December 31-January 27, A Month in a Monastery

In the days between Christmas and New Year, my mind went into a state of mild, and then progressively less mild confusion. I had had a plan. Ever since I left Bangkok, I had had a plan. And now I was thinking about changing it. My mental diary had me racing south for the new year to Suan Mokkh monastery, spending ten days in silent meditation and then doing an anti-clockwise loop through Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in time to bring me back to Bangkok for the middle of March. If I was lucky I would get a few days for a trek in northern Thailand on the way.
     But now I was formulating another plan. Clair and Glen - an Irish/Canadian couple I had met in my hostel in Chiang Mai told me about Wat Ram Poeng. Just a few kilometers down the road from the hostel, rather than the two-day journey to Wat Suan Mokkh, was a monastery where the monks ran a twenty-six day Vipassana course. This was sixteen days longer than the Suan Mokkh course, but they highly recommended it.
     But what to do about those extra sixteen days? I debated, I hummed and I hawwed. My Vietnam visa had a fixed period of validity. I agonised over my planned itinerary trying to see how I could get out of the monastery in time to get into Cambodia in time to see Angkor in time to get to Vietnam in time to try to get my visa extended but to still be in time to enjoy as much of Vietnam as I could in case the visa couldn't be extended and yet not feel like I was rushing it! Heaven help anyone who had to listen to all this mental acrobatics, because it wasn't getting me anywhere. Clair gave me one piece of advice: 'Let go'. So I did. I dropped all plans except the monastery. I figured Vietnam and its visa and all its enjoyable places would work themselves out, whenever the time came. I packed up my bags, waved bye-bye to my beloved Eagle House Hostel and checked into Wat Ram Poeng.

Welcome to Wat Ram Poeng. We do hope you enjoy your stay. Breakfast is at six thirty, it's just some rice and vegetables. We'll be ringing a wakeup bell at four, so you should have plenty of time. Buffet lunch is at ten thirty, some more rice, a little meat and tofu and anything else we have had donated on the day. We would appreciate if you would eat in silence and finish eating by noon.
     Here's a list of your daily activities. We expect six hours of slow steady mindful walking. Please be sure to note every movement of your feet: lifting, moving, lowering, touching, pressing. Also six hours of motionless sitting, being mindful of the rising and falling of your breath. All the time of course acknowledging every thought, sensation, feeling or doubt that enters your mind. If you have any questions, the Abbot is available each evening for consultation.
     Please remember that this is our home, so we ask you please to refrain from alcohol, parties, sleeping during the day, eating in the afternoon or before sunrise, wearing anything which is not white, leaving the grounds, reading, writing or unnecessary conversation.
     Sister Anita will show you to your room...

Sometimes it's better not to know what lies ahead. Road trips along the Burmese border in the absence of bitumen, seat belts or any concept of arrival time had taught me that, and it was in this state of blinkered acceptance that I filled in the forms and followed Sister Anita to my room.

