You may or may have not heard about the practice known as meditation. Perhaps you are even an experienced meditator. Maybe you are not even familiar with the word. Before this trip, I almost knew nothing about the practice of meditation or the philosophy of Buddhism. Now I know a ton about both.
For me, it all started during my first couple weeks in Fuengirola. There was a whole world trip ahead, work to do, and a boatload of stress beating in my heart. Sometimes it was mental pressure. Other times it was low self-esteem. Frustration would take hold of me, and bad feelings would fester in my body. It was what Alex called “spiralling.”
While I was spiralling, bad feelings would lead to more bad feelings. You could imagine a cascading spiral of negative feelings. At that time, helping would look like distraction. We would go for a walk. I would watch a movie. Janet would watch cute hamster videos with me. Of course I didn’t want to do any of those things. My mind was always secretly sneaking off to go worry or stress about things.
In meditation, you don’t fight with stress or argue with worry. You befriend them. You don’t get engaged or spiral with all the thoughts, you become at peace with them. One afternoon, when I was stuck in my spiral, Alex invited me into his room to try meditation. At first it was hard, and it didn’t feel productive. My mind wanted to fight with stress and argue with worry. It felt like work that was getting me nowhere. But after a week or so, it kind of helped. It was the perfect kind of help. At first we used the Headspace app, and then I moved away from guided meditation.
Every night I made an effort to meditate, and it turned into more of a hobby or habit. I was able to practice in other places with Alex, and now in Thailand I could take some time to meditate in the temples we visited (read my other post: Temples and Stuppas from the 1300s).
Still I was not entirely clear on the roots and deep meaning of meditation as well as Buddhism. In Chiang Mai, Janet carefully and amazingly organized a bunch of activities for us to do. She even signed up Alex and me for a one-night meditation retreat from the 12th to the 13th complete with lectures and meditation sessions directed by Buddhist monks. I not only saw it as an opportunity to learn, but as also a nice stretch of time to not be with the whole family and get a nice, long chunk of meditation time in.
There was a lot of unknown for me. I would probably get bored, which is kind of the point. I didn’t know how long we would meditate for, or how often we would practice. I was sure there would be a lot to learn, about meditation and Buddhism alike. I didn’t know very much about the basis of Buddhism before the retreat. I though of Buddhism as a religion and the Buddha as a god. It turns out that I was wrong on both of those things.
Buddhism is more of a philosophy or a way of life than a religion. Buddhists don’t go to the temple to worship the Buddha. The objects that could be misinterpreted as offerings to a god are actually just gifts or tokens of respect. Like I said in my other blog: Thai Etiquette, respect is a big part of Buddhist and Thai culture. Buddhists don’t pray to the Buddha. They are showing their respect to the Buddha, his teachings (the Dharma), and as well as the Buddha’s first five diciples that he gave his first sermon to at Sarnath (the Sangha). The idea is not that the Buddha was better than anyone else. They respect the Buddha as the enlightened one and as a great teacher. The idea is that you can become enlightened. You can become what the Buddha was. Buddhists look up to the Buddha, and get their faith and inspiration from him. According to Buddhists, the Buddha was a great listener, so he is shown with long ears in temples. The Buddha was also wise, so you may see the Buddha with shard/triangle atop his head, which represents the sharpness of his wisdom. Both are qualities that the Thai people you see in temples are paying respect to.
The Story of the Buddha (as written from my memory):
The Buddha’s real name is Siddhartha Gautama. Before he became “the Buddha,” he was a rich prince, living a lavish life in a palace in Nepal. He knew no suffering. He got everything he wanted. One day, he left the palace to ride around in his carriage. He saw something that he didn’t know existed: suffering. First he saw an old, weak man, walking with a cane on the side of the road. Second, he saw a sick man, laying on a blanket in the grass. Lastly, he saw two people carrying a stretcher, in it a dead man wrapped in cloth. The suffering was horrible. The path of becoming old, sick, or dying was too hard for him to bear. He wanted to achieve enlightment, or Nirvana. At the age of 29, he left his palace, his wife, his son, and his majestic life behind. He became an ascetic, giving up everything. Living a rich life, and having everything didn’t work for him. He tried the other extreme. He believed that attachment and desire were the causes of human suffering, so to be at peace he must not have desire or attachment. So he aspired to not want anything, or to be attached to anything in his life. He barely ate. He meditated day after day. After six years he was so thin that you could feel his spine through his stomach. But he felt no happier. He realized that moderation was key. The middle way, as it is called today. Not to live a rich life, but not to give up everything. He began to eat again. After that, he set out to Bodh Gaya. He sat under what is known today as the “Bodhi Tree,” and said that he would not rise until he achieved enlightenment, and he did. For 49 days and nights he meditated, and, at age 35, he achieved enlightenment. He came to the realization about the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path. After his enlightenment, he began to teach. He gave his first sermon to five diciples at Sarnath, and from there he taught many monks. At the age of 80, he died in the reclining Buddha position, in Kushinagar, India.
