Mindfulness. Be mindful. The mind. Mind your step.
We might all have encountered this term, one way or another. It seems to be such an arbitrary word that actually holds so much more.
That, if practiced well, can represent a helpful anchor, maybe even a guide, in everyday life. Or that, if continuously neglected, can lead to total loss of perspective, until one day you wake up and realize it is all just an illusion.
I came to experience a short immersion into this concept a couple of weeks ago, living in a Thai Buddhist temple for three days. A place so completely integrated into nature, so far from any busy modern life as we know it, so amazingly peaceful – that even this short period of time made me clear my mind over previous events and set it for whatever was about to come.
Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery is a place that offers spiritual guidance for everyone interested in practicing meditation in a peaceful and natural monasterial environment. It is situated about 37 km from Mae Hong Son, surrounded by stunning mountains, a small river and impressive waterfalls. No matter whether you are a complete beginner or already advanced in meditation practice, no matter where you are from or what religion you believe (or don’t believe) in, people from all over the world come to learn together. While flexible methods are used, the focus lays on Vipassana meditation, accompanied by the monk’s lectures in Thai and English about the Buddhist teachings of different aspects of spirituality, mindfulness, life, behavior, etc.
People are accommodated in very basic yet beautiful single huts (kuti) or, if space is rare, shared rooms with two or three people, and receive two (delicious!) vegan meals a day, while there is no food allowed after noon. Everything is donation-based.
What was the last time you spent three full days without your phone, without any internet connection? With all your focus just in the present situation? It was intense.
Getting there was a little adventure already. I had to point out the stop to the bus driver and then walk about 1,5 km from the highway to the temple. Upon arrival I was warmly welcomed, given the obligatory white clothes and led to my kuti.
The Course of a Day
Wake up in the morning at 05.00 am to practice meditation individually.
Offer rice to the monks at 06.30, have breakfast yourself at 07.00.
The group comes together at 08.00 for the first group meditation, started with a walking meditation through the beautiful garden, followed by sitting meditation.
At 10.30, food is offered to the monks, afterwards the rest of the community is eating.
The next group meditation starts at 01.00 pm with a walking meditation through the amazing nearby forest, again followed by sitting – or lying down – meditation.
At 04.00 pm everybody does their part in cleaning the monastery.
Evening chanting and sitting meditation is scheduled for 06:00 pm. The chanting is a very beautiful way of uniting with the group and the whole atmosphere…
At 08.00 pm individual meditation is practiced in the kutis again, and at 10.00 it’s time to sleep.
Each meditation took around 1,5-2 hours. Sitting in one position that long can be very hard for beginners, but the monastery keeps a very openminded and accepting attitude towards everyone, so changing positions is even appreciated to avoid serious pain. However the goal is to overcome this all-encompassing speaking of the body, of the mind, to quiet it by time. After every meditation, and in general whenever needed, the monks were always approachable for any questions. They emphasized that, for the while of our stay, this place and these people are our family, our home, and its whole purpose is to help us.
But what do you actually “do” in meditation? As said before, in this temple the practice is Vipassana meditation, which means insight or deeper understanding. It describes a way of self-transformation through self-observation, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
While it is almost impossible at first to obtain a meditative state for longer than a couple of seconds or a minute, I made amazing progress even in this short period of time. Living in this setting and be completely with myself left so much room to look at my emotions and feelings, so much space to discover what I might have ignored and pushed away – time that you simply don’t give yourself in “normal everyday life”.
An amazing way to further intensify this experience was by being silent. It was up to everybody’s own decision, you could attach a little sticker to your shirt saying “Silent and happy”. Not speaking for even just 24 hours… switched my level of awareness, perception, observation to a whole different level. Showed me that we say so many things during a day, uncontrolled, without real meaning, impulsively, that we should think about before.
But in the end – what was the main thing that I learned,
What did I take from this stay?
One of the monks put the answer to the question, how to quiet the mind, to control the thoughts, to observe the feelings in a very metaphoric and, for me, immensely helpful way. While practicing, you will notice your thoughts to repeatedly drift away. Sometimes it can even take minutes before you get aware of it. But instead of being like “oh damn I did it again” and try to push it away… think of the thought as a house. As long as you are inside the house, you don’t notice it. Eventually you step outside and observe. Observe the thought, the feeling, observe why it came to your mind. And eventually you will be able to let it go. It is your thought, but it is not you.
Maybe that doesn’t make any sense to you, for me it really was of great help, since it is so easy to apply in everyday life – I know that many emotions I have might not be reasonable, but still feeling them can have quite a big impact on your behavior, right? So… When you notice yourself being overwhelmed, take a step back. Simply observe the feeling. Where it comes from, and where it is leading you. Step outside the house for a moment and see what that does to you, and if there isn’t another, more compassionate way to deal with the situation.
It is a lot to learn, and the period of time I spent in the monastery was definitely way too short to fully implement this attitude. It is hard work to keep in mind what you learned, to stay mindful. I have a lot to think about and develop, until I return. Situations, in which I lost this mindfulness completely as well as situations where I successfully applied it. And I believe this can be nothing but the right way.
I hope this could give you a little deeper insight into this whole experience, the life in a temple, into meditation and what it can mean to you personally if you’re just open enough and accept it. It is for sure not always easy – to the contrary, you might be confronted with subjects you never wanted to think about again. But it is all part of your journey.
Have you ever stayed in a monastery or temple – or would you try?