Meditation retreat at a forest monastery

Photo by Fong Kin Houng

I want to live like animals, careless and free like animals. I want to live. I want to run through the jungle the wind in my hair and the sand at my feet…” the song went on and on, set on repeat mode, as I cleaned up my dusty room the moment I arrived from my 5-day meditation retreat; the same way I listen to it now while I write. It has been over 2 years since I went up to Ubon Ratchathani, northern Thailand to meditate at Wat Pah Nanachat – International Forest Monastery yet I can still remember how I felt then. It takes 10 hours to travel by train to Ubon Ratchathani so I decided to take the evening train to reach there in time for breakfast. That way, I can eat at the temple for free and slid myself into their daily routine.

I emailed the monastery to ask for permission to stay there and gave them my schedule. I was surprised at the swift reply. The train from Bangkok has an air-conditioned cabin with bed. I brought a book to read in case I can’t sleep. After a few pages into the world of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, I closed the book and looked out the window, gazed at the starry sky. I used to use the pseudonym stargazer in my teenage years. The noisy sound of the train gradually became a lullaby as I fell into a deep slumber. I woke up before sunrise and was amazed at the view when I looked out the window. We were passing along a farm, then thick bushes, then a barren land; such beautiful greenery of plants and trees. I was enveloped with calmness and contentment at the sight of the simple and peaceful life at the countryside. I silently gave a prayer of thanks.

The monastery is surrounded with quotations like this
Photo by ธีรรัฐ เชี่ยวสกุล

Getting off at the train station was a bit chaotic with people in a hurry pushing their way through the crowd. The atmosphere was the same as any other province, less dense and chaotic as Bangkok yet still busy and noisy. I could not wait to get into the monastery. Upon entering the entrance of the monastery, I could see trees lined up on each side of the road. They were high with thick canopies. It was as though we were entering into a forest. After all, Wat Pah Nananachat is called the International Forest Monastery. I felt a sudden change of emotions; the calmness and contentment I felt upon waking up engulfed me once again.

Photo by Mitchai Khankaew

As I have anticipated, I reached in time for breakfast. The only female meditator, Li from China, ushered me into the dining area. Breakfast was the only meal we can have each day so everyone ate as much as they can though we had to keep in mind that we cannot waste food so we were to take only what we can finish. After breakfast, we helped in cleaning the area. Soon after I went to meet the monk to be briefed on the rules of the monastery. It was rather simple, not really rules but a set of daily routine and guidelines. We were to wake up at 3AM to join the morning chant and meditation. Afterwards, we were to clean our designated area. Mine and Li’s was the chapel nearby. Though we swept it every day, there were always lots of fallen leaves around because it is surrounded with trees. We were in a forest after all.

Just some of the food; there were much more! Thais are very generous at giving alms to the temple
Photo by minxianlim

Breakfast area & kitchen
Photo by 余锦盛

The temple we cleaned every morning. I also meditate here.
Photo by 余锦盛

After cleaning we helped prepare breakfast brought by monks from their morning alms round then we cleaned up the kitchen afterwards. I also experienced cleaning the toilets. After all the morning chores, the day is ours to spend. Since it is a monastery that welcomes meditators and not a formal meditation retreat house, there is no rigid schedule nor meditation coaching. I realized that eating only once gave me enough time for other things. It felt extremely liberating to not think about meal time and the confusion that came with it over what to eat.

The first thing I do after breakfast was take a shower. We did a lot of cleaning in the morning so I wanted to freshen up before going to the chapel to meditate. I could not sit for hours and hours meditating so after an hour or so of sitting meditation, I would go for mindful walk though most of the time I would just nap at my kuti. Every afternoon at 4:30PM we were to go back to the kitchen to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea. Soon after, we were to attend the evening chant and meditation. One of my best moments at the temple was watching the rain as it washed over the trees, its droplets create a ripple once it touches a small swamp while holding a hot cup of coffee. In that instant I realized how simple happiness can be.

Inside the temple where I meditate
Photo by Fong Kin Houng

Only Dhamma books were allowed in the temple which we can borrow from their mini library. I also had to surrender my mobile phone. We were to dress in white shirt and white trousers and were not allowed to wear jewelry, make up and perfume. The women’s walled quarter was far off from the men’s, and was as usual surrounded with lots of trees. Walking from there to the temple for the 3AM chant was a scary experience but I made it anyway.

