Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Meditation FAQs



Two weeks ago in this column, we talked about the fairy-tale life of our friend Collette, who, like many contemporary Thais, has subconsciously suffered deep-rooted depression stemming from the political hullabaloo of the last few years.

Having led a perfect life before the depression hit, Collette did not realize what she had been missing until she went to a mindfulness meditation retreat.   What happened afterwards was a pure miracle.   Until the day of this writing, Collette still enjoys her daily surprises in the form of flashes of wisdom as she goes on living her busy life happily, thanks to her faithful, 30-minute-a-day walking and sitting meditation practice.

What is more surprising, to the author at least, is the amount of feedback the author received from that article on Collette's life. Some found it inspiring, saying it made them even more curious and interested in going to a retreat themselves.  Some who have already gone to the retreat forwarded that article to their friends who have yet to do so.   Some wondered if this fairy tale would be really possible for everyone. Others mused how long this "honeymoon period" of our protagonist would last.

Honestly, these questions sound pretty much like the 'Frequently-Asked Questions' (the FAQs) the author and those who have gone to a retreat always received in our daily life. M  ay be it is a good idea, then, to answer them here for the benefit of all readers.


Is such an amazing experience possible for all?

Yes. Seriously. And this is the most amazing thing about the miracle of mindfulness meditation. The practice is pretty straightforward: you reap what you sowed.  And, like we discussed two weeks ago, the author's friend did give 100% of her effort during the retreat.

Come to think about it, may be she actually gave 150% and, consequently, received such an enviable result!   As someone who enjoys a good life (meaning a gourmet's life) who is approaching the so-called 'golden age,' Collette has a slight physical challenge regarding sitting on the floor, even with supporting cushions.   As a result, she sustained more discomfort, not to mention more of the occasional meditation-induced pain, than most of us.

The highest wisdom in Buddhism, it should be noted, starts with one's ability to see the nature of suffering and understand it.    Fortunately for Collette, what she initially perceived as her drawback turned out to be her blessing in disguise.   For it was through her pain that her first true flashes of wisdom arose.    A very defining moment, it propelled her to a higher state of mind, a state that enabled her to sit with the pain with a smile. Right from that day until the end of the retreat.

Looking back, Collette said she realized that the pain-conquering experience alone is such an invaluable life asset. She now knows how to handle any physical or mental challenges in her life, right into the very last days of it.   Having seen grandparents and older relatives in their last moments, Collette knew how dreadful the pain for the terminally ill could be. When one becomes very ill with the kind of pain that modern medicine can no longer help, it is this very skill, mindfulness meditation skill, that we humans need the most.

Before going to the retreat, Collette never knew that, like everybody before her who gave 100%, she also has the capability to cultivate this valuable pain-conquering skill.    If the author had told her that she could acquire that in seven days, Collette would probably have said the author was crazy. Now it is Collette who enjoys telling her family and friends of that defining moment of hers, the moment she gained wisdom through the pain.

The lesson of this story is, do not worry that your physical condition may be a hindrance to your chance to gain wisdom from meditation.    For each one of us, there would be the most suitable conduit through which the Dhamma would occur. For Collette, it happened to be through a pain that was heightened by her physical condition. What would yours could be? Don't you want to find out?


How long would the "honeymoon" last?


There are two aspects of the meditator's "honeymoon period" that the author would like to address.    First, the meditation-induced "high" or various kinds of Piti or Vipassanupakilesa. Some positive, meditation-induced physical and mental phenomena could last days, weeks, or even months.    Soon, the Dhamma would reveal itself, though, no "high" would last forever.   And that would be when the value of the second aspect would shine.

The second aspect, the one that is more lasting, is the wisdom-induced peace of mind.    While less stirring than the "high," it proves to be the more meaningful one of the two.    This is especially true for those who continue to practice mindfulness diligently every day after coming out of the retreat, like our friend Collette does.

