Within a forest monastery, for four days and three nights, I plunged myself both physically and mentally into practicing meditation. I never once tried formal meditation before this. Maybe a few times a year I would close my eyes and try to “clear the mind”. I didn’t come back from this experience knowing how to bring about world peace, but I did come back with a new awareness, along with being incredibly relaxed. More importantly, I found a new tool for keeping myself focused.
Ancient buddha statue that sits on the monastery grounds.
Arriving at the Meditation Center
Going off the tip of a friend, whom I met during our few shared moments on a mini-bus trip nearly two months prior—I really didn’t know what to expect of the meditation retreat that I was heading to. My fragmented notes merely read, “Wat Umong Meditation Center. Show up by 8a.m. Free, but donations accepted.” I later found out that Wat Umong literally means, Monastery with Tunnels. It is more than 700 years old and located within Chiang Mai, a bustling city in the north of Thailand.
My tuk-tuk ride to the monastery
I was ready for some serious business, as my tuk-tuk driver dropped me off at the monastery. After walking the grounds in search of this mysterious meditation center for several minutes, finally–I spot it. While waiting outside a small office I notice that everyone is wearing white, and no one is talking. After another 10 minutes I’m greeted by a monk in a vibrant orange robe, who appeared to be at least a couple years younger than me. “You’re not crazy, are you?”, is one of his first questions for me. “People are crazy. They come here and they demand that I order them not to speak. That they are to be kept in their room all day, given only one meal, and expected to meditate for 12 hours each day.
One of the many monastery tunnels.
“I’m not going to order you to do anything. The Buddha never said that you had to do this to reach enlightenment, so that is not what I’ll demand of you. People go to 10 day meditation retreats, and how do they feel afterwards? Exhausted. Stressed. You should not feel this way after meditating.”
He was referring to the popular Vipassana meditation centers found throughout Thailand and India, which are also known as “Silent Meditation Retreats”. Now, I haven’t been to one myself, but I do know that a good number of people who have attended these type of retreats, often breakdown during their first day. This is what I originally wanted to go through. A huge challenge of willpower and mental strength–the thought of which, created a nervousness beyond anything else I expected on my trip. Though this wasn’t necessarily what I needed at the moment.
After my discussion with the monk, which was often softened with his silly humor, I immediately felt comfortable. I was now excited for the days ahead. Soon after I found myself donned in my own pure white outfit. Then I was given my daily schedule and shown to my room…
My very basic room. Bed was surprisingly comfortable.
|4:00 a.m. — Wake up|
|5:00-7:00 a.m. — Group meditation|
|7:00-7:20 a.m. — Cleaning|
|7:30-8:00 a.m. — Breakfast|
|8:00-9:00 a.m. — Relaxation|
|9:00-11:15 a.m. — Group Meditation|
|11:30 a.m. to noon — Lunch|
|noon to 1:30 p.m. — Relaxation|
|1:30-3:00 p.m. — Group Meditation|
|3:00-3:15 p.m. — Tea Break|
|3:15-4:30 p.m. — Group Meditation|
|4:30-6:00 p.m. — Break/Cleaning Time|
|6:00-7:30 p.m. — Group Meditation|
|7:30-7:45 p.m. — Tea Break|
|7:45-9:00 p.m. — Group Meditation|
|9:00 p.m. — Bedtime|
|How the hell will this be relaxing?|
The 4 Day Experience
Monster statue that sits on the monastery grounds.
Day 1. I was given a couple simple steps for practicing meditation. “When sitting, close your eyes and visualize your breathing. If you grow tired or restless, stand and breathe or walk slowly, while paying attention to your footsteps.”, is what my teacher told me. I did as I was told.
Fasting Buddha statue
After several hours of meditating I felt my mind go blank. Whoopie-do. It is the end of the night and there has been no new insights. This is bullshit, and I want my money back!
Day 2, 5 a.m. A fellow student walks into one of the enclosed meditation rooms. She turns off the lights, and in my mind, I’m so pissed off at her. Wait—this is my breakthrough. In my mind, I’m pissed off. What the hell? why am I even mad? she did nothing wrong. I’m finally starting to see the power of meditation. I’m aware of what my emotions often are; random. Not only that, I’m remembering how quickly I can become annoyed, and now I’m recognizing this as just another form of anger.
Unknown novice, practicing meditation within the tunnels.
Day 3. I’m finding a new benefit of meditation; since my arrival here I have never been bored. No internet, TV, computer time, or leaving the monastery. Just breakfast, lunch, a few minutes of reading, and meditation. These are not the requirements of the meditation center, it’s just that I never felt the need for anything else to occupy my time—which is unusual, as even when I’m traveling the world I can still find myself bored to death. Oh, and I never expected to be so full of energy, especially when starting my day at 5 a.m.
The monastery’s stupa.
After all the positives throughout the day, within the last hour of the night I have an inner struggle. I promised myself during my time at the retreat to limit coffee to a single cup during the morning. I have one at 8p.m. I’m unable to meditate during our nightly group session and I become extremely frustrated. In other words, I’m angry, and I go to sleep thinking that this experience will end in failure.
My fellow group members, meditating together with our monk and teacher.
Day 4, 5:20 a.m. I wake up to the scurry of a large cockroach on my leg. When I turn on my bedroom light it flies directly into my face. I’m already thinking there is no way for me to redeem the day or gain anything from my stay here. Still, I’m only left to try this whole meditation thing once more. Sleepy-eyed, I sit, and I attempt to clear my mind. It takes longer than usual; more than an hour, but I succeed in doing so. In the process I’m able to detach myself from any feelings of anger. I see how silly it is to think that I am anything close to a failure. After another hour, I’m completely relieved.
I spent hours, practicing my walking meditation.
I won’t pretend to understand or accept all of Buddhism, but meditation makes sense to me now. I stay around a couple hours longer than planned. I have an amazing discussion with my fellow students. I’m in the moment, and each step I take during my final walking meditation on the monastery grounds are brand new.
Ancient statue that sits on the monastery grounds.
I’m writing this a few weeks after my experience at the Wat Umong Meditation Center. I still meditate daily, although, without the same discipline as before. Patience and a lack of expectations serves me best when practicing, and some days I’m ill equipped. Recently though, I was able to find some unexpected peace when meditating through the excruciating pain that came with a 4 day illness; which struck me in Cambodia. One of the many experiences that have made it clear—meditation will be a new life long habit for me.
What to Know About Wat Umong:
The meditation system is Anapanasati
Time Needed: 2 – 7 days
Phone Number: [+66] 0-5327-7248 (8 a.m. - 4 p.m.)
Address: Tambon Suthep, Amper Muang, Chiang Mai 55000
Official Website: http://www.watumong.org/
A Better Website: dhammathai.org