Path towards the women’s quarter
Photo by minxianlim

Women’s kuti
Photo by minxianlim

Main sala or meditation hall
Photo by 余锦盛

In the evening, I found it difficult to sleep because of the noise created by crickets and other forest insects. Sometimes I could hear a sudden thud on the roof of my kuti. I also later read from a blog that the kuti where I stayed actually had a dead person’s ashes on it! So glad I didn’t know while I was there otherwise I would have gone mad! Though it explained why I could not sleep and felt strange in it at night. At first I thought it was because I was uncomfortably sleeping on the floor with just one tiny pillow (not complaining, just wan’t used to it). I read a lot of Dhamma books before bedtime where I developed a deeper understanding and appreciation of Buddhism. I found Buddha’s teachings practical and easier to grasp.

One evening we sat with the Abbot, a German who’s been a monk for over 20 years. In Buddhism, it’s so easy to understand the hierarchy among the monks. Those who have been ordained the longest sits at the top of the structure. During that session, we were allowed to ask questions. One novice asked, “How can you forgive someone who wronged you if you can still feel the pain?” His answer was something I had not heard of or read before. “If you think about forgiveness, you are placing yourself above the person. That is your ego getting in the way. Let go of your ego. Let go of the pain. That person may be suffering himself anyway.

As the day of my departure approached, I found it more and more difficult to leave. I knew I was there to learn about letting go of attachment as one of the tenets of Dhamma but I was growing attached to the place. Probably because ever since I can remember, it was the first time I experienced being so at peace, contented with the life I had even if I only ate once a day. I woke up each morning not thinking about any worries, unfinished work nor the future, there was no internet and constant inundation of information.

Life was at its simplest at the temple. The daily routine may seem boring but on the contrary they made my day stress-free as I didn’t have to fuss over what to do next or how to make my day productive. Going through the routine especially the sweeping of the leaves at the bot (women’s meditation hall) was extremely therapeutic. It made me understand why a lot of self-help books suggest having a morning routine; it makes it easier to go through the rest of the day once our mornings are stress-free.

Photo by Pornthip Sanguanmoo

Photo by 余锦盛

Photo by Fong Kin Houng

Photo by 余锦盛

Photo by 余锦盛

Inside the main sala or meditation hall
Photo by Fong Kin Houng

My experiences during meditation sessions were rather too personal so I shall not be writing about them. However, I have to say I was not able to empty my mind of any thoughts even for a split second; meditation is not about that so there is no need to pressure yourself into achieving such a state. I struggled at first but as the day progressed I began to feel at ease. At the temple, all the negative emotions I was feeling gradually disappeared. Even past painful memories that still hurt whenever I remember them didn’t hurt anymore no matter how I tried to provoke myself into feeling the pain.

My experiences at the monastery were one of the best I’ve ever had; the emotions it made me feel, the stories shared with fellow meditators, and the opportunity to live in a forest. It was the only time in my life when the past and the future didn’t matter at all and I wished that feeling will stay as long as I live. Unfortunately, things are always different in reality, though what I felt at the temple were also real they just didn’t stay that way. Still, I am forever grateful that I experienced how it felt.

Wat Pah Nanachat (Wat = monastery, pah = forest, nanachat = international) was founded by Ajahn Chah to enable foreigners who do not speak Thai to enter into monastic life. Most of the monks at the monastery are foreigners. The monastery practices Theravada Forest Tradition.

P.S. I lost all my photos of the monastery so I used other’s photos instead. Lesson learned, always have a backup.

My ‘I cannot do’ list

Photo by Mary Antonette Abello

Whilst many people have their ‘list of things to do before turning 30’ or ‘1000 things to do before I die’ or what have you, I on the contrary have a list of things I was sure I cannot do. One these things is knitting. Strangely, I already concluded that I can never knit even before I got my hands on it. Just by looking at a knitted sweaters or a scarf, I could not imagine the intricacies of making such a masterpiece. I thought, even if I could make one with the guidance of a teacher I could never do it the second time around on my own, so why bother? It was my colleague who made me realize how wrong my assumptions were.

We were in a taxi, stuck in traffic in Bangkok. Me and my colleague went to the Thai Immigration to process my visa renewal. Knowing that we will either have to wait for a long queue at the Immigration or get stuck in traffic, she brought her knitting materials. It was in that moment while waiting for the taxi to move an inch that I intently watched her knit, her hands skillfully moving along with the needle and yarn. It was then I realized it isn’t so difficult after all. In fact, it looked super easy! Surprisingly, I also felt so relaxed just watching her knit. It felt as if all the stress I was feeling suddenly disappeared, washed away by a wave of calmness.

