July 17, 2018, Suvarnabhumi airport:
“I know in my soul that I am meant to be here in this moment – sitting with my battered belongings of two bags, waiting for a delayed flight, well rested but dirty, smiling no matter how smelly, whole and yet broken.”
Wat Tam Wua
In my entry the other day, I talked about the uncanny coincidence of my mother and I both having dreams of being covered in shit in the same night; I was in Thailand, she was home in the Philippines. In her dream, she was covered in it and couldn’t get to me as I was getting ready to jump from the top of a waterfall. She felt desperate because she felt she needed to save me. It was the same night that I decided to go on a meditation retreat that was going to change my life completely. It was going to teach me how to wash all the shit away.
It was my first time in Chiang Mai, with no plans whatsoever, and I had been looking up tourist destinations online. Doi Suthep was a temple on top a mountain that had a view of the entire city and at the same time, they offered vipassana retreats. My hostel owner, Potae, who happened to be the best English-speaking local I met in my entire trip (I was in Thailand for nearly month) laughed at me when I said I just emailed the temple and was waiting for their reply. “They never reply,” she told me. She even tried calling them, as she does for anyone who’s ever been interested like I was. She was right, no one picked up and and I would never got a response to my email. I asked her if she could recommend a place, and she had one answer ready: a forest monastery five hours farther up north, already nearing the Burma border. She has never been but her friends say it’s fantastic.
Wat Tam Wua is located near a backpackers town called Pai. I had only literally found out about this town the day before I knew I was going to head for it, from a friend I made at the hostel who was going to make her way there, too. On the same day, she rode a scooter rental and I took the public van, and even though we never planned on it, we saw each other in Pai’s sprawling viewing deck with a giant Buddha overlooking the town and faraway mountains by sunset. It was interesting to be in the middle of Thailand’s northern mountain mists and be completely surrounded by white people. This was a place I didn’t even know existed until a few days ago.
I want to fast forward to the monastery. I made it there the next day, after lunch time and a caving expedition, on my 34th birthday, with a really bad hangover because of Gabriela, my American friend from Potae’s dormitory hostel, announcing to German teenagers that it was the eve of my birthday the night before.
I have had a pretty exciting life. I would say that I am pretty good at living. The year before this, to welcome my Jesus year at 33, I was at a yoga retreat in Cambodia and a palm reader had dropped in one day and picked me for a demonstration and told the group that I have already accomplished everything I have ever dreamed of accomplishing when I was ten. I believed that he was right. And in a way, it gave me anxiety. Because I wasn’t sure of what to do next. What do I want to do now? What is the purpose? What did I want more of? What for? What was next? How do I top my own life? I felt trapped.
2020 and happy in it
Two years later, I can’t say I know the answers to everything I had asked myself then and over and over. But I can tell anybody, at this time of pandemic, at this time that absolutely nothing in the future is guaranteed, at this time that I have been living on my own for the first time in my life for a year now, at this time that I have no plans for my career or to be in a new relationship, that I have never been happier and more content in my life.
I don’t know how long this will last and I don’t know how I’ve sustained this for so long. But it is what it is now – I am happy. And I assume that it has everything to do with the foundation and the limitless freedom I was taught to hone and to claim in the eight days I spent in that monastery. And it is a foundation that I rebuild and a freedom I rediscover every second in every day. In my mom’s dream, she wanted to save me, like she always does, like any mother figure does, but I took the jump to learn how to save myself.
I have cut ties with unhealthy patterns – both in my environments and in my head.
So what is the secret formula? I’m not sure, it must be different every day. I believe that it might really be nothing more than breathing. But to give some ideas, here’s a look at those first eight days, those first steps, those first sets of breaths and the first taste of the unfolding rest of my life.
Day 1: Walking meditation
Walking meditation so easily became my favorite.
And at the start of it all, I think of how “home” is in me. Whatever happens, I must always come home. Wherever I go, I must always find myself back. There is no place but home and home is to be found nowhere else but within me. I must find it in myself, keep it, care for it, honor it, stay within its stronghold.
Create your “home base,” the monks say. Always come home.
Day 2: Water and Fire
I learn from both the books and the dhamma talks. Even thought too much reading and knowledge is discouraged, I found a beautiful book titled ‘Bodhinyana’ written by a Venerable Ajahn Chan.
In the book, I have a favorite analogy between mind and water. It says that the mind is like water flowing. If we let it run free, it will naturally go and seek out lower places. But if we are clever – like architects and engineers – we can learn to control and manipulate both mind and water to aid it in performing in its maximum potential. Just as a dam is created for water, the mind must be stilled. Instead of free flow, there becomes a reservoir. Instead of loss of power, there is then a source of power. We must be in control.
