Cousin Robb has spent time in a Thai Monastery and wanted to share… I turn my platform over to him…
Happiness Training – 10 Days of Meditative Silence in a Thai Monastery
Could I do it? Could I go ten days without speaking? Could I spend ten days, surrounded by monks and nuns, in a Thai Monastery, sitting perfectly still morning, noon and night, with nothing but my own mind as company? Could you? If you had ten days to clear your mind of the worries of “getting, having, doing and becoming,” – no working, cooking, cleaning, driving, parenting…no cell phones, no books, no laptops, no music, no money, no talking, laughing, no sex, could you do it? It sounds funny, but: “If you could just be with you…could you do it?” It’s not as easy as you may think….
In Bodh Gaya, India, within a block of where the Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree some 2,500 years ago, I spent ten days and nights in a Thai Monastery, in a silent, meditative retreat. I slept in the basement of an amazingly beautiful Buddhist Temple, among priceless relics, waking to the mesmerizing chanting of the monks above me. This was a week after the Dalai Lama spoke to us in a town near here, and Bodh Gaya was swarmed with over 20,000 monks…many times more than the population of the village – and an experience in itself for me, both before and after my time in the asylum.
The parameters of my teaching and meditation (for the entire ten days) were amazingly simple: Sit steadfastly straight, close your eyes and remain present…and see who comes to visit! That’s it….and impossible 99% of the time. I just spent ten days trying nothing but to “Be Here, Now; Aware; Present” from waking at 5:30am and finishing at 10:00pm each night (in a non-religious teaching format). The word “training” in my title above was appropriate, as there was nothing fun about my training to be happy. Happiness Training – a new oxymoron! The hopeful results of this torture? Wisdom. Insight. A deeper understanding of ourselves and our place on earth. Is this even possible with only what we have inside of us?
To begin describing my journey is easy: Unlike most our expectations, the silence was the easy part. The difficult parts are the excruciating pain of the body from sitting in a meditative position for hours on end….and, nearly as difficult at times, living with the hours and days of what your mind decides to do with you.
After a couple of days, you realize the bodily pain (sometimes terrible) is an ally in order to remind yourself to let the thoughts go and concentrate on just being present. The real lesson one learns is that the mind follows its own nature, conditions and laws. I will never think of “my mind,” the same…a true part of the process and the beginning of an insight and awareness that I had never experience. “My Mind” – another oxymoron!
The first two days I thought my mind would literally implode from the overload. The mind wanders incessantly (and at breakneck speeds). Remaining aware of the present, even for a few seconds, is fascinatingly impossible. Endless thoughts of family, friends (very old and new), relationships, possibilities, past experiences, future plans…a thousand times I followed my teacher’s soft words and brought my mind “back to my breath,” “back to the present.” The following two days were WEIRD…memories so deep they shock you, fantasies created that are normal, crazy, exotic, shameful, blissful – have you ever been embarrassed of your own mind (…although the normal sexual fantasy phase was worth the ten days alone)? The teachers didn’t tell me that all this was necessary – you only see it in hindsight. Many people in these second few days work through deep trauma, grief, fear, depression, sorrow, loneliness, frustration, regret, many doubts, but also happiness.
The seemingly endless time to think of friends and loved ones was a great part of the experience and there is not one of you that are receiving this that I didn’t think about…I smiled a lot during my meditation. So thanks for the memories!!!!
In the beginning, I may have thought this was a bit ego intensive, spending so much time with yours truly. But in a great “coincidence” (sidebar: I truly hope none of you out there still believe in coincidences…no matter your choice of a spiritual path), I was sitting in front of the Dalai Lama just a few days before, I heard him say about meditation, “the better we know ourselves through meditation, the better we can help others.” Love yourself first.
Insert happiness apology here (and a taste of how the story ends): As a CPA and part-time existentialist, I’m really sorry to say that after the experience, I was totally in-tune with the hippies and rastas, that I experienced a joy that came only come from the heart (joy and heart, two words that only now, at age 43, have entered into my personal dictionary), that tofu taste good. No, I didn’t cry at the beauty of looking at a single flower, but I met a girl who did. But beauty is bountiful and I now see more of it everyday. Oops, here I go again….
An amazing lesson learned: To create “mind-space.” To be present enough to realize how much space our mind has to allow for, well, everything – the pain, the views, the annoyances, the difficulties… To really open up your mind – even as to visualize a huge space in your mind, body and heart. Once I practiced on this (for hours and days), amazing things started to happen. An easy example: After a few days of meditation, I could let a mosquito feed on me, flies land on my face or crawl in my ears, I could itch and have excruciating pain in my ankles, knees and back….and not move a hair until a session was over (about 50 minutes at a time)! Basically, the more you allow into your mind and body “space:” noises, thoughts, mental emotions, physical pain, itching, etc., the less you concentrate or focus on one thing that would otherwise drive you insane. And at the same time that one learns the impossibility to control the mind, one can begin to learn more about truth, patience, awareness…learn about the body, learn about what is really important and what is really not important in life. In the setting of my retreat, in the silence, my universe did expand. Oops, there I go again.
