Picture a building with shiny marble floors. There are a handful of people inside, all wearing loose and poorly fitted white clothing. Some are sitting and others are slowly walking back and forth with looks of determination or glazed stares. Nobody is speaking but you can hear an occasional groan. Is it the zombie apocalypse? Is it a mental institution? Not this time – it’s the library at Wat Ram Poeng in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where the white clothed people are participating in silent meditation retreats.
Two of those people walking back and forth were us participating in a 10 day program. Skip to the bottom if you just want to see pictures and not read about our experience.
The purpose of meditation:
The point of the Vipassanā style of Meditation is primarily to develop mindfulness and concentration in order to lead a better, more peaceful life. Meditation (sitting or walking) is like lifting weights for your mind. You do not lift weights to move your arms up and down, you lift weights in order to tone your muscles and become more fit or healthy. It is the same with meditation, in that the point is not to get good at walking back and forth saying “right goes thus, left goes thus” or to be good at sitting in one place without moving for 45 minutes, but instead to practice concentrating on one thing at a time and being aware of one’s body and mind. Part of the goal is to recognize how the body and mind are separate and also to observe how the two interact. A meditator attempts to perceive their body and their desires, volitions, emotions, sensations, etc. almost as an outsider would, acknowledging them but not being a slave to them. In this way a meditator develops a better understanding of themselves and can have more influence over the way they feel and act.
The Meditator’s Schedule at Wat Ram Poeng:
- 4:00 am: Morning wake up bell rings.
- 4:15 am: Meditate until breakfast
- 6:30 am: Breakfast bell rings. Assemble and reflect on the food by chanting in the Pali language. Eating commences around 7 am.
- 7:30 am: Clean room and sweep assigned area.
- 8:00 am: Meditate until lunch
- 10:30: Lunch bell rings. Assemble and chant again. Eating commences around 10:45 or 11 am.
- 11:20 am: Clean room and sweep assigned area. Shower.
- 12:00 pm: Meditate until reporting.
- 4:00 pm: Report to teacher (15 – 45 minutes, depending on how busy it is).
- 5:00 pm: Evening snack bell rings. The snack was either pureed bean juice, corn juice, pumpkin juice, or soy milk (all served warm and sweetened with sugar).
- 5:30 pm: Meditate until bed time.
- 10:00 pm: You are allowed to sleep.
Total meditation hours: 10-12 per day, our average daily meditation hours: 11.5
Final count: about 115 hours per person.
Wat Ram Poeng expects its meditators to be serious about the practice (this is even more so for the foreign meditators) and had many rules that needed to be followed. The most important set of rules is the 8 precepts – they are akin to the Christian 10 commandments. We had to vow to do our best to uphold these during the opening ceremony. In addition, there were many other rules instituted by the monks in order to prevent us from losing our focus on meditation.
You are asked to continue to uphold the first 5 precepts upon leaving the Wat, though the wording of some changes slightly.
Actual monks follow the 8 precepts in addition to almost 300 hundred additional rules.
The 8 precepts:
1. Refrain from destroying living creatures. (Do not kill.)
2. Refrain from taking what is not given. (Do not steal.)
3. Refrain from erotic behavior. (During the time spent at the Wat. The wording of this changes to “sexual misconduct” during the closing ceremony when you leave the Wat.)
4. Refrain from incorrect speech. (Do not lie, deceive, or manipulate others.)
5. Refrain from intoxicating liquor and drugs, which lead to carelessness. (Coffee and tea are exceptions, though you are expected not to overindulge in them.)
6. Refrain from eating at the wrong time. (No food allowed before sunrise or after noon – the bean milks in the afternoon were a loophole allowed for meditators.)
7. Refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to shows, wearing garlands and beautifying ones self with perfumes and cosmetics.
8. Refrain from lying on high or luxurious sleeping beds or overindulging in sleep.
No eating or drinking while standing, no talking with other meditators (especially about your personal experience), no socializing, no looking people in the eye, no physical contact with others, no reading, no entering other’s rooms, no leaving of the monastery property, no sleeping during the day, no telephones, tablets, computers, etc. You must wear clean white clothing (and underwear) at all times. When walking do not get distracted looking around – look at the ground in front of you.
