Day 52: Escape modern world with meditation at Myanmar monastery
Ten days of meditation. No contact with the outside world, no writing, no reading, no talking. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.
SITTING in my grungy bedroom at The Breeze Guesthouse in Mawlamyine, it seems important to collect my thoughts on meditation before entering the 10-day Vispisnana program – as dictated by the dice and guided by serendipity.
“You don't seem very excited,” Carlton points out over our breakfast of a boiled egg, toast and a 3-1 coffee beverage – noticeably not coffee.
“I've been told to have no expectations. So, there isn't much to be excited about,” I say.
It's true. I'm not excited.
I've talked to a number of people outside of the fanatically devoted Ivan, who has been practicing mediation since he was 14 years old. He claims to have developed a superior sense of hearing following a 72 day retreat. Ivan shows all of us at the table a picture of himself opening the first Burmese meditation center in Paris, along with Myanmar's number one monk. I decided that it's best not to dive into how having a ranking system seems counter to the entire meditation process. I also skip voicing my objection to dangling superhuman powers in front of those who are to enter meditation – also counter to the mindset.
Two friends I spoke to last night about meditation both made it clear that I should have no expectations, then went on to tell me more about meditation, which of course started to establish expectations. Nonetheless, the advice from one was practical and helpful: wear super comfortable clothes, sneak in a little stretching – it can be hard on a beginner's body. The others' advice was equally helpful.
“The problem is that conscious thought and conceptual labeling is unnecessary and actually blocks the experience,” he wrote in a Facebook chat. “It's very hard in the beginning because A. results aren't guaranteed and B. it's very hard to understand what the results will be as a beginner.
“Compare it to something like working out, which is already very, very hard for people to do consistently. If you go hit the gym for three months consistently, you know you'll get results; it's not necessarily true for meditation. And I can see jacked people and know that that is the result of working out, but with meditation the results are much less obvious so it can be hard to stay motivated. One thing that helped me is that I know lots of people I respect in successful positions in varied fields from business to research who have multi-year practices and swear by it including people with crazy schedules who don't seem to have an hour to spare and the fact that they are ruthlessly efficient with their time, but still consider it essential means that I can trust there is something there to be gained, even if I cant see it from the start.”
A curly haired American who works in finance sits to me left at the breakfast table this morning. He says it will change me, at least a little. Ivan says it will change me completely, that it will be the best days of my life.
Thousands of monks live at the Pa-Auk Forest Monastery. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Swaddled in a Burmese longi – a tubular, multi-purpose man-skirt that's folded and twisted at the top before being tucked in – and a white t-shirt, I'm sure I'll be comfortable. I'll be fine, I tell myself.
I know it will be hard. I know it will be very challenging. I know there will be moments of joy and times I seriously question the dice's will.
In my arrogant way, I don't want it to change me. Okay, small changes will be great, even big changes. But people talk about it as if the boy walking out of the meditation retreat will be completely different than the one going in.
I have a great affinity for myself, and though I love the idea of developing and building, I don't feel the need to for a complete overhaul on who I am. I am happy, which means part of me is not terribly happy with this sort “it will completely change you” rhetoric.
Nonetheless, I'll go in and absorb everything, letting what changes occur, occur. Since I was a teenager meditation has made my self-improvement lists regularly and always fallen to the wayside. This is my chance. Diving into the deep end, I can develop the habit and build on it. Using the foundation of who I am to further develop and grow. That seems reasonable. That seems good.
So before entering program, where is my head? It's out here, in the now, which seems appropriate. It's focused on the practical side of life: the need to pack, the need to shower and women, because there has been no greater catalysts in my life than a woman's smile.
Much to my chagrin, Nina, a Dutch girl with a bit of sparkle on her left hand, is going to take my bed and share the room with Carlton – her friend, who Carlton and I first presumed to be her boyfriend is leaving today.
Should I care, no? Is it any of my business, no? Do I care a great deal, no? Am I aware of caring a little bit, yes, yes I am.
That awareness puts a smirk on my face.
Sitting in the silence of a meditation hall, I'll have to stop my imagination from running away. Like a squealing pig, I'm sure it will be a slippery thing and run in any and every direction, until, if I'm lucky, finally falling into a never ending black well, were the rush of the air calms it, like a thousand mother's kisses.
