I had a really bright idea, while in Yangon, it went something like this: ‘Here I am in Myanmar, a country that is 90% Buddhist, why don’t I see if I can find places for meditation and yoga. This is a journey about growth more than it is about the travel. Let me see what I can find.’.
And so, I researched and found a few places that offer mediation, no yoga. Most centers where in places that were difficult to reach, didn’t allow foreigners or had set scheduled dates, which were too far out for my stay in Myanmar.
I lucked out and found a monastery in Yangon, and by the time we worked through application forms, logistics, etc., they could take me toward the end of the week but the minimum stay had to be 10 nights. When all was confirmed, I found that the center I’d be meditating at was NOT the Yangon center, but was 2 plus hours north of Yangon. OK, I’ll work with this, I’ll make a stop at Taukkyan War Cemetery en-route to the meditation center called Panditarama, Hse Mine Gon Forest Meditation Center.
So here I am, six months later, heading into another 10-night silent mediation. From the sample schedule and guidelines posted on Panditarama’s website, I knew this meditation, practically speaking, would be somewhat tougher than the previous 10-night silent mediation in Mexico. I could cope with that, but some things [myself] proved more challenging.
All the correspondence with the center prior to arrival had been in English and the website stated lessons would be in English or in Burmese but translated. I was therefore surprised on arrival to be ushered in to the front office, provided with some basic necessities like, longyi’s, white shirts, alarm clock, umbrella, a flashlight, a yogi pin, a booklet, and a room key, and nobody speaks English.
It was indicated I needed to hand over my phone, laptop, oh and my passport and any other devices. Really, I know it’s a silent meditation but I promise I will not read or access my electronics [there’s no wi-fi anyway]. I found later it was more for security purposes that they stored any valuable possession.
I was provided with a center ‘map’ and somehow told to be at an interview room at 6pm. What takes place at the interview room, will this be the orientation? I hope so, I expected so.
I was escorted to my room and left to my own devices to begin my silence as a ‘yogi‘.
Let me take a step back and highlight why I thought this 10 night meditation would be practically more challenging.
- Wake up time is 03.00 a.m., yes that’s A.M. in the morning.
- Required a minimum of 14 hours of mediation during the day. There is NO yoga practice but it’s nice that the mediations alternate between sitting and walking. There is one hour of lectures.
- All activities, walking, eating, bathing, etc. must be performed in slow motion.
- Sleep is limited to 4 – 6 hours per ’24 hours’. You’re lucky to get six.
- There are two meals a day, breakfast at 05.00 a.m. and lunch at 10.30 a.m. No eating whatsoever after 12.00 ‘noon’ [water and juice are ok].
- Abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely, and intoxicants. All of which are fine, except you really have to make an extra effort when it comes to the mosquitoes!
- The meditation center in Mexico was non-denominational, this is a Buddhist monastery and you must follow their practices or not go at all. [e.g. bowing, sitting positions, feet cannot face forward, etc.]
I changed into my longyi and white shirt, a requirement of all women to wear during the entire retreat, and familiarized myself with the grounds. It’s a beautiful location, calm and peaceful in nature with a number of ponds, vegetable garden, etc.
Accommodation is spread across the center and everyone is assigned a room to themselves. The men and women are completely separated, [accommodations are in physically different places in the center] and each meditate in their own ‘hall’. The dining hall is also separated.
While walking around, it was clear that there were meditation sessions already in progress. As I still had a few hours before 6pm, I started mediation in my room.
I arrived at the interview room ready for orientation, I had my questions written down after reading the ‘guide’ book, and I was rearing to go.
There is more than one interview room with people already in them and it’s not clear which to enter. Am I late, I found I was a little early, my clock provided was ahead of schedule, I needed to wait a bit longer.
I’m joined by a lovely lady from the UK, who has just landed that very day. Soon it looks like we can enter the interview room but oh… this was not an orientation ?!!?
We were joined by a monk, provided an overview of the ‘mediation’ technique and were asked to listen to a recorded 45 minute overview as well. The technique for the walking mediation was also described.
