TLDR: Learn from monastic life insights to navigate less-than-ideal conditions with acceptance, finding peace in life’s imperfections.
Writer’s Note: Hi Everyone,
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. It contains some things that I have found to be helpful for the practice. I hope that they will be as helpful for you as they were for me. 🙏 You may find Part I here.
Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional
One of my first realisations was that monastics are, like laypeople, not exempt from pain and suffering (surprise, surprise!).
As I was in Thailand during the hot season, the temperature was about 35 degrees Celsius in most afternoons.
My body became very inflamed (i.e. heaty) twice during that one month and resulted in large mouth ulcers.
While I was lucky that the monastery had some herbal cooling pills which helped with recovery, it was necessary to find ways to manage the pain. I found that complete acceptance of the body’s condition and strengthening mindfulness by continuously attending to breathing helped to lighten the mind substantially and the result is that one feels much less pain.
Alms round and painful walking
Alms round was also a very educational experience. It was painful walking barefoot on the road and the ball of my right foot cracked and bled after switching from a shorter route to a longer route.
There was a day when the pain became really intense. I knew I had to do something to continue as I was slowing down and my breathing was becoming very laboured.
I told myself “every step I take, I walk closer to Nibbāna” and a wave of release instantly rushed over me and brought tears.
These examples demonstrate that pain does not necessarily result in suffering if we make an effort to adjust our mind wisely.
Suppose it was the time of autumn, when the rain was falling heavily, and a bubble on the water forms and pops right away. And a person with clear eyes would see it and contemplate it, examining it carefully. And it would appear to them as completely void, hollow, and insubstantial. For what substance could there be in a water bubble?
In the same way, a mendicant sees and contemplates any kind of feeling at all … examining it carefully. And it appears to them as completely void, hollow, and insubstantial. For what substance could there be in feeling?
Why do we allow ourselves to be influenced by feelings when they are as transient and insubstantial as a bubble?
Pain is caused by conditions, but suffering is caused by the mind. If we simply rush to pleasure to numb pain, we will continue to suffer and bounce back and forth between pain and pleasure.
Conditions are just conditions
A mother cat gave birth to a litter of cute kittens at the monastery. Unfortunately, one of the kittens died (I’m not sure of the cause) and I happened to see it one morning.
When I saw it that morning near the eating hall, I took some time to observe it. Its body was still whole but its mouth was open with some blood vomited.
At that time I did not feel much as my mind was quite equanimous. Whilst I thought that it was an unfortunate situation, I shared merits and moved on.
The extent that we get caught up or blinded by worldly conditions is a matter of choice. While it does not mean that we cannot try to change our conditions, much is beyond our control, e.g. death.
As practitioners, we cannot simply blame our circumstances or environment and do nothing else. We have to process and contemplate wisely.
Whilst monastics usually have less distractions in life compared to laypeople and may have better conditions for the practice, it does not mean that laypeople are unable to practise as well as monastics.
The Buddha himself notes his lay disciples Citta and Hatthaka as role models and they were said to have awakened to the extent of Anāgāmi (Non-Returner).
When things are less than ideal
One may find it helpful for there to be a difference between what we choose to believe in internally and what we strive for externally, especially if there is a need to accept something that is less than ideal.
For example, “my job may not be ideal but it is good enough and I will continue until I find something else”. This technique helps to create acceptance and letting go.
Sometimes in life we just need to “suck it up” and accept conditions that are less than ideal in order to move on.
Try to “look on the bright side” as it is always a meritorious learning opportunity when we accept and deal with challenging conditions. Human life and society is not and will never be perfect.
While we can and may try to change certain conditions in life, not everything is within our control. We would be much happier if we develop patience and accept conditions that are beyond our control.
What is within our control is the condition of our mind. Change that instead.
How to practise better?
In order to suffer less, we need to uproot and release the causes of our suffering.
Firstly, it is crucial to reflect and understand ourselves better. We should contemplate and identify what are our main stressors in life.
It is beneficial to reflect honestly and sincerely on which of the five hindrances occur most prominently in our daily life.
