Meditation is the answer to so many of life’s problems, so I hear. And it is not just for cloistered shaved monks anymore – more and more people are taking a week off for meditation retreats now and then, sometimes as regularly as twice a year. I was curious, so I took the opportunity to go to the Dipabhāvan Centre in Thailand over Chinese New Year, and I’m glad I did.
This centre offers 7-day retreats: not too long and not too short in my opinion. Being my first try, I didn’t want to overdo it at the same time as wanting a solid foundation. Thailand is dotted with all sorts of meditation retreats, lasting any length of time from 3 days to 30, and ranging from donation-based frugality to high-end luxury.
The people I met on the retreat were just as diverse – surprisingly not all on an eat-pray-love midlife crisis. Some were trying it out for the first time like me, others came fully equipped with travel-size meditation cushions and handmade organic hemp clothing, this being only one stop for them on a long chain of retreats.
But once we got there we were all the same: we slept on uniformly hard wooden beds, followed the same schedule, meditated on the same blue cushions, ate the same bland food, did our dutiful chores – but it was the silence that really evaporated our differences.
Our schedule was not as strict as other retreats: 4:30am wakeup, followed by meditation and yoga. Breakfast at 7:30 with chores and a break after, then more meditation until lunch at 11:30. A couple of hours free before an hour of Buddhist teachings, more meditation, a couple hours tea break, even more meditation then bed at 9:30pm. And, of course, all in complete silence.
By the end, I realised why. The whole set-up of the centre is designed to starve the mind of distractions and give you a chance to live in the present moment. There were no posters or pretty things to stare at, no mirrors to berate yourself with, no books to transport you to far-away lands, no phones to obsess over, and no conversations to pre-plan in your head.
Everything is stripped away so you can see yourself for who you are. In the first few days, the restless nature of the mind becomes apparent. My mind did everything it could to pull me away from the present – digging deep into my long lost past then jumping years into the future, searching for some delight to chew on simply to ‘get through’ the present moment. It resisted sitting still despite the fact I had nowhere to go and nothing to do.
A few people quit quite early on, for just this reason I suspect. It was easy to get frustrated at not being able to achieve the peaceful state so aspired to in Buddhism. They taught us to focus attention on the breath until you are filled with blissful peace and become one with the universe. An excellent example of something that could not be more ‘easier said than done’.
After a few days I was able to laugh at my “monkey mind” (as the monks call it) and the bizarre reality of me sitting stoically in a Buddhist meditation hall, completely lost in memories of the patterns on my childhood bedroom wall paper, then the meal I had on the airplane, then the textbook I had at uni.
The thing that got me through was an excerpt from Osho’s “Learning to Silence the Mind” book I got in the airport.
He likened the mind to a trickling stream in the forest. Ideally, the water should be clean and pure (a still mind), but more often than not, all sorts of debris (thoughts) comes floating past. Your first urge is to reach in and clean it out (you identify with the thought and become the accompanying emotion) but this just makes it muddier. Meditation is learning to sit by the side of the stream and just watch. Watch the leaves of past and future as they come and go, watch the sticks of frustration and self-hatred, watch the logs of anger and despair. Most importantly, don’t judge whatever comes floating by, as that is interfering and only serves to muddy the water again. Just acknowledge and accept it and you will see how fleeting it is.
Soon, after practicing this silent ‘watching’ for a while, the water becomes clearer. For the first time, I was aware of what was going on inside me. I felt old aches in parts of my body never before attended to, I could see thought patterns and their consequential effects on my emotions, I could feel the multiple sensations involved in something as simple as taking one step. I had a few moments of complete peace and stillness near the end, then all too soon, it was over.
There was a sharing session on the last day and it was a relief to hear that yes, we all have the same crazy minds, and we all have the potential for peace and harmony. In fact it is our very nature.
Leaving is the most difficult part of any meditation retreat. Some people said they couldn’t handle ‘life outside’ and instantly signed up to another retreat. I had no such option. On the ride back to my hostel, my mind jumped up to its usual crazy level again, reading all the sign posts on the roadside, judging all the people around, planning every second before it could be lived.
Back at the airport – a place we are forced to wait for long periods of time – I wondered why the phrase “I can’t wait” is appropriated as a positive thing. Because it is true, we literally cannot wait. The mind craves something to busy itself with, and modern life is designed to fill that craving. As I waited for my suitcase it was near impossible to still my mind because I was bombarded with distraction in every direction, even the floor was covered in pink ads: “4G IS HERE: stay connected all the time”.
Now, back in my daily routine, it is difficult to keep up the practice of allowing myself to be still. But every day more and more I see how vital it is. I would go as far as saying meditation should be taught in every school, as soon as possible. The fullness of life is lost if we just follow every thought, and we can easily lose track of what is real and true.
Meditation is one way to find our way back home.
Trying to find what is not lost
Trying to fix what is not broken
Trying to buy what is not for sale
Trying to search for what is not hidden
Trying to say what words cannot express
Trying to arrive when there is no destination
Trying to escape when you are already free
This is what I wrote about the nature of the mind as I observed it, the way we believe we are fundamentally not ok. It is only when the mind quietens down that your real, whole, beautiful self has a chance to shine through.