There was a tranquil sense of energy to the place. One that I can only try to describe. You’d have to be there to know it. Peaceful. Calm. Serene. The monks, strolling around. One here. Another there. One sitting. One walking. One sweeping. All at peace. Everyone had a sense of curiosity in their eyes. Or maybe it was just me.
I remember thinking. Why did I come here? How did I end up here? Where will I go from here? Who will I be after the experience that was to commence in 2 days? Am I here to face something or am I here to escape something? I wasn’t sure. But I knew this was exactly where I needed to be. And for that I am grateful.
I was at The Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage, in the small village of Chaiya, in Surat Thani, Thailand. It was a hot sunny afternoon on February 27th. I’d come to register for and attend the following month’s 10 day silent meditation retreat. The retreat always begin on the first and end on the tenth. Registration is in person the day before. It is first-come first-serve and it was high season. So I wanted to make sure I get a spot and thankfully I did.
Some Truths I encountered during the experience and shortly after:
1. Happiness is a choice and you’re always the one who gets to choose.
What if we made happiness and peace of mind our intention? Instead of trying to overcome the so called painful past. What if you decided for yourself that you will begin to train yourself starting now and today. To set love and compassion, peace and joy as your way of life? With the foresight that change is going to take deliberate effort and time but it is possible.
“Go a whole day without complaining – then a lifetime!” – Timber Hawkeye
The bell would ring every morning at 4AM. First few days I would get up with a tough minded attitude of “okay, let’s go, you gotta do this!”. Next few days I would almost curse the bell in my mind, “oh, what’s the point of this, why do I gotta get up at this time.” Last few days, you learn that everything is an opportunity to practice mindfulness. So at 4AM I would deliberately not react to the bell as I had been. I would instead respond by getting up as fast as I could washing my face brushing my teeth. Before you know it, you don’t even feel sleepy or tired. This showed me that like everything else in life we always have a choice of how we see things. And how we choose to react to them. Even something as simple as the process of getting up in the morning. You can victimise yourself thinking “Why do I have to go through this?” Or you can just pick yourself up, get on with it, and be grateful that you even have the opportunity to do so. You always have a choice.
2. You should not give too much meaning to anything in life because NOTHING is worth your peace of mind.
Things don’t have meaning to them, intrinsically. Nothing does. Not a sunset, not the look in a puppy’s eyes, not our relationships. We give them meaning based on our perception and sense of self. Do not mistake this for worthless. Things are not worthless but intrinsically speaking, from a Buddhist point of view, everything is meaningless. You give things meaning by how you choose to see them. And how you choose see them are a result of your habitual conditioning.
“Take a step back and you’ll see that all of our anguish is self-inflicted. We assign meaning to everything, and simply refuse to accept it all as impermanent.” – Timber Hawkeye
Your sense of self is a making up of the mind. Clinging and attachments are behaviors that give birth to your sense of self and ego. Such as identifying with past stories that you tell yourself causing you to remain in the past and be who you tell yourself you are based on the past. This sense of “me” and sense of self-identity is something that arises as a response to any sense experience. At which point “me” is that which is experiencing something. Be it a cool drink on a hot summer day. Or an “awful” breakup. Shift your perspective toward things in life.
Buddhism is about relinquishing yourself of dependencies on anything and anyone. It is not about being happy and honkey dory. It’s a path of discovery of your own true nature and that of everything else. It’s about having the mental discipline along with kindness of the heart and love to to say enough is enough – no longer will I depend on circumstances to feel joy and be at peace. Realize that happiness, joy, success, peace, are all qualities of the mind and their cultivation in life can only come by choosing and deciding for yourself that you will not have it any other way.
3. Three words: trust the process.
One of the most memorable lesson came at the times leading up to lunch. And lunch time itself. The retreat provides 2 simple vegetarian meals a day – morning and noon (rice, vegetables, hot water). After day 4 I chose to have only one meal a day – lunch.
So, coming up to lunch time… The bell rings. You’re hungry. You begin to fear what will happen to me. To my body. Will I pass out. Food is laid out and everyone begins to walk toward the dinning hall. The food is always just about enough, not too much not too little. You line up to serve yourself. So much mental energy and dilema goes onto this process especially the first few days. How much should I take? Will there be enough left for seconds? During the orientation session before the retreat they ask you take just enough so that the first and the last person in line could get the same amount of everything. So you then feel guilty if you took too much food or even think that you did.
And best part, you can’t begin eating until everyone else has served themselves, sat down and we’ve read the food reflection. It’s amazing to observe the storm that the mind puts you through just for its own desire for something (eg. food), but also out of fear, greed, and worry. Fear that you won’t get enough. Greed that you want more than you’ll need. And all the worry that comes with it. This was an excellent lesson on observing how the mind can mess with you. And learning to not allow your thoughts to draw you in. Because after the first couple of spoons just as your senses are satiated you begin to calm down and after lunch it’s as though there was never any need for any mental battle.
