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.

Let some battles go

1Letting go… ahhhh two words with equal opposing intensity of pain and happiness.

If you put meditators in one room, you can expect a different kind of conversation; not only is it full of insights but also a kind where there is intent listening.

I had the chance to have a delicious Indian dinner with a diverse group of meditators, one of them was a former monk. At first our topics were mostly related to meditation and experiences from meditation retreats. It then gradually deepened into sharing life experiences including letting go.

Letting go of the monster in the mind

The former monk shared that he grew up fearing darkness. His fear of the dark was so severe he carried it with him until he became a grown up man. Perhaps through the practice of meditation he realized that the monsters exist not in the dark but inside his head. He made the brave decision to face it head on. One evening, he went to the forest and allowed all the scary things to surface in his imagination while mindfully observing his thoughts. It was a battle within that not many of us are willing to take. He emerged from the forest unharmed and victorious of freeing his mind from the monsters.

Letting go of the pain from being misunderstood or unheard

Through meditation we can learn to handle difficult circumstances better. Someone then asked the former monk on what for him is the most challenging situation. He found some people to be hard to communicate with. He mentioned instances when a difficult conversation with someone made him feel bad about himself. However wisdom from practicing meditation guided him in assessing when he is the one at fault or it is the other person who is not opening his/her mind or does not want to listen.

Being misunderstood causes us pain. I shared my personal experience of caring for someone so much only to be misunderstood and thought of as controlling. But I realized that what matters is we genuinely cared. If the person does not appreciate what we do, we should learn to let them be, respect their choices and not take it as a rejection of our love.

Talking to someone is at times very difficult. Some people would burst out in anger right away even before you are able to get your message across. When this happens, the chance for the other person to truly listen and understand is very slim. Although through patience and loving kindness, we can attempt to calm that person down and try to talk in a nice way, some people are just too closed they would shatter all the will to hear you out. If they’d let you talk, sometimes they end up misunderstanding what you said. This can be very painful.

A lot of relationships nowadays suffer from lack of heartfelt communication. We can be both the victim and the perpetrator. Sometimes it is our ego that hinders deep communication, sometimes it is our individual differences or biases. Whenever we encounter challenging discussions, it is important to check our own mindset on whether we are willing to listen and understand or whether we are subdued by biases or close-mindedness. If we have done our part and it is the other person who does not want to listen, then there is no reason for us to feel hurt if the conversation failed to reach an understanding. Let the pain go.

Some battles are not worth the fight

It is harder to let go when the people involved are the ones we love. They are important to us that is why it hurts when they misunderstand us and take us negatively. We always feel the need to keep the conversation going until we are able to clear things out. But our persistence can sometimes worsen the situation and I realized that we can also show our love by letting go and give that person time. Some things are better understood when that person process them on their own rather than us telling them.

Keep calm and meditate

Meditation session in Bangkok

Photo from

My fascination for meditation began when I came in Thailand in 2009. It’s no surprise because meditation is greatly embedded in Thais’ religious lifestyle. Although some would argue that meditation is not confined to Buddhism. Many practice meditation solely to enhance their well-being without any religious connotation.

I started meditating in 2009 but I only do it for 10 minutes, at the office toilet! It was my way of preparing my mind to write –I work as a writer at the marketing department at the time—or coping with stress. But I have not gone far from that until I stopped.

Yesterday was my first time to attend a meditation session. The weekly meditation happens every Thursday from 6:30-8PM at Ariyasom in Sukhumvit Soi 1. The place is really nice with lots of plants around and some vintage-looking ornaments.

The meditation was led by an English monk. I heard that he was fascinated with Buddhism and came to study Buddhism in Thailand. Since then, he has organized various meditation groups and meditation courses. The session started with a brief introduction of meditation for those who are first-timers including me. After the introduction, we are left to meditate with our own style for 30 minutes.

At first, I felt so calm and at ease, focusing only on my breathing. Whenever my mind starts to wander, I would gently bring back my focus on my breathing. But after a few minutes, the impatient monster began giving me a nudge. I started talking to myself. “I should blog about this. No, don’t think about that yet, just focus on meditating. Hmmm, that Arabic restaurant along the road seems interesting; we should have dinner there after this. Shut up, just meditate. God, when will 30 minutes be over?”

My legs felt numb and then painful. The English monk said that whenever we want to move, we should let 2 minutes pass and see if we still want to move. He encouraged us to just be still and learn to let go of the whim to move. I also learned from a Thai friend who became a monk that pain is part of the process. “When you meditate, it’s normal to feel pain in your legs but after sometime you will learn to accept pain and detach yourself from it.”

I felt uneasy and impatient. Then I told myself, this is exactly what meditation is for. It will teach us to be patient and tame our thoughts. Nothing comes easy. Reaping the life changing benefits of meditation must start with the will and a great deal of hard work –which is ironic because meditation should be making our mind and body still – because silencing our mind is the hardest thing to do.

I realized that attending a meditation session is an effective way to start the practice because with a group, you are compelled to finish the allotted time. Before, no matter how I forced myself to meditate for 30 minutes, I always get up before my time is up. I was so impatient. It needs getting used to and hopefully with the support of our meditation group, I will be able to make this a habit.

After the session, we had dinner at a Bangladeshi restaurant nearby. I had a good time with new awesome friends from Colombia who work at the newly opened Colombian Embassy, an American former professor who has a book on poetry, and a Brazilian lady who came to Bangkok for 3 months to find herself. And oh, I’m able to drink lassi again! I ordered it because the name sounds familiar and when I tasted it I remembered I had it in Nepal. Their fattoush salad is delicioso! Thanks to my colleague Olesya for bringing me there.