Number 4 – Learn to meditate (Four of Clubs) – Friday 27th-Sunday 29th January 2017
Religion has always confused me. To be honest it has never made much sense, and although the underlying sentiment is a positive one, a quick look in the news or even in your local area will show you that the current way of religion is not working. It is not for me to dispute someone’s beliefs; I do think it is admirable for a person to have some sort of faith, it just isn’t for me. I have always had a scientific mind, and my parents and my upbringing always supported this healthy scepticism. Buddhism however is the only religion I have ever been able to associate with. It doesn’t try to force anything onto its students, it doesn’t claim any supernatural forces, and it has at its core a way of living that actually makes sense. It is built on 3 precepts – Do good things, don’t do bad things, and calm your mind. Essentially, that’s it. They don’t believe that the Buddha was some other-worldly being, he was just a normal person who, through meditation was able to reach enlightenment. One monk recently explained to me that they believe there are three states in life: happiness, suffering and calm. Happiness and suffering can’t be controlled, they are out of our control. The only thing that you can control is how you deal with what happens, through remaining calm etc. This is where meditation comes in.
For those who know me, you know I think too much. My mind never switches off, I don’t sleep well, and I overthink every situation. It turns out that a lot of people that I have spoken to have the same problem, and to be honest I think it’s a cultural thing. Our whole lives run at a million miles an hour, and there is so much stimulus that our minds are overwhelmed by thoughts and input. I have wanted to do something about it for a long time, and meditation always interested me. I hadn’t known much about it, and like most people had misconceptions about what it entailed. But if it could help me stop thinking even for just a minute, then it would be worth it. Whilst in Pai, I randomly came across a poster advertising a 3 day introduction to meditation retreat. There wasn’t much more information apart from an address and dates, and by coincidence the dates were for the next day. It was too good an opportunity to pass up and so on the morning of the 27th, I checked out of my bungalow and made my way to the Pai exotic spa home.
I arrived just as the course was starting; the location was absolutely beautiful, with a few bungalows, a small communal kitchen and natural hot spring swimming pool, beside which the course was taking place. Each day was split into a morning, afternoon and evening session. During the first morning, we were introduced to the teaching monk, Luangpi Chai, a student of the great master monk of the Dhammakaya foundation. Then we began. He explained what meditation was, and more importantly what it wasn’t. He then described a few techniques on how to begin meditating and allowed us our first taste. Apparently we meditated for an hour, but it felt more like 15 minutes. It was great to have such a competent guide that was able to explain where and how to focus our mind at the centre of our body (two finger widths above the belly button), and how to keep the ‘wandering mind’ at bay. He told us to imagine an object, something like a sun or a moon and to see that object at the centre. This was a strange concept because we are so used to ‘seeing’ outwards, through our eyes. To be able to ‘see’ inside was at first pretty difficult. My object was the north star. I don’t know why, but as soon as he mentioned an object, it came to me. In a way it felt natural, like home.
In the afternoon session, our monk went into more detail about a few different techniques on how to take meditation to the next step. Please don’t take this as any sort of lesson, I am merely regurgitating what I learned! He explained about the 7 bases of the mind and how you can use this in order to firmly centre your mind and the object. He explained a little more about the middle way technique of meditation, which is what he was teaching. His school of Buddhism follows the Dhammakaya way of meditation. It is a lot more relaxed than some other forms of meditation, you don’t need to sit in a specific way, you can move if you become uncomfortable, and the only aim of the meditation is to STOP THINKING. That’s it; easy, or so he says! Then we practised again. I find it very hard to stop my mind, and just be, but halfway through this session something strange happened. I was suddenly aware of the fact that I wasn’t actually thinking. What’s more, it was as if my mind was actually in the supposed 7th base, and no longer in my head. It didn’t last very long before thoughts started up again, but to me it was proof that I could actually do this! In the evening we didn’t meditate again, but learnt a little more about the benefits of meditation and the history of the first grandmaster, Luangpu Wat Paknam. After this I retired to my bungalow, which was serious luxury!
