Category Archives: Laos

2014/15 I’m working in Laos, trying to figure out where I need to go next to develop my calling in life.

My Last Laos Post

The last few weeks have been a frenzy of activity preparing for my departure from PoP and Laos. The office had a Bawsee for me, the programs team took me out to a special thank you dinner, everyday at work I’ve been racing through last minute projects and preparing for my role’s transition, and also outside of work I’ve been preparing for my next adventures.

Tonight will be my last night at Sakura, as tomorrow after work I will begin to head down to Bangkok. I’ll be taking several overnight buses to Bangkok, where I will then stay with someone on the couch surfer network. Finally, I’ll take a plane from Bangkok to Brussels, where I’ll meet my mom for the start of a wonderful vacation.

Next time I update on here I’ll fill in any adventures along the way and then start my new segment, under the China heading, from Brussels. I won’t actually be in China yet, but to me it’s just really the start of that whole new adventure.   



Of course I’d discover this a week before I leave. There’s a woman right outside of Sakura who makes fresh banana chips and fried banana breading.

 
Here’s some of the food from my Bawsee. The closest dish consists of fried vegetables with some kind of orange sauce. Next up is a stir fried dish with frog meat, mmm. Top left is a kind of homage curry-like dish that has heart potatoes and big pieces of meat. Then the soup to the right has some kind of white floaty thing and seaweed-like vegetable floating at the top.

 
Of course there’s kareokee after all the dancing. I normally go home before this point in the party, but this time I stayed. People are mostly just drinking and singing, with no one left on the dance floor. This is Bay. He’s the admin/HR/finance manager of the office. He has a heart made of gold and a goofy personality that I’ll miss a lot.


There’s one last birthday in the office before I leave and you can see where my focus is stuck. It’ll be the last time I’ll eat the delicious carrot cake made by a local bakery here.

 
Here’s the dinner the program’s team held for me. I had to do something to offset the seriousness that comes with selfies here in Laos.

 
We all had multiple of those sugary cocktail drinks, beer, and more food then I thought could possibly fit in my stomach. By the end my stomach was sending me emergency signals to stop or it was going to hit the ejection button.

 
One thing people do in Laos to be polite is to come over and hand you a piece of food. I remember this first happening at a school opening celebration. It was strange at first, but I learned to appreciate the generousity that drove the action. Some of the programs staff came over to make these kinds of offerings to me during my celebration dinner. A few of them had been drinking quite a bit and came over with spoon fills of ice cream. I was laughing so hard I nearly inhaled the ice cream. I’m really going to miss this team.

Celebration Dinner

A big part of our struggle working here in Laos is getting approval from the governement. The first big step is getting that approval from the national government office. We accomplished that already and spent a better part of my internship getting approval at the provincial level. Before you start drooling, I’ll get to the interesting part here. I’m warning you now though that the rest is kind of gross and I’ll warn you before the really bad parts.

Tonight we’re having a staff dinner celebrating our anniversary of the agreement with the national government. So, of course that means we gotta go out and get a few live ducks. Some of the staff, generally those who grew up in the country side and are used to this, will take them out back to kill and prepare them.

Naturally, it would be crazy to waste food, so as they cut the neck, someone is standing with a bowl to catch the blood. I didn’t see it this time, but I’ve seen it plenty of times already. I think the pigs are the worst because of the sound and filth. Also because I saw the most greusome killing I’ve ever seen with a pig.

This would be a good time to plug your ears and yell la la la la la la and skip the next paragraph.

The pig is tied to a post and with the rope attached to its leg and pulled tight, it’s fully sprawled out belly flat on the ground. It’s totally given up on life. Then the men grab it and there’s a sudden explosion of life. This is the moment it’s been waiting for. “Act like you’ve given up and then when those stupid humans untie me I’ll make a break for it.” Nice try little piggy, this isn’t their first rodeo… or pig killing. Either way, they’ve already eaten your whole family. Hoisting it by the legs they lie it on a table. I look away and start to walk that way and then feel guilty that I’ll be enjoying eating that pig later so I can at least watch it die in order to feed us. I’m back now watching, but as one guy walks over with a knife my knees start to get weak. Before this I’d seen chickens, pigs, ducks, and cows all killed. This one was different somehow. Maybe because I gave it a personality when I imagined it talking to the humans and then I explained to it the reality of the situation. The guy with the knife holds the head and then stics the knife right into the neck. Okay, not so bad, I’m getting strength back to not have to hold onto the wall. Then he hooks the motion to get the knife behind something and to slice it as the knife comes out. Between my trembling eyes and the knife protrudes a giant cylindrical object. It’s almost half the size of the pigs neck and I guess it’s the whole wind pipe. Then the knife breaks back through with it, what looks like a fire hose of blood. The pigs screams its last as it also ejects all the poop it was saving to trip the humans as they chased it on its escape. I don’t turn my head as I watch the scene unfold. My legs dipped as I temporarily passed out on the ropes, but I recovered and there was no KO awarded. Since then I started to pay more attention to the pig killings. Wow, that sentence sounds really creepy. It’s a way of life though and if you eat pork, someone had to do it, so I figure why not learn about it. One of my colleagues does it much better as he just puts a little bit of the knife into the perfect spot and twists the knife and it’s just so much more humane.

Anyway, I don’t see the duck killing tonight. I do know from seeing it before that after they catch the blood they immediately start to stir it and add a lot of salt. I think to slow down the coagulation. They also prepared soup and a spicy curry-like dish.

Here’s one of the plates of blood.


This is after people have been eating it, so it doesn’t look so nice. Normally there’s a beautiful bed of greens and peanuts on top. Then there’s a bowl of limes served next to it so you can squirt some line of your spoon full of blood to either add flavor or kill off some of the bad things that’ll make you sick.

Then, like in the picture, people start to eat it and push the stuff around. I had a few bites. I think it’s good! Although I’m a little afraid it’ll turn me into Duckula. Sorry, that was a bad one, I know. The blood tastes a bit spicy, sour from the lime, and more like the other herbs they add then what you’d imagine blood would taste like. The really gross part is that as it sits on the table, it starts to coagulate. You can see the coagulated part on the left and the I part that hasn’t on the right.

It’s strange, but hey people love it here. Or at least the duck blood. The other ones are questionable.

Well, here’s to another spoon full of animal blood.

Hey, What’s in the Bag?

As usual, people trickle into the office in the morning. My seat is in the biggest room in the office, which is also connected to the front door. I like to spend most mornings greeting people and chatting as we all get ready for work.

People will come in with all kinds of weird things and I’ve taken it for granted, just as a normal everyday thing. For some reason this morning some people are huddled in the corner all looking in a bag. I thought if it interests them, I’ll definitely want to see it and hey, why not take a picture too. 

  
It looks like some kind of seed or beans. But, why would that be so interesting. I move in for a closer look…

  
Okay, now it doesn’t look like either, but I still can’t tell. Maybe a rocky soil? I ask Leevong to show me so I can get a closeup look and picture. 

  
They’re some kind of bug that they only know the name of in Lao. As I’m now this close an awful smell wafts up and envelops me. From the smell of it, they’ve been dead for awhile now. 

Khampat, the one who brought them in, takes the bag into the kitchen. Thank the lord because working all day with that smell next to me would not happen.

The grossness only continues from here… About 10 minutes before lunch, Khampat disappears into the kitchen to fry the bugs in oil. It doesn’t make the smell any better and allows it to soil the air throughout the bottom floor of the office. I go in and turn on fans and try to run back out into the other room before passing out. 

Our wonderful lunch of beautiful colors and smells comes and we all sit down to eat with a big plate of the bugs right there next to the actual food.

I get over it and focus on enjoying my food and the rarity of this experience. It’s definitely gross, but it’s something so different from anything I’m used to, so I’m having fun with all these new adventures.

Here a picture of the tasty food I talk about so much.

  
This is lunch for about 10 people. The big bowl with the orange liquid is an amazing local curry. The yellow thing directly below is shredded naw mai… I mean bamboo. I rarely talked about bamboo before coming here, so it just took me a while to remember the name in English. I find that happens a lot for the new experiences and food I have here. It’s kind of cool, except that when I leave here I’ll only be able to talk to myself… Which I do anyway, so nothing’s new. The thing just to the left of the bamboo are glass noodles and chicken. All the rest are combinations of more vegetables and meats than I know how to identify. I do know it’s all delicious and now it’s time to dig in!

The Typical Lao Party

My office recently had a going away ritual for Leslie, our overall manager of country operations and Michael, our new CEO. This same ritual is done for anyone who is leaving on a long trip. It’s also done in the local culture all the time for other important events. It basically symbolizes good luck in the future.

Or at least that’s how it’s “culturally” explained. Maybe some people put a big emphasis on that, but for me and many others, it’s mostly just a big party with all of your closest friends in the same room.

I’m not sure how these things for for other people in Laos, but for our office, no matter the circumstance, there seems to be a strong pattern. It also rings true for all the weddings, school openings, and baby parties I’ve been to outside of our office. I think of it as the Lao version of a house party.

First, everyone waits around on the outer edges of the room as people slowly set up for the ritual part. There’s usually a thing of atrociously fake plastic flowers in the middle of a small round stand, which is all on a large siting mat. Then about 30 minutes past the agreed starting time, everyone’s ready and the people receiving the blessing put a scarf shaped piece of really nice silk material diagonally around their body. We go through the chanting, everyone tries to stay awake, and then after a few minutes everyone gets up to tie white strings around the people’s wrists who are receiving the blessing. A blessing is said when the string is tied. Then some more chanting, before finally the main orchestrator, which is just basically anyone who knows the Pali language part of the ritual, gives the newly blessed people some chicken, rice, local sweets, and a glass of beer. Boom, 20 minutes and it’s all over.

Now people quickly clear away the crap on the floor in the way of us really starting the party.

Long tables are set up and everyone pitches in to bring food evenly spread out along the table. The goal is that everyone will be in reach of every different kind of dish. Yeah, it gets quite crowded.

  Our coworkers made all the food this time. Sometimes we order the food, but it’s no where near as good as when they make it. Everyone’s a chef it seems. The white styrofoam has sticky rice packed inside. I’m not sure who started the fad of the styrofoam, but it seems to be popular at all the parties I’ve seen. The ceranwrap is to keep bugs off the food. That make sense to me at a wedding where there are hundreds of people and some tables might not be occupied for a few hours. Im not sure it’s much more than a deterrent for people starting to eat when used at these small gatherings. Then of course there’s the finishing touches of the toilet paper sitting next to your dinner. Hey, sometimes the food is so good people might want to ignore the call of nature… Probably a bad joke before eating food, but I can’t help it, that’s what they get for leading my mind in that direction.In the flurry of all this, some people have also set up a keyboard, guitar, and a speaker on loud with the knob to increase echo stuck on max. Literally stuck, whenever I turn it down so we can actually understand what they’re saying, it’s almost instantly turned back up. The same is done for speeches.

Everyone digs in and the room is the quietest it will be all night. Even the band is eating, so they just put on a loop of the most basic computerized music you could imagine. People are so occupied, the beer is still in the case, which is quite the statement here.

   

As people stuff the last amounts of food that could possibly fit in their stomachs, there’s a noticeable shift in the atmosphere. Some people start to get up and visit other tables and give cheers to make sure everyone has had their quota of beer. 

  
The gradual change then becomes like the flip of a switch when those bowls with the beer on top is brought out. It signifies the start of the band, loud voices, and most of the people getting out of their seats. It’s also the start of a very fun and somewhat disturbing Lao drinking game.

  
Uh oh more people are catching on and coming over to join in the festivities. Some one reaches in and presses the two bowls together as they shake the contents inside.

  
Then the top is taken off and a skinless chicken head is left there with its beak pointing in a direction. Who ever it points at has to drink a beer and then shake the chicken head to find the next victim.

  
Here’s a closer look at the chicken head. 

  
After the first few times the yelling precedes the chicken heads victim chugging their beer, almost everyone in the room has roamed over to get in on the action. Some are clapping to the, now very loud, music and others are intent on keeping the game and the energy going.

  
Now everyone’s really into it. Whenever the chicken head is revealed people will scream and make sure everyone knows who the victim is. Sometimes it gets close, so these judges are important the the integrity of the chicken head.

  
Our CEO even jumps in. Yup, we have some pretty cool bosses.

  
There’s Khamhoung, the life of every party, determining the next victim.

  
I try to get up close to get another shot of the chicken head and its revealed to be pointing at me! Well, too bad I’m taking two different kinds of antibiotics and loads of Advil. I like my kidneys the way they are thank you.

  
The chicken head game peaks in excient as Leslie starts to shake the head. It’s pointing at Lanoy down there and everyone goes absolutely wild. They have a fun relationship nah up where they tease each other a lot, so it just adds to everything.

  
The excitement dies as fast as it was born and now it’s time for the next part of the oh so common Lao party. The tables are moved to the sides of the room to create a big space in the middle. 

  
Of course for dancing. Some grabs the microphone and starts calling people up to start the first round. All danced are done in rounds with the start and end to each song. The men form a circle on the inside, facing out. The women form one on the outside, facing in. People pair up and give a respectful now to eachother before starting. Then everyone one goes around in the circle and moves their hands in a sort of circle formation, while gently bouncing their bodies. The hand movement are very intricate and something I will never fully understand. Even some Lao people are very bad at doing it. It’s beautiful to see some of the women who has perfected the art.

  
There’s more of the dancing.

  
You can even see the extensive band set up in the back here. Axel, Karins adorable 

  
Then there’s a part where the dancing gets a bit riskay as the men and women make smaller circles and pass through the opposite part where only the opposite sex should be dancing.

  
The dancing continues and then begins to slow down. As expert partiers the Lao people are, they then switch up the dancing style. Now only a few people go to the center of the room and start what I can only partially relate to line dancing. There are a few basic moves that everyone lines up to do. Then more people join as they build confidence. I don’t have any pictures of this part because I was dancing in all the different kinds of those dances. They’re really a blast. Then I find someone to take me home early because my ear is hurting beyond the point where I can still concentrate and enjoy myself. 

I get one more picture on the way out as the rest of the party is beginning to slow finally. 

  

I CAN HEAR AGAIN… Oh Right, Don’t Need to Yell Anymore

After the trip to the meditation center, I got back on Sunday night, ready to start back into work on Monday. I’ll rest for the night and then go to the clinic to get my ears fixed after work on Monday. Some of my colleagues know of a woman who studied medicine in France, otherwise I would go to Thailand…or let me ears rot. There’s no way I’m going to go to any of the local doctors after the mishandling of my friend Gom. This is certainly less serious than his accident, but I wont trust them any where the delicate parts inside of my ear.

