Wow. I don’t really know what to say or where to even start. I just got back from a meditation retreat and feel completely renewed. While I gather my thoughts, I’ll start with the daily schedule and expectations.
5 am – Wake-up
5:30 am – Dhamma Teachings
7 am – Breakfast
8 – 11 am – Meditation
11 am – Lunch
12 – 2 pm – Meditation
2 pm – Individual Meetings with our teacher
2:30 – 6 pm – Meditation
6 pm – Chanting
7 – 9 pm – Meditation
9 pm – Bedtime
A few rules: No speaking. No smoking. No drinking. No phones, computer, access to the outside world. No reading. No writing. No music. And no eating after 12 noon.
Let me state the obvious… These 5 days were extremely challenging. Not only to abide by these rules but also to be alone, with nothing to do but meditate. Simply walking or sitting and focusing on your breathing. Allowing thoughts to come, acknowledging them, but then shifting your focus back to your breathing and body. Many people do 7-21 day retreats, but with a bit of a schedule, I opted for a 5 day course to introduce me to the practice.
Doi Suthep Meditation Center (part of the famous temple, Doi Suthep) is located on the mountainside overlooking Chiang Mai, the perfect setting for a retreat. Our course was led by Ajaan Buddhasak, an animated, kind, and inspiring monk. At our morning Dhamma talks and after our nightly chanting, he shared his wisdom with us: meditation techniques, Buddhist teachings, and simple stories of struggle and success…
There isn’t much to say about my daily life there, as almost all of the time was spent meditating. Nothing exciting happened (yet it was also far from boring). But I can say this: I left feeling completely different. Still the same Michael, but with a deeper understanding of life and myself. I left feeling calmer, less anxious, more open-minded, and better equipped to deal with negativity and setbacks. I feel both softer and stronger.
As I left on my fifth day, my walk from the meditation center back up the hill to the main temple, to society, and to hoards of tourists was both exciting and scary. It was as if I had been released from jail, rehab, and reentering society. What do I do first? How do I speak with others? How can I assertively negotiate a taxi fare without losing everything I had just worked for? I was genuinely terrified. 5 days of silence, solitude, and significant change was about to be tested. Would everything be destroyed within my first interactions?
But the power of the retreat and my teacher left permanent marks…
There are many things we can’t control. But we can control ourselves and our reactions. We must breathe, connect our mind and our bodies, and appreciate the present. Not the past, the future, what could be or could have been. Simply breathe in the moment, positive or negative, and move on. It’s an ongoing cycle, an ongoing practice. But certainly the path to happiness.
Some people see happiness as a good job, money, material goods, much of it deemed by society. And don’t get me wrong, I’m far from hating luxuries (especially good guacamole… I craved nothing else more the past five days/two months). But I also see happiness, if nothing else, as peace within the mind. External factors are temporary aspects of our lives with little permanent meaning. They come and go. But the mind is with us forever. When we are truly in control of our minds, we can overcome all evils and achieve lasting happiness.
And when my mind is not in connection with my body, which happens very often, I just breathe. I close my eyes, and focus on my breath. As my teacher has said a hundred times with a thick Thai accent and pure smile, “Rising. Falling. Sitting. And repeat.”