I am currently in Chiang Mai, a city nestled by the northern mountains of Thailand. I’m writing from a small history library at the old part of town. Three months have passed since I first came to this country. During this time, I have stayed in monasteries and farms, meditation centers and guesthouses. Finally, I am glad that I can sit down, with an apartment mine for the month, and put my experiences into words.
So much has happened in Thailand since last year, including the passing of a very important person. In fact, from my seat I can see a dozen Thai middle-aged women, wearing black, adjusting their dresses and brushing their hair as they prepare to pose for a photograph. Technology allows people’s feelings to transcend space and time. This is their way to immortalize their grief because of the passing of Thailand’s king.
On my end for these months, technology seemed like such a far away concept. Computer, cellphone, and the internet were foreign to me for almost two months. Neither had I access to books or paper to write. After all, I had come to Thailand searching for the depth of its meditation practice tradition. I didn’t realize at the time the feeling of absence this would cause in my life.
Forest Monastery in Northern Province
After Thailand’s Loi Krathong and Yi Ping festival, I found myself at forest monastery of a northern province of the country, practicing meditation with Thai monks and foreigners from several countries.
We woke up for meditation early in the morning, fed the fish and the carp in the afternoon, and swept the leaves of the garden at twilight. Interspersed through the day, we practiced meditation, of course. Some people chatted during lunch, away from the monks. I preferred to go on long walks barefoot in the woods. The place was beautiful beyond words.
The abbot monk of this monastery, I heard, had spent seven years in silence in his youth. He had practiced vipassana at a nearby cave, and was fed and taken care of because of the generosity of the villagers and women. Now, he always carried a smile on his face. It is easy to guess why.
Besides a few rules concerning the interactions between men and women at the temple, he wasn’t strict at all, and wouldn’t mind that I wrote. Even so, those fourteen days were the beginning of my hiatus from words.
Meditation Center near Famous temple
After practicing at this forest monastery for fourteen days, I journeyed to a different meditation center, connected to a famous temple that was on the top of a mountain. I read about it in a guidebook and heard it was strict, but good.
The temple’s complex and stupa were stunning. Visitors stared at the golden chedi in awe, hands clasped in front of their hearts, posing reverently for a photograph. Paid photographers showcased portraits they hadn’t been able to able to sell. Despite the beauty of the main temple and stupa, the conditions of the meditation center gave me goosebumps.
One morning, incapable of standing the dust any longer, I decided to sweep through the walls of the hall on my own. Spiders of different sizes jumped around in astonishment: for years we built our home here, and this guy comes from Brazil to ruin our meditative experience! After some time of sweeping, I decided to take a break.. Letting go of the broom and grateful to catch my breath once again, I noticed red dots in my arms. That moment I thought: Maybe the monks and the staff here want these beings too to experience Nibbana, but away I go from this dust, and good-bye I say to the men’s dorm bedbugs!
Downcast but grateful for the freedom from dust, I hopped onto a van heading towards the forest monastery once again. Next to me sat a Brazilian woman who looked Japanese, and who had also lived abroad. Coincidences sometimes can be a balm for the heart. We spoke English and felt comfortable. Her name was like mine but longer. She recommended me a meditation place she heard was really good. In a few days, I was practicing mindfulness meditation in the town of Chom Tong.
The meditation hall was pristine, and I had a decent place to sleep. In the mornings, I was assigned to meet with a meditation teacher, who was Lebanese. He spoke about the difference between mindfulness and concentration, and helped me realize that many practitioners, myself included, I soon realized, often search for the calmness that arises from a concentrated mind. “But ill-will, worries, greed and anger still harbor deep in their hearts. Just watch them when they return to their daily lives. Here, we are to cut these gradually from the mind. That’s why mindfulness is important, as the Buddha talked. So be aware that you do not become attached to that ‘peace’ that is conditioned, only a fleeting state of mind. As all things, it comes, stays for a while, and goes. Just practice, my friend, mindfulness meditation, and the right concentration that the Buddha talked about will come to you anyway. Keep on acknowledging everything that is happening at the moment: breathing, noise, body, sight, feelings, whatever runs through body and mind. Here, that’s your only job.” I spent almost a month there.
When I wasn’t formally practicing meditation, I enjoyed going on walks and sitting by a bench next to a temple and watch a pack of dogs. They were of mixed breeds and colors. One was black, and the majority were shades of brown and orange. It saddened me to see the lighter-colored ones teasing with bites and their paws the only black dog.
Sometimes in my free time, I went to the market and overheard Thai people talking. I am so grateful for the liberty of this meditation center, that allowed me to go on these walks: the boundaries of when the meditation began and when it ended were undefined, and therefore, broad.
I left the town of Chom Tong confident that something profound had changed. Yet, I felt unsettled in some respects as well. For over a month and a half, I had little access to words, and hadn’t spoken to anyone I loved in a long time. Would still remember even how to write?
In a Mindfulness-based Farm
Soon I went to permaculture farm in the northeast of Thailand. I hadn’t worked in any physical way for a long time given all those meditation retreats. I think I even missed my own sweat, and body was getting stiff.
At this farm, I worked with my feet and hands in the soil, digging for new a garden and plants, also helping making bricks for a new natural home we were building. We discussed permaculture design and natural building, and my eyes were opened up to what it really means to embody sustainable living.
In the morning there was yoga; at night, authentic conversations that inspired us all. There I began to reconnect my life to words and to the deep impact they can have in people’s lives.
Ten days quickly passed, and I made wonderful friends at the farm. Even though my time there was amazing, I still needed a personal space, and, perhaps, a quiet place where to write. That’s when I took a bus and headed towards Chiang Mai.
In Chiang Mai
Early this month, I rented an apartment and began to learn Thai. I am not sure how far I want to go with the language, but I am enjoying the new sounds I can pronounce.
Here I am, again, in between Thai classes, sitting at this small history library and with the freedom to, once again, write. After all these experiences, I now really wonder how to integrate the contemplative experiences I’ve had with the deep power that words also have. Maybe I’ll take that each word and each breath at a time. I’d better do that.
Much have I experienced so far in this country, more than I have been able to encapsulate even in my mind. I think you can imagine simply because of time. There were bike rides through rice fields, great talks with monks, and wonderful chats with expats and tourists, besides all the meditative practices as well. But all in all, every experience ultimately made me realize this: that Thailand, Chiang Mai and I are all caught right in between Western standards of progress, and Eastern practices of contentment that comes from the contemplative mind. There is this sense of divide. Where will we go? What will we do? How will we manage integrating these polarities right now in this world? To be honest, it is hard to know. At least we knows both sides, and can choose our own way, picking perhaps the best from both worlds, even when these worlds feel like worlds apart.