I stared at the ceiling. There were intricate cobwebs with nearly half a dozen spiders sitting perfectly still in their respective corners waiting for an unsuspecting bug to land. I looked at my watch, again. It was only 9:30p.m. and I was wide awake with nothing to do but to stare at the spiders, think about not thinking and hope that sleep would come soon. The alarm was set to go off at 5a.m. Suddenly I heard loud bizarre sounds from an animal that sounded like half toad and half duck. It was uncomfortably close to my room. I could not figure out what was worse – the strange sound outside or the all too familiar spiders inside. I closed my eyes and tried closing my ears (which, by the way, does not really work). It was going to be a long night….
Before I jump into the meditating experience, I want to briefly describe the ashram. Dumpty and I had been super excited and perhaps equally nervous about doing a ten day meditation ashram retreat at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a Theravada Buddhist temple outside of Chiang Mai. It wasn’t a strictly no-speaking ashram but we were encouraged to keep talking to an absolute minimum and definitely no talking in the temple area where the Dhama talks were given and chanting was done. Everyone was given an individual room with a hard bed, an even harder pillow, a God-awful acrylic blanket and some cushions for meditating. The rules were simple:
- Do not kill living beings
- Do not steal
- Do not engage in sexual activity
- Do not engage in false speech
- Do not drink alcohol, smoke or do drugs
- Do not eat anything after 12:30p.m., other than drinking water and tea
- Do not sing, dance, listen to music, wear perfume or make-up
- Do not indulge in sleeping
What do you think was the most difficult rule not to break? Well I will tell you right now that I broke one particular rule multiple times—the no killing rule. The bugs, especially the mosquitos were everywhere. At one point, while sitting cross legged in a room full of other meditators and two monks in front, I slapped my right ankle in reflex. Blood from a now very-dead mosquito was smeared across my skin and I prayed nobody saw it. I was horrified, especially since we had received a lecture earlier on why we don’t kill other living beings. Oops.
Meditating, I quickly realized, was really hard to do. Within the first couple of days I started counting the numbers of days left. Our daily meditation assignments were to do a 15 to 25 minute walking meditation followed by a 15 to 25 minute sitting meditation and then a 5 minute break.
This particular retreat focused on breathing by taking a breath in and thinking “rising” and then by breathing out and thinking “falling” in order to be mindful. I was supposed to acknowledge any and all thoughts that hit me.
But what exactly is mindfulness?
I understood it by first understanding what I and I assume you must do. We are hardly attentive to our life’s experiences and instead are governed by our daily routine. Like brushing our teeth, catching the train to work, cooking dinner, reading emails, etc. We do these things without even thinking about them. We are either zoned out or constantly judging every thought and experience that occurs or happens to us, and, as a result, we don’t get to experience life as it is happening. Mindfulness is the exact opposite. It’s paying attention to thoughts and sensations as they are happening to us without passing judgement or assessing the situation. There are dozens of books outlining the benefits of living a more mindful life, however my number one goal was to increase my self-awareness; that by knowing myself I would be able see the world more clearly and it would ultimately help me make conscience and better decisions. I want to show up for my own existence! And perhaps more importantly, I want to choose how to respond to unchangeable variables in my life–especially the negative ones.
Here are some pictures of the ashram and the dormitories itself
So my typical brain pattern during mindful meditation went like this, “Rising, falling, rising, falling, feeling itching in right toe, feeling itching still, losing circulation in thigh, shit, thinking again, rising, falling, rising, falling, feeling hungry, God I miss Thanksgiving right now, juicy turkey and spicy crunchy sweet potato. When will I have Thanksgiving? I can almost taste it…has it been 15mins yet? Shit, thinking again, rising, falling…”. So as you can tell my first few days were very difficult and there was more thinking and less meditating. In fact I didn’t sleep until 4am one night because I couldn’t stop thinking about people in my life who had deeply angered or saddened me. I waste so much of my energy being angry! I didn’t know how to turn this thinking off and meditating was not helping that night. Even though I was technically surrounded by people, I was frightened (by my thoughts and the bugs) frustrated and lost. Day four was the lowest point at the ashram.
However on my fifth day I had decided to do a walking meditation up this steep hill leading to the temple. I told myself that reaching the top of the hill symbolized achieving my dreams and each difficult step I took symbolized my hardships. The road to my dreams was going to be difficult and slow, but worth it. The walk up the hill normally took 4 minutes to do but doing it as a walking meditation took me 45 minutes! I was sweating by the end of it, and, this will sound cheesy, I actually got emotional at the top–I truly felt what it would be like to actualize my dreams. Unlike day four, day five was my happiest point at the ashram.
During one of our morning lectures the monk told us that we need to be observers of our inner drama rather than be actors of our inner drama. If we learn to live in the present moment and to be in touch with our thoughts as they happen, then it becomes easier to control and act on the daily dramas of our life as they unfold rather than thoughtlessly reacting to them. He told us this was only possible by getting rid of the ego (“I”, “me”, “mine”, etc). Of course when you’ve detached yourself from the outside world in order to dedicate your life to meditation and to the path of the Buddha like our monk did, it all sounded wonderful and easy. But, hello, are there any practical applications of this?
In the end, there were many personal lessons I took away while at the ashram. I didn’t necessarily learn them from the monks, but rather while meditating. Perhaps during one of my “thinking” moments.
First. Pride, at least for me, was the source of all my demons. The major flaw with my passions (i.e. writing, painting, etc) was that they came more from a desire of achieving greater self-worth in my eyes and to a certain degree in other people’s eyes. Even my anger oftentimes stemmed from my pride getting hurt–that my way of thinking was more valid than the other person’s opinion. I’ve often felt a sense of entitled to many things in my life, and anyone who took away what was “rightfully” mine would make me go apeshit. So this pride thing needed to go.
Second. Our essence was energy (in my opinion) and I needed to be thoughtful on how I interacted with other living beings around me. How I chose to use, store and interpret this permanent and yet always changing energy inside was up to me. For instance, was my harsh opinion of someone coming from a place of jealousy or a genuine effort to help her/him change? Did I snub someone from the past because of an old grudge? The self-reflecting at the ashram made me realize that even the smallest actions impacted and changed the quality of my soul, and that it either became more polluted and depressed or more clear and happy. It was all up to me in the end.
Third. I was not a hopeless case. On day seven I was finally able to meditate in absolute peace. I literally didn’t have a single thought, including breathing. I had read and heard of other meditators seeing a light or having visions when they deeply meditated. I didn’t see any of that. Instead I arrived to this empty space were existence seized. For the first time in my life I “saw” and understood my ego for what it was and was able to let.it.go….Once it was gone, the brain had no thoughts of anything, including name, gender, feelings, etc. I was floating. Felt light. Then less than 10 seconds later the ego was fully back and functional again. The moment vanished. That serenity only lasted a few moments but I was so thankful it happened. It only took me four hours of meditating to get there.