I go to the clinic on Monday and it’s packed, so I leave and decide to come back the next day. Same thing on Tuesday! Wednesday I leave work a little bit early and get there ahead of the crowd. She sees me first and as I expected goes to check my ears, but tells me she can’t see anything because they’re blocked. Okay, she’s passed the idiot test, now let’s get on to how we can fix it. She tells me that the inner parts of my ear are red and she thinks that they’re infected. She pulls out the ear instrument and shows me the “puss” that came out of my ear. I’m no doctor, but I definitely know what ear wax looks like… I’m glad I have my mom to ask for advice with all of this stuff. Everything I’ve read online said that the big signs of infected ears are pain or discharge of fluid, which I have neither of. I tell her I don’t want to take antibiotics, but just want my ears flushed. She says that she can’t do that there and just to take the antibiotics. She says if it’s not better by the end of the week she will personally take me to the hospital and get it sorted out. I appreciate her offer, but I’m sticking to my guns on not seeing any local doctors here. It’s out of the question.

I take her medicine and Andrea, my boss, suggests to go to the local children’s hospital and see if they have just a few minutes to irrigate my ear. It’s the only place in town with foreign doctors. I head there and wrestle with people for a few hours before the Australian doctor comes out to talk to me. Everyone was telling me they only treat children there. Yeah well if they don’t listen to me, then I’m going to start acting like a child, so they better just help me now. He finally comes out and listens to me patiently. He then tells me they don’t do ear irrigation there and I’ll have to go to another foreign trained doctor in town. He also tells me to stay away from the local doctors here at the hospital. I thank him and then leave to call his lead. As I’m leaving I stick my tongue out at the people who were giving me a hard time to prove to them my maturity level is far below most of their patients.

The number doesn’t work… Brainstorming at home I realize that some of my colleagues are in Sweden, so I ask them to bring me a home irrigation kit. They’ll be home just after the weekend. Wonderful, I feel so relieved. Also after some debates with my mom I finally cave and start to take the antibiotics, despite not having any signs of needing them.

I get the medicine Monday morning at work and rush home to try it out. It works like a charm, I can finally hear again! It’s been about three weeks of constant cloggage and it feels so strange to have them unclogged. I feel like everything I’m doing is too loud. It rains the next morning on my way to work, but luckily stops before I start to walk. It’s amazing to be able to hear everything on my walk again so clearly. After I get through the market part of my walk, I’m walking through a more bushy area and all of the insects and frogs sound like a symphony playing beautiful music to my every step. I’m in total amazement at the sounds that I have taken for granted for so long and will soon take or granted again. It’s nice to have this little wake up call though.

The idiot that I am, I stop taking the antibiotics short of the week because, like I said before, there are no signs of infection from what I read on the internet and the internet is always right!

Thursday rolls around… and as everyone everyone has already probably guessed, except for me, I get a mild pain in my ear, but ignore it and concentrate on how the busy schedule at work. Walking home that evening it gets worse. Then at about 7:30 as I’m winding down for the night, it gets even worse. I call the doctor I saw before and go to see her. Feeling like an idiot for stopping the antibiotics I go in to her office with an embarrassed look on my face. She lectures me, twice, about stopping the regiment. Then she looks in my ear and to prove her brilliance, declares she can see everything. Gosh, she is really amazing isn’t she? Then she gives me stronger antibiotics and tells me to take them.

Friday, the next day, my ears get bad again during the daytime. They get even worse at night, and peak right before I go to bed. I take two 200mg ibuprofen pills before getting home, take too more before I go to bed, and then after a few hours of sleepless agony, I take another two pills. I also get in the shower and try to flush my ears again, thinking something is in there. With no luck, I finally dull the pain enough to pass out.

Now, up to this morning, on Saturday, the pain comes right back and makes it really difficult to focus on anything. Worried that a Men in Black alien is in my ear and about to take over my brain, I call Andrea. She says that we’ll probably have to go to Bangkok to get it dealt with if it doesn’t get better by the morning. I call my mom because she has more experience selling these drugs then that doctor, who studied in Oz, has been alive. My worry is deflated when she tells me that I have an outer infection in my ear and I just need to take drops to cure it. Now, I’m going to search all over the city to find those drops so I can stop this excruciating pain. This pain is much worse than any ailments I had when I was in Ghana, including the Malaria.

So, things I’ve learned from doing just about everything wrong (However, I don’t actually know anything about this and am the worst example you could follow, so don’t actually take this advice, or if you do, only claim it was from me if it worked):

  • If you’re going to flush your ears to clean the wax, use a drying agent to dry up the moisture deep in your ear. That is one of the main causes of the infection I have.
  • Even if a doctor is claimed to be good and has studied in some magical place, check with more people about their advice.
  • Maybe the most obvious one of all, don’t stop taking your antibiotics, even if you thought you started them for no reason.
  • If you are taking pain medication at a high dose, without being prescribed, take Ibuprofen because taking too high a dose of Tylenol could do permanent damage to your liver (like I said, don’t follow this advice, just use it as one of your many references)
  • Lastly, the aliens from Men and Black clearly aren’t going to stay in your ears… They have much smarter people to inhabit.

A Much Needed Rant, Practice in My Room, and a Speech in Lao

This morning I have coffee wit my neighbor again. The crazy-eyed old man is sitting there with us as well. I catch a few words about him talking about practicing inside a room. He’s so defensive it’s palpable. Defensiveness is only going to make me pick it apart further, so it’s not helping his case. I stop listening to him and just focus on the sounds of the morning. That’s one great thing about not being that great at Lao, is that when I don’t want to try hard to translate, it’s easy to zone out when someone is talking.

The morning session goes by fine as usual. The overly talkative woman is leading it and even with the morning routines, she’s talking way more than the other leaders did the previous mornings. I was thinking about how ridiculous it is that she talks through all the exercises where we’re supposed to be building mindfulness. I see this like being in class, let’s say learning math. We’re all trying to learn a new concept and after listening to the lecture, we get some exercises to try ourselves. When we’re working through new problems, the teacher is up at the front of class lecturing about the theory of math and how it is could help you in your daily life. Well, that’s great at a different time, but how are we supposed to solve a new problem, if we’re not given the space to think about it.

This woman has got me in the mood, so I feel like this is a good time for a rant… I’ve been here for a week anyway, so it’s about time I talk about how they’re doing it all wrong: Every morning, we chant about consuming food in moderation, but if you look at the teachers, most of them are overweight to the point of being very unhealthy. They’re not like a naturally large person, who might be big, but still exercises and is in good health. This is proven to me when we do morning exercises, which isn’t much more vigorous than simple arm waving and body rotations. Some of the teachers have to pause because they’re so out of breath. It’s somehow similar to Tai Chi, so I can understand if it makes them warm and a little sweaty, but swinging their arm around like a windmill shouldn’t make them pant. I’m not against anyone here being fat, but why are the leaders then telling the audience how they should live their life differently, if those teachers aren’t even living the way their preaching. Also, how are they going to teach something as wholesome as spirituality, if they can’t even get their outer health in order.

We also talk a lot about equanimity, which basically means loving everyone the same amount. This is one that has bothered me in every organized Buddhist group that I’ve taken part. Every organized practice I’ve been apart of, we do bowing three times, to the Buddha, the Dharmma, and the Sangha. I think the special homage it these things still fits within the equanimity. The Buddha is inside of everyone and everything and can be realized by everyone. So we’re basically worshiping something that is inside of all of us. The Dharma, which is the path laid out by the Buddha, can be followed by anyone. The Sangha is specifically those people along our path who help us to progress spiritually. That could even be interpreted as the people doing bad things giving us lessons on how to live the right way, so that pretty much involves everyone we come in contact with. For me, all three of those make sense and I think are wonderful things to pay special attention. BUT, this place also adds two more bows for our teachers and for our parents. Aaalright, this is where things start to get a bit fuzzy for me. First of all, teachers and parents should be included in our chant for the Sanha, so we’re technically bowing to them twice. I could do the famous George Carlin routine where I narrow all these separate commandments down to one, but I’ll let them keep the first three. The added two are in trouble though. Okay, I also think that back to the equanimity thing that we shouldn’t pay special attention to our teachers, if we’re also going to preach generating equal feeling toward all. That goes hand in hand with the second extra bowing to parents. Don’t get me wrong I love my parents and I’m not sure if I could feel equanimity between them and other people, but I’m also not the one all hyped up about this equanimity thing. I guess my point about all of this is that I understand paying extra respects to special people in our lives who really help us above and beyond others and I also buy into the idea of trying to love every person, but I think it should be updated so two really large parts of the practice aren’t contradicting each other.

With everything that I’ve learned about Buddhism these contradictions come up and makes me wonder how I could ever follow such a practice. Before I got so deeply immersed in Buddhism I always understood it as a kind of add-on religion and one that you might be able to take piece from. Well, sorry to say, but if people take piece from them and don’t follow the others, then they’re not considered to be Buddhist here. Once someone gets involved enough to regularly go to the temple and join in these group chants, then they’re repeating and agreeing to what they’re chanting. I don’t see anyone go there and then for the reincarnation part sit to the side because they don’t want to pick that part to practice. No, it’s just like every other organized religious group, when you’re in, you’re in the whole thing. Naturally, when I get in, I start to look around and then I start to notice things that don’t make any sense. Instead of becoming complacent, I ask questions and then get nipped at. That means that I’m either going to stay there and rattle the cage or I’m going to get out and find something else that makes me more comfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have great respect for Buddhism and all other religions, but like every religion I’ve ever investigated, they have the stench of people’s egos. I also still have immense respect for those people who can be apart of these religious groups and ignore the parts I can’t seem to get around and try their best to use those groups as their vehicle to being a good person. I think that’s much harder than my approach and I’ll never turn my nose up to it. It’s just different. I really think all of it’s wonderful, but with that said, I’m not going to miss an opportunity to poke fun at any approach, including my own.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, breakfast is over and my plan is to practice on my own during the two middle sessions of the day and then join everyone at the session at the end of the day. I’m kind of excited to see people’s reactions at my plan, especially that crazy-eyed old man. I don’t normally like to rattle the cage for no reason, but maybe this will help someone jump outside of their box for a bit and at the very least it will let me practice in a more conducive way for my own predispositions.

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Also, of course in the middle of meditation I thought, “oh, I have to get a picture of that!” I’m having way too much fun exploring this new photography thing. I’ve always thought it would be interesting, but never knew I would enjoy it this much. I’ll be really excited to keep developing my skills as I go through China.

The sessions on my own go well. I’m starting to let it sink really deep with the meaning of quality practice. More and more I’m able to look at my effort and understand when I’m not really trying, but instead just sitting there letting the time go by. Noting substantial came from those sitting sessions, other than a clear understanding of how I need to change my practice going forward. I’m also okay with not making big strides with my meditation. I know that this will be something I will stick with for the long haul, so it is more important for me now to set up something that I can sustain and keep holding myself accountable for making those small bits of progress. The most difficult part of that is that after each of those bits, nothing really has changed. It can be really disheartening, until I will someday understand that thousands of those little progressions will then lead up to having the kind of understanding of life that I’m looking for.

This is my last night here and everyone knows. I told everyone already that I’m leaving in the morning, so there’s no surprise. Apparently Saturday is also a big day when people from outside come to chant and meditate, so there are probably close to 400 people in the meditation hall. I sit up front as usual with my neighbor. He tells me that I should go up and speak in front of everyone to tell them how this place has helped me and how I feel now. I kind of laugh it off not thinking that is a normal thing to do. Most people who go up to the front seem like they’re talking about issues in their life and asking people to pray for them. During the meditation part one of the teachers at the front reads something off of a paper and then says my Lao name, Boonme, and then asks me if that’s actually my name. He goes back to talking some more and then my neighbor goes up front. Now, I’m realizing that I’ll actually be up there next, I start to plan what I’m going to say. They have translators, but there’s no way I’m going to miss this opportunity to speak Lao in front of all these people. It’s probably bigger than any crowd I’ve given a speech in English, let alone a language I have just barely over a conversational grasp with. I use it in work meetings quite a bit, but that also involves a lot of hand waving and probably a very crude use of the language. The people up here use much fancier language, which I have learned, but haven’t had time to practice.

My neighbor is done and then they tell me it’s my time. I go up there and do the three prostrations to the Buddha statue. I don’t if that’s right because he says something about me doing it and laughs, but I’d rather do slightly too much, then not enough. I turn around and grab the microphone and begin to address the crowd…. The mic isn’t working! He tells me I need to switch it on first. Was that the Lao version of a prank or am I just that much of an idiot? I’ll go for the idiot. My plan is to throw in little jokes and lead up to one big finale punch line, that might be a little risky, but again, there’s no way I can miss this opportunity. I start by greeting everyone and then introducing myself with the flowery formal language. I guess it’s also a way to sound like I have more humility in front of the religious setting. People already start giggling and I can see people trying to adjust themselves to get a better look. People are supposed to have their eyes closed and meditate, but that’s all gone out the door. I thank everyone for me being there and allowing me to stay. I tell everyone how long I’ve been here and how I’ve felt in the beginning and middle. I slip in some more silly words that I learned in the office in those descriptions and get people to continuously giggle through the whole thing. I’m also thinking that there’s a huge chance that they’re just giggling at how funny I sound and that no one can actually understand me. I also keep forgetting to use the proper language, so I’m reverting back to the normal way, which here apparently makes me sound full of my self. Well, I suppose that a bit true, so what the hell. Then I work my way through the experience and tell them that after all this work and effort “I feel”… then I pause for a second and look around the room… “like my legs really hurt”. Okay, that was clearly much funnier in my head, but hey I got some extra giggles. Then I tell them that I’m just joking and go back to being serious the rest of the speech, thanking them again for taking care of me and being wonderful people. I was trying to lighten up the room and not make my speech as serious as 100% of the people who come up here who look like they’re going to cry or scream. I suppose this is a pretty serious thing though and I hope I’m not going to hell for making some fun. It’s okay, I’ll be able to sleep well knowing I went through with it and made a few hundred people laugh. Once again, I love doing things in a second language because it makes me so much more charming and funny than I could ever be in English. I take no credit for that and give it all to being an awkward white man.

The rest of the session flew by and then it was time to go to sleep for the last time at this place. That’s a lot easier than it sounds. Every other night I fell asleep almost before my head hit the pillow, but tonight I’ve been up for a few hours with sleepiness nowhere in sight. It’s probably a combination of the excitement from the speech and knowing I’ll be traveling tomorrow.

Practicing on My Own, Crazy Eyed Old Man, Too Much Talking

I wake up a few times throughout the night, still fearing the possibility of sleeping through my alarm.

After a quick shower my neighbor calls me over to have some coffee and tea. I like hanging around him the most because we talk a little bit when we feel like it and then just sit there in silence. I really enjoy that and I think it’s something that my generation feels is a bad thing.

We go to the session and my legs are still a bit ouchy from yesterday, so I try to take it easy to make sure I make it through all the sessions today. I’m thinking about just resting during one of the afternoon sessions.  The session went fine, but still not back to that same level of relaxation. I do get to the point where one of my dreams comes rushing right back to my memory, as clear as yesterday’s lunch (I have much better of food than most things). That’s also something strange that’s happened to me ever since I first started meditation and I’m not sure exactly why or if there’s any significance there. For some reason, with out trying, when I first start to meditate well (whatever that actually means), dreams will fly back as if I just remembered that I need to do an errand.

