On the last day of the retreat, I was so happy to leave that I could hardly meditate. My last two sessions weren't the best, but I was confident in what I had learned and eager to implement some of the concepts such as living intentionally, spreading love and kindness and a meditation session into my daily routine.
As the taxis pulled away a bomb of relief and chatter exploded among us. For the first time, I was able to meet the people I had spent the past four days with. Part of me felt like I already knew them really well, then I realized I just knew what they looked like really well; I didn't even know which countries they were from!
That night we all went out for dinner and spent hours discussing the retreat, our travels, our daily lives and how the experience had changed us. I soon discovered there was an artificial intelligence Phd, a yoga and meditation teacher, an advertising executive from New York, a medium and a psychiatrist among the group. And despite our many differences in age and walks of life, we had all come to the retreat for the same reasons; to learn more about ourselves and calm our monkey minds.
With my first few steps back into society, everything seemed different. I felt happier and I noticed all the people selling fruit and drinks in the street and smiled at them and silently wished them love and kindness, but most of all I felt submerged in the moment. Colors were brighter, sounds clearer and I was so much more thankful for all the goodness in my life.
Looking back on the past four days, there were a lot of times when I wanted to quit, but I always had enough strength inside of me to pull myself from those ruts. I am beginning to realize just how powerful the mind is and the importance of being able to turn off the monkey mind and truly know oneself. Although I am still very imperfect and have a bit of a jumping monkey mind, all I can do from here on out is recognize these realities and live imperfectly but with great delight, and intentionally with great purpose.
Dong, dong, dong, the sound grew more intense with each clash of the stick against the metal gong. I remembered Joelee's threat that if our room light wasn't on by five A.M. he would ring the gong outside of our door, and I immediately flicked the light switch. I had tossed on the thin mattress supported by a built in concrete bed frame all night and was in no state to think about meditation or personal enlightenment at this hour. I reluctantly lifted myself out of bed and my day proceeded as such:
5:30 chanting meditation
8:00 discussion group-my favorite hour of the day where we were allowed to talk and ask Joelee any questions about Buddhism or meditation.
10:00 walking meditation, sitting meditation
1:00 walking meditation, sitting meditation
7:00 walking meditation, sitting meditation
8:30 chanting meditation
9:00 lying meditation, bed
It seemed like there was a routine for everything. Before we meditated we had to chant, before breakfast we had to offer food to the monk and before any meal we had to contemplate on our food before eating it.
In Buddhist culture, the monks wander the streets and markets each morning in search of food. They walk with their empty bowls and patiently wait outside each door depending on the goodness of the locals to provide their daily nourishment. Later, they eat however little or much food was given to them for breakfast and lunch. They don't eat after noon, as to not suffer from desiring food and to remember the use of it as a means for living, not a luxury.
Offering the monk food became our daily routine. We would gather small bowls of rice and stand side by side as the monk passed down the line allowing us to pile our rice into his bowl.
Afterwards, we enjoyed our own breakfast. We sat with our steaming bowls of rice and soup in front of us and chanted our contemplation on food in Sanskrit, later repeating the English translation in unison:
We must contemplate on the food before eating it
So that it is not eaten for pleasure or fun
So that it is not eaten for beauty or attraction
Only for the nourishment of this body
And to destroy the feeling of hunger for awhile
I appreciated the intentionality with which everything was done at the meditation center. I tend to find myself rushing through life, doing things absent-mindedly and rarely acknowledging people in passing. This purpousefulness was refreshing and an aspect of Buddhism that I wanted to bring into my own life.
Each day dripped by slow as honey and losing its sweetness by the end. The meditation was fine. I could concentrate my thoughts and reach a relaxed state during each session, it was the little bits of free time before and after each meal and between meditation sessions that eventually drove me crazy. There were so few distractions at the center that my mind resorted to what it already knew for entertainment. I felt as if I were stranded in the vastest desert on the hottest summer day with absolutely nothing or no one in sight for miles. I drove my thoughts in endless circles thriving on past memories and obsessing over the future, the images revolving like a broken record making me positively crazy. It was ironic that I had come on the retreat with hopes of living in the present moment and pushing my thoughts of the past or worries of the future aside, and here I was able to focus on everything but the present.
At one point I was so frustrated that all I could think about was home. I didn't want to meditate or even be in Thailand anymore. A home with my family, a warm house and nice conversation seemed like heaven and the only way out.
It was my mind that had brought me to this low point and now all I had was my mind to get me out of it. I decided to take a break from one of the sessions and go for a walk. Just at the perfect time I met Chang, the administrator at the center. He asked me how my meditation was going and I began telling him about my trip through Thailand and my home in Colorado. Honestly, I didn't care what we talked about, I was so happy to be talking that I asked question after question just to delay my return to reality. After a few minutes Joelee noticed us and told me to go back to meditating. I did, but with a new joy inside and enthusiasm that I would be able to finish the course.
