Mindfulness and Meditation in Thailand
This summer, I had the privilege of participating in a contemplative practice study abroad trip to Thailand. The course consisted of practicing mindfulness and meditation while learning about and experiencing a culture saturated with both concepts.
We landed in Bangkok early in the morning of July 3rd, I’m talking 2:00am. Drowsy and jet-lagged from the sixteen-hour trip, the transport between getting off the plane and arriving at the hotel is blurry. I woke up later that morning in a king sized bed just as the sun was peaking through the window. I walked over and pulled the curtain aside to reveal the city of Bangkok, still asleep at 6:30am. The first thing I noticed about my view was the sheer amount of green space in the city. There were plants everywhere. Despite how densely populated Bangkok is, the city makes room for nature. Vines grow up the sides of apartment complexes, and hotels and skyscrapers have gardens on the roofs. Later, we visited the “Central Park of Bangkok”, Lumpini Park. The park is a beautifully landscaped massive green space complete with ponds and lakes scattered throughout. Every morning, hundreds of individuals flock to the park to practice their T’ai Chi. The high respect and priority placed on nature in even the most urbanized area of the country was an instant indication of the infusion of mindfulness into the mainstream Thai culture.
After a four-day stay in Bangkok, filled with trips to the major Buddhist temples and various other major attractions, our group traveled to Ubon, a relatively small village in a more north-eastern region of Thailand. Here, I was exposed a more universal aspect of Thai life. Central Thailand, which includes Bangkok, is the most industrialized part of the country. The northeastern region of Thailand; however, is considered poorer. The way of life in this area is simple. Most restaurants are open-air, and serve local, organic food on plastic tables with plastic chairs. The temples are a part of the community, and are frequently populated with villagers bringing donations. And everyone is so nice. The Thai will deliberately go out of their way to help a stranger. Case in point: a few days after we arrived in Ubon we decided we wanted to go to the park one morning to workout. We woke up at 6a and arrived in the park around 7a, where I ran the 1,000m loop around the park. On every lap, every person I ran by smiled and through me a thumbs up. Some even clapped and cheered me on. This was a refreshing change from the catcalls that have become the norm for runners in the U.S. In Thailand, I was being encouraged, rather than objectified.
After Ubon, we traveled to Loei, a village isolate in the mountains, and pretty much on the edge of the Laos-Thailand border. Here, we stayed at a Buddhist temple for a total of six days. The first day we were at the temple, the abbot (the head of the monastery) took us on a tour of the surrounding village. On the tour, we got to converse with the local villagers and experience the different ways of farming. All the homes were simple—open air and on the edge of a farm, whether it be for rice, bananas, or silk—and all the villagers were excited and more than willing to talk to us about their lifestyle, and how they grew various crops. One of the villagers even let us help plant a rice patty. Our second day at the temple, we began the meditation retreat. We promised to uphold the eight precepts of Buddhism: refrain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, incorrect speech, from drugs and alcohol, from eating after noon, from entertainments and the use of cosmetics, and from sleeping on a high or luxurious sleeping place. Our daily schedule for the following four days consisted of waking up at 4am for and hour and a half of chanting followed by thirty minutes of meditation. At 6:15a we left for alms rounds, where we followed the monks as they walked through the village accepting food and donations from the villagers. We returned at 7am for breakfast until 8a. At 8:30a we meditated and practiced either Yoga or T’ai Chi for two hours before a break at 10:30a. We ate lunch, our last meal for the day, from 11-12. After lunch, we practiced meditation again until 5p, at which point we were allowed a break until evening chanting and meditation at 6, which lasted until 8pm. Bedtime was at 9pm. During the blocks of meditation, I experienced three different types of meditation. The first of these was sitting meditation, which is your stereotypical, seated, lotus-pose meditation. I practiced focusing only on my breathing and clearing my mind of all thought. The second type of meditation I participated in was walking meditation. The key here was to clear your mind entirely and to focus only on the sensations in your feet as you lifted and planted your foot. I got to do this on a cobblestone path, which was especially interesting because the rocks affected my feet differently with every step. The third, and my personal favorite, type of meditation was practiced on elevated stalks of bamboo. The monks had created a “bamboo course” where they attached stalks of bamboo to trees so that they ran about 3-6ft high and parallel to the ground. For about an hour each day, we practiced balancing on the bamboo course, weaving our way through the trees, with the ultimate goal of being able to walk the course with our hand held behind our back. By the end of the week, I succeeded in doing so.
After the meditation retreat, the abbot spent a day showing us a village about an hour a way from Loei. Here we walked along a river and shopped for souvenirs at the open market. The next morning, we left the temple and headed for Ayutthaya, the ancient capitol of Thailand. We spent the day touring the ancient ruins and riding elephants, then drove to Bangkok for our last night in Thailand. By the end of the trip, I’d experienced:
– freshly cooked food in outdoor markets
– beautiful hikes to see ancient cliff paintings and waterfalls
– intensive practice of T’ai Chi, Yoga, and meditation
– helping a temple prepare the wax float for and participating in, the Candle Festival Parade in Ubon
– a floating market (where vendors were set up along a network of canals)
– landmark attractions of Bangkok
– meditation retreat at a Buddhist temple
– an entirely new culture
There’s so much that I garnered from this experience, that it’s difficult to say what left the most lasting impression. For one, the general infusion of Buddhism in the Thai culture was amazing. Because Buddhism exists as more of a life philosophy than an institutionalized religion, I think its core values are more widely accepted and upheld throughout the country. Consequently, the ideals of kindness and selflessness are held in high esteem and are strongly evident in the way that Thai people treat both locals and foreigners. Furthermore, the simplicity of life in the Northeastern region of Thailand lends itself to a very moralistic life. For example, the Thai in this area place little importance on monetary value. Bartering, rather than monetary exchange, is still widely used in the more rural areas of the country. Being exposed to this kind of sentiment for such a long time really allowed me to refocus my life to place higher priority on these concepts.
Practicing meditation for around six hours a day for four days straight really helped infuse the both the practices of mindfulness and meditation into my everyday life. And for this, I consider the meditation retreat to be the most life-changing and unforgettable experience of the trip. The increased attention that the retreat encouraged me to place on the importance of mindfulness has not only deepened my practice in Yoga and Pitaiyo, but has also allowed me a greater peacefulness and appreciation for the good things that exist in my life. Since the retreat, and the consequent addition of daily meditation into my lifestyle I have found myself less easily irritated, more positive, and more at peace with the forces that affect me. I have since accepted the idea that we cannot control everything that happens to us; we can only react to these events. Our control lies in these reactions. When something bad happens to us, we can choose to be angry or forgiving. Regarding the future, we can be pessimistic, or optimistic. Which do you think is more beneficial?
At Pitaiyo, we say that the more positive things you put in your orbit, the more fulfilling your life will be. What I learned from my experience in Thailand is that this is 110% true. At the end of the day, you have control over how you react to, and how you perceive situations. You control whether you practice positivity, or negativity. So when that not-so-great thing happens—when you get a flat tire, or have a bad day, or maybe someone offends you—take a deep breath, and let it go. Accept the situation, and move on, because nothing good comes from dwelling on the negative.
Author Nicole Bethune is a guest blogger and an Level 1 Pitaiyo Instructor in training.