Breakfast is nice because I sit with the older people as usual (they talk less while eating and I like that) and after they get up no one joins me again. I’m not against socializing, but it’s really nice to get a break and eat a meal by myself. Especially since I’m treated like a celebrity here.

The session after breakfast is normal, but my legs are still hurting quite a bit. I guess that’s what I get for practicing a religion in a country that is mostly used to sitting on the floor. The floor sitting culture is changing a bit now, but the older generations, especially those who haven’t been exposed to much outside of Laos, don’t understand why everyone doesn’t have the same flexibility as them.

At lunch I decide that I’m going to rest in my room during the next session and then join everyone again after dinner for the evening session with the long sitting meditation. I return back to my room and lock it from the inside. Now there’s only me and this very distracted mind of mine. I start just by lying down and letting my body rest. Before long, I start to drift, probably mostly because of the meal I just ate, so I get up and stretch a bit. Then I bring a chair into the room and meditate there for awhile. I take out my phone and listen to a few dharma talks before going back to the chair. From there Im fully awake, so I can lie on the ground without any sleepiness. I keep doing this in a cyclical pattern and really try to understand the process that happens from when I’m “in the moment” to when I’m lost in my thoughts. It’s a battle, but I begin to relax to the point where I can feel the tightness in my chest again. I can feel it exactly where my heart is in my chest. The three hours fly by and I can hear people outside, so that must mean it’s time for dinner. I feel relaxed, but nothing else noticeable. I’m happy with the progress I’ve made and I think the relaxation is an essential first step, so that’s all I expected.

Then, when I get to the food hall I  really notice a subtle difference I couldn’t before. I feel just slightly lighter and more relaxed than I did, even just at breakfast. Even talking to people I feel a light, but steady confidence I didn’t feel before. This is the kind of response I look for from meditation. Feelings like this tell me I’m doing the right thing and makes me want to continue. I’m not expecting to levitate or read people’s minds, but I am expecting some kind of positive feedback and this feeling is exactly what I’m looking for.

Walking back from lunch I see my neighbor and greet him as I pass. A few feet away, one of the other old guys who I see at my neighbors drinking coffee a lot says he didn’t see me in the meditation hall. I told him I was practicing in my room. They didn’t quite understand my Lao, so my neighbor walks closer to join the conversation. Then they get what I said and the old guys demeanor completely changes as he turns into a crazy eye (quite literally, I didn’t know if he was looking at me or if I was even addressing me), mean old man. I look back at my neighbor and I catch a smirk on his face that looked like he was thinking “oh great, here we go again”. My neighbor then started walking back to his hut. My ability to read his reaction was something profoundly deep I can’t quite explain. I think it’s really funny when sometimes I meet people and without really even knowing them for long, I feel so connected to them. If was trying to find any empirical evidence to point toward reincarnation that would be the one I’d use. I felt like just in the look he gave, we just had a conversation and I completely understood what he was trying to get across to me.

The crazy old man keeps talking to me and tells me I should go to the meditation hall to practice. I tell him that I understand, but my legs hurt and I want to sit in a chair in my room to rest my legs. As if my words were just the passing wind, he keeps repeating himself about the meditation hall being the source of feeling good. I find it impossible to have a reasonable discussion with religious people like this. I’ve found these types of people in America, Ghana, and here. I guess anywhere there are religious groups there’ll be religious nuts. The part that bothers me is that these people are then around long enough to become respected leaders (like this crazy eyed guy talking to me now) and then take younger, more impressionable people to spread their ideologies. As if I needed another, this is just more reassurance that not joining a religion is the correct path for me.

The nighttime session was frustrating again because that same damn woman from last night would stop talking during the whole meditation. We constantly chant about restraining ourselves and talking is listed as one of the big parts. She’s breaking the precept right in front of everyone, RIGHT AFTER saying them together with everyone. Okay okay, I could also see the arguement that she’s just giving guidance in the form of a Dharma talk. That’s fine, but the talk doesn’t have to be for an hour and I think there should be some time of silence to absorb it all. Meditation is also hard enough trying to control my own mental chatter, it doesn’t help for this woman to be adding another level of difficulty. Time finally gives in the theunrelenting woman and we all leave for sleep. I get back and pass out immediately.

An Old Batting Lesson, On the Rise

 I wake up on my own about 15 minutes before my alarm, worried that I slept through it again. I adjusted the volume and added my iPhone asbackup. 

Even though I was only lightly sleeping in fear of missing the alarm again, I get up feeling pretty good. After a shower, my neighbor calls me over for coffee and tea. He has some other friends already over there. He likes to make me a cup of the instant packet coffee and a cup of his tea. He thinks the tea clears the palate I suppose. I’m not sure if it’s the generosity of him and his friends or the tinsy bit of coffee, but I get into the morning session feeling better than I have the whole time. 

During the session there are no realizations or breakthroughs, but just little progress of pushing myself a bit harder to deal with the distractions of my mind. I really feel like that’s what meditation is all about (not that I actually know at all about how it’s successful), instead of being about whatever most people tell me to do. I hear the same thing over and over again: “Watch your breath, focus on your sensation, watch your emotions.” I think that’s all part of it, but totally missing the point of why were told to watch those things. Watching those things might cause wonderful feelings if done correctly, but I can’t believe they’ll help in the longrun or at all when real life hits. I believe the most important part is about dealing with resistance. Will I let something tighten me up or will I stay loose and let it flow by. I can be mindful of something as it happens and be either tight and resistant or loose and accepting. I believe being mindful of something is the final step. My latest thesis is that the real difficult part of this journey and where the real change comes from is how I react to that distraction when it comes up. Then, I can continue watching it and understanding its nature.

That takes me to the session following breakfast where I get back to that level of relaxation I had in the temple in Thailand. (Temple here also means monastery) I know because I can feel that subtle tightness in my chest that underlies my daily life of distraction. I get there by remembering what Bill, my old batting coach, would tell me. I swear he has been more help than all the readings and spiritual leaders I’ve learned about. He basically just told me to relax and swing the bat. His instructions were simple and left so much personal adjustment to me. I would do what he said and hit the ball hard into the net. He would respond everytime, “nope, you didn’t relax”. At first it was funny and then it got frustrating because he kept saying the same thing, even though I was hitting the ball well. It’s almost as if he knew somehow the inner working of my body and could tell I was still holding tension. After him continually nagging me, I finally, in spite of him, relax so much I thought the bat might fly out of my hand, just to show him his instructions are ridiculous and counterintuitive. The result of my “over relaxation” was actually a perfect snapping line drive right down the middle. Which in baseball terms (at least the old-school style when everyone wasn’t steroided up) is the perfect hit. Bill just sat there with his arrogant, but well earned, grin on his face. My dad and I were giddy with excitement after the lesson and often still bring that up today. I’ll never forget that moment for as long as I live. 

Again and again, I keep relearning that lesson. I’m still so resistant to it because I still believe in some ways it’s preposterous. I’ve been stuck on the thought “If I’m going to do something I’ve got to try hard and push through it!”. Everything I’ve learned from school and my culture and even meditation teachers have reinforced the same thing. I remembered that batting lesson today and it brings me further into the meditation to feel that very subtle tightness in my chest. I know I hold onto things and have an issue with letting them go, but it’s much different knowing that and being able to feel where it’s all stored. The feeling is especially emphasized when I know that same stress is the cause of the heart disease that runs in my family. 

It’s time for lunch already, but I feel good now having made a tiny bit of progress and having Bill on my shoulder for the next few days.

The part about all of this that makes me want to scream, is that for the next two sessions I didn’t get back to that same level of progress. By the night session, my legs were done and I was defeated and frustrated. I almost got up and walked out when one of the teachers wouldn’t stop talking through the microphone. She wasn’t even doing a guided meditation, just repeating the exact same stuff about living life that we literally just chanted about as a group. I did make it the whole time and immediately went back and passed right out.

   
 It’s been overcast or a little rainy everyday. I’m happy for that because otherwise it’s really hot and humid. 

The Dip

Both of my ears are clogged still, so I sleep through my morning alarm by an hour and wake up at exactly the time when the morning session starts. I absolutely can’t stand when I’m late to anything or when I sleep through my alarm, so the combination puts a bad feeling to the start of my day. 

I quickly jump in the shower (meaning throw a bucket of water on my head) and run over. I sit in the back to try and not disturb anyone. Unfortunately this is where all the young boys sit, so it’s an added difficulty to pay attention past them to what everyone else is doing. 

As if there wasn’t enough to go wrong and distract me, a kitten comes around and is begging, in my general vicinity, for food I’m assuming. The boys around me keep flipping it away or kicking it. It’s kind of sad to see because it’s not even old enough to meow yet and really skinny. It comes over to me and I try to use my book to shoo it away. I can’t help but think of the stories from a good friend in Ghana about the parasites she got from animals. With all this going on I can be sure that the last thing I’ll be doing this morning is getting into a good meditation.

Finally, I just ignore the kitten and let it rub up on me. I figure it’s better if it hangs around me anyway so none of those boys kick it again. It eventually just stops rubbing on me and just chills next to me. There’s got to be some kind of analogy there with how to deal with resistance. It seems so strange really, but the moment I became less attached to the things around me, the less they seemed interested in distracting me. Okay, maybe I will get more out of this session than I thought.

Off to breakfast. I think everything the whole morning didn’t help because I’m feeling more down about meditation as a spiritual practice. It’s just proposterous to me that I could try something for so long and yet still not really find and tangible lasting success. Sure there’s the little breakthroughs, but that’s not why I’m doing it in the first place. I’m doing this to improve my life in a way that pervades everything for the long term. 

Back from breakfast I sit in the front and go through all the motions again. I feel a little better at the end of the session, but still am not making the progress I would make if I spent this kind of time on ANYTHING else. I’m beginning to think that either this is the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted or that I should accept the investment and stop butting my head against the wall. Regardless I’m going to stick out the rest of my time here and really give it a try the whole way through.
Okay picture time. I’ll end on a good note here.   
Here’s some of the jackfruit I’ve talked about so much. In my hand, that brown thing is the seed and the yellow is the fruit that you eat. The majority of the thing right behind my hand you don’t actually eat. The one in the back isn’t split open yet. A lot of people don’t like jack fruit and I just thought it was strange at first. It was introduced to me in Ghana when other than the occasional orange or bannana there wasn’t much diversity to the fruit. This was that sizzle that I leaned to really love. It’s very sweet and when it’s perfectly ripe, very slimy. It’s quite hard to eat and the sap inside of it might get on your hands and feel like glue. It’s all so worth it though because it’s packed with vitamins, sweet, and juicy.

  
I really love the morning sky and walking to work everyday gives me a daily dose of wonder. Sometimes, okay every time, I’ll be lost in my head and then catch a glimpse of the sky and just take a deep breath and enjoy the beauty. Even though that absorption is fleeting, it’s a nice way to start the day of working in an office.

VISA Run, Crazy Expat

I go through the morning meditationroutine and then leave for my visa trip to Thailand. That’s really the whole reason I even came here anyway, I then decided to extend it into a vacation.

I take the bus and realize how amazingly cheap it is to get around compared to the touristy Tuk Tuks. It’s also really easy to navigate since I walked a lot around this city and also made a boarder trip once before. The whole speaking Lao thing plays to my favor as well. Although it doesn’t help that I can barely hear still, I just have to really watch the persons mouth to try and recognize some of the words and body to get some context. I make it through both Immigrations without even more than a second look.

Back on the Lao side I meet Gordon, and 59 year old American who’s been living in Thailand for as long as I’ve been alive. 
He tells me all kinds of crazy stories of Laos and Thailand in the early days. He even shows me his old passport with a visa into Laos in 1992. Apparently when he first got into Laos, they hadn’t developed their phone system yet, so the numbers were only 4 digits long. Sounds like a real trip back in time. He also tells me crazy stories about how to build a house out of local stuff here. Off the bus I tell him how to get to his hotel and then I get focused on getting back to try and not get too far out of the retreat mind state. He told me if aim in Changmai he would buy me a burger and that was almost enough to through me off track. Mmm burgers…

After a few more buses, I get back to the meditation center at 330. I join the middle of the after noon session and in no time we’re getting up for dinner. 

I eat with Sin Jai and then we walk back to my hut. I try to joke with her, but the lack difficulty in communicating makes it hard for much more than a sentence. So, I resort to more physical humor, but get little reception. I get bored with people, pretty women or not, if they can’t be silly. During the break between good and session, I sit with my neighbor and some of the other people who come around to meet with him.

The evening session is fine. I sit up front with my nice neighbor. Even though there’s not enough room, he insists for people to move to make a spot next to him. Throughout the session I have to keep adjusting my position because we’re mostly just meditating on the floor the whole time. Where as the sessions through out the day are broken up into much smaller segments and it feel like we’re constantly changing. I really want to sit and try to meditate for a few hours, actually I think that’s the only thing that will work for me in the beginning, especially as I’m trying to figure these big hurdles out. However, I can’t do that if my legs start to bark at me after 20 minutes.

I start to feel really down about meditation. It seems like no one has good advice and these methods at this particular place are somewhat helpful to cover up the proposterous idea of sitting on the floor with my legs folded like a pretzel for hours on end. The part that really frustrates me is that I keep hearing the same advice and know what I have to do, but I can’t do it! I’m beginning to think that everyone is just mimicking the same terrible instructions, or maybe This is just one thing I’m just uniquely bad at doing. Even though Im feeling a bit defeated, I have a deep fire inside to figure out this thing. My goal will be to explain meditation in a practical way for everyday people who are fed up with the instructions to “just keep watching your breath”. Yeah that’s a great goal, but how is that also the explanation? It seems like this is actually a way to oversimplify something extremely difficult and complicated and in turn I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns more people away then actually helps. It’s certainly gotten me thinking that I’m just not good enough to do it or it’s not good enough for me. Well, I’m too stubborn to let that stop me. I will figure this thing out and then I will try my best to break it down for regular everyday people. Or at the very least I’ll know why it couldn’t have been broken down anymore and explain that and try to give people motivation to stick with it.

The Cook, Beautiful Woman, Cult?

Before it was only my left ear that was clogged, so if I angled my head to the left then I could hear everything fine. Granted I probably looked strange or like I was spacing out in the middle of a conversation. 
As I probably could have guessed, my right ear gets clogged this morning, so now my hearing is much worse then it was before. No more tilting my head. Now I can just stare right at someone and still space out. Hey, I have an excuse now!

It’s actually been a really interesting experience having my ears like this. It’s been teaching me how little I really listen, so I think at least for now it’s a good lesson. Certainly one I was really in need of. Too often do I listen to people half heartedly, especially if they’re talking about something I’m not particularly interested in. I’ve complained of that same thing from other people, but didn’t quite realize until now how much I do it as well. 

 I’ll get the ears taken care of back in Luang Prabang. After lunch when I’m cleaning my dishes, I meet a Lao guy with an Australian accent. Apparently he studied there for four years and is now back living at this retreat. I also find out soon that he’s the cook. Ooh, It all makes a lot more sense now. 

