I’m not sure where to begin. I’m sitting in an air-conditioned room in Chiang Mai right now, under a light blanket, with a bag of snacks at my feet, and my abandoned drawing pad and pencils to the right. I have all the time in the world. And it could freak me out if I let it.
I came face to face with my general unease about life while I was in the monastery. Actually, my denial slammed forehead-first into a brick wall the morning I finally left. Let me back up. For the last year or two, all I have wanted to do was leave Seattle. Save a bunch of money, finish school, finish work, LEAVE. Vacation. Finally. I have been looking forward to this time away for a long, long time. The desire to leave got stronger with each passing day. Just as soon as I get on that plane, I would think, I will totally relax. I just knew I would. I would sink into the seat, put my headphones on, and all of my worries would melt away. Gone. So I finally made it on that plane, stricken with tears and a swollen heart at having said goodbye to Drew, and feeling slightly shell-shocked. I wasn’t happy. Now I just wanted to get to Bangkok. As soon as I land and get through customs, I thought, it will be all good. That hot air will hit my face, and I’ll know I’ve arrived. No such luck. As soon as that hot air hit my face, I was looking for a taxi. Because as soon as I got to Khao San road, I could put down my bag, take a shower, and get a massage. But once I did those things, I just wanted to hurry up and get down south. Getting to the beach, I thought, will do it. I’ll be perfect once I get on the beach. White sand, time to write, waves lapping the shore. Perfect. But… surprise! Once I got to the beach, all I wanted to do was get up north. Because the monastery was up north, of course, and once I was in there, I would get all the answers. Easy. I just had to get into the monastery. It didn’t occur to me yet that this was a cycle.
When I finally got to the monastery, I was uneasy. Spending twelve hours a day really looking at yourself and your experience is not an easy thing to do. It may sound easy- just meditate!- but it’s not always. Sometimes you do have divine experiences. Sometimes it just sucks. I remember saying to Brigitte when we were down on the beach, “Just as soon as I get into the monastery, I know I’m going to sink down into that first sitting meditation and feel so good. All that stress and worry is going to slide away.” WRONG. Once I slipped down into that first sitting meditation, I kept picturing the timer around my neck. When is it gonna go off? I kept thinking. How long do you think it’s been? Ten minutes? What does ten minutes feel like? No, I bet it’s been closer to fifteen. As the days went on, and the hours I was assigned to meditate grew longer, the angst grew stronger. I started out meditating in twenty minute increments, first walking, then sitting, and practicing six hours a day. This steadily increased until I was meditating in hour-long increments, twelve hours a day.
I remember one of the worst meditations ever. I was walking at night. It was dark out, and I was walking slowly, slowly, slowly back and forth at the rear of the chanting hall. There was a little bit of light there, so I wasn’t teetering too badly. It was difficult walking though, and I was tired. I just wanted to get back to my room and lie down. But I had only just begun, so I knew I had nearly an hour left. Heel up… lifting… moving… lowering… touching… placing… Six-step walking takes a long time. And my obsessive thinking was making it worse. The best way to describe it is something like this: my mind would keep shooting to the timer around my neck, the black plastic timer that hung from the yellow cord. I imagined it ticking down… was it at fifty minutes yet? Forty five? How long did I have? Walking, walking, walking. Shoot back to the timer: how much time had passed? Wait, I hadn’t even taken a full other step yet…. Lowering… touching… placing… Shoot back to the timer… How long now? It was during that meditation that I saw what was happening very clearly. I imagined this little man inside of me. He was at the bottom of a deep well. Carved on the walls of that well were the scriptures of Buddhism. All life is suffering. To escape suffering, one must recognize the truth of non-self. Everything is impermanent. This little man had only to read the scriptures on the walls and he would be set free. He could dig his little hands into the carvings, and crawl out. At the top of the well, spread out in all directions, were the greenest, most lush fields you could imagine. Colorful gardens filled with perfumed flowers reached for the blue sky, and the whole thing was hemmed in on every side by kind, gentle mountains. People tilled the fields and smiled at one another, slanting Asian hats on their heads. Over these fields, you could fly. You could even fly over the mountains, to the endless, gorgeous lands beyond. Just above this well was liberation. Enlightenment.