The stronger any hindrance plays (or preys) upon the mind, the more suffering will occur whether or not one realises it.
Conversely, the more one acts skilfully to eradicate one’s hindrances and defilements, the less one suffers. I’ve suggested some tips at the end of this article which may be helpful.
It is beneficial to review why we want or think we need certain things, as well as the views we hold onto. A skilful practitioner will constantly investigate his/her desires and attachments and whether it is really necessary to have them.
One change I made was to stop judging whether I’ve had enough sleep based on the number of hours spent in bed and to make that determination based on how I feel instead.
That is because it became clear to me that one can sleep little and yet be full of energy if our mind is light and unencumbered, whereas one may not be refreshed even after spending many hours in bed if our mind is caught up or encumbered.
Peace and serenity come from our own minds. No one can give them to us.
More mindfulness helps
The next step to self-improvement is to develop and maintain mindfulness as much as possible throughout our daily life.
Monastic life highlights the dangers of not being mindful. I’ve dropped my alms bowl (while waiting to get food), tripped on my toe a few times during alms round, forgot to wear my slippers, and forgot to take my stuff (e.g. bowl, lower robe, sitting cloth).
These situations occur in lay life as well but we tend to see them as normal and acceptable as we prioritise and value being caught up in our labours.
The truth is that when we are not mindful, we are much less effective and the likelihood of saying or doing something unwholesome is much higher.
If we reflect on incidents or choices we regret in life and consider how we could have acted more skilfully, with some mindfulness we are likely to behave in a much more wholesome manner the next time similar situations occur.
One of the best ways to develop mindfulness is to place some attention on our breathing whenever we can even while attending to daily tasks. The more often we do this, the freer our mind becomes!
Change our habits by skilful means
I was told off by another monk for stepping on the wet floor after it was mopped as well as not mopping the way he asked me to. While I recognised that I could have been more mindful, his attitude did cause some painful feelings to the extent that it required some contemplation to resolve.
I told myself that I should have patience and develop compassion for him. I also reminded myself that while living the holy life, my conduct has to be impeccable.
It helped that I had the advice of a senior monk who agreed with my approach and I was able to continue helping with chores without reacting.
After some time spent working with that monk, I realised that he was particular because he was trying to do the best for the monastery. That realisation helped me to see him in a different light and I was pleased that I did not allow myself to react negatively.
In my second week, I maintained noble silence for 5 days. I realised that noble silence has to include not talking to yourself as inner speech is also distracting. That being said, it is skillful to talk to ourselves wisely in order to encourage ourselves in the practice.
Identify phrases and teachings that inspire you and use them often, e.g. say “well done” / “sadhu” to yourself when you do a wholesome deed or refrain from doing something unwholesome.
Every time you sit to meditate, say “this is freedom from suffering” and/or “this is what the Buddha did” (credit to Bhikkhu Anālayo). If we often speak unwisely, transform the inner speech first and the outer speech will also be changed for the better.
“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and intellect.
It is important to investigate what aspects and habits of our daily lives are actually dissatisfactory or stressful. Do your acts and thoughts create more happiness or unhappiness for yourself as well as for others?
Break unskilful and unwholesome habits by intentionally replacing them with skilful and wholesome habits. Most of us start our day by immediately jumping into our mundane work.
However, it is actually more beneficial to start the day with meditation and being mindful as it makes us more equanimous and develops a more balanced mind (credit to Ajahn Achalo for this recommendation).
I have also found it helpful to make vows that improve the standard of our practice (e.g. I vow to meditate daily), but vows that are about results may not be as helpful (e.g. I vow to have jhāna) as we do not have control over the results of our practice.
This can help us to develop wisdom and slowly change the unskilful parts of our character into more skilful ones. I’ve found it very beneficial to join practice-focused organisations such as the Dhamma Assembly For Young Working Adults (DAYWA). Having wise spiritual friends to support one another can help us resolve issues faced in our lives, especially when we feel safe enough to be open about them.
