How I Spent Ten Days at a Meditation Retreat in Chiang Mai
Occurred in: August 2015
Wat Ram Poeng is a monastery and place of worship for ascetic and meditation practice located in the woods just outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I spent ten days inside its walls to learn the techniques of Vipassana.
When you first step foot into Wat Ram Poeng, you see a magnificent wooden temple that’s gated off by two dazzling white dragons spitting out from the mouths of just as dazzling white fanged creatures. Making your way to the back of the Wat where the Foreign Administration Office is, you notice white-robed women walking past you, gazes lowered, stepping mindfully to wherever they’re going. You can’t help but appreciate the many large, open-air wooden structures, with their stories painted by hand in gold.
I arrive inside the Foreign Administration Office as scheduled at 9 AM, but there is no Foreign Administrator in sight, just two other newbies. I really don’t know what to expect; there’s no goal I know of to work toward. I only had five one-off guided meditation sessions and many failed solo attempts before this retreat.
In a fashionably late yet grandiose manner, the Foreign Administrator, a flamboyant monk, enters his office. He flicks a finger at the stack of meditation guidebooks, indicating to pick one up before instructing me to read it three times over until I understand.
He rattles off the rules we must abide by at all times:
- no talking
- no eye contact
- no electronics, reading, writing, or indulging in any form of communication (confiscating our phones in the meantime)
- no leaving the Wat premises
- meditators need to always be wearing white, including underwear; females need to wear a white scarf over the chest and shoulders
- no eating outside of meal time
- seconds are allowed but no eating is allowed after we’ve cleaned our plates
- no eating or drinking when not seated (I had trouble remembering this one the most)
- respect Buddha
In a militaristic fashion, our Sergeant General monk hands us our sheets, marches us to our rooms, and shows us the brooms, mops, and dustbins we’ll be using to clean our rooms during downtime. It’s character-building.
After sorting our things in the (quite spacious) single bedrooms, I hear the chime of a bell that I’ll look forward to hearing the following ten mornings — the breakfast and lunch bell.
Day 1 was the toughest for me personally, having been completely uninitiated to Discipline my whole life.
My induction to a lifestyle of discipline came soon enough. The 10:30 AM lunch bell chimes in concert with my grumbling stomach. I receive a platter of (quite tasty) alms food, sit down, eagerly pick up my fork and am about to indulge before I stop cold. Why isn’t anyone around me eating?
The sixty or so white-robed meditators waiting in front of their food in the cafeteria are mostly Thai women in their 50’s. One of them hands me two laminated papers titled: Paying Homage & Contemplation of Food. Both papers are song lyrics in Pali (ancient Sanskrit language said to be spoken by Buddha) with their English translations. In short, the lyrics say that I will not consume food for enjoyment, for health or for gains, only for the nourishment and continuation of my body.
No one is speaking. The woman across from me has her eyes closed, as if deep in prayer.
Then an elderly woman’s voice booms from the loudspeaker, in Thai. She breaks out in song, chanting the Pali lyrics from the papers in my hands.
Thirty more minutes of enduring torture via starvation goes on before the last word is sung and we are at last allowed to touch our food.
After lunch at 1 PM, our camp of ten novices convene inside the temple library to learn our first vipassana techniques. Sgt. Monk equips us with timers and lines us in a row in front of our mats. He instructs us to set our timers to count down from fifteen minutes. Walking meditation is about to begin.
“Right foot goes thus,” lifting his right foot ever so slowly, just a pinky length off the floor and steps half a foot-length forward.
“Left foot goes thus,” doing the same with his left foot. Then right foot, then left, and so on.
All ten of our timers beep loudly at fifteen minutes past.
“Now sitting, sitting, sitting,” Sgt. demonstrates as he gathers his mustard-yellow robe and gracefully takes a seat on his mat. His only instruction is to focus attention on the rising and falling of the chest as the lungs breathe automatically.
No sooner than two counts of rising and falling do my thoughts wander out of the library.
Ten timers beep at fifteen. Rising, falling, rising, falling.
Right foot goes thus….
Ten timers beep at another fifteen.
Rising, falling, rising, falling….
This goes on.
At 3 PM, it’s time for the newcomers to meet the abbot of the monastery, Phra Ajahn Suphan, in our Opening Ceremony.
As you walk through the automatic glass doors into the Ajahn’s gorgeous wooden temple office, you feel like you’re in a sci-fi movie, his doors making the same sound as the doors inside the Death Star when they part. Ajahn Suphan himself has a Yoda-like quality about him, radiating wisdom and warmth from his venerable pores as he giggles mirthfully behind his kneeling desk.
