Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Meditation Retreat

In early November, I decided to try my hand at meditation. Having attempted both self guided meditation and podcast meditation, I was prepared to admit that I needed help. While meditation doesn't come easily to anyone, I felt like I was in desperate need of professional guidance if I was to improve. Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is home to countless Buddhist temples, with several of them offering meditation programs lasting anywhere from 24 hours to several weeks. In the past the only way to try your hand at silence and meditation was to sign up for a 14 day retreat. Apparently the monks saw enough foreigners lose their minds that they decided to offer 'entry level' meditation for the mildly curious and cautious types. After speaking with a local Buddhist Monk at a program called, 'Monk chat,' I signed up for the two day meditation experience and was eager to get my zen on. 

On the Tuesday of the retreat, I arrived at the Buddhist temple. Having filled out the appropriate paperwork, I collected my white clothes and watched a YouTube video of one of the few female Buddhist monks. Being a fairly large group of 24, we waited for the other participants to arrive before starting introductions and learning the rules of the temple. By early afternoon we were in the back of small red trucks and making our way to the meditation center, roughly an hour outside the city. 

Arriving at the center, we were matched up with someone of the same gender and sent to our rooms. The rooms consisted of simple beds, a small dresser and a small bathroom. Void of decoration or unnecessary items, it was a space created to keep your mind empty. We were told to take showers and change into our white pants and white shirts before the gong rang at five pm. Speaking briefly to my Chinese roommate, we made quick introductions before conjecturing about the coming hours of meditation. Neither of us had tried a silent retreat or serious meditation and we were both eager to see how we reacted to the experience. At five pm, the gong rang loudly and we all moved from our individual rooms to the space in the center of the complex. The gong also signified the beginning of silence between all participants, a practice that would last until the following day at noon. 
Evening meditation practice

Entering into the space, we located small white cushions and were instructed to sit cross-legged in preparation for the first meditation. The monk, who had been meditating as we entered the building, opened his eyes and explained the basics of sitting meditation. He encouraged us to remember that meditation is a difficult practice that will take time to improve. The purpose of the practice is to 'calm your monkey mind'  from all the places it wants to travel and bring it into stillness. You begin by focusing on breathing and when the mind begins to wander, you can focus on the thing that's distracting. When you start to think of a to-do list you repeat the mantra 'thinking, thinking,  thinking'  until you return to your breathe. If you are distracted by the sounds of the ticking clock or a person speaking, you repeat the mantra 'hearing, hearing, hearing' until the sound is no longer bothering you. If you have a pain in your knee or a tickle in your ear, you repeat the mantra 'feeling, feeling, feeling' until the physical distraction is a distant memory. Following his explanation, we recitated a short text and began a short group seated meditation guided by the monk. Next we tried a short standing meditation, essentially the same as a sitting meditation but a little easier when your knees and back aren't accustomed to sitting for long periods of time. Finally we did a walking meditation in which you speak your physical actions, ie, 'I'm walking, I'm walking, I'm walking, I'm turning, I'm turning, I'm walking...' The walking meditation is often easier for beginners since it combines the physical and mental exercise, and has the same benefit while feeling easier to your aching body. After two hours of meditation practice, we were instructed to repeat a common phrase to the Buddha, bow accordingly, and head to dinner. I found the bowing and recitation to be strange given that Buddha is not considered a god, but I learned that it was meant to be a sign of respect. 

Group Picture 

Practicing a walking meditation to dinner, we moved silently and slowly in the dark. Small white bodies moving within feet of each other, although totally separate. Quietly taking our dinners of vegetarian curry with water and fruit, we spoke the dinner recitation before beginning the meal. The recitation reminded us that food is meant for nourishment, not fun and that its purpose is sustenance and should be eaten thoughtfully. During our meals, we were also encouraged to meditate on the act of eating, repeating the mantra 'chewing, chewing, chewing.'  

Following dinner, we returned to the large meditation chamber and continued practicing various forms of group meditation. By nine pm, we had silently returned to our rooms and the lights were dimmed. Despite missing my practice of sharing every thought with those closest to me, I quickly fell asleep. Sooner than expected, the 4:30 am gong rang.
Practicing giving alms to Monks - a daily practice in Thailand

The following day consisted of several hours of individual meditations, a small breakfast and a short group discussion. During the group discussion we were finally allowed to break our silence and speak at length about our experiences. Even though we'd only been silent for roughly 16 hours, I was relieved to hear voices again. The discussion started with individual stories of the practice; some practitioners were frustrated by their inability to 'control their mind' while others were surprised at the discomfort felt by their bodies. I spoke of my ability to fall asleep during any meditation and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was a great sign. The monk smiled and congratulated me for feeling relaxed and listening to the needs of my body.

As the retreat came to an end, we participated in a few final meditation rounds and listened to the parting words of the monk. Returning to the city, once again dressed in colorful clothes and able to speak freely, we discussed the retreat. While I appreciated many core aspects of mindfulness and meditation including increased awareness of what you put in your body, how you move and actively training your mind, there were other aspects with which I struggled. The nature of detachment feels robotic to me. We were encouraged to move our minds away from not only painful thoughts, but also to create distance between our minds and happy thoughts. Monks are not meant to dwell on joy, good food, dancing and pleasure. While I understand the value in not allowing these pleasures to control you, they are also an essential part of what makes humanity beautiful. I never want to detach myself from the beauty of a magnificent sunset, the truly complex glass of wine or the joy of seeing my niece. These sparks of love are small glimpses of a greater power and a connectedness between humans everywhere.
Group Discussion

Furthermore, I disagree with the role of women in Theravada Buddhism. Unlike in Burma and Sri Lanka, the lineage of women monastics was never established in Thailand. Women primarily participate in religious life either as lay participants in collective merit-making rituals or by doing domestic work around temples. A small number of women choose to become maechi, non-ordained religious specialists who permanently observe the Precepts but do not receive the level of support given to their male counterparts and their position in Thai society (wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_Thailand). Additionally, women are never allowed to enter certain temples and are asked to refrain from visiting others due to their periods. We are never allowed to shake a monk's hand are targeted for wearing 'the wrong sorts of clothing' at temples more frequently than men.

More than anything, this meditation retreat forced me to think critically about religious traditions around the world. These limitations and benefits are not specific to this particular form of Buddhism and it's important to learn the the effects that religious devotion has on a culture. Spending time in focused meditation, I was free to feel emotions which had been hiding under the surface and to engage with my surroundings in an intentional way. My meditation practice has been inconsistent since continuing my travels, but I left the retreat with a greater understanding of another religion and the tools I need to continue to broaden my horizons and think clearly about everything that passes before my eyes.

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