written by Wentworth Power

It has been a long journey with which many chronic pain sufferers would be familiar. I have had to learn to respect the limitations of my body and adapt my daily regimen of diet and exercise.

Having trialled a real hodgepodge of western medicines and eastern treatments, one of the more successful methods for mitigating flare-ups has been guided meditation sessions using podcasts. The more I have learnt about mindfulness and the connections between my brain and body, the more intrigued I have become about how far I could develop these techniques and regain control.

A couple of months ago, I was inspired by a friend’s visit to a Buddhist meditation retreat in Sri Lanka where he practised 10 days of a technique called Vipassana. I was curious to learn more about this intense training schedule of 10 hours a day, but hesitant to undertake the compulsory vow of silence and virtual solitude for such a long period of time. So I searched for a shorter option that I could fit between my work schedule – a sort of try-before-I-buy.

The International Buddhist Centre at Prathat Doi Suthep is located 15km from the centre of Chiang Mai and 800 metres above sea level on the Suthep mountain. The school grounds sit on a precipitous hillside amidst a verdant canopy of thick foliage some 50 metres below the main temple. It’s an idyllic getaway from the modern world for some personal introspection.

Students receive individual meditation instructions from the Dharmma (teacher), a Thai monk, but must practise the techniques alone. Each session of meditation comprises a period of walking meditation followed by a period of sitting meditation. Beginners start with two 15 minute periods, followed by a 10 minute break before repeating the exercises. The length of the meditation periods is increased by 5 or 10 minutes after every couple of days.

Initially the challenge is to maintain focus on the rising and falling of the abdomen during sitting meditation, and the movement of the feet during walking meditation. The central tenet of a Vipassana retreat is that, after a few days of focus on the breath, any thoughts (or distractions) begin to fade. That sustained myopic focus of the mind begins to enhance your sensitivity to natural physical sensations.

Theoretically, after several days of quiet, you begin to understand that each of these stimuli, whether physical or emotional, is just an interpretation by the mind and body. The thoughts become compartmentalised, diluted and given less credence.

Accommodation at the retreat is basic. The rooms are private with lockable doors and insect screens and are located in separate areas for men and women. Mounted high on stilts, the boarding houses jut out over a ravine and are a steep climb up the path to the main building where the ceremonial hall, meditation and dining rooms are located. From the balcony of the meditation hall on the top floor, a gap in the trees reveals the mountains on the distant horizon and glimpses of the city lights below. This, I found, was an ideal spot to practise walking and sitting meditation. It was away from the other students and an extremely pleasant view when each time I opened my eyes.

asked to observe eight precepts, including “not chit-chatting” and “to abstain from killing any being”. When you first arrive, it is hard to avoid cynical thoughts about the otherworldly atmosphere generated through the unfamiliar ceremonies, strange religious rituals and the peculiar, introverted behaviour of the students.

For my first dining experience, I felt like I had wandered on to the film set of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. The canteen is a bright but soulless, whitewashed room with grating across the windows. Fifteen students, all dressed in white, sat one to a table, facing the front; projecting a communal detachment and anaesthetised silence as they waited patiently for their food.

daylight hours; a shrill chorus of insects that would rise to a crescendo and last for half an hour or longer. When it finally petered out, it left behind a peaceful afterglow that inspired a collective sigh of relief from all other sentient beings. However, I soon mastered the technique. If such a sound piqued my focus, I would silently recite: “hearing, hearing, hearing” to help me return to my observation of the breath.

For the first couple of days, I battled with the pains and sensations associated with long periods of sitting and unnatural walking. I experienced a few significant moments of heightened emotional responses. I desperately wanted to quit, particularly in the evening while sitting crosslegged for an hour of chanting, or while lying in bed in the lonely dark. But at the dawn of each new day, I woke up refreshed, and ready to start all over again.

Boredom was probably my greatest adversary and a true test of my resilience, particularly during the 5 hour afternoon sessions. It is difficult to stay in the moment, watching each second tick by, and the minutes slowly evaporate. You are living in virtual solitude, alone with your own thoughts. There are no electronic devices, books or conversations to distract or pass the hours. But by day three, I had found positions and routines that worked for me and the distractions by memories of friends or work began to fade. With everything quieted down, and maintaining continuous awareness of these sensations, without reacting, I learnt that nothing is permanent.

