Sunday, January 6, 2013

A trip to Thailand

In December I traveled to Thailand to do ten day meditation retreat at a monastery and meditation centre called Suan Mokkh. Readers of this blog might recall that the last time I did a meditation retreat in Thailand, I spent a lot of it contemplating anger – directly. This time was quite different. At the retreat itself, everything felt right, from the lush green gardens dotted with tropical flowers, to the delicious Thai cooking and the hot chocolate drinks in the evenings, to the natural hot springs we could soak in to relax any knots in our muscles after a long day of meditation. I felt I was exactly where I wanted and needed to be, and the world was treating me very well.

My description so far makes the meditation centre sound like a luxury resort, but of course it wasn’t all lazing about in the pool. The day began with a wake-up bell at 4am, and more bells punctuated each change of activity: sitting and walking meditation sessions, work periods, a daily yoga class, some very entertaining dhamma talks, meals and rest periods. The last meditation session of the day finished at 9pm, and we were required to be back in our dorms by 9.30pm.

There is a distinctly ascetic dimension to the place as well, reflecting the fact that this meditation centre is attached to a monastery founded by a famous Thai monk, Ajahn Buddhadasa, known for his very scholarly and pure approach to the Buddhist teachings. When he was still alive, his supporters built an attractive, but still very modest (by Thai temple standards) two-storey house for him to live in within the monastery. After a few years, he moved into the toilet room, saying he didn’t need the rest of the house.

As retreatants, we didn’t have to sleep in the toilets, but our accommodation was not fancy. Each person was assigned a little concrete cell, and we were encouraged to follow Ajahn Buddhadasa’s ascetic example by sleeping on a thin straw mat (over concrete) and a wooden pillow – a block of wood with a depression carved into it. The cells were located in large dormitory blocks, segregated by gender. The dorms were locked at night, and at certain times during the day. None of this came as a shock to me, though, as I had done this retreat once before, three years ago. (I had come prepared with a camping mat to supplement the straw sleeping mat.)

One day we came back from evening drinks to find the women’s dorm still locked. As we had all undertaken to maintain silence for the duration of the retreat, we just stood in a slowly growing crowd of women in front of the high metal gates, waiting. Soon enough they were opened, and as we filed in one by one, I imagined us as inmates entering a prison camp. It wasn’t just the lock on the gate of the dormitory that made the comparison seem apt. Meditation retreats, especially large ones (there were about a hundred people on this retreat) have an institutional quality, a sense that you are being cared for and protected, and at the same time disciplined into a manageable group, with individual expression and variation kept to a minimum.

Entrance to the women's dorm
Once you get used to it, there is a sense of comfort in blending into the group, and the shared discipline is helpful for creating a concentrated, motivated atmosphere for meditation practice. But it also raises some challenges. To me, it feels a bit like reverting to childhood (boarding-school, perhaps). For the duration of the retreat, one is treated like a very well cared-for child, relieved of adult responsibilities and choices, and provided with a special form of education. This is a valuable gift, but a somewhat disturbing one. It can be a challenge to remain adult under these conditions, and not revert to childish behavior, whether submissive, needy or rebellious.

To look at it another way, this kind of retreat can be good for exposing the child that lives on in the adult, unearthing habits and ways of responding that perhaps haven't truly changed since we really were children, coping with a world that wasn’t as orderly or carefully designed as a meditation retreat. Hopefully, the meditative mind is strong enough to let us recognise these old, ordinarily masked habits and emotions and to let them go, or take better care of them. It can be a salutary shock just to face the fact that one is still capable of behaving like a child (and not in a good way).

You may be wondering what kind of mid-retreat tantrums I threw to provoke these reflections. Actually, I was perfectly well-behaved; this retreat passed very peacefully for me. Thoughts and feelings came and went mildly by; I didn’t get stuck in any whirlpools of emotion. There were no internal fireworks of any kind, really – no extraordinary insights, or colouredåå lights either. By the end, I felt well rested, if slightly disappointed that nothing particularly transformative seemed to have happened.

But then… after the retreat, I had planned a short holiday with a friend who was going to join me in Thailand. I’d booked a short kayaking tour for us, and a nice hotel. When I emerged from the retreat, I got an apologetic text message from my friend letting me know that she had had a crisis and decided not to come. Initially I took this news calmly, and sent a sympathetic and reassuring response in reply. But trouble was brewing. Possibly the first sign that my inner child was preparing to make an appearance was that although my friend asked me to fly to Singapore straight away to meet her, I felt reluctant to abandon the planned holiday in Thailand. I thought I might continue with the kayaking trip alone, and go to Singapore to see her a bit later, taking the flight that was already booked.

