a third person manner, and notice that I am thinking. Possibly, I can try to answer subtle questions about the nature of the thought, the length of the thought, and the strength of the thought. This is easier written than practiced, but this phenomenon is something I will work on as I continue to meditate.
Two quotes from Bhante Henepola Guarantana in his book, “Mindfulness in Plain English” that relate well to this point are as follows:
“We usually do not look into what is actually there in front of us. We see life through a screen of thoughts and concepts, and we mistake those mental objects for reality.”
“Insight meditation is a practice of investigative personal discovery.”
Mindfulness is not only something to experience while meditating. At the monastery, we are encouraged to be mindful in every action, including eating. For each meal, there is a sheet next to us with the following message:
Wisely Reflecting, I use the Alms Food.
Not for Entertainment, nor Intoxication,
Not for Fattening, nor Beautification,
Only for the Continuation and Nourishment of this Body,
For Keeping it Healthy,
And for Supporting the Holy Life,
Contemplating, thus I will destroy the old feeling (of Hunger),
And not create a new feeling (of Over-Eating).
Thus there will be for me freedom from illness and I will live in ease.
The philosophy of mindfulness is clearly being practiced by the monks at this monastery. From the wonderfully slow pace of life and watching how each of the monks and each of my fellow meditators make their movements so deliberately, I realize one of my goals of this week is to learn to avoid letting life pass by too quickly. Although not always possible, when I can, I want to slow down and try to absorb and appreciate all that surrounds me.
As a final note on the day, one more piece is added to my sitting meditation. My mantra while sitting is now rising… falling… sitting… touching. For touching, I am to be aware of an area about the size of a quarter on first the right size of my lower back and then the left, alternating sides between each round of rising and falling of the abdomen. I hope that having more to concentrate on while meditating will help me maintain a prolonged focus.
I am approaching the end of my stay at the monastery and I want to comment on some of the rules to which I’ve been asked to adhere. Some have been easy to follow such as no stealing, no drugs or alcohol, no beautification, no wrong speech, no cigarettes, and no luxurious seats or beds. Although I enjoy ending a day with a cold glass of beer as much as anyone else, none of these things were sorely missed over my week here. Having no luxurious seats and beds was easy to follow because there was no choice, but my neck is a bit stiff as a result of my bed-pillow combination.
Some rules, however, were slightly more challenging including a couple unexpected ones. For example, I am to abstain from killing living beings, and when it comes to mosquitoes, I have a hard time finding compassion, yet even these blood-sucking bugs are living beings and are not to be killed. Abstaining from food has been very difficult as I remember a dream of eating green curry washed down with a cold mango smoothie. Eating only about 1000 calories a day has my body craving more and has my stomach whining.
When it comes to no talking, this is something that with a little discipline is easy to achieve; however, I feel like I am someone who enjoys to talk. The other day when I found a giant toad in the middle of the path that blended in so well with its surroundings, I so wanted to share this discovery with someone else that I waited until someone passed by so that I could simply point with excitement. I know that when I was left alone for a weekend in my old apartment, I used to talk aloud to myself or at least sing with the radio. All in all, abstaining from talking has been easy but unpleasant.
Abstaining from reading, listening to music, checking email, telephone, and so on has also presented a true challenge. The first thing I usually do in the morning after realizing that my alarm has been going off for a while is check my email. Although it has only been one week, I feel very disconnected from my family, my friends, and the major current events in the world. I will admit that I was semi-disconnected from world events by simply traveling, but now that I am completely cut off, and something major may have taken place this last week, and I don’t know about it. Although I wouldn’t put this in the major world events category, I don’t even know who won the NCAA Basketball Championship.
The monastic life style and the discipline required by this meditation retreat has been a significant piece of the entire experience. I am not sure if all these guidelines has helped my meditation or not; however, I do know that by abstaining from this list of things, I have grown to appreciate them more and will initially experience them anew when I leave. And I have noticed that my meditation from start to finish of the week has greatly improved. It may only be because of the hours of practice, but the atmosphere in which the practice took place also may have contributed more than I realize.
I started this week with an open mind and a healthy amount of skepticism. I came to the International Buddhism Center next to Wat Doi Suthep to learn about meditation, about Buddhism, and about a different way of life. Now, along with a greater understanding in those areas, I feel well rested, the blisters on my feet have healed, the swelling on my mosquito bites has decreased (although there are several new bites to scratch), and I am energized to continue.
After 7 days, I feel I have been given the basics of meditation and the rest is now up to me. I appreciate how meditation slows the world down. I appreciate how meditation can make things seem brighter. And I appreciate how meditation both relaxes and seemingly sharpens my mind. I want to gain a greater awareness of the world around me, and I want to possess greater mindfulness. I want to be able to see something, hear something, smell something, touch something, and feel something without having to conceptualize it. Without having to immediately place bias and prejudice on it and without having to understand it in a context that is easily reachable. These are desires I feel meditation can help me achieve, and for that, I am not ready to say that I’ve tried it, it was fun, and now what’s next.
A big question that remains is how and when will I continue to practice the mediation I spent the last week improving. I have grand plans of creating a corner in my next apartment full with meditation pillows and incense sticks, but even if I had said corner, I fear that I might not make finding 20 minutes a day the priority that it should be. The least I feel I should continue is the short time before bed meditating in the lying position. If nothing else, this is a useful means of relaxing, clearing my mind from the stresses of the day, and preparing myself for a more restful night’s sleep. Again, however, I fear that my anticipated sleep deprivation might only allow me only several seconds before falling into a deep sleep.
The solutions above are all means to try to continue meditation when I am not in holiday mode. However, while still traveling, I feel I have fewer excuses not to find at least some time each week to sit down and meditate. Meditating atop the Himalayas or after a hard days work on an olive farm in Italy sound like opportunities much richer than in a corner of my future apartment, and in order to be prepared to have a fulfilling meditation in the many places I am still to visit, I need to continue to practice semi-regularly.