I’ve struggled so much with writing this blog post; everything I put down onto metaphorical paper doesn’t seem to express how this experience made me feel or sounds like airy fairy bullshit.
When I tell people I spent 12 days living in a Buddhist monastery in the mountains of northern Thailand, and half of those days I was in complete silence, the only word I can really utter to describe it is “awesome”, which doesn’t begin to cover the profundity of my time there.
How can I encourage people to go if I can’t tell them what it means? I have re-written this blog dozens of times. I think I have finally got some clarity in my feelings, but it truly is something to experience in person and, as each person’s reaction to such things is so different, nothing I will ever say will match how you might respond in that environment.
But here I go, so let’s get some basics out of the way first.
What the hell are you talking about?
Sometimes I don’t know either. But on this occasion I am attempting to explain my time at Wat Pa Tam Wua, a Buddhist monastery nestled about two hours’ north of Pai. Tucked away in the mountains, the monastery allows the public – local and travelling – to stay for a minimum of two nights to learn more about Vipassana and Samatha meditation, Buddhism and the ever-elusive goal of “happiness”.
I’ve talked before about my battles with anxiety and depression, and over the last few years I’ve found myself more and more drawn towards Buddhism and practicing meditation as a way to cope with my daily battles. I’ve flirted with meditation in the past and attempted it so many times but I could never calm my worried mind. Then, during my travels, a conversation I had with another traveller almost three years ago popped back into my conscience; she had told me about these monasteries where you can do all of the above and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the right decision.
How did you find Wat Pa Tam Wua?
Google! I knew the area around Chiang Mai in Thailand was filled with monasteries that allowed foreigners to practice meditation in a strict environment and the longer I travelled in South East Asia the more it seemed like that was where I was going to end up. But, being in full backpacker mode of not booking things and going with the complete flow I found that many of the stricter monasteries were fully booked months in advance and had limited places. I gradually got more and more disheartened and then one long rabbit hole of a google search later I found Wat Pa Tam Wua: no advance booking needed, stay as long as you want, choose silence or not, free (but donations expected), and in the right area.
Without a huge amount of planning, I flew to Bangkok from Singapore, jumped in a cab to the train station, picked up my train tickets, took an overnight train to Chiang Mai and then spent the next night in a hostel to get myself orientated and recover from the journey [it’s not that long a journey, but I was returning to the travelling game after almost four weeks off while I recovered from an injury to my shoulder, which to this day is still giving me serious jip, and I probably wasn’t fit enough to actually be travelling again with a (slightly less) heavy backback in tow and with my arm still in a sling]. But, with the help of the staff at the hostel, I booked a bus for the next morning that, after five hours on motion-sickness-inducing mountainous roads, dropped me on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with instructions from the driver to walk down a mud track for about 3km.
Fortunately there was a sign on the main road telling me the monastery was in that direction, but after stifling vomit for the last five hours and with the pain in my shoulder getting steadily worse (seriously, it felt like there was a knife in there slicing it open with every step), I was almost ready to cry at the thought of walking. However, like a sign, the sun burst through the storm clouds and just over 1km later the happiest looking man I have ever seen greeted me at the entrance (I later discovered he was the abbot) and took me to reception.
Sophie, your story is so witty and charming, tell me more…
Oh, if you insist.
Basically around this point I went into kind of a panic. What the fuck have you done. You’re in the middle of fucking nowhere and you’ve just decided that you are going to sleep on a very thin mat on the floor and not say a single word to anyone for days and YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO BE VEGGIE THE WHOLE TIME. What the fuck are you doing? You don’t even know how to meditate! You don’t have dreadlocks, how can you be expected to be taken seriously? They don’t even have wifi and you don’t have a SIM card so you can’t communicate with anyone else AT ALL. SXDFRGHIS;OREIGHE;OROGBNES;ROGIH (that’s the noise my brain makes during a panic attack).
So I took the next logical step in having a shower, eating a banana, and donning the necessary white clothes (provided by the monastery) and then jumped straight into it like any sane person would who was in agony both physically and mentally.
Turns out I didn’t need to go into such a panic. Wat Pa Tam Wua is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and, being so far away from the real world, the peace it emanates not only comes from the natural vibez (sorry, I hate myself for that too) but also the isolation of its location.
The great thing about Wat Pa Tam Wua for meditation beginners is that there is no expectation of silence – however, there is a requirement to be quiet at all times. A lot of monasteries require 10 days of absolute silence and, while I am sure this is a great thing for many people, if you’ve never been in such an environment I think it would be too overwhelming. Given how much I talk, this was one of the parts I was most worried about, but after about two days I realised I hadn’t *wanted* to speak to anyone. I was content in my silence, so I shoved on a “silent and happy” badge and went about my daily business and it was BLISS.
My first ‘realisation’ came from this: I am content with myself, truly and utterly content with being alone. I’ve said this before on my travels, but I did wonder whether I was convincing myself of the fact rather than believing it. Now, I can wholeheartedly say I do not need another person to make me happy. I am a pretty cool person and it’s fun to hang out with me, even if the only person hanging out with my body is my mind.
