Mind games

Mindfulness. The definition is as follows;

Mindfulness refers to a psychological quality that involves
bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-t0-
moment basis,

or involves
paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,

or involves
a kind of non elaborative, non-judgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Personally I believe mindfulness is realising how much of a time wasting idiot you’ve been for the last God knows how many years. Take for example my recent outing on alms with two monks from the temple. We walked towards the nearest town and as it was 6am, it was fairly quiet, except for the temple dogs, snapping at each other and the market being set up for the morning. The sky was still dark and the air was bitterly cold. We walked in single file, giving a generous amount of space between us. There is of course no conversation, with the main focus on each step and the rising and falling of the breath. My mind, on the other hand, had other ideas and instead of silent, thoughtful action, I had at least 3 imaginary arguments in my mind with various people. Some I do not even speak to on monthly, let alone daily basis.

I became aware of my mind then wandering down the ‘who will make the coffee when we get back’. I actually went through the whole scenario. I really don’t want to make the coffee. If I make one coffee, I have to make 6. Then certain people will be indecisive and then it will take longer for me to have the coffee. Why can’t people make their own coffee. I’m sick of making coffee’. On and on this went while we silently walked the street. Finally, I became aware of these thoughts and realised that all the actions involved in making a coffee are neither good nor bad. Getting the cups from the dryer is neutral. Putting a teaspoon full of coffee in each cup is again neutral. Adding milk, neutral. Adding water and stirring are again all neutral, so why the hell was my mind making this into a chore of mammoth proportion. I took a combination of actions that are neither good nor bad and labelled then as something horribly inconvenient.

The amount of times I do this uncountable. I realise I have no idea where I am or where I’ve been in my mind, most of the time. I am neither here nor there, existing in the no-mans land of the mind. I watch a beautiful sunrise, but I’m not there. I am already thinking ‘That’s a beautiful sunrise, I must get my camera…Oh I could post it on Facebook. Haven’t posted a sunrise before. I wonder what effect I can create with Photoshop. I bet my sister would love a picture’. It is exhausting. I have no idea how we are even functioning anymore as the majority of us are not even ‘here’. I spent that walk – what is a moving and humbling experience – in my own world. I also not only thought about the coffee situation but had imaginary heated arguments with multiple colleagues, who I no longer work with and will probably never see again.

I know there are multiple books on being present and in the ‘now’. These books are certainly helpful and incredibly inspirational. Although its one thing to read about it and another to experience it. No wonder I sleep so much. My mind is exhausted with the constant imaginary arguments, wanting, needing, criticising and judging.

I want my ego to leave. As far as I’m concerned it has been a horrendous ‘flat mate’, causing so much drama and confusion. It constantly lies and makes imaginary situations up, just to stress me out and make me miserable. Plus being on a silent retreat makes you really aware of how loud and unruly it really is. The problem is, is that it’s really comfortable where it is and it’s going to take a lot of work to be free from this ‘self’ that was created many, many years ago. No one wants to leave somewhere so cosy and accommodating but I’m afraid there is just no room for the both of us. The eviction process continues….

The good path

Following the 8 precepts.

1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

I have lost count of the times I have swatted flies, smacked mosquitos and squashed ants. When I was younger I was given a potato gun which brought immense joy. Every kid on the street had one and hours were spent finding potato’s, digging out the flesh with the gun and firing at everyone and everything. This included – in particular flies, in which I would practice shooting at them whilst they were still and completely unaware, delighting in my increasingly accurate aim.

It seems to be an unconscious reaction. When a mosquito lands on your arm, you immediately swat it. You know that their bite will itch and possibly hurt. Plus there are the diseases that they carry. You are certainly not going the welcome that mosquito with love, sending out thoughtful welcoming vibes ‘what’s mine is yours little fella’. So how did I fare on the first precept? Pretty damn good, if I may say so myself. Swatting was replaced by either waving them away or blowing them away. Ants, I would side step and if any were squished it was completely accidental. A few days into the meditation retreat I saw a beast of a mosquito in my room. My first reaction was to kill it. Then this changed to how I could get it out of my room harmlessly, whilst mentally congratulating myself at becoming much more mindful. I got some tissue and grabbed it, opened the door and was ready to let it go before realising I had accidently squished it. Oh the guilt!!! Never would I have thought I would be so guilty over a mosquito. I silently hoped it was just in shock and would magically come back to life. It didn’t and I felt terrible.

