Some words of wisdom, courtesy of Wat Chedi Luang temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
When I stayed in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I took part in a two-day Buddhist meditation retreat.
I spent that time learning about Buddhism and meditating with monks, in total silence.
That’s right – for 2 days, I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone.
I was woken up before dawn by the sound of a gong, took a martial arts class at 6 am, practiced different forms of meditation for hours and questioned Buddhist monks about the meaning of life.
It was amazing.
Now, some of you may be thinking that I’ve gone totally batshit crazy. I don’t blame you. Mum, dad, I promise that I haven’t been drinking shroom shakes.
Let’s say I’ve always been very sceptical of things like yoga – I may have once described it as a boring excuse of a sport for lazy hippies.
Never in a million years did I think I’d take part in a silent meditation retreat and genuinely enjoy it.
So why did I do it? I figured that since I’ll be spending a total of 7 months travelling around South East Asia, I should really try to understand the basic principles of Buddhism.
It turns out that I learned so much more than that.
I’m cringing while writing this, but spending 2 days meditating with Buddhist monks taught me an incredible amount about who I was and how I wanted to feel.
Out of everything I learned, there were five teachings in particular that really resonated with me. I like to think of them as life lessons. And here they are:
1. Silence can give you strength
I thought that not speaking for two days would be challenging, but it turned out to be much easier than I thought. Not to mention totally awesome.
I know it’s kind of hard to believe, but keeping your mouth shut for 48 hours can actually make you feel great.
Wandering in Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
For the past couple of weeks, I’d been hopping from hostel to hostel, meeting new people all the time and hanging out in large groups.
While I do really enjoy that aspect of travelling, it can be overwhelming, especially as an introvert. I’m glad I got the chance to meet some amazing people that way, but constant social interaction can really stress me out.
Having two days to myself where there was no pressure to make small conversation was extremely refreshing.
And contrary to what you might think, silence is not boring at all. You’ll keep yourself busy. The thing is, not speaking to anyone else means that you’ll be speaking to yourself – all the time.
This has many advantages. For instance, you can have an honest conversation with yourself and clear your mind. I had the time to take a good look at what was on my mind and deal with things that were bothering me, one by one.
After leaving the retreat, I’d resolved a lot of inner conflict and felt much more confident about my decisions.
Who knew that talking to yourself for 2 days would actually make you feel less crazy?
2. We need to forgive, forget and let go
Throughout the retreat, our monk kept repeating that inner peace would come to those who could learn how to forgive, forget and let go. Starting with ourselves.
Every time he said that, I couldn’t stop thinking about that epic scene from The Hills. You know the one – when LC confronts ex best-friend Heidi and tells her “I want to forgive you and I want to forget you”. So brutal yet so deserved.
Elephants ‘cuddling’ at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.
It’s safe to say that I sucked at meditating. The monk told me that I let my mind wander too much and it was like a ‘naughty monkey’.
He was being nice. ‘Out of control gorilla’ is probably more accurate.
Anyway – forgiving yourself is not easy. Forgiving others is hard enough. Forgiving, forgetting and letting go of our mistakes often seems impossible.
We dwell on past mistakes for months, years, sometimes our entire lives. We know we can’t change the past so why do we obsess about it so much?
I found that the longer I managed to meditate (20 minutes at at time was the max I could handle), the better I got at managing some of those mental monsters.
We were taught not to block them, but rather acknowledge that they’re there and practice gently brushing them aside.
Eventually, they’ll just disappear.
It’s not a quick fix though. To be able to truly forgive, forget and let go, you’ll have to practice meditation for months, years or even decades. I guess I better get started…
3. The present moment is all we’ve got
Living in the present moment. Buddhists call this mindfulness. It sounds so simple, yet most of us struggle to do it.
We’re so preoccupied with our daily lives, mechanically repeating the same tasks and habits that we never pause and think ‘What am I really doing right now?’ and ‘do I really want to be doing this?’
Enjoying the view at The Container coffee shop in Pai, Thailand.
Even when we enjoy what we’re doing, our thoughts are still drifting somewhere else. We think about what happened earlier that day or contemplate about what we’ll do next. We’re just not really there.
I wasn’t aware of how much I did this until I basically forced myself to focus on the present and realised how hard it was for me.
I don’t have my head in the clouds – it’s on a whole other planet.
