On 11th of December of 2015, I started a Vipassana meditation course at Wat Ram Poeng, an important Buddhist temple in the city of Chiang Mai, which would last 10 days. It was definitely one of the most authentic, interesting and challenging experiences of my life.
Rules such as don´t talk to other students, don´t use the mobile phone or any other communication device, eat only from 6:30am to 12pm, wake up at 4am were part of our daily routine. And although it seemed quite difficult to meet at the beginning, I was actually able to get used to it quickly and understand that in fact some of it were a great help to have less stimuli and improve my concentration.
The big challenge was to focus my attention during meditation (on breathing for sitting meditation and movement of legs and feet for walking meditation) and don’t be too much distracted by other thoughts or reflections and, mainly during the first days, deal with the pain of sitting in the same position for a long time.
During all my stay I was conscious about how lucky I was for being able to live with the monks and experiment a bit of their lifestyle. And a feeling of admiration and curiosity about Buddhism started to grow in me (among other things, due to the rationality in the application of its principles and the tolerance towards other religions). However, I can’t deny that at times I thought that meditation might not work for me and that I was not going to be able to complete these 10 days.
I feel so glad to have insisted and arrived until the end, not only due to the nice feeling of achievement, but also because during the last days I assimilated things that made a lot of sense to me and noticed a significant improvement during meditation.
The first days
On the first day we knew the temple, learnt the basic meditation techniques and joined the initiation ceremony. In this ceremony we accepted the 8 Buddhist precepts which should be followed during our stay on the temple:
– Don’t kill: cockroaches and mosquitoes included! It didn´t seem to be a difficult one. The temple is very clean and there were not many mosquitoes there. But on the second day I forgot a mug with remains of milk in my bedroom. When I was back, there were many ants on it… I had to wash it and some of them drowned ☹ Bad, very bad…
– Do not take what is not given.
– Don’t have any kind of sexual behaviour. All students wore white clothes and men and women should seat on opposite sides during meals and ceremonies. All to avoid any feelings of attraction.
– Don’t lie.
– Don’t drink alcohol or take drugs.
– Don’t eat at wrong times (after 12pm and before 6:30am).
– Don’t dance, sing, listen to music, use perfume or cosmetics.
– Don’t sleep in luxurious beds.
On the first day we also learnt about our routine in the temple: waking up at 4am , meditate until 6:30am (when the bell announced the breakfast time). After that we had some time to help cleaning and at 8am we should go back to meditate until 10:30h, when the lunch was served. After lunch we had time to have a shower and clean the temple. At 12 or 12:30 pm we should go back to meditation until 22pm, with a break around 17pm for a meeting with the teacher.
Our teacher was the abbot of the temple, the most important personality there, a very nice and kind man, and he spoke individually with each student every day. By the way, taking into account that the course is maintained only by donations (the last day you make a donation), I was quite impressed with the great service provided to us students. In addition to the individual follow-up with the abbot, each student has his/her own room and all meals are provided (breakfast, lunch and some liquid food in the afternoon, such as soy milk or soup). White clothes, sheets, towels, alarm clock, etc can be borrowed from the temple at a very affordable price.
This is not a religion course and it’s really focused on meditation, which they taught us in a very practical way. Reading or theorizing about meditation is not important; they believe the practice is the only way to improve. Except for the initiation and closing ceremony, the only time we would hear about Buddhist precepts would be before the meals.
Before each meal, everyone: monks, Thai students (the majority there) and international students should read together the texts for food contemplation. I personally enjoyed a lot to be part of these rituals, it was when my immersion into such a different world from mine was even more evident and I felt grateful for being there. It was very nice to hear the sweet and husky voice of a female monk who led us in these chanting. There were leaflets with these texts in Thai and its translation to English. Among other things, they preached that food should be eaten only for body nourishment and without exaggeration.
On the first and second days I wasn´t very lucky with the food, and some dishes were really hard to swallow. I thought … ” they certainly cook this way to help us to not feel pleasure with the food”. But over time I tasted some delicious food and they even gave us some sweets like donuts and chocolate cake. So I understood that having pleasure with food was allowed and it was simply a matter of taste. Feeding centres are often not so good, especially with flavours so different to what we are used to. What I did was start selecting what I was going to eat instead of trying everything and buy things, like crackers and yogurt from the temple as a complement when needed. That way I was happier with the food and did not throw anything away.
After 3 or 4 days
After a few days on the temple I was already adapted to some things like not feeling so hungry in the afternoons, not feeling so sleepy during the day and the urge to talk to other people inside and outside the temple reduced. I also realized that my head was becoming “emptier” and it was getting easier to focus my attention.