And yet the little man kept banging his head as I watched. Every time I would think about the timer, he would furiously beat his head against the stone walls. His forehead was ravaged, bleeding. He was blindly banging away, with no idea that there was a world above him, Paradise. He didn’t even know he was hurting himself. His pain corresponded to a physical pain in my torso every time I would think about the timer. A pang would go through my chest and stomach. And I would watch the little man beat his head ruthlessly again, his scraped and bloodied hands holding him up against the wall as he did so. It was pretty brutal. This went on for awhile. Just because you see a negative pattern, it doesn’t mean that you instantly know how to change it. I watched him beating the hell out of his head for the better part of an hour, and my stomach hurt worse and worse.
Finally, a voice started whispering to him (Mine? I’m not sure). It said, “Honey, you can stop banging your head. Shhhhh…. Be quiet now. Just listen. Just breathe.” He looked up, disconcerted. Had he heard something? His hair was disheveled and hanging in his eyes, matted with blood. I thought of the timer, and watched him go straight back to the wall, pressing his hands against it for support and beginning to bang again. He had found a particularly sharp piece of stone sticking out, and he was enjoying slamming it into the gaping wound on his forehead. Bam, bam, bam! He slammed. Bam, bam, bam! Then he stumbled back, dazed. “Shhhh….” the voice said again. “Can you listen for a moment? Just listen.” I almost thought about the timer and then checked myself. I watched him stumble up from where he had fallen to the ground and make his way to the wall. He weakly beat his head against it a few times, then looked up. It really seemed like he may have heard something. The voice continued. “Honey, you don’t have to beat your head. There’s another way. Just listen.” His ear was cocked to the side now, and he had a curious expression on his bruised and bloody face. He seemed to be listening to a very distant sound, or voice. But where was it coming from? My mind slipped to the timer and he returned to the wall and beat his head furiously, over and over, holding on and crying, frustrated sobs that slipped out as he beat it. Then he stumbled backwards again, his head in his hands, heaving.
This went on for a long time. This went on for an hour. Actually, this had been going on all along, and continues to go on to a much weaker and less violent degree now, but this particular bit of time where I watched the little man beat the shit out of his head went on for a solid hour. My stomach hurt and his head was unbelievably smashed. I couldn’t believe he was still alive. At some point that voice coaxed him (and me) to slow down. All he had to do was sit down and breathe while I walked. All I had to do was walk slowly while he sat. Shhhh…. Fairly regularly though, I would think about the timer, and he would jump up and beat the hell out of his head again. Sometimes he would smash his shoulder against the wall for good measure, and I would hear bones crunching, or he would bang the back of his skull against the stones for something different. He was bleeding everywhere. He really enjoyed that sharp piece of stone quite a bit. He liked to return to that and slam his wound into it so it went as deep as possible, ripping new flesh, inviting more blood.
I knew I was producing this gory visualization to show myself the futility of worrying about time, about constantly trying to be somewhere I was not. The bloodier it got, the better. I almost relished watching him crack a new line in his skull, seeing the fresh red blood pour out, following him as he stumbled backwards and fell. His trauma was always matched by a corresponding pain in my chest and stomach, a sharp, clenching feeling that I had trouble breathing around. The worse it got, the more deeply I understood the mess I was in. All I had to do was let go. Stop worrying about the time. It would pass. One day, this meditation would end. One day, I would get on a plane. One day, I would get to the beach. One day, I would make it to Chiang Mai. One day, I would get to the monastery. One day, I would finally be meditating! Oops! Here I was! And I was desperately trying to be somewhere else. And it was killing me, and it was killing the little man inside of me.
Later, when it seemed like I had been pacing back and forth for a very long time, I got into a dialogue with the little man. “Hey dude,” I said. “I’ll help you if you help me. We’ve gotta stop doing this. We’re both getting hurt.” I knew that I was him and he was me, but I don’t think he knew it. And there on the bricks where I walked ever so slowly… heel up… lifting… moving… lowering… touching… placing… He came out of my head and took my hand. We walked together, very slowly. It was a challenge for us both. I kept wanting to think about the timer. When is this going to be over? When can I go back to my room? It took a strong effort to curb it. I felt like a life-long, pack-a-day smoker who is trying to resist that delicious Marlboro Red over there. There was even a lighter next to it. It was ready to go. That stupid, stupid timer around my neck. And then, Bam, Bam, Bam! As soon as the thought appeared, the little man was slamming his head again, and a sharp pain shot through my stomach. Ouch! Exhale. Then I would breathe again, lower my foot, touch the ground with my toe, lower my heel, and … invite the little man back out. We would hold hands again and walk on.