2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given. 

You may automatically think of stealing. Yes this is PART of it but it is also means taking ANYTHING that is not yours. For example, you see a gorgeous, red juicy apple in the fruit bowl. Its not yours but you reason that there are plenty of other apples in the bowl and what the hell, its just an apple! Ah no, its still not yours. This goes for helping yourself to someone’s coffee, sugar, milk. Even borrowing. You may be borrowing for just a minute but the owner of the item could well have needed it in that minute and therefor you have caused the other person ‘dukkha’ however small and seemingly unimportant the item is. I certainly became aware that I ‘borrowed’ quite a bit, or if there was a pack of biscuits, I reasoned that there were plenty of biscuits in the pack, so I would help myself. Although it was not difficult to follow, it really made me aware of my past actions. Guess that’s the whole point, becoming mindful of each action.

3. Abrahmacariya veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual activity.

Oh this was so easy that there is no need to me to so into great length. You’re at a temple, surrounding by monks. You are not going to get any action so refraining really is an easy task. Outside of the temple would be a different story of course.

4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.

Hmmm, now this was difficult for some of us. Incorrect speech not only includes lying, but also gossiping or exaggerating even slightly. Although I refrained somewhat from incorrect speech, my mind could not be controlled. When you are living with people 24/7 certain traits begin to grate on ones nerves. This is inevitable and it really is a test of patience. Sitting at dinner and hearing the scraping sound of the spoon against the teeth drove me to the brink of insanity, mentally cursing the person responsible for creating such a grating sound. Of course I never spoke the words of frustration but I thought it, causing myself ‘dukkha’. It is difficult, especially in the real world. My friend would start the ‘incorrect’ speech with the comment ‘its not incorrect speech if its true’ to which I would reply ‘If you think they would be upset if they heard you, don’t say it’. To which he was complain in frustration as he really wanted to say what he felt he needed to say. Yes its hard to follow, especially in the ‘real’ world but there comes a time where you realise that not only is it a waste of energy but it makes you feel like crap too. Gossip, however harmless is waste of time. Plus, haven’t you got anything better to do with your time? Is you life that dull that you need to obsess about other peoples lives and actions?

5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness

Again, same as precept number 3. You are in the middle of nowhere, with limited night life and drinking opportunities. Again, in the ‘real’ world it is more difficult. For me its not the drugs but the drink. Can I say that I will never drink a glass or red again? No, definitely not and I know that for sure. It is something that I enjoy in moderation. I know this is seen as attachment and that is probably true, and I’m ok with that. I know that I can go for weeks without alcohol but I only know that now. Two months ago, I was drinking everyday. Wine mostly but also brandy. I also know I was drinking more than I would like to admit, using it to chase the unhappiness away. At least I know I can live without it peacefully but I am not ready to give up a glass of wine with dinner.

6. Vikalabhojana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from eating at the forbidden time (i.e., after noon).

This was the most difficult for all 3 of us following the 8 precepts and the one that I had the most difficulty following. I realised that by following this particular precept that food really does have a huge hold on me. It caused me the most ‘dukkha’ throughout the stay. My mind revolves around food. If we were running late and I knew that I was not going to get to eat until 11.50 (giving me 10 minutes to stuff myself) my anger would reach boiling point. If people were indecisive with their order, I would become furious. Stuffing myself, because I knew I would not get to eat until the next day made me furious. I started to enjoy food less as it became a countdown. The amount we would eat, just to pack as much in as possible was disgusting. Yes, I must admit, I felt better for not eating after 12pm but the amount of stress, especially if time was running out to have the last meal of the day, became overwhelming irritating. Also, breaking the precept, for example Christmas day, just brought guilt and eliminated all enjoyment.

