As I sit down to write this the sun
has just begun to set here in Chiang Mai.
Birds are chirping outside the windows
of this old teak house and the fan is
blowing full blast into my face. City noises
keep me company, the roar of a passing
motorbike, the honking of horns, chatter
from the restaurant downstairs, and
dogs barking in the distance.
I am beginning my ten day viapassana meditation retreat at Doi Suthep tomorrow afternoon. As I prepare myself mentally and physically for this my mind wanders back over these past few weeks in Thailand. During my short time here (that feels closer to a month) I have learned more than I possibly thought I could in two weeks. As soon as I stepped off the plane and into the airport, I realized Thailand has changed a lot since the last time I was here and even more so since my first visit as a nine year old fresh off the plane from America. No longer do the Thai women of Bangkok run up to me and yank on my brown hair, you don’t see nearly as many tuk-tuks zipping through the streets (unless you happen to find yourself in the Khao San district) and the sky train now hovers over everything. Some things have stayed the same though. Street vendors yelling out in garbled Thai trying to get each and every passerby to come buy their curries and noodles, the smiles of the Thai people even amidst the natural disaster that has flooded their country, and the infallible helpfulness of the people.
I think that in terms of what I have learned I can accurately start off with my notice of how I, myself, have grown and changed since I have been here. My patience is seemingly boundless, I have discovered, as we have found ourselves on the streets of Ranong at 4 am trying to find a hotel with no person in sight and in the midst of a tropical downpour that almost caused us to miss our ferry to the mainland from Koh Phayam. The books that I am reading (dealing strictly with Buddhism and mindfulness) have also taught me much. Walking meditation exercises have opened my eyes to fact that most people on this earth walk too fast, always having a place that they need to be (and by a certain time) and never taking the time to just…walk. To experience the earth around you, to feel each footstep as it falls upon the ground, and to feel each breath you take. Mindfulness meditations on dealing with anger, sadness, and fear have helped me get through some unfortunate incidents here: leaving my iPod on the bus to Ranong, spilling water all over my computer and frying it, being forced to take an expensive flight to Chiang Mai because buses and trains were not operating due to extensive flooding in the region.
Thich Nhat Hanh has taught me to open my eyes. To view the world around me in a different light. To look deeply within myself when something didn’t go as planned and to determine what I can do about it and how I can look at it so as not to cause myself and others suffering. To listen to the sounds around me, particularly bells, and use those sounds as a trigger to bring my mind back to my body, to breathe, and start fresh.
I have learned that I am not as poor of a portrait taker as I had previously assumed. I’ve discovered that I LOVE going up to people on the street who are selling their wares, or simply sitting and enjoying their surroundings, and trying to converse with them. To share a smile with them. To see them as equals and to ask if I can capture their faces in a photo so that I might always share their joy. While it is hard to break out of my slightly introverted personality, I’ve discovered that it is so worth it.
I’ve also rediscovered that I really cannot make myself sit down and just WRITE. I MUST have a thought, a sentence, a quote, a word, or an image to lead me to the page. This has been difficult since I have found myself trying to force out words for the sake of this contract.
I have also found that it is very difficult traveling with someone whom you don’t know very well and who you haven’t traveled with before. I’ve learned that Kyle and I’s traveling styles are very different: he hates big cities, I love them; he doesn’t like to do the ‘tourist thing,’ and I like to talk to other tourists and get their thoughts and opinions about their own travels; he is always driven by the need to get a story, whereas I find myself taking my time, allowing to come what will come and trying to be present in all that I do. While all of these examples could be construed as purely negative, they are giving me the opportunity to a) be patient with myself and with him and b) to appreciate that there are different ways in approaching everything.
The people I’ve spoken to about my mediation retreat caution me. They worry that ten days is too much to dive into without prior experience, that my body won’t be able to handle it, and that it will completely drain me. (No, Mom, not all of this is from you, don’t worry!) I acknowledge these worries. I, too, worry about them, but rather than focusing on these worries, I feel myself gliding over them, acknowledging that yes, this will be a challenge, but it will be a positive one. I am looking forward to this experience, even, as my mother told me this morning, if it just ends up showing me what doesn’t work for me! I see a change in how I am approaching this retreat. Normally I would be the one going over and over and over the worries in my mind. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night because of my mind constantly jumping from one thought to the next. I would probably cry over my fear of it, and I most certainly would complain about how difficult it will be. The fact that I see how I would have previously behaved tells me much. It shows me that these mindfulness exercises from Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron are awakening within me the ability to look at the big picture, to stay in the present, and most importantly, to just breathe.
I can only look forward to what this retreat will have in store for me, knowing that no matter how it goes, I will learn about myself and the practice.