After 6 months of almost constant sightseeing and adventures we started thinking more intensively about settling down for at least a week or two and do something that will not only leave us with awesome memories but also will benefit us in one way or another in our future lives and careers. As we still haven’t come across the right volunteering opportunity it had to be something else. Lucia had been thinking about trying meditation for a few months. When we decided to contact meditation centres with our applications we had been in Myanmar for almost 2 weeks and we had had a chance to see how buddhism plays an important role in society. On a daily basis we saw lines of monks or nuns going around in the morning to receive offers from people in exchange for their blessing. We witnessed processions celebrating children being brought to monastery to live monastic lives. All family homes we visited were devouted to buddhism and Nat (spirits) beliefs, this combination being very typical for Myanmar. So we thought that Myanmar would be the best place to learn.
The first one to reply to us was Panditarama Meditation Centre located near the city of Bago north of Yangon. Having done our research we knew that this centre, similarly to most of the centres in Myanmar, practices Vipasana meditation method which we will describe later in the article. We were not able to exactly find out what it is that we can achieve at the end of our 10 days, but we set ourselves small goals that seemed to be inline with what the practice can give us. Mainly we were looking for being able to work better with our minds, be able to relax and ‘switch off’ or reset the senses when needed.
Finding our way to the centre was not easy, but as often, luck was with us. The bus dropped us too far from the centre which we didn’t know yet. After asking a few people, in a hotel, on the road, at the petrol station etc, we were still not sure how far we have to walk in the middle of the hot day and when to take a turn. Slightly annoyed, we were super surprised when a scooter pulled up next to us. It was a guy who worked at a hotel where we asked first. As he explained, he thought we will have to walk too far, so he wants to take us there. Big backpack between driver’s legs, small backpack in a basket in front, Lucia between the driver and Mark and our second big backpack on Mark’s back. This dangerously looking cargo then rode 5 minutes down a motorway and 10 more minutes after the turn. By foot, it would take even 1 hour.
The young nun at the meditation centre office greeted us nicely, gave us a few forms to fill in and handed us following ‘welcome kit’: an alarm clock (to be always on time), an umbrella (to hide from hot sun while walking slowly; which is a must), thermos bottle (for hot or cold drinks), a torch (to see well early morning or late afternoon and avoid stepping on a scorpio or a snake; really!?), brown scarf for the lady to wear at all times and yogi pin for clear distinction between us and staff that wore the same uniform. Mark had to buy a longhi – a manskirt and white top and Lucia had to wear plain dark brown long skirt with white blouse. We both were also given a brochure with all instructions and a map of the centre with our accommodation locations marked yellow. We were still allowed to talk to eachother, although quietly, so we agreed to meet one last time for a walk after we checked-in to our separated rooms.
The same evening we met with a monk for an one hour instructions session. The monk first left us alone to listen to the instructions from a small player and then came back to repeat a few points and take us through the schedules. So what were we about to do? As you see in the schedule below, we would be alternating between sitting and walking meditation. Meditating while sitting means to focus on rising and falling of ones abdomen when breathing and noting this movement as well as what is happening throughout it. Noting has to be done by mentally describing it with a word repeated twice or trice, e.g. rising-rising or falling-falling. Of course, other senses are active too. So incase of an itch, one has to note itch-itch, in case of sound outside, hearing-hearing etc and afterwards get back to focusing on the abdomen. At some point, just by noting the itch and turning foucs away from it back to the abdomen causes the itch to disappear from ones conciousness. This way yogi can in theory eliminate all distruptions and gain strong focus. Walking meditation follows same principles, but insted of abdomen, one focuses on steps, left-left, right-right, lifting-lifting, stepping forward-stepping forward, putting down-putting down…
And in case this looks alright so far, there are some additional rules to follow:
We got a chance to start with evening meditation already on the day of our arrival. This was the same day when we asked for dinner as we were not ready to fully start on our day zero. Lucia’s first meditation attempts were quite successful, Mark also managed to sit almost motionless for a while, but his start was rather typical for him – funny. We were asked to find our seats in a dark meditation room (men and women separately) and so Mark found himself a nice warm ready spot right in front of buddha’s image, when his neighbor lifted his mosquito net and gave him a look. Mark well remembered the rule of not engaging in conversations with anybody and so turned away and minded his own meditating business. A knock on his shoulder later on interupted him to find out that on his first session he took a permanent spot of a senior monk. The worst thing however was, he would have to keep this funny story for himself for next 10 days before sharing a laugh.
The day 1 went by according to the schedule. Waking up at 3 am was not as painful as we thought. It was like from a zombie movie to see the scene of all monks and nuns and yogis slowly gathering for the first morning meditation in their long robes and with their flashlamps on. Not having eaten for the first 3 hours after waking up, not so much fun. For every meal, or should we say for both meals of the day, all the participants had to line up in order of seniority, men first and sloooowly proceed one after another to the dining hall. Eating could only start after chanting to thank for the food and that would happen after the senior men were seated. Food was good and plentiful. Variety of veggies, noodles, chicken, soups and salads, all really tasty! Surviving without a meal from noon until following breakfast was difficult but doable (especially with a cheat of breakfast banana being saved for 5pm by Lucia).
Walking meditations were ok too. Although our minds wandered away all the time, keeping focus for a while was easier than sitting. When meditating while sitting we were told not to change position unless really neccessary. Pain and pressure was supposed to be noted and thus eliminated. Although it seemed to be somehow working with itching, pain in legs, thighs, back or neck was too strong to keep any focus or will for the rest. Whenever it seemed to be the good position or the right focus, after a few minutes, pain would come and all would be gone. Lucia spent half of all sessions half asleep sitting with her head between knees or just watching others and counting minutes until … no, not until the end, until next session that would be probably even more exhilirating than the previous one. As we were not able to focus enough, we at least had a chance to observe the fellow participants. There were people young and old, Asians and Europeans. On the noticeboard we both saw what nationalities were attending and entertained ourselves by guessing who is who. Some of these guys were here for months already and were so dedicated and focused, there was not even an eye contact between some!
By the end of the day, we felt that the combination of not being able to focus or sit properly, no talking or thinking, slow walking and spending the whole day totally on our own and our lack of will on top of it was the right recipe for a way out. The next morning we secretly had a chat after breakfast and agreed that we would leave and instead of giving it a chance and try for a few more days, we decided not to waste time and leave now. None of us had the right motivation to go through the challenges that the first day showed us in practice and so we packed our bags and after an understanding chat with the same nun that welcomed us two days ago we said bye to the centre. We do not regret coming there though! It was a great experience for us, we learned some meditation basics that we might apply in future and had so much to talk about once we were out of the ‘noble silence’ zone. Maybe one day we will be back for longer, this time with the right dedication.
First published on: http://takeitandgo.eu/2014/04/09/short-term-yogis/
For more stories by Lucia Mackovicová and Mark Jarus visit:http://takeitandgo.eu/