7. Nacca-gita-vadita-visukkadassana mala-gandha-vilepana-dharana-mandana-vibhusanathana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.

Difficult to say the least. I certainly became mindful of how much I sing. Even humming which can be automatic, especially when we were completing chores. My friend and I began singing the chanting out of desperation, which worked surprising well. Not wearing make-up made me realise my attachment to beautification. Putting on my ‘face’ is an everyday ritual and I felt particularly vulnerable without it. I did use deodorant so I guess I broke this precept but I was not prepared to stink up my clothes and ruin other peoples experience with my nasty body odour.

8. Uccasayana-mahasayana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.

Easy to follow as the beds were hard and getting your own fluffy mattress was certainly not going to happen. After a while, you become used to it. Apparently it does wonders for your back as you are completely straight when you lie down. Also with 4.30 am starts on some days, your so knackered you will sleep anywhere.

Following the precepts certainly made me much more aware of my thoughts and actions.  Causing me to think more carefully, questioning my thoughts and becoming mindful with each pause.

Temple christmas

Its 6am and I am up, tip toeing along the creaky floor boards to get my morning caffeine fix. I see Edwin in the corridor and we wish each other a Merry Christmas under hushed breath, giggling at how surreal it is to be having Christmas here, in the temple. We wander to the market – wrapped in multiple layers – for our daily dose of banana and coconut sticky rice and fried bread (sort of like friend donuts but not sweet).

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At 7am we take our places in the parlour for morning chanting with the lay people. As the chanting comes to an end we stand in rows and place sticky rice in the alms bowls of each monk, before taking our seats to chant and meditate together. The air is bitterly cold and I watch my breath as it exhales into the winter air, whilst listening to the hypnotic voices that echo through the parlour. At 8am its time for breakfast and grabbing our bowls we go to join the monks in the dinner area. Graham warns us that there will not be much food and both Edwin and I are happy about that, having filled up on donuts and sticky rice. We are also preparing for the Christmas feast so we’re trying to refrain from over stuffing ourselves. I picked up just coconut rice wrapped in a banana leaf which satisfied my sweet tooth. This minimal breakfast did not go unnoticed by one of the novice monks who was obviously checking to see that we would eat enough, as after breakfast he hands over a bag of food to Graham. ‘For Amy, she didn’t have much to eat’. That right there made my Christmas. Just how thoughtful and kind that one would be so aware of other at such a young age. Graham didn’t have the heart to tell him the real reason and that the communal kitchen was stuffed with alms food from the generosity of the people.

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At 10am we mad our way to Graham’s house, where his wife Mew had cooked up a feast. Barbeque chicken, noodles, coconut curry, rice, and greens were laid out for us. It was the best chicken I have ever eaten. Mew had decorated to the entire place with balloons and tinsel. As soon as we had made ourselves comfortable,  Mew  got out hard-boiled eggs for where each of us (including the monks) had to draw a picture. ‘Isn’t this an Easter activity?’ we asked, to which Graham explained that she had seen it somewhere and had now adopted it for every celebration. Not that we were complaining, as all attention was on the task. Edwin got really into drawing Christmas holly, with multiple coloured pencils, while I went for a ‘spring day’ image. After the art competition, it was Secret Santa time where each of us picked a number and claimed our gift. I received a massive teddy which was later given to one of the young novice monks who had his eye on it for while.

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Sitting around the BBQ, we began making the Papaya salad, grinding the garlic and chilli’s together with the tiny shrimp and crab. We chopped up the Mango into this strips to toss together. We then made the salad again, this time with cucumber strips. Still delicious but the mango one was certainly the winner. To finish the feast, hot-pot was served, where we all grilled our pork strips and scooped out the soup, which was brimming with noodles, cabbage, garlic and spice. Needless to say we completely broke our precept of ‘no food after 12pm’ but we did get a free pass from Graham, being Christmas and all. Bellies bursting with fullness, we wandered back to the temple for evening chanting and meditation before having our evening cup of Milo to warm us up.

