In my last article, I wrote about my six-day visit to a remote Buddhist monastery in Northern Thailand last month.
When I first read the monastery schedule I was stunned: 18 hours of fasting, 8 hours or more of meditation, 1 hour of free time.
Honestly, I didn’t know that monastery life was like this. It seemed more like boot camp!
And then there was a gentle instruction: “While cleaning the monastery garden be mindful.” I was puzzled.
A day at the monastery begins with a monk striking a loud bell at six o’clock in the morning.
That was not the only sound. There was a cute fluffy dog, an Akita named Pui, whose coat perfectly matched the monks’ orange robes. He howled loudly and in time, with each beat of the bell. He didn’t miss once and threw every ounce of his little self into the message that it was time to get up and come to the main hall.
I had to smile each time. This was a real Buddhist dog and he did not miss a single service or meditation. Pui lay quietly on the rug at the entrance of the main hall during meditation practice, and then jumped to his feet to accompany us on the long walking meditations in the forest. I never saw him begging for food, running, jumping or barking. He was always calm, benevolent, peaceful, respectful; a small, noble presence.
You have the possibility to stay silent throughout most of your day and I found it to be rare chance to reflect on all kinds of things that are usually crowded out by conversation. It actually wasn’t that hard. They have a “Happy and Silent” tag you attach to your clothes, that alerts everyone to not initiate conversations with you.
The day is spent mostly in sitting meditation, which we did together in the morning for two hours, after lunch for three hours and with chanting in the evening for another two hours. Much of this was beyond me as a newcomer to sitting meditation. It is very difficult to sit that long in the proper “lotus” position without lots of practice.
So, I tried another option: walking meditation. I loved it! I must admit, it looked a bit surreal. Imagine 100 barefoot people in snow-white linen clothes, slowly walking in silence. One by one we followed a narrow path in the lush, green jungle along the river. I kept waiting for a spaceship to appear with a ladder for us to proceed on board. It looked like we were going to a UFO rendezvous!
During this meditation I learnt to concentrate on just walking and not thinking about anything.
“Right leg, left leg, right leg, left leg,” I kept telling myself. I focused also on breathing. It seems simple, but extraneous thoughts, which monks call “crazy monkeys”, jump up and begin their dance in your brain at random and unexpected moments.
Then I would start all over: “Right, left, right, left.” I believe other people repeated prayers or mantras to help them keep their minds focused on the moment.
Walking meditation worked so well for me that afterwards we did a lying down meditation and in five minutes I was fast asleep. I’m sure this was not the intention, but nonetheless, I woke calm and refreshed.
During the sitting meditation, which I found so difficult, I often observed other faces. Of the 100 or so visitors to the monastery, many were very young people from all over the world. They were so full of light and hope. I admired how disciplined they were; they tried so hard to do the hours of meditation. In the appointed discussion sessions they asked the monks many profound and sophisticated questions with total earnestness. You could feel their passion and determination to find a way to be happier in life.
Many were trying to deal with stress, and I thought how representative this was of the new generation with its fast-paced social media, and pressure to innovate and achieve higher and higher performance. They were just starting out on their careers and wanted to somehow find an inner life, and techniques to manage all the distractions and bad news.
Meanwhile, I put on my “Happy and Silent” badge. In order to not talk while eating, I had meals at the table with a sign proclaiming “Silence” on it. There were actually many people who preferred to be silent. I found it both liberating and relaxing.
Admission to Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery is free. There is no charge for staying there, simply a donation box which you can put something in when you leave.
When I returned from my retreat, the first question my mom asked me — with utter seriousness — was, “Nina, did you achieve nirvana?”
I burst out laughing. “No, it takes years and years of practice,” I answered, “and few ever get there!”
But during this time I did learn something very important to me: silence is golden.
If you would like to try a one-hour silent walking meditation, I am hosting one on Saturday at 8am starting at the parking lot below Warwick Camp. Research has discovered that mindfulness walking meditation reduces depression and stress as effectively as antidepressant medications, increases sleep, eases pain and increases overall wellbeing.
Call me on 518-1633 to confirm attendance.
• Nina London is a certified wellness and weight-management coach. Her mission is to support and inspire mature women to make positive changes in their body and mind. Share your inspirational stories with her at ninalondon.com