He sits with my at dinner and we talk a long time about the practice and mostly about his opinions. He seems like a great guy, but maybe a little bit too sure about what he’s saying. He speaking more like he’s a teacher, rather than fellow student. Also too much talking and not enough questions, which is the way I really think is the best to help people. I’m still trying to take my newest lesson to heart though, so I sit there and listen to him as fully as I can. I also give his suggestions a try.

Toward the end of the meal he also introduces me to a really beautiful young woman, named Sin Jai, and tells me she wants to marry a Falang (foreigner) man. Yeah yeah, I’ve heard this school so many times before, so I laugh and then try to move on, before soon realizing none of this is a joke. He also starts talking about me staying and teaching English and practicing more to really feel good. I seriously feel like I’m being coaxed into joining a cult here. “Here’s food, shelter, a wife, and all the comfort you need” ahh! In the back of my head I’m arguing that this woman is really beautiful and how I might be able to continue all of this. If there were ever a time to just call it quits and settle down in comfort, this would be a pretty damn good one.

Well, they clearly don’t understand how stubborn I am. First of all, I don’t take it so well when people come on so strong, it just seems suspiscious to me. Also, My heart is still telling me I have a journey to go on and I can’t limit myself (meaning stay in Laos rather than go to China) because of a beautiful woman, even if she is heavily focused on her spiritual life and doing good to others. If she lived in Luang Prabang, that’d be a whole different story, at least until September. I also find out she’s the niece of the main woman who started this place, so she’s definitely picked from the top of the tree. All three of us walk around at the lunch break and talk to some Lao woman who lived in Minnasota her whole life. It’s funny that even though she’s Lao, we fall back into the typical American culture and my skin starts to crawl. I quickly start to speak with Lao with them to get our mind state back here in Laos. I don’t know how I’m ever going to go back to the U.S.  I will always try my best to appreciate the priveledges that come with being an American, but I really can’t stand the culture. If it weren’t for my family and friends I would be scoping out a new place to settle.

I walk back with Sin Jai and being alone with her for the first time, I realize that she talks way too quietly for my waxy ears, not that my Lao would be good enough anyway. I get some things out of it though. She’s apparently been living here for a year and teaching the students about Buddhism.

She walks with me to the meditation hall and I get a bad feeling. Everyone can see the people walk up the sides and I just get that feeling that everyone thinks we’re courting. If I met her in a different situation, I’d pursue her in a flash, but I’m really serious about learning from this meditation place and also don’t want to piss any of the leaders off, especially her psychic Aunt. I make sure to get her number and then go back to focusing on what I came here to explore.

In the meditation, my legs are starting to hurt really bad during the long nighttime meditation. It makes sense since we’re probably meditating close to 10 hours a day. I have to stretch a few times and all the spinning our torsos is making my lower back hurt. It’s also building lower ab muscles like I’ve never had. Hopefully not equally destroying my back muscles. I get back to my room and almost fall asleep before I actually make it into bed I’m so tired. This mental workout is exhausting!

  
Here’s a picture out of the window in the back of my room.

Getting Into the Rhythm

I’m starting to feel better about staying here after the morning meditation and chant session. I especially like how we get some exercise in as a group. It’s not vigorous, but it’s enough. During the break after breakfast, I sit with my neighbor, who’s some 65 year old retired guy, and we drink some coffee and tea. He’s really nice and I can tell he’s had quite an exciting life. He’s reserved and when he talks he gets to the point quickly. I think I mostly enjoy sitting with him because we don’t have to be talking the whole time, we can just sit there and enjoy the sounds around us.  At lunch, Sack introduces me to some of his college friends. I’ve also been meeting some other people at meal times when I sit at random tables. I definitely feel like a celebrity. I’m the only person here who’s not Lao and yet I speak enough Lao to have conversations with any of them. Sack tells me about the cook teaching English class and I just laugh, imagining that can’t be too good. I picture some fat greesy guy who can’t actually speak a word of English.  Through talking to some people I learn that the woman who started this place is apparently just like the Buddha. Also, the young woman, from the temple in Thailand, who told me about this place also mentioned that she talked with a woman here who she swore was either psychic or had some other crazy powers. Meeting her sounds like a cool adventure. However, I soon find out I have to be here for a couple of months before they’ll let me meet her. I guess I’m not that special. Nothing else really special happens the rest of the day as I’m just trying to get into the rhythm of this place.     Here’s a picture of the room they gave me.

Meditation Center Arrival

After asking a few people, getting directions from a monk, and a long dirt road I make it to a walled compound. There’s actually no door, so I’m not sure exactly what the walls do. I enter and find the reception people, who then take me over to the room Where I’ll be sleeping. It’s just a basic Lao village hut with basic thin bamboo walls and floor and a thin metal sheet for the roof. Sounds perfect to me. I even have my own bathroom, so it’s quite fancy. However they’re still cleaning, so They take me over to the meditation hall, where everyone is already practicing. 

I’m Introduced to young guy named sack. He’s my age and speaks English. 

After trying my best to follow along, we break for lunch. There’s another session between lunch and dinner. We start with some basic chanting and then go to sitting meditation. Then we start to rotate our bodies in a circle. Some people move their shoulders around and others their hips. Some even move both really fast and frankly it looks a bit rediculous.

Then we go through a five part sequence where we lift one arm at a time off of our knee and bring it to our chest in prayer position. Then move it up and down to our head and then it all in reverse.

Next we do walking meditation around the sala. We put both hands on our lower stomach and walk in a line. Then back to meditation and final chanting before dinner.

Each session is about 2 to 3 hours and we have four a day, around the three meals. That means about 8 or 9 hours of meditation a day!

The night session went really long and I couldn’t help but think I want out of here. People were spinning out of control and the talk went too long. 

Also my ears being clogged doesn’t help at all! It’s been hard to communicate with people, especially when they all want to talk to me because I’m the only foreigner.

At 9 I literally fall into bed and pass out.

Start of My Vacation

It’s nearing 7 AM, so I’m sitting in my hotel lobby in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, waiting for food places to open. After I eat I’ll take a bus out to the meditation place. They already know I’m coming, so the only challenge will be actually finding the place with out taking too many different buses, shooting up the cost of the route.

I’m excited to try their new technique and to get away from everything for a bit. Full updates in a week!

Anyway, here’s some more photos I’ve been taking.

   
I already posted this one, but I think it looks more interesting after a little bit of editing.

 
From the plane window on my way to Vientiane.

  
Most days on my way to work I take a shortcut through the market. With the old ladies preparing their vegetable stands, young women their clothes stands, the wafting of something awfully sour from the day before, and motorcycles zipping through the narrow paths, uninterested in the padestrians in their way, it’s quite a way to wake up the brain.

Capture the Moment

Lately I’ve been focusing on all kinds of preparations for my China trip. I’m still doing the same language preparation, with a big focus on reading. I want to be ready to navigate and document the adventure.  I’ve always had an interest in photography, but never pursued it for every reason but a good one. I think that’s what I’ve really been missing with my blog and as an expression in my life. I’ve been looking around for instruction on the Internet. I read through some basic things and then stopped abruptly. My interest in photography wasn’t to learn about it, but was to just do it. So, that’s what I did.

I really like what one of my close friend in college told me about learning music. Every time we played together, I said I was envious about his years of training. Then, one day he was tired of hearing me say that and told me he thought my level of training was ideal for creativity. He told me that he could easily play up and down scales, but was it was very difficult to break his brain from the rigid confines of his training. It made music more into math, than into an art.

I’ve really taken that approach to heart with all new forms of art I’ve explored in my life. That’s how I learned the harmonica and when I pick it back up will continue that way. I think if I’m passionate about it, then I’ll find a way to learn and maybe even find something new. I don’t feel like I’m ‘reinventing the wheel’ either. Art is so personal and at its core, I think, is just a way to express that which we can’t in words. . I’m not performing, I’m just having fun and expressing myself.

With that said here’s a performance of what I’ve been goofing with.                   

Chinese/China Updates

Since my focus for learning Chinese has now switched to reading, I’ve been paying more attention to signs in Chinese. There are a few signs in particular that are along my routine walk home. It’s been really rewarding as I study more, the signs are beginning to come alive. I had this same experience when I first learned Lao and it’s just as exciting now with Chinese. Learning to read a new alphabet is a very slow process, but noticing little improvements this way has really been helping my motivation.

I’ve also been listening to a blog started by a native Chinese person who moved to the U.S. and a native Canadian who lived in China for about a decade. They have vocabulary lessons, which are quite boring actually, so the only part I really pay attention to are their cultural lessons and comparisons. Here’s what they said about names in Chinese: when saying a name the last name is said first. This is thought to be because of the importance of the family. People are first identified by their family and then they, sometimes, are identified individually. – That’s a crazy idea to me, especially growing up in a generation with such a strong feeling of individuality. I love my family and am extremely close, so this would be fine for me, but I could just imagine how it would be for those who don’t feel very connected to their family or maybe feel their family represents something different then what they represent. Also – Apparently Chinese given names are quite profound and in some cases can sound quite arrogant. For instance the guy’s given name on this blog is “super healthy”. I’ll be excited to figure out what my name will be and how over-the-top I can make it without stirring up too much.

Also through my character identification app, I have been learning about the history of some of the characters – The word Mandarin means high government official and the language name comes from this. The language used to be only spoken by those high officials, until that was now changed to be the standard language everywhere in mainland China.

Lastly, I learned the difference between Peking and Beijing. During this time of the name change the romanization of the name did, but the Chinese character and the pronunciation stayed the same. That means that the only thing that changed from Peking to Beijing was the English interpretation of the pronunciation. After reading the Pinyin and hearing native speakers say the word, I think Beijing is much closer to the actual pronunciation. It’s also much easier to break it down into it’s smaller meaning. Bei, means north and jing, means capital. The name is literally “North Capital”. So, now whenever I see the spelling Peking, I’ll know it is meant just to be Beijing. That also means that whenever I order the duck I won’t call it Peking duck, instead I’ll call it Beijing duck, which sounds delicious by the way.

This is really fun for me to look into all this material and start to learn about China before I even go there. I’m sure even if I have been studying about China my whole life, I still would have plenty to learn, so I’m just really trying to brush over the basics and be all less offensive and ignorant as I can be when I get there. Then, the REAL stories and meaning will come out when I get to dig to the bottom of things.

Last exciting China announcement is that I went to the consulate and received my 10 year visa. After many hours of research preparation and one immediate rejection, I finally did it. For the next ten years, i can enter China whenever I want, can stay there for 60 days, and enter as many times as I need to. That is unless the immigration officer is having a bad day, then I could just be rejected for no reason. Regardless, I have a sticker that says I can enter China, sometimes, if they’re feeling like it, have good relations with the US, and if I don’t look too dirty. I still feel like I should create an immigration routine to get through the China boarders. The routine I found was the same in Ghana and Laos, so we’ll see if that holds true for China as well.

  
Here’s the 3rd meal that I typically eat for breakfast. I showed a picture of the pork, the mok, and now this. That’s about as creative as I get for breakfast. Sometimes I’ll mix a few other random things in there, but these three are my favs.

Back right is the sticky ric and, back left is the eggplant dip I showed before. Front and center are eggs. They’re basically hard boiled eggs that have a thin fried film around them. They’re much saltier and more full of flavor than your typical hard boiled egg.

My Commute to Work Last Week

This past week we drove for about three hours by motorbike to a small town. From there, we drove another hour or so to the remote villages where we would be working.

 All of northern Laos is beautiful, but it’s striking when we get out to the villages. I think going very fast on a small two wheeled vehicle, on the side of a cliff, over a pot hole ridden road, and my butt feeling like it wants nothing to do with me were also some reasons I was paying a bit more attention then normal.

When I stopped whining, I started to really appreciate the beauty around me. Even when I would space out it was about loving thoughts of my friends and family I miss so much. There’s something about this way of traveling that is more beautiful then I could have imagined.

We eventually stopped to rest and I took a few pictures to try and catch a fraction of the beautiful depth of view, colors, and life that surrounded me.

  

More (Breakfast?) Food

 
Here’s another really common thing I eat for breakfast. Yes, I said for breakfast. They don’t really have cereal or porridge or omlets here, so I’ve got to either adapt or spend a fortune.

The green thing in the middle bowl is  a spicy dip made from eggplant and other scrumptious vegetables. There are some pieces of grilled pork on the right side. Some sticky rice in the bag in the back middle. I also included the sticky rice basket, on the left, which is the proper container for the sticky rice. Most Lao people would throw up if they saw me eating my food out of bags like that. Well, I don’t see the point of impressing anyone if I’m just eating alone.

The sticky rice basket normally has another half to it just like the one in the picture that fits over top. They really do keep the rice fresh by keeping it moist and warm. Whenever I grab a container from the kitchen my colleagues will ask me if the ‘rice is hard’ because that’s the first sign it dried out too much to eat. Anything short of that can be steamed again if not very fresh. 

Always Some Birthday Cake

Whenever it’s someone’s birthday in the office, we order cake. Since Pavat and I love cake so much more than all the Lao people combined, were generally the ones to manage the whole process. The whole time I’ve been here it seems like we have a birthday every week. I don’t normally crave cake at home, but living abroad has certainly made me crave some new things. Especially since there’s a cafe here for foreigners that makes a cream cheese icing carrot cake that with make your knees weak.

Anyway, this past Friday we celebrated Andrea’s birthday. Even with the tasty cake, my favorite part of the whole process is getting everything ready. It generally brings everyone out their work bubble and all together. It’s not too often when everyone is together at the same time. Everyone was made an extra effort to come out this time because Andrea is such a respected manager in the office.

 
Somehow Pavath and I talked everyone into getting two cakes because they all missed Andrea’s birthday last year. Also, I don’t know how I was elected to lead the heard with Na. Pavat is between us with the goofy wave. Before they get to the top I try to tell Noy, the Lao woman at the top of the stairs taking the pictures to get Wveryone out of the other meeting room. I mostly just make a grunting noise and nodded my head. That didn’t work, especially because a Lao woman with a camera phone is hard to reel back in anyway. My brain is going somewhere between grunting, yelling in English, using exasperated tones in Lao,  to insulting their mothers in Chinese. I think some Twi was eeking to the surface in the midst. I decided to use my body to speak since my brain was failing me. 

 
At the top of the stairs I even resorted to grinning them down like Davy Crockett. Then I pulled ahead of everyone and opened the meeting room to get the last two people to join us. Everyone is now following me, thinking that I’m leading them to Andrea. When I open the door they all start to sing loudly and I turn to them at the same time I’m trying to summon the last people. They finally figured out that she’s not in there and everyone starts to either laugh or shush us because Andrea is in the room next door, now completely aware of what’s about to happen.

  
We get in sing and all and then go back down to cut everything up. 

 
Na is always really silly in the office, especially when her, Pavat, and I get together. She’s clearly distracted by the camera phone here and forgets she is holding a cake and proceeds to dance. 