If you had told me 3 months ago that I would be spending Christmas at a temple with the most generous, loving and kind people one could possible meet, I would never have believed it for a second. From office boredom to Temple Christmas, in just 2 months goes to show you how quickly your life can change, if you let it.

Hill tribe of smiles – Doi Ang Khang

Four of us sat at the back of the Ute. Hat, scarf, multiple layers which included pyjamas (don’t judge, I didn’t expect to head to the north of Thailand!) and we’re off. The air is misty and damp from the recent rain fall. We are all incredibly excited screaming ‘road trip’ from the top of our lungs. I am back to being 14 and on a school trip, all packed and ready for an adventure of the unknown. We are off to stay in the mountains.

From Fang it takes around 45 minute of incessant climbing to get to our destination. We climb further and further until the clouds are literally below us. The air is so fresh and clean, it hurts my lungs. It is also unbearably cold, with my knuckles turning white as I cling on to the bars, holding myself up with the wind blowing directly into my face. However it does not dampen the mood and merely adds to the anticipation of each bend in the road and the feeling of pure freedom that emanates from each of us. We comment in awe at the vast forest and intimidating mountains that seem to be endless in the distance. One, behind another, all different sizes creates such a breath-taking image.

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We arrive at the local village, Doi Angkhang, fairly fresh-faced from the open air journey. Taking in my surroundings and popping my ears from the pressure of being so high in the mountains, I take a deep breath.

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There is a small mud road, with shacks that line either side. I spot roosters and chickens that are chasing each other through the mud, clucking wildly. Pigs run and squeal beside us and the dog’s eye us suspiciously, their fur matted with the mud that has become slippery and thick with the recent torrential rain fall. The families watch us, watch them. Any eye contact brings massive smiles that fill their faces and radiates such warmth that is makes my heart ache. It makes me think of how important a smile is and that it’s just the best universal ‘language’. It’s easy to do, doesn’t cost a thing and can make such a difference to other people’s day, as well as your own. I thought that if I were to smile at anyone like that in the UK, they would either quickly divert their eyes, embarrassed by such a brazen act, or move away from you immediately, positive that you are obviously unstable. I am free to smile here, and I take advantage of this, smiling at everything.

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We are welcomed into our host’s home. Taking off our shoes (always in Thailand when stepping into someone’s home) we walk into what will be our place to stay for the next few nights. The floor is decorated with a few rugs here and there and I note there is a TV in the corner. Other than that it is completely bare. The host’s mother is sat on the floor smiling and taking in the sight of the new Farangs. We place our things into the corner before setting off to explore the village. We pass many locals in their traditional tribal dress. There is a small shop that sells various meats and vegetables. Children are running everywhere, eyeing us with curiosity and shyness. Their clothes are thick with mud as they jump into the puddles. I look at a group that are playing with marbles on the wooden porch, laughing and giggling, absorbed in the game. I am taken back to being a child again and how hours can be lost, just playing with figurines, cards or even Pogs(remember Pogs?) Why is it when you get older you just seem to lose that ‘fun’? Responsibly, that’s what you may think but that’s rubbish. I can’t say I have a lot of responsibility now, but I could not sit on the floor with figurines and play ‘school’ (what I used to do when I was a kid) for hours on end. I did try it and after 5 minutes though ‘what a ridiculous waste of time’ and quickly placed the toys back in their box to gather dust.

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I watch as three children around 5 years of age, have a cardboard box, split it into three, makes holes in the top and put them on so they are worn on the their hips. With sticks they then start drumming. Your very own self-made band. Amazing. We continue walking 5 minutes and arrive at the Burma border. Two soldiers guard the road and my friend squeals in delight at how handsome they are, running over for a photo opportunity. I also get involved as it would be rude not too! (Any excuse) Childishly I then couldn’t help putting one foot in and one foot out. ‘Burma, Thailand, Burma, Thailand’. All four of us proceed to do this little dance, not once ashamed of our childishness.

