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Published: February 2nd 2015
There is a waterfall in pai around 8km outside of town. In order to get there you have to trek through the dense jungle, which involves wading through the river at several points and hiking up an almost impossibly steep hill.
Just as I was about to embark on the trek alone, I bumped into max and cat again by chance. They were also intending to go to the waterfall so we joined forces. Just as well really, because I didn't know in advance that you had to get your feet wet - I would probably have assumed the path came to a nice little end by the trickling stream, shrugged and gone home.
About halfway through the trek cat fell ill so she made her way back. Max and I pushed on and eventually reached the waterfall. Great sense of achievement. The running water was pretty cold but we each managed to hold our heads under it for a respectable period of time. We made it back to town in about 2 hrs - a marked improvement on the outward trip.
That was my last full day in pai. I then was mulling over where to go next. Marc, who I'd met on the minibus to pai, was suggesting that I should go to a monastery called Wat Tam Wua. This is a monastery that you can go to to practise meditation. It can be reached on the way to Mae Hong Son town. They give you a bed, food, clothes - all for free (though donations are appreciated (and kind of expected)). Marc was saying that, especially given my interest in psychology, it could be beneficial for me to go to this place as the experience could be enlightening and reveal much about how the mind works. I spoke to other travellers about the monastery and a number of them said they had been there for at least a few days and all of those who went said that they left feeling enlightened.
I was undecided. Maybe I would be awkward in a monastery. Maybe this was some kind of hippie dippie nonsense. I wasn't right for this kind of place.
But travelling was about trying new things.
I popped to Mae Hong Son town for a couple of nights, with the monastery still on my mind. The town wasn't up to much from a tourist's point of view - it's a town for locals, not really designed for cruising foreigners; but the trek to a temple couched high up on a forested mountain yielded some incredible views.
I have a dual litmus test that I'm using on my travels to determine whether or not I should try a new experience: a) will you regret not doing it on the plane home?; and b) are you scared?
I'm deliberately forcing myself to do things that scare me. So I decided to hit up the monastery.
On arrival the monks and staff were very welcoming. They showed me my shared room and provided me with pure white, loose-fitting clothes. These are layperson clothes for those participating in vipassana meditation and I think they are meant to symbolise purity of mind.
I stayed at the monastery for three nights. There is a very structured and repetitive daily routine. Wake Up. Offer food to the monks (you have to place rice in their bowls as they walk along the line of laypersons). Breakfast. Meditation (this was comprised of three components: walking meditation, sitting meditation and lying meditation). Offer food to the monks. Lunch. Meditation (the same trio of practices). Chores (I chose sweeping). Evening chanting and meditation. Sleep.
The meditative practices were all led by monks. The monk who took the leading role was called the Teacher.
It was very interesting. According to the monks, meditation is about mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness is to know what the body is doing. Awareness is to keep this knowledge at the forefront of your consciousness and perceive it through your senses (i.e. 'feel' your body sitting/walking/lying). They say the body is not to be equated with 'I'. The body is separate. What we must do is observe our body. I do not walk; the body walks.
The monks believe that as you become more experienced at observing the body by practising mindfulness and awareness, you can start to observe the mind. This means that when a thought such as guilt/anger/suffering enters your head, instead of allowing it to take over you and your emotions, you will be able to merely observe the thought, so that it will pass. The monks say that in this way, through successful vipassana meditation, the mind becomes two: the thinking mind and the conscious mind.
According to the monks, overcoming negative thoughts such as lasting guilt involves three things:
1. Logical thinking. E.g. knowing that 98% of the time you do good and 2% of the time you do bad. In view of this we should focus on the positive.
2. Awareness of the fact that the mind can copy and paste emotions from the past into the present. The past is distinct from the present so we should know the feelings are merely a shadow of the past.
3. Successful vipassana meditation. Using the conscious mind to observe the thoughts so that they will pass.
The view of the monks is that vipassana meditation brings three benefits: it enables you to be happy; it removes defilement; and with practice and experience it can bring wisdom.
Overall, did I find the experience to be an enlightening, spiritual and life-changing experience?
Was it interesting? Did it teach me a great deal about Buddhist culture and the Buddhist conception of meditation? Was it a fantastic social opportunity in which I was able to have insightful and engaging conversations with an array of different people? Yes.
And I think a lot of what I heard made a great deal of sense.
I certainly don't regret going, and I was able to enter into a meditative state a couple of times. Mostly it hurt my knees and I left feeling like an OAP. I was definitely ready to go after the third night.
Plus two meals a day is difficult to function on. I'm back in Chiang Mai now and I just had an obnoxiously large portion of pizza and chips as soon as I arrived which I demolished. Going to Chiang rai tomorrow. Will be doing a hop, skip and a jump into Laos in the next few days because my visa runs out on the 7th.
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