Small Creatures

Time is but a shadow, moved by light.

 

I sit outside upon shaded tiles

Arranged like a mosaic of the mind

Messy symmetry, oblong shapes

 

I see zigzagging ants

Lizards scuttling up walls

A green bug camouflaged as a leaf

 

I watch restless gnats

Butterflies fluttering through air

A slug shaped like a tamarind rind

 

I observe them, thoughtfully

All of these little organisms

Roaming around my physical form

 

I try to sit erect, try to meditate

So many thoughts, small creatures

Crawling around in my brain space

 

I let them go, let them crawl

Curiously observing their paths

Their avoidances, their obsessions

 

Thoughts materialize

Spin into other thoughts

Create patterns of thoughts

Of sticky, clingy attachments that

Lodge in the cobwebs of my consciousness

 

My thoughts zigzag through my brain’s curvatures

An intricate maze

Feelings scurry like lizards

Up the walls of my consciousness

Vying for position, trying to gain the advantage

 

My thoughts are restlessly competing

They flaunt their beautiful reasonings

The habitual ones more attractive, more overpowering in size

Some, lie dormant, a dried out slug

Who hasn’t been nourished, therefore hasn’t grown

 

I breathe in, I breathe out

My breath like medicine

Breaths that transfer new molecules in and out of the body

Expanding and releasing

 

Creepy, crawly feelings

Squirm for my attention

Generating a illusory storyline

Of repeating, familiar frames that

Project onto the canvas of my consciousness

 

I return focus, I readjust

My mind like the clouds

Water particles that create clusters of whimsical white wisps

Morphing and fading

 

Mental formations, fleeting

Foreign voices, conversing

In a language, I do not understand

Under a time condition, I cannot fathom

Yet still entangled in the same cycle of life and death

 

I think yet I am not satisfied

Therefore I take another sip and

I am reminded of the impermanence of it all

Here one moment and gone to the next

 

Verse, word, perceived desire

Taste, smell, anticipated sound

Hyper-aware of not being aware

Unable to see, to define, to know

To discern with my deluded judgement

 

Monkey mind making a racket

Ricocheting in its cage

So I repeat the mantra

   This is not mine

   This I am not

   This is not my self

 

I open my eyes, senses, heart

Everything submerged in a bath of light

Greeting the present as a gift

 

I spread gratitude towards those small creatures

Running topsy-turvy, to and fro

Unconsciously changing and dissipating

 

I smile despite impermanence 

Basking in this ephemeral mood

The sun calls to me, lifts me

 

I stand aboard my ship

Courage as tall as the mast

Curiosity as wide as the sails

No one knows how far it goes

 

What small creatures will I observe

In this next moment

And what will they crawl to mind?

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Getting lost in the clouds

“To be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery”

Often when I lay in my bed and read, I rearrange my body so that my head is where my feet usually rest so I may look out my window and gaze at the canvas outside.

Weather is a strong reminder that every day is unpredictable and strangely beautiful. Although being a Peace Corps volunteer may sound more exotic or more full of more hardships than “normal life,” I would challenge that assumption.

Every day is unpredictable no matter where you are in the world. The clouds remind me of this.

Yet, it’s easy to forget or disregard the truth of impermanence. Many a day feels the same, and so my mind wanders elsewhere, wishing to be elsewhere, no longer present to the subtle beauties around me, dreaming of what was and what could be, instead of appreciating what is.

I remind myself that a year ago, I lay dreaming and pining for this opprotunity, to be here, in Thailand. Now, here I am, at my intended destination yet still caught in the endless cycle of dissatisfaction and craving that I thought would be quenched.

It is when we embrace the mystery of the moment, set aside our preconceived notions or ways of being and seek to become lost in our now, it is then that we are fully present to the wonders available in each second of life.

Whenever my mind seeks to predict what the clouds will do next or starts to reminisce in other skies seen in the past, I remind myself just to observe what I see, get lost in the present moment. No day is like the one I am experiencing today.