Hmmm, so when is orientation? This monk was kind enough to point us where we needed to be in the morning at 04.00 a.m. for the first sitting mediation and answered some questions but there were still many unanswered.
The next morning I arrived early at the mediation hall which was full already. It was not clear on how the process worked. The floor was full of mats and most looked like they had personal belongings, ‘marking their territory’, but I found two with ‘just a mat’.
There doesn’t appear to be anybody around which ‘works’ there that I can ask, so I get a cushion, plop myself on one of the empty mats and I’m ready to meditate. By the way, because there are nuns and monks also meditating, you can’t distinguish the meditating guests and people who work in the monastery.
When mediation is finished and it’s time for breakfast, there are two lines that form. To me they looked like ‘random’ lines. After a few days and having stood in the ‘wrong’ line once or twice, I found that one is for ‘seniors’. These lines then calmly, slowly, methodically and mindfully walked to the dining hall. Everywhere you go as a group, you do so in a ‘line’.
There seems to be an order, hierarchy and process for everything. You just have to figure out what they are. I was feeling as if I’d been thrown into a new school in the middle of a school year without any direction.
After breakfast when we arrived back at the mediation hall a yogi passed me a ‘note’ and asked me to move as she had laid down this particular mat yesterday where I was sitting. OK, so what’s the deal here, the hall seemed full, I didn’t see any other mats around. I look for help and finally found a monk* that was too busy with other tasks to assist. I eventually worked out there was more space upstairs and eventually found what I needed.
[*As a side note, I came to perceive this particular monk as a person who ‘didn’t enjoy his job’. Like somebody who has been in a position for a while and appears unhappy. Toward the end of my 10 days, I actually had him in one of my interviews [the interviews allow you to provide and obtain feedback on your progress] and found him completely different. He was passionate about sharing teachings and had a sense of humor.].
For the first four or five days there were many logistics to figure out that just would have been much easier if the processes had been explained. For instance, in the dining hall what looked to be like random seating arrangements were apparently not. I had been asked to move three times in the first three or four days as I was sitting in ‘somebody’s’ seat. Some were pretty aggressive and territorial, certainly didn’t show any compassion for newcomers, especially considering how long they had been there.
I finally figured out that although this center allows mediators to come on a rolling basis, they currently had a 60 day silent meditation in progress. Yes, you read correctly, 60 days of silent mediation, no phones, computers, reading, talking, etc. We happened to arrive toward the last five or six days of it.
In addition to the lack of logistical direction [I promise I won’t bore you with every single detail] we were advised that we had to sit for meditation in the lotus position or with our legs crossed and you must not point your feet in the forward direction [the feet thing was a Buddhist restriction]. I really didn’t anticipate this would be a problem for an hour at a time, but oh no….. I could barely sit for 5 minutes without my legs going completely and painfully numb. They felt as if they would fall off. Oh my goodness, they hurt so bad.
On day three I finally placed a message in the ‘message box’ asking if I could use a chair. On day SIX I got an answer, yes. By day six I had gotten to the point where I was extending my meditation time before the pain in my legs forced me to move them to a new position, so I questioned should I try to live with this pain to see if it works itself out for the remaining four days or just get in a chair so I can get on with the task of meditating? Quite frankly, the meditators around me are so still for the full hour, I think it’s in their best interest and mine if I use the chair. I was glad for it in the end.
The one night I didn’t have my flashlight/torch with me, I arrived to my room after the last sitting meditation, about 9.30 pm. I went to open my screen door and ut..oh, it wouldn’t open. The doors have a screen door and a main door. They each have a latch at the bottom near the floor and at the top to lock the door from the INSIDE.
The entire time before this I had never been able to lock the screen door from the inside as the latch was too tight. Now I come home and it’s latched, it had fallen loose. Panic! It’s pitch dark. Hmmm. I luckily found the screen at the bottom was slightly ripped, wonder if this as happened before, I was able to wiggle my fingers in between the crossed security wires and reach the latch to open. Whew!
