part II – What it's REALLY like at a Buddhist meditation retreat in Thailand
In Part I, the kids and I find out what it is REALLY like to go to an authentic meditation retreat in Thailand. In part II, find out if the kids make their escape. In the midst of Thai chanting, lack of food and 12 hours a day of tedious meditation practice, I make some discoveries.
Breakfast: After a 20 hour fast, we sat at a long table with our food in front of us waiting for someone to start eating – but no one did. The monks began to pray over their food and out of respect, everyone stops what they are doing to sit or kneel down in silent reverence. Then it was our time to pray and chant over our food. For about 20 minutes, I listened to the Thai chanting and watched the kids silently waiting to eat something. The monks, who are given food by the people, feasted on roasted chicken on skewers and other delights.
“We have to bust out of here,” said Jennifer under her breath.
“It is a bit like prison,” I admitted.
“Like prison? This is much worse than prison!” she said. “In prison, I could read; I could write in my journal, I could stay sane and the food would be better!” Jennifer has a way of injecting her own brand of humor into a situation…”I might even get some there,” she continued.
Breakfast tasted pretty terrible. The rice gruel was flavorless, but I happily ate my greens. The meat was awful, but how to get rid of uneaten food at a monastery? Why did I take that meat?? I was tempted and now obviously, I was paying for it. Hmm…how to get rid of the meat? My thoughts were interrupted when a monk from the next table seemed to take pity on our young American family and gave us a plate with leftover grapefruit on it. Giving food to monks for their morning meal is a traditional tourist activity, but apparently we looked so pathetic with our rice gruel that the monk was giving us food.
When we returned from breakfast, there was a great revolt. The kids were adamant that we had to get out. “We have to leave here NOW!”, Alex and Bella said with an urgency that surprised me.
“I think we should wait until Monk Manit comes in after lunch so we can explain. Maybe we can put Alex and Bella in a taxi and the three of us can stay until then,” I said to Meagan and Jennifer.
“After lunch! That’s FIVE hours from now!”, Meagan exclaimed. “I can’t take it. I have never spent so much time thinking about my FEET.”
“I’m sorry. I love you, and I want to meditate, but I can’t survive five more hours of this,” Jennifer said.
Luckily, we had 30 minutes of free time. We packed up, and I quickly walked the kids out of the meditation center area and into the other part of the monastery, from there, it was only a 50-yard-dash to the gate and the outside world. The kids looked a bit pathetic getting into the taxi in their white uniforms. I made sure they had money and knew what to do, and sent them off to the hotel where I would call them later. They looked sad to be leaving me there, but very happy to be escaping.
With the kids off, I figured, I could just concentrate on meditating…no worrying about magnets clicking together; minor revolts over extra chanting and lack of food; or Alex getting taken away to sleep in a different corner of the room with strangers.
I really focused on the meditating. I haven’t spent much of my life alone. I’ve almost always been surrounded by my kids or my work colleagues. Being silent all the time added to the feeling of being alone. The brilliant part of the way the program was structured is that there really was only the training of your mind to focus on. Lack of food, which seemed bad before, became the advantage of having fewer food distractions. I came to like not eating after noon…there was certainly no way to say to myself that I would just have a little snack and then practice meditation. The hunger wasn’t bad, and when I did feel hungry, it actually seemed to add to the experience.
That morning and afternoon, I used the Thai lecture and chanting time for extra meditation practice, since I couldn’t understand anything they were saying anyway. Because that meant four hours of meditation in a row rather than the two the other participants were doing, I felt free to take a break and walk around the rest of the monastery during the fourth hour. There was a beautiful row of Buddhas, so I sat down to meditate in front of them. There were many cats and dogs wandering around and I bent down to spend a little time with a stray cat. Some Chinese people came by and the woman pointed at me and said something to her daughter. The daughter asked me if I was a nun. Ha! I was wearing the clothes of a nun, but being only one day into a meditation retreat, I certainly didn’t expect to be mistaken for one!
I snuck outside the gates to send a quick text to Doug (yes, I kept my cell phone even though I wasn’t supposed to) asking him to check in on the kids via facebook while I was in the monastery and telling him I wouldn’t be able to communicate for the next couple of days. I also called the hotel and found out that the kids had checked in okay.
