Ten days. And back in the real world.
In my inbox, an email saying my friends in Bombay are safe. An email asking whether I will be able to fly to Australia. Another about whether the riots in Thailand are affecting me. One about a festival in Australia for New Year’s Eve. It is completely overwhelming, I have no idea what everyone is talking about.
Online, I find out about current events, even though it’s difficult to get the root cause of every event as most articles talk about the consequences rather than the beginning.
The Qantas website says that travel to and for the Bangkok International Airport will be difficult over the next couple of weeks. I am due to travel on December 10th, so I’ll keep up to date to see what my options are.
The retreat was tough. Not talking was surprisingly easy (Yes Camille, I did it :-), and the only words I uttered were during the daily 5-minute reporting to our teacher, the head monk of the Temple. Not making eye-contact was more difficult, but as the days passed, I simply did not want to make contact with anyone else. I got so wrapped up in my own experience, that other people’s presence became alien.
Obviously I took the retreat very seriously. On the first day we were taught the technical parts of the meditation practice, and started with 15-minute increments of walking and sitting. After some cross-legged sitting, the pain in my thighs was excruciating. Thankfully it got better over the next few days.
I rolled out of bed every morning at 4am, waking to the sound of a loud gong and the temple dogs howling, then for 2 hours of meditation before breakfast, which consisted of cold tasteless rice soup (overcooked rice in water). We were allowed to eat only after chanting, first by the monks in their orange robes, then by the nuns, and then by us, the Thai and foreign meditators.
Then back to practice, until 10.30am, when the bell rang for lunch. Meals consisted of white rice, broth and generally boiled vegetables with tofu or meat. Since I had only just started eating solid food again 48 hours before entering the Wat, I could only cope with small amounts, and only got the vegetarian option over the first week.
In the afternoon, it was washing, practising and more practising. Chewing was not allowed after midday, so the monks fix their hunger by eaten over-sweetened yoghurt, soy milk and artificial fruit juices. I did so the first day, and got a bad headache and sugar high before crashing out… That was not going to work for me, as refined sugars had been cut out of my diet completely. The second day was when I broke the only rule I was going to ignore over the retreat: I ate savoury solid food every afternoon.
On the first day, it is expected to practise for 6 hours, changing from walking to sitting every 15 minutes. I managed 7. Then each day after that, you are advised to add an extra 5-minutes to each session, and one hour a day. Adding more minutes was hard. I kept looking at my clock and wondering how time could pass so slowly, especially with the pins and needles in my legs.
By the 5th day, I was doing 12-hours a day, in one-hour increments. Walking was easiest, and sitting continued to be difficult for that long. I could tell I had been practising for 35 minutes without needing a watch, as that’s when I lost all feelings in my legs. 45 minutes was when I start getting pins-and-needles, 50-minutes was the start of shooting pains.
The reasoning from the head monk is this: pain is one of the best ways of living the present moment. When the body is suffering , one can only be right there and then feeling it. The mind does not wander. Once your mind is settled on the pain, one can attempt to acknowledge it, and let go of it. Also, pain is a good example of impermance. It’s there, and then it’s gone. It goes to show that nothing lasts, and everything, even the worse pain in the world, goes away also.
As there are 24 hours in a day, 6 of which are spent sleeping on a wooden plank. That leaves 18 hours for meditation. Take two times one hour for pre-prandial chanting and eating, and one hour for washing and general physiological needs, and an “advanced” meditator can spend 15 hours a day in the transe state. I got the luxury of 3 hours of “break” every day. Which ment I could have a cup of hot water between sessions, break the chewing rule in the afternoon, and sit down to think.
Meditating is the absence of thought. And since every human spends their time thinking, it is pretty difficult to avoid that habit. Vipassana meditation does not use a mantra (a phrase that is repeated over and over to occupy the mind), but focuses on the body sensations. Paying attention to every movement of the body whilst walking, with a strange comical slow gait; and to breathing whilst sitting.
When a thought pops up in your head, you must look at it, acknowledge it, and let it go. You must not let it settle in your mind, or continue the thinking process. Recognising what that thought is (e.g. Worry, Anger, Anxiety, Boredom, Restlessness, Impatience) and repeating the quality of it in your head three times in a row is a good way of getting rid of the thought, my teacher said (knowing, knowing, knowing). Same goes when you hear a sound (hearing, hearing, hearing), see something (seeing, seeing, seeing), or feel an emotion (feeling, feeling, feeling… or boredom, boredom, boredom)
During certain sessions, my mind was fully focused, and time was flying. There were even moments when I was completely cut off from external noise and stimulation, and even did not get any pain! But a lot of the time, it was just long, boring and frustrating.
The similarities with my experience at Race Across America were very obvious. Not much sleep, not much comfort, high motivation, low immediate reward. And doing something painful and sometimes horrible for later benefit. It helped me to think back to RAAM, and the cyclists crossing the States in less than 12 days, and take some distance with the pain I was feeling at times.
Rules are fun – they mean one does not have to make any decisions. Back in the real world, and with time to chill out, I am finding difficult to decide what to do, sleep, eat, activities… everything was thought for me over the last 10 days, and getting back to organising my own life is proving a challenge!
I have noticed I walk slower, and I take more attention to everything. The noise and the general buzzing of the city are a bit much.
I think I will spend some time to practise today, as my teacher recommends continuing to meditate for one hour everyday. I can try… to see what it will do. If it can help me in my day-to-day life. At the moment, I have a lot of time, not many commitments, so it will be easy. The hard part will be the motivation to keep going if I do not see results.
All in all, a tough experience. Rewarding because I made it through, my teacher was happy with my progresses and I am going to Australia in 6 days to continue my journeys!