I think my silence would have been broken if I hadn’t sorted that out. I would have had no idea who to contact or where to go, office being closed, as these details hadn’t been provided ;-).
Should I Really Be Here?
Can you tell, so far, I’m not a ‘happy camper’? I did say this would prove challenging in many ways.
In the case of all the logistical blips, I found myself overreacting in a most unusual way for me. I was getting annoyed, irritated, almost taking it personally and for the first three days, maybe four or five days, I seriously asked myself if I had made the right decision going there and questioned if I should just leave. Afterall, I could be seeing Myanmar!
I was feeling quite emotional and found myself wanting to cry and feeling ‘alone’ or rather ‘lonely’. WHAT ?! That’s absurd, I never react this way and certainly not ‘lonely’ or the type of crying I felt I wanted to do. What’s going on with me?
When I struggled with the question whether to stay or go, the bird on my other shoulder, kept telling me this situation and these feelings are addressing something in me that needs to be addressed. It’s a part of the processes. The more emotional I got the strong this message was. So, I stick with it.
Also I realized I needed to change my thoughts about the logistics. I knew they were insignificant in the bigger scheme of things. I was looking at a neutral event but my thoughts blew them up in size.
Some of the feelings that came out reminded me of situations in my younger years where various ‘abandonments’ occurred. I ‘got’ what was happening. This meditation process was drawing out past things that needed to be cleared and let go.
Am I glad I stuck it out to the end? Yes.
- It contributed to my personal growth.
- I later realized that although I’ve heard and read Buddhist teachings in the past, this helped me to better understand the people of Myanmar in some way, and it was useful when speaking to my guide in Bagan.
He was passionate about his Buddhist background and openly shared the ideas and learnings with me, some of which I had just listened to in the monastery, so it helped me to better relate.
- The meditation technique itself was beneficial and the exercise of being aware of every single action helps to be more mindful and present. For instance, when eating we were to observe every single action, placing the food on your fork, placing it in your mouth, tasting the food, chewing the food, swallowing the foods, etc.
How many times have we eaten at our desks, at our tables, in front of a TV, and finished eating before we realized that we even ate?
- The food was all Burmese or Chinese, not the Chinese you find in Western restaurants. I couldn’t identify what I was eating most of the time, with silence I couldn’t ask, but it was interesting.
- I felt privileged to be at the end of the 60-day silent meditation retreat. It makes you realize that 10 days is nothing in comparison and it feels like 21 days should be the minimum next time.
- I saw some of the most beautiful moons I’d ever seen and saw some of the planets so very clear and bright.
- I learned three ways to walk for walking mediations.
- If I ever sign up for extended mediations in the future, make sure I can use a chair in advance!
I would like to note that although there were logistical improvements that could be made at the monastery, everything generally was well organized. For example the ‘little’ details of providing flashlights, water in the room, umbrellas [for the hot sun], alarm clocks, etc. The monastery is run by donations, I’ve seen their Yangon center as well, and the work they do is amazing. I also received some incredible assistance at the end when arranging my departure, which I’m incredibly grateful for.
Love & Light,
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More on Vipassana [Meditation Technique]
I didn’t touch on the meditation technique above, it’s called Vipassana. It is an ‘insightful’ meditation to help us see ourselves clearly, our true nature. It helps to stay in the present.
Simply put, you observe your breathing rising and falling to the abdominal area with a focus on the abdomen. If you get distracted [e.g. smells, touch, thoughts, emotions, etc.] you ‘label’ it. For example if you have a thought, you label it as ‘thought’. You don’t place attention on the thought or get attached to it. If you see something in your walking meditation, like a bird flying, you label it as ‘seeing’. You say the label to yourself three times and then refocus on the rising and falling of your breath.
If you’d like to know more about Vipassana, this site has a very good explanation of what Vipassana is and how to perform the technique.
- What is Vipassana: http://www.vipassanadhura.com/whatis.htm
- Vipassana: http://vipassanadhura.com/howto.htm