“That thing, the nature of which is totally unknown to you, is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”

Books in queue to read:

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (quotes above)

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

Sapiens and Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

A Life of One’s Own by Marion Milner

Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown

The Garden of Liberation

I decided to do a 10 day silent retreat for the following reasons: the disciplined routine, the simple living, and the opportunity to explore my head-space.

For someone who’s never done anything routinely for 10 days straight, especially anything that deprived that self of food or sleep, this was a chance to challenge my greedy and slothful ways – and so I went to Buddhist bootcamp.

The Day-to-Day

 

Bells gonged us awake at 4am and bells gonged us into submission of the day’s routine. I only slept through the gonging twice, yet I still made it to my meditation cushion by 4:30. Those early morning sessions were the most challenging part of the day for me, yet by day 7, I figured out that if I was able to wake up mindfully, to be slow and precise with of each movement of my morning routine from the minute I opened my eyes to the minute I sat down in the hall, my concentration was keener, I nodded off less and I could have some semblance of successful focus.

As far as daily living, I had the cultural advantage of being familiar with the local customs: how to take bucket showers under the modesty of a sarong, to use non-flushable toilets, to hand wash laundry, to tuck a mosquito net firmly and to reapply mosquito repellent religiously. The wooden pillow was a new experience for me, but for the others, the whole thing must’ve been culture shock.

After 9 months dealing with the nonexistence of toilet paper in Thai bathrooms, it wasn’t until this retreat that I finally decided to use the “Thai way” of cleaning myself – I am proud to say that I did not waste one square of toilet paper the whole 10 days and I am cleaner for it.

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Dharma Talks

I did not expect the thorough explanation of Buddhism offered at this retreat. Every mi-morning and afternoon session we sat through dharma talks recorded on a CD, an English translator of Ajaan Buddhadassa’s teachings (the founder of Wat Suan Mohhk and revered monk in my community who died in 1993). His teachings are of the forest monk tradition, more fundamentalist and simplified than many of the other branches.

The main speaker constantly reminded us that Buddhism is not a philosophy but a science, based off evidence in nature and the law of conditionality. She encouraged us to experiment with what was being preached, instead of blindly accepting their truth. Although spiritual, Buddhism does rest on the basis of causes and conditions; furthermore, it promotes self-responsibility and self- reliance for self-improvement.

The basic teachings followed that we are slaves to our thoughts that arise due to our cravings and attachments, which in turn trigger feelings, whether good or bad, that perpetually binds us in a pattern of “suffering” or dissatisfaction. We will stay in this cycle unless we learn how to use tools that help us control our monkey mind, increasing our influence over the mind and body and eliminating our suffering by accepting the truth:

everything is impermanent.

Often the CD talks were repetitive, monotonous yet informative; however, the small gems of wisdom came through the heartfelt talks of the nuns and the monks sharing their personal experiences and advice. The monk who we all thought was so serious and nodding off to sleep every session, ended up being extremely humorous, making us all laugh from his expressive face, gestures and talks about craving chocolate or eating too many bananas.

Chanting in the ancient Pali language just before evening tea became one of my favorite activities. Most of us even got in to the habit of bowing 3 times before and after session in the Thai traditional way to show respect to the monks and humble oneself. It was humbling and impressive to experience first hand what it must be like to live as a monk or a nun dedicated to Buddhist practice on a daily basis.

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Mind Training

Although it was a beginner-friendly retreat, the sitting meditation for a 30 to 45 minute session was extremely difficult. They instructed us to follow the breath in and out of the body, later fixating on one point or even creating a visualization to focus on. I went through a myriad of attempts to tame my wandering mind who I found liked to dream of the future moreso than monotonously follow the breath.

The past has left us. The future has yet to come. Both are illusions. Only the present exists.

