Practicing meditation in Chiang Mai
I wake up feeling stiff on the floor to bells ringing and dogs barking at 3:30 am. Shortly after, the monks begin chanting. I’m annoyed by the chanting, it’s so early, and it’s still dark outside.
To start a week of practicing meditation in Chiang Mai angry at monks feels really counterproductive. If I’m going to get through this, I better change my attitude and find a way to make the best of it.
In the Western world, the idea of not being productive is sacrilege. Productivity is society’s gold standard and it’s almost as if you’re not a good American if you’re not suffering at work.
Amidst our cultural pursuit of the perfect career and the almighty dollar, we tend to devalue other endeavors. Quieting the mind? Seeking from within? Generally, these are not considered to be the most worthwhile pursuits. It’s only labeled useful if it offers tangible results.
On a personal note
As a teen when I was still struggling to understand my own belief system, I read several books about Buddhism and they always fascinated me. I didn’t meditate much and I didn’t become a Buddhist, but I appreciated many of the teachings.
It gave me insight into the impermanence of life and how our attachment to permanent outcomes within an ever-changing reality inevitably leads to suffering. I also learned about interdependence and what the famed Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls “Interbeing”.
Doing a meditation retreat is something I’ve wanted to try for many years. I was able to convince Sindhya to join me, but for our first experience a full ten-day Vipassana course felt too intimidating, so we decided to give it five days instead.
We were in Chiang Mai and it just seemed like the perfect time to try it. So we decided to take a plunge, physically and mentally, in order to practice meditation. Would it be possible for us to sit with ourselves for five days?
Wat Umong was built about 700 years ago around 1297 AD by a former Thai king. You’ll find this temple near the mountains of Doi Suthep. The color of the moss-covered brick blends in beautifully with the environment.
You can really sense the history and the surroundings give you the feeling that it is deeply connected with the Earth. Wat Umong is recognizable by its charming green lake, walk-able tunnels, and large stone stupa.
Upon arrival, we meet Hans, a peculiar chubby Thai monk that’s seemingly obsessed with German culture. He can speak decent German and says he has visited Germany twice.
Secretly I think he wishes he was German, but that’s another story. He also has a deep love for Nutella. Needless to say, he’s a character. Instead of “OMG!” one of his favorite things to say is “Oh my Buddha!”
After our introduction, we put on our all-white outfits and walk into a wooded area near the meditation hall together. Hans directs us to sit on a few pillows with him inside a little gazebo and gives us a brief rundown on the techniques of meditation.
He says that we may notice thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind and it’s okay to acknowledge them and let them pass without judgment. The idea is to become a passive observer of your restless mind.
Thus, he instructs us to focus primarily on our breath and the rising and falling of the chest. He encourages us to maintain a good posture and says that we can hold a mala necklace and calmly roll the beads through our fingers if we wish.
Ten minutes in I start to wonder to myself, “Wait, am I doing this right?”
Fifteen minutes in… my back hurts.
“Has it been an hour yet?”
“Focus focus focus.”
“Is this just bullshit?”
“I hate this.”
“Wait! I think I just had a minute of clarity.”
“I love this!”
“It’s so nice and relaxing.”
“Hey, maybe I can do this.”
“I’m getting sleepy.”
If we get tired of sitting, Hans says we’re free to do walking meditation. This involves placing one foot in front of the other, slowly and thoughtfully, breathing and decompressing the mind with each step.
There are rules and procedures everyone must follow: You must wear all white clothing for purity and mindfulness. They discourage the use of mobile phones (duh). No kissing and cuddling either.
Additionally, women and men sleep in separate buildings. No eating past 12 pm. Talking, in general, is to be kept to a minimum, as you’re not really there to socialize. Everyone has duties to fulfill. The most common ones being to help wash the dishes or to sweep up the fallen leaves that have covered the pathways.
|4:00 am – Wake up|
|5:00-7:00 am – Group meditation|
|7:00-7:20 am – Sweeping|
|7:30-8:00 am – Breakfast|
|8:00-9:00 am – Relaxation|
|9:00-11:15 am – Group Meditation|
|11:30-12 pm – Lunch time|
|12:00-1:30 pm – Relaxation/Nap|
|1:30-3:00 pm – Group Meditation|
|3:00-3:15 pm – Tea time|
|3:15-4:30 pm – Group Meditation|
|4:30-6:00 pm – Break/Sweeping|
|6:00-7:30 pm – Group Meditation|
|7:30-7:45 pm – Tea time|
|7:45-9:00 pm – Group Meditation|
|9:00 pm – Time for bed|
If it seems restrictive, it is. It’s a simple structured environment that helps you to focus on one thing and do it as best you can. Although not talking or using your phone seems awkward at first, you soon realize it’s ideal.