  Then she almost drops the carrot cake off the stairs and Pavat and I see everything. No way are we going to let her get away with that. 

 
She’s trying not to let anyone know what almost happened, but Pavat and I yell at her because she almost dropped our favorite cake (which she happens to hate). 

Even though I am happy about the work that I do with schools, days like this are what make my time here really worth it. I love to goof around with the staff and get everyone one to be together. Especially when it gives the busier people some time to join the silliness. 

The rest of the afternoon people were still teasing me about going into the wrong room. Through thick and thin I find strength in myself knowing I get to spend the day working with such great people.

Village Meeting, a Long Motorbike Ride, and Tongdee

On Thursday I rode on a motorbike with Tongdee, one of the WASH team members, to a small village. Three of our staff grew up in the village, so we had plenty of connections. On our way there we stopped at Anthou’s parents house to eat lunch. It was a typical village eating set up with a small round table and even smaller chairs. The chairs are so close to the ground, you might as well just sit on a log, but that would probably be higher off the ground. So of course they’re all comfortable and I’m sitting there with my feet on the ground and my knees somewhere over me head up near the roof. It adds an interesting element when I have to reach around my legs and other people to get the food. I try to fold and cross my legs to see if I can at least see the people Im eating with. Otherwise I have to yell to make sure the sounds makes it over the walls my legs have created. We finish eating and her mom brings over what looks like a porridge. Actually it looks like a bowl of rice that someone spilled their water into. I take a small bite and am instantly overwhelmed with a sweet fermented taste. It tastes mostly like sugar and a little bit like it was left out too long, so a little bit like I’m drinking sweet wine. Avoiding sugar shock, getting drunk, and consuming whatever might be growing in the fermentation process, I only eat a few spoon dulls before doing the typical ‘I’m done eating’ dance that Lao people do. I get up from the table, wash my hands and then wander around the area, but not too far, so they clearly know I’m done and waiting.

During my wander I find this:

 
I ask Anthu about it and she tells me something about a bird (didn’t understand the Lao).  Then I ask if it’s to catch birds and she says no because they’re scared of it. Later I ask Jua and find out that this is the Lao version of the scarecrow. It keeps birds away from the crops and from eating their chickens. Wow, wait I want to see a bird come down and swoop up a chicken. I guess the shirt moving around in the wind makes the birds think it’s a human.

 
After some windy uphill roads we get to a place where I feel a bit safer to pull out my phone to take pictures. I’m also holding a projector, so it’s a bit tricky. Then, I get the genius idea to take a selfie of Tongdee and me. 

  The idea is brilliant because Tongdee also looks at the camera to see what I’m doing. Then, he realizes it’s a picture, so he looks longer and then we both realize we’re heading off the side of the road and he swerved back to the middle. We both just start laughing at how stupid that was and probably because we didn’t want to admit how scary that actually was. Whoops

  Then we drive by a school our company is in the process of building. Yes, I know it’s a terrible picture, but I’m twisting around, holding onto a projector, and making sure Tongdee doesn’t want to be come an motographer again.

  This is at the start of the village. I got that feeling of something like butterflies I get when I’m on an adventure with how we were out in the open underneath towering mountains and then we enter a tunnel/canopy of trees as we enter the area where people are living.

  These giant flower pots are all around the village. The disappointing part is that there aren’t giant flowers in them! Some small girls are collecting these small vibrantly beautiful multicolored flowers, but even just looking at them makes them stop what they’re doing. I wanted to get a picture, but I feel like pulling out a camera would make it even more unatural. I definitely need to learn how to make people feel comfortable when I pull out a camera. You’ll just have to trust me that it was a precious scene.

 
Here’s a panorama shot of the room where we did the meeting. It was a stuffy shed with these big sacks of who knows what, but is the only place with electricity, so it worked… Sort of. The villagers were used to it, but the govt guy was really uncomfortable and even had to leave for some fresh air in the middle.

We left the meeting and headed home. On the drive home we tried to go fast to beat the looming black clouds. We didn’t make it… Going down a big hill on the main road the wind really picked up and it started to drizzle. The wind was even strong enough to move out bike from side to side. Then it started to pour and soak us, but there is no place to stop, so we keep going. I can hear Tongdee making some kind of noise, but I can’t tell what it is. The rain lets up a bit as we take a bend and I can heard him laughing. That makes me laugh and then we both make each other laugh even harder. Tongdee doesn’t get much respect in the office because he isn’t school smart, but I really like him and feel a deep connection when we do things like this.

Him and I also went out to print last week and literally every problem that could possibly have come up did. We both were just laughing at everything and having a really good time in the midst of I might have otherwise thought was a really bad afternoon. I also went out and ran into the same thing with one of our admin people, who’s much more technically smart, but he added way more stress to the situation then there should have been. I learned a lot from those situations. Laos is still very much a developing country and most people still barely know how to use a computer and printer and being smart is such a superficial attribute. Tongdee couldn’t have done any of the work that other guy can do, but he knows how to enjoy life, laugh at things, and connect well with others. I think he’s one of the ‘smartest’ people in the office, just for that reason.

A Week In the Field

I spent most of this past week going into the field with our WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) team. I’ve been working with them the closest since I got here and now all this hard work from everyone is finally coming to fruition. Our goal since I got here has been to get their program officially approved by the government and to get them back in the field where they belong.

 
Here’s a picture of Antou, one of the WASH team members, as she’s giving the first presentation about our program. The audience are the local govt reps, head teachers, and village chiefs.

  The guy at the top is Jua, he’s the program deputy manager. In actual English that means he’s basically a trainee for the program manager position. My position is supposed to support him and Andrea, the programs manager.

  This is Siphai, the senior WASH team member. Him and I work close together and probably want to kill each other at the end of some weeks, but I think in the end that has brought us closer together.

 
The guy standing in the back is Sainglee. He’s another of the WASH team members.

  This is the last trip I went on. That’s the Tongdee, the last WASH technician I haven’t mentioned yet.  

Some Typical Food, Eaten Not So Typically

 
Here’s an idea of one of my common breakfasts in the morning. On the left is 2,000 LAK worth of rice. Wait what the hell kind of rice is this, that doesn’t look like gold.  Well, LAK (Laothian Kip) is the currency here. I have a few problems with this… 

Yes, here comes another rant: first off, in the 10 months here I haven’t heard one single person use the name Laothian. Okay, that’s wrong because I asked my colleagues about it and they probably used the word in the answer. BUT, the crazy part is that they said it’s said here. Maybe it’s just a Luang Prabang (the city I’m in) thing to not say it. Or this is raising an interesting point about my selective hearing. However, I have heard some Thai people use that, but that’s not a good point of reference because they’re about as interested in the Lao culture as Americans are in the Native American culture. They know it’s there and they live in or next to it, but it ends about there. Secondly, the word is pronounced “Geep”, exactly like saying Jeep with a hard g sound. Like so many other times English comes up, especially in my job, Laothians (I didn’t hear that!) will just make up their own pronunciations for English letters and there’s no effort to standardize their own version, even if it’s different from the one in the US. That’s one of the ways for their culture to keep its strong hold over preserving the Lao language and not ending up with some Langlish dilution. In turn, it just confuses foreigners who don’t want to learn the actual pronunciations and everyone who tries to use English to describe Lao vocabulary. You can tell my blood boils when people keep making the same mistakes and confusing each other with out asking a few questions “across the lines”. 

Wow, I’m not even sure where I am in the story anymore. I also don’t even know if this is worthy of calling a story, but that’s never stopped me. The rice doesn’t have a shiny yellow tinge because even though 2,000 seems high in any currency, it’s only about 25 Cents. Then to the right of that there’s something called “Mok Ba”, which means fish Mok. I don’t actually know what the Mok means and judging by the look of it, I don’t think I want to know. I do like the fish part though, so I’m all over that. That’s only 5,000 KIP (8,000 is a dollar, incase you forgot how to multiply by four). And then a little piece of sausage, to even the whole thing out to a total of 10,000 KIP.

For just over a dollar, I can eat golden rice, mystery fish, and animal intestines, fried into a casing of who knows what. I should really write for a food blog, shouldn’t I? But really, it’s delicious and it fills me up to lunch, so this is one of my weekly choices to start my day.

A Chinese Weekend, Without Even Leaving My Room

Since last week was so busy, I didn’t get much time to practice my conversational Chinese. However, I still kept up with practicing vocab and using the app I mentioned before that helps me with writing. I have to say I’ve had more fun learning Chinese then I have with any other language. I think people are crazy who say (including myself, cause I said it too) that they won’t learn Chinese because of the characters. Learning the characters has become my favorite part and actually really helped me to remember the vocabulary. This app I’ve been using starts with the most used characters and starts with the foundations of each. As I’ve now learned a little over 50 characters, I can look at some Chinese writing and figure out the meaning, even though I don’t know how to say it. That’s totally the opposite of Lao, where I could read a complex sign and know exactly how to pronounce it, but not the meaning. It’s so interesting how completely different approaches languages have. I don’t know where this is coming from or why my interest has developed so late, but the more I explore language learning, the more I love the process. Like I said before, it’s like learning history, culture, and communication all at once. It also makes me really think in way I take for granted about my own culture and language.

Recently, I learned that Yuan, which I used to call the Yen, is the word for currency. It’s pronounced by saying “you” and then the name “Ann”, looking like this “youAnn”. Definitely not pronounced Yen. Technically it’s not actually pronounced the way I said either, but it’s close. The a sound is something more between and a and an e. It also just means currency, so you could be talking about dollars, Euros, or chicken heads; or whatever it is that they actual use as money in China. The currency, or dollar/Euro equivalent, in China is called the Renminbi. So the full name for the currency in China is the Yuan Renminbi, which literally translates to “dollar man the people market”… Wait, how is this easy again? I’ll get to that part, calm down. Most people in China just call it Yuan for short. The cool part of the word and the part that makes it EASY… is that the smaller characters represent son and the number two. That refers to the cultural importance of having men in the family, which as we all know already. So, I can use the common fact about China that we all know, my ability to count up to two (the character for two is a sideways roman numeral II), and decipher the character for the currency.

On top of the Chinese learning I’ve been looking into a bit of a plan to support my travel plans throughout China. I joined a network, kind of similar to couch surfing, where people can volunteer for food and accommodation in return. The only problem with that is that many of the jobs are teaching English. That’s one thing I’ve realized was an obstacle to becoming totally fluent in Lao. I was around too much English and after my bubble of Lao at the office, I would return to only English things. I want to try learning Chinese a different way, where I’m mostly around Chinese all day and maybe a little bit of English to communicate to people back home or for the important stuff, in my daily life, I can’t understand in Chinese yet. Somehow I don’t see that after my teaching English, we will go back to mostly Chinese. Some of the places to stay are on a farm, so that would probably be more down my alley. I’m also considering joining another really popular community called “WWOOF”ing, which is the same type of exchange, but only on organic farms. That sounds way more what I’m looking for. It also has a much bigger network in more of the rural areas of China, which is another plus. My goal is to stay away from the cities for a few reasons. First, I don’t breathe in all that terrible pollution and then find out my first child is a cyclops. Wait, that sounds pretty cool actually, okay take that off the list. FIRST, I want to stay away from the modern, western influence, skewed society that I believe it has. Especially since one of my main goals is to learn about Qi Gong and other healing/spiritual practices. The other big reason is because I want to really see the landscape and get to travel to every major part of China to get a good feel of the place. Lastly, would be just to avoid the high costs of living in the cities.

I’ve also looked into where to go for my visa and it looks like I’ll be visiting Mongolia, Hong Kong, and Macau a lot because there are visa exemptions for a USA passport. There’s also a place way up in the mountains north of Nepal that looks interesting. For the first bit in China I want to bounce from area to area and really get a good grasp of the different areas.

One thing I came across that was really disappointing is the list of banned websites inside of China. I can deal with most of them, except for wordpress. Before I leave, I have to figure out how I will still upload blogs. I’ll do some research into blogs that are allowed to be accessed in China.

My next steps wit learning Mandarin is to use that online language exchange platform to have small conversations everyday. The whole thing going around town sounds like a good idea, but is a big failure in practice. It’s partly because most of them can speak English quite well or assume I’m a tourist and don’t make me feel welcome to just chat. Using the language exchange thing will also allow me to practice wherever I am and keep talking to new people so I can practice the basic introductions that I will most likely be saying a lot when I go to new areas.

A Good Friday

My walk to work Firday morning feels really good. First of all it was raining all night, so the temperature is about half of what it normally is and it isn’t really humid. It’s a perfect temperature for me and nearly back to subzero for Lao people. Well, at least one of us is happy. I also feel good this Friday because all my hard work with one of the program’s teams is paying off. Our WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) team has been working on our program to deliver water filters to schools since before I got here. We recently got approved by the government, which was the main obstacle to our programs in the past. The only downside is that they said instead of starting on our planned date of September 1st, they want us to start June 15th! This past week has been quite busy, to say the least. Monday the WASH team, Andrea, Jua, and I will go out to the field for two school visits. We still have to visit the school and cover all of the logistics in four different visits, but it’s just exciting to see the team out in the field, where they belong and yearn to be.

Bawsee for Caroline

Caroline, the other intern in the office, is leaving at the end of next week. Before people go in big trips, it’s part of a Lao tradition to have a Bawsee. Lao people also do them altering buying a new car or house, having a baby, getting married, or anything along those lines of importance. The one, at least for me, that doesn’t fit is traveling. At first I thought okay, maybe it’s because Lao people don’t travel too often, so it’s a bigger deal for them then it is for me. Then, I found out it’s because they believe that when someone travels they lose their guardian spirits and the Bawsee ceremony reunites your body with all of its spirits.

The ceremony comes from ancient times and has traces of Animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other traditional religions. Part of the ceremony is done in Pali, so a special person is needed in order to read those lines correctly.

Here are some pictures from the one with Caroline. 

 
This is before th Bawsee when I was playing with my Colleague’s son. We’re looking out of the front of the office.

  This is the actual ceremony part. They put a big pile of flowers in the middle and  have offerings on the little table under the flowers. The offerings include bananas, fried sticky rice, freshly boiled chicken, beer, and an assortment of locally made sweets. Then as the person does the chanting, everyone grabs the table in the middle. If they can’t reach the table, they will touch the person in front of them. Generally the other hand, that isn’t connected to the alter, is put in prayer position at the persons heart. 

 
After the chanting part is over, everyone gets up to tie little white strings around the person’s wrist who needs the blessings. As they tie it the person should use their free hang that isn’t being tied to put into prayer position at their heart. The person tiring the string is supposed to say some kind of blessing. I generally use which ever language the person so least familiar with and mumble a lot. I’m not too good at that part. As you can see in the picture, the reality is that everyone want to tie it all at the same time so often times both of the persons hands are occupied and you can’t hear any of the individual blessings anyway. 

After the Bawsee, tables are set up and then we have the same kind of party Lao people have in every situation. It basically consists of a long table with community food all down the middle and lots of beer. After about an hour some of the tables are cleared and the Kareokee and dancing starts.