Around 6pm we make our way back to our hosts home where we eat dinner, crossed legged on the floor. The food is out of this world delicious. All home cooked by the hosts sister-in-law. There is a home-made chilli, lime and coriander sauce, chicken soup with big chunks of chicken, spicy pork which had been cooked in bamboo and roasted on the fire, various vegetables, fried with tasty secret recipe sauces and plenty of rice. It was a feast. After dinner it was straight to bed. All four of us sleeping on mattresses on the floor, listening to the rain outside.

The next day we crossed the border into Burma for the small market. I could not control myself, coming away with heaps of handmade scarfs made by the village people. Fisherman’s pants, bags, scarfs, jewellery, honey and other suspicious potions and animal heads were there to buy.

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After throwing baht left right and centre, we made our way to another local village for lunch. After filling our stomachs with glass noodles, rice and chicken we make our way to the flower garden. 50 baht entry and we were in to explore the fields of poppies, rows of roses and many other exotic, breath-taking plants that stood to attention. After we were satisfied with taking in so many colours and natural beauty we made our way back to our host’s home to again eat home-made food and drink rice wine that had us deep in philosophical conversations around the bonfire.

Next day after waiting for 4 hours for the torrential rain to subside we made our way back to the temple. Hearts full of the warmth of the hill tribe people and the kindness we experienced.

Soulless

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I am sat with my legs crossed having giving up with bending them into the lotus position. Straightening my back, I immediately question. ‘This may be too straight…The book says straight but not too straight…..Whatever that means. Ok so focus on the breath. This should be fine. I’m breathing all the time, how hard can it be? Breathe in breathe out. Should I be thinking about breathing? Should I count the breaths? Stop thinking. Stop thinking about thinking. Focus on the nose. Nice and easy, breathe in and out (someone coughs) oh well that’s ruined it….no just say ‘listening’ listening. Back to breathing’.

Anyone who is a beginner (or anyone who practices for that matter) to meditation can of course understand. I have ‘dabbled’ in meditation. Getting as serious with YouTube meditation videos as one can. I did at the time think it was going somewhere and maybe it was but of course ‘life’ gets in the way. The usual thoughts of ‘I can’t be bothered’, ‘it doesn’t make a difference’ or ‘I would rather sleep, eat, even work that sit here for even one minute more’. Why put off something as important as getting to know what is inside. And that there, is the scary part. Throughout my life I have suppressed my emotions. It’s what I do best. Outwardly, I’m all smiles, inside I am mentally ripping people’s heads off, but mostly just my own. This being the case, sitting with myself just observing what is lurking on the inside can be a daunting, even terrifying experience. But why?

I have just come back into the world after a 3 day silent meditation at the Temple. Not long but just enough to have some pretty big thoughts. One in particular is how long I have had these thoughts running rampant in my mind. How could I have not been in control of any of it? Just watching the breath left me shocked at how little control (well any control) I had. That was quite a scary realisation. I have thought back to even simple tasks such as eating and how I am not even ‘there’ when I’m eating. My mind is everywhere but in the present. Why is the present so difficult for us? Why are we always in the past or future? Oh but how I love to brood over the past. It was a particularly passionate hobby of mine, and one that I enjoyed even though it caused me continuous anguish. Thinking and analysing past ‘words’ with lovers, friends or family. What I/they should have said, what I wish I/they hadn’t said. Or even making up complete and utter fantasies in my mind with various people I know and actually working myself up into anger and jealousy over something that never and probably will never happen. The worrying thought is, if I let go of it all, then what will I have to stew over. Memories good and bad keep me entertained, and there lies the problem. I know through reading that the Buddha taught that there is no I, me, ego. This I find difficult to grasp yet I feel that I ‘understand’ deep down but my ego is not happy about it at all. This I know. But the most difficult teaching is that there is no soul. “According to the doctrine of Conditional Genesis, as well as of an abiding, immortal substance in man or outside, whether it is called Atman, ‘I’, soul, self or Ego, is considered only false belief, a mental projection. This is Buddhist doctrine of Anatta, No-Soul or No-Self”. (What the Buddha taught – Walpola Rahula)

