My Mountain Top Meditation
45 minutes outside of the historical city of Chiang Mai lies another place stepped in even more history and shrouded in ancient Buddhist lore. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a very holy place for locals while also being extremely popular with tourists. It’s a must see when visiting Chiang Mai. Just make sure to go to the street across from the North Gate so that you only have to pay 50 baht/person to get a taxi with 9 of your new closest friends.
The first chedi on this site was built way back in 1383. Supposedly a monk found a shoulder bone that was believed to be from The Buddha. This bone had magical powers: it could glow, vanish, move itself, and replicate itself. When the king found out he wanted to put it inside a special temple but on the way to the king this bone used its magic powers to replicate; it was the same shape but smaller. The king took the original relic, put it on top of a royal white elephant, and let it loose into the jungle. The elephant climbed Doi Suthep mountain, circled the top, trumpeted three times, and then laid down and died. The King took this as a sign and ordered a temple to be constructed upon the same site. In the 600+ years since this compound has continued to be built out and now includes an internationally known Vipassana mediation center. Vipassana means they teach insight meditation versus Zen meditation. The subtly in the difference is lost on me though since I’m still a neophyte.
I really don’t know much about meditation, other than that it’s usually down by people living in California ;). Brian and I had seen a few places that offered yoga or meditation retreats and talked about doing one of them; our logic was that it was highly unlikely that we would ever carve out a week plus to devote to attending a meditation retreat, so we might as well take advantage of an opportunity if it presented itself.
This is what I thought meditation was before I started:
On a whim Brian fired off an email asking if they by chance had 2 openings for the upcoming week. He sent it on a Saturday and they replied Monday morning telling us to show up between noon and 2pm that same day. We were already participating in a Thai massage class and had to finish our third session, so he replied and told them that we would be there the following day.
That meant that we needed supplies so it was off to the massive Warorot market in search of white clothes. We found some remarkably quickly, and we each bought two pants and two shirts for 300 baht/person.
After finishing up the massage course we quickly took a songthaew (pickup truck taxi) to the top of Doi Suthep. We paid 150 baht/person since it was just two of us to get to the top of the windy mountain and then walked as quickly as possible to the entrance some 300+ steps up. We asked at the counter where they normally make foreigners pay 30 baht and were told we didn’t have to since we were attending the meditation retreat. We got there about 1:45 pm and were told we could leave our belongings in the small meditation room and come back at 2 pm.
There were 3 other people joining that day one of whom was coming back for her second time. Although she did inform us that while her husband had attended the first time he didn’t care for it and had decided not to come back. Brian and I turned and gave each other the “What did we just get ourselves into?” look.
A monk then handed out a card and told us that in addition to the normal 5 precepts that everyone is supposed to live by we had 3 additional ones. The first five: no killing (including mosquitos), no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no telling of lies, and no alcohol or drugs. The additional three were no overeating (nothing to eat past noon), no oversleeping (only sleep from 9pm-5am), and only wearing white clothes (no jewelry or makeup). We also were to stay silent and only talk to the teacher during our daily reviews. We then were led on a 5 minute walk down from the main temple to the meditation area. We checked in for the 4-day course which is the minimum amount of time that they allow. Many people do the 10 days and some even do the recommended 21 day class to get the full experience. 4 days turned out to be more than enough for me!
So mediation is HARD! I’m sad to say that I cheated by the second day. The schedule has 11 hours for individual meditation per day! I was only do about half of that meditation time and then I would need to take a break. Technically even writing some of this journal was not really allowed.
Our “Teacher” is a Buddhist monk that had dedicated his life to teaching others meditation. I believe that this retreat is somewhat similar to the Christian version of missionaries except that they wait for people to come to them instead of the other way around. At 6 pm each evening we had a chanting session. This is in Thai, and the words are trasnlitereated Roman style so that we can pronounce them, but we don’t know what they say…except that in the back there’s a translation and it’s basically chanting about how great Buddha is, and how if we follow his teachings we might be able to achieve Nirvana. I did the chanting the first two nights, but it felt a bit awkward because I’m not Buddhist and don’t believe that living a life like Buddha will lead me to Nirvana. I really just want to learn how to focus inward.