The most interesting dichotomy is that even though teachings were all about “Being Aware of the Present,” “Be Here, Now,” we were taught not to force the absolute endless thoughts, emotions and issues away. Soft, even loving, teachings during my meditations taught of being patient and compassionate with one-self, allowing all thoughts and emotions to come, hang out, and go without judgment, self-doubt or even fear. To learn to “feel the feelings themselves,” not to solve, judge, decide or get caught up in the underlying story or drama of why you feel this way (like most therapy). What does the anger feel like? What does it really feel like to smile? To blame? To fear? To stress? Not to find a cause, but just to realize what we are doing to ourselves in the process of the drama. A few days of this can really make you wiser about what we put ourselves through every day. More specifically: what our mind is doing to us without our consent. THE MORE I UNDERSTOOD THIS, THE MORE THE NEGATIVE EMOTIONS DROPPED AWAY – AND THE MORE THE FABULOUS, UNSELFISH EMOTIONS TOOK THEIR PLACE! It was a natural, but amazing process. Now imagine how we could use this to create WORLD PEACE. Oops, there I go…stay with me.
After five or six days of silence and meditation, hypersensitivity crept in. Food, for instance, tasted better…even though the food was basic, all natural, vegetarian: rice, dal, veggies, fruit, and tea (no caffeine, processed sugar, fat, grease – basically, no fun). Yet I caught myself putting down my spoon after each bite, chewing slowly and feeling the food from tongue to stomach (or maybe it was because we only got two meals per day – no dinner). A nun with a cell phone appeared sacrilege. I stared at the beauty of the Temple longer each day. Meditative walks grew deep. I walked slowly for the first time in my life. I was more sensitive to my body than ever before. I had an appreciation for everything on a whole new level. I understood why the eastern swamis talked about loving the universe (I know, that’s really scary). Stay with me…this can be life-changing stuff.
By now, I was walking the monastic grounds with a physical and mental presents only held by mental patients, geniuses and zombies. Even the monks were chuckling…what does that mean?… Suddenly those ashramic folks seem to have it easy….
My experience towards the end of six or seven days (and a big reason I’m on my journey), was really realizing the extent I, or we, spend NEARLY EVERY MOMENT CHANGING, ORGANIZING, MANAGING AND CONTROLLING our lives in order to GET, HAVE, DO AND BECOME – to try and create the perfect conditions – that, of course, will never exist. I read that the Buddha called this “clinging” and that clinging inevitably caused suffering. However, we mostly forget, or don’t even know, that there is so much more than the capital letters above. That true happiness comes from inside, or from the heart, or from the awareness and appreciation of life, “of the present” I am beginning to learn:
The Past is History,
The Future is a Mystery,
This Moment is a Gift.
That is why we call it: The Present.
I’m not saying that meditation is the complete answer – it sure won’t help you get a job: “And in my free time I meditate on suffering and ignorance.” And I’m not giving all my money away, shaving my head and becoming “Swami Burtonasami.” But I do realize the need for a personal spiritual path. One that is different than simply giving our lives or souls up to a deity of our choice. One that involves enough work, experience, understanding and wisdom that we can appreciate ourselves, our loved ones and all sentient beings on the planet….oops, there I go again… I got a bit closer to this by clearing my mind enough to see and feel from the heart, maybe for the first time. Then again, I’m already homeless and unemployed, so maybe Kung Fu and I aren’t too far apart…. Buddhism says that suffering comes from ignorance….and my happiness training is showing me not only how true this is, but how possible it is to solve – a little bit at a time. As I’m now in Mother Teresa’s city, Kolkata, I remember an applicable quote: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Stay with me, amazing moments to share are coming….
Maybe a personal spiritual path can build a fuller life, or broaden one’s horizons, or minimize suffering for you and those around you, maximize happiness for you and those around you, help you find a cause greater than your own, to get past ourselves and our materialisms, to help others – calmness of mind and heart have to be contagious, right?
The Greatest Gift You can Give in Life…is Your Attention.
Happiness tangents abound! I’m going to leave out my own personal moments of insight I had during my silence…their mine and mine alone, but you have to know their strength. Up until now in my life, the most amazing “phenomenon” was solving client issues in my sleep (that I sometimes spent days trying to figure out). The insight that comes from meditation is very similar. Not quite lightning bolts, but close. Instead, once the mind clears enough space for the priceless, I felt like I just remembered something truly amazing about myself or my life: THEN I REALIZED I NEVER HAD THAT THOUGHT BEFORE….THAT’S A “HOLY COW” MOMENT! And you were awake the whole time. I had two and they brought joy I have not felt since I was a child. Cool stuff, man…pass that joint over here. Oops, there I go again…
Another “Holy Cow” moment: Realizing that happiness should be a part of the process of life, not just something elusive or something to try and attain (and I’m not even talking about happiness via “getting, having, doing or becoming”…). Don’t ask me to explain unless you have a day or two to discuss how it fits both of us…..
Does it sound like I’ve had some time to think (as an inmate)? Leaving the Monastery (in India of all places) was sheer sensory overload for a few days… In my adult life, I could count the times I’ve cried on one hand, but I cried at everything for a few days: talking to family, listening to favorite songs, reading a book, thinking of family and friends, anything that brought happiness – just from sitting quietly with myself for ten days….I LOVE THE UNIVERSE!
Oops, there I go again….
PS. Any of you who now think you “lost me for good,” or think my emails will never be the same, can breath easy: I’m spending next week in an area of southern Bangladesh, where the population is only a few hundred…and one of them gets eaten by a tiger EVERY THREE DAYS! Finally, there I go again….