From that point on, I entered the shadowy counterpart of my contented retreat: nothing felt right. That night, I was the solitary guest in a fairly remote guest-house in the middle of Thailand. The family who ran the place seemed to tolerate my presence rather than welcome it. The bungalow I was given was pretty, but damp and cold at night. There was a slug on the bed sheets and a tap in the bathroom ran incessantly. Barking dogs kept me awake late into the night; a crying baby woke me early. Oh the special misery of not having a good time when you’re on holidays and everything is supposed to be designed wholly and solely to please you…

At some point during that long night, my inner child started wailing. I felt like I’d stepped into what should rationally have been merely a shallow puddle of disappointment and abruptly found myself sliding into a deep, murky hole of despair, with no way to save myself, as the muddy walls of negative emotions threatened to close in over my head. I felt rejected, resentful, unloved and toward the very bottom of the hole, unlovable.

I had descended into what Nietzsche calls slave mentality, an attitude dominated by resentment, that sees others as dominant, powerful, carelessly cruel, and views the self as weak, persecuted and righteously pathetic. He contrasts this mentality with that of the noble type, who focuses on the self as happy, proud, superior, and barely pays any attention to the unhappy (but sometimes useful) other. The noble attitude seems more attractive, of course, but regarded as a moral position, it is naïve and potentially barbaric. And as psychological states, I suspect that master and slave attitudes are liable to flip into each other.

Perhaps the energies of my inner slave, now raging, had been building up in the form of a certain barbaric carelessness and complacent sense of entitlement as I strolled around the retreat centre, admiring the grounds and thinking about my next soak in the hot springs, or the delicious Thai curry I would be served for lunch. Part of my inner child’s problem seemed to be outrage that this level of care had not continued beyond the walls of the retreat centre. Behind this outrage was the fear that perhaps I wasn’t really a noble type after all, just a miserable slave.

Eventually it dawned on me that the only thing that was stopping me from giving up my plans and going straight to Singapore was a lurking fear that the real reason my friend hadn’t come to Thailand was simply that she didn’t care about me or want to spend any time with me. This wasn’t reasonable. There was plenty of evidence to the contrary - she had offered to book a new flight to bring me to Singapore and pay the deposit we would lose on the tour. Why wasn’t I paying more attention to that, or to her heartfelt request for me to come and visit her?

At this point, I remembered the Buddha’s teaching about the importance of friendship. Ananda, his close attendant, suggests that friendship makes up half of the holy life, with the other half relating to the discipline of monastic rules. The Buddha replies, “Do not say so, Ananda, do not say so. Friendship is the whole of the holy life.”

I realized that responding to my friend was the real test and crucible of my spiritual practice on this trip to Thailand. Waking to the sound of bells ringing in the dark, sleeping on wooden pillows, eating only in the morning and watching your breath (or trying to) for hours on end is all pretty pointless if it doesn’t help you to recognize and appreciate the kindness of a friend when it is shown to you, or to give it when it is asked of you. I finally saw that it was entirely open to me to walk lightly around the muddy hole that had unexpectedly opened up on the walking track of my trip through Thailand, and show some faith both in my friend and in my own capacity for friendship. In the morning, I cancelled the kayaking tour and hopped on an early bus to Phuket on my way to catch a plane to Singapore.


David Briggs said...

What a lovely, refelctive and thought provoking post.

Funny enough I've also been doing some relection on friendship at the moment and have come to realise how important it is have friendships that are reciprocal and unconditional.

Its amazing for me that although helping friends in need can be tiring, its also very rewarding, makes me feel content yet challenging that sometimes I can't help them in their situation.

Look forward to your next post!

David Briggs said...

What a lovely, refelctive and thought provoking post.

Funny enough I've also been doing some relection on friendship at the moment and have come to realise how important it is have friendships that are reciprocal and unconditional.

Its amazing for me that although helping friends in need can be tiring, its also very rewarding, makes me feel content yet challenging that sometimes I can't help them in their situation.

Look forward to your next post!

Juzzeau said...

Thanks for your comment, David! It's taken me a while to reply as I've been immersed in trying to understand the basics of neuropsychology - extremely interesting, but also complex stuff... Thanks, too, for being such a good friend to me (and my inspiration to start studying psych :).

George Tindall said...

Thanks for the valuable and insights you have so provided here...
adventures in Thailand

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