Many of us practise hoping for a good rebirth. There’s nothing wrong with that, but actually our practice also makes life better right now, not just in the next life. Why? Because our desires, attachments, and suffering will reduce when our practice improves.
Balance is key
“But when your harp’s strings were tuned neither too tight nor too slack, but fixed at an even tension, was it resonant and playable?”
“In the same way, Soṇa, when energy is too forceful it leads to restlessness. When energy is too slack it leads to laziness. So, Soṇa, you should apply yourself to energy and serenity, find a balance of the faculties, and learn the pattern of this situation.”
In order to practise well, we need to know and understand ourselves well so that we can skilfully adjust the string of our practice into one that is neither too tight nor too loose.
Explore more of the Buddha’s teachings
Every Buddhist tradition helps us to see the goodness that we all have within us. The historical Shakyamuni Buddha is part of every Buddhist tradition and he left an incredible wealth of wisdom for us.
Not to do any evil; to embrace the good; to purify one’s mind: this is the instruction of the Buddhas.
Patient acceptance is the ultimate fervor. Extinguishment is the ultimate, say the Buddhas.
For a more structured course on the Buddha’s teachings, consider attending the Dhamma Foundation Course at Buddhist Fellowship (held yearly, starting early 2024).
May we all continue to practise well.
Here are some simple techniques that may be helpful to address the hindrances:
When being overcome by sense desire, reflect and visualise the true nature of whatever that is the source of your craving e.g. body is a carbon construct that ages and rots, food is just unprocessed excrement, luxury items are just marketing and are not actually worth their (mental) cost. It’s ok to have some enjoyment from time to time but it is not ok to overindulge as excessive greed harms yourself as well as others.
When having ill will, reflect that whoever you dislike is just a construct of their choices and karma, they are just illusions (like yourself) and there is actually no real person to like or dislike (teaching by Ajahn Anan). If that does not work, tell yourself that you are the only one suffering by allowing your aversion to continue existing in your mind, and that everyone is subject to their own karma. Try to develop compassion for yourself as well as others as we are all suffering in samsara together.
When feeling lazy, tell yourself that you might actually die today from a bad fall, an unknown physical condition or a traffic accident, or that you are heedlessly wasting the limited time that you have left in this world.
When feeling anxious and when the mind is unable to stop thinking, have a warm shower or bath and listen to soothing music to calm down. Try to meditate and see that your continuous thinking and worry is pointless and tiring as people and conditions are just things that are beyond our control.
When feeling doubtful of the teachings, consider the fact that no matter what you think or believe, you are still suffering. But there is a way out of suffering and we should try to keep an open mind and perhaps clarify with teachers that we respect. If you do not already have a teacher you respect, Ajahn Anan is one of the most well-practised monastics and would likely be able to address your doubts.
TLDR: Cheryl shares her experience in attending a meditation retreat. She explores how she sought refuge from unsatisfactoriness, learned to understand and accept suffering as natural, and reduced conceit through mudita and gratitude.
From the 18th to 25th of February, I had the great opportunity to attend Ajahn Anan’s ( a renowned teacher from the Thai forest tradition) meditation retreat in person in Wat Marp Jan, Rayong, Thailand. Thankfully, the right conditions were present, such as having supportive health, work, and family conditions. Therefore, I was able to attend and complete the retreat as planned.
It is not uncommon that people full of faith in their hearts sign up, and make payments, but due to unexpected illnesses or personal matters, are unable to make it. Thus, I cherished the rare opportunity and sought to try my best in absorbing as much as I could from a teacher I respect and admire.
The routine and living conditions in the retreat were basic but were adequately comfortable. As a lay female devotee, you live in a shared two-floor dormitory with 50 other female retreatants, with no air-conditioning or private toilets. You rest on a thin mattress and a small block of cushion as a pillow to lay your head on.
The environment was void of any luxuries or excesses, providing a conducive environment to sustain and live simple lives as we spent 8 days practising the path of virtue, concentration, and wisdom.
