In December 2019, I was in Phuket, Thailand completing my teacher’s training in mindfulness and decided to do a ten day meditation in Bangkok. I have never done a meditation retreat near Bangkok. I have been to Khao Yai and Rayong for meditation retreats. Bangkok was never an option for me as I did not want to be near the city. Besides, I did not know of any teachers in Bangkok as I have always followed the teachers of the Thai forest meditation tradition started by the legendary Ajahn Mun.
I was not feeling physically fit then and felt I could not follow the rigours of practice in the Thai forest meditation. I wanted a long retreat in the forest, but at the time, I thought of doing a short retreat near the city, before heading home to complete my certification and return again to Thailand.
I had not expected the Covid-19 pandemic to put an end to international air travel and my aspirations.
At that short retreat, I met Mae Chee Brigitte (also known as MC Brigitte) who lives and teaches at Wat Prayong. MC Brigitte teaches introductory Buddhism to mostly Western travellers at Wat Prayong monthly. She also runs retreats in Europe and has regular students. I sought a quiet place to practice at Wat Prayong. The comings and goings of the many Thai visitors as well as some of the newbie Western meditators was not what I had in mind.
Nevertheless, I managed to practice with help from MC Brigitte and I began to be curious about how a Westerner like her from faraway Austria became a Mae Chee in Thailand.
First of all, Theravada Buddhism does not recognise fully ordained nuns. There were ordained nuns in this tradition found only in Sri Lanka and possibly in Myanmar. The Buddhist order died out in Sri Lanka due to war, drought and famine in the 11th century. The bhikkhus (ordained monks) in Thailand and Cambodia helped revive the monk’s order in Sri Lanka. But there were no bhikkhunis (ordained nuns) in these countries that could revive the women’s Buddhist order.
Thus, women could only practise as an eight precept or ten precept nun in these Theravadin Buddhist countries. It was not until 1996 that the ordination of women was revived in Sri Lanka. It is highly helpful to be fully ordained in Theravada Buddhism because this tradition relies heavily on support from the lay community for food, medicine, robes and lodging. Monastics in the Theravada tradition, unlike other traditions, do not handle money.
In Thailand, women could only practice as eight precept nuns. Thus, many do not receive the respect or help usually given to ordained monastics. Thus, it is admirable in my opinion for MC Brigitte to have stayed in Thailand to practice for such a long time.
The following is an interview with her. ..
When and where were you born? What religion did you grow up with?
I was born in the City of Salzburg in Austria as Brigitte Schrottenbacher in December 1962. My family is Roman Catholic. When I was young, I loved listening to stories of God and Jesus and wanted to be a good human being.
What caused you to start practising Buddhism?
I felt there is something really disturbing in life. I have to die, my loved ones have to die.
I had this fear of death after the birth of my second child. I feared the death of my loved ones. Although the feelings went away, I again felt it at the death of my partner’s grandmother. This uncertainty about life led to a kind of depression and that led me to practising yoga and later Buddhism.
Did you learn Buddhism in Austria? How did you end up practising in Thailand?
I went for a yoga course with a best friend. I experienced samadhi in the first yoga session I did. That was overwhelming, I never felt this way before. I got my first Vipassana instructions in Austria. My yoga teacher in Salzburg, seeing that I was getting serious about meditation practice, gave me the address of a meditation centre in Chachoengsao province in Thailand.
I went there in march 1989 and stayed for a 50 days intensive silent retreat under the guidance of Phra Acharn Thawee, an excellent Vipassana master of Thai Nationality and Phra Manfred, a German monk.
Can you tell us about your first Buddhist teacher?
Phra Acharn Thawee was the eldest son of a Thai-Chinese family. He never married and as the eldest son, he had to take over the family business with many ships that were fishing in the Andaman sea. One day he was out on one of those boats and they had caught a dolphin. He saw the dolphin having tears in his eyes. That day he stopped that job, passed the business to his nephews and became a recluse, practising alone in the forests of Thailand. After years in the forests he became a monk and studied with many teachers, also with Mahasai Sayadaw where he adopted his Vipassana practice. He taught for many years until he passed away in 1996.
What prompted you to stay in Thailand and to ordain as a Mae Chee?