Buddhist monks today believe that desire and attachment are the causes of suffering. They strive to find inner peace and achieve Nirvana, a Buddhist way of saying to escape the cycle of Samsara, which is the cycle of death and rebirth that Buddhists and Hindus believe in (read my other post: The City of Light). Buddhists follow the middle way, living in moderation. About 10% of the world today is Buddhist. They all follow the teachings of the Buddha.
Today, Buddhism is very open. It doesn’t matter what race, religion, or gender you are. All can be Buddhists. Though monks aren’t attached to you becoming Buddhist. There are no “Buddhist missionaries” preaching the “Buddhist Gospel.” Buddhist monks practice a lot of meditation, be it informal (in a car, on a plane, etc) or formal (dedicating time for meditation to be the sole focus). Monks certainly meditate more than I do. They practice at least some form of meditation for at least half the day. I am not Buddhist myself, though I still practice meditation. I practice between 20 and 30 minutes every day. Monks dedicate a lot of their time to meditating.
You may have questions about what to do while meditating. One of the points of meditation is to learn not to suffer. The Buddha believed that attachment and desire were the causes of suffering. While you meditate, the focus is to not dwell. If you dwell, you become unhappy. If you listen to a truck drive by, what happens if you dwell on that thought? If you seek out and see the sound of the truck as a bad thing, you might get annoyed. Then you suffer. If you interpret the sound of the truck as a bad thing, then you suffer. When you meditate, you don’t seek out things. You merely acknowledge the fact that you are hearing something. You do not dwell, or focus on it, you be at peace with it. That is why it helped me with my spiralling. While I was spiralling, I suffered. Of course I didn’t like it. I dwelled on what I thought, felt, and heard. When I was meditating, I didn’t dwell on any of it.
A lot of meditation focuses on the moment. Don’t dwell on what happened or what might happen. All that really matters is the breathing and meditation here and now. While you meditate, your focus should be on your breathing. You focus on those deep breaths, in and out. You want to be relaxed in your mind and body. You could imagine a spotlight that you move across your body, focusing on different aspects of the world. Your spotlight is on your breathing. If your mind strays from that, and it will, just quickly and calmly bring it back. I imagine a big, ethereal, arm reaching out to grab my brain and bring it back from whatever it is thinking about. You don’t want to be mad at yourself or your brain for wandering. Remember, be at peace with it. It doesn’t matter if it is the uncomfortably hard floor under you, the noisy truck driving by, or your explorative mind wandering off to daydream, just be at peace with it. Acknowledge the fact that you are touching something, hearing something, or thinking about something. You can even be aware of your emotions. The idea is to not judge your thoughts, emotions, or ideas. Like I said, you be at peace with it. Your focus should always be on your breathing. Concentration is key. If your mind strays from breathing, just bring it back calmly.
Mindfulness is the process of acknowledging your feelings, being aware of them, and bringing your mind back. Mindfulness means “aware of self.” It is very important for meditation. While you are being mindful and not dwelling, you achieve inner peace and happiness. You just want to be mindful of all those thoughts and ideas.
Many monks that have been meditating a long time will give themselves challenges. In meditation, you learn how to bring your mind back from whatever it was thinking about. Master monks give themselves and their brains more things to think about. Therefore, more things you have to not dwell on. Ever wondered why monks sit crosslegged while they meditate? It is to make it hurt. At the one-night retreat, we sat in the crosslegged position. After 20 minutes of meditation, it started to hurt. It was a challenge. I had to be mindful, and only mindful of the fact that my legs ached. There are more complicated and painful leg postitions that monks attempt to give themselves a harder mindfulness challenge. In addition to painful legs, we also meditated very upright. No slouching. And, after 20 minutes or so, my back started to ache. I just had to be mindful of it.
