Word to the wise, if you’re ever invited to come up to the top of a mountain to learn meditation from Buddhist monks, don’t watch Dead Poet’s Society just before embarking. I sat there, trying to keep my back straight and my mind neutral and all I could think of was “to dance, clap hands, exalt, shout, skip, roll on, float, on!” As lines of poetry skipped in and out of my brain, all while I was to be thinking of nothing more than the rising and falling of my body as I took and expelled air, I realized that I’m not very good at meditation. I thought that I would be great at meditation. I thought because I’ve spent hours in theatre classrooms taming my body and mind to the power of suggestion and believing that it can do or not do anything, that I would take to meditation like a fish to water.
When we arrived at Wat Doi Sutheb (the same temple on the mountain that we had walked 12 km up to in celebration of Buddha’s birthday), we were given a tour of the temple compound. What else we were briefed on, I cannot say because the accent of the very earnest monk showing us around, was completely incomprehensible to me. I particularly wanted an explanation as to why the ugly fish lizard guardians were labeled “MOM,” but though I was squinting my ears like crazy to understand the explanation—I remain in the dark on that.
After our polite game of pretend (pretending we could understand what our dear tour guide was explaining) another monk instructed us on the proper way to meditate. There are four ways to meditate, he said, standing, walking, sitting, and reclining and he instructed us on the methodology of each. I may or may not have fallen off an ostrich the week before and as such, may or may not have had some pretty significant tail bone bruisage. I hoped we would try the reclining meditation, but instead he had us all try it sitting.
He said that the key to meditation was to acknowledge. Acknowledge the rising and falling of your abdomen as you take in air, acknowledge if a sound outside distracts you, acknowledge if your mind begins to wander, acknowledge pain in your body if there is any (but do not move to relieve it). The most interesting part to me about the walking meditation was the acknowledging your “intention to turn” should you need to. Hearing him almost chant “IN-TEN-TION TO TURN, IN-TEN-TION TO TURN, IN-TEN-TION TO TURN” made me wonder how often in my life before I misstep or make poor decisions I could have detected first inside myself the “intention to turn” and decided instead to keep straight.
So we tried it for ourselves, all along the ostrich mishap and the recent mingling with dead poet’s coloring my experience. RISING, FALLING, RISING, FALLING, THINKING, THINKING (“Oh to struggle against great odds, to meet enemies undaunted!”) THINKING. RISING, FALLING, PAIN, PAIN, (darn that ostrich) PAIN, RISING, FALLING, RISING, FALLING, RISING, FALLING, THINKING, (to be a sailor of the world, bound for all ports!). RISING, FALLING, (are we done yet?), RISING. And of course the entire exercise boasted much more thinking and much more poetry then there was breathing worth paying attention to. I heard once that the mind can process 600 words a minute and there’s just not enough air in my lungs to counterbalance the intellectual interest of all those wonderful words.
Meditation is about disconnecting yourself from emotion and being able to see your world and your thoughts as an outside observer. The cardinal teaching of Buddhism is to understand suffering and so be able to conquer it. You stand, walk, sit, or recline and refuse to grasp tightly to anything but the air you’re breathing (yea, try holding on to that for very long). You see your own experiences as though they were merely a story being performed on your mind’s stage and somehow the hard things don’t seem as hard, and what you desperately pinned importance to, no longer seems deserving of it.
Full of poetry, I wanted to burst with screams, and bouts of uncontrollable laughter or dance and clap and exclaim until my face was blue with expression. I don’t feel like that all of the time, just the one time that I was asked to sit still and think of nothing. I understand the method behind the madness of detaching yourself from something to get a clearer perspective on it.
But when I tried to discount or at least let go of certain things, some part of me felt slapped in the face, and I was unable to continue like that.
Though meditation takes practice, something in my system rejects the idea of this concentration on recognizing and eradicating suffering. Everything in my soul clings to the noble truth that is happiness and the noble truth that is finding happiness and holding to it with no inhibition or reserve “and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”