During sitting meditation, one first learns to concentrate on the rising and the falling of their breath. As thoughts pass through their mind, they should acknowledge them and not dwell on them. The same is true for emotions, sensations, etc. After a feeling passes one returns to the rising and the falling of the breath. As they progress through their study they add points on the body to focus their attention. In addition to building her concentration, the yogi (meditator) learns how to persevere through pain and discomfort and how to be kind to herself and be her own cheerleader.
During walking meditation, the attention is focused upon on the movement of the feet, while words corresponding to the movements of the feet are said in the mind. As the yogi progresses, more discrete steps in the act of walking are added (1 step: right goes thus, left goes thus; 2 steps: lifting, placing; 3 steps: lifting, moving, putting). Walking meditation is a better practice for real life, according to our teacher. When walking – compared to sitting – it is easier to become distracted by the additional stimuli from having your eyes open. This makes it better practice for real life where there are constant and myriad distractions pulling you away from mindfulness.
In our daily practice, we would alternate sitting meditation with walking meditation. We began with 15 minute increments and were operating at 45 minute increments by the end.
A brief chronology:
We arrived at Wat Ram Poeng at 9:30 am and were greeted by a spry man called Phra (monk) Chaibodin. He gave us the rule book and requested we read it multiple times. Once we finished and confirmed we would abide by them, he procured a timer and white clothing for us, and took us to our rooms. He gave us the basic meditation instruction and showed us where to eat meals and where to go for reporting. This took all afternoon, and by the time we were done it was approaching 5:30 pm when the opening ceremony was to take place.
The opening ceremony was fairly straightforward, and involved us repeating words in the ancient Buddhist language, Pali, that said we would uphold the 8 precepts during our time there. After the opening ceremony we were off to meditate for a few hours until 10 pm when we could go to bed.
The next ten days were almost identical and follow the schedule listed above. Two interesting things to note are that:
- Before we could eat breakfast and lunch, we all would chant in Pali a small reflection on the food we were about to eat. The exact text is visable in the picture below, but in general the purpose was to make sure we were eating the food for the right reasons. The video below was not taken by us, but is from Wat Ram Poeng and is exactly what the experience was like.
- Between 3-5 pm you had to go to reporting. During reporting, you breifly meet with one of the two most experienced monks in the Wat to whom you describe how your meditation practice has been going. They will give you feedback if you’re having trouble or have any questions, and as the week goes on they will also add additional steps to your meditation practice as well as increase the meditation increments. Jon and I both met with a very kind monk named Phra Ajahn Nawi who appeared to be in his mid-thirties. He spoke flawless English and was a great resource.
Personal Experiences and Thoughts:
While sometimes I found it difficult to concentrate, overall my mind stayed fairly focused. There were a few times when I was physically and mentally tired which made it incredibly difficult to focus. I never reached a point where I wanted to quit and I stayed pretty positive. Sometimes when doing walking meditation I had doubts and felt like I wasn’t getting any better at it but I could notice my sitting meditation improving. The experience was definitely valuable to me and I’m happy that we completed the 10 days. While I haven’t converted to Buddhism, I have felt that my world view has expanded. I feel more aware of what I am doing and how my actions cause suffering, especially my own! Think about the times when someone does something that upsets you and you continue to think about it and dwell on it as it makes you more and more upset. In those times you are choosing your own suffering. In the words of Bhikkhuni Agga Nani (one of the monks at Wat Ram Poeng), “when one insults you they hurt you once, but by dwelling on their words you are hurting yourself over and over”.
I was able to clearly observe this phenomenon during sitting meditation. I observed how negative thoughts and emotions contributed to my suffering. As an example, in the beginning of the practice I was dwelling on the pain that I was experiencing; I was also worrying about how much time was left before I could finish and worrying about the pain. Once I realized that I was causing my own suffering, I was able to reduce that suffering by not looking at the timer and trying to objectively notice my pain instead of reacting negatively to it. I can honestly say that it made me feel much better. My patience also grew with more meditation practice.
It was really weird to be in the same room as Jon all day but not be able to talk to him. Also, there were other meditators who we saw daily and spent most of every day with but never learned their names or even heard them speak. It was kind of bizarre but overall an interesting and valuable experience (and it was nice to be in one place with a steady routine for 10 days!). By the end, I finally knew how to sing the meal time songs and I quite enjoyed it!
