I’ve always thought that meditation would be a good idea for me. My mind is all over the place. I’m one of those people who can’t sleep at night because I can’t quiet my thoughts. I have read numerous books about meditation, and it always sounds good when I’m reading the book, but then I try a class and I freak out and leave beyond frustrated. I want to be Zen, I really do, but I am such an emotional person that it’s difficult for me to just chill out and be at peace with the world.
We were in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand in January, and we weren’t really doing much other than eating and loitering, so we decided to give this meditation thing a try. The retreat was only 24 hours, and I figured that maybe this time, when it was a 24 hour retreat instead of a one hour class here and there, that maybe it would finally work for me, maybe something would click.
Additionally, since we’ve been in Asia I have actually felt more Zen, and less like my usual American, anxiety-ridden self. It’s strange. I was so worried about this trip. How would I manage living out of a backpack? Not having a daily routine? Not having friends and family around? Moving every few days? Dealing with terrible transport and dirty hostels? Not having a real plan?? Well, as it turns out, the queen of planning, calendaring and lists (me), adores not having a plan. I am thriving in this environment. Yes, I do freak out every so often, but I am loving the freedom, and the adventure of this lifestyle. Every day I feel that I am learning new things about the world, and different cultures and ways of life. I have slept in unbearably dirty, bug-filled rooms, and I have bore it. I have ridden on buses with holes in the roof, while the juices of fish poured onto my clothes, and I have dealt with it all, and I have found it worthwhile…well, at least I have found it worthwhile when it ended…
So, with my new attitude, Bloom and I set off on our meditation retreat.
Their website had mentioned that the students should wear all white outfits. I thought this could mean white-ish, and wore khaki pants and a gray t-shirt. When I arrived at registration, everyone was wearing real white, and I felt pretty lame. There was a man selling white fisherman pants and awkward, large, white men’s t-shirts to the losers who didn’t wear all white. I asked him if I could just buy the pants, and wear my light gray t-shirt. “white would be better,” he said. “Right…it would be better…but is it needed?” I asked. I was already off to a not so Zen, more like a Talmudic, start. “It would be better,” he said again and smiled.
I didn’t appreciate this vague language. What does it mean “it would be better”? Do I need to buy that awkward t-shirt, or not? I’m Jewish, not Buddhist, I need some rules here! I decided to let my inner Buddhist win this one, and decided to go with the crowd and buy the whole outfit.
I put on the outfit. I looked like a white oompa-loompa. It was quite possibly the most unflattering outfit I have ever worn, and the all-white wasn’t really working with my pale, Eastern European skin tone. Everyone else had already been shopping at all the hip Thai markets and had proper flowing, white hippy shirts and pants, while I looked like a child attending her first karate class.
I turned to Bloom. He beamed at me. “What are you smiling about??” I demanded to know. “I just love it,” he said. “Are you out of your head??” I yelled at him, “This is actually the ugliest I have ever looked!” He continued smiling. “I need to get a picture,” he said. I groaned. For some reason Bloom thought this was an awesome outfit, probably since he loves dirty hippies and their attire.
At this point we had already heard a lecture on “An Introduction to Buddhism,” and were now preparing for our first meditation session. But before the session, our monk/teacher dropped two bombshells: 1. Men and women were not allowed to share rooms, and 2. This would be a silent retreat.
Ummm…WHAT?! Maybe, just maybe, meditation could potentially be my thing, but silence, silence is definitely not my thing. I looked at Bloom anxiously. He smiled again, maybe a bit triumphantly. “Finally some quiet,” he said, and laughed. “It’s not funny!” I whined. He laughed again, saying, “It’s not even a full 24 hours, come on, it’s not a big deal.”
Ah, but there was no time to be concerned about the silence, I had to deal with the bigger issue of finding a roommate. For a split second I felt like I was frantically looking for a place to eat in the cafeteria, but luckily it was only a split second, since I turned to my left and saw Ben and Ebony, a couple we had actually met weeks earlier in a restaurant in Bangkok. We all gave each other a look, asked “yeah?” and it was settled. Phew. I avoided the shame of being the kid without a roommate who has to go around asking “umm…do you have a roommate yet?” That is totally the worst, and since that didn’t happen, I was feeling that I was off to a good start, despite the outfit.
We had three formal meditation sessions during the retreat. One before dinner, one after dinner, and one at 5 am the following morning. Each of these sessions began with sitting on our knees, chanting, and bowing to the Buddha three times. Once for the Buddha, once for dharma (which, from what I understand is like Buddhist halacha), and once for the community (I don’t remember what word this was).
The monk began by explaining to all of us how to sit on our knees, how to prostrate ourselves at the appropriate moments in the chanting, and how to hold our hands together at our hearts in the praying position. Everyone sat on their knees. I hesitated. All of a sudden a vivid memory came to me. I was around five years old. I was at some holiday meal at my grandparents house in Skokie and I sat up on my knees, maybe to reach some food, maybe to see all the grown-ups and feel big, I’m not sure, but I remember my grandmother looking at me, appalled, and saying “Jews do not sit on their knees!!” I quickly got off my knees and sat properly again. “We don’t bow! That’s what the non-Jews do!”
I snapped back to attention and remembered that I was supposed to be sitting on my knees and chanting to the Buddha. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. I leaned my legs to the side, so I wasn’t really on my knees, and tried to give Bloom a look. He was busy chanting. I went back to the chanting. It sounded like the modeh ani I used to say in pre-school; that sort of tuneless chanting they teach small children in Orthodox schools. I thought in my head, “modeh ani lifanecha melech chai vkayam.” I don’t know why I did this. I just felt the need to think Jewish prayers in my head.