That said I found the Dhamma talks (a more colloquial way of saying a Buddhist sermon) each morning to be one of the most interesting experiences of the entire retreat. In Human Centered Design we learn to first seek user feedback versus what “experts” think. I grew up in a very religious part of the country and thus have always heard about other religions (including Buddhism) through the lens of Christianity. The hour long Dhamma talks each morning gave me a direct line to a practicing (and fairly accomplished considering he was a monk) Buddhist. Surprisingly he talked about happiness most of the time and about how to find it. I’ve read quite a few books on happiness and thus found these quite pertinent. Even though my Teacher is quite different from Sheryl Crow it seemed like they were saying very similar things: “It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got.” The Teacher spoke often about people from all walks of life that he has had the chance to meet, and he sees wealthy CEOs that aren’t happy because they’ve only focused on the external side of happiness while ignoring the internal side. To achieve true happiness, one needs to make sure that they’re both mentally and materially happy.
The meal situation was also difficult. We ate twice a day: once at 7am and again at 11am. And then we had scheduled time until 9 pm when we’re supposed to go to sleep. This makes for a really long day and not a lot of food. The food also tastes like it has meat in there but they swear that it’s all vegetarian. Perhaps I should investigate more vegetarian recipes that taste like meat!
I realized that we humans think a lot: and it’s extremely difficult to calm our thoughts and to focus on nothing. The brain is an amazing organ: it’s a supercomputer that contains essence of who we are as individuals. But like any computer it needs to be rebooted every once and a while. Meditation is a way to attempt to quiet the cacophony of thoughts and allow extreme concentration. There are apparently many different types of meditation, but we focused on two in our four days. First is walking meditation: you concentrate on lifting, moving, and putting your foot down slowly. First one and then the other. In the main meditation hall they had these long narrow mats that were made to make walking meditation easier. Once you reach the end of a mat you slowly turn around, but always to the right. You keep your eyes open, but keep as low of an angle of vision as possible to minimize seeing – and thus thinking about – other things. It’s still very easy to get distracted whether it’s a dog barking, a Tuk Tuk driving past, or some unwanted thought rising to your mind. When this happens you slowly repeat the intrusion in your mind three times, and then think three times about returning to your meditation. So a dog barks and you suddenly realize your mind is thinking about that. You recite slowly in your head “Hearing. Hearing. Hearing.” And then you shift and think silently: “Preparing to move. Preparing to move. Preparing to move.” After 15 minutes of walking meditation you take your seat cross-legged with your right leg on top of your left and your right hand palm down on top of your left hand. Why? Because this is the way Buddha did it.
In contrast to my first picture this is what meditation really looks like (statues of Buddha optional):
In our hyper-connected world I find myself constantly bouncing between projects, ideas, conversations, and activities. It’s very difficult me to just focus on one thing because we seem to be culturally encouraged to multi-task. The problem with multi-tasking is it’s inherently inefficient; the brain can only process things linearly and “multi-tasking” just means quickly flipping between multiple processes which results in wasted switching time. I think what this means for me is that I need to spend more time making sure that I know which things deserve the proper priority and then not worry about the other things that don’t matter as much.
The entire meditation experience was very interesting and much different than I was expecting. Although I’m glad we signed up for the 4-day course instead of the 21-day. At my first encounter the Teacher asked me what percentage of time I found my self thinking about other things. I gave him a slightly less than honest answer at around 70% (it was probably more like 80-85% of the time). But his response was: “Good! That is excellent!”. He explained that “we spend our whole lives thinking and the fact that you can now recognize when your mind is drifting is a huge step in the right direction.” At our closing ceremony he made the following comment: “Don’t worry about it being difficult. For the first 8 months, it’s difficult. For the first 2 years, it’s difficult. But after that it gets easy!” Hahaha. Oh good I was worried it might take a while… He asked us to try and meditate for at least 30 minutes per week. It has now been several weeks since we left the mountain, and I have yet to meditate. But the subject does interest me, and I look forward to learning more about the art (and science) of meditation. And I certainly learned about myself: it can be difficult to be alone with just myself and my own thoughts. But learning to be content with that seems like an excellent building block in creating a really positive self esteem. If you find yourself in Chiang Mai with a few days to try something interesting I recommend you giving it a shot!