You might commonly think of meditation as an activity that involves closed eyes. Some monks will give themselves an even bigger challenge by meditating with their eyes open. Could you imagine all the information that would flood you if you just opened your eyes? It is still very, very hard for me to not dwell or judge what I see with my eyes. It helps me to meditate with your eyes closed, so that your focus could be more on what you hear and touch, and less on the geyser of visual objects that would assault me if I opened my eyes. Though of course your real focus should always be on your breathing.
Meditation is training the mind. Most monks “don’t suffer” while they meditate, but what about while they aren’t meditating? If you meditate enough, you can apply mindfulness to normal everyday life. You can be mindful of the way you think, drive, eat, talk, sit, walk, all of that. If you do enough meditation, you can be the one to decide whether you want to dwell and chase a thought, or to be mindful and at peace with it, even in everyday life! You can be constantly meditating, and then theoretically always be “truly happy.”
What do you train for? They train to master the ability to control their thoughts and emotions, as explained in the previous paragraph. Though they also train for a right mindset. They train to act, speak, and think in the right way. It kind of changes the way they interact with the world and people. Like I said, a whole different mindset/lifestyle. You develop a mental dicipline, and a profound sense of compassion for other living beings. The Noble Eightfold path states the eight practices that Buddhists try to master and accomplish by being mindful. They are as follows: Right Effort, Right Concentration, Right Mindfulness, Right Livelihood, Right Action, Right Speech, Right Intention, and Right View.
During the retreat, we arrived at 8:30am on the first day, stayed up to 10:00pm, woke up at 5:00am, and finally returned to Chiang Mai at 4:00pm. That was 24.5 hours of either eating, learning, or meditating. It was worth it. During the meditation part of those 24.5 hours, it was a lot of work. Many sessions, and sometimes it didn’t feel productive. I had to be very patient, as it is also a big part of meditation. Sometimes a meditation session just feels like wasted time. During the last session of the night, I was kind of awaiting the moment when it would end. I was tired and didn’t want to do any more meditation that night. I had never done anything meditation-wise on that scale before. Though it is kind of good if you don’t like it your first time. Anyway, I kind of was just mindful with those feelings as well. It was a lot, but it was memorable.
There are two main kinds of meditation: Vispisanna and Concentration. Vispisanna meditation is what I described earlier, also known as mindfulness meditation. The point of concentration meditation is to practice concentrating on something, and firmly retain that concentration. There are other kinds of meditation too, though they all involve mindfulness.
The Sitting Meditation I described above is the best known kind of Vispisanna meditation. Walking Meditation is another form of Vispisanna meditation. You have both your hands placed tightly on your abdomen, as to not let them sway by your side while you walk. You walk slowly, and you are very mindful about the movements of your feet and the ground underneath them. You slowly walk, pointing your concentration spotlight on what you can feel under your feet, as well as being very aware of the fact that you are walking. A lot of meditation is accepting things as they are. You just accept the fact that you are walking, and focus on that. If your mind strays, bring it back.
Standing Meditation is basically Walking Meditation except that you are standing. You focus on the fact that you are standing and what you can feel around you. Laying Down Meditation is a form of Vispisanna meditation where you are laying down and in which your spotlight is focused on the rising and falling of your stomach. It is often done right before bed.
Mantra Meditation is a form of concentration meditation where you focus on the tunes, tones, and lyrics of the mantras that you chant.
There are other forms of meditation that are less formal. You could focus on a wavering flame in front of you or the number of beads on a braclet. You just concentrate on those things, and bring your mind back if it wanders. Our taxi driver even told us she practices meditation daily by not dwelling on the annoyances of other drivers.
There were other parts of the retreat that encouraged not getting distracted. No electronic devices, to make sure you didn’t get distracted. They also made it so that we didn’t get distracted by our words. It was a silent retreat. We kept our mouths shut during the entire time. It gave me more room to be mindful of everything.
Meals were perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the retreat. We only ate once everybody else had their food. We didn’t sit facing anyone, so as to not get distracted by the presence of another human right across from you. We ate very slowly and mindfully. The purpose was that we were not eating for pleasure, beauty, or attraction. We were merely eating to nourish and sustain our body.
Meditation and Buddhism are things that some people know a lot about and some people know almost nothing. I used to know nothing, but now I know a lot.
Below: Meditation Pictures
Below: Meditation Room
Below: Other Retreat Pictures
Below: Our Room
Below: Me Meditating in Kendwa
Below: Me Meditating at the top of Doi Inthanon with Kieran