The programme begins at 4:30 am, and consists of many hours of sitting and walking meditation, chanting sessions, 2 to 3 Dhamma talks and QnAs every day, communal chores, and the best part, one vegetarian meal a day.
As city-dwellers used to the 3Cs of Comfort, Convenience, and air-Conditioning, many of my colleagues and friends couldn’t hide their surprise. “Why put yourself through such ‘torture’?” is one of the many questions I got.
I guess what the question is really pointing to is: What are you searching for so desperately?
I was seeking refuge, to escape the chaos and hotness of the mind, swirling and spinning with the worldly winds of gain and loss, pain and pleasure, praise and blame, and fame and disrepute.
Here are 3 things I can only hope to summarise:
Understanding unsatisfactoriness is not the same as having unsatisfactoriness
There’s no “I” in total control over “my” body and mind.
Reduce conceit through mudita and gratitude
Understanding unsatisfactoriness and looking it in the eye
Before the retreat, I was a total wreck. I was extremely anxious over the possibility of losing my job, my mental state and physical health were all out of whack due to personal matters.
One may say, with all of this chaos, that I am well acquainted with the Buddha’s first noble truth of suffering, and I thought so too. I was self-proclaimed to be an expert on suffering. “Life sucks, life is so painful,” I would lament to anyone who would care to listen.
I experienced immense suffering, but I was ignorant of the truth that suffering is an inevitable part of life—and a large part of my suffering accumulated because I did not want to suffer.
I did not want to be separated from what I loved, I did not want to be associated with what I disliked. By fighting the experience of dukkha, unknowingly, I was just deepening my suffering and creating conditions for more suffering to arise.
“Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are suffering; association with what is not loved is suffering, separation from what is loved is suffering, not getting what is wanted is suffering. In short, the five clinging aggregates are dukkha. Stress should be known.
The cause by which stress comes into play should be known. The diversity in stress should be known. The result of stress should be known. The cessation of stress should be known. The path of practice for the cessation of stress should be known.”
Learning this noble truth helped me soften my attitude towards suffering. As many wise monks often say, “When one experiences happiness, it’s just like this; When one experiences sadness, it’s just like this.”
Instead of grasping tightly to the experience of suffering as mine and as something that “I should deal with” or “I should not have”, I observe the experience as something that arises, stays for a little while, and ceases. Just as fire needs the conditions of heat, oxygen, and fuel to arise, as long as the mind is still conditioned by greed, hatred, and delusion, suffering will still arise.
And the practice was to accept that the experience of a constricted mind wanting freedom is just like this, the pain of clinging is just like this, the unreasonable demands of craving are just like this, and to patiently endure till the experience ceases accordingly.
Thankfully, nothing ever stays forever and the longest a sensation lasted was 6 breaths, before the suffering ceased on its own.
In accepting suffering as something natural, and an experience that arises due to causes and conditions, I also learn to have more compassion towards myself.
Just as how one would sympathise and care for a toddler who is learning to walk and keeps falling over many times, I am reminded by the wise words of Ajahn Achalo to not underestimate the power of our negative habitual tendencies and mental afflictions, and be forgiving to ourselves as we stumble and falter in the journey.
You would not berate the toddler for falling down as he learns to walk, so do not berate yourself as you make mistakes or have unwholesome thoughts.
And lastly, understanding that Dukkha is an inevitable experience of the human condition also expands the compassion to all beings.
Regardless of whether one is clothed in Gucci or in tattered rags, living in a huge mansion or a tiny hut, everyone will have to experience the same burdens of birth, ageing, and death; of sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair; of association with what is not loved, of separation from what is loved, and of not getting what is wanted.
Thus, let’s be unconditional in our compassion for fellow compatriots in old age and sickness.
There’s no “I” in total control over “my” body and mind
Anatta is the concept of non-self, which teaches that there is no permanent, unchanging entity within an individual. In the Anatta-lakhana Sutta, Buddha addressed the group of five and shared:
“Monks, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’
The process of contemplating my mind and body was truly humbling as I had to surrender to the fact that there is a complete lack of control in shielding my body from afflictions no matter how much I tried. As much as I try to keep healthy and maintain hygiene, my body still falls ill and deteriorates and experience pain/sickness in almost every part.
