Meditation is not for everyone. If you like it, embrace it. If you don’t, let it go. Like many things in life, I got into meditation by chance through an invitation of a dear friend. Her family was a great supporter of the venerable Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm and he was coming to Bangkok to give a Dhamma talk.
I told myself, “Why not give it a try?” and I attended Ajahn Brahm’s talk on “Happiness.” All of us know him as Ajahn Brahm but the jovial monk’s full name is Ajahn Brahmavamso, his official religious name being Phra Visuddhisamvarathera. Currently the abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Serpentine, Western Australia, Ajahn Brahm travels all over the world to give his Dhamma talks and lead meditation retreats. He visits Thailand and Singapore regularly where he has a huge following.
After listening to his talk, I signed up for one of his meditation retreats. The first one was a bit uncomfortable, but the more experienced meditators helped me through with a great understanding and compassion. And little by little, I was hooked.
As far as religion is concerned, I was raised as a Buddhist.
When I was five, my mother sent me to the temple to practice meditation. But what can you expect from a little kid whose major concerns were playing, eating and sleeping? I fell asleep, of course, and that was my memory of Buddhism. So, it was only much later in life, after I had attended Ajahn Brahm’s meditation retreat, that I came to understand the significance of meditation. Ajahn Brahm’s meditation retreats enable novice meditators to ease into the process. I started off with two nights at a nice, comfortable hotel.
There was no need to sleep on the floor or forgo air-conditioned bedrooms like other meditation retreats. The beauty of these retreats is that one does not have to be a Buddhist to attend them. People from other religions sign up on a regular basis, and the number is growing. At the last retreat in Thailand, Ajahn Brahm said that one should think of coming to the retreat as coming out of jail (the trials and tribulation of one’s daily life) to enjoy the freedom of not having to worry about anything for a little while.
He encouraged us to enjoy the beauty of the retreat. Don’t linger in the past, worry about the future, he said – just enjoy the present moment, the freedom. The dress code for the meditation retreat was simple. No jewellery, no makeup. (Fine, no worries mate.) Wear a white top, dark trousers or long skirt (nothing tight or fitted). (No sweat, can do.) All are to observe the five precepts of Buddhism. (OK by me).
The five Buddhist precepts are rules that most of us go by anyway (except for number 5 for some of us):
1. Thou shall not kill
2. Thou shall not steal
3. Thou shall abstain from sexual misconduct
4. Thou shall not lie
5. Thou shall not get intoxicated
During the retreat, all meditators were to observe three more precepts:
1. No solid food after 12 noon. (That gets a little tough.) When I joined my first retreat, I was so afraid that I would not last the night if I skipped dinner. Thankfully, the organisers were kind enough to provide us with hot drinks, chocolate and cheese at 5pm. That was really helpful for those of us who probably got hungrier by worrying about the possibility that we might get hungry in the middle of the night. The feeling is similar to when one has to refrain from eating and drinking after midnight if have a blood test the following morning. One starts getting uncomfortable with the thought that one cannot eat.
2. No talking, all must observe noble silence. (Say what? Oh no!) Most people think that it is easy until they try it. It just
shows how much everyone takes speech for granted. It doesn’t take more than 15 minutes for us to realise how uncomfortable it is not to speak. We soon realise the importance of noble silence. By keeping quiet, we can clear our minds and concentrate on meditating.
3. No TV, no music, no dancing and no mobiles in the conference room. (Now that is going to be too much!) No entertainment? How do we pass the time? The days got longer than usual and the nights were not so peaceful, especially if one’s stomach decided to growl in the middle of the night! We began each morning of the retreat with a meditation session at 5.30am. Then, we did some chanting with the help of the Ajahn, and afterwards, we happily moved to the dining room to consume the much awaited breakfast.Then at 9am, we returned to the conference hall to listen to a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Brahm. The topic that morning was about letting go.
Ajahn Brahm gave the simple example of holding up a glass of water. After a while, the glass gets heavy because one is getting tired from holding the glass for so long. So, what to do? Very simple. Put it down, he advised. Give yourself a rest, and then get back to it later. By having a rest, one may come up with some solutions. If you approach your “problems” in the same manner, he noted, you will be able to handle your life much better.
A guided meditation session followed. Afterwards, all of us headed to the restaurant for a quiet, and peaceful lunch which had to be eaten before 12 noon. More meditation practice followed after a short break. In the afternoon, participants could also sign up for a 10-minute interview session with Ajahn Brahm. These sessions fill up quickly and if one had any questions, they could be written out and put into the question basket for the Ajahn to answer in the evening session.
There were many things Ajahn Brahm said in his talks that made a lot of sense. He kept his talks simple and humorous. He cited similes that most people could relate to, one way or another. Meditation teaches you the value of patience, he said. Tell yourself you will sit still and think of nothing for half an hour. OK, let’s start with five minutes. You will find that your mind will not stay still at all. It starts wandering without your permission: Oh, I have to make dinner. I forgot to call so-and-so. What shall I do this weekend? Problems at work, sick child, Worry, worry, worry.
There is no doubt that meditation takes time and practice. It is just like learning to ride a bicycle or learning a language. How long it takes depends on each person. Some will get it quickly while others take longer. However, there is no need to compare. And one day, one will have the “aha!” moment and things will become easier and the meditator will be more relaxed about getting to the next level. Patience will eventually lead to enlightenment. In any case, one should not jump to conclusions too quickly. If one doesn’t succeed this time, try again, and if one doesn’t succeed the next time, well, try again. Eventually, a sense of peace will come to the meditator, who will be glad that he or she tried. Ajahn Brahm’s talks are available in You Tube and also by clicking on to this link: bswa.org/teachers/ajahn-brahm