In the ongoing pursuit of spiritual exploration, it’s been my experience that the most impactful moments often come from being forced to abandon your comfort zone.
Looking back, one of the most profound moments I experienced during my journey to spiritual discovery came when I spent one month living in an isolated meditation temple just north of Chiang Mai, Thailand among a group of solemn Buddhist monks.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in mountainous northern Thailand, situated just north of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital. The city is steeped in history, a portion of which was originally a cultural and religious center. It’s home to hundreds of Buddhists temples, elaborately built to honor the sacred Buddha, the collective and humanity’s consciousness.
I remember arriving at the temple, exhausted after having to navigate it on my own. I entrusted a taxi driver to take me into this remote area, not able to fully communicate due to the language barrier. My mind and body were flooded with fear and excitement all at once.
I was equipped for a minimal lifestyle, with just a few articles of clothing, a pair of durable flats, toiletries and an empty journal. From what I understood about the monks, life in the Chiang Mai mountains was simple, quiet, reflective and without external distractions. I’d officially abandoned familiar Western comforts: my cell phone, television, the Internet, with the goal of eliminating stress and cultivating mindfulness.
I didn’t know entirely what to expect, but I was excited to meet my guide and experience life at the temple. I stood at the base of a flight of what seemed like a thousand cement steps leading up to the ornate temple entrance. Wat Phradhatu Sri Chom Tong Voravihara is an historic royal treasure, containing the Holy Dakkhinamoli Buddha Relic. Legend has it that the Lord Buddha himself came to teach the people on the hill near the monastery. Special ceremonies are held at different times during the year to wash the relics. The temple is spread out over 20 acres, even extending into the surrounding rice fields. Parts of the temple are quiet, shaded by trees. Other areas can be noisy at times depending on whether ceremonies or celebrations are taking place. There are several meditation halls, one specifically for Western students with the newer facilities designed exclusively for Western students.
As I made my way higher and higher into the mountains, I noticed the stillness all around me. I closed my eyes and began to focus on my breathing. When I opened them, I saw a figure cloaked in an orange robe in the distance. I climbed the last of the stairs and bowed my head the temple entrance where the monk with no name greeted me. I approached the bald man in the orange robe and cloth slippers–my teacher–eager to get started right away.
“I’m Nada. It’s nice to meet you,” I said, extending my right hand.
My teacher simply smiled and nodded, quietly motioning me to remove my shoes before we crossed the threshold. Once we did, I quickly realized that my life would never be the same again.
My first spiritual assignment was frustratingly simple: sit alone in contemplation–no time constraints. I was to return to my teacher at any point and tell him what I’d learned from the assignment. I felt underwhelmed. I didn’t come to this place that was quite literally halfway around the world just to sit and assess my thoughts.
Startled and confused, I said, “What do you mean? Aren’t you going to teach me how to meditate?”
He responded with a nod, saying simply, “Your practice will teach you.”
My facial expression must have given away my shock. My teacher smiled knowingly, patted my shoulder and turned to walk down the corridor, back to his room. I stood there, mouth agape, wondering exactly how long this was going to take and what in the world I’d possibly be able to report.
What I really wanted was to catch even a glimpse of Achan Tong, the Abott of the temple and widely recognized as the greatest Vipassana master in Thailand. He still gives basic instructions and teaches at various times of the year with the help of a translator. He’s even set up an international section of the temple, where meditators can receive instructions in English.
Though I was skeptical, I committed myself to this simple, ambiguous act of mindfulness. I spent hundreds of hours alone. I sat alone with my thoughts. I stood alone with them, walked alone with them and otherwise devoted every moment I could find to turning my attention inward.
Where I expected there to be an ultimate revelation, a once-and-for-all ‘Ah ha!’ moment, there was none. It was an accumulation of practicing being content in my newfound solitude. I know it sounds perplexingly simple, but by repeating that process, I learned so much.
Here are a few takeaways I am grateful to share:
- Be present with all experiences in a non-judgmental way.
- Your action/choice in the present moment can create your past and determines your future.
- Suffering happens because you are stuck on something in the past or worried about something that has NOT happened in the future.
- Take an objective stance rather than a subjective stance with all experiences.
- Breath is intelligence. Practice inhaling and exhaling each day to activate parts of your brain enabling your beings growth/evolution.
Practicing meditation for just 10 minutes a day is life-changing, and helps cultivate mindfulness. You don’t have to live in a temple to learn. You can download the Headspace app for free, or if you want to diversify your meditation practice, visit IslamicMeditation.com to receive a special guided meditation track for free.