In other words, by repeating the techniques we learned from a retreat in our daily life, we are in essence re-living the retreat experience every day.   This means more meditation-induced wisdom.    Accompanying that unique type of wisdom is the state of mind that feels relieved and at peace.    And this is the most difficult part to describe to those who have yet to go to a retreat.

It starts when the mind "knows." Knows what?    You have to find out yourself in a retreat.    It is something that no words can describe because it is truly beyond everyday cognitive experience.    All the author could say is that what the mind knows would make you feel good unconditionally.    Well, with the world currently in a state of both political and economic mess, nothing beats the ability to feel good unconditionally, dear readers.    Just ask Collette.

Useful tip for "the returner"

Now, a useful tip for Collette herself and those like her, someone who just returned from their first meditation retreat. Tell people around you not to expect an angel!    Most likely than not, no matter how unbelievably good the experience we might have had from our retreat, we are nowhere near the state of the Arahantship yet.    This means we are still subject to experience the usual mental defilements, be it anger, disappointment, fear, desire, or any other mishaps.    The difference is that we would be able to deal with it better and get over it faster, that is all.

The more we continue to practice, the better our "mindfulness engine" would be, meaning the faster we will get over those nasty moments and the better we can handle it.    So, the next time you amaze those around you with your new-found "magic," be it with your incredible patience or your Zen-like calm, tell your wide-eyed audience that this skill is not definite yet.   You still can't switch to the "enlightened-mode" on-demand, you can say, but you are enjoying every minute making progress towards that.

See you in two weeks.    Until then, let us stay mindful.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It Could Happen to You


You Travel Far to Discover Home by Ben


“Fairy tales can come true. It can happen to you... if you're young at heart.”  


Well, although what you are about to read now is not exactly a love story, it does have its fair share of love.   The reason we have this headline is because, while the author was gathering thoughts for this piece, this very phrase actually popped up in mind.


Being a true believer in intuition, the author decided to stay with it.   Who knows, this headline might draw the attention of someone out there who normally does not care to read this humble column, especially the romantic type!


Today we are going to look into a real life story of one of the author's friends from high school years.   She kindly allowed the author to share her story with the readers because she also believes it would really benefit someone who may have led a life similar to her.   In other words, she also believes that it could happen to you, dear readers.


Could it be you?

Enters Collette (her French nickname, given by our French teacher in high school).   Collette used to believe that she has always had a decent life.   And the author agrees with her. She is a bright lady brimmed with so much energy that she always electrifies everyone around her.   And because of that, she has always been an achiever who has done great things not only for herself but for others around her as well.


Since high school, Collette made it to the university and faculty of her first choice and thoroughly enjoyed her college years. Then, she went overseas for her masters'.   Coming back to Thailand, she fell in love and got married with a good-looking, respectable gentleman who dotes on her and who has also won the heart of her family.


If that alone is not enough.   Collette has more.   She always got to do what she wanted to do, not only in her career, but also in social work which is as important to her life as her family and work.   She made some decent investment in real property and stocks and she was able to live comfortably.


Collette travelled a lot, both in Thailand and abroad.   A life-long educational advocate, she always enjoyed learning new things and became the indispensable source of information when her friends need help.   From health care to travel tips to restaurant recommendations, all you have to do is to give Collette a call. You won't be disappointed.


A perfect life, you might say.   What more could a lady ask for? Children?   Well, she and her husband do not have any but that was also their wish.   She is busy enough now with her beloved nephew and never felt that her life is missing anything.


This first part of fairy tale's life was abruptly disrupted recently, when Thailand has entered a period of political and social mess. Being highly social-minded (she spent six months in Phuket helping victims of the 2004 Asian Tsunami), Collette felt exhausted. She developed some kind of deep-rooted depression that slowly built up in her subconscious mind.   She felt that no matter what she did or tried to do to help the society, we are still in a big political, social, and moral chaos.