Last night, in a bit of boyish banter, Carlton and I go on about who Nina is going to end up with later that night. Her eyes have lingered and sparkled at the right times, or at least we – in our eternal optimism – have thought so. (It has also become clear that the ring on her left hand is most likely, just a decoy.) In some ways it's a game, though I can't say I'm fully committed to it – I've never enjoyed that approach to romance, it fundamentally rubs me in the wrong way. Romance can, and often is, an exciting game, but I've never enjoyed framing it up as a competitive one.
Nina and I sit on the balcony of the guesthouse with our feet up on a chair, she fires up a cigarette before passing the lighter back to her Dutch friend, I'm overly aware of our feet; they're only inches apart as we talk.
The more we talk the more I find myself absorbed by her – she's very well traveled, with great stories from countries in southern Africa. She's also articulate, energetic and adventurous. What was more of a passing interest because she did seem to be available, despite the ring, has developed into a real interest.
Our toes brush for a second, but she immediately re-positions. Sometimes it was me semi-accidentally brushing her foot, sometimes the other way around. However, they never touch for long – a split second longer and it would be the sort of thing a person could read into. This body language, however, is reading less as a romance novel, which was also fine with me; that's the beauty of being attracted to an interesting person, the physical side of the attraction never needs to come to fruition.
The next morning, after breakfast, Carlton piles into the back of the Honda with Nina and her Dutch friend. They've rented a car with a driver for the day and are dropping me off at Pa-Auk Forest Monastery, about fifteen minutes out of town.
Up front, listen to the three of them talk about places to go and things to see in Myanmar, I try to remember the place names for when I get out.
“This is your last chance; tell us your stories,” Nina says from between the boys.
“I don't have any stories. Plus, I'm already stuck up here in my solitude,” I say with a laugh. I've happily settled into the silence that is to be the soundtrack to my life for the next ten day.
“They'll give you white robes because your an apprentice. And the last two days you won't sleep, but they'll prepare you for that,” says the Dutchman, Nina's friend. He of course is assuming, as in a way we all are, that foreigners showing up at Pa-Auk will be the center of attention.
To us, ten days seems like a very long time.
The driver pulls away from the pothole riddled main road out of Mawlamyine into the monastery. It's a sprawling complex, an entire microcosm injected into the forest. The well-paved primary road cuts through the lower monastery, where the nuns live and worship, past the middle monastery, which is mostly hidden from view and swings through the a plantation of orderly rows of rubber trees before being flanked on both sides by workshops and fresh construction. Workers with a variety of hats from baseball caps to cone hats and thanaka on their faces squat along the roadside, bending and cutting rebar, while others stand on the second floor of what appears to be an under-construction dormitory. The complex seems to be in the same perpetual state of falling apart and development that blankets all of Myanmar.
The monastery is a sprawling complex. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The driver comes to a stop at a cull-de-sac at the end of the road. Crescent moon steps lead up toward the upper monastery – the meditation hall.
Big letters painted in black on the side of a cement building with two monks sitting on the stoop by the front door mark it as the Foreign Registration Office.
A baby-faced Indonesian monk, who is to be ordained later that day, greets me, telling explaining that I can wait here for the Venerable Kumuda to return and get me sorted out. Instead, as I have a little time, I follow Carlton and the Dutch pair up the bricks steps that lead past dozens of small wooden monk kudis and under a tangle of thin power lines that dangle from the forest canopy like vines, connecting each free-standing home to the electrical grid.
The brick walkway eventually spreads out in front of a marble staircase. A sign reads: MEDITATION AREA. No Talking. Minimize Noise.
Nearby are wooden racks full of sandals, neatly tucked away, pair by pair. Umbrellas dangle from wooden rod that runs parallel to the staircase for the first twenty or so steps.
Carlton and the rest have already kicked off their shoes and are prepared to head up. I tap Nina gently on the shoulder.
“I think I'll be seeing enough of this place,” I say to the group.
“Stay in touch,” I tell Nina.
With a quick wave to the boys – I know I'll be seeing Carlton down road – I turn to make my way back down to the Foreign Registration Office.
Ten day of silence has a great deal in store for me. Photo: Isaac Stone SImonelli