So what was I doing spending a month in a monastery? Well, lots of walking and lots of sitting, and in between some eating and some sleeping. Once a day I reported to the Abbot on how things were going. At least once a day I delighted at the simplicity of my new lifestyle and at least a dozen times a day I asked myself 'What am I doing spending a month in a monastery?'
     Doubts. Yes, Doubts. There were many doubts. There were many other thoughts too: worries that I was not putting enough into the experience, or getting enough out of it; that lazy tiredness that you get when you'ld really rather be doing something else; spurious short-lived cravings for a good loaf of bread, a cool pint of beer or a creamy bar of chocolate. Not unusual thoughts by any means. In fact the same thoughts that had been going through my head for as long as I've been thinking. But now, for a month, I was being asked to devote all my waking hours to noticing them. Just noticing them. Acknowledging them, as the monks like to say. Acknowledging not just the sights and sounds of the monastery, but also the wishes, memories, desires, worries, doubts, itches, aches and pains. Everything. Watching them come and go in a detached and dispassionate manner and all the time returning my poor wandering mind to focus on what I was doing: walking, sitting, breathing.
     So, if that was all I was doing in the monastery, why was I doing it for a month? If it only takes a few days to learn the steps of Vipassana, why stay longer?
     I was sitting one evening in the queue outside the Abbot's quarters asking myself that very question. It was about my fifth or sixth day, the novelty was wearing thin and I was debating whether to stay any longer. One of the monks sitting opposite me, reading my mind as they have a habit of doing, asked me if I knew why I was there. I let him explain.
     'You have two brains', he said to me.
     This took me a little by surprise, but it did explain things like my mental acrobatics over Vietnam and how I could never seem to decide what to do next.
     'You have a left brain and a right brain', he continued, interrupting my wandering thoughts and clarifying things a little.
     'The left brain is the one which deals with the present, the things you are seeing, the things you are hearing, the things you are doing right now. The right brain deals with memories from the past, worries, plans and fantasies for the future. In short everything that is not hear right now.'
     Was this Buddhist philosphy for the Westerner, I wondered? Like Thai food for the farang: all the spice taken out and chips served on the side. It was certainly not the explanation I had expected.
     'What you are doing here', he finally explained, 'is exercising the left brain. It takes time, and a good exercise program, just like any other muscle.'
     Was that it? It made sense. All the continuous acknowledgment of the present moment, all the acknowledging of what action I was performing at the exact moment I was performing it. It was concentration on the present at the expense of the future. All the distractions I was dismissing were dreams and worries and fantasies, they were all past and future stuff, all right-brain stuff. Yes, it made sense. It explained why the long hours were necessary. It explained why so many days were necessary. Here I was exercising a muscle that I had never exercised before. His comments did strip away some of the more mystical spice that I had been expecting, but at least it cleared away my doubts for that day about continuing with the course.

I didn't have any questions for the Abbot on that evening, but there were plenty of evenings when I did. Plenty of evenings when the unacknowledged frustrations of the day would mount up and I would arrive at the door to his office full of demanding questions and doubts and determined to storm out if I was not satisfied with his answers. It never happened. To understand why, you have to realise that the door to the Abbot's office, though looking quite mundane in its aluminium glory, possessed positively medieval properties: like the imposing gateway to a vast fortress which transforms a brave galloping knight into a humble supplicant at his lords demesne.
     Rather than step across the threshold as I would do at any other doorway, I had rather to trip over it, falling as I entered on bended knee and then shuffle on both knees, first to an altar festooned with gilded Buddhas and then to the feet of the Abbot himself, slowly prostrating myself three times in each place.
     It seemed a ritual designed to placate a frustrated soul, because by the time I had gently touched my forehead six times to the carpet I was calmly composed and ready to discuss my state of mind.
     'Ah', he would greet me, 'And how is Paul today?'
     Or, on occasion, because he had taken a sneak preview at the next page in the cosmic script.
     'Ah, Today you are experiencing boredom. Is normal, is normal. Just continue'
     Whatever my complaints or grumbles, whatever my questions, all laboriously translated by his assistant, his answer was usually short. He would reassure me that I was experiencing 'suffering' - a natural state for all beings, or had noticed 'impermanence' - a wonderful concept which explains why your second chocolate muffin is never as good as your first, why sunny weather never lasts (conversely, why rainy weather always ends) and why progress in anything often takes a backward course. With the words 'Ah, impermanence', he was telling me two things: There was nothing I could do about the bad days because they were just going to happen anyway, and there was no point reminiscing about the good days because they were gone. Funnily enough, his few words, accompanied by all the ritual - which had to be performed in reverse on the way out - dissolved my frustrations rather than adding to them because, funnily enough, he was right.