Meanwhile, a monk talks about fire during the dhamma talk, using it as an embodiment of pain. He taked a candle by his side and regards the flame. “Do not touch it,” he says pragmatically. He advises only to sit with the burning and the heat of the candle. Let it be, but never touch it. You can feel the heat, acknowledge it is there and just feel it… but do not touch the fire. Do not meddle with it. Allow yourself to only feel it is there and never try to change the way it is. It is burning, and so be it. If you try to change it – to touch it- you’ll feel the heat of the flame double. And it will be even more painful.
Or it will be painful without having to be.
Day 3: I
My breath is beyond who I am, or who I regard as myself. My body and senses and what they are able to feel and process are not me; they are my body and my senses. My mind and what it processes from my body and my senses and all my memories from the past and my thoughts of the future is not me, either. It is all the workings of my mind, separate from who I am. It is my mind watching my breath. My breath is separate from my mind and senses.
I is something else. I am in the center – somewhere – of it all.
It is a complicated thing to reconcile self-love and learning to love with no self to begin with. Love is also somewhere there in the center of it all.
You can only run free with the nature of your heart if you’ve already managed to train it for something better and beyond self.
Day 4: Stand in Truth
I slipped on the stairs the night before. All our life slips definitely lead to something.
This one led me to Jen, the monastery nurse. “I have karma with you,” she says. How wonderful it is to know your path so well and recognize who you must walk with.
She invited me to walk as we talked about things that must be talked about, and shared with me a tarot reading of hers by another soul sister:
Standing in Truth
What is a well lived life? What should I do? What do I really, really, really want?
As through miracle, I will receive the answer.
It seems to come from far away. And I’m sure the answer comes from the bottom of my heart.
The truth only arrives when we don’t force it.
Wait for it. Invite it. But don’t force it, please, don’t force it.
Charm it. Roll out the carpet. And ask her to come voluntarily and at her own pace.
Let yourself be surprised.
Be empty and open at the same time for the answer.
It’s going to show. Trust it.
Also take it. And act on it. 🙂
Day 5: Breakthrough
Thinking shrinks time. Opening up expands it.
Thinking has become my compulsive past time. I sit, I think. I lie, I think. It definitely helps pass the time. Too quickly, I now realized. To be consumed by thoughts is to lose all the time you are given. You can sit for hours in a day just being inside your head, losing every moment you are in, precious time dripping and blown by the wind around you. Lost, so quickly, so easily.
But when you are present, time slows down, time passes itself, time gently walks with you, sits with you, and EXISTS. Keeping you company and becoming your friend – time no longer takes away but GIVES.
I am getting to know my nature.
If I learn to NOT resist pain, see it as there, dislike it with acceptance, sit with it – it softens.
I learned this during sitting meditation practice. After a while, my leg is always in pain with pins and needles and I would need to stretch it out. I take a peek and most of the other guests seem to go through the same thing. Finally, today, I decided to look at my pain. What I would usually do is tell myself I can get through. Don’t mind the pain, it’s nothing, you can sit for a few more minutes. How many more minutes, my mind would scream, of course.
So this time, I decided: it is painful. It’s pretty painful. There it is, pain. But, so what. Will I die from it? No. Will I lose my leg? No. Will I lose my mind? No. It’s just painful. That’s really all. Limbs in pain. For the moment.
The pain – it was melting way. It has softened. The closer I looked at it, the further it shied away form me. The nicer it was to me. As if by acknowledging it, I had formally introduced myself, and out of etiquette and politeness, it nodded its head, smiled and sat quietly waiting in the corner.
If I told myself there was no pain, which was not true, the pain always became greater. All I had to do was accept there was pain, and from that acceptance, came a clear understanding of it and then co-existence.
If understanding physical pain on my leg gave me this much power, what kind of magic could I actually do with everything else in my life?!
This was my biggest breakthrough in this retreat.
Day 6: Putting the lessons to practice
When we offered the platters of food for lunch to the monks, I made sure to position myself as the third lady in a row of three so that I could experience taking the platter back to hand over to the men, as I’ve never done that task before.
As I tried to achieve this, the lady in the center kept trying to take control and do the work that I knew – based on every past practice and observation – I was supposed to do as the third person. That got me so pissy!
Going back to my mat, I had to think about this – why am I so affected? Why does anger arrive for such a small thing? It’s not like I was really angry, but the emotion had risen, touching base with my body, calling attention.
So I gave it all my attention and did not give up until I found an answer to why it exists. And I found the cause.