After my 50 days retreat I was very happy and a hundred percent sure this is the way I want to live from now on.
It was a very difficult year of leaving behind not just my life and belongings in Austria but also my two children. I had to return to Thailand. So, I took them with me to Thailand but realised that staying in the temple as a nun with two small children was impossible. After a year, I had to bring them back to their father and to separate from them.
What was the most memorable experience for you practising under your Buddhist teacher in Thailand?
There are so many, but one of the first that I can’t forget is when I came to my first teacher one day with tears in my eyes and told him that I was thinking of my children. He listened and then turned his head to the right looking around and then to the left and then he asked, “What children?” It made it clear that all suffering is in the mind.
What did you learn the most in your time in Thailand?
My second teacher Phra Acharn Sangwahn taught mainly “know and let go”. Knowing the present moment, the present object and letting it go, don’t hold on to it, don’t get involved.
Not being careless, knowing (sati) and understanding (sampajanna) is important. Understanding the true nature of the object – it is impermanent (anicca), not satisfying (dukkha) or suffering and not under our control (anatta) or empty of a self.
What is the attitude of the monasteries and community towards Mae Chees in Thailand?
Well, to be honest Thai nuns are usually not that very much supported and respected. Many Thais think they became nuns because they had no other place to go. In the past it was the only refuge for women who had been rejected by their husbands. I have met so many buddhist nuns with high spiritual realizations. But usually they are quiet and humble.
I have done social projects to support buddhist nuns since 2001. As I have seen and experienced, it can be pretty hard to practice without much support.
You were ordained as a nun in Bhutan. How did that happen?
I met my third teacher, His Eminence Tsugla Lopen Samten Dorje Rinpoche in 2013 in Thailand through Khenpo Ugyen from Bhutan. He invited me to visit Bhutan and I was so impressed by this wonderful country and Vajrayana Buddhism. So I returned to Bhutan to do a one month retreat in 2014 under the guidance of Tsugla Lopen and after that retreat he gave me my second ordination into the Drukpa Kagyu lineage.
What is the status of nuns in Bhutan? Are they recognised?
There are only a few nuns in Bhutan. I have visited two nunneries, one was supported by private donors and one was supported by the queen mother of Bhutan.
It is just beginning to sort out facilities for nuns to study Buddhism. A lot of effort to support this was done by the Je Khenpo, the queen and my teacher Tsugla Lopen. I also have a project to support this project of my teacher.
Are there any differences between Buddhist meditation in Thailand and Bhutan?
Well, they are of different lineages, Theravada and Vajrayana. But I think they go the same way. It’s building up. I am very happy I could learn a lot in the Theravada practice. I saw some people who have started straight away with Vajrayana but had no insight in the basics like the four noble truths, trilaksana, and the noble eightfold path.
It is in my opinion not possible to go into a deeper understanding of the dhamma without those insights.
So my practice always starts with concentration, vipassana contemplation and continues with loving kindness, sharing the accumulated merit, and practising for the benefit of all beings.
Any advice for women interested in practising Buddhism full time?
Be where you are in the present moment. Know it’s true nature – impermanence, non-self and suffering, and let it be. No matter where you are, what you do. Even if you become a nun, it’s always the same.
Wisdom is not just found by sitting in meditation for many hours a day or studying Buddhism many hours a day. Wisdom is there every moment, just open your eyes and your heart.
Sure, listen to the dhamma, reflect on it and sit still to realize it. But it is there wherever you are and in whatever that happens!
TLDR: Is Metta Meditation really beneficial? Jin Young shares his own personal practice and his relationship with loving kindness meditation. A 30-min guided meditation is included. You’re invited to test it out for yourself.
When you don’t know what to do, try out metta or loving kindness meditation.
Encountering Metta MeditationMy first encounter with metta was listening to Imee Ooi’s “Chant of Metta ”. Imee’s voice was angel-like, saccharine and soothing. I especially enjoyed her chanting of the Metta Sutta in Pali language, albeit not knowing much about the actual meaning behind those words back then.
My mom would sometimes play the CD around bedtime, and I guess it must have had some sort of sleep-inducing effect, much like lullabies for babies.