The four students in the front row, myself included, pay respects to the Buddha, the temple and the Ajahn by offering lotus flowers and candles. Opening Ceremony concludes at 4 PM. Our class resumes a six-hour marathon of alternating between walking and sitting every fifteen minutes.
Back in the library, I set my timer to fifteen minutes for walking meditation. Right foot goes thus. Left foot goes thus. Stomach goes grr. Right foot goes thus. Left foot goes thus.
Between lunch and breakfast, the only two meals we’re allowed to eat, stands twenty hours of fasting.
Beep, beep, beep.
Sitting, sitting, sitting. Rising, falling, rising, falling, fall. Tender meat that falls off the ribs, rising, falling, falling cheese from carne asade fries, rising, falling, rising dough of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, falling, red velvet cupcakes, falling, rising, crumbly scones with the homemade strawberry jam, falling, dear god I’m hungry.
I spend my full six hours of meditation going down the encyclopedic list of all the foods I’ve ever eaten in my life and aching for just one tiny bite of any of them.
At 10 PM, class is dismissed for bedtime.
Not longer than 6 hours later, the bell sounds at 4 AM, waking everybody at the monastery up for the start of a new day of nine hours (minimum) of meditation practice.
Inside the library at 4 AM with the rest of the class, I resume walking, sitting, walking — water break — sitting, walking, acute hunger, sitting, walking, starving.
The breakfast bell gongs at 6:30 AM and I appreciate the meaning of break-fast, having experienced true fasting for the first time in my life. By the time I receive my bowl of porridge I’m already past the point of starvation where I’m not hungry anymore. Sitting, sitting, sitting. Paying homage to Buddha and undertaking the Eight Precepts ritual chanting commences.
7 AM — Famine. I am famine. The last lyric of Contemplation of Food is sung. Wolfs down the porridge I just a second ago vowed to consume slowly, contemplatively, without gluttony, and purely for the sake of nourishment.
8 AM — Right foot goes thus, left foot goes thus, right foot goes thus — timer beeps — sitting, sitting, sitting, rising, falling, rising, falling — timer beeps — right foot goes thus, left foot goes thus, right foot goes thus.
10:30 AM — Lunch received; Recitations chanted; Homage paid; Food contemplated; Groundhog Day realized.
A line of meditators collect behind the temple convenience store. I go to investigate what for.
No way. Can this be true? I scurry hopefully as a steel cart comes solidly into view. A woman behind it scoops cones of coconut ice cream, drizzles on the chocolate sauce, and hands them out to meditators who are definitely eating the ice cream.
“20 baht,” she says as I throw the money at her.
I will never take you for granted ever again, my sweet, I think delicately to my precious piece of contraband.
As if omniscient, the Sgt crosses my path, seemingly out of nowhere. He points to a spot on a curb, indicating me to sit, “No eating and walking. Temple style.” Our Foreign Administrator has quirks; he accents his truisms always with a “Temple style” to close out an interaction before walking away.
[2 PM, inside the Headmaster’s office]
Ajahn Suphan, I confess that I could not focus on meditation yesterday; I could think only about food.
“Christine Chiang. Chiang, Christine. Ajahn has not eaten dinner in over thirty years — longer than you are old.” We both laugh. “You suffer from sensual desire. Recall the Five Hindrances of the mind: desire, anger, sloth, restlessness, doubt. Acknowledge hunger. You are not growing anymore. You do not need so much food. Eat less, sleep less, more exercise. Then your mind will know power.”
Yes, Ajahn Suphan.
“Tomorrow, ten hour minimum. Twenty minute walking, twenty minute sitting.”
Yes, Ajahn Suphan.
[3 PM, inside the library]
Sitting, sitting, sitting.
-Peaks at timer- 19:00 minutes left. Scratches an itch. Rising, falling, rising, falling, legs go numb. -Peaks at timer- 6:00 minutes left. Lower back in pain. Acknowledging, acknowledging, acknowledging.
0:00 timer sounds.
Walking, walking, walking.
And we keep at it until 10 PM.