The little man became my symbol for what it is to always strive to be somewhere you are not. His presence was never as clear or as strong as it was on that night, thank god, but other images took his place. The next one was of a girl with a high fever, twisting violently in her red satin sheets. She was having a nightmare, and she was so thirsty, but she wouldn’t wake up. She would almost wake up… she would be lucid for a moment, her eyes opening, and then she would slip back into twisted dreams again, before the helper by the bed could get any water into her mouth. The helper of course, was NOW, was the present moment. Just be here now. Stop trying to beat your head against the wall, or lose yourself in feverish dreams, just… wake up! That’s the business of Buddhism- helping us to wake up. Wake up from this dream world, this world of illusions and hallucinations, and realize that you are free! And yet waking up means being present, and though a lucky few of us are able to be present quite naturally, many of us are trapped in repetitive thought cycles that exist in the past and the future. We are banging our heads. We are twisting in the sheets.
Meditation makes all of this very clear. It puts your nose in the water, and makes you look very closely at the reflection. That’s why it can be incredibly uncomfortable. You are faced with inarguable truths. One day I’m going to be old and wrinkled. One day I’m going to die. One day YOU are going to die. One day, no one will ever remember who I was. I’m not really me, I’m just a body and a mind. Everything will always suck this bad if I keep avoiding it. This is just the beginning, difficult part of Buddhism to grasp 😉 It gets better. I remember a book I read fall quarter. It was talking about an insight meditation center in Burma. They had monks and nuns on hand specifically to run after the people who freaked out at this point in their meditations and left. The jobs of the monks and nuns was to follow the people into the city and gently coax them to come back. The practitioners had hit one of the hardest experiences that comes with insight meditation, and if they could get through it, it got a whole lot better. The pain gives way to realizations. The realization is one that I have been reading about for years, and nodding enthusiastically over. Be here now! It’s very simple. Be present. Be mindful. Life only happens in the present moment. It sounds great on paper, but trying to put it into practice is SO HARD. A life-long smoker doesn’t just quit overnight, even if he sees the goriest picture possible of what his habit is doing to his lungs. It takes practice. What I saw was that the writing is on the walls, and you can either bang your head against them, or you can use them to climb out.
I continued banging my head, though not so violently. I kept telling myself, As soon as I get through Determination, it will be ALL GOOD. Determination lasts for your final three nights and days. You stay in your room (a very, very small room), and you walk and you sit, in hour long increments each, for 72 hours straight. It can be exhilarating, it can be brutal, it can be… boring. One kid I talked to on the last day summed up his Determination like this; “On the first night, it was ecstasy. I felt like I had taken pills. I was so high. On the second night, I wanted to die. I didn’t think I could go on. Every step was like torture. On the third night I balanced out.” He said this as he sipped on his Thai iced tea, stabbing violently at the ice cubes with his straw. I felt so worn out at that point, I just nodded sympathetically. Because I had finally gotten through Determination, the one experience I was SURE would make me happy. Once I was done with Determination, shit, I could do ANYTHING. I would be flying. Life would be good. And you know what? I finished Determination, and about an hour later I started crying, because all I wanted to do was get out. I wanted to get into the city, because finally, in the city, I would be happy. I could get a massage, after all, and eat some good food, and check my email. But at that point, sitting on my bed, head in my hands, I knew it was all a façade. I saw the web I was trapped in. I had hit a wall, and my mind was still working overtime. It was still planning the future. I saw the futility of that thinking, and yet it went on. Tough.
I’ve been out in the city for a few days now. It feels… shit, there is really no one word or ten words to sum up how it feels. It changes moment to moment. What I am trying to do is be present. Up until about two hours ago, I still had the training wheels firmly on. Everything I did, I noted. Tasting, tasting, tasting. Walking, walking, walking. Seeing, seeing, seeing. I didn’t want to lose track of the present moment, I was so afraid. I felt like a weak little invalid, hobbling along on her walker. I cried on the first night. Then I meditated. Then I fell asleep. Breathing, breathing, breathing. Turning, turning, turning. Fear, fear, fear. I woke up noting. Opening, opening, opening eyes… seeing, seeing, seeing. Those constant words were a bridge to the present moment, my savior who kept me safe. I was afraid to let go.
