Monday, May 24, 2010

The art of running in a monsoon

Up above, Sky is in emotional turmoil; he faces an evening comparable to the sort of week I just went through. One second slipping; the next, awake and ready to live.
How to account for the psychological patterns of Sky? Shall we give him a Xanax, or some Prozac, or just let him sit it out in his own due course and let him explode with the anger that he’s allowed to build up over these past weeks? He’s weak; long ago he lost control over his mind, and it’s not as though we can take him to the psych unit any time soon. The waitlist is just too long and we don’t have the time to wait. We spend the time worrying – and pondering – over what he’ll do next.

His words have been few in recent days. He’s allowed his emotions to smog over and darken; musky. Inner nimbus clouds of angst, unaccounted for, like covering an exhaust pipe with a solid object – these pores are ready to burst white, gooey, puss. White blood cells of ingrained, unspoken thoughts and ponderings that splatter and smudge the mirror.

Kate and I, we ignore him the best we can, sort of in the way one suffering from a wounded heart tries to ignore the fact that they suffer a great deal. We are stoic. We are warriors. We give off that impression, anyway. Sky – forget him, the moody artist who contradicts our thought patterns. Though forgetting him, we try to forget that we feel him oh so well. He knows what we feel though we can and cannot feel him – sort of like feeling in an unfeeling way.

He winks at me with an evening eye, then gazes longingly at Kate. I try not to let my heart give in to the pang of jealousy I feel at that moment. Two-timer, three-timer … how many-timer. He senses my feelings and responds with a rumble. Not now, Sky.
Let’s get going. Fuck the weather. Take that, Sky.

We start off, slow and sure, and – practically alone in this jungle at the center of this jungle-city. One mile down, 9 to go…boom boom boom, my heart bumps in my breast, oh…

The big sauna breeze sets in, not cooling us down but – blowing hot air around in the way like –sitting in an oven with a fan on. We get lost in our Serengeti of sweat; faces turn not red but pink – the blood coming up to kiss the surface of our cheeks. Kiss me again. Sky starts up a storm of guilty feelings and wrings out the crumpled tissue of tears that land in the trees and a rough flower hits me with the heavy breeze. I’m whacked on the head with a – leaf? It’s slimy, and Kate gets something, too. Sky, he doesn’t like to be defied.

Mile 2, and we’re on the move, certifiably the only ones in the course now, (certifiably insane? – have you ever run through a monsoon hurricane?) Plop! Plop! Ploploplop PLONK! Heavy bursts of feeling come down from Sky – now is the feeling time. What I didn’t feel from you before, I sure do now, in fact I’m drenched with your feeling, and so is Kate, and so is…

…splatters on the ground.

Let’s go let’s go, pick up the pace! Mile…3…I’ve never felt so alive, not since our last wild night (but at least then I didn’t have to share you with the world). This mad rush – running away from you – I am the rebel wearing a green camouflage hat that’s soaked with your tears.

The pavement we tread on, it’s – disappearing in the eggs you’ve cracked together, in your lame attempt to make an omelet from fear. We really should consider a prescription for these panic attacks of yours. In the meantime, however, we’ve been through boot camp; we know how to survive in the desert and we can crawl through a storm. But – crack! BOOM crack BOOM – you are quite the DJ, you – spin the table tonight.

I guess I didn’t realize that you could go for hours without tiring. You exhaust me, Sky. Emotionally, physically – putting me to the test. Kate and I, we both wear white t-shirts tonight. You did this on purpose. You can see through us but – oh, you dirty man! Sicko. We’re soaked to the bone – may as well be naked, swimming in your thoughts.

Squelchy shoes and wrinkly toes and dripping, gooey, we are. We place a stake in the saturated grass, a white flag on top, instantly wet. We give up. We surrender. For today. We seek shelter under a burrow at the guard’s hut. We powwow and gossip about nothing while our words about you are ever-present, hidden, but there.

Downtrodden, sodden, we hail a cab home. The taxi driver loves our wet-dog smell. In the tropics I am freezing under your silent spell. The air conditioning is left off while we eat our lentil soup in silence. Sort of like sitting by the heat of the fire while cozy in a cottage in the high mountains. You Twitter in the background and play Monopoly while I switch on Radiohead and block you out.

Goodnight, Sky. Get out of your monsoon mood already. It’s only the end of May and you are just starting – warning me early that you’ll be around to haunt me for the next 3 months.

You text me in the morning as I’m waking up. Sorry for lst nite.
Catch me tomorrow night, Sky. It’ll be another stoic faceoff in your turf.

Monday, May 17, 2010


I look at the boys – boys they are, younger than me [and I thought I was the child!]
They have, upon them, rifles, much bigger than their bodies, ready to fire, the fear consuming their thoughts like hungry flies. I walk past, embarrassed. No. I don’t care.