It was definitely a fun night, spent with good people. A good way to break up a busy workweek.

Job spotting, More Mandarin Lessons, and Busy at Work

My research of all things China has stayed strong. While being fully immersed in this learning, my work colleague emailed me information about a job opening. The position would be with an organization I’ve been interested in for awhile, in a country with a culture and language I want to learn, and it would be a long stride, but the perfect next step for my career. I let it settle in, but can’t help but think how perfect this position would be. It’s in Bangkok, which I’ve had my opinion changed since talking to some of my friends who insist it’s one of their favorite places. I convince my self that I would also still be able to learn more about China while being there and would have access to trying all kinds of Chinese spiritual and healing practices.

Totally excited about this position I ask my boss and another manager in my office to help me craft my cover letter and resume for the position. I’m glad I did it because my resume has never looked better. I sent off the application and then got curious with what else I might find. Nothing else in Thailand, but then I realized I should actually look at what’s in China. I found a few positions, but one that really caught my eye in Beijing. Funny enough I actually have a first round interview with them at the end of this week. It was only really a screening interview though, so hopes aren’t too high yet.

I’ve joined a few communities of language exchange platforms. There’s an app on my phone called “hello talk” that is my favorite. I can find people based on both of our interests and native tongues. The coolest part is that you can send voice messages and with a click of one button the app will transcribe the message in chinese, convert it to Pinyin (for the pronunciation), and then give the meaning in English. I also rejoin some of the communities dedicated to language learning, that I had joined before coming to Laos. Some people in these communities have learned tons of languages, then started businesses helping people to learn languages on their own. One thing that stuck out to me was this guy’s push to just get out there and start speaking, before you actually know any of the language. I’ve definitely seen that work in Ghana. I was plopped right in the middle of Antoa and then figured out how to maneuver the town, culture, and language. The language guy also suggested to bring around a script to use in case you are just stumped and forget what to say next. He’s so right that most conversations, especially within one culture or area, follow a certain pattern. I would call it “the script” in Ghana. After work I have been walking home and going in buildings with Chinese script anywhere in sight. One guy, right next to my office, always asks me to sit down and talk with him for a bit. I had my script ready and then was disappointed. It’s not as easy as just having a script when the person wants to learn English just as bad as you want to learn their language. He barely listened to my Chinese introduction and immediately skipped into speaking English and asking about obscure things that are way past my knowledge in Chinese. I think having the script is just the start and learning how to use it is the real art.

I’m able to get the basic greetings now in Mandarin, but I want to keep practicing saying that I want to learn speaking with them and then asking some simple things like where they’re from. This guy next to my office is showing the part of the Chinese culture that I and so many others don’t enjoy. I don’t have a problem being aggressive, but the way many Chinese people do it is to the point that it would be rude to do with ANYONE else, except for another Chinese person. My first reaction is to just let him be and practice with someone that is more willing to share the learning. I know deep down this is my first real lesson with dealing with the Chinese culture. I need to learn to turn on my aggressive pushy behavior when around them and keep that switch sensitive, so that I can turn it off when I talk to someone else.

The funniest part of my tries to practice Chinese with people is that they keep wanting to speak Lao to me. Especially when we hit a roadblock, we switch right to Lao to understand where we’re trying to go. On the walk I keep getting frusterated that I’m using Lao as the crutch. In Antoa it was perfect because they would get through their English they knew in a few words and then we would just be practicing Twi. Also, they were so giving that literally almost every person would be testing me all the time and making sure that I remembered what they taught me during our last conversation. That was truly a special place to learn a language and I’m glad it was my first experience. If I had to fight like I am now to learn Chinese as my first additional language, I would have not understood what I do now. Back at my Guesthouse I realize how cool my interactions were, even though I used language as a crutch. I was able to speak to those people in only Lao and Chinese and get across all my ideas and thoughts. Except for the first guy, it was as if I didn’t speak Lao or Chinese at all. Okay, I don’t actually speak Chinese, so maybe that’s fair. I don’t stop and appreciate the progress I’ve made with languages enough, but this is definitely one time that I’m really understanding the progress I’ve made… Alright alright appreciation time over, time to go and learn some more.

On the side of the China exploration and work I have had my head full of thoughts. I can’t help but think that my next work decision is falling into the same rabbit hole I’ve been falling down for the past two years. Don’t get me wrong there’s not an ounce of regret, but I think it’s time for a change of strategy. In Ghana I didn’t know enough to know what I wanted. I knew I wanted to leave the US, go abroad and work in development, and somewhere in Africa sounded like a great place to start. Then, I realized that my calling is spiritual and Ghana, or really any other part of Africa I heard about, was not going to satisfy that itch. I found the job in Laos to help support my language and cultural learning of the area so that I would be ready to go and spend time in a monastery. My original goal was about a year. Then, on vacation I went to the monastery and realized I want something different. The profound part of the monastery was not that it just honed my spiritual path, but it revealed to me how my learning changes when I have the time to focus on solely that thing. Laos is really he first 8-5 desk job I’ve ever had. I’ve worked hard with the other jobs and positions I’ve had, but they were either more part time, or like in Ghana were more about travel and visiting places. It certainly wasn’t a traditional office atmosphere. It has made me realize how little time there really is around the 8-5 job. It makes more sense to me now why people say to find a job where you do what you love because otherwise with all the rest of life happening there will be little time for it around work hours. Whether it was the full time desk job in Laos, running around in the field in Ghana, or going to school, the past three years I made less spiritual progress than I did in just those two weeks at the monastery. I think it was also more than just having more time. Believe me, at the monastery I still found ways to use up the day and try to escape from facing my self.

I believe the progress was more from being totally immersed in something I love. I think that when I don’t fully commit myself to that, then I feel like I’m cheating myself deep down and that makes me feel like my soul isn’t being satisfied.

I understand that no matter what there are going to be things in life I will have to do that I might not be particularly passionate about. However, school and my cultural upbringing have driven into my head that structure and tangible achievements are the most important and then there will be some time after to explore other things, especially if they don’t exactly fit into those boxes. It feels so natural and safe to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ll find another job and then for my vacation I can spend it at a retreat and pursue my less tangible “extracurricular” interests. At least for now I can feel comfort in realizing the type of step I need to take next.

Okay, back to more fun things about my learning of the Chinese culture. Interesting things about Chinese: The names for countries are more descriptive, then just general names. For instance, in English, I’m not really sure what the actual words America or China mean. I’m sure you could look up the etymology and tell me, but, at least for me, it’s not common knowledge. In Chinese the word for China literally means the middle country. The word for middle is quite commonly used and meaning well known. For America the word translates directly to beautiful country. They also chose that word because it sounds similar to the ‘me’ in America. Okay as I go further into the lessons that’s actually only the rules for China and America, but what other countries matter?

I’ve also been studying the Chinese characters with a really fun and interactive app, called “Memrise”. It takes the characters and gives you the meaning and then people submit their fun stories and pictures to help them remember those characters. Even the words in Chinese are similar to the Country names. I guess this would be more obvious to me with English if I studied more Latin, but I didn’t so this is making Chinese seem way more interesting and actually quite easier than Chinese. For instance, the word for good has the script for woman and the script for child next to each other. In ancient times the Chinese people believed all was good if a mother was with her child. That means that I really only need to memorize some basic building block of the Chinese script and then find those hidden in the more complex meanings. You can almost guess at the more complex meanings.

I stopped studying Lao, so I could have more time for other things, but I can’t help but be learning languages. There so much fun to me and I get an amazing feedback in the way I feel when I make progress. It’s like the feeling I get after a good workout. Learning Chinese is like studying a class about history, art, and culture all mixed into one and then you go around and use what you learned to connect with people, what kind of lessons could be better than that?

I also have found out that Chinese people must be (don’t you dare say that I’m generalizing with this next part of the sentence!) the most impatient people I’ve ever interacted with. On the language exchange app. Some people definitely get it, but I’d say most speak at lightning speeds and when I ask them to slow down it only maybe does for a few words of the next phrase, or if I’m luck the whole next phrase before then going back to being faster than before to make up for the loss of time. I’ve noticed this with Chinese people around town who I try and practice with as well. It makes me want to speak English slower when I’m with other native speakers.

I’ve also noticed that there are probably just as many language exceptions as in English. I always shared with people abroad that English is hard because I thought there were so many exceptions and then usually the person I was talking to and I both agreed their language didn’t have that. Yeah, I agree with that for the grammar exceptions. However, I’m finding that in Chinese and remembering my study of Lao that they have just as many exceptions, but it’s with tone. So like when someone messes up grammar because of a different situation, it’s actually close to the same with messing up the tone. Often times the tone is what indicates the meaning and subjects of the sentence, like how grammar does in English.

It’s been difficult to keep studying all of this and writing the blog lately. At work one of our program’s got approved by the government, so we’re scrambling around to get ready for it’s requested launch, a few months earlier than we originally planned. Everything is very exciting and busy right now.

Some Fun and Very Nerdy Research about China

My search through China continues. I’m looking up all kinds of things from the differences of the geographical areas and population densities. Here are some of the coolest parts I’ve discovered.

I found that Hong Kong, Micau, and China are all technically part of China, but very different from each other. Hong Kong back in the early 1900’s sometime was taken by Britain. China really wanted this land back, so they made a deal with Britain. Britain said they could have the land back if they allowed Hong Kong to operate under the same government for the following 50 years. So, Hong Kong is actually a democracy and has it’s own way of doing things. Micau, used to be owned by the Portuguese and was given back with similar rules. China is still honoring the agreement in the broad scheme, but like you’d expect there are plenty of rumors about strict control in some aspects.

The widest spoken language in China is Mandarin, which basically translates to “the national language”. It is based on the Beijing dialect, which is also the capital of China. Then there’s Cantonese, Shanghainese (Wu) and a few other popular ones, which are widely spoken in the South Eastern areas of China and also in Hong Kong. However, all the main broad casts and news are done everywhere in Mandarin. Almost every person can understand Mandarin, but as you’d guess, not quite as many are able to speak the same dialect. Chinese is a family of languages and is almost equivalent to how the romantic languages represents a diverse verity. Some of the branches of Chinese are just as different from each other as French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. The standard Chinese is distinguishable from all the others as having the fewest tones and the fewest final consonants. Okay, I’m sold, sign me up! I always thought that this was supposed to be one of the hardest languages to learn. I gotta find out why people say that or if it’s just a common myth, so now my studying has some more fuel. Mandarin has four distinctive tones, while Lao has five or six! For example the word mai with a low tone means to buy and with a falling tone means to sell. That difference is the equivalent to our consonant changes from “guy” or “buy”. I have actually noticed the Lao PoP staff complaining about this part of English that they don’t understand. So apart from the tones Mandarin is no more different from English than French is, but adding the tones is definitely a challenge. Mandarin has no word conjugations and instead relies heavily on word order, which conveniently is very similar to English. I think this myth is broken and done with!

Now I’m more excited to learn Chinese after finding out it’s much easier than it’s reputation. Then, I get to the section teaching me about the written Chinese… Different from the Greek language using an alphabet, Chinese languages are written with characters. I know I know, you’re thinking “duh we all know that already!” Be patient, I’m getting to the better part. The characters stand for whole syllables, with particular meanings. Even though there are thirteen hundred phonetically distinct syllables, there are several thousand Chinese characters in everday use, essentially one for each sinlge-syllable unit of meaning. That means that there are many words with the same pronunciation but have different characters. Sounds a lot like to, too, and two in English. Full literacy calls for knowing some three thousand characters. However, in order to reduce the amount of time needed to learn characters, there has been a vast extension in the People’s Republic of China for character simplification, which has reduced the average strokes of the characters by half. That’s what it means if you see options for the Chinese language and one says “traditional” or “simplified”. Also, to help our stupid Western, alphabet-constructed brains, they have officially adopted a Romanization representation of the sounds of Chinese, called Pinyin, which literally means Chinese Language Spelling. China is using it in the short term to teach all students the same pronunciation of Mandarin, and long-term to be used as the standard style of written communication. Uhh, I vote for that one. I had to learn a different alphabet with Lao, but after about 50 distinct symbols, I had a rigid foundation with which to understand the language. Lao, unlike English, can be read perfectly, even if you have never seen the word or don’t know what it means. That certainly sounds much easier than learning another alphabet with Chinese. In the meantime though, as China is trying to spread the Pinyin system, characters, which mostly represent meaning, not pronunciation, are still the most widely used way of writing. I guess that makes sense, if they have a language with standard meaning, but no standard pronunciation, it would be pretty hard to understand people. Apparently it’s being kept is because it keeps alive distinctions of meaning between words, and connections of meaning between words, which are fading in the spoken language. So, now that your totally asleep, the whole point of that was just to say that my study of the Chinese language, for now, will just be with the Pinyin system.

While you fell asleep during my last explanation, I took that time to read more about Chinese characters, because I’m being a big nerd with this now and at least want to know about the difficulty, even if I’m not going to study that part of the language. In every character there are a few basic types of strokes, each with its own prescribed direction, length, width, and contour. The width can even change in the middle of a stroke. Wow, my head is already spinning. Most of the time when I’m writing in English it’s half cursive, half scribbled mess. This is already way too much attention to detail for me. The dynamics of the strokes as written with a brush, the classical writing instrument, show up clearly even in printed characters. You can tell from varying thickness of the stroke how the brush met the paper, how it swooped, and how it lifted; which are totally lost when we came over and forced the people to stop wasting time and use a bic. Whoops, sorry about that one. As if to make this any harder, the sequence of strokes is also of particular importance. Moving on, some characters are symbolic and can be figured out by the picture, but the most common type is complex, consisting of two parts: a phonetic, which suggests the pronunciation, and a radical, which broadly characterizes the meaning. There are about 200 radicals and over a thousand phonetics that can both be used in different combinations. I guess that was their first attempt to standardize the pronunciation. Sounds a bit complicated to me, no wonder it didn’t work. Traditionally, Chinese was written vertically, from top to bottom, starting on the right-hand side, and with the pages bound, so that the first page is where we would expect the last page to be. Along with the ball point pen, we also told them their idiots for printing things backwards and showed them how to do it the right way. ‘Merica! Bout time we showed them the right time. Fools have been doing wrong since 1500 B.C., when we found the oldest surviving characters.

The most common Chinese names are written as surname first and given name last, generally with a single-syllable surname followed by a two-syllable given name. Some surnames sound exactly alike although written with different characters, giving them a different meaning. To distinguish them , the Chinese people may occasionally have to describe the character or write it with their finger on their palm. So, next time I laugh when there are so many Chinese people all with the same Wong surname, I’ll remember it only seems the same because my language isn’t sophisticated enough to distinguish them. With that said, I’ll still be laughing, even in China, because a handful of the surnames are so common that they account for a good majority of China’s population. Oh, that’s almost 1.4 billion people by the way. Yikes! When a woman gets married they don’t take their husbands surname, but might add it after their own for certain situations. The children take either name as their own, so siblings can have different last names. They have the same Mr. Miss Mrs. titles we have, but they are used slightly differently. Mrs. shouldn’t be used because it means she is a member of the “leisure class”. Miss shouldn’t be used because it carries the connotation of being from a rich family. Instead, the title, “Comrade,” is used in the place of titles. It can be used for female or male, regardless of marital status. Few, that makes it so much easier for me!

