How do you begin to describe an experience like meditating 10 hours a day for 10 days straight? Intense. It definitely has given me a whole new meaning to the expression, “Know Thyself.” I’m unable to capture it all here, besides Kristin is a much more witty writer, so I’ll just share some highlights of my deep thoughts and experiences. Much of this may seem obvious, and at times trite. Really its all basic wisdom that I have known for years. However, I feel I’m only really “knowing” much of this for the first time. Intellectual comprehension seems superficial compared to the deep visceral experiential “knowing” that you can experience by quieting the mind and sitting with yourself.
MEDITATIONS OF THE MIND
You Can’t Hide From Yourself - When there’s nothing else to do for 10 days except for concentrating on your breath while you sit or walk you quickly realize that you can’t hide from yourself. You are forced to confront all of your insecurities and deepest anxieties face-to-face. Only patience and acceptance allow you to slowly release their grip on your subconscious. We pay people a lot of money to listen to our problems when sometimes we just need to take the time to really listen to ourselves.
Flame of Life - When you eliminate all exposure to mass culture and begin to peel away the layers of conformity, consumerism, and personal insecurities you can distill life down to a pure essence… a quiet “flame of life” that burns inside all of us. Watching the slow involuntary rhythmic pulse of life, the breath and beating of your heart, is indescribably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced. It seems that all religious dogmas, moral systems, and human made laws are elaborate structures that we’ve built up around this simple flame. Observing the self evident miracle of life, an ultimate end unto itself, in its purest form makes all of these structures seem irrelevant, even absurd. Experiencing the magnetizing calm beauty of life is so pure that the idea of inflicting suffering on others becomes wholly inconceivable and makes all violence a type of suicide.
You Can Always Return to the Breath - From the moment of birth until your death there is a quiet involuntary “rising and falling” of the breath that happens inside of you. When practicing meditation your sole focus is to aknowledge this slow silent pulse and observe the sensations. Regardless of the other distractions in your mind, pain in your back, or sounds around you, you can always return to the dependable ever present slow pulse of the breath. Even at the pinnacle of stress and despair you can return to this dependable pulse and find serenity. The joke “Serenity Now!” has some truth to it.
Drifting through the romantic palm-lined streets of red tiled roof French colonial villas and down quaint, winding alleys spilling over with flowering terrace gates it’s easy to see how the ancient city of Laung Prabang in central Laos made the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. We arrived here after a lazy two-day float on a “slow boat” down the Mekong River where it merges with the Nam Khan River and is nested in lush, green mountains where mist hangs in the morning before burning off into a sunny swelter. One of the main tourist attractions is the Royal Palace Museum, so on a particularly hot afternoon I went to check it out.
Ascending the marble staircase it became quickly apparent that the Royal Palace in Laung Prabang is unlike any palace I’ve ever seen. Not because it was bigger, more gilded, or had vast treasures, but because it is so simple. Built in 1904, the Palace is a flat French colonial mansion, with high white ceilings and beautiful teak wood floors. The main throne room has rich red walls decorated in colorful glass mosaics depicting important Laotian festivals and battles. A French tour group crowded around conversing loudly and gesticulating: “Oh-la-la!”
“F***ing French colonizers” I thought to myself with a bemused smirk. The halls where lined with chronological display cases dedicating gifts from foreign emissaries: a hand painted decorative bamboo screen from Vietnam, traditional porcelain bowls from China, and a French dining room set. Finally at the last display case, I was pleased to recognize a familiar name on the plaque: “United States of America.” The gifts included a desk set of ink pens engraved with the Presidential Seal and signature of John F. Kennedy.
The main object that caught my eye was an odd anachronism in this colonial era palace: a fist-sized model of the Apollo Lunar Landing Module. The model was delicately balanced on a silver plated “moon surface” of decorative Buddhist Bodhisattvas. Next to it was a plaque with a tiny version of the former national flag of Laos; red background with the triple-headed white elephant and a tiered Buddhist parasol. (The white elephant is a symbol of royalty and the ancient name of the country “Land of a Million Elephants and the Parasol” and the three heads represent the three united Kingdoms of Laos.) Imbedded in a clear lacquer on the plaque were three floating specks of crusty black rock. It read:
fishing net unfurling
behind his handhollowed canoe
like a forgotten cobweb resigning to the breeze.
his eyes lost beyond the bow
swirling with the eddies
as the Mekong’s slow muddy flow
unravels buried memories.
each paddle stroke pulling
from the dark current deep inside him
welling up in his cataract glassed eyes
like heavy clouds quivering before a storm.
water drops crawling wet
through the crevices of his cracked creekbed face
quenching the coarse forest of his whitened whiskers
leaving only vacant trails of crusted salt.
swirling in the hypnotic rhythm of the river
memory’s image flashes
like the fiery reflection in the water that night
fleeing falling flames
on the rickety refugee raft
when he was forced to abandon her
on the dirt floor.
she had just learned to walk
the week before.
