Doi Suthep- Part VI: Practicimitation

Trip Start Dec 29, 2007
Trip End Mar 10, 2008

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Friday, February 1, 2008

As I said earlier, I didn't have any expectations when I arrived at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep to begin my vipassana meditation studies.  But it's possible that I might have entertained one tiny little fantasy...

Bangkok Times
January 8, 2008

Man Reaches Enlightenment in Under A Week!

Doi Suthep, Thailand:  In a startling development that has rocked the religious community, Buddhist monks at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Thailand have confirmed that an American has reached full spiritual enlightenment in just five days.  The man, identified as Steve Haddad from Baltimore, Maryland, transcended into the realm of "nibbana" after less than a week into his meditation studies with the International Buddhism Center just outside of Chiang Mai.  Said the Dalai Lama, who arrived this morning to witness the spectacle, "It's absolutely true.  I met him myself and, honestly, I felt like a complete friggin' fraud standing next to him!"

In a related story, President George W. Bush resigned from office effective immediately, citing the emergence of true moral authority in America as a primary reason for his departure.  In a rare display of candor before leaving the White House, he admitted that his administration has always been a radical front for the eradication of Americans' civil liberties and the demonization of gays, and that Dick Cheney is indeed the Antichrist.

A little far-fetched?  Perhaps.  But I think it's human nature to want to believe that truly extraordinary things can happen to us under extraordinary circumstances.  Like lifting the proverbial bus off the woman pinned to the pavement.

In this particular case, however, the bus ain't budging.  After my first week of meditation, I was showing progress but was nowhere in the neighborhood of enlightenment, not even in the same zip code.  A meditation mantra is that we are always on a path.  Sometimes our practice is tranquil and clarifying, other times it is difficult and frustrating.  And for the most part, this was my experience at Doi Suthep.  On my good days, I was able to meditate with a sense of ease and purpose, focusing patiently on each individual movement I made, on every breath I took.  I was always surprised when my meditation timer sounded, indicating that my session was over, and I smiled a lot.

The bad days were mostly characterized by being attached to a specific outcome, rather than being committed to a process.  I daydreamed a lot about the future, about how I would use my newfound meditation mastery to improve my professional life and my personal relationships.  I had massive mood swings- from happy to despondent to frustrated to joyous all within the span of an hour's time.

On the bad days, I had a hard time staying in the present.  It reminded me of when I was a little kid and my family used to take the four-hour drive up to Queens to see my grandmother.  The minute my brother and I walked in the door, she gave us a big hug and said, "It's been so long since I've seen you!  When are you coming to visit again?"  I was seven years old and even I knew what was going on.  Although we had just arrived, she couldn't enjoy the present because she was so preoccupied with the future!

On my bad days, I opened up my heart to listen to my fears and doubts with more clarity.  "What if you don't get anything out of this?" they asked.  "What if this is just a huge waste of time and you never get the hang of it?"  I tried to listen compassionately, and when I did, I was able to acknowledge those feelings and move on.  But being compassionate with myself is not my strongest quality- I am harder on myself than anyone has ever been, and it scares the hell out of me sometimes.

Every day, I meet with Teacher and he asks me how "practicimitation" is going, inadvertently combining the words "practice" and "meditation."  On my bad days, he sees the look on my face and breaks into a smile, saying, "Some days good, some days bad.  Anger, worry, sadness.  It's OK!"

He tells me that when I have trouble keeping my focus on breath or movement, I can rediscover my center by looking into my heart and repeating the words "Knowing...knowing...knowing."  Interestingly, the word for "heart" here is the same as "mind" because the Thai recognize that thoughts and feelings are inextricably linked together. And when Teacher gives me advice about what to do when I get lost in thoughts, he points to his heart, not his head.

One night, I realize that meditation leads to mindfulness, and mindfulness reveals suffering.  But that's not a bad thing, because the recognition of suffering is a potential pathway to healing and an opportunity for compassion and forgiveness, mostly for myself.  And apparently, that's something I need to work on.

Coming Soon: Part VII: The Ghost Inside
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