I lasted six days and only started talking because a fellow meditator was reading a book I was interested in (Hi Ada!) and I wanted to know more about it before she potentially disappeared from my grasp!
It didn’t take long for the calm to awash my body and mind and while I still had daily panics about my ability to meditate, as my time went on I learnt, through the teachings of the monks and extra reading, to manage my ‘monkey mind’.
Have you ever just sat down and watched your mind? I have an insane amount of thoughts. When it’s just you and it, it’s incredible to be aware of what the fuck is going on every second. The monks called this ‘monkey mind’: swinging back and forth, jumping from branch to branch, rarely coming to an actual conclusion; just a continual cycle of the previous activities. Maybe occasionally stopping for a banana or five.
I wish I could explain just what happens in my head every minute, but there’s just SO MANY thoughts overlapping that it can’t even be put in a concise, readable format. But, what I can do is explain the impact learning to meditate has had on this process.
- Mind to Sophie > you’re thinking, AGAIN, what are you thinking about?
- This thing that might happen, but I’m not sure? And if it does, what does that mean? And what if it doesn’t?
- Mind to Sophie > can you do anything about this in this moment?
- Mind > OK, breathe (Bud Dho, Bud Dho), let it pass. What’s happening around you?
- Ooooh food ?
That’s like a 99.9% accurate account of my life every second of every day now. Or at least a gist of it.
Previously I would have spent minutes, hours, DAYS even stuck on that thought. Now it’s over within seconds. Or, at most, minutes.
I’m also aware, more than ever, just how much I talk. This isn’t a bad thing; but I appreciate now that what I say and what I actually need to say are very different things. I’ve found myself speaking less since I left and just observing others.
There’s a lot of other things that occurred to me during my time, but, while I’ll be open about what I can right now, there’s some parts of my experience and feelings I won’t share (I heard that sigh of relief!). A big one, however, is the knowledge that forgiving people in my past – and inevitably in the future – will soften my mind and myself. So that’s something I am working on everyday.
All of the above makes it sound like the process of meditation and my experience was easy. It was not.
Some days meditation went like a dream (although not literally) but others I just had no focus and the anxiety about my ability to meditate and calm myself built up to the point where all I could think was that I was the only person in the room incapable of doing this. I’m so used to immediate feedback on work – from colleagues and managers – that without someone knowing what was happening in my head and assessing how “normal” (ha!) I was, I was freaking out.
Fortunately, the environment is so suited to calm that this anxiety subsided much quicker than it would in the outside world, and I was reading so much about meditation that I was learning that not only was this a journey of self-discovery but that journey wasn’t going to be an easy one. You don’t do a couple of days’ training and become a pro tennis player, so why is training your mind any different?
As soon as I accepted that I was going to have ups and downs in my meditation and I wasn’t going to be an expert after a few sessions – and that my experience was always going to be unique – my meditation actually improved. I had some of my most exciting moments of clarity when I felt like this. And I actually got to a point where I think I was reaching Vipassana, which was incredibly exciting.
But did I find happiness? Oh, happiness you elusive beast. What is happiness? Is happiness even the right word? I don’t think it is. Every emotion has an opposite and with happiness it’s sadness. So by being happy, you will ultimately always be sad because whatever is causing that happiness will end.
Change is inevitable – you are changing as you read this; you are not the same person you were a minute/second ago. Your body is constantly changing, cells are dying, renewing, and so is everything around you. So does every emotion. And finding acceptance with the knowledge that the only constant in this life is your death is the only way to head towards any level of peace. Some people will read that as depressing, but it’s the complete opposite. If you live in the moment, knowing and acknowledging that any moment could be your last, then you are heading in the right direction.
I’m not sure I’ve settled on what the goal of meditation is if it isn’t happiness, but I think tranquility and equanimity is the best state to be in. So, have I achieved that? No. But every day I step slightly closer to both of those feelings. Stepping closer to accepting my mind and the life I’m leading.
The hardest part of all this is practicing in the real world. That will be another journey for me to take.
Are you a Buddhist now?
Everyone’s favourite question. No, I’m not. I’ve never been a religious person and was brought up with the ability to choose any religion I liked when I was old enough to make such a decision by myself and I have always chosen to be an atheist. However, I do feel more of an affinity with Buddhism than any other organised religion and the precepts of Buddhism are the most in tune with my mentality than anything else I’ve come across.
From now on I will take those precepts on and practice them in my everyday life, as well as meditation.
This is all getting rather long, so if you have read this far, hurrah! One of the things I found the most stressful about deciding to go to Wat Pa Tam Wua was not knowing what to expect. And, like I have said before, everyone’s experience is unique, but there are some common questions I can answer and explain about daily life there.
I’ve attached documents about these below for you to view at your own leisure. And if you have any more questions, please, please, please get in touch with me, I am always happy to talk about it.