Meditating is already challenging enough without filling up your brain with more external stimuli. Any contact you have with someone can set your mind off in a new direction. The next time you sit down that can be really distracting!
There tend to be a few books lying around that you can read on breaks or during the evenings. Otherwise, there’s a small bookstore located near the entrance.
We ate both of our meals (breakfast and lunch) before noon. Most monks fast for the afternoons and evenings. This is done to avoid being a burden on the laypeople who support them by donating their food. Eating can also make you feel sleepy, which interferes with meditation practice.
The food was quite good and is a combination of what the cook makes and what the monks collect on their morning alms walk. You quietly serve yourself and sit on a floor cushion to eat with the group.
We had a very simple breakfast every day of cereal or toast with fried eggs, as well as bananas and tea. Occasionally for lunch, we’d get gaeng keow wan (Thai green curry) or noh mai (spicy bamboo shoots).
Surprisingly, we weren’t that hungry after lunch. Despite being concerned about the fasting going into it, because we really love our food, it was pretty manageable. You’re not really burning many calories when you’re sitting still.
Read next: 20 Thai Foods You Must Try in Bangkok
A quick epiphany
On the third morning, Hans brought in some Nutella. He said we could have some on our toast if we’d like. Of course, we happily accepted! This was a blessing straight from Buddha himself. Nutella made our breakfast infinitely better!
Every other day following the first encounter with that sweet creamy Nutella toast, we noticed ourselves craving more. We were anxiously hoping that he would bring it again the next morning and offer us more.
This led us to realize that, in a strange way, this was a metaphor for the teaching of attachment. It’s inherently difficult for us to ever be satisfied, even when something has been unexpectedly given to us for free.
We still wish we had more of it. Reacting to it later on from a position of lack, rather than fulfillment. (Inner fat kid voice – Bring me more Nutellaaaaaaaa!)
On the last morning, Hans took us on a nature walk behind the monks’ quarters to some old ruins in the forest. We saw a few timid deer along the way, water buffalo, rabbits, and a couple of peacocks. Meanwhile, there were no other people around.
We sat down in the shade to relax and meditated with several colorful butterflies circling us. It felt so surreal and tranquil. It was the perfect spot to practice and contemplate what we had learned so far.
One of our favorite techniques was to sit and imagine ourselves deeply inhaling pure white light, visualizing it permeating through our bodies, and slowly exhaling to release black smoke.
It’s very calming and serves as a metaphor for expelling negativity from your life. In with the good shit and out with the bad shit. We also practiced walking meditation and enjoyed the cool damp moss beneath our toes. Surely we’re certified hippies now!
Meditating on death
There is also a form of Buddhist meditation that instructs you to envision your dead body being eaten by worms. The idea is that if we confront death more often we can live in the present with more intention.
It’s pretty intense, especially if you’re used to avoiding thoughts about your own mortality. Our culture does not encourage us to openly face death. So what is the benefit of facing death realistically and eschewing some of the fear around it?
In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh,
Life is impermanent, but that does not mean that it is not worth living. It is precisely because of its impermanence that we value life so dearly.
Therefore we must know how to live each moment deeply and use it in a responsible way. If we are able to live in the present moment completely, we will not feel regret later. We will know how to care for those who are close to us and how to bring them happiness.
When we accept that all things are impermanent, we will not be incapacitated by suffering when things decay and die. We can remain peaceful and content in the face of change, prosperity and decline, success and failure.
Sindhya and I may not have found Nirvana during our week of practicing meditation in Chiang Mai, but it was something we were happy we did. Since then we haven’t stayed consistent with our meditating, but we intend to revisit it from time to time.
Life is a journey with many opportunities for exploration and growth. In a noisy anxious world that is constantly fighting for your attention and trying to shape you into something else, often what you need most is some quiet time for self-reflection.
What do you think? Have you ever tried meditation? Could you sit still for 5-10 days?