Grant and I had kicked around the idea of doing a 10-day meditation retreat while on our travels. We went back and forth about it in the beginning, but after meeting some folks who had completed and benefited greatly from such a course, we decided to get serious about looking for where this could happen within our trip. Chiang Mai sounded like the perfect place for a foreigner to try it out.
We researched different temples to go to and decided on Wat Ram Poeng. It was nestled up in the hills, had beautiful grounds to meditate in, and had space for us when we were ready to begin. Day one eased us into the schedule slowly. The head of the foreign meditators (think of a blustery monk with way too much to do in the short amount of time he has to do it…very un-monk-like in my opinion) gave us a pamphlet to read over and over again. It explained the vipassana style of meditation we would be practicing as well as a bit about Buddhism. An example of the rules we would live by day and night:
Wear white at all times
No reading, writing, listening to music
No napping during the day
No eating after 12:00
We eased into day one. The monk showed us our simple rooms and we settled in, changed into white, and met back up for lunch. We learned the prayers we would be reciting before each meal, then enjoyed a delicious meal. After lunch was the beginning of the meditation course. We read through our pamphlets a few more times (we were not allowed to read once we completed the opening ceremony…see rule 3 above) and paced around outside waiting for the teacher to return. This would be our first lesson in patience. About 2 hours later the monk was ready for our opening ceremony. Fifteen minutes of kneeling, repeating phrases, and a bit of confusion later, we were sworn in. Then, back to the temple called “the library” to begin as a meditator.
I learned that days last as long as our whole trip thus far. Our whole lives were run by bells. Morning bells start at 4:00 AM. Now it is time to start meditating. Standing, sitting, standing, sitting. Our teacher comes to check in on us. “Knowing, knowing, knowing” he chants softly as he leaves the room. Bells ring at 6:30 AM and we shuffle towards the breakfast hall. Head down, walking slowly, “I am meditator”. Chanting lasts about 30 minutes and it is in Thai and Pali and I can understand none of it. I have an English cheat sheet for the meal contemplations, but other than that, I listen. Meals are eaten slowly. I chew and attempt to contimplate my food rather than scarf it down.
We then wash our dishes and find something to clean. Foreign mediators sweep the floor usually. Then, we meditate for a couple of hours and try not to count down the minutes until lunch at 10:30AM. We alternate between sitting and walking meditation,15 minutes at a time as a beginner. I learn it takes me about 15 minutes to walk 15 meters and back. Crap, did I just fall asleep sitting up? Breathing in and out, narrating steps in my mind, snapping my focus back over and over again. Finally, lunch bells ring and it is another 30 minutes of chanting before eating. After lunch we shower and clean our rooms. Then we mediate all afternoon.
Around 4:00PM we check in with one of the senior monks. This is the one time we are allowed to talk. He or she (our temple is special in the fact that the second senior monk is a woman…most women are considered nuns and wear white, but Phra Bikkhuni achieved monk status and wears the same orange as all of the others) asks how your meditation is going. You are encouraged to ask questions or raise concerns if you have them. You also report the hours of meditation you have completed (8-12 hours are asked for daily) and are sometimes given more exercises to work on. Most of the time, you are asked to increase the amount of time you alternate between sitting and standing.
After reporting, we then go back to the library and practice meditating until 10:00PM. The days are long and short at the same time. See picture below for our view for ~5 hours per day. I kept seeing people in the patterns.
My time there blends together and waxes and wanes and the clocks are playing tricks on me. I learn that little things make or break my day. I understand why someone would go crazy in solitary confinement. I feel as though I may lose my voice from not using it for a day, then two and three. My limbs ache, then go numb, then ache again. Why did I do this to myself, this is torture. Then, I have a really good session of focus and I'm on top of the world. Next day, I can't get back to that same level and it is frustrating. I begin to understand…really understand, little phrases that I have heard throughout my life. Mantras run through my head that are absurd. I hardly think about the food, even though I thought it might be the most difficult part before I started. Monks and meditators talk of hallucinations and revelations through meditating, but we are not allowed to talk about our personal experiences. I do think I hallucinated a bit. It's hard to say because my mind felt as though I was in a dream the whole time.
I break down and start talking day 4 or so. I get in trouble because of this. Oops. A Vietnamese girl next door to me is there for 26 days. She explains to me that the last 3 days of her time there will consist of ONLY mediating. She will sit in her room, simple meals will be brought to her, and she will not sleep. Only meditate. 'Determination' is what it is called. Wow, my days don't look so bad anymore.
Somewhere in the middle of my experience, I lose a day somewhere and the mental tally I have going for the rest of my time there is wrong…my 'last day' was actually the day before my last day. I do a mental check: I realize I don't mind. I am already in the groove so I might as well get everything I can out of this experience. It is then I realize I would stay longer if we had the time.
Then, years later it seems, it is time for closing ceremony. The group I came in with, all 7 of them, finished the whole 10 days. I am relieved to be done at this point.
I vow to practice meditation for the rest of my life. I can definitely see the benefit of the practice. Maybe one day I will return to complete a determination myself. Maybe not. As difficult, tedious, tiring, frustrating, and boring as it was, my time as a meditator was also exciting, rewarding, and led me to feel pure happiness. I am glad I had the privilege to practice at a working temple and would go through it all over again if I had the choice.
Doing, doing, doing…
Thanks for reading my musings.