Then came the moment of full body bowing. I looked at Bloom wide-eyed, and shook my head. It’s one thing to sit on your knees, but it is quite another to bow down to the Buddha! That, I could not even pretend to do. As luck (karma?) would have it, Bloom and I had arrived a minute late to the session and had mats in the last row. Neither of us bowed, and I looked as everyone else prostrated their entire bodies to the floor three times.
Why was this so upsetting to me? Why did I care? A line from a song that I used to sing in pre-school kept running through my head, “Haman told everyone bow down to me…Esther became the new queen.” I doubt that is the actual line from the song, because it seems to be skipping some of the plot, like the whole Mordechai refusing to bow part, but anyway, those are the words I remember, and those are the words I kept thinking about.
What kind of a loser am I, thinking about Mordechai not bowing to Haman!? This is not a big deal. I don’t even know what I make of God, and now I’m so strict about not respectfully bowing to the Buddha? It’s weird. I have these entirely emotional, irrational moments when I just feel this strong connection to being Jewish. Rationally, I’m all over the place. I feel like I doubt my religious observance and lifestyle all the time. I read books, I question, I doubt, I get angry, but then I have these purely emotional moments of attachment and even defensiveness about my Jewishness. It is very strange for me.
The chanting part ended.
We were now moving on to walking meditation. Walking meditation consisted of us walking slower than ants. The goal was for us to think about every tiny movement of our bodies as we walked. We would lift our right foot and say “right,” then move it forward a tiny bit and say, “goes,” and then step it down and say “thus.” And then again with the left foot. We were not just saying “Right goes thus,” it was more like “riiiiiiiiiiiiiight. Gooooooooooooes. Thuuuuuuuuuuus.” It would take at least ten seconds to say these words and move our feet in line with the words. When we grew more advanced we no longer said “right goes thus,” but instead we commented on each movement, “lifting, moving, lowering, pressing, etc.” This made us focus even more on each tiny movement of the foot.
I was pretty into the walking meditation. It was good to focus on something, and even the weird chanting of “right goes thus,” was actually helpful in focusing my mind on the movement of my body.
Next came sitting meditation. This is the meditation that most people imagine when they hear the word “meditation.” The monk told us to feel our breath and our lungs rising and falling. We sat, legs crossed, and tried to focus on our breathing. Rising. Falling. Rising. Falling. We were told that the goal was to note any thoughts and distractions, yet not to focus on them, not to fall into them. We were told that we had “monkey minds,” and that in order to tame these wild beasts, we could not let our minds jump from one thought to the next, instead we had to objectively note the thought and move on.
In the past in both my reading about meditation and my failed meditation attempts, this whole noting thing has been the part that has thrown me off. What does it mean to note something and not to think about it? What does it mean to be objective about a thought or a feeling? In the past when I’ve meditated, it’s been sort of like this: I sit. I cross my legs. I think about my breathing. 30 seconds later I think about some song that’s in my head. Then I think about how my leg hurts. Then I get mad. Why am I so bad at this?? Why is everyone else so much better than I am? Is there something wrong with me? I then continue to think about all the things that are wrong with me and why I am inferior to the serene meditators of the universe. I go back to thinking about my breathing, but I’m too frustrated with myself to focus clearly for more than 10 seconds. I focus on one thought which leads to another and then another until it’s spiraled out of control. This is why meditation always sucked for me.
And so, back at the Thai meditation retreat, I crossed my legs and focused on my breath. Rising. Falling. Rising. Falling. I wondered if Bloom was successfully meditating, and then something miraculous happened. In my head, I thought “thought about Bloom’s meditation—noted.” And then I moved on. Rising. Falling. I did not think anymore about Bloom’s meditation. Rising. Falling. Rising. Falling. My leg itches. I didn’t scratch it. I thought “thought about leg itching—noted.” Rising. Falling. Rising. Falling.
At one brief moment I imagined that my thoughts were like people trying to escape from a prison cell, grasping at the bars, and I was the prison guard shoving them away aggressively, and then I realized that I was not a prison guard. I had to allow my thoughts to roam free in my mind. I had to let them wander in and then wander out. That’s where I had been wrong in the past. I had aggressively fought against my wandering thoughts, viewing it as a war of my thoughts VS me, I had to stop the thoughts! But no, I did not need to stop the thoughts; I just had to make sure they didn’t control my mind. I had to note a thought when it wandered into my head, but then I had to move on, I had to allow the thought to wander out, instead of trying to forcefully fight it out. I pictured my mind as a giant open hallway instead of a prison. My thoughts wandered in, I noted them, like a scientist noting a specific behavior, and then they wandered out. Rising. Falling. Rising. Falling. Don Draper wandered into the open hallway. I started to think about the plot of Mad Men for a second, and then I thought “Don Draper—noted,” and I imagined Don Draper casually walking out of the hallway of my mind. Rising. Falling.
Had I reached meditative nirvana? Obviously not. I had many thoughts while I sat there meditating, but I felt at peace with them, and that was brand new for me. I didn’t judge them. I didn’t let them spiral into a whole train of thought. I noted them, without judgment, and moved back to the breathing. I didn’t try to stop the thoughts from entering my mind. I know that meditation takes practice and work, and I am a beginner, so I did not get angry at myself for having so many thoughts, I just let them be. And for me, this is nothing short of a revelation. I was calm with my thoughts. For once in my life I felt at peace in my own head.