“The quieter you become the more you can hear.” — Ram Das
I spend the next couple of days at the meditation retreat replaying Fight Club over and over in my head. After every session of Reporting, the Ajahn assigns us longer sits and more hours. The longer I sit, the more time I have to reflect and the louder Palahniuk’s words resonate. Toward the end of the retreat, I would be sitting for forty minutes at a time and meditating twelve hour days. In that time, I drew some insights, some common, others less common:
- I am not my thoughts; I am the way I conduct myself in response to those thoughts. I have as much control over my thoughts as I do over the pain that arises in my body after a long session of sitting. I let go of claiming the thoughts as my own, and in doing so, I am free to either not act or else act deliberately in response to those thoughts and be judged for those actions instead of my thoughts.
- I am not a beautiful or unique snowflake. I am the same decaying organic matter as everything else. Vipassana meditation is the practice of understanding impermanence as it really is. It disassociates the identity from the body. It’s the practice of non-self. Doing this gave me a very real, beyond theoretical, understanding that I am not any more special than anyone else and that my body will soon wither and perish, just like everything else. And I am at terms, whereas I once was at odds, with this knowledge.
- Yet I am enough. And I have enough. Growing up capitalist has conditioned me to want insatiably — be it power, status, money or loads and loads of delicious food. It conditioned me to consume without limit, always wanting more, because when I don’t get what I want, I am unhappy. And when I do get what I want, the happiness is ephemeral, and I soon find myself wanting again; I’ll never have enough. I’ll keep consuming, like a parasite, until there is nothing left to consume. I’ll consume every ounce of resource from my host until she becomes a barren, infertile husk. This is the nature of our deep habit of wanting. By finding peace, happiness, and security from within myself through meditation, I no longer need to want something from outside myself for validation. When we cease to want the world, we cease to feel mediocre.
- There are other ways to walk besides the way I’ve been walking my whole life. I’ve done thousands of miles of walking over my lifespan, so much so that I’ve never given this simple action a second thought. Until now. In Vipassana, there are six different walking techniques, all of which break a stride down into incremental pieces so that you’re forced to pay attention to each motion. In the same way that walking meditation breaks down movement, sitting meditation breaks down mental formations. From inception, to flowering, to the passing away of a thought, you’re forced to observe just how exactly you form thoughts and how you react subconsciously to them. So if walking were a metaphor for thought patterns, then I’ve only ever known how to think just one way — strictly my way. And my way entails that I perceive my understanding of the world, others and situations through a distorted, narrow set of binoculars that’s tied to my sense of “self”, my identity. It entails that I stamp and seal the conclusions I draw (probably incorrectly) through my binoculars which are smeared by my personal beliefs and singular world view. Vipassana meditation has given me the power to change my outdated, biased way of thinking just by shining a light on my thought patterns that I previously wasn’t even aware of before.
- Stillness is profoundly more powerful than busyness. Busyness distracts whereas stillness paves the way to proper self-examination; self-examination constructs self-control; habitual self-control form the building blocks that create the foundations for self-mastery. And when you do master your body, your emotions and your very thoughts, miracles begin to happen. Goals, dreams, and ambitions can be reached. You’re essentially just habits away from them. And it starts simply by staying still.
Every triumph of self-control over self-indulgence is a small victory that chips away at dead habit which makes room to build new habits toward self-mastery. Let others be the master of your feelings, and you give up your freedom. Be the master of your own feelings, and you will know true power.
May you be the master of yourself.
Life After the Monastery
Am I different?
Not in a tangible sense. I am still decades away from enlightenment. But what is enlightenment anyway? I don’t know. But what I do know is that the state of enlightenment is not a luxury to be enjoyed by the Buddha and monks alone — it can be achieved by anyone who is dedicated to the practice. So I’m different in that I took away one important habit from the monastery that I’ll forever have: daily meditation practice. Only three weeks of daily practice and I have a heightened sense of mental clarity and emotional attunement. I’m excited to see what one year, five years, fifty years of practice will bring.
Wat Ram Poeng Information — www.watrampoeng.net
For bookings, call — 66–5327–8620 Ext. 102
The course, accommodation and food are free but donations are encouraged to pay it forward.
Tambol Suthep, Ampur Muang
Northern Insight Meditation Center
Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
To sign up for a 10-day Vipassana Retreat — Visit www.dhamma.org for a directory of Goenka centers near you. I recommend novices to sign up with dhamma.org for their first meditation retreat as these are conducted in English. Goenka centers have Dhamma Talks which facilitate even greater learning of the teachings of Buddha. Moreover, they teach Vipassana techniques which emphasize Equanimity of Sensations, a powerful meditation practice that helps neutralize our aversion to pain and attachment to pleasure.
Originally published at goingbeyondthepicketfence.com on August 27, 2015.