A few hours ago, walking back from the vegetarian restaurant, I was being a diligent student again. Walking, walking, walking… Smelling, smelling, smelling… oh, the gorgeous smell of those orchids! Smiling, smiling, smiling… When I heard my kinder, wiser voice say from somewhere above, “You know honey, you don’t have to note everything. Maybe you could try taking a few steps on your own.” If she had a face I could see, she would have winked at me. I stubbornly refused, my mind immediately racing. Thinking, thinking, thinking… racing thoughts, racing thoughts, racing thoughts… Thanks a lot, Higher Self! But then, after darting out across the busy thoroughfare, and making it to Thae Pae Gate, I started walking. I looked at the sunset, at the pigeons scattering across the open pavilion. I breathed in the warm night air, and there was no voice marking every step. I was just present for a moment. I trusted myself. Moments later, as soon as my mind realized that the rider was coasting along just fine on the bike without her, she threw on the training wheels in a panic. Walking, walking, walking, she said in a tone that rebuked me for daring to walk without her. Seeing, seeing, seeing. I allowed the voice to carry me home, and arrived in my hotel room with a flourish. I put my bag down, turned around, switched on the lights, and walked to the bathroom. All without a single word in my mind. I just did it, and I was HERE while I did it. I was totally here. Not planning tomorrow. Not figuring out what I needed to do as soon as I came out of the loo. Just here.
Writing is easy. I get lost in writing, and I lose all track of time. I’m not planning what comes next, I am just focused, and I am doing. That’s one reason why I love writing. Since I started writing this, I haven’t had a single worry about what comes next. No little man is tearing up his forehead, and my sweet stomach has had a break. No worries. I have this sense that a million little cracks have opened up in my psyche, mind, and body. Warm, yellow light is beginning to pour through. Presence, in teeny, tiny increments, is beginning to dawn. And presence is joy 😉 I still get scared, all the time. Shit, I’m alone in a hotel room in Chiang Mai. I have all the time in the world. What in the hell am I going to do with it? Free time, nowhere to be, nothing to do… it turns out it’s kind of scary. But you know what? This experience is the best thing in the world for me. I am learning to become present, and that is an indescribable gift. My happiness is nowhere but now. It is not situational. Not at all. That was just a lovely, gauzy film that I held up in front of my eyes for so long. I can be happy or miserable anywhere at all. That thing that I always thought would instantly cure me and make me joyous?… brought me pain when I got there and I found I was still resisting it. Thailand, Determination, FREEDOM! They all meant nothing if my heart and soul weren’t there to enjoy them.
So… it is nine thirty three, and I am sitting all alone in this room. I could do a million things, or none. I walk by the bars and I see the people sitting in them, Thai girls in tight clothes, foreign men in loose shirts, and I remember what it was like to put on a cute outfit and go out. Instant cure-all. So much fun. But I have someone I love at home now, and so that distraction has lost all appeal. I could get another massage, but… I just had one. Or… I could practice being here now. Writing, writing, writing.
It occurred to me a number of times in the monastery that only two people in that whole place knew my name- Ajahn Suphan, the head monk, and Bhikunni, the angel faced nun who translated for him. “Ahhh… Sah-dah!” he would say with a twinkle in his eye when I would shuffle in on my knees, new tears in my eyes. “And how are you too-DAE?” His eyes would get big, and he would lean forward with a smile, peering at me over his glasses. Now that I’m out of the monastery, no one knows my name. No one in this whole city knows who I am. Well, that’s not true. I have one friend who kind of knows me. Alila. We’re having lunch together tomorrow, and she will tell me crazy stories about the various foreign men she leads on, men who buy her motorbikes and MacBooks, and pray they could sleep with her. But even Alila doesn’t know my name, I don’t think. She just knows my face, and feeds me mangos and bananas when I see her.
So it’s strange. Step by step, I keep telling myself. Be here now. Writing, writing, writing.
And the cracks appear and appear, growing bigger and letting in more light. I can’t see this happening. It’s invisible. It’s all on faith 😉
P.S. If you want to check out some of the pictures I took in the monastery, go here:
Thanks again, Regs, for the camera 😉