At Wat Ram Poeng, a Buddhist meditation center in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Gillian Siple's group of travelers pose along with two Buddhist devotees. Maggy, a friend and a life-long devotee of the monastery, sits beside Siple (left, front row). The lotus blossoms they held were part of a Buddhist ceremony.
At Wat Ram Poeng, a Buddhist meditation center in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Gillian Siple's group of travelers pose along with two Buddhist devotees. Maggy, a friend and a life-long devotee of the monastery, sits beside Siple (left, front row). The lotus blossoms they held were part of a Buddhist ceremony. Matt Abbate
Gillian Siple spent 2005 and 2006 studying abroad. In the following letter to family and friends, she describes her experience at a Buddhist meditation center in Chiang Mai, Thailand:
Monastic life is difficult and self-disciplined. Day after day I meditated from the dark hours of 4 o'clock in the morning until 10 in the evening — walking, sitting, walking, sitting, walking, sitting. At times it was the most tedious discipline I have ever practiced and I slugged though every motion. There were also times when mediation was almost addictive in the sense of elevation it offered. Maggy, a meditation practitioner of the meditation center, described the sense of elevation using a scene from Dead Poets Society. She likened the vision of meditation to the view which Robin Williams' character offers his students from the top of a classroom desk from which one can, "see more." "Meditation is like this training the mind to see more."
One night after meeting with the abbot, I took a straw mat and my meditation pad and arranged myself to one side of the chedi in front of a small trough of candles and incense. I lit two yellow candles and performed my requisite mindfulness prostration, slowly and precisely in the dark. Meditating in the dark seems easiest to me; the darkness blurs everything into a bluish haze like that which I hope to blanket the rapid sequence of thoughts in my mind. On the porous stones of the chedi [Buddhist monument], I performed my walking meditation.
With each step I imagined it as the most important step I would ever take in my life. "Right goes thus, left goes thus, right goes thus," I chanted. The language of walking meditation is the language of awareness, recognizing the ground beneath my feet. The challenge is to quiet the mind to the point when it becomes aware of even the simplest tasks and perform these with mindfulness. The language of intention is as simple as it is profound. Before lifting a foot to walk, I acknowledge, "Intending to walk, intending to walk, intending to walk." What would life be like if I daily labeled my intentions as such, giving voice to them and then following through step by step?
During sitting mediation that night, I was able to reach a level of stillness which I had not been able to reach previously. I sat without the chatter of lists, plans, or expectations and focused on the rising and falling of my abdomen with each breath. I recognized gaps between breaths through which thoughts crept in. Gently, I recognized my thinking and returned focus to my breath. I cleared my mind and filled the gaps between my breath with the thought, "present, be present, acknowledge the present." I sat in silence on one side of the chedi breathing in the present moment, joyful to be living and needing nothing more. I sat for over an hour, breathing.
Mediation offers the present. The present is not weighted down with any worries of the future or regrets of the past. The present is always new, always open; in the present I am capable of all things. Like the breath of meditation which rises and falls out of existence, each new moment offers a chance for a new possibility. It is the only substance in which I live. It is the only thing that matters. If I can remember this, how can I ever be weighted down with suffering?
The next day, I packed my bags and returned my sleeping mat and blankets. I walked by Maggy's room, and peeked in. She was lying on her bed, facing the wall. I walked away, but she noticed me. "I came to tell you goodbye," I said, looking down at my street clothes and luggage bag, "I leave today, but I leave with sadness." I looked down and away as I started to cry. She saw my tears and explained, "Tears are like rain in the desert; they are nourishing in a place that has been dry and barren. You cry because your heart knows you still have more to learn."