Since leaving the retreat, I promised myself I would start living in the moment, every single day.
Don’t get me wrong – I can’t live in the moment all day long. Nobody can. But at specific moments in the day, I make a conscious effort to just be aware of what is around me. Nothing less, nothing more.
4. Your life will change when you change yourself
When something goes wrong in our world, we often point the finger at other people. We ask ourselves things like: ‘Why can’t they just be more like this?’ or ‘Why can’t they just do it my way.’
The problem is that we expect too much of other people without questioning how we can improve ourselves.
Getting away from the chaos of Bangkok in Wat Chanasongkram.
We’re often told to just embrace our personality and stay the way we are. The funny thing is, most of us think it’s important to take care of our bodies by eating healthy or exercising regularly. But how many of us have gone out of our way to take care of our minds? I certainly haven’t.
If you’re like me, you probably thought that trying to change your personality was a lost cause.
But that’s not necessarily true.
By definition, our personalities are ingrained behaviours that are predictable in a person. Sure, some of them are deeply ingrained, or inherited, thus almost impossible to alter. But some of our behaviours are the result of habits. And we all know that habits can be learned (or unlearned). So it’s worth a try, right?
I’m currently reading this book called The Chimp Paradox, by psychiatrist Professor Steve Peters. I was surprised to find out that the Buddhist teachings from the monks had many parallels with the book, especially when it came to self-improvement and mind management. For instance, Peters writes:
“The person that you want to be is the person that you really are. If you wrote a list of all the things you would like to be, you might write things like calm, compassionate, reasonable, confident and happy, then this is who you really are”.
According to Peters, the disparity between who you really are and who you appear to be is the result of the chimp, the primitive part of the brain, hijacking you. Our Buddhist monk used a similar analogy – he called it ‘the monkey mind’.
If we learn how to manage our chimp/monkey mind, we’ll be able to improve, and become the person we’ve always wanted to be.
This is like music to my ears. Now let’s go tame this beast.
5. Happiness is a path, not a goal
Most of us spend our lives chasing happiness, perceiving it as something that can be achieved through money, relationships or hard work.
When we feel happy, there’s always a tangible reason behind it. We might have bought a house, fallen in love or gotten a promotion.
Visiting the gardens of a Doi Suthep Hmong Hilltribe village in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
We always tell ourselves and others things like ‘I’ll be happy when I loose 10 pounds/find a partner/earn more money/go travelling etc..’.
I’ve never heard anyone say ‘I just feel so happy right now’ without giving some kind of justification as to why they feel that way. If they did, I would probably think they were crazy.
That’s why happiness, as most of us experience it, is a very dangerous pursuit. It is extremely fragile – all these things that we perceive can bring us happiness come and go. We are ecstatic one second and can feel truly unhappy the next.
But what if we’re doing this all wrong? What if happiness was the path rather than the goal?
What if happiness was a skill that could be learned?
Monks spend hours a day meditating and practicing how to be happy. And when you see the constant smile on their face and hear the unmistakable peace in their voice, you know that whatever they’re doing, it’s working.
Would you ever take part in a meditation retreat? If you’ve practised meditation before, what life lessons did you learn? Let me know by leaving a comment below.
NOTE:This blog post features my interpretation of meditation and the Buddhist teachings that I received at the Wat Suan Dok retreat with Monkchat. I’m in no way claiming that they came right out of Buddha’s mouth, or that my understanding of them is spot-on. This is an account of my own experience and what life lessons I personally took away. If you’d like to share your own point of view, I’d love for you to chip in by leaving a comment below. Thanks!
Want to attend this meditation retreat? Here’s Some Travel Info
Where is it? About half-an hour outside of Chiang Mai. Meet the rest of the group in the MCU Chiang Mai Campus, Wat Suan Dok, Monkchat will organise transportation to the retreat.
How much does it cost? 500 Baht ($15/£10) for two days. This covers food and transport. There’s a 300 Baht ($8.5/£5.5) fee to buy white clothes (t-shirt and trousers) if you don’t bring any with you. The retreat relies on donations – you’ll have an opportunity to do so at the end.
Any tips or advice? If you’re looking for a fun thing to do in Chiang Mai, this is not it. If you’re not serious about attending this, you’ll get bored. Bring a lot of mosquito repellant and stretch before and after meditation exercises, as you’ll get sore quickly.
Where can I find more info? Check out monkchat.net.