Everything in the country is run by a hand full of men, I think about 7. One of them is the boss of it all. He controls everything in China. I’m going to stop the comments there, so I don’t just disappear some day.

I heard from some expats working in China (not sure if this is true, haven’t looked it up) that they have their own version of everything. They have the China version of facebook, youtube, google, and all those social media sites. The normal ones we’re used to are not accessible in China.

Back to the Work World, Some Research, and What’s Next… For Now

The first day back to work was as I expected. Everyone was asking why I cut my hair. They all either forgot what we talked about or it’s just the Lao thing of them asking obvious questions. I think it might be just a Lao thing because people will come in when I’m eating breakfast and ask me what I’m eating, even though they are staring at the plate of food and know perfectly well what it is. At first I thought it was because they wanted me to practice Lao, but I’ve heard them do it to each other as well. Can’t explain it, just what happens. Anyway, I’m happy to explain to them that I went to stay at a monastery. I wasn’t sure how to explain it in Lao, so I just said I stayed at the monastery, similar to a packow. It was difficult because everyone assumed I became a novice and that was certainly the easy way to answer in Lao, but I avoided that because it wasn’t what I did. I find it’s pretty easy to speak with them in Lao and explain my travels. I guess I didn’t lose anything because I was able to practice with the Thai people at the monastery. As the day goes on, some of my colleagues even come up and just stare at me and then make quick comments to each other in Lao. Alright alright, I get over this weird spectacle thing and for good reason, I have a lot of work to catch up on after being gone for two weeks. We also have Friday off and that doesn’t affect deadlines that are due at the end of a week.

As the day goes on some of the people, mostly the guys who have stayed at a temple, understand exactly what I did and treat me like not even a day went by since we last saw each other. Some of the women were much less warm with their reception. I think because I looked so different, people were extrapolating that and saying that I’m acting different. Even though every time I told them I’m the same, I just have a lot of work to catch up on. In one ear and out the other. At first it hurt that my friends would act that way and treat me like an alien. Then again, I actually look a bit like an alien, so maybe that’s appropriate. It’s one thing to tease me about it, which I would expect from a good friend and is exactly what Pavath and I fell into quickly. We have a very similar sense of humor where we make fun of each other all the time. Instead the Lao women in the office are very standoffish and mostly avoid me or when we do talk, they give me strange looks or keep commenting on the same thing of how I’ve changed. I get over it quickly, remembering the repeated lesson that there are things in life that will change and reveal to you who your real friends are. I’ve learned that lesson now with my co-workers and still strive to treat them all the same as before I left.

As the week goes by I can feel myself slide back into my old habits and routines. One thing that people commented on, that I do agree with, is how skinny I got. I don’t feel weak or unhealthy, but I don’t think I could have gone much longer only eating only once a day. I think that’s fine for a retreat, but a silly and unhealthy way to live life. Our bodies can’t absorb all the nutrients we need when they’re crammed into our faces all at once. Nutrition is something that the US has been able to study much more than the other practices here. It’s pretty well accepted, at least from what I’ve read, that’s it’s better to eat more often in smaller quantities, rather than less with bigger quantities.

I’m continuing to watch my actual hunger and not the mirage my brain tries to create. I’ve managed to narrow a routine down to eating lots of fruit and sometimes yogurt in the morning, soon after I wake up. Then that’s followed by a big breakfast of sticky rice and some kind of protein and vegetable, and finally at lunch I will a meal, heavier with vegetables and protein and a bit of steamed rice to go with it. That’s it, I haven’t needed dinner since being back. I’ve eaten it a few times at parties, but haven’t needed it. I’ve been back into my work out routine, I feel strong and healthy, and I’m putting weight back on. Those are all the signs I need to take out the dinner ritual my body thought I needed for so long.

I make a big decision about my weekly schedule that I wouldn’t have imagined making a few weeks ago. I tell my Lao teacher it’s my last Lao lesson. My lessons were Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday every week. On lesson nights with the Lao and exercising, I didn’t have time for meditation. That meant that my week of practice would be really fragmented and not conducive to building on the lessons from the monastery. My priorities have really changed and I suppose in many ways I am somewhat different. For instance, I have turned down a lot of the offers to go and party after work because I’d rather go home and rest and make sure I get a good night sleep. Before this trip, I probably only turned down a few time of those times the whole time I’ve been here in Laos. I’m also less concerned with writing down every Lao word I hear in the office. Instead, I plan to focus on relaxing and putting my brain in the best state possible just to absorb the Lao, less concerned with each word’s meaning. I’m more determined now to pick the parts of practice conducive to the work life and assimilating them into my everyday routines. I’m also determined to continue meditating and furthering my practice in anyway I can. I’ve started to stretch everyday, once when I wake up and once in the evening. It makes my body more limber and it’s a great pep to my energy right after I wake up. I’ve also been specifically focusing on stretching the part of my body that makes it so it doesn’t sound like rusty gears grinding while I try to get into a sitting position on the ground. I’m hoping that my body will be better aligned to help me relax more and breath better. I’ve moved to meditating on a mat and removed a lot of cushions, except for a hard towel that sometimes I put under my butt to help my hips get into the right angle. I also haven’t had internet at the guest house since I got back, which is good and bad. It makes it really difficult to keep up with personal stuff, but then again it makes it easier to not be distracted from meditation.

Eventually, as the week is almost done, I decide I have to take the initiative to go over and talk with the people in the office who are still acting strange around me. Even after a week back, they still are making me feel strange. I make sure to go over and talk with them specifically to show them it’s exactly the same as before I left. It works as I stop getting strange looks and comments about me changing. I want to have a cohesive work environment with everyone, but if it weren’t for our mutual work relationship, I probably would have just kept doing my normal thing and left them to think or do what they want. Either way, things are good now and my hair has grown back in to the point where it just looks short, so no alien and no strange reactions anymore.

I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about what’s next. I started with my first two leads of researching the place in Vientiane and in Burma. The place in Vientiane doesn’t really have a working website, so typical of most things in Laos. The place in Burma has a much more extensive website, so I downloaded a few long documents on their theories behind their practice. It didn’t take me long after starting to read to feel like I’m falling down the same rabbit hole of the monastery I just visited. The main guy of the Burma place writes really well and does a scary good job of putting where he’s getting references for what he’s doing from the original Buddhist texts. He will copy down the original scriptures and then put in his comments and how his practice is related to that section. That’s exactly the criticism that I had from the last place. I believe that it’s necessary to read scripture and teach from it, but I think they should be used in a general way. For instance with learning to love everyone with equanimity. This comes up in Zen Buddhism as well, where they talk about at some point everyone in a past life was your mother or father, so to love everything with that strong unconditional love. The Dalai Lama and a few other Zen teachers have said this is one of the foundations of that practice. That would be fine to use to explain a certain way of practicing because it’s more of a mind state and a way to approach life rather than a specific prescription for practice. Instead this Burma guy is talking about very specific things, like how to progress from one level of meditation to the other. They talk about things like where a monk’s robe should be at a certain part of the day or what kind of diet should be eaten and when. I also don’t hear him referencing anything from his own practice.

Okay, let me try this analogy with how I think the teachings should go: A lighthouse, like scripture, guides in a very general way and can be followed by any boat. However, the lighthouse won’t tell you how to command your boat. That’s something that is left up to the captain of their ship.

I’m not sure if what I’m saying is correct for anyone else, but I know it’s how I feel, in my heart and it’s how I want to pursue my practice. I will keep looking up and using the light as the foundation of my guidance, but the real journey I’m looking for is the one to learn how to control my boat.

So, now that I’ve given a sailing lesson, back to thinking about what’s next. I’ve dropped the idea of Burma and Vientiane completely. For now, I’ve dropped the idea of practicing at another Buddhist place altogether.

In college, Qigong was brought up to me a few times, all by people I really respected. Two of my friends talked about the theory and how they’ve used it in their lives. I also got to take a practice session in a place where I was practicing martial arts. There was a slightly older than middle-aged woman who would teach classes. I got to be good friends with her and we understood each other quickly. She was probably one of the all around toughest women I’ve ever met. She was always very focused on the hard tangible, most effective moves in class. After she would hammer in the foundations, she would quickly get to the part of practice about how to stick your finger into someone’s eye. Then, she taught a Qigong class, where she was totally unconcerned with the physical aspect. It really surprised me to see such a spiritual side of her. As we were talking before class about the Qigong, she closed her eyes and said that she could feel the effects of her practice after just thinking about it. She said she could feel her hands getting warmer. I’m not sure what that means past saving money on gloves in the winter, but it certainly caught my attention, coming from someone so outwardly focused in the other martial arts class. After all these instances, I spent quite a bit of money on a big encyclopedia type book about one of the big branches of Qigong. It focused on medical Qigong and the traditional medicines studied in China.

Then, it all got pushed aside when I went to Ghana and picked up the books about Ajahn Chah. With strange timing, right as I decided I didn’t want to pursue that monastery, like I had planned to do, I was brought back into Qigong by the monk who I connected the best with and who was disrobing soon after I left. Some people would say that is the universe telling me something. I view it a little differently. I think that there are so many stimuli being thrown at me everyday and I just let most of them pass without really paying attention. Then, when something deep inside of me wants to start to learn or hear about something I start to recognize what’s already been there, all around me. Depending on how you define the universe and our part in that, it’s probably all the same. Either way, I like my way of thinking about it because it inspires me to be more open to things in my life and not wait for something or someone else to put in the work for me.

I take the hints and start to research much more intensely into Qigong and China in general. China has always been something I’ve overlooked as a spiritual place. Maybe because it’s surrounded by India and some many other spiritual places in SE Asia. Probably also because the aggressive part of the Chinese culture is unattractive to mostly everyone who doesn’t live there. I think that’s also something that’s been knocking on the door of my consciousness. I’ve always been really annoyed with that culture, but funny enough the same guy who taught me about Qigong for the first time also changed my perspective on that culture. We were in a class in college together and in the beginning of that class he annoyed me to no end with the ways he would be rude and stubbornly hold onto his cultural tendencies. Then, I got to know him and we ended up becoming great friends. I started to really understand where he was coming from and instead of anger, my feelings toward him turned to compassion. He taught me a lot about myself and about the Chinese culture. Also, when there are things in life that I’m adverse to and don’t want anything to do with, I like to analyze why and look deeper into that reaction. I’ve noticed that a lot of times it’s just because it’s revealing a truth to me that I don’t want to see in myself. With all of that turning in the back of my head, I’m getting more fuel for this research about China.

I’ve started to look into things with a bit of a broader scope. I started to research the culture in general and especially focused on all of their spiritual and medicinal traditions. I found out that the majority of Chinese people don’t affiliate with any religion and instead take what they feel speaks to them and incorporates it into their own life. That sounds awfully like what I realized I want to do after my stay at the monastery. Also what keeps coming up in the research is that there are different types of Qigong. Some are slow moving, some faster, some focus on the medical aspect, and some on being very still and meditating. A few of the traditions focused on starting with the moving part before going into the part of being still. They would say that as you get better at the moving part, the motions become less exaggerated. Eventually, they become much more fine-tuned and then at some point just stop. That sounds like exactly my prescription to meditation. I need to be moving! Just sitting on the ground and focusing isn’t fun to me. It’s not a game where I want to strive to figure out. However, put me in a racquetball or tennis court, on the baseball field, next to a basket ball hoop, or even in an intensive yoga class and it’s a whole different story.

In my daily routines I’ve also been incorporating meditation right after exercise. I’ve felt a few times where I get home and I don’t feel right, I just want to skip working out and meditation and do research or something that requires less energy. Through my whole life of exercising, I’ve always taken that as a sign that I need to just do it! When I would just exercise anyway, after a little push the resistance would disappear. Sure enough that still happens when I work out now. The difference now, is that I’m much more aware of that change and more interested in understanding it more. I’m also focusing more on being immersed in my workout. Not through my head controlling the rest of my body, but more as my whole body being part of my perception. That’s one thing I read about the movement part of Qigong that I like and have been trying to understand on my own. The amazing part and the part I hadn’t seen yet was how it affected my meditation after the workout. I take that amazing feeling of just having worked my body and I sit down and meditate right after. My body just slips right into being relaxed, as it’s natural state. I’m still not good at the whole concentration part, but this is a great start to my new approach.

Okay, sorry, back to China. I told you I have trouble with the concentration part. I see a shiny part of my thoughts and I’m off following it on all kinds of new tangents and rants. I also found online that there is a new agreement, as of January 2014, between China and the US which allows people to get a 10 year multiple entry tourist visa. That means Chinese people can get that for the US and US citizens can with China. Let’s think about the proportion of populations here and who that will really benefit more. I’m okay with it though because I’m not in the US and instead actually trying to get into China. Sorry everyone in the US, it looks like we’ll all be learning more about the Chinese culture. That was the last thing I needed to set my mind on what’s next. I’m going to China and I’m going to travel around to learn more about their spiritual and healing practices. I don’t want to go to a big school or training area either. I want to just pick up and go into the rural area of China. I want to go where the modern culture hasn’t skewed their ancient arts. I’ve read a lot also about how China wants to change Qigong and their traditional medicine to better fit into the Western requirements for a reputable practice. Yeah well, to me that sounds like they want to suck the soul out of the practice until it’s acceptable enough to put on a certificate. I’m not interested in that at all. In fact after my time there I’ll be perfectly happy if I leave with no certificate or justification for what I’ve learned. I want to study with those old people in the mountains who have been passing their traditions down for thousands of years and don’t know anything about certificates or how to show me on paper what they know. I trust my intuition enough to be able to practice with them and know for myself, beyond words, whether what they’re doing makes my heart sing.

The hardest part of this next journey will be that I don’t know where to go in China, which is roughly the size of the US. Not to mention I don’t speak a word of Chinese past neehow, which basically means how are you, but with the way I’d mess it up, I’d be saying something about their mother looking like a horse. This is all frightening and yet so exciting at the same time. I feel reenergized and redirected like I haven’t felt for a long time, probably since first discovering the books by Ajahn Chah.