From 1964-1973 the United States government conducted a “Secret War” in Laos by dropping over 2 million tons of bombs on the countryside, more bombs than all of WWII combined.
Some years ago, I did a 7-day silent meditation retreat in rural Massachusetts, and it changed my life: it made me more aware of how thought and emotion manifest in the body, of how emotional states are transient and don’t control me… and, it was one of the only times I’ve ever been free from anxiety. It was incredibly difficult, but I left with an eagerness to explore myself and the world with this gentle tool.
This made that other retreat look like a Carnival Cruise.
We knew exactly what we were getting into: 10 hours a day, give or take, of walking or sitting meditation; upholding the “noble silence” by not talking, reading or writing; eating only before noon and sleeping 6 hours a night. I’d done it before, I’d do it again.
The monk in charge of foreign students was a short little man who walked quickly, said everything twice, and wore a surgical mask. (Asians LOVE surgical masks. Are you sick? Is someone else? Wear a mask! Dusty air? Mask!) He gave us white clothes, instructions on appropriate behavior, and schedules. Whenever I timidly asked a question— “Excuse me? What time do we return for reporting?”— he would wave his hand impatiently, saying, “Not now. Not now. In the moment. Right now, sweeping. Sweeping.” (Hands me a broom). ”Knowing, knowing,” he would tap his forehead. This meant that I was not being mindful, that I should already know not only what time I was supposed to be where, but that I was also supposed to be sweeping, too. This was difficult to understand because of the surgical mask.
So: Up at 4, breakfast at 6:30 lunch at 10:30, reporting to The Man at 5:30 or so. All other times: meditating.
day long trek
through dry, red dirt stubbled rice paddies
we stumble from blaze sun into our sanctuary,
an ancient monastery.
stale tobacco cloud hangs around
a ring of wrinkled men
pulling long drags from twisted cheroots
eyes like glassed marbles perched in weathered magpie nests.
greetings hanging dead in smoke.
we four foreigners sit.
we hand over our night’s donation
wait silent for monk’s blessing.
only response the quiet crackle of cheap tobacco.
head monk sits plump in circle center,
a step above.
smooth shaven head wrapped in piled-wool brick-red robe
lips fat like Brando in the heat heavy hall.
lost over mountain horizon.
he lights a cigarette.
long effortless pull.
oblivious in distant indifference
solitary finger perches on his plump lip.
lit stick wilting an inch away in anticipation.
slow motion suicide.
thick, still air.
tongue tasting every vapor of leafy paper.
pungent nicotine crawling into sinus cave
spilling cascades out nostril tunnels
like a lazy dragon after a rich feast.
our palms clam
awaiting a blessing.
eyes fixed in eternity.
smoke slow swirling with creases of Buddha’s statuesque smile.
his thoughts rotate like bamboo chimes
turning in tree breeze.
longing for his affection
filter finds finality with a finishing breath.
cigarette vanishes from air.
mumbling in Burmese
he dismisses our presence.
we escape into evenings fresh air
nested in the cast
of Shwedagon’s golden beam
the bronze bell told
many centuries’ sunrise
like an orange peeling in the East,
calling Rangoon’s monks to morning prayer.
her brother drum
beating sunset’s return.
all until the take of Red Coat’s raid
intended to tie her tongue to a mast
bound for smeltering
in London’s imperial furnace,
and pound her into a cannon
for another colonial conquest.
refusing to be reborn a weapon of war
on the final gangplank she slipped her captors
plundging safely to harbor’s floor.
colonial cranks couldn’t budge her
from meditation in the muck.
she patiently awaited
buoyant Burmese bamboo
raft’s swift rescue
returning her to peaceful perch.
singing past’s prayers
great sweet sound
for dawning struggles
The story of the Maha Gandha bell during the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824.
Everywhere you go you can’t escape a cheesy melody or blaring beat. At all times of day you could hear music blasting from storefronts, homes, karaoke-style music videos on buses, portable devices in taxi drivers pockets and even loudspeakers from monasteries.
And if the electricity goes out (which is frequently) you can always find a long haired youth strumming a guitar or someone walking down the street singing at the top of their lungs. The video below is a remake from a classic Burmese artist Twan Tay Theen Tan. I liked the traditional Burmese music so much that I bought a couple of CDs on the streets of Yangon. -E