I learned after a while that the Abbot's particular form of detached compassion, his expert professional indifference was a nice and simple way of saying 'You know what you have to do, now stop moaning at me 'cos I aint listening'. And all I had to do, all along, was acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge.
     At the beginning, in the first week, this was not so hard. As I was putting in about eight to ten hours per day, I still had plenty of sleep and plenty of time to potter about, and the distractions which I was facing while meditating were pretty well what I had expected: wanting to eat, wanting to talk, and wondering what everyone else was up to. Faces of family and friends popped into my mind as I wondered what they had been doing for the new year celebrations, where they had been, and of course what they'd been eating. Dishes of food popped into my mind and I always looked forward to the next day's breakfast. I was never hungry, just looking for a quick nibble to pass the time. A quick tea break, a quick toast break, a quick bag-of-chips-with-salt-and-vinegar-all-hot-and-steamy-and-wrapped-up-in-newspaper break. And I learned to my delight that if I just acknowledged these passing desires and returned my mind to my walking and breathing, they'd just pop away again.
     After all, this lifestyle was quite a contrast from the one I had been living in Chiang Mai up to then. Remember that I arrived in Chiang Mai for Christmas and had had a roaring time for the long holiday weekend with no shortage of distractions to give in to. As for the New Year, well my philosophy on that was that wherever I ended up would be the best place to be. I had listened too long to people fretting about the most wonderful and exciting place one could possibly be for the moment your digital watch rolled over from all nines to all zeros. Really it didn't turn me on so I had no worries about checking in to Wat Ram Poeng on New Years Eve. In the end, when they were bungy jumping off the bridge in Sydney harbour, I was kneeling in front of the Abbot taking my vows. When the fireworks went off in Chiang Mai, I was sitting under a tree listening to ringing bells, chanting monks and howling dogs. And when the party reached Dublin, I was squatting on the dining hall floor, having my breakfast.
     As the days moved into double figures and I became one of the 'senior boys' on campus, the hours got longer, up to twelve per day and I gained quite a proficiency at shooting down the shallow distractions. My acknowledging was becoming automatic. Even when I was not meditating I was becoming aware of the arising of little distractions. Just before a daydream would start, a little voice would whisper 'thinking about tomorrow', or 'wanting to eat', thus making me aware that my mind was wandering and giving me the choice of whether to follow the new thought or not. This was quite a powerful state of mind to be in. Unnerving though it was to hear this little voice, I knew full well that it was my own and was thankful for the interference. It was clear that the exercise program I was undertaking was definitely strengthening the 'muscles of my left brain'.
     Clearing the board of the shallow distractions left room for deeper ones to creep in. More and more I was facing doubts. 'Am I going to fast? Too slow? Should something have happened by now?' I continued to acknowledge them as best I could. Some days I got the better of them, some days they just piled up and left me frustrated at the Abbot's door waiting for a professional mind-cleaning service to gently blow them away.
     With the long hours came early mornings. The four-am bell became my alarm clock and I was on my feet, washed and dressed to face the day by four-thirty. It was wintertime, it was cold. To keep warm I took advantage of one of the senior boy's privileges - an hour's mindful work in place of an hour's mindful walking. The monastery's crazy paved yards were dotted with shedding trees. Indeed shedding branches occasionally dropped to Earth as nature mischievously tested our concentration. Sweeping these leaves was an endless task and quite well suited to mindful practice. It was quite easy to proscribe a simple dance step - sweep, sweep, backstep - which would clear a large area in sixty minutes and leave the sweeper with the satisfaction of a clean mind and a clean yard. The added reassurance that there was no place left for concealed dog-droppings was enough to lighten the heart of any barefooted meditator
     So popular was the sweeping amongst the long term meditators, that I had to wonder if the whole purpose of this mind training program was to breed obedient road sweepers. This was one concern I decided not to raise with the Abbot. I mean, what if I was right? Better not to disturb the cuckoo's nest! So I only shared this with Joe, my neighbour in the men's cellblock and another ardent sweeper. We would nod knowingly when we met broom-in-hand at four-thirty on a crisp cold morning. Yes, we were sweeping, but we knew we were sweeping. As usual, humour kept me sane.