Luckily, the yoga session which coincided with the awakening of dawn, always stretched me out and helped prepare me for the long day of concentration ahead. Some sessions I really tried. Other times, I let my mind wander and fantasize. I readjusted my position constantly, attempting to keep my back straight and my feet not facing the front of the room (considered rude in Thai culture) whether on the stool or pillow or flat on the mat or a combo of the options.

Walking meditation proved to be the best way for me to concentrate. Not only did it give me a way to regulate my breathing patterns, but I was intently in the moment observing every small creature crawling through the grasses, my bare feet tenaciously avoiding their paths.

More than anything, the mosquitoes helped me remember to stay in the moment and also agitate me out of my concentration, leaving lingering, itchy marks of suffering, persistently my nemesis and savior. Even so, I could not manage to extend my loving kindness towards them and ended up breaking the rule of “not killing” when the monks weren’t around.

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The Perks

Every breakfast was a plain rice soup with chopped vegetables and fresh greens, but every lunch there was a variety of delicious vegetarian curries, smorgasbord salads and coconut milk deserts. Patiently waiting for everyone to have food in front of them and to recite a food reflection together before each meal, prepared me to savor every bite. Day 9 was my worst day when we were limited to 1 meal. I ended up over-drinking the soy milk offered in the afternoon and the hot chocolate offered in the evening resulting in a terrible stomachache to punish my gluttony.

I took full advantage of the natural hot springs every morning and evening. It was the perfect luxury to relax the body and unwind the mind. Like all the nature around me, the hot springs were a picturesque oasis beyond the camera lens’ ability to capture.

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Silence in Golden

Spending your whole day with people you never talk to is an interesting experience. It leaves you no other companion than the voice inside your head.

I would estimate that about a third of the people left before the 10 days were up – about 40 women and 40 men dwindled slowly as the days wore on. Men and women were separated throughout, eating on opposite sides of the dining hall, sitting on opposite sides of the meditation hall and with all this self-focus I barely even looked at a male until the day the silence ended. I occasionally exchanged smiles with my women companions, but mostly we were isolated in our own worlds.

Hell is inside, not down there.

The first thing I noticed were the comparisons and judgments my voice liked to quip; I quickly tackled these thoughts by disassociating with them (these thoughts are not me, not mine, not self) watching their pettiness drift past my consciousness – like a dog not given attention, eventually they stopped coming back. Self-consciousness slid away like a stepping out a bath – these people could not talk to you, comment on you, most of the time weren’t even watching you – everyone was focused on her or himself.

On the last day, any assumptions made were revealed to be utterly foolish. The girl whose bedroom and meditation seat were next to mine I thought for sure would leave the retreat before the 10 days were up. She was always restless in her seat, often sighing loudly and not making a conscious effort to be extra quiet when moving about. Yet she stuck it out, while others who sat diligently in the front of the hall, legs twisted into the diamond posture, backs straight as a board, did end up leaving prematurely. My side companion turned out to be a German woman who had been on many retreats and wrote the most poetic summary of her experience to share with the group.

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Wisdom

On the 5th night, while standing under the full moon in a meditative posture, I finally succumbed fully to tranquility of what I think is the truth:

Each moment is new. There is only now. Breath is our natural medicine. Appreciate its taste. It goes and it comes just like everything in life.

Days after the retreat, I am still processing the experience. This contemplative mood and relaxed body seems to part of the aftermath. I am still riding the wave of waking up early, doing some yoga, moving mindfully about my tasks, be extra diligent with cleaning myself and my surroundings as well as doing a 20 minute meditation session in the evening. I plan to continue these habits for at least the month of October and hopefully beyond. When something is important, you make it a priority.

The benefits of meditation are often not immediately felt; however, I’ve tasted a piece of the peace when one master’s her mind and I’m always ready to fight peacefully for freedom.

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*all photos were taken from the internet; I took no photos myself, deciding not to attach any image and instead cherish the moments in my mind’s eye