Scientific benefits of knitting

I decided I will try to learn how to knit. Before I left the office that day I searched for knitting shops in Bangkok, determined to start right away. It was then that I stumbled upon articles about the scientific benefits of knitting. I learned that knitting is indeed therapeutic and is in fact included by psychiatrists as among the activities they give to clients battling with mental issues. A woman who suffered from depression also recovered with the help of knitting. It is the process of making something, of seeing it coming close to completion, of seeing progress each day that makes knitting a good outlet for those depressed or felt stuck in life. Also, the process of using both hands when knitting improves motor functions and cognitive health.

These new discoveries made me even more excited to learn how to knit. I already felt the calming benefits of knitting by merely watching someone else do it so there is no doubt I will enjoy doing it myself. Indeed, knitting became one of the best things I loved doing. It puts me into a meditative mode. Instead of scrolling on my phone when I am free, knitting provided me moments of online detox. Here is one of the scarves I knitted which I gave to my cousin as a Christmas gift. I was so thrilled to see her wear it in her trip to Paris.

It’s been over a year since I stopped knitting, when I moved to Australia for grad school. It was only now when I saw my cousin wear the scarf that I am reminded of my love for the craft. I shall find myself purchasing some good yarn anytime soon and knit again. Oh, and I shall review my ‘I cannot do’ list as well and see which ones I can start learning. I’ve already ticked knitting off and now I am in the process of learning how to drive a car. Life is full of possibilities and the way to start is to change our mindset that we cannot do things.


Before you quit your job, go travel

Few months ago I spoke to a friend who wanted to quit her job. Quitting is not difficult but what made her hesitate was that she hasn’t found a new job yet. Many people experience such quandary especially with our constant use of social media nowadays, it’s easy to compare our life with that of others and feel we need to be somewhere else or having something else or whatnot.

What I noticed though from our conversation was that whilst she was determined to quit her job, she didn’t know what she truly wants to do. She had several options in mind but she didn’t have clarity on how to make the transition. She wanted to pursue entrepreneurship but she didn’t know what products or services to offer. She wanted to pursue the arts but that would mean starting from scratch. These aren’t all bad things, after all a lot of people succeeded by taking risks. In her case though, she didn’t have enough savings to support her through several months which scared her from quitting.

Another thing I noticed in her is that her frustrations weren’t all coming from her job. We all experience some bad days at work and at times people –who may just be going through tough times – are rude. Sometimes routine jobs can get painfully boring. At times problems arise one after the other leaving us burned out. But there are several ways to deal with these circumstances and turn things around if you have the proper mindset and positive attitude. The challenge comes when the problem isn’t the job itself but us. That’s when I suggest you travel.

Traveling has its way of healing whatever negative feelings we carry. If we are so bored of a life of routine, traveling breaks this monotony and stimulates our senses. The experiences we will encounter while traveling can melt negativities away. Traveling can remind us that there is more to life than feeling bitter and unhappy; that there are things far greater than ourselves but that what we do – no matter how menial it seems sometimes – contributes to a bigger picture, to a larger cause.

For a lot of people though, money can be a hindrance to traveling. However, as the cliché says, “we work to live not live to work” so if you reach a point where you feel that life was sucked out of you then money should not be so much of an issue. You are not going to spend your hard earned money extravagantly anyway because going for a short trip should not be expensive. You can travel to a nearby place or a different country, it’s all up to you. There are a lot of information available online on how to reach your destination without breaking the bank.

Back in 2011, I was suffering from burnout. It seemed as though I could not feel any positive emotions. A delicious meal doesn’t taste good. I keep blaming work for my unhappiness. One weekend, I traveled to Chiang Mai up until the borders of Myanmar. I went on full online detox while traveling so I can fully savor the experience. It was only for two days but I felt significantly better. On my way back to Bangkok, I took the train because other than it was way cheaper than flying I just love long train rides; it gave me an opportunity to pause and just enjoy the countryside scenery.

If I didn’t go on that short trip up north and committed to undergo an online detox, I would have resigned from my job in no time. I was glad I did. I felt rejuvenated after. When I came back, I also removed my work email from my phone and noticed that I felt more relaxed and positive after.

When my friend confided to me about her urge to quit, I told her to travel. And so travel she did and now she is still working at the same job. When she is not working, she is out strolling at a nearby park or traveling to nearby provinces. With camera in hand, she captures the beauty around what seemed like a mundane place to those who only exist.