By the time day sixteen hit I was well and truly bored. That is to say I was experiencing the distraction we call boredom and not bothering to acknowledge it. For me, boredom was real. It was like the floor I walked on. I had no reason to think that it would go away unless I replaced it with something else. I decided to leave. I decided sixteen days was enough. I praised myself for getting this far, patted myself on the back and went to the Abbot to ask to be excused. He was having none of it.
     'Ah, you experience boredom. Acknowledge, acknowledge, continue...', he smiled down at me.
     'But you don't understand', I replied pathetically, 'I am bored'.
     'Ah yes, you experience boredom. Is normal, continue...'.
     For another day I paced the floor tiles, muttering 'bored, bored, bored'. I mean I was bored. The only way I could think of to solve my predicament was to go and do something else. My mental diary clicked into gear and I figured out that I could still race to Cambodia in time to see Angkor and if I skipped Phnom Penh I would certainly have the time I wanted in Vietnam to see the right places before applied to get my visa renewed etc. etc. etc. That was it. I had had enough and it was time to move on. I could just walk out of course. There was nothing stopping me. But to just walk out would have been rude. The Abbot had politely asked us that if we wanted to leave we should go through a special closing ceremony where we would be relieved of the vows which ruled our eating and sleeping in the monastery. I didn't want to insult the man, so I spent day seventeen mindfully cleaning my room in preparation for my departure and went to the Abbot again to ask him to arrange the closing ceremony. He was having none of it. Like clockwork he again told me that I was 'Ah, experiencing boredom' and that I should 'Ah, continue'. It seemed a ritual designed to frustrate a placated mind and I was furious. To assuage my doubts that he was indeed running a funny-farm for road-sweepers I went to the gates of the monastery and tentatively stepped out on to the road. No alarm bells rang. No guard dogs came howling after me. Nobody noticed at all. Now that was strange. If he had no interest in my staying, after all there wasn't even a charge for the course, it was all by voluntary donation. And he had nothing more helpful to say than 'Ah, you experience boredom', then he must be right.
     On my eighteenth day I paced the now spotless floor tiles muttering 'experiencing boredom, experiencing boredom, boredom, boredom...' and the subtle difference between being bored and just having this outside thing called boredom pass through my mind did the trick. The boredom became something apart from me and the cloud lifted. I got interested again in what I was doing. I marveled again at the movement of my toes as I lifted and lowered my feet. I heard the familiar acknowledgments flooding through, and I was back. There was nothing shifting me now, I was back. I went to tell the abbot that evening that I had decided to stay after-all. 'Ah, is good, you continue, fifteen hours tomorrow, yes continue'. I was back, but it wasn't going to be easy.

Despite these even longer hours, I was on the home stretch. I was sleeping less, eating more and preparing myself for the final push. Preparing myself for the 'determination phase', the final three sleepless days of continuous, uninterrupted mindfulness. I'd heard about determination. People would mutter about it in hushed tones, telling wide-eyed stories of hallucinations and visions of past lives. People, that is, who had never done it. Those who had passed through this process tended to speak much less of their experiences. Their silent reassurance was enough to indicate that it was tough, but worth going through. What revelations it delivers or does not deliver are best kept to oneself. I am reminded of a shaggy-dog story about a man who joins a monastery and lives the life of a monk for twelve years just to find out what is behind a mysterious red door. The man tells of his life in great detail, dragging out the story so much that our curiosity about the red door is greatly aroused. The punchline of course reveals nothing. The joker won't tell us what is behind the door. Oh no, we have to join the monastery and spend twelve years finding out for ourselves.
     The determination phase was just like that red door. I knew that nobody else could tell me what was behind it, it is very much a personal experience. And you know that I won't tell you what was behind it, for exactly the same reason.
     I did the determination. I did the seventy-two hours of sleepless meditation. I fell over a few times, I nodded off a few times, but all-in-all I did it. Despite all the doubt-devils who plagued me all along, despite all the promises to leave, I stayed, and I did it. But what was it all about? After all that work what was I taking away with me?
     The last word on this has to go to Sister Maggie, a German nun who explained the effects of Vipassana to me, again in western terminology.
     'It's like you've been driving am automatic car for years', she explained, 'and then you spend some time in school learning to drive a manual transmission. There is really no need to learn this, since you can always drive your automatic, but you are interested enough so you do it anyway. And then when you go back to driving your automatic, you find that you see it in a whole different way. You don't just take it for granted any more, you know how it works, you know what it is going to do next. You can anticipate the gear-change before it actually happens. After spending so long in here, you will find it is the same with your mind'.
     And she was right. As I hiked away from the monastery on day twenty-seven, heading for the Burmese border to get my visa renewed, my automatic acknowledgement was still running. Bombarded though I was with sensations I had not known in a month - music, advertising, hagglers - they all washed over me and I remained calm and undistracted by my surroundings. I was seeing, hearing, smelling, but none of these primary sensations was triggering the uncontrolled attachment which would have led me into distraction and craving. The advertisers had wasted their money, the hagglers had wasted their time. Calm, but totally aware, I shifted my newly serviced mind into automatic and continued on my journey.