No matter how much love and dedication her husband, family and friends gave her, Collette was not able to shake off that heavy feeling.   It took a toll on her health.   One day, she found herself crying at night, not knowing exactly why she did so.


Being a courageous lady, she thought she could tough it out like she used to do with any other issues in life.   It turned out that she could not.   For three months, Collette found herself crying every night.


No matter how much merit she tried to do, no matter how many good activities she tried to engage herself in, her depression did not go away.


Collette was crying when she called the author one evening. She did not know what was happening to her.   After trying to calm her down and give her some positive encouragement, the author invited her to come along for a mindfulness meditation retreat.


Although Collette knew that it is a good thing to do, especially if you are a Buddhist, she did not agree to go immediately.   In other words, she still could not connect how mindfulness meditation could help her in the real world, in her daily life. Instead, she turned to a life of nightly parties.   She tried to travel abroad even more often. But she could not get away from the depression in her own mind.


The author could not remember how long time went by until Collette gave another call.   Perhaps it was months later.   This time, she was more composed.   Sensing that she might be ready to go now, the author invited her again, "Hey, I'm going again in two weeks' time.   Wanna join?"


Without hesitation, Collette said, "Yes, can you please book a place for me?"


The author literally jumped with joy.   "Yes!" was the reaction that spontaneously sprang up in the author's mind.   For the author knew that, with her energy and her dedication to a cause she believes in, she would excel in her retreat and thus being able to lift herself out of her constant depression.


The author was not disappointed.   Collette did give 100% in her very first retreat.   The author observed with admiration how she delved into each practice session with sheer determination and zest.   It was only the fourth day of our eight-day, seven-night retreat that Collette came to realize what life actually is and what her purpose of life should be.


She was able to see, by herself and not by anyone telling her so, that each and every suffering she experienced in life only came from within.   And she also learned that, while she can not change the world, she could indeed change herself and achieve peace even if she is still living among the same old chaos.   She also discovered that if she wants to continue "saving the world," she could still to do so.   The only difference is that now she already sees that the only cause worth promoting to people is the cause of mindfulness.


If people have mindfulness in the Buddhist sense of the word, Collette discovered, the society would naturally be peaceful simply because one would be able to have compassion for all.


In one lengthy sitting session when the pain disturbed her so much while she was concentrating on cultivating mindfulness, she saw, with her mind's eyes, flashes of the brands of her favorite alcohol drinks.   Then, a wisdom inside her told her that she has to quit this if she wants to have sustainable peace in her life.


And once she gave a determined vow to herself and to Lord Buddha during that sitting that she would not touch those beverages anymore, Collette experienced miracle.   She was able to live with that pain with a peaceful mind.   The pain did not go away miraculously, but her mind was lifted up one notch.   And she was free.


In later sitting sessions, she even found herself smiling during the sitting.   Collette has found the proven path to the peace within.


And Collette is now back on her fairy tale's life again, thanks to her willing to be "young at heart," meaning always opening up to learn new things.   In Zen parlance, we call it "a beginner's mind."   A Zen mind/beginner's mind opens up to any possibilities and not limited to our past experience.


Now, because she could make peace with herself, she could make peace with anyone.   And that is the part that is related to love.   For Collette was able to give loving kindness to all beings, including to her so-called political foe.   Her complexion, a reflection of her mind, is now glowing healthily.   Everybody in her family was astonished how glowing and happy she was when they welcomed her back home.   Now everyone in her family wants to go the retreat.


If you have lived your life like Collette did, believing that you already have a decent livelihood and never cause harm to anyone, Collette has a message for you.   "This (the mindfulness retreat) is the best thing that ever happened in my life.   I wished I had done it earlier."   She is still the same highly energetic Collette, but she now knows how to let go.   Collette is as driven as ever, but she no longer feels exhausted.   If this is not a fairy tale with a happy ending, then, what do you think it is?


Well, what are you waiting for?   It could happen to you, you know. :-)