Yesterday I returned from a two-day meditation retreat run by the Buddhist University in Chiang Mai. I signed up via email and had no idea what to expect, except that I would be taught some meditation techniques and that I had to wear white, modest non-transparent clothing. I decided to take my chances with the standard issue clothing, as if I were to pick out my outfit, I would surely choose something cute, and kind of defeat the purpose.
Other than that, there were no rules to adhere to, but I decided that in order to truly ‘retreat’ I would leave behind my cell phone, camera, books, etc, anything that would distract me from the seemingly impossible task of being present in the moment.
You see, I struggle with this big time. When I wake up in the morning, the cogs of my brain start turning and before long, they’re spinning out of control, worrying, planning, imagining, projecting. And yes, even though we’re travelling and really don’t have much to worry about, I still seem to find something!
I had considered doing a ten-day silent retreat in a month or so, but thought that before I go into something like that with just me and my head for company, I’d better learn some techniques that might ensure we can get along.
The night before, we watched the movie Shutter Island on TV. Great movie, bad idea before going to a secluded location with a bunch of strangers in white suits. See it, you’ll know what I mean.
So there I was, in my white, modest, non-transparent clothing, with a bunch of people I didn’t know, hoping to learn how to quiet my chattering mind, which of course was not co-operating, as it tried to label and pigeon-hole the others, the couple who can’t take their hands off each other, the chatty Spanish girl, and the hippie girl with long braids.
Aaaah, the force is weak with this one, Buddha.
Back at the university we were introduced to ‘our Monk’, Monk Joelee, a nickname he gave himself by combining parts of his first and last name. He gave a ‘lecture’ on Thai Buddhism, complete with a Powerpoint presentation that lasted an hour and a half and I have to say, I was enthralled. It was so interesting! Plus he he did clear something up for me which was:
Q: Why do monks have mobile phones when they are supposed to shun materialism?
A: To communicate, silly!
Monk Joelee pulled out his mobile phone, saying “I have Samsung, touch screen. Then they bring out new Samsung Galaxy, with a bigger screen, but I already have a phone, so I don’t buy that one.”
I decided I liked Monk Joelee very much, though I was slightly glad that Tyrhone wasn’t there to argue that a brand new Samsung galaxy phone would bring nothing but pure, unadulterated technological pleasure.
At the meditation centre, forty minutes out of Chiang Mai, we gathered in the meditation hall for our first session. Monk Joelee was seated on a raised platform, so that we could all see him, and he looked absolutely beautiful in his orange origami-like folded robes, sat cross-legged in front of three gilded Buddha statues. Yet there was nothing pompous or contrived about him. No sense that he was trying to impress us with his holiness, he just was. As though there was really nothing between him and us. I felt this idea quite strongly at the time, and would become more and more aware of his lack of ego (the only word I can use to describe it, though he didn’t use it once) as the time went on.
Plus I had no idea of his age, he could have been anything from 25 to 45. I really couldn’t say.
We began by learning to pay our respects to the ‘Triple Gems’ which sounded so cool, like a trio of disco dancers from the seventies or something.
Put your hands together for The Triple Gems, ladies and gentlemen, and don’t mind the latex and the afros…
Maybe the name was lost in translation, but there was no disco dancing involved. There was, however some lovely chanting sent through the loud-speaker via the microphone placed in Monk Joelee’s waistband, which we were encouraged to sing along with as we knelt down, sitting on our heels. We payed our respects firstly to the Buddha, then the Dhamma (which include his teachings and nature), and then the original monks who became enlightened and decided to spread the word about Buddhism.
He reiterated that Buddha was a man, not a God, and therefore this was not worship, simply paying respects. He took us through the simple process of making a ‘wai’ with our hands (a prayer position in front of the chest), then raising it to our forehead, before ‘prostrating’, which is like a bow, down to the ground.
He then took us through some guided walking meditations, chanting “lifting, treading” as we slowly lifted our feet and placed them down, synchronizing the movement with the words to bring our mind into total concentration. Supposedly. My mind wandered all over the place, sometimes the most random thoughts entering my consciousness. I was like “why the hell and I thinking about that?!” Oops, another thought.
This really didn’t come as a shock to me, so I used the technique of vipassana (insight) meditation we were taught, which is to acknowledge whatever is happening.
So when a thought came into my head, I acknowledged it with the words “thinking, thinking, thinking” which I repeated to myself until the thought disappeared and I returned to “lifting, treading” and the next thought would come, and so on. I found this technique really useful. I had the impression that if I couldn’t clear my mind, I wasn’t having successful meditation, but the monk assured us that we wouldn’t be able to clear our minds completely, and that this wasn’t the point anyway. The point, apparently, is to acknowledge the mind, and note it. So if you’re in pain, you say “pain, pain, pain”, or if you are distracted by noise, “hearing, hearing, hearing”.
What a relief! Just acknowledging what was instead of what I thought it should be gave me freedom to just accept my mind, my thoughts and my distractions not as failure, but as part of being human. The benefit of meditation, according to the monk, is to learn to ‘clean your mind.’ And he used a great analogy to describe this, by asking us “What happens to your body when you don’t wash for five days?”