Think of the hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, skin, teeth. Have you not experienced blisters, cuts, itches and aches, falling off and bleeding in these areas?
And if the body was truly mine, why was I not able to avoid feeling painful sensations? If the body was truly self, wouldn’t I be able to stop a cough or sneeze and be less disruptive in the Dhamma talks?
But alas, the body is not mine to control, not something I own, and is merely a machine just reacting to causes and conditions, deteriorating every day till it ceases to function anymore.
Likewise, if the mind was truly mine to control, shouldn’t I be able to control my thoughts and feelings and not be distracted when I didn’t want to?
My life has always been geared towards creating a stronger sense of control by getting what I want. With this delusion, the mind was constantly in this agitated state of wanting more and more pleasure, excitement, and enjoyment, but the craving is never ever satisfied. Oddly, the more I had, the more I wanted. Craving is not fulfilled through satisfying it.
Letting go of the sense that I had to be in full control for even just a tiny moment felt so liberating because I can just rest in a content mind, and be at ease with the present moment. The mind can finally stop chasing, and this letting go leads to the heart feeling full. Thus, contemplating on how little control one has over your mind and body can be a skillful means to bring the restless mind to stillness.
Furthermore, understanding how little control I have has also enlightened me about my own mortality. Perhaps I could die by mid-morning, perhaps I could die in the afternoon, perhaps I could die at night. Life is uncertain, and we will never know when or how we will die, but death will certainly reach us.
As one who may be intoxicated by our youth, health, and life, the idea of a near-death may seem improbable, but no one can confidently say for a fact that it is impossible.
This reflection on death also brings about energy when the mind is slacking in sloth and torpor, distracted in restless thoughts, anxiety, or sensual desires. It can therefore be also used as a skilful means for contemplation.
Practice Mudita and gratitude to reduce conceit
In the Sona Sutta, the Buddha speaks to the householder Sona regarding conceit.
“If one regards himself superior or equal or inferior because of the body, [likewise ‘feeling,’ ‘perception,’ ‘mental formations,’ ‘consciousness’] that is impermanent, painful and subject to change,what else is it than not seeing things as they really are?But, Sona, whatever recluses and Brahmans do not hold such views… What else are they but those who see things as they really are?”
Due to the conditioning of ignorance present in my mind, and the mind still clinging firmly to my five aggregates, the proliferation of conceit always arose in my mind.
As I walk, thoughts screaming for attention will go “Look at me, look at me! I’m better than them!” and then in the same vein, it will swing to the far end. “Oh my god,but I am worse than xxx!” and then sometimes “Ok lah, at least we same same!”
It was fascinating to observe how the mind see-saws endlessly between feeling pretty good about itself, to becoming awfully self-loathing and stricken with anxiety. It is painful, yet almost absurdly comedic. Ajahn Anan describes this sense of self as the “us-them” or “me-you” narrative that goes on and on and on, creating so much Dukkha along the way if left unchecked.
What I found helpful was to bring up the wholesome mindstates of appreciative joy. As Buddhists, we often use the term “Sadhu”, which means to rejoice or say “well done!” But how many of us actually take the time to truly appreciate how rare it is for another person to be walking on the Noble Eightfold Path, or appreciate how much goodness may arise from one seeing the importance of doing good, practising virtue, and purifying the mind?
Sadhu for me has always been a ritual, something you do because everyone around you says it. However, the teachers kindly reminded us to not underestimate it but to bring it up to the forefront of our mind constantly.
In practising appreciative joy, I find that rejoicing in the good deeds and success of others not only uplifts and lightens the mind, but it also reduces the unwholesome qualities of greed in the mind. I stop needing to put others down to feel better about myself, and simply feel better in the happiness others experience from getting what they want or enjoying the fruits of their labour.
Ajahn Achalo half-jokingly puts it, “It’s the easiest way to gain merit without putting in all the hard work!”
