Just outside of Chaing Mai, Thailand.
UPickAPath Puppetours opted for me to spend a week meditating and living like a monk in a Buddhist temple. Enlgihtenment may have eluded me however what an amazing experience. Included is a video interview with a monk on sex, religion, why they shave their heads and how they look so damn good in their robes.
“It’s so simple, it’s the most difficult thing in the world,” the self proclaimed reformed drug trafficker tells me.
It’s the end of the first day, my tongue feels like an invalid, my stomach feels ransacked and my mind yelps like a dog mad with rabies.
“You’re meant to feel like you want to leave, it’s your ego squirming, telling you that it wants out, he says.”
“Your ego is screaming for that bloody spotlight that’s shining on it to be turned off.”
“You’re meant to feel this way before you break on through,” he assures me rolling his cigarette. Not smoking is one of the many precepts a mediator must adhere to in here.
“Trust me, getting to the other side is worth sticking around for.”
The day’s schedule consists of ten hours of sitting and meditating. It’s a boot camp for the mind.
I spend the afternoon trying to feign a peaceful and spiritual posture: cross-legged, hands resting on knees. But to be more accurate, I look more like a boy hunched who has lost his penis, nodding off every five minutes to random thoughts and bad ideas that I think are genius at the time. Thoughts roam freely and I watch them like I’m on some thought safari - the lizard crawling over my foot, what’s the capital of Namibia, I’ll open up a business selling Australian meat pies in Europe, heaving breasts (oops, how did that get in there), the nose hair that just kept growing from my grade ten history teacher’s nostrils; who was the idiot who thought up putting pineapple on pizza; how do first kisses work out when neither of the ten years olds involved have any idea of what they are doing; My imagination has decided to fill in the space where my thoughts once were. But the arch nemesis of my pursuit of enlightenment appears in the harmless form of a rooster. I swear it waits until I look settled in thought before crowing. Images of it running around missing its head gives me inner peace but not the kind they are talking about in here geuss.
At one point I sense somebody standing in front of me. I peek with one eye and see a young monk looking down on me with an expression of confusion.
“Has anybody taught you how to meditate yet?” He obviously already knows the answer.
“No, is it that obvious?”
“You look more like you’re having a really hard time on the toilet - come with me.”
His name is Tawachai and he has been part of the monkhood since he was twelve years old. It’s common in Thailand for boys to join the monkhood at a young age.
“How do you meditate with all of these bloody roosters around?” I ask him.
“Well, if they’re annoying you than you are not in here meditating,” he says, pointing to his head.
“Sit down and be mindful of your posture.” They say ‘mindful’ a lot in here.
He instructs me to concentrate on my breathing and be aware of the sensations all over my body.
He teaches me a technique called “scanning the body,” during which your mind frisks your body from head to toe, travelling along its veins like highways. He says to do it slowly and that I’ll know I’m getting the hang of it when I can feel my pulse, my heartbeat with my mind and feel the subtle throbs of parts of my body that I never believed moved.
“If you see a thought, watch it and just let it go.”
Next lesson is in walking meditation: walk in slow motion, be mindful the whole time of the movements of my body and how my feet feel as they touch the ground, slowly, thoughtfully. By doing so all senses are heightened.
“Now go practice, and by the way meditator – take off all your decorations.”
He’s referring to my necklace, earring and ring. I shed myself of all adornments and am left in just the basic white cotton shirt and pants that are the uniform in here.
The last meal is at noon and the rest of the day is for fasting. Staring down at the starched rice and the limp leaves of spinach floating in the brown broth portioned out in the tin tray I want to let out a whimper. But I can’t. We are to eat in silence. Mindfully.
“They’re creating the ideal conditions for you to make progress here. By fasting your mind is weaker and less capable of fighting back.”
“And trust me, it will put up a fight.” His out-of-order British accent irritates me like a bad nineties boy band pop tune. They fascinate me these born-again-whatever’s; the evangelic salesmen preaching some ultimate truth that they swear by like a certain brand of toothpaste that was going out half price at some revelatory pivotal point in their lives. This guy has gone from clinging to drugs to clinging to a bald man in saffron robes.
“Have you ever read any self-help books?” I ask him in a tone with an irritated rash of sarcasm.
I apologise before he has a chance to answer and blame my disgruntled manner on the roosters.
His words recur as I lay there on my bed at 9pm - a floor mat half an inch thick - in my room resembling a prison cell in which my head and feet touch corresponding walls.
I’ve learnt today that emptying your head of thoughts and distractions is like clearing out a rowdy pub at closing time.
Life begins here with the crows of a hundred roosters and the howl of dozens of stray abandoned dogs that have made the temple their home.
Our evening meditation teacher is the iconic hard knox monk. He had told us last night to arrive early to every class as “the student should arrive before the teacher, not the teacher before the student.”
We do the same with daylight. At 4am, while it is dark we begin our day by making our way to the temple and meditating. Distant monk chants are the equivalent of church bells here in Thailand, reassuring and romantic.
Tawachai takes the morning class. “Morning is the best time to meditate and learn something as your mind is still open,” he says.
“When you wake up in the morning, set up your mind; before you fall asleep at night, clean up your mind.”
“Meditation is about being aware of yourself, your thoughts, the rise and fall of your abdomen, your body and being wholly present in the present moment,” he continues.
