As mentioned in the previous post, last week Jesse and I headed off into the country for a two-day silent meditation retreat organized by the monks at Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai. We first heard of the retreat at "Monk Chat", a fantastic program in which visitors are invited to the monastary to chat with young monks about Buddhism and Thai culture, therebye helping them to practice their English and giving us a rare glimpse into monastic life. Our first week in Chiang Mai Jesse attended a Wednesday evening Monk Chat, and soon after we were signed up and on our way to the International Meditation Centre MCU for one of their weekly retreats.
Learning to meditate and making meditation a part of our lives is something we've talked about quite a bit over the last few months (especially after reading Three Pillars of Zen) but while Jesse has done a pretty consistent job of carving out those few minutes each day, I've definitely been slacking. And my excuse is painfully simple - I find it hard. My mind wanders, and then it runs, and then it races. It rarely takes a moment to slow down as I go about my normal life, and the second I sit down to try to watch and observe it, it seems to take the opportunity to move faster than ever before. And mostly unproductively, I should add.
This is something I'd like to change. There is significant research around the very real physical and emotional benefits of meditation, and spending two days solely focused on learning and experimenting with the practice was a wonderful way to get started down that path.
The schedule at the retreat center revolved around various types of meditation practice, while also including a small amount of chanting, alms offerings to the monks, a Q&A session and breaks for meals. Upon arriving we were quickly paired up with same-sex roommates, then instructed not to speak until we left the center the following day, which I actually quite enjoyed. I found the silence relaxing. Without the pressure of upholding conversations with roommates we didn't know and table mates at dinner, we were able to just sit, sleep and contemplate in peace. It felt a little strange at first, but we soon fell into the rhythm and I almost found myself wishing we could stay silent a little longer when the retreat came to an end.
The meditation, on the other hand, was tortuous. We never meditated for more than 30-40 minutes or so at a time, but my mind fought me the entire way. Walking meditation (when you concentrate on your steps) was definitely the best as it gave me something concrete to focus on, while sitting had me ready to bolt. I had moments of calm, where I was able to really tune in to my breath, observe my thoughts and let them go, but the majority of the time my mind took the opportunity to misbehave as best it knew how, hopping from thought to thought so fast I would already be twenty thoughts down the chain before I even realized I'd lost my concentration and started thinking at all.
From my reading on meditation as well as the monks' lectures I know this is all a part of the process. Meditation is a practice. While it can be (and regularly is) incredibly frustrating, it can't be forced or learned in a day, or even a year. Quiet contemplation and reflection is not something taught or even very well respected in the West, our "monkey minds" are already very developed at this point, and it can take a long time just to introduce our brains to a new way of operating.
Nonetheless, I'm determined to keep it up, if even for just five minutes a day. I think there's so much that we can learn from the appreciation of happiness, inward concentration and peaceful interaction with the world that is such a core part of Buddhism, and I loved the simple way the monks spoke about adopting these practices if your own life. It wasn't about religion or proving their way of thinking was any better than anyone elses, just providing new ways to understand yourself and live a happy life.
Just like the body, the monks teach that the mind is malleable and that it can adjust, learn and adopt new habits. We may never be rid of our monkey minds completely, but with time and commitment I've learned that there may be a way to tame them.