Lighting My Fire Of Metta
When I was fifteen, I sat through my first metta meditation under the guidance of Ajahn Brahm. Ajahn explained that the cultivation of metta is analogous to starting a fire. You can’t start a fire by lighting up a huge log.
Rather, you need kindling, easily combustible materials for starting a fire such as papers or small little twigs. Once the fire is started, one then adds on larger and larger twigs before moving on to solid pieces of wood.
When the fire is well maintained, you can further grow it until the passion of loving kindness is strong enough to embrace the whole universe and even your worst enemies.
But first, we need to start with kindling. Ajahn told us to visualize someone whom we can readily feel and send loving kindness to. For me, it was my late grandmother who had taken care of me when I was young. She showered me with unconditional love.
“The door of my heart is open to you”
“I will take care of you”
“May you be safe, well and happy”.
With these words, I felt my chest and heart glowing with love and warmth. We then proceed to send similar thoughts and wishes to our other family members, friends, acquaintances, animals, and all sentient beings.
It was an empowering experience to meditate on metta with Ajahn Brahm. The flame of “metta” was passed on from Ajahn to us, and from us to our loved ones and on and on.
Keeping the Metta Flame Glowing
Since then, I’ve tried my best to keep this flame alive wherever I go. In Selangor, I joined the Buddhist Gem Fellowship and attended a weekly guided metta meditation by Datuk Seri Dr. Victor Wee, another lay-teacher and compassionate mentor.
Dr. Wee’s cues were slightly different from Ajahn Brahm’s, but the spirit of loving kindness was the same.
I brought the practice of metta meditation with me to Japan and China, where I studied abroad for four years. Whenever I missed my family, encountered negative events, or felt like I was stuck in an uncertain and helpless situation, I turned to metta meditation for help.
I like to believe that by sending my thoughts of loving-kindness to my family and friends, they are protected by my wishes, and become well and happy.
By sending metta to a professor or a superior, he or she would give me an A+ or a pay raise (I’m only half-kidding). By sending it to someone with whom I’ve had a negative encounter, relationships will slowly turn for the better, enmity and ill will shall be transformed into love and light.
No, Metta doesn’t Solve Everything
Of course, there’s no guarantee that metta will always convert “negativity” into “positivity”, nor is it a panacea for everything in life.
However, I believe that it can help transform the state of one’s mind – To face life’s suffering and problems with a heart of loving-kindness and gentleness.
Over time, as I became a yoga teacher and started leading mindfulness retreat expeditions to the Himalayas, I’ve developed and come up with my practice and cues for leading metta meditation.
These cues are of course consolidated from the various teachers mentioned above. During this pandemic lockdown, I decided to record a 30-min long guided metta meditation. I share it with anyone keen to explore and integrate this practice into their lives.
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” This quote is often attributed to Laotzu.
Can we make metta “loving-kindness” the character and destiny of our life?
If you find it hard to send loving thoughts in your mind, find a safe space and utter them out in words.
Make it a habit to randomly wish someone to be well and happy each day, whether it’s mentally towards someone you love or to random strangers on the streets.
Meditate at least once a week to reset yourself energetically and spiritually.
TLDR: Mindfulness practice is not limited to seated meditation sessions with closed eyes. With 4 simple steps, try cultivating an awareness of the present even on your next run.
In the Autumn of 2019, a continent and a half away from home, I picked up a tiny book from one of the many thrift stores in unassuming Birmingham. It was small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. Cheap enough that it cost a single pound. Yet what struck me most, was the title of Thich Nhat Hanh’s charming book How to Walk.
Sharing snippets on the essentials of mindfulness practice, the book is packed with short stories and illustrations of the impact mindful walking can have. The benefits are not limited to the person walking but also the world around them.
The book contains brief instructions on how slow, concentrated steps can be an opportunity to become more present. Although the contents of the book is short, walking meditation – or caṅkama in Pali – has had a long history, dating back to the Buddha’s time.
Resonating with its accessibility in my everyday life, even walks to the MRT station have become more enjoyable, despite the sweltering Singapore heat.
