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.