Similarly, practising gratitude is also immensely helpful to move the mind from a place of conceit to humility. Whenever thoughts of conceit arise, such as “my wisdom is superior,” “my body is equal”, “my meditation is inferior”, I recall all the people I am thankful for.
This reminds me that what I perceive to be mine are merely the byproducts of the generosity, wisdom, and compassion of so many people around me, as well as the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.
Without all these, what I proudly claim to be “mine” would have never even existed. What is experienced as “mine” is merely a ripening of kamma stitched together by various causes and conditions. Thus, this serves as a reminder for me to be heedful of speech, thoughts, and actions, as I will be the owner and heir of the kamma ripening, be it wholesome or unwholesome.
The retreat was a deeply challenging yet transformative one, and the end of it is only the start of a commitment to a life-long practice. As the bus journeys from the monastery compound into the “real world”, it is important to recollect that time also does not pause as we journey one second at a time into old age, sickness, and death. So, make the best use of our limited time here to do good, avoid evil, and purify the mind.
Whenever you are suffering, take a deep breath and use the mantra “It’s just like this.” to remind you to stop resisting the experience.
Contemplate the body as not a “self” I can control, not a “mine” I own.
Keep a gratitude log and genuinely rejoice in another person’s virtue and success.
TLDR: Meditation retreat can give the impression of being a restricted period. Keeping an open mind, one may be surprised by the depth of learning from the experience – in our own external behaviour and internal reflection.
I had an opportunity to attend an 8-day meditation retreat at Wat Marp Jan in Rayong, Thailand in February. It is a serene forest monastery following Ajahn Chah’s tradition located southeast of Bangkok, headed by Ajahn Anan. It’s the second meditation retreat I’ve attended (the first was with Ajahn Brahmali in Batam, Indonesia just a few months prior) and I credit this chance to the ripening of merits accumulated 🙂
This second retreat is totally different for me. Both Venerable Ajahns have their own styles of teaching and the environments were different too. Considering retreatants were housed in the dormitory within Wat Marp Jan compounds, one can expect to have a front-row view of certain aspects of monastic life.
I’d like to share some memorable experiences at Wat Marp Jan, or perhaps as encouragement for others who are considering such a retreat. As it is a rather long reflection, the article would be presented in two parts: Part 1 on external observation and Part 2 on internal observation.
Change in the external environment
Arriving at Wat Marp Jan, the females were dropped off at the female dormitory just below the Eating Hall. The dormitory was simple, but clean and tidy. Retreatants were to keep noble silence throughout the period for a more supportive practice. This included surrendering mobile phones for safekeeping at the beginning of the retreat period.
Keeping silent is not new to me, a practice that I’ve come to enjoy occasionally to bring calm to the mind (side reading for those interested in understanding the quiet ones). This was the longest period that I’d kept silent, and it may turn out to either be a boring or restless period.
This may very well be the case if one hasn’t developed stable concentration or if the mind contains many defilements.
My mind floated between quiet and noise initially, but it was probably an overall supportive environment for me. With no distraction from mobile phones and unnecessary chatter, a general sense of peace arose.
Having a history of physical injury, I was quite apprehensive about whether the living conditions (we slept on a very thin mattress on the floor) would trigger the old lower back pain. Aches did surface throughout the week, but fortunately, it was bearable and could be alleviated with regular stretching exercises during daily personal time.
The daily schedule consisted of meditations, chanting, Dhamma talk, and personal time. The depth and intensity of the practice may be determined by one’s choices.
Although the meditations were more suitable for practitioners with some experience, as they were self-directed. Of course, one can choose to sit for multiple shorter sessions if that’s more appropriate for their situation.
There were times when guilt and shame surfaced: “Why can’t I sit as long as the others?” But eventually, I accepted that this was where I started and I could only continue from there. I tried to use the bodily sensation as a meditation object: the aches are a result of the body’s condition, not something I can control. It helped to lighten the mind during practice.
I’ve always enjoyed meditating out in nature. Knowing this condition, I fully utilised the opportunity during garden meditation and walking meditation during the personal time – where I experienced deeper concentration.
