I went off by myself to a meditation retreat at a forest monastery. Why? The easy answer is faith, instinct, and serendipity. The long story requires a bit more explanation. I’ll start with this quote:
“Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand… the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.” ~ Alan Lightman
Note: Writing this post was a struggle. I wanted to avoid discussing theology because my spiritual journey is highly personal and private. I was also afraid that putting my thoughts out there would cause others to label me as some sort of New Age-y, hippy-dippy kook, and that I would lose credibility. But it was ultimately impossible to write anything without touching on some existential thoughts. So I have found a middle ground where I have glossed over a lot of my own beliefs and generalized a lot of others, and I apologize if they are unclear or confusing. They are here to form a framework* for the larger discussion.
“Faith” can be a loaded word these days. In our society, it is often associated with Christianity, blind sheep, and zealotry, but that is not how I am using it (nor do I associate any of those descriptors with each other). Anyone can have faith, and I think that we often need to. It seems like it would be very hard to live life without some degree of it.
I am not a religious person, but I do consider myself spiritual. I don’t subscribe to any particular theology but I relate to concepts from many of them. And I have faith in the Universe; I trust that everything happens for a reason even if that reason may never be revealed to me. I have faith that everything will work out for the best though that best can sometimes still be really painful or terrible. I state these things not because I want to push them or to convince anyone but merely to give you background on where I’m coming from. My faith is rooted in the experiences I have had throughout my life, and I trust that I am where I need to be and going where I need to go.
I just had to be alone. While I love Matt and could not have picked a better travel partner, our dynamic had been up-ended by traveling with a third person for three weeks, and I was feeling run down, burned out, and emotionally scattered. I knew I needed to be alone. Truly alone. Splitting up for a few hours during the day is nice, but it’s not the same as being alone. I felt the urge to withdraw from everyone I knew and be by myself so that I could reflect on everything that has happened in the last few months. As Matt planned to take an overnight rafting trip from Pai to Mae Hong Son, I opted to instead take the bus and spend the next two days on my own. This is the first time Matt and I would spend more than a few hours apart since we left America.
I was alone on the bus from Pai to Mae Hong Son when we made a stop in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. A girl grabbed her bag and hopped off. I looked around to see where she could be going, and I saw a sign: “Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery welcomes you to practice meditation vipassana.”
“Oh,” I thought to myself. “That’s cool. I’ve always wanted to do something like that.” And then I promptly forgot about it.
Western science is just coming around to proving the benefits of meditation including improving clarity, focus, attention span, and generally helping calm down the mind. I know the many medical and practical reasons I should meditate; having a thicker cerebral cortex is sexy.
That all sounds great, but I have been trying and failing to establish a pattern of mindfulness and meditation in my life for several years. I have a hard time sticking to things that I’m not naturally gifted at or that I’m not passionate about. There must be deeper reason for failing at something repeatedly and still trying. Even though I haven’t had any measure of success, why do I persist in pursuing meditation?
One of the biggest reasons I want to meditate is to calm my mind down. Years of neglect, instant messaging, texting, facebooking, and all the other forms of distraction we are surrounded by have turned my gray matter into gray mush. I have an alarmingly short attention span, and I often have trouble staying focused for long on anything. This has impacts in all aspects of my life: personal relationships, work, and playing ultimate are all affected by my brain’s inability to maintain a coherent stream of thought. My hope is that regular meditation practice will be able to rewire my brain into a more efficient and happier mush-pile.
A more esoteric, and more important, reason that I keep trying to meditate is that I want to get out from under the illusion (sometimes translated as “delusion”) of separateness. In some Eastern philosophies, there is this concept called Maya that we are all under a grand illusion/delusion: that we are all separate, individual and independent entities, that you and I are each alone in the Universe. The supposed truth is that we are all actually interconnected parts of one large whole. We are all one with all the other parts of the Universe, but we’ve somehow lost our way and no longer recognize that. And there are two parts of our mind: the ego, which actively misleads and keeps us thinking we’re alone, and the conscious mind which knows the truth but is drowned out by the constant chatter of the ego.