Day 2 – 28th January
Best. Sleep. Ever. I don’t think I’ve slept that well in years! I woke up at 6.30am, and was able to speak with Sarah for a bit, which was really nice. Breakfast was at 8 and then the morning session started again. He began by giving a little more history on various aspects of his faith and then we practised again. I found it a little harder this morning and once or twice almost drifted off, but the focus is definitely improving. Afterwards I spoke with the monk’s student/disciple, Ping. She is a Chinese lady living in Texas, who has followed Luangpi Chai for the last 2 years. It was really refreshing talking to her and realising the similarities between us. Like me, she had found herself in a place she wasn’t happy with, she wasn’t particularly religious and then she found meditation. Even more refreshing, she told me that even now, she isn’t religious, but for her, the meditation had helped in every aspect of her life. I then exercised, had some lunch, sunbathed (only for like 30 minutes), and burnt to a crisp. Being ginger and fair skinned sucks!
The afternoon session was pretty standard but the evening session was really special. We went down to the end of the resort, around some stone tables, just as the sun was setting. We spoke for a while and then each of us was given a candle and we took part in a candle lighting ceremony followed by more meditation. The setting was incredible, and by the time we had finished the sky was as black as Whitby Jet, but with more stars then I’ve ever seen before. It was beautiful and dare I say it, almost spiritual!
Day 3 – 29th January
Again I slept really well and was up at 6.30am ready for the day. Breakfast as normal and then to the morning session; however none of the other students turned up – I had a private session with my monk! It gave me chance to ask a lot of questions that I had been thinking about, such as how Buddhism deals with aspects of science, history etc. Luangpi’s answers were insightful and only served to further increase my love of Buddhism. Not for me, but merely as a religion; it is based only on peace and making sure that each person lives the best life they can. No frills, no pressure, just a positive life. Then we meditated again and I had my best experience. Again it didn’t last long, but for the first time it was as if I was able to separate my mind and centre it at the seventh base. It’s really hard to explain but here goes… When I think, it’s as if my thoughts appear above my eyes, in my brain, which I think is pretty normal. For me I’ve never ‘thought’ anything whilst my mind has been at this 7th base. Because of that, it’s almost like a new brain, with no memories or thoughts, it’s just pure. If I concentrate on it, it’s almost like a 2nd mind and I can stop thinking. The thoughts in my head are still there, but it was as if I was disconnected from them; at peace. I was in this 7th base, watching my object, repeating the mantra, and the thoughts were going on elsewhere. It was really strange, but really good.
After this, I spoke at length again with Ping about meditation, my experiences so far and her own journey. She has been practising meditation now for 4 years, and using this method for the last 2 years. Because of this she spends a lot of time away from her home and her husband and so there were other parallels between us. Although I’m loving this trip it is hard being away from everyone, and especially Sarah. To me, she is my North star, my home and where I feel calmest. There have been times when I have found all of this really difficult and so I asked Ping about how she gets through it. She was very honest about it being hard, but she said something that filled me with hope. After they have been apart for some time and she goes home, it’s as if everything is even better; it strengthens their relationship and makes them closer and happier. They can have individual experiences, and still share them. She is pretty inspirational and it made me feel a lot happier about everything I’m going through. So thank you Ping.
In the afternoon we had our final session and then said our goodbyes. These past few days have been something I never expected, and whilst I still have no plans to convert to any sort of religion any time soon, that wasn’t the point. One of the first things Luangpi Chai told us was that this wasn’t about Buddhism. It wasn’t about any sort of faith, it was just about teaching us techniques to improve our quality of life. And honestly, after just three days, I already feel that my quality of life has improved drastically. I feel so much more positive, and whilst I know I still have a long way to go, it’s something that I definitely want to continue with. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage daily practise, but the point is that I want to find the time. I want to carry on this journey because these past few days have shown me all the great things I have in my life, all the great things I’m doing and almost confirmed why I started this journey in the first place. It was truly life affirming, and I would recommend it to everyone. You can find Dhammakaya schools in every city in the world, and meditation courses start from just 1 or 2 days. If you head to the peace revolution website you can find out lots more information and online classes, although I would recommend that you try and get some guidance from a real monk, even if just for a few days, it’s a great introduction.
If you want any more information, then I would be happy to share more about my experience, and attempt to answer questions you might have!
The Dhammakaya website – http://en.dhammakaya.net/
Learn to meditate at the Peace Revolution website here – https://peacerevolution.net/