While I couldn’t control the outcome, I could still find a more supportive environment to support the sitting.
Bowing is a regular activity for Buddhists. It’s common practice to bow to the Buddha statue when we enter the hall; to Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha during chanting; to the teacher before and after a Dhamma talk; to a more senior monk after a meditation session; at any time to express a sense of respect.
One may think that if they need to bow multiple times in a day, bowing could turn into an automated mindless activity.
Before this retreat, I used to find the act of bowing to the Buddha statue awkward — not quite sure how deep to bow, where to keep my hands, and how long to remain bowing. Strangely, I experienced bowing in a new light this time. For me, it has turned into an expression of gratitude, humility, and reverence.
The simple act of kneeling and lowering my head to the floor turned into a ritual of entering into the space, calming myself down, and truly expressing my gratitude. I am now more mindful of the meaning behind this ‘automated’ action.
Chores or cleaning around the monastery was also a daily occurrence. Four of us were assigned to the public toilet by the monastery gate. I was gladly surprised by the respect and good attitude of the lay visitors who used the facilities with care. The conditions were as good as or even better than typical public toilet facilities.
After a couple of days, the four of us found the best arrangement to complete the chores with little speech and quietly went about our roles.
Not many people will be particularly happy cleaning public toilets, but a light attitude can be felt by all of us.
Three of us even spent some time afterwards helping sweep fallen leaves in the entrance area. We found the act of sweeping a meditative one, not to clean the space but purely to sweep the leaves. We saw how the leaves would continue to fall even after we swept the area and we just needed to continue forward – like one of Ajahn Brahm’s famous quotes: “what’s done is finished” 🙂
There were 2 chanting sessions each day, in the morning and evening. Morning chanting verses were quite fixed, while there were slight variations for evening chanting verses.
I realised that after each chanting session, the mind was more settled to continue into either meditation or Dhamma talk.
I particularly enjoyed the evening chanting in the main Uposatha hall, where I could feel the vibration of everyone’s unified voice and energy. Even the higher-paced and longer verses didn’t bother me much, the activity sent a jolt of energy into the body and mind.
Returning home, I registered for Wat Marp Jan’s evening Zoom session to continue this practice where possible. The energy level is muted by the distance, but good enough as an anchor for me to maintain the practice.
This is the first-half of my reflection on the retreat. It may spur readers to become curious themselves, or it may turn into a deterrent. Nevertheless, I hope it can serve as a consideration for those who would like to have some insights before making their decision.
When there’s an opportunity to participate in a meditation retreat, trust the faith to guide us.
Keeping silent can turn out to be chaos or peace, it’s on us to cultivate supportive conditions for peace.
Reflecting on the purpose behind the small actions, we may find a deeper meaning to carry into daily life.
TLDR: We often go through life unaware and miss out on the treasure in our heart. The jewel within that is self-awareness is this treasure that differentiates humans from animals.
What is self-awareness? We use this term to describe whether someone is self-aware or not. For example, I never thought that my father had no self-awareness when I was young. He was and still is quick to anger, dislikes any slight form of challenge (depending on who the challenger is), and loves to pick on me. I had thought that he just hates me for reasons unknown.
But as I grew older and encountered some new age spiritual books and later rational teachings by the Buddha, I realised my father has no self-awareness. Although realising his denial of this inner awareness changed my feeling of low self-esteem (being the object of his tirades) to compassion, I feel sorry he does not see the jewel within that is self-awareness.
What is Self-Awareness?
Self-awareness theory is the ability to see yourself clearly and objectively through reflection and introspection according to positivepsychology.com. Although it is not possible to attain total objectivity about yourself based on the theory, there are degrees of self-awareness and it exists on a spectrum. Having inner awareness allows you to accept yourself, see the perspectives of others, change yourself, communicate better and to make better decisions.
When I was a young adult, positive psychology and studies into self-awareness was at its nascent stage. I never thought I had awareness of myself.
I thought that being able to see others’ perspectives, probe my values and how others see me, was me being overly sensitive or having empathy.