On a few occasions in my lifetime, I have felt the truth. It wasn’t a single thought, “Oh, hey, I’m connected to everything,” but instead a feeling as though my soul expanded well beyond the physical confines of my body and reached out beyond the stars, encompassing everything in between. In those fleeting moments, I have understood that I am interconnected with everything, and I know beyond any doubt that I am both infinitely small and infinitely important. If we are all connected, then every single action we take has implications for everything we are connected to. This means that we are never acting just for ourselves — we are acting on behalf of everyone.
I don’t know what brings on this feeling, but it is as though my conscious mind is somehow able to shut out the ego for a split-second, and I suddenly have clarity. This is the feeling I have been searching for. My hope is that, through meditation, I will be able to experience this feeling more often and consistently.
After I got off the bus, I hiked up to the Wat Doi Kung temple in Mae Hong Son just to look out over the city at sunset. And while I stood alone at the top taking in the view, I felt it! How ironic that it takes being completely alone to feel so connected. I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Except that I was due to leave in two days time.
The next night, re-united with Matt and getting ready to head back to Chiang Mai for a hat tournament, I was sad that I was leaving Mae Hong Son so soon. I felt like I needed to stay a little while longer, and I thought that I would return after the tournament to chill out for a few days in the city. Just as I was falling asleep, though, I suddenly remembered the forest monastery. I looked it up on the googler, and I found out that it’s free, no reservations are required, and they recommend a stay of a minimum of a week. If I skipped the Chiang Mai tournament, I had exactly one week left before I needed to head to Bangkok for their annual hat tourney. It was serendipity; everything was lining up so perfectly that I couldn’t ignore it. I immediately decided to throw out all our plans and go stay by myself at the monastery for a week.
meditation for dummy lisa
One of the goals of meditation is to quiet our “monkey minds.” In Vipassana meditation, the student is taught to focus on one thing, often our breath, and that as distracting thoughts arise, to gently bring our focus back to that one object. Basically, we are trying to stay focused on a single thing and train our mind to not chase each new thought that pops into our heads. It’s like lifting weights or working out — the more you lift, the stronger your muscles get. Same same: the more you practice meditation, the better you will be able to acknowledge and dismiss thoughts without chasing them down rabbit holes.
We are taught that we (our souls) are not defined by these distracting thoughts or our mind (i.e. the ego). Thoughts are like clouds that drift in and out, and we do not have to follow them. Just because they pop into our heads doesn’t mean that they belong to us or dictate who we are. During meditation, the conscious mind observes these thoughts coming and going but is brought back to the object (the breath) instead of following the distractions, and we notice that every thought and emotion eventually fades away. This is the quieting of the monkey mind.
This doesn’t mean that we ignore or reject thoughts or emotions. We simply observe them without getting attached. We watch them fade away while we bring our thought back to our breath and the present moment. As we chase fewer and fewer of these thoughts, we find that our minds are calmer and that we can think more clearly. Which brings me to intuition and instinct.
Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
~ Steve Jobs
I consider myself very bad at reading and understanding my own feelings. I am very out of touch with my emotions, and it takes quite a bit of time to work through them. I blame being raised in a household where feelings were never acknowledged, much less discussed. But I strongly believe that my intuition and instincts are usually right, if only I could listen to them more.
Example: In ultimate, I do my best when I am playing purely in the moment — I let my training and practice take over and just switch off my brain. If I start to think too much about my next throw or laying out, doubt creeps in or I hesitate, and mistakes happen. The key, then, is ignoring that voice so that I can feel the quiet whisper of what my instincts are saying. In ultimate or any sport, you have to train well (practice how you play!) so that when the time comes, you already know what to do and just do it. In life, our intuition already somehow knows what it wants. We just need to be able to hear it.
My hope is that, with meditation, I can get my monkey mind to quiet down so that I can better listen to my intuition and instincts. I followed my instinct to stay at the forest monastery, and I had varying degrees of success while at the retreat. I found it challenging to stay focused, but being away from technology and in led meditation classes for six hours each day means I was much more successful than ever before. I don’t know how it’ll transfer on the road or when I get back home, but I can already tell that I am calmer from the week I spent there — not once did I flip out at the guy snoring next to me on the 14-hour bus to Bangkok!
I didn’t have any major epiphanies while at the monastery, but I am able to stay focused longer and think more clearly. Already, I have noticed that I am able to hear my inner voice better. I finally made a decision that has been hanging over my head since before the trip. More on that in the next post…
*I hate that I’m still using corporate IT buzzwords like “framework.”