Yet for a working adult looking to pass his IPPT in a couple of months, long walks sometimes do not quite cut it. Naturally, I thought of taking it a couple of steps further (and faster), “Would it be possible to adopt the same concepts of walking meditation to running?”
This became a training technique for long-distance runners to tackle the limits of their mental restraints.
Ok enough evangelising. How can we apply mindfulness to our runs? At its core, mindful running is about being anchored to the present. While it may sound at odds with an activity that is moving you from one place to another with each passing stride, this is not impossible to do.
Here is a quick 4-step guide:
1. Pay Attention to the World Around You
Firstly, you can start by paying attention to the world around you as you pass them by. Next, pay attention to the steps you take. One way of making your jog a more contemplative experience is to notice all that is around you, both visually and auditorily.
People walking by. The swaying of trees. Chirping of birds. Buildings in their various forms and colours. There is so much to take in, and yet each scene and soundbite is never more transient as you run, changing with each bend you turn and each street lamp you pass.
Above all, remember to keep a lookout for where your feet are going to land.
Note: As tempting as it is to catch up on that podcast or to blast your workout track, paying attention to your surroundings means no earphones for this run. Road safety yo.
2. Tune into Your Breath
Running is the perfect opportunity for you to practice one of the most fundamental meditation practices: watching your breath. It may seem trite and impractical to do so as you are huffing and puffing your lungs away, but that is precisely the challenge it provides in honing your concentration.
Beyond noticing each breath, running allows you to also observe how your breathing changes over the course of the run.
How does it compare at the start, middle and end? How much does it change from stride to stride? Are you breathing through your mouth or your nose? These are a few of the things you can ask yourself, as you tune into your breath.
3. Be Aware of the Rest of Your Body
Next, mindful running is also an opportunity to better synchronise yourself with your body. As you run, do a body scan. Which part of the foot is hitting the floor first: is it the ball, the heel, the toes? How do your feet feel, as it rises up and lands back down? The snugness of your feet in your shoe. The stretching of your shirt as your arms swing to the cadence of your stride. Notice the tension of your muscles – from your neck to your shoulders, thighs to calves.
Body scanning during your run provides a platform to better understand your body. Scanning helps respond to signs that you should slow down, rest and recover – preventing injuries and improving wellbeing.
4. Be Non-judgemental
Most importantly, practising mindfulness in running is to practice non-judgement. When running, too often we are caught up in performance, metrics and timing, instead of the run itself. Running mindfully does not require you to go fast, nor slow.
Running is ultimately about moving, and seeing any pace as a good pace for a run. So as you engage in these mindful runs, ditch your smartwatch and IPPT goals.
Listen to your breath, body and the present moment instead. And even if you cannot, remember to practice non-judgement on yourself.
Staying Present With Movement
In all, mindful running is another way by which we can cultivate an awareness of our present moment as we engage in our everyday lives. I have found the principles of walking meditation and mindfulness to be a perfect accompaniment to my runs. It has allowed me to feel more connected to not just myself, but also my environment.
That said, not every run has been a mindful run. But just like how fitness builds with time, whether you are a beginner athlete or a semi-pro running veteran, maybe it is time to add another tool to your exercise regime.
Try running without headphones or distractions, just be in the moment
Be aware of the number of times your mind criticises or praises yourself for overtaking/falling behind other runners
TLDR: When we don’t understand death, life can be very confusing. Recognising death’s uncertainty, we not only do what we like but do what matters.
Death is a reality no one likes to talk about. An ex-co-worker passed away lately and so did a friend’s sister. Throughout my life, I have seen the passing of family members to acquaintances. Either by illness and even accidents – some were sudden while others took a while to die. They include the old and the young. Reflecting on death inspired me to write about the mindfulness of death. However, being mindful of death does not mean we constantly lament and harp on this fact till the last breath. It is about how understanding death helps us live a good life.
Awareness of Death
The unique ability of humans is our ability to be more aware of death compared to less intelligent life on earth. Despite this awareness, we do not pay much attention to it. What do I mean by paying attention to the reality of death?
We do not pay attention to the fact we have no control over the timing of our death. But yet we try to control everything else in our lives. We aim to live a good life measured by what we have or have not. We try to control our environment and others for this good life to happen. When in reality, if we cannot control when and how we die, how much control can we have over life?
