For some strange reason, I decided that smack in the middle of backpacking around South East Asia, I would voluntarily challenge myself to a 10 day course of Buddhist Meditation (known as Vipasana Meditation). Just a few days after trekking through the jungles of North Thailand , I packed my belongings and headed towards the famous temple of Chiang Mai known as Doi Sutep. The game plan was in full effect and for the next 10 days I would forgo talking, dinner, meat, facebook, women, music, and anything else that resembled any type of fun distraction. I checked in around 2pm and a meditation demonstration along with the 8 course rules were given to the four of us before being brought to our individual rooms. We dropped our bags off followed by our first meeting with our teacher for the opening ceremony. After a few chants and a candle lighting, we were sent off on our way. What was nice about this course was that they worked you into the meditation slowly. Day 1 and 2 was all about following your breathe in 15 minute intervals. I couldn’t get the words “rising, falling, rising, falling” out of my head as this was what we were taught to silently say in order to remain focused and limit distraction. The first two days of meditation time were broken down into (2) 15 minute sessions, 8x a day: 15 minutes Walking (slow motion), 15 minutes Sitting. Starting on day 3 we added further points of awareness along the body ( lower back, butt, outer knee, outer leg, top of foot, etc) with each meditation session. Each day was incrementally longer than the previous. We started the first day with about 2-3 hours of meditation and finished on the last day with nearly 8 hours spilt up into 60 minute (30min Walking/30min Sitting) 8x a day.
A major theme of the course was based around the idea of mindfulness (awareness) with everything that we did: Walking, Eating, Showering, Drinking, Washing, Observing Breathe, Etc. This basically meant doing everything extremely slow (gracefully). Never in my life would it take me nearly a half hour to eat a meatless plate of veggie rice, but that all began to change. I was chewing my food well in the double digits before swallowing. Each bite I would savor, knowing I wouldn’t eat again for nearly a full day . The schedule each day was the following:
5am: Wake Up
530am: Dhamma Talk
6pm: Evening Chanting
The times in between the scheduled events would be used for buddhist meditation. I began to get in a routine of meditating 2x between breakfast and lunch, 1x between lunch and reporting, 3x before evening chanting, and 2x before sleep. As far as the meditation was concerned, it was damn challenging! Imagine sitting in a room in silence for even just 30 minutes at a time. Sleepiness got the best of me during the first half of the course. I would regularly take a nap after breakfast since my body was screaming at me for waking up before the sun. Once getting past the early morning hours, I felt a bit more energized and continued on with my practice. The one rule that i thought would break me down would be the fasting for nearly 20 hours each day (rule #3 no solid food after 12pm). Although I would ‘feel’ hungry, I managed. Breakfast consisted of either a rice soup, noodle dish, or flavored rice with veggies on individual plates for each meditator. Lunch was set up as buffet style starting with a massive bowl of steamed rice followed by a 3-4 similar veggie flavored tofu dishes each day. It’s safe to say that I could go the rest of my life without eating tofu ever again. Even though I wasn’t a fan of the food, I knew I wouldn’t eat again until 7am the following day so I kept quiet (silent) and ate a plates worth.
Our teacher, who happened to be a monk would give a one hour Dhamma Talk each morning at 530am, as well as go over the next steps of meditation during our reports each afternoon. These talks easily became my favorite part of the entire course (other than sleeping). The subjects that he spoke about entailed understanding your subconscious, karma (with intention), mindfulness, importance of daily meditation, ideas of happiness, the impermanence of life (Annica), dealing with the physical pain of mediation and many other introspective topics. He would commonly relate each of them with personal stories in his life and/or of others that visited the center in previous years. If only he wasn’t a monk, I would set up a YouTube channel for him so everyone back home could listen in. Unfortunately, I believe that would break one of the 227 rules that he must obey.
What became the most challenging part of the course was the actual practice of meditating mindfully. I would start each session off well “rising, falling, sitting, touching (all repeated in my head to the different points on my body)” and then i would begin to think about ANYTHING else. I’d even sometimes be aware of specific thoughts, yet I didn’t necessarily want to pull myself out of some past memory or future projections that were constantly playing in my head. The idea of meditating mindfully is not just to ALWAYS remain in the present moment (which is nearly impossible), but to be aware and acknowledge the thoughts (feelings) that don’t represent presence (past or future). Most of the memories that would ‘interrupt’ my meditation sessions related to past relationships and future projections of what i’d like to do for the rest of my travels and also when arriving back home. My brain began to trigger memories that even I thought I had forgotten. I expected my mind to quiet a bit towards the middle of the retreat but it seemed to take a bit longer. It wasn’t until I became mentally pissed off and angry on day 6 and 7 that I finally realized that my mind was beginning to quiet down. After our teacher talked to us about how he dealt with bodily pain during buddhist meditation, I had one of the best 30 minute sessions of the course. I was able to stay in the same position and mostly present the entire time. Whohoo!
With that being said, the retreat not only became a test of willpower, but also gave a deeper understanding into who I am and what tendencies I have developed overtime. Taking the good with the bad, I noticed thoughts/feelings of being judgemental, impatient, jealous, and highly frustrated at times. I also experienced thoughts/feelings of personal growth/power, courage, excitement, and equinimity.
Although there never seemed to be a ‘ profound’ moment during the course, I did find the process to be quite insightful and gained a deeper perspective into myself from a core level. I would also say that I have a much clearer understanding of how to intergrate mindfulness and the importance of awareness into my life . While I won’t be shaving my head anytime soon to honor the 220+ rules of monk life, I will surely practice meditation on a daily basis.