I look him in the eye. Eyes. The eyes tell me about his knowing and not-knowing at the same time. He must be like a baking potato in that suit; the cheese melting down the cracks in him; the black boots like a ball and chain to his baked potato outfit.
Does he even know why he’s there? {Do I?} I turn my head up at the hell of a sun that’s causing my brain to throb inside my hat. Everything just seems to melt together, including my self, my perceptions…

The afternoon fills up with raindrops of silence. Emptiness is when the bucket is full. Everyone is hiding out, enveloped in their respective cocoons, away from the chaotic splendor caused by a confusion of burning tires, choking rubbery smoke, a red hornet’s nest covered in zooming buzzing, flighty creatures, colliding with green and black flies. Lies. Lies that collide and cause political traffic jams, trafficking of puppets patrolled by puppet masters.

The city is on hold, the conventional financial center shut down. Shopping malls – areas of retreat – no longer blast megawatts of electricity. Shops are shut, mouths too. Fear lingers like inextinguishable birthday cake candles. Those who know dare not speak.

In my overheated stupor, I inch my way down the road of cooking cement. Even at this distance from the war zone, I pass threads of razor wire and images of flesh, red and infinite red dripping from beakers on the pavement, not evaporating but coagulating in gutters, the stench causing one to retch.

I am not hiding out. I share the afternoon heat with a fellow solitary nomad. We partake in the act of being lost in translation. We translate our confusion in the form of a guided meditation book. Living out – camping out – of our suitcase and backpack, we have no home to retreat to. Our home is in our hands. In our minds.

In this place where a life is relatively meaningless – what difference does it make who dies? Life can be lost at any and every moment and it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference if it’s gone.

Those who hide away – those who fight – me and my solitary nomad companion – each of us, our lives, will continue to the next once it’s lost here.

This is a battle that can’t be won. Fighting with this philosophy, nothing is destroyed, nothing is created. It – like the blood in the gutter – simply coagulates and emits a putrid stench.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Getting to know the forest temple

The air is stifling, the city so polluted. I stick my nose under my shirt – for what reason? The air there is the same as the lead-ridden air that inhabits the space that surrounds me. I can’t breathe, feel I’m suffocating. Sweat teems within me; my clothes cling to me, stickier than roll-on glue. Like that glue, I feel stuck. A roaring bus blazes past, its fumes inhabiting my lungs, my pores, every cell of me. I need to escape from here! My mind screams in desperation. I dodge motorbikes and street dogs and wearily make my way to anywhere that’s blasting air conditioning. I am a prisoner of air conditioning! My mind checks out. I try to breathe. Just breathe. I brusquely punch in the number to phone my Dhamma friend. I need an escape. To meditate. I call on the forest temple.

The following Saturday morning I meet with my Dhamma friend, who is accompanied by Maechee Noi (literally meaning “little nun” in Thai language) and the three of us, dressed in white clothes (as per temple regulations), drive to Watsunanthawanaram, a forest temple in the Thai province of Kanchanaburi, located about a 3 hour drive to the west of Bangkok. I’ve been here a few times before and I’ve dreamed of it much more.
Watsunanthawanaram is a forest temple whose abbot is the Venerable Phra Ajahn Mitsuo Gavesako, a senior monk and highly respected meditation teacher. Born in Japan, Venerable Ajahn Gavesako was ordained as a Theravadan Buddhist Monk with the Venerable Ajahn Chah in 1976. The Venerable Ajahn Chah followed the tradition of the forest temple, which in turn, is followed today at Watsunanthawanaram.

Laypeople, Thai and foreigners alike, are welcome at the forest temple to practice meditation and to follow the strict yet simple lifestyle adopted by the monks and maechees living here. Their lifestyle is not an easy one; it defies the sense of ‘comfortable living’ (especially in Western terms) and involves wearing white or light-colored clothes (for visitors, or orange robes for monks), eating only once a day (in the morning) from the almsbowl, practicing meditation in solitude several times a day, and living in small huts scattered throughout the forest. This temple is found deeply imbedded in the forest in Kanchanaburi. At this faraway, foreign place, I feel accepted, not judged, for the first time. In fact, no one cares at all. Everyone is focused on their breathing, practicing the mindfulness of breathing meditation.

My first time here, I knew very little about what to expect. I simply followed my Dhamma friend who guided me through the basics of forest temple life. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon, we “checked into” our individual huts (rooms just big enough for sleeping on the hard tile floor with mats and brick pillows provided), rinsed off in the austere showers (no hot water), and took a brief tour. The forest temple has enough huts to house at least 500 visitors at a time, perhaps with space for more in the future, and covers several hundred acres of land, with plenty of dirt trails to walk while practicing walking meditation.