This does not mean we give up on life to be lazy and lie down to sleep all the time. But the lack of awareness of death’s uncertain timing is a big reason most of us live stressful, discontented, and sometimes acrimonious lives.
The Good Life Is Linked To Death
When we don’t understand death, life can be very confusing. This is one of my favorite sayings of Ajahn Chah, a forest meditation master. A simple way to look at this could be imagining our last moments at death. I have reflected on this a lot. What would be the thoughts running through my mind in the last moments?
Do I want to busy myself and sweat the small things in my life? No.
Do I want to spend my life in a state of discontentment and blaming others for obstructing my well-being? I must admit, I had begrudged others in my youth but also noticed I was really unhappy. It is not something that I want.
Having a good career and boasting about it wasn’t part of my plan too. I saw early in my life how fame and wealth come and go. Through my reflection, I saw how nothing really mattered in our striving because it will all be forgotten with time. If I died and became nothing, would having fame, having a fantastic career, and having good food or living in a big house give me a sense of satisfaction at death? Even if I had a loving partner or family, I had to leave them at death and there is no satisfaction at all – having lost my mother to death made me realize this.
That was what I reflected on in my youth. There was mindfulness of death in me. But I had no answer to what makes a fulfilling life. I focused instead of doing what I liked.
Mindfulness of Death Helps Us Let Go
Growing up I had thought the purpose of life was to achieve things and be satisfied at death. Only to realize that satisfaction never lasts. There was this constant thirst to fill the emptiness of the heart.
What filled my heart was recalling the good I had done in my life. Lifting the spirits of an intern in my company to helping another youth find stability in her career and life. Recalling how I had helped others filled my heart. The achievements I had at work could not really remember. Even if I did, they did not fill my heart, compared to how I was able to help others in little ways I could.
A good life should be a life that is relaxed and joyful, without guilt or regrets. To be relaxed is to be able to let go at every moment. We could have goals in life. Goals from learning a new skill to climbing the career ladder.
Understanding that we can never really have full control of people or of our environment, all we can is to do what is needed at this moment and then let it go.
To let go does not mean we are lazy or we do not care. To let go is to know that we don’t know what will turn out the next moment so there is no point thinking or holding onto it. Even if we want to help someone, that person may not want to receive help. So, we can only take whatever opportunity there is to help and let go rather than force a person to receive help or to expect an outcome.
Filling Our Own Hearts
What really matters is our heart. Mindfulness of death in every moment allows us to let go. Letting go we allow ourselves to grow in patience and inner security. Patience because we allow things to unfold from our actions without needing control. Inner security because mindfulness of death makes us aware of our mind, speech, and action. They all have a consequence on our conscience. This helps us become responsible for our actions. It would not be very pleasant to die with regrets of hurting someone or living a selfish life with the time we have.
Calling to mind our last moments allows us to let go of the trivial negativities that we hold so closely.
Knowing that many things are truly not within our control, to cultivate patience without the need for control.
To guard our hearts against regrets and guilt, develop compassion towards ourselves and others so that our impending death may be peaceful.
TLDR: Meditation is not all fun without struggles. It takes time and effort. It doesn’t just deliver peace and calm. It doesn’t make you invincible like a superhero. Here are 3 things I wished I knew.
Meditation has a wealth of awesome benefits- such as increasing calmness, improving memory and IQ, reducing anxiety and depression. As such, it is not surprising that well-known names have adopted these practices to ‘up their game’ literally. From NBA’s best basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, to top cliff diver David Coltur, they have all sworn by the benefits of meditation.
They claim it sharpens their focus and prepares them for facing and managing highly stressful situations and powers their stellar performances. Meditation screams power, perfection and prestige. But is it really as such?
NBA star Lebron James as Calm Meditation App’s Ambassador
It’s easy to look at these glowing testimonials and have a wide-eyed naivety about what meditation can do for us. We may think, “Finally, something that can cure me of all my misery. I can be productive, successful and happy at the end of a 10 day Vipassana retreat!” This perspective most people have about the benefits of meditation is simply the product of marketing and branding in a world of “do more, be more, and have more”. However, the reality is not that fun. Here are 3 things I wish I knew before starting meditation.