Late in the afternoon, Monk Manit called me in to talk. Of course he asked where the children were. A bit embarrassed, I explained that it was too much meditation for them all at once and it was difficult having everything in Thai.
“Even Bella?”, he asked in surprise. I thought that was funny because I’ve always considered Bella and old soul. She just seems to convey that she has been through this all many times. One day, when she was a toddler, she even talked excitedly about her other daddy. “No, not this daddy”, she said of her dad, whose lap she was sitting on at the time, “my big, big daddy!” She stretched her arms high into the air. She gave her dolls names like “Sibba” much different than any American names she knew. They say young children often talk about past lives but then forget about them as they grow older.
Monk Manit said that from what he saw of her, he thought Bella was really going to do well with meditation. We talked for a while and I promised to take the kids to a meditation center in the US, where they could try again with more instruction in English and a lighter schedule.
I told him that I had enjoyed walking around outside a bit when I was tired of being inside and that I meditated by the fountain and by the Buddha’s.
“Oh, no, you should stick to the sitting and walking meditation. Walking outside will only serve as a distraction. You are trying to retrain your mind. When you are tired and frustrated, it is only your mind rebelling against the change.”
Well, there went my brief escapes from the all white basement meditation room. L
“You should only do those two things. Start with one, and when you cant stand it anymore, then switch to the other. Then when you can’t stand that, switch back.”
I left Monk Manit, a little disappointed with the advice, and then wondered if our talk might have caused me to miss out on my coveted (yes, I am still coveting things!) “evening beverage”. Luckily, there was still hot Milo to be had, and I rejoined the group with a renewed sense of purpose.
When it was time to meditate, I started with sitting meditation this time. I got into the lotus position, rested one hand on top of the other, relaxed my body and closed my eyes to focus all my attention on my breathing. If I thought of something else, I acknowledged that, as instructed, brought my mind back to the rise and fall of my chest as the air moved calmly in and out. My legs began to hurt, I was bored, but Monk Manit’s advice came back to me, “Switch positions when you can’t stand it anymore.” I could certainly stand a few more minutes, and then a few more, and few more…until time eventually lost most of its hold on me. Somewhere along the line, my legs went completely numb. In fact, after a while my upper body seemed to be floating as my whole lower half either became numb, or lost all sense of feeling as I remained completely still and focused all attention on my breathing.
I could only feel my empty mind and my breath. I felt relaxed. I felt at peace; it was a beautiful peace. I felt like I was a child of God, just floating there…just an open mind… with the steady rhythm of my breathing.
The garbage of this life cleared away. The unnecessary worries and insecurities; defense mechanisms; the roles I play for others, all faded. Only something like the feeling of being an innocent child, a content innocent child – remained inside me. It was thrilling and calming at the same time. These weren’t really thoughts – according to the Monk’s guidance, those would need to be acknowledged briefly and then tossed aside in favor of an empty, calm mind. They were feelings.
It felt as though the purest part of me, the loving kindness that is capable only of good and doesn’t get caught up in all the complications in this world, finally, for the first time since uninhibited childhood, felt safe enough to roam out of its place of hiding. It peeked out from somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind. For the first time, the waters of my mind had calmed enough, and I was physically still enough, for my true self to slowly, quietly venture out to where I could feel what I once was; what I remain at an innermost level.
I enjoyed this feeling of lovely peace, safety and joy, a kind of rebirth or re-acquaintance with the core me. It was a relief not to worry about whether I was loved enough or good enough. I simply was. And what was revealed to me is that simply being is not a neutral, empty state. Simply being is not only enough, it is, in fact, the same as being wholly loved and inherently good, valuable and ever-connected. So much of this life is spent trying to grasp for those things, which are with us all along, if we could only still our minds enough to feel it.
My legs tingled. I didn’t really think about it. I moved then. I had to lift my legs with my hands because they were so numb. I put them straight out in front of me and leaned against the white column. My mind never really left the state of concentration. The feeling of the blood rushing into my legs added to the sensation of floating, of being lifted up. It reminded me of heaven, or whatever the part of consciousness is where we are one with others.