“Nobody want to say to a Monk, right? You get smelly! What about your mind? What happens if you live your life and never clean your mind?”
He gave a whole new meaning to the term dirty mind.
“Man, my mind must be filthy!” I thought to myself.
But seriously, it made so much sense to me. We spend so much of our energy on maintaining the physical and the material (washing, preening, grooming, cleaning our cars, houses, our inboxes!), but what about the mind?
Before dinner, we chanted again, about the food and the fact that it was to be eaten for sustenance, rather than pleasure. Now those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will probably know that I love my food. I mean, don’t we all, really? And I probably eat too much of it.
Don’t we all really?
I found it quite a challenge to have my food sitting there in front of me while I went through the sheet of chants, saying things like:
The food shall not be eaten in a gluttonous manner.
I was starving!
Then I realised I wasn’t starving at all, and that I wasn’t going to die waiting an extra five minutes to eat my food, which I might add, was delicious. I thought it ironic that,
a) the food was actually really good, and
b) after we finished chanting about only eating to ease the suffering of hunger, Monk Joelee said “enjoy your meal.”
That’s the thing about Buddhism, some things seem radical, like not killing mosquitoes, but really, everything is just to make you think about what you’re doing and to be mindful rather than just unconsciously doing them. Especially eating. The food at the retreat was wholesome, vegetarian (of course) and tasty, but it was simple and there wasn’t piles of it, so whatever I had I appreciated.
And I forgot to mention that we ate in silence, which also helped to be mindful of the food. I sat alone, because I don’t think I could eat with people and not acknowledge them in some way, unlike the chatty Spanish girl, who thought that silence just meant whispering. She was so adorable, however, I found it quite amusing.
Then we were off for another mediation session, which included sitting and lying, before we were sent to our rooms like naughty children for lights out.
Hmm, no books, no tv, no computer, how the hell am I going to get to sleep?
I was sharing a room with another girl, who was lovely, but I did not have much of a chance to get to her know before the silence was enforced. It sounds silly, but although I wanted to adhere to the silence and challenge myself to just be, without blabbing, I felt kind of rude.
So I used some of the techniques I learnt, and counted my breaths after every “inhale, exhale,” until I eventually drifted off to sleep.
A five am bell woke us up, with time for a quick coffee (thank God!) before a morning yoga practice and more meditation. The yoga helped to expel some energy from the muscles and joints, and prepare us for a day of sitting still and walking slowly.
After breakfast, we had a group discussion about the meditation, and then we were able to ask Monk Joelee any questions we had from, “what is the meaning of life?” to “why do monks wear orange robes?” It was another wonderful, down-to-earth insight into the Buddhist way of life, and the monk fielded all of our questions with grace, acceptance and non-judgement.
Whilst some people questioned the Buddhist beliefs, I inquired how the monks shared out the food they collected during their morning alms ceremony. Monk Joelee discussed the practicalities of alms collection, like someone putting a whole watermelon in his bowl which he can’t refuse, but then he has to eat watermelon all day because there’s no room for anything else. You know, the big issues.
We then broke for lunch (and a short lay down!) before continuing the mediations. I felt more relaxed in the sitting position, which came as quite a surprise to me as I am usually fidgety. By counting my inhalations and exhalations, the time between thoughts grew greater, and at one point I made it to ten breaths without a single thought entering my head. Ten breaths!
During the walking meditations, when I found my mind wandering, I found comfort in realising that the only thing I had to concern myself with in the whole world was lifting my right foot and putting it down, then lifting my left and putting it down. And though my mind fought the simplicity of that notion, I knew that in that moment, it was all that truly existed for me, and nothing else mattered or existed or was worthy of my attention.
There I was, walking very slowly and mindfully to the words of a Thai Monk: “Lifting…Treading…” his melodic voice guiding my body to move in unison with the words and my mind to focus on the action of my feet only. Tyrhone, my family, this blog, unchecked emails, travel plans, dreams, aspirations and even myself really had no bearing on that moment. In fact, they didn’t even exist.
On the way home, I found myself feeling really, really good. And though had a quiet nagging feeling of returning to the ‘real world’ and reconnecting to my phone, my computer and my emails, I resisted the urge to turn anything on until this afternoon. And no, there weren’t a thousand people wanting a piece of me, everything was just fine.
This morning I awoke to my alarm as the red sun rose over the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai. Groggy, I proceeded to the roof terrace for my meditation. They say start as you intend to finish , or something like that, so I guess I have made a start. It’s for the benefit of me and everyone around me that I take care of my mind, so in actual fact it is probably the most important thing I can do on any given day. I hope I can find the dicipline to continue… Other wise I’ll just go on another retreat to bask in the peaceful, beautiful, humble wisdom of Monk Joelee.
The retreats are run by Monkchat, a program making Buddhism accessible for foreigners visiting Chiang Mai. Check out ther website for information on meditation retreats, which are informative, interesting and beneficial. What I took away from the retreat is that Buddhism is focused primarily on relieving suffering of all living beings, which creates peace and harmony for all.
The retreats are run at a minimal cost to cover food and transport, and the meditation centre is run by donations from people who want to teach Buddhism to visitors, in the hope of creating a more peaceful world.