I thought my ability to reflect caused much suffering because those around me who did not reflect much, seemed to enjoy life better. They were happy with sensual pleasures such as food, exercise, travels and work while I felt there is something more than these things in life.
Thus, instead of being glad I have a tendency towards self-reflection, I detested it. It made me miserable. I wasn’t able to occupy myself from one thing and the next like the others do. I read and reflected a lot on philosophy.
This inner sense that something is not right with the general purpose in life (to work, earn and buy a home or get married) disturbed me.
I even rebelled against such a life cycle by wanting to be different. Unfortunately, I did not encounter Buddhist teachings till my 30s.
The Difference Between Humans and Animals
I was teaching a Buddhist class recently and shared how the contemplation of death can bring about a purpose in life. Based on the dhamma talk given by Ajahn Anan, he asked what is the purpose of life? He said if we ask this question, most people would not be able to answer. He added that most people live to fulfil their physical duties (work for food), eat and sleep. They repeat this cycle until the day they die. He asked, if this cycle of life is different from that of a chicken? A chicken too forages for food, eats and sleeps until it dies.
Until I encountered the Buddha’s mind training, I wished I had no self-awareness. What is the purpose of being aware of myself when I suffer pain and death? I’d rather not know. Moreover, my reflections were a torture more than a joy because others said I think too much.
But being able to be aware of the self, is what differentiates us from animals. It is also this quality that produces human intelligence.
Ajahn Anan continued to say, if we do not utilise our intelligence and mindfulness, we are no different from animals. His words made me thankful today that I have a sense of inner awareness.
The Purpose of Having Awareness
Why is having an inner sense of awareness considered having a jewel within? Without an inner awareness, we cannot embark on the path, whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhism or even scientific inquiry to find out what we really are. Our lives would be buffeted endlessly by the vicissitudes of life while we strive over and over to find impermanent solutions that are outside of us.
Self-awareness is used to great heights in the teachings of the Buddha. One can realise the liberation of the mind through inner reflection, and probing into what makes up the self.
The self is made up of the mind and the body. Both the sensations of the body and mind are conditioned by the objects our senses come into contact with. The sensations arising from our contact with objects of our senses come and go and are impermanent.
Due to our wrong views that what we come into contact with are permanent, we cling. For example, someone may make a passing critical remark and we hold onto that remark as attacking our permanent self. We may feel insulted. This causes ill will to arise, even if the person who made that remark forgets about it entirely because s/he is not mindful. This is not to say we become doormats for people to be rude or to criticise us, but there is no need to hold on and hurt ourselves. We can simply inform that person and forget about it.
We neglect to see what we see as the self, is easily collapsible. The more we hold onto having a precious self, the more fear and ill will can arise. In today’s world, catching a virus such as Covid-19 can kill us. Taking the vaccine may also kill us. In fact, natural disasters can also easily kill us. We are unaware of our vulnerabilities. St. Teresa of Avila asked, why do we crave living so much when there are so many uncertainties? She was a Catholic Carmelite nun living in the 15th century and had several episodes of ill health that nearly took her life.
The Buddha taught us to build our self-awareness – the ability to be objectively aware by first quieting the mind through the practice of virtues and meditation.
With our awareness sharpened by these practices, we begin to see in our mind the constant flux of things – such as the impermanence of materials and our thoughts about them. Seeing the constant flux teaches the mind to let go instead of clinging onto things.
Ajahn Anan often extols in his talks that we never know when we will die. The body does not belong to us. Make use of the body we have towards the true purpose of life – to build treasures in our heart (the cultivation of the heart in love, compassion, joy and equanimity) with the path taught by the Buddha before we die. It is our unenlightened hearts which clings that go on, we cannot take the body or our material possessions with us upon death.
If you find yourself reflecting on your actions and values, you have a sense of self-awareness. Be glad that you have this jewel in your heart!
Cultivate and strengthen your self-awareness with meditation.
Utilise your awareness to look within to see a constant change in your mind and body and find out what you are.