“Feeling the breeze on your skin, the ache in your back, your pulse, hearing the crow of the rooster but not running away with it.”
I open one eye and he is grinning at me.
“Do not try and control your mind, just feel these things until all that you’re left with is yourself, alone in the present moment,” he leaves us, but before he does he tells me to meet him outside at 6:30.
I am to follow him on his morning Alms round, an ancient ceremony performed by Buddhist monks every morning during which they collect their food from worshippers alongside the rambunctious city streets.
He talks to me about one of the core doctrines of Buddhist existence: impermanence.
“The reality is that everything in this life is impermanent: things exist but do not exist – you’re body is impermanent – you are only angry, tired, and old because you have this body.”
“Thoughts are impermanent and there will be millions of different people that replace us in years to come thinking different thoughts,” Tawachai explains.
“Accepting this allows a person not to cling to things and also deal with the fundamentals instead of filling their lives with impermanent pleasures and desires.”
“Just think, when you go to a party and have a great time –your dancing, laughing, drinking but when you get home you have a feeling like you wish you could go back because that feeling you had there is over.”
I think of the invincibility that I felt growing up and the infinity of it all standing on top of the mountain of puberty and youth.
“This is the impermanence of it all – but accepting this will mean you will go home and have peaceful dreams after the party.”
I tell him that hopefully it will be with a pretty girl and he laughs.
“Yes, but fulfilment cannot be found in these temporary pleasures.”
I know he is right and feel like a child learning something for the first time, but this truth is really buried in all of us.
“People often cling to their egos and make the wrong actions instead of applying reason with self control in mind - they take the instinctual, easier path,” he continues.
“This means they then cling to a delusive existence and forever have an incomplete feeling in their existence.”
“Well, we know that but we were hoping nobody would come along and blow the lid on it,” I say before stopping to watch worshippers dirty their knees on the smutty road to receive a blessing for their offerings they have just dropped in Tawachai’s bag.
The second and third day pass like I’m a drug addict in rehab. In the throes of withdrawal symptoms, I struggle to let go of my thoughts from the outside world. But I stick to the schedule and meditate the majority of the day.
My back aches, my feet go numb and my belly growls while the rooster struts arrogantly in front of me. Outside the meditation hall is an area called the “healthy meditation walking area” where meditators practise their walking meditation and sit on raised stools.
Dressed in white cotton clothes, pacing slowly with eyes closed we look like patients of a mental institution.
In the afternoon of the third day something odd happens. It dosen’t come like an epiphany but more like somebody slowly letting the air out of a balloon. I follow my breathing until it becomes seamless and undetectable, almost as if it has stopped. My head feels light, and everything that passes through my mind does so fleetingly but feelings are firmly in the immediate present.
I’m alone and all that is left of me is a portion of my mind which seems it has isolated itself, stepped up a ladder from the rest of the world and is looking down upon it. And as I feel the breeze and how it makes my shirt feel on my body I settle into a calm like a river at dawn without a ripple.
I realise now what the monks are talking about. We spend so much time in the throes of thoughts regarding the past or the future that we are very rarely present in the present.
It’s as if I can send my mind anywhere on my body to feel the sensation. My pulse is amplified. I can hear the birds of the forest, the cicadas and the motorbike whirring past but they do not move me and my thoughts. They are just there, part of the present. Thoughts still encroach but I visualise them and then screw up the image and throw it.
I am a fickle character , like most people playing a myriad of parts in their life that play tag most days of the week: one day a clown, the next a pessimist, another a nihilist, an atheist, an advocate , an observer, a Buddhist, a Christian, an Australian, a European, a nymphomaniac. I am a stellar actor and can play any part, but when I am forced to look back stage and under the hood it is as if I have walked in on my mother naked.
After one hour, which feels like 10 minutes - of meditating I open my eyes, light headed and in a dream-like state.
Abolishing the walls; banishing the distractions, emptying your pockets of loose thoughts; this is what meditation is all about. But that’s not easy for someone who relies on his thoughts for daily sustenance. I feel as if I have set fire to my mind and it has burnt to the ground but now has been extinguished. I’m standing in the centre of it, looking around at the present and it is as if time has been held in suspension.
The rooster is nowhere to be seen or heard.
I did not expect such a break through or epiphany to reach me during my time here. I came here to learn about Buddhism, the conscience of Thailand, and to learn meditation. The thought of being alone with myself for a while seemed to fit at the time.
On the tuk tuk ride back in to town on the last day, the swilling of beers and conversation with other travellers at night it all felt like a dream and I wanted to return to the chicken, the tasteless brown goop, the 4am wake up. I didn’t however. But as I swigged back beer after beer I couldn’t help but slipping into concentration on my breathing, and lifting myself above the heads of other and looking down on it all, the present moment.
Quick travel tips for those travelers seeking enlightenment...
- It won't happen in a week.
- However, spend atleast a week pursuing it.
- There are many temples around Chaing Mai that take in travelers for meditation classes.
- Wat Umong- a forest temple just outside of Cahing Mai- has a high turnover so there are often free rooms available. contact them before turning up: +66 (0) 5327 7248. They speak english.
- Your stay is provided free of charge but a donation is commonplace at about 150 Baht a day.