It was a great feeling when I learned to sit without moving. In the first days I felt pain and I found really uncomfortable when my legs fell asleep, so I moved my legs several times until the end of the meditation(by this time I was doing about 25 minutes in each position, we started with 15 minutes). Then I decided to let my legs sleep and not move, and it was much easier this way. Sometimes it was really slept and I had to experience that tingling sensation (which I hate) at the end. But many times, although they seemed slept, I didn’t feel them tingling and didn´t feel any pain.
The seventh day
I expected that at that point I would be super focused during meditation and more confident. However, I didn’t feel that my evolution during the course was linear. There were times when I could concentrate more and other times less.
Every day the meditation times (I mean, the amount of time at each position and/or the total hours of meditation in a day) increased. On the seventh day I started to feel pain on my back, and also getting frustrated because I couldn’t focus my attention as I should during and outside meditation (it’s expected that even when you are not meditating, you should focus your attention on what you are doing. For example, if you are eating something, you should focus on the movement of your mouth, the chewing, feeling the taste, swallowing, without thinking of other things … the attention must be 100% at the present moment).
That day I felt sad and frustrated, and told the teacher that I thought I would not be able to finish the course. I didn’t expect him to be less demanding with me. After all, why did I deserve to make less effort than other students? It wouldn’t be fair. But he was understanding and accepted my difficulties better than myself. As always he increased my meditation time for the next day, but told me I should have it as a goal rather than an obligation. I left his room feeling relieved. And at that moment I finally felt that I would be able to stay there until the end.
The next morning we had a talk with a female monk, her name was Bhikkuni Akkayani. It was like a gift. Our daily follow up with the teacher was very focused on the performed meditation activities and the goals for the next day. But during this talk I could have a better understanding about the learning process and have answers to some questions I had about meditation and Buddhism. That day I also read some texts about Buddhism which were stuck on a wall. And I began to reflect about these things (actually, something I should not do there, since my focus should be on meditation!!) and to understand a few apparently simple things that made a lot of sense to me:
Pleasure: you can have pleasures in life, in fact, you should enjoy the pleasures that life gives to you. But you should not become dependent on them. If you know you are dependent on something, you should choose not to have it. Otherwise, the day you can’t have it you will suffer.
You are your mind and your body, nothing else: the way you see yourself, how others see you, are delusions, things we invented. With this, I understand that each person, including you, may have a different view of you and your personality. None of them will define you, all will be partial and maybe contradictory. So why do we care so much about these definitions? Doesn´t life should be simpler than that?
Live in the present: you must be aware of your choices, and try always to take the best decision, at the moment of choice. Think too much in the past or in the future, won’t let you live the present moment. Knowing that you tried to do the best at that time should help you not to suffer from the decisions taken.
Don’t pursue happiness: I think this goes against what I always thought and sought. But at the same time it makes so much sense to me. I’m not saying I won’t have this in mind anymore, I think we should identify what makes us happy, and whenever possible to walk toward it. However, being excessively worried to find happiness or to do what makes you happy can certainly bring unhappiness and frustration.
The final stretch
After the talk I felt much more motivated and willing to make the most of these last few days in the temple. And I actually managed to meet the goal times, and most importantly, I could improve my concentration and meditation quality. Some thoughts about the past that bothered me aroused again. And instead of trying to control my mind at all costs, I paid attention to what they said, tried to understand why they were there, released them and returned my attention on my breathing. At that moment I cried and felt much lighter.
At the end of the ninth day we had the closing ceremony. The feeling of happiness, of being able to reach the end, was mixed with nostalgia of the days I had spent there. After the ceremony we could talk to the other students who had also completed the course. It was very interesting to know those people who were all these days with me but I did not know, and break (which I already expected) with the images I created about them. At some point I felt the need to be alone again, without speaking, to complete this experience which was so individual.
The next day, although it was no longer an obligation, I woke up at 4 am to meditate. I said goodbye to the pagoda, one of the most emblematic places of the temple, and meditated for the last time on that scenario, where I could also listen the chanting that comes from the room of Thai students. I also said goodbye to that corner of the meditation room I had chosen as mine during the last days of the course and where I spent so many hours. I left the temple happy, thrilled and thinking that someday I would like to go back there and revive the peace, tranquility and disconnection from the outside world.
After the course…
Finding tranquillity and serenity on my day by day, disconnecting from problems and learning to address them in a more positive way were the goals that motivated me to move on with the course. Now that I have finished it, I truly believe that meditation will help me in this way.
The course doesn’t do miracles and learning meditation is an individual and continuous process that must be followed throughout life. But it helped me to cope with my difficulties as a beginner, allowed me to disconnect from the world and it pushed me to perform an intense number of hours of meditation making me realize improvements once I finished it (if I had done it alone I would have probably given up before noticing these improvements). For me this is an important motivation to keep meditation as part of my life.