1. Meditation Takes Time And Effort
Meditation is no different from any other methods of self-transformation. You need consistent practice over time to reap the fruits. While there is no exact time frame given for when one can expect to reap the fruits of meditation, the research by meditation app , Headspace and various mindfulness programmes suggest it takes 8-weeks to make changes such as increased neuron activities in different parts of the brain. Other research suggests a liberal estimation of 5 years for deep changes to be experienced by the meditator.
One thing that the body of literature can agree on though, is that the magic number for a consistent practice to experience the benefits is at least 3 times a week of 10–20 minutes practice.
Think of it as planting a mango seed- there needs to be consistency in watering the seed, protecting the sapling as it takes root against wild animals, bad weather and finally, taking care to remove weeds and pests that may grow as the plant matures. Eventually, with all the right conditions in place, you can take shelter under a beautiful mango tree while savouring the fruits of your delicious, sweet juicy ripe mangoes to your heart’s content.
2. When You Are Meditating, You Don’t Just Experience Calm And Peace.
Whoever told you that meditation was all about blissing out into cloud nine and thoughtless voids probably confused meditation with taking ‘weed’. Meditation is about developing an objective and non-judgmental attitude towards whatever that manifests in the present moment (as defined by the father of secular mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zinn).
This means whatever you face in life before you sit on the cushion- crippling anxiety, unresolved childhood traumas, anger issues, obsessive thoughts… will arise in your practice and unleash its full wrath. You will cry and you will break.
Evolutionary neurons in your brain will beckon at you to run, to hide, and to avoid thoughts you have hidden under the carpet for a long time.; But it is in staying with these moments of wreckage, and tuning into the ephemerality of this chaos that true acceptance occurs.
Meditation is not always an experience of peace, but always a training of peacefulness.
That, my dear friends, is the beginning of a beautiful healing.
3. Meditation Doesn’t Make You A Superhero
In this journey of life, we all come with different baggage, some heavier than others. We have to acknowledge our own limitations and be open to seeking and receiving help to lighten the load. Sometimes, meditation is just not the right support at the moment.
Imagine you are on your way to work and you get caught in a sudden downpour. You will need appropriate tools, such as a raincoat, umbrella or seek shelter indoors to keep yourself dry . You won’t just be standing there declaring “I’ve got an expensive $4000 water-resistant suit on, I’m safe!” Just because something is inherently high value, doesn’t necessarily mean it gives you power.
True power comes with being able to use the correct tool at the right time and right place. This applies to meditation too. Unfortunately, when it comes to our mental storms, some of us might be adamant about fixing ourselves only with our meditation practice, even though the depths of our struggles are well beyond what our muscle of mindfulness and acceptance can carry.
There could be a false belief that being spiritual or having a spiritual practice can bypass the immense challenges faced in one’s life, such as mental illnesses.
Sometimes, we just need professional help or to open up to the kindness of the community. It takes courage to be truthful to ourselves by acknowledging our sufferings. As someone who faces regular mood swings, I wished I knew earlier that my meditation practice doesn’t take away my right to be imperfect and to be a mess. In other words, it doesn’t make me a superhero and I don’t have to be one either.
In summary, meditation simply is a tool with wide-ranging benefits when mastered and applied skilfully; it doesn’t add to your identity or your personality.
It digs into what already is there – both the skanky and the dandy.
Facing your experience of being human after an eternity of distraction and avoidance is definitely not easy, so let compassion and acceptance light your path. Progress and maturity come with understanding. The human experience is complex and chaotic, and understanding that there is value to be found in every experience- even negative ones, and choosing to embrace them with kindness and discernment, is the definition of being alive.
May this reflection be helpful to all who begin their meditation journey, and may all find peace, healing and happiness. Inner change is the key to a better world. Hurt people hurt those around them.
If you are in a community, encourage open discussions and conversations on personal struggles and challenges. There is absolutely no shame in being a meditator AND feeling overwhelmed, and the more people talk about it, the less embarrassing it becomes.
Identify other tools that you can supplement your meditation practice with, such as journaling, yoga, breathing exercises and use the tools appropriately to each situation that you face in life.