It was as a dream – though it was crystal clear as I experienced it, the details fade from my mind now – but the memory of utter happiness and lasting contentment remains. At the time, I felt aware of my maternal grandmother, who always held a special place in my heart. She shared her joy with me and I with her. We understood each other and communicated on some basic level – a way without words or other ways of this world. Kind of like what you sometimes feel in the midst of a wonderful, loving embrace. I was in a basement in Thailand and she – wherever she may be, but somehow we were together. I felt the exchange of love, acceptance, peace, understanding. I loved her and she loved me and we shared something wonderful. I hadn’t thought about her vividly in years, and yet she was somehow right there with me.
Then it was another loved one, and another. I was with my Dad, and my step mother, Kathleen, my mom; there was sort of a flow, a gentle, loving exchange from all the special people in my life, whether they are still in this world or have past on. They were there to share the moment with me, one at a time.
Why they were there with me, I don’t know. Maybe to welcome me into that place we can all go if we want to. Maybe to tell me that we are all whole people, capable of infinite love, just muddling through this world on a day to day basis, but able to go home for brief moments and be together in a different state of mind. I wonder how people who are alive who don’t meditate could meet me there, but there is much we don’t understand about our world, and about our own history or capabilities. It could have all been a dream, or memories visited in that sense of quiet, peace and safety. In the end, it may not matter to me now what actually went on in my mind. It may be that carrying a sense of inner peace, love and the feeling of being loved and inherently valuable, is a great thing without need of detailed explanation or analysis. I only know that I would like to be able to return to that place sometimes. To feel those feelings again and try to bring them to my day to day life.
I vaguely remember moving back into the lotus position, then putting my legs out again. At some point, people moved around to get ready for the nightly talk from the monk. I opened my eyes and realized that two hours had gone by.
Before that night, I had only been able to sit and meditate for five or ten minutes. But Monk Manit had given me the guidance I needed. Just stay there until you can’t stand it anymore. With other instruction he gave me that day, I came to realize that I usually deal with discomfort in this world by changing the situation. I grew up to believe this was the right and the proactive thing to do. But when I look at my life, I’ve often created too much change. It’s been my main way of coping with adversity. Being able to change things in life is very useful, but only to a point. Being able to accept things is what the monk was trying to teach me. To accept things as is, is to make the changes within yourself, rather than trying to mold the entire world into what you think is right and what pleases you…a losing battle for sure.
Previously, I would have thought of such ready acceptance as a cop out. Sort of a “don’t worry, be happy; let the world walk all over you; let injustice prevail and just ignore it” mentality. But that belief probably has modern western values at its root. Now I recognize that acceptance is a very powerful tool. We’ve all heard that happiness is “wanting what you have, rather than getting what you want”, but most of us work hard, most often in a noble way, to get what we want. When do we practice wanting what we have?
Hard work is good, hard work pays off. Can there be anything wrong with those beliefs? I always lived by the rules of hard work and determination, not by being happy with the way things are…let alone being happy with things “just as they are”. There were always lots of changes to make – little changes, big changes, constant changes. I think the curtain was lifted back for a brief moment for me to see that we are all happy and fulfilled inside, if we could only let ourselves realize it. That may be the real lesson to be learned in life, or at the very least, one that needs to be somehow balanced with the drive to change and achieve.
But old values, core values, are very hard to change. And do I really want mine to change so drastically? Embracing total acceptance is not be easy. I still believe that if I am to be a good person, it is my duty to work all my life to make a big impact, to change the world, to solve problems, to make things better. And that is the conflict I still struggle with today. Acceptance verses active change for the better. The Serenity Prayer keeps coming to mind. That prayer is an easy answer to these questions, but I think Buddhism emphasizes acceptance much more than that.
How can one accept the suffering of the poor and of children? I think Buddhism would say that we plan our lives before we are born, and our souls choose difficult lives in order to learn more. I am not sure I buy that. Even if it is true, does it mean that we are not to do everything we can to help our fellow man (and in fact all creatures)? I don’t think so.
I would like to believe that acceptance of things as they are gives one the serenity, patience and stamina to effect that change that is possible, in a way that otherwise would not be possible. Could be true…or could be my mind, trained to be ambitious, twisting acceptance of all things into just one more step in the quest to reach the brass ring.
After my time in the meditation center, I feel I have been given a glimpse into what is possible…but I have more questions than ever. I am going to keep practicing meditation, looking for peace and well as answers within, but also continue working with people and charities, reading, researching and traveling…trying to discover what I think most of us want to know – how we can live our lives the best way we can – the best way for us, and the best way to try to benefit others.