I knew before we went that this was going to be a challenging and intense experience and not a peaceful relaxation week with some meditation mixed in. As a result, I was mentally prepared to jump straight into 12 hours a day of meditation and that’s what I did. Some of the days were frustrating as I felt I hadn’t had much improvement in my meditation (something Phra Ajahn Nawi told me not to worry about) but other days I felt like I made a lot of improvement in my practice. For example, with very sore legs, knees, and ankles, I found it almost impossible to sit for more than 25 minutes at a time. Yet after a few days I was able to sit the full 45 minutes and not let the pain distract me.
Despite my mental preparation, by the 7th day I was feeling very restless and almost a little overwhelmed. It wasn’t even that the meditation was overwhelming – it was just that I didn’t have any outlet for my restless energy. I couldn’t take a run, read a book, or do anything to let my mind have a break from the constant mindfulness. And to be honest, that is the point of all the rules. They think that even allowing yourself brief “breaks” from mindfulness will harm your meditation practice – and furthermore, the end goal is constant mindfulness. So I didn’t expect any sympathy from the monks. I’ll admit, this restlessness grew to the point that I seriously considered leaving the program early. By no means would I have been the only one – an Australian who had arrived the same day we had was gone by the third day – but I didn’t want to give up. I knew it would be hard and I came determined – and to be honest, leaving early would have made a significant dent in my self image. So while I was seriously considering leaving, I ultimately stuck it out, and started to feel much better by the last day.
In summary, I have noticed myself being more mindful of my intentions and emotional states and feel that my time was well spent. Ultimately, I feel like the confidence I have in my own willpower after sticking through the rough days will be the biggest take-away from my 10 days spent at Wat Ram Poeng.
If you’re still interested, the following is an additional description of some of the philosophy behind Vipassanā meditation as I learned from my interactions with the monks at Wat Ram Poeng. *Disclaimer: I am no expert in Buddhism or meditation and my aim is to give some background to the beliefs the monks hold based on meetings with my teacher.
One of the key purposes of meditation is to help a person to understand the three obvious characteristics: impermanence, suffering, and non-self. “Having gained an insight into the three characteristics, the meditator realizes that everything in this world is transient, subject to suffering, and uncontrollable. Thus the mind abandons the desire to acquire, to have, and to be” (Wat Ram Pong Insight Meditation and the Technique Practice booklet).
Because the belief in non-self or egolessness is often the most difficult and abstract for people to understand, I will explain it as our teacher Prah Ajahn Nawi explained it to me. A person’s physical body and mental state is constantly changing and constantly in flux. Our cells are dying via apoptosis (programmed cell death) and being replaced with new cells. Our mood and our priorities are always changing based on outside stimuli as well as our own feelings (eg. if you are hungry or sleepy, those things become a priority and a person behaves differently because of this). Furthermore, Buddhists do not believe in the existence of a soul. Thus they come to the conclusion that there is no ego or no one discreet thing we can call the self. Another part of the belief of non-self is that we have no control, only influence. We do not control the things which we experience and we do not even control our feelings about them. This does not mean that we should feel helpless, but that we should develop mindfulness and “right knowledge” in order to correctly understand the world and in order to improve the quality of our own lives and the lives of others.
We are also taught to accept that suffering is a part of life but also that we can reduce or extinguish our suffering by understanding that everything is impermanent and that we do not have control. We can also reduce our suffering by existing in the present moment. Prah Ajan Nawi said that the present moment is both our past and our future. He taught that we should try to always be present and not spend too much time thinking about the past or future because this causes suffering through cultivation of desires for things that we do not have control over and if they don’t come to fruition we will experience suffering.
They also teach the idea of the middle way. The idea is that we should not seek out extremes. For example, pleasure and pain are extremes which both cause suffering. Instead we should learn to be kind and compassionate to ourselves and others and to foster satisfaction. Superficial pleasures cause suffering because they lead to cravings, addiction, and desires.
They teach that we should seek right knowledge and right action. We should seek to understand the true nature of the world and that we should strive to perform wholesome actions. Wholesome actions are those which are good for ourselves and others. We should rid ourselves from greed, anger, and delusion. Furthermore, we should surround ourselves with others who will support us in these efforts.