That evening, my brain wandered off. As I sat contemplating the numbness rushing into my leg from sitting too long, colorful flashes of light and a slide reel of images flowed into my mind. I saw places known and unknown and people going about their daily lives. I was suddenly in he middle of a field below the bluest of blue skies, hovering above a Pixar-worthy rolling green landscape with perfectly shaped cotton ball clouds. I didn't feel my leg anymore and outside sounds were of no importance. When I tried to divert my mind from this dream state, I could focus on thoughts for only a brief second before they were destroyed by these new exciting images and blissful state. Suddenly the gong rang and it was time to wake up. I slowly returned back into the present, exhilarated that I had finally reached a true meditative state. I was ready to tackle day four with strong spirits, implementing all I had learned and preparing to take my new knowledge with me when I returned to reality.
In the meditation center with Joelee
"Your mind is like a monkey; jumping around out of control and really smelly. You wouldn't go a day without bathing would you? Why would you go a day without cleaning your mind?"
This was the best analogy Joelee could think of to explain meditation to a bunch of westerners. Somehow, watching a monk give a PowerPoint presentation didn't seem normal. PowerPoint was for corporate America, not orange-robed, bald-headed monks who spend years wandering trough the jungle seeking enlightenment. But, he assured us he did not suffer from technology, thus it was acceptable to use.
Joelee would be guiding us through our meditative journeys for the next four days. He had been a monk since the age of 16, got his masters degree in India and was now a professor at the Buddhist university in Chiang Mai. Before we left for the meditation center he gave us an overview of Buddhism and Thai culture. Contrary to popular belief, Buddhism isn't a religion but rather a way of life. They believe in karma and strive to constantly spread love and kindness to all living beings. The pain and suffering we experience in life is caused by attachment. When a loved one leaves us or harms us, or we lose a material item we have become dependent on, we experience this negative feeling. The only way to minimize pain and suffering is through detachment, achieved through meditation. Joelee told us that meditation can also be used to access the subconscious and even learn about your previous lives! The main focus of our retreat was to use meditation as a means to calm our monkey minds and gain mental clarity.
After our informational session we departed for the retreat center. Surprisingly, it was much more westernized than I had expected. We were provided with cushions for sitting on the floor, hot running water, three meals a day and an unlimited supply of coffee! We changed into our white outfits and the silence began. While calming the monkey mind, it is important to eliminate as many distractions as possible, thus the white clothes and no talking.
Joelee gave us a brief introduction on how to meditate and we began. I sat. My arm itched, the clock ticked, my leg fell asleep and thoughts rushed in every direction through my mind like a stampede. The five minutes passed like molasses. That was it, meditation was not for me. After the first short session, he gave us a few more tips and we did another. This time, I was able to block out all the distraction noises and substantially slow my thinking. Even though I didn't actually reach a meditative state, it felt really good.
Next, Joelee taught us walking meditation. We went through each movement so slowly and with emphasized intention chanting, "heel up, lifting, moving, lowering, toe down, treading" with each step. Everything we did-whether walking or sitting-had to be intentional and acknowledged. If we heard a sound or felt pain we were instructed to repeat, "hearing hearing, or pain pain" over and over as a way to recognize it and attempt to detach ourselves from it. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to control your mind so well you can separate it from the feelings of your physical body.
We spent the rest of the evening alternating between walking and sitting meditation. By the end of the night I could block out almost all distractions and focus on one idea or image for a substantial amount of time. Things were improving!
By now we had spent at least three hours meditating and I was exhausted! I was beginning to learn that this monkey taming business does not come easy. I couldn't have been happier for our nine P.M. bedtime. However, I was soon jolted out of bed at five A.M. by an unwelcomed gong ringing outside my window.
Meditators hard at work
Four days ago, I had never meditated for a minute in my life. To be honest, I thought meditation was just a fancy word for sitting and thinking. Didn't I do enough of that already? In the past six months I've spent so much time on buses, trains and planes sitting alone and thinking that I probably could have written an Academy Award-worthy screenplay. Too bad I spent most of my thinking time pondering things like how to catch a baby koala and what life would be like if I had Cheetos for toes, instead of putting my mental effort towards a productive cause.
The fact of the matter is that I wanted to meet a monk. So I put my college degree-worthy research skills to use and started googling. Where do monks hang out? The temple. What do monks do? Meditate. Do monks talk to women? Rarely. Would a monk talk to me if I meditated? Maybe.Thus, I vowed to enter the world of meditation in hopes of meeting a somewhat westernized monk who might be willing to tell me a little bit about monk life and Buddhism.
Return to google: meditation retreat in Thailand with monks. Hmmm, all that seemed to pop up were ten day silent meditation retreats. Eight to ten hours a day of sitting on a hard floor, no eating past noon, no talking, daily chores, no eye contact, no running water, ten days. *gasp*
Returning to my habit of brainless decision making, I thought, "I could do that. Even though I've never meditated a day in my life and really believe its only for yogis, psychics and earth muffins (and I don't consider myself any of the above), it will be a good personal challenge and educational experience."
I had myself half convinced and was contemplating whether I should email the temple to register. I soon realized that there was a logistical issue with the dates of the retreat and the length of my Thai visa, so I wouldn't be able to attend. After a few more clicks on google, I found a fellow travel blog commenting on a four day meditation retreat she had attended in the north of Thailand. Perfect! I was headed north, the dates fit well with my visa and it seemed a little more realistic than ten days of silence.
Little did I know at the time, I would look back on the experience eternally grateful for my visa stars and ten day retreat stars not aligning. I was about to begin the longest four days of my life...the quest to tame what my monk instructor would later call the monkey mind.