I recently attended a meditation retreat organised by the Wat Suandok temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The retreat gave me an insight into Buddhism and taught me about the importance of mindfulness in our lives. To be mindful means to live in the present and to observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance without judging them good or bad. We were taught that we all possess a ‘monkey mind‘ which is the perfect analogy for the uncontrolled thoughts and feelings which jump around and often distract us from living in the “now” (present moment).
There were about forty people who attended the retreat and I wasn’t expecting it to be a silence retreat either. We arrived at the meditation center about 20km outside of Chiang Mai. We were assigned a room and were asked to shower and change into our white clothes. When we emerged from the room, it kind of reminded me of my first day in the military. Everybody arrived as civilians with different types of clothes and within an hour we were all dressed the same. The monk told us that when the bell rang, we were to refrain from speaking to one another as the irrelevant conversation would distract us from the mindfulness we were trying to comprehend.
In Buddhism dharma means cosmic law and order, but is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha. It consists of about 84 000 teachings which could be narrowed down to three basic principles.
- Don’t do bad.
- Do good.
- Purify the mind.
According to Phra DR. Saneh Dhammavaro in his book, titled ‘Buddhism Ethics and the Path to Peace’, the word ‘Buddha’ is not a name. It is a title meaning the ‘Enlightened One’ or the ‘Awakened One’ . Buddhism is a way of life or a philosophy which was taught by Prince Siddhartha. He taught the people and showed them the way of purity, peace and happiness through cultivation of virtues like friendliness and charity, wisdom and compassion, renunciation and meditation and non-violence and loving kindness. He left his father his wife and his children at the age of twenty nine in search of an answer for the question which preoccupied his mind at the time, ‘where is the realm of life in where there is neither age nor death?‘ He was perturbed by the suffering of human beings and wanted to find a remedy. Siddhartha believed that a path of self mortification would lead him to salvation and after six years of experimenting in the forest, he realised that self torture never lead to perfect wisdom. Finally he found a way – a golden mean between the two extreme paths, the path of self indulgence (Kama sukhallikamuyoga), and the path of self-mortification (Attakilamatha-muyoga). This middle path which has been described as the ‘Noble Path‘ is the unique contribution of the Buddha.
Meditation allows us to calm our minds and focus on the present. At first it seems very difficult to train our ‘monkey mind’ but with practice, it definitely becomes easier. You don’t become fit and strong after one training session at the gym, its a process and requires discipline in order to start seeing positive results.
Our first meditation session was ten minutes. We were told to mindfully focus on our breathing or the rising and falling of our abdomen as we inhaled and exhaled in order to help our minds stay focused on the present. It was difficult to stay focused for as little as ten seconds before the ‘monkey mind’ started distracting us. We were also told that we must not follow our thoughts as this will distract us from the present moment and we were to forget the thoughts as quickly as they entered our minds
According to Kaysorn Suttajit Chunprapaph, R.N. in his book, titled ‘Buddha Abhidhamma: Forty Meditations‘, there are two methods of meditation.
- Tranquility meditation (samatha bhavana) is the method to calm down the mind from five hindrances. There are forty subjects of meditation which differ according to the temperament of each person.
- Insight meditation (vipassana bhavana) is the training of the mind to see that the characteristics of nature, life and the mind are subject to continuous change, getting old, trouble with illness and finally uncontrollable emptiness. This realization leads to the eradication of all defilements and the attainment of Nibbana (enlightenment)
We practiced sitting meditation, walking meditation and lying meditation. The lying technique is a highly recommended practice before bedtime as it makes you feel really relaxed and somewhat sleepy. The following day we woke up at at 5am meditated and were introduced to a martial art called ‘Qigong’ which literally means ‘life energy cultivation’. It was great to try out the different animal positions such as the Dragon, the Tiger, the Snake, the Leopard, the Crane and after 45 minutes we all felt the positive energy flowing through our veins.
“According to Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian philosophy, respectively, Qigong allows access to higher realms of awareness, awakens one’s “true nature”, and helps develop human potential”. 
It was great to be able to discuss our thoughts and questions about many of our concerns related to our minds and meditation with the monks. I am truly grateful for this experience and would recommend it to anybody who would like to learn to access their minds full potential, it is a good starting point.
Being mindful is simple and can be practiced daily through activities such as walking, thinking, talking and eating. Since the retreat, I have put in the effort to meditate every morning before starting my day. I have definitely noticed a difference in my mental behavior as I am now able to stay focused on the present and when the ‘monkey mind’ wants to come out to play, I allow it to, mindfully.
This behavioral change which I have experienced does not just come standard with the meditation retreat, training the mind requires just as much attention as any other discipline and each individual therefore needs to take it upon themselves to keep their physical and mental health in check.