It was delusional attachment to the place, to the experience. If this had happened on day one, when I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, the happening would’ve just passed, or would’ve been appreciated, even. But now, just a few days being in this place, I have formed an attachment. And therefore, an idea in my head that I have a place in all of this and I have a right to things. When, really, I don’t! Time gave me that illusion. Time spent and put in is an investment, and must give me specific rights. It’s all ludicrous: delusion, attachment, ownership.
It is so easy to get fooled.
Day 7: “Silent and Happy” tag on
What did I learn as my Norweigan friend Frida babbled on in a monologue in front of me?
I let go. I let go of my opinions. I let go of my thoughts. I let go of my jokes. I let go of my responses. I let go of cleverness and judgements. I let go of explanation and reason. I let go of every single opportunity to speak.
IT WAS LIBERATING.
Quite the physical and mental challenge, but became increasingly well worth it.
I met Frida through a dog. We were both talking to it and both getting outright ignored. But I might’ve preferred her company and was okay with the dog having ignored me for the most of my stay. This is quite a breakthrough for me, enjoying a person’s company over a dog.
This monastery dog, Pui, is definitely trained as a monk, practicing detachment with every retreat-goer who comes in and out of the monastery. I discovered something this day, however. He is used to being the only dog. He is the monastery dog, that’s his role. If another dog comes around and you pet it, the threat is automatic for him. He immediately will go to you, claiming back the attention and the affection that, naturally, must only belong to him.
Dogs may have less tendencies for attachments, but ownership is a concept they can grasp as well as any of us. They own their masters as much as their masters own them. They own their affectionate friendships with men, something they have earned after centuries of work. How do we let go of something as natural as ownership in the emotional matrix of our evolution?
During meditation, watching my breath, I realize that this is the referee between my mind and body. Whenever the body’s sensations overwhelm the mind and the mind’s thought processes take over the body, breath breaks the two apart and creates space. Breath lets both sides go and opens a safe space wherein you can be yourself again.
It is beautiful that when peace and suffering are both removed, when there is only the resounding space of enlightened emptiness, love comes in. Love settles in after enlightenment. This is why Jesus came after Buddha. Buddha has to clear the path before Jesus could plant love.
Beautiful things often scare us because of our fears of possibly having to someday let them go. That is only when our appreciation for beauty is unenlightened. We must work on our capacities to make the most of opportunities. Then we can embrace beauty completely and let it go.
My aratilis tree, rising halfway along the walking meditation path, is a Universe of its own! It’s amazing how, sometimes, you must come near and look very closely to see something. But, sometimes, you must also step back and look at the tree as a whole from far away. There are spiders and ants on the leaves and the fruits, there are butterflies and birds flying around on top. It is so full of life if you are still enough to witness it all!
And now for my final major insight during walking meditation: I use my hurt as a weapon. I see it so clearly now, as if I am holding the weapon so boldly in my hand. I have done this with everybody, with every chance I could get. This is the way I know to defend myself. The best self-defense I know is an easy, slimy way out. The worst part about this is not that I have used my hurts and pain to define myself. The worst part is that I have used them to define other people. People I love, who love me.
Day 8: Going home
This place took me in without question, gave me clothes and beddings, fed me and gave me tools to uncover my happiness and my peace. And other than my commitment to practice for myself and myself alone, the had asked for nothing else in return. As I signed out of the logbook, I had to ask Pramote, the tall, gentle in-house receptionist, if he could give me a donation envelope.
As I made my way to one of the meditation huts with the donation boxes, one of the monks who led the dhamma talks saw me in my civilian clothes. He barely spoke English and always led talks with a younger monk translating. But he asked me with a smile, “You’re leaving today?” I smiled gratefully and said, “Yes.” He asked, “Are you happy?”
It took everything – every single fibre of of my wits and all my strength and self-governance to not break apart in tears right there. I was overwhelmed with the question coming from a stranger I’ve shared space with for eight days of my life. Out there was a world of hate and anxiety and confusion, and I stumbled upon strangers who desired not much more than to simply teach people like me how I could be happy with my life.
I am not entirely sure now how I answered his question. I know I nodded my head with a whimper and backed away. And then I broke apart crying.
Thailand will always be home to me now. The best part about leaving the monastery was how ready I feel. I have always gotten attached to places. I go on vacations and never want them to end. I fall in love with a town and wish I could live there. Many retreats that are meant to give peace of mind often come with the risk of us never wanting leave anymore lest we lose our minds again when we return to where we’ve come from and the homes that hold our worries and our pains.
But this practice of breath and insight the monks have guided me through for myself arms me with such determination that, despite how much I absolutely loved the time I spent at Wat Tam Wua, I have no doubts that I am ready to return to the world, and that I would make it through whole for all the rest of my days.
Riding out on the jeepney service back to Pai, I took out the affirmation journal I started when I left for Thailand.
I wrote: I am free.