This is what happens on my first visit to the temple: at around 6pm, hearing the sound of a recording in Thai on guided meditation, we head to the temple to begin our walking meditation. I’m hungry but what can I do? I count the hours until I can eat next – only 14 more to go until I can have a huge breakfast tomorrow morning. Sigh. My goal here is to focus on the present. I follow my Dhamma friend’s steps as barefoot we pad through the footpath surrounding the temple and I tell myself how many times to stop thinking; to focus solely on the act of walking and following my breath as the soles of my feet meet with patches of the path that have been in shadier or sunnier spots throughout the day. I am getting the hang of this.

8pm, the gong tolls! I love the sound of the gong. It is such an ancient bell, something so fairytale-like to me. I am so happy that gongs are still in use. It is time for chanting and a Dhamma talk. The book of chants, being in Thai, is left on the floor near my neighbor’s feet. We all sit on tiny mats on the wooden floor under the shelter of the temple. A large Buddha closes his eyes in focused meditation and sits in perfect form before me. I try to mimic his pose but so many factors – the heat, humidity, my sweat, thirst, legs that are falling asleep underneath me, are getting in the way. I get a cramp in my foot. Everyone is chanting in Pali and I sit in silence. I try to meditate to the sound of obscure and foreign words. I feel strangely awake inside. I am so uncomfortable that I can do nothing about it and I accept it for what it is: discomfort. A fleeting sensation.

I lose track of time, but I feel I am dreaming because I hear the English language being spoken. I can’t see who is speaking but he introduces himself as an American who has been ordained as a monk in this temple, and he’s been here a year now. He gives a Dhamma talk while a Thai monk translates to Thai. He says that meditation is like medicine for the mind: when we are sick, we go to the doctor to get medicine to heal our bodies. But in general, when our mind is sick we don’t take medicine for it. We know where to get the medicine (through meditation) but we don’t usually go to the place that offers the best medicine available. If we practice the mindfulness of the breathing meditation, we can help alleviate the sickness that dwells in our minds.
By the end of his talk, it’s about 9:30 pm and I am exhausted. All of us – monks, maechees, and laypeople alike, head off to rest until the morning gong tolls (2:30 am), announcing that meditation shall recommence. I retreat to my hut and lie down on the hard floor, my head stuck to the brick pillow. I feel as though I am camping in a humid oven. Sweat pours out of every pore. I can’t sleep because of the heat. I listen to the chirping geckoes climbing up the walls, chomping on mosquitoes which wish to buzz in my ears. The sound of the forest at night is terrifying and true. I count down the minutes until the gong shall toll, while I aim to focus on the breath. Somewhere near 2 am I fall asleep. The gong tolls. Meditation calls. Again.

Back to the temple where we started the night before, Pali chanting recommences, following another session initiated by the gong’s call at 4:30. My stomach is screaming at me. I shoo away its sound by drowning it in gulps of water. I somehow make it to 6:00 – feeling like a sheep following the guide of the others. But I am not a sheep. This is not a “sheep” thing to do. My body wants to lay flat with the floor, yet I am asked to join on a meditative walk through the forest. I accept this invitation without hesitation because – just because. I am fully awake and aware of what I am doing. This is what they call ‘mindfulness’. I understand it well.
The forest, the forest. The red dirt, the veiny hands of the banyan trees reaching out, scouring the soil, seeking the truth. I feel these trees. Our walk is slow; the maechees look down at their feet. They become the surroundings. 6:30. I don’t need to look at a watch. The sun follows its course. Some birds – I don’t know their names, make themselves known. This is the forest.

I splash my face with chilly water. There are no mirrors here but I know I look like I’ve been up all night. I have. I shower a cold, cold shower, my hands trembling with hunger. I’m dizzy. Gong, please toll! 8am. It’s time for the single meal of the day. A long line of laymen stands in queue for the buffet. The monks and maechees eat in a separate room, crouched over large bowls reminding me of old-fashioned washbasins. I get in line. The food here smells – and looks – great. Huge containers of red rice or white rice, soups, curries, stir fried vegetables, seafood dishes, meats, eggs…the list continues. My bowl fills fast. It’s hard not to mix the sweet with the salty. At this point, I hardly care. The monks believe that with food, it is not to be enjoyed. It is there to nourish the body, not to be a sensational attachment. I eat quickly, and sheepishly get a second helping. Coffee (instant) is available on an unlimited basis. I enjoy the fact that caffeine is allowed in the forest temple.

Sunday pans out in a similar manner to Saturday. Talking is permitted but little is spoken. Words exchanged involve lessons of the Dhamma teachings, in general. During the day, the hot hot day, the monks, maechees, and temple dwellers, soak up the forest. They sweep the temple, clean the floors, and carry out daily chores with full mindfulness and concentration. They meditate in solitude in their huts in the forest, or practice walking meditation along the many paths. They offer advice to those who seek it. In many ways, I could almost let go of my life in the city, forget about my dreams and far-off ambitions, and realize the truth of things as they are. Almost. I guess I am not brave enough to do so. In any case, this place becomes my mental retreat. I can come here anytime I want. It’s in my mind.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010