I was able to alter the habit of blind (subconscious) reaction; a significant challenge for chronic pain sufferers. I began to appreciate the beauty and deeper complexity of different stimuli; the humble grounds and vivid nature around me. Sometimes, the faint sounds of Thailand’s country music, with the treble high resonance of a 1920s gramophone, wafted across the treetops assisted by a gentle breeze and the broom strokes of monks sweeping leaves. These were no longer distractions but complements to my experience.

I have returned to my normal routine in Bangkok with a greater respect for myself and less frustration towards my dark passenger. I continue to meditate regularly but with a renewed sense of optimism and I am eagerly anticipating my first holiday to a meditation and yoga retreat in India.

The blank canvas that is created makes it hard to apply the usual prejudices to your fellow students. I contemplated: who was running away from a difficult past; who had committed gross misdemeanours in a former life; and who was a wise academic adding greater intellectual depth to their thinking? In those initial hours, I was thinking too much but the discipline of respectful silence helped me to train the mind and focus on the mental exercises.

The technique we were taught to help maintain our focus involved noting any distractions mentally. For example, during walking meditation, if someone moved across your field of vision, distracting you from your focus on the movements of your feet, you would recite three times: “seeing, seeing, seeing”. This helped to acknowledge the stimulus, give it a neutral classification, and to return the mind back to pure observation of the motions walking movements.

While meditating, if you experienced physical sensations (e.g. the wind or tension in your muscles), or sad or happy emotions from memories, the practitioner would silently recite: “feelings, feelings, feelings”, helping to nullify the response and return the focus to the breath.

I found nature offered more than enough sonic stimuli that disrupted the pattern of thinking. A sustained focus on the breath for 15 or 20 minutes is a huge challenge when millions of insects are chomping, marching, whirring and buzzing their way through the forest.

The forest choir whipped up a cacophony of animal gargles, cackles, coos and drones. The most memorable sound of nature regularly hissed in and out during the daylight hours; a shrill chorus of insects that would rise to a crescendo and last for half an hour or longer. When it finally petered out, it left behind a peaceful afterglow that inspired a collective sigh of relief from all other sentient beings.

However, I soon mastered the technique. If such a sound piqued my focus, I would silently recite: “hearing, hearing, hearing” to help me return to my observation of the breath.

For the first couple of days, I battled with the pains and sensations associated with long periods of sitting and unnatural walking. I experienced a few significant moments of heightened emotional responses. I desperately wanted to quit, particularly in the evening while sitting crosslegged for an hour of chanting, or while lying in bed in the lonely dark. But at the dawn of each new day, I woke up refreshed, and ready to start all over again.

Boredom was probably my greatest adversary and a true test of my resilience, particularly during the 5 hour afternoon sessions. It is difficult to stay in the moment, watching each second tick by, and the minutes slowly evaporate. You are living in virtual solitude, alone with your own thoughts. There are no electronic devices, books or conversations to distract or pass the hours.

But by day three, I had found positions and routines that worked for me and the distractions by memories of friends or work began to fade. With everything quieted down, and maintaining continuous awareness of these sensations, without reacting, I learnt that nothing is permanent. I was able to alter the habit of blind (subconscious) reaction; a significant challenge for chronic pain sufferers.

I began to appreciate the beauty and deeper complexity of different stimuli; the humble grounds and vivid nature around me. Sometimes, the faint sounds of Thailand’s country music, with the treble high resonance of a 1920s gramophone, wafted across the treetops assisted by a gentle breeze and the broom strokes of monks sweeping leaves. These were no longer distractions but complements to my experience.

I have returned to my normal routine in Bangkok with a greater respect for myself and less frustration towards my dark passenger. I continue to meditate regularly but with a renewed sense of optimism and I am eagerly anticipating my first holiday to a meditation and yoga retreat in India.

Source: https://expatlifeinthailand.com/health-and-beauty/vipassana-prathat-doi-suthep/

Total
1
Shares