That is quite a chunk of realisation to swallow to say the least. Thinking about it on a personal level, I realise how attached I am to ego but more so to the soul. It isn’t even the idea of the afterlife ,which would be the first thing to spring to mind. ‘Oh its ok if I completely make a mess of things in this life, I can always make up for it in the next one, if I decide I want to leave the heavens and all eternal bliss for another round here on earth’. For me it is the idea of ‘something’ inside me that is guiding me. It’s difficult to describe other than I always feel at peace thinking that my soul will guide me back on track if I should wander onto the wrong path. So far this ‘faith’ has (mostly) served me well. Then again, really it’s just another attachment. Looking for anything to cling desperately to, instead of looking inside as apparently therein lies the answers. The truth. I say apparently as I am yet to experience it although my meditation is improving, even if it’s just baby steps.

As with my previous post ‘let go’. This definitely seems an appropriate action to take when it comes to meditation. Expect nothing, want nothing and just let go.

Fang district

Sitting crossed legged with a bowl of suspicious breakfast food, I listen to the wild life that hums around me. The breakfast is eaten in silence. The focus is on the food only, not on what others are eating or wondering what will be your next meal. Your focus is on the now. Fuelling your body and being mindful of your thoughts and actions. I cradle the bowl and bring a variety of flavours to my mouth. Chilli, fish balls, rice, unusual vegetables with sharp flavours, pork and green leafy spinach. I try and eat slowly to savour the variety of flavours that assault my senses. Behind me sit the monks, dressed in their robes, silently savouring their food.  I have arrived at the temple.

I am easing into the routine slowly. My friend and I arrived in Fang after a 12 hour bus journey. We did not have VIP which was recommended, as I was so flustered when I arrived at Mo Chit bus terminal, I simply forgot to ask. We took our seats at the top of the double decker bus and were not disappointed with our seats. There was plenty of space, free water, cookies and lunch. We waved goodbye to the hussle and bussle of the city before entering the country side. Mile after mile of vibrant greenery, before we steadily made our way up the mountain road. We could feel the bus struggle as we climbed further and further, passing the lush green forest and the mountains that became increasingly intimidating as the darkness enveloped us. Soon it was pitch black with not a light to show us the way. Me and E looked at each other giggling nervously, grateful that there were two of us. I was certainly thankful that I had not made the trip alone!

12 hours later the bus stopped in Fang. I was expecting some sort of bus station but got a bench instead. We sat and waited….And waited. Knowing that there had been a communication breakdown with G (the monk who would be looking after us) we found a hotel behind Tesco (oh, Tesco you make homesickness bearable) for £6 each. We climbed into our beds, exhausted and the next morning made our way to the Temple, catching a bus that would take us to the temple 15 minutes away from the centre of Fang.

Here I am, living in the Temple grounds, surrounded by forest and nature. Each morning there are a variety of unusual noises, echoing from the vast mountains. Each morning the gong sounds and the temple dogs howl in delight, sending shivers down my spine. Roasters crow their morning song and the crickets hum steadily in the garden. The air is so fresh and warm in the day time but come night fall the bitter cold seeps through the wooden rooms and into my bones, causing me to wrap up with multiple layers. The silence here is something else. So peaceful that my mind and thoughts seem so loud and powerful that I have no choice but to ‘watch’ them. Wondering if they were always this loud, rude and selfish. It makes me wonder who I’ve been living with for the last 28 years, and why have I allowed my mind to run wild and mischievously, causing havoc not only to those around me but also myself. Always criticising, bullying and generally causing pain. Needless to say I am worlds away from my previous life in an office, staring at the screen, watching my life slip away minute by minute. I am overwhelmed with gratitude to whatever force pushed me into resigning and taking that leap of faith.