The pain before the gain

It's 5 o'clock in the morning when the bell rings. Half an hour later 20 people carrying lanterns walk to Wat Suan Mokkh's International Dhamma Hermitage to meditate. The place is full of trees and animals, hence the lanterns in everyone's hand. We're told snakes are afraid of the scent of burning oil.

After sitting for half an hour or so in pitch darkness, a few are already fidgeting, including me.

"I can't do this anymore. Honestly, it's annoying. I had this recurring urge to stand up, after just 20 minutes," I told my instructor when everybody else had left.

The instructor, 32, looked at me intently. When listening or speaking to somebody, he never takes his eyes off people.

"Pain is normal. It's good if we can run away from it, but I'm afraid. Afraid that one day you might not be able to cope with it anymore. What will you do then?" he asked. "We do not have many tools, only our body and intelligence."

It was then when I turned silent.

And that's when I understood what he was trying to tell me: if I was able to endure the pain caused during meditation, I would have this barrier to protect me in real life.

"Just stay still or go to sleep. You can even go to sleep in front of me while we are meditating, just to distract people," he said with a broad smile. At least there was a lighter side to him, I said to myself.

But I knew he was serious.

Unlike his deceased great-grandfather Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a famous and influential ascetic philosopher, my instructor Vichak Panich tries to pass on Tibetan Buddhism teachings he learned at Naropa University in the US for use in everyday life.

The core teachings are meant to enable us to co-exist with unhappiness and become more "human", so we understand how people feel, as opposed to the stricter rules of Theravada Buddhism.

One of the most important questions it poses is how to bring awareness into the hectic modern day lives of people, which was why I joined the course at Suan Mokkh, a respected Buddhist sanctuary, in the first place.

The eight-day course consisted of meditation four times a day, and the distractions were countless: leg and back pains, swarms of mosquitoes and crickets, the snoring at night, the sound of rain, rain itself, the sound of wind, and the cold were constant company.

During the few times I accomplished something, I took deep breath and smiled at nature. At Suan Mokkh, nature was everywhere.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from my time at the retreat was taking the middle path.

We were not encouraged to read or write so we could be with ourselves. Sometimes we were told to not speak for 24 hours. Sometimes Vichak made us look into a lake for half an hour and report our experiences.

We stayed in tiny rooms built with cement, each with a single window, a wooden bed, a light bulb and a wooden pillow. I fell in love with the simplicity of the prison-like rooms; I even fell asleep incredibly fast, much faster than when sleeping at home.

"I drink filtered rain water here," I wrote in my diary. "It tastes really weird, but there's no other option."

Every day I would hear the same sentence by Uncle Sert, the oldest participant in our group.

"Child, do you not want your feet to get a feel of the magnetic field? Take them [your slippers] off."

The place was a good example of the concept of the self-sufficient economy put into practice. For food, we usually ate what was planted there: bananas, vegetables and papaya. They even make their own detergent.

The hermitage sits on 200-rai of former coconut plantations.

Metta Panich, Vichak's uncle who looks after the place, said the surrounding areas are being converted to palm fields since palm oil is an essential commodity.

Before 1987, land in the area cost an average 10,000 baht per rai. Now it's spiralled to 150,000-200,000 baht per rai.

"It's not the right method. Industries are not sustainable and they poison us. HM the King's focus on agriculture is the best [method]. We don't even have to rely on processed food," he told me.

Local communities, he added, didn't have the money to invest in the palm business.

I paused and told him that the Ministry of Industry was aggressively focusing on the development of processed food in order to boost and add value to Thai exports.

"You see, they are talking about money again," he said.

On the last day of the meditation course, people were crying.

Vichak gave us 20 minutes to write our thoughts on a piece of paper. Later, we shared our thoughts among the group. One of my favourites was part of a piece by 47-year-old translator Usanee Nuchanong.

At the end of it I thought I had woken up.

And now I know for sure I was right.

What had awakened was my mind.

Vichak acknowledged that there should be alternatives to meditation. For some types of unhappiness, it is not necessary to sit down and meditate.

"Instead, having someone to listen to us without having to go to the temple would be fine. Or perhaps our country might need more therapists," he said.

Nanchanok Wongsamuth is a business reporter for the Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Nanchanok Wongsamuth
Position: News Reporter