“In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
You see for yourself that circumstances in life, even things such as eating 3 meals or no meals for a few days won’t be as awful as you may think. What makes it awful is your response to how you think about it. You observe your thoughts when you get a little hungrier and when you eat you realize that any negative feelings or emotions were all merely a game of the mind. On day 9, I did not eat anything. This was very interesting. During meditation I found myself often thinking of foods I’d eat and restaurants and places I’d go to eat in the near future.
Things are going to happen and go on regardless of how you choose to feel about them. Choose love. Choose faith. Choose peace. Choose joy. Choose gratitude. Choose change. It’s the fear and worry of things that can hurt and even kill you, not the actual circumstances of your life. During the retreat I experienced this in simple things such as daily lunch.
4. We tend to talk more than we should – often saying things that are better left unsaid.
Being silent was rather easy and proved to be a valuable exercise. You see how we waste or expend so much energy just talking. You learn to deal with whatever is going on in your head by yourself. Not by complaining, gossiping, whining, blaming, etc. And you come to realize that you can figure things out on your own even if you didn’t think so. And even you don’t figure something out – you accept that you’ll be okay. You gain a great level of appreciation for the spoken word and the power your words have on everything.
“Silence is a source of great strength.” – Lao Tzu
5. Do one thing at a time and be mindful at all times.
The retreat showed me that mindfulness does not end when you get up from your meditation. It continues at all times. When getting lunch. When walking to your room. When walking to the hall. When opening your room door – checking for spiders and the like. You can always practice being mindful. One way to do it especially in today’s “multi-task” age is to do one thing at a time. When you’re eating, eat. When your reading, read. When talking with someone, give them your undivided attention. You do this because at that moment in time that is the only person you are dealing with and that makes them – for that moment at least – the most important person to you.
“Mindfulness is so powerful that the fact that it comes out of Buddhism is irrelevant.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
There is great value in slowing down. There is no hurry, no place to go, nothing else to do, just a settling back into the moment. Take your time when doing simple things like chores, washing the dishes, walking to work, folding laundry. You don’t do this just for the sake of spending a lot of time. You do it to train the mind to break habitual conditioned behaviors. This mental discipline of mindfulness will then empower you to more easily change other habits that are harmful, e.g. smoking, gossiping, etc.All our behaviors and so called things we’ve come to consider normal are conditioned behaviours that have become habits. We can and must unlearn them if they are causing us harm.
6. Meditation is not meant to make you thoughtless – that’s not possible.
Think of the mind as the sky. Thoughts are then clouds that pass through. Meditation is the practice of observing these clouds, or thoughts. Without judgement, without commentary, without attachment, without possession, without reaction. Simply being there. Observing. That is all. You are not your thoughts. How you alter your thoughts is a process of training the mind through meditation. It’s also through letting go of the self-identifying stories you tell yourself that have kept the same thoughts coming back, again and again. Meditation helps you detach from your thoughts so that when certain negative emoting thoughts arise you do not cling onto them. Get sucked into them and start hurting yourself and others.
This is why it is so important to train the mind or practice mindfulness meditation. The mind is a sense response to seeing or experiencing something. The mind senses an experience which for that moment gives it birth then it goes away. Every sense experience creates a new mind affected by all the previous sense experiences. You learn how to simply observe when a feeling or vibration arises. Meditation is the training required to be able to wisely respond to feelings and thoughts that arise instead of foolishly reacting to them. Gaining control of the mind empowers you to experience more peace and joy.
7. Happiness is not what you think it is.
True joy and peace do not come from mental stimulation type of experiences. Be it the next exotic vacation, the next adventure thrill, the next promotion, the next drink, the next meal, the next smoke, or what ever else you’ve got lined up. Nor do they arise from material possessions of any kind. These, according to Buddhisim, are all still forms of suffering or unsatisfactoriness. They are stimulations or excitements that are impermanent, like everything else. They come and go. Buddhism doesn’t ask us not to enjoy pleasurable things, just know that they’re impermanent. Don’t try to hold on to them and repeat them over and over again. Instead learn to control the mind and your response to life so even when you cannot control what you get or don’t get – you can be at peace. When making changes in life, approach things with a void, empty mind. A mind free of anxiety, hate, and frustration. Welcome the sense of adventure and surprise that comes with the unexpected, the uncertain, the unknown.
“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” – Omar Khayyam
It will come from a knowing that the rut you may find yourself in sometimes or feel that you are in now is a result of your conditioned thoughts and behaviors. All of which can be unconditioned or reconditioned and replaced with new habits that will lead to joy, peace, and happiness. Not over night, not over a month. But can and will with persistent effort. Practice and training. Training of the Mind. Through mindfulness meditation. Stop searching for answers beyond yourself. Sit down for a moment and read your own book. The book that lies in the mind. That’s where you can hope to find the answers you’re really looking for.