I’ll end this one with words from a man, whom many thought was a jerk. Mr. Steve Jobs. He certainly came up with some interesting ideas, but his life story is what really pulled me in to hearing what he had to say. You should watch his Stanford commencement speech if you want to know what I mean. In that speech, he said “we can’t connect the dots looking forward, only when we look back. We have to trust our hearts and follow them where they tell us to go.” I definitely paraphrased there and probably messed up a few words, but I really love what he said… or maybe it’s more of what I said at this point. What I got is that It might drive us crazy to try and guess where we should go and plan every little step toward getting there, especially when our hearts leads us off the well-beaten path. I’m going to take his advice and just trust my heart and follow it to where I think I should go next, even if it sounds a bit crazy and unconventional. I know that in the end it will only add an amazing part to my story and hopefully inspire someone else to follow their own heart. Then, he signed off with two phrases that I have tried to live with since. I leave these ones up for your own interpretation: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

The Alms I was Looking for, Boy in Over his Head, and Entering the Falang World Again

Today is Monday, day 17. I’m up a bit before 3 and hear the bell soon after I’m up. Down at the sala, the two packows set up the mats and the monk comes to set up his and the Ajahn’s area. There’s no sign of the Ajahn, but we start to practice anyway. It’s pretty cold this morning and all the guys brought their blankets to wrap around them. I’ve always been good about keeping my body warm, so I resist the temptation of getting my blanket. The meditation is fine, but nothing compared to the one last night. I suppose that’s how it’s going to be and the hard part will probably be pushing through those times when there aren’t big spurts of progress and understanding. It’s like learning any skill or sport though, so I’m used to doing that already. I just wish that meditation were as fun as playing sports, then I could use that as my motivation. Maybe sitting with my hands folded in my lap isn’t as fun, but I’m determined at some point to create a game out of this or find some fun way to get into meditation. I’m not sure if a fun version of meditation hasn’t been created yet is because it’s just such a part of so many meditation practices to endure through and just trust there will be progress eventually or if they’re holding back on us regular folk and giving us the lame boring version. Either way, one of my big take aways from this whole experience, is to look for something like that or eventually just make something up on my own.

 After the morning practice, we set things up for the meal. Then the packows tell me to follow the monk for alms round. The packows stay behind, so it’s only the monk and me. I ask if there’s another bag I should take to help carry the food, but they say no. I guess they don’t get much on the alms rounds here. After walking back up those steeps hills where I almost crashed on the motorbike, we eventually stop. It’s really interesting walking on the dirt with bare feet compared to the alms round at the last place, which was entirely on paved road. Some of it so badly paved that it is much worse than the dirt here in terms of poky rocks. This one certainly hurts less, but also gives more of a natural feel, as you’d probably expect. Then, I realize why we’re waiting as the packows come and meet us with some extra bags. Soon after, the Ajahn comes and as he passes us we all kneel down. Then we all get into a line behind them. Even though we just bowed, it seems much less rigid than the alms at Nanachat. Especially since the packows are kind of goofing off a bit. One of them is my age, but the other is closer to 16 or 17.The other parts of alms are the same with people lining up, taking off their shoes, and then kneeling down as they put food into the bowls. They’re putting all kinds of food into their bowls. I thought it would be less because we’re so rural. I guess there’s less bought snacks and more actual food. The best part about it is that the fresh food is probably grow a few feet away from where we’re collecting it.

 The Ajahn talks with a few of the groups of lay people giving alms. I silently rejoice when I see him acting like a human. At one point he even makes the whole group laugh. He also takes food out of the bowl and gives it to a small boy. We didn’t have to stay in the line, not breaking formation, but instead strengthened that relationship with those people in the area. This is exactly everything I wish the other alms round was. I think there are parts of both alms round that have their good and bad points though. They could really learn from each other if they would share things like that. After all, they’re both in the same Buddhist tradition and claim to follow Ajahn Chah’s teachings as closely as they can. But of course these two groups and it seems like most other ones in the world, religious or not, seem to forget about that communication thing. Then again it’s possible that they had talked and someone’s ego got in the way of changing things or maybe even just that it had to be different in different settings. I’d bet though that it’s more because of the lack of communication. That would be one of the first places I would rattle the cages if I were to stay at Nanachat longer. 

 We go back to the monastery and it’s meal time. Dracula, I mean the Ajahn, is behind the statues adjusting his cape, I mean robes. When he’s done, he calls me over. Before I get there he turns around and walks up to the cabin area. Okay, I guess that means I’m supposed to follow him up there. Or maybe he looked at me and then swatted a fly and is now getting away for his alone time before the meal. At the top, he turns and talks to me a little bit. I take off my shoes because I remember them saying that it’s better to be at a lower level from the Ajahn and I also put my hands to my chest in prayer position to make sure I’m as polite as possible. I keep forgetting to use the really polite words in Lao. I mostly use the polite ones at work, but not the ones meant for royalty or for monks. There’s a section of the Lao language reserved just for when speaking with royalty or monks, I suppose they’re in the same category. I wonder what would happen if the king met a senior monk. Would they both end up lying on the ground, trying to get lower than one another? I suppose I could have used those royalty vocab words at work, but it would add a stiffness that wouldn’t have been conducive to developing the strong relationships I have. Talking with the Ajahn, I’ll catch myself and then repeat again with the royalty/monk polite word. I’m hoping he just appreciates that I’m trying and clearly can see that I want to give him the full respect he deserves. Then, he tells me it’s time to eat, so we head back down to the sala.

 The Ajahn and monk sit up front and then the packows sit in a perpendicular line and I’m at the end. Then after me is a woman dressed in packow clothing and then perpendicular to our line, parallel to the front, is another row of women who are helping to prepare the food. I bet you never thought you’d be doing geometry as you were reading my blogs. I wonder how many attentions spans I just lost with that last description. Well maybe they’ll come back soon, before I start talking about the ride back. That’s basically the only other part worth reading anyway. We eat the food differently, in that the Ajahn grabs food and then passes it down the line in the order I just described. The food is wonderfully local and fresh. Some of it I’ve never seen before. I grab enough to last me all day through the traveling and manage to avoid the desserts. Then, the women all get up and leave to eat somewhere else. We say a little prayer and then dig in. I wait for the Ajahn and the monk to start first before I do.

 After the meal we clean the bowls from a bucket of water and then walk over to a small cliff to throw our dirty water and left over food away. It doesn’t get much more natural than that. Much different from the industrial sized sinks and many different types of trash cans at Nanachat.

 After the meal I look at some of the pictures around the posts by the Buddha statue. I see Ajahn Mun (the guy who Ajahn Chah studied under), Ajahn Chah, and another fat man I’ve never seen before. The Ajahn here asks me if I know the fat man and I tell him he’s the only one I don’t. He says that the fat man was his teacher. Then he gives me a book of the fat man traveling all around the world doing random Buddhismy things. The Ajahn even points out his younger self in some of the pictures. I get bored reading about them traveling to the sacred sights of India and making an appearance at some special event. Again, I’m thinking this is missing the whole point of, at least the Buddhism that initially attracted me. Then, the Ajahn and I agree I should leave by 9:30. I don’t have to be at the airport until 3, but knowing Laos and being in the countryside, I’d rather get there way to early and write a lot, instead of rushing. The Ajahn asks if I want to see around the monastery and I tell him yes. He tells two young boys to show me around. He tells the older of the two boys that he should then drive me into town to get a car back to Pakse. I cringe at the idea and then tell myself that I need to be more trusting and that the Ajahn wouldn’t have told him if he didn’t trust the boy. I follow them up to the Buddha statue on the rock and then we go back down the other side. We go down these really steep, wet, and slippery trails to look at a waterfall. We keep going down to get a slightly different perspective and I tell them I’m not interested and want to go back. They say only just a few more steps, so I keep going. It’s beautiful, but I’m not interested in sight seeing at yet another waterfall. I’d rather talk with the Ajahn about his practice or the history of the monastery.

 We get back up to the top and it’s 9:30. I get my things together and then the boy gets the motorbike. I tell him to be ready because I’m heavy. He nods and I get on with no problem. I’ve gotten on motorbikes when people weren’t ready and almost tipped us over. That was largely because I never knew how to get on the correct way and only maybe a little bit that they weren’t paying attention. I’ve definitely ridden more motorbikes since being in Laos then ever before in my life. We start off and I tell the group of women good luck and that I’m leaving as we pass. Not much further the boy is trying to turn the bike with the handle bars, instead of leaning and I get a bit tense. Then we start to drift off the path and he punches the throttle. I can tell we’re going down so I push my self off of the side pedals to make sure the bike doesn’t land on me as we both crash and fall to the ground. We were only going about 15 MPH, but that was definitely my first motorbike accident. Luckily for our safety, we were in tall grass and mud. Unluckily for my all white clothes, we were in tall grass and mud. I braced my self on the fall, but now my butt and hands are covered in mud. The women are still in sight and come running over. The boy looks really embarrassed and before we get back on I ask if he can make it the rest of the way. He says yes and then I ask him again if he’s confident. He says yes again, so I get on the bike. We get to the drier part of the road and things get a bit smoother. He’s still worrying me because he’s not very smooth with the throttle and he keeps turning with the handlebars. I’ve never driven a motorbike before, but I know from my pedal bike that turning the handle bars are for emergencies and turning should be a very little with the handle bars, instead most of the turning should be done with leaning the bike from side to side. I guess he’s scared to lean though because I’m so heavy. I’m probably the equivalent of two full-grown Lao men on the back of the bike. This will certainly be an experience neither of us will forget. I’m just hoping we’ve gotten the falling out of our systems.

 We got up one of the steep hills with a bit of trouble, but we made it. Then down the other side he’s putting on the brakes a little bit, but then releases them completely and puts them on again. When we get to the mid point of the hill he releases the brakes completely and I can tell he’s just shooting it to the bottom. Forgetting completely everything I learned at the monastery, I cringe and thing this is it. We’re going to crash and I hope I don’t land on one of these thousands of rocks around us. 

Somehow we stayed up and made it down the hill safely. Then, I tell him I’m walking up the next hill. I have the time, so there’s no use in making it more dangerous by cutting corner to save time. We meet up at the top of the hill I almost fell with the full-grown man who drove me to the monastery yesterday. We would have definitely gone down on this one if he tried to go up with both of us. At the top I get back on and am relieved that we’ve gotten past the big hills. We have some relatively okay dirt before we get back to the long stretch of road with the smooth pieces mixed with giant potholes. Not much further, a woman screams at us as we pass by and the boy yells back at her. Then he pulls over at a small shop and tells me to wait here. I ask if it’s his mother and he nods his head before going over to her. All I can think is that I’m glad I left 5 hours early, for things like this. I bet he just didn’t do his chores this morning and she’s forcing him to do them now before he leaves. He disappears. Then a young man, about my age, comes up to adjust the bike and get it more out of the road. Then he gets on the bike and stares at me. I ask if he will take me and he confirms. I thank him and hop on. I’m really grateful that the mom has more sense than the Ajahn at the monastery. She saw and immediately told the boy to get off the bike. The Ajahn might have been a great meditation, but he doesn’t know about things about riding a motorbike and how it doesn’t make sense to have a skinny 14 year old Lao boy drive a big Falang. The young man is going much faster than the boy, but he’s leaning into his turns and seems to know how much to slow down to go over the bumps, so I’m much more comforted. The rest of the ride goes really smoothly as he clearly takes these trips to town often.

 At town he drops me off at a Tuk Tuk and the driver tells me to get in the front seat. Normally I would prefer to sit in the back with everyone else, but I want to talk with him about where I can go to get some wifi and make sure that I can ask him a few other things like getting to the airport. I get a good feeling about him from the way he’s talking with me and helping me so much. It feels really strange to be in the front seat with plenty of leg room back support, and air conditioning blowing. I feel like I just entered paradise. Maybe the boy and I did fall down that steep hill and this is just the dream I’m having after hitting my head on a rock. Well I’m okay with that, at least I wasn’t eaten by pigs.

 Back at town I find my way to internet and email people that I’m back, a few days later than I thought, whoops sorry. Hopefully it makes sense from the stories why I wasn’t able to reach out to anyone. I get some Vietnamese coffee to buy something while I use this guys internet. Then I get a ride to the airport a few hours ahead of schedule. I want to write my blog while I wait there. I have a lot to catch up on. I walk back into the airport and feel like I’m back in civilization again.

Even after the traveling I still don’t have one ounce of hunger. Then as I walk by the shops I see some snacks and candy. When I see that my stomach tells me, okay we’re hungry. It’s interesting to still be so aware of myself right now and watch, when I know that I’m not hungry, my body try to trick me into snacking for no reason. I sit down and it passes as I get focused on my writing. Then, I see some Falang come in with some fruit and my stomach tell me again, to eat something. Even after those intensive few weeks, when I’m back in the real world my body is jumping to get back into old habits again. I can tell this is going to be the start of a difficult transition. Even more so it will be difficult to take what I learned at the monastery and apply it to a routine that will work within my daily life. With all this thinking I notice the tension I’m holding in my body. I put my writing down and close my eyes and just take a few breaths and let the tension go. I’m able to relax a little bit and just get back to normal. Even though I was only at the monastery for a little over two weeks, I’m feeling a bit of culture shock or something similar. It’s kind a little bit too intense to be immersed in a crowd of falang again. I can’t imagine how monks feel after they disrobe and return to the US after years of living in a monastery. Hopefully though, they will have strengthened their skills more than I have with being able to stay relaxed and calm. I was just at the cusp of recognizing things, but didn’t get enough time to really practice any of them.

 On the plane they give me a sandwich and a some banana bread. I open the bread and smell its amazing aroma. Yeah, it’s plane food, but still more fresh than plane food in the US. I know that I’m still not hunry so I wrap the bread back up and consider offering it to people around me. Then, I realize how weird that would look. “Hey I don’t know you, but you should eat this food that I just opened and now don’t want to eat. Trust me, I’m the creepy bald guy, with no eye brows, on the plane.” I decide to pack it into my bag and bring it to the young guy at the reception desk at Sakura.

 Before long, we’re landing and I’m calling my lao teacher to tell her that we should still meet. I planned before I left that I would still have a Lao lesson today. The Lao lesson goes really well and I find it much easier to concentrate on what she’s saying. I think it also just feels good to be back around people I missed and like so much.

 Lao lesson ends and I get ready for bed and prepare for work tomorrow. It’s going to be intense getting back to everything after being on vacation for two weeks and explaining to my colleagues why all the hair on my head and eyebrows are gone. I told some people, but only those who asked.

Leaving Thailand, Journey to the Middle of Nowhere, An Unexpected Monastery

I wake up a little bit earlier and start to return things from my kuti. It’s supposed to be totally empty except for the Buddha statue, but when I got here there were all kinds of candles and mosquito net and other things, so I want to return all those as well. This morning we have the long chanting and meditation in the hall and then the lay people leave afterward. Some of them stay to help with the chores and food in the morning. I tell Paet it’s my last day and tell some other of the lay guests that I’ll be leaving after the meal. I already talked with the guest monk and arranged everything. After talking with the guest monk I saw Steven from Philly and we wished each other luck. I may have sounded like I was bitter the whole time, which I probably was for a lot of it, but I certainly will miss this place, with the quiet atmosphere, some of the good people I met, and of course all the wonderful food. I help offer the food one last time and talk with the monk again who I had a long discussion with. He told me that he plans to disrobe in the beginning of May when the abbot gets back to the monastery. He also gave me his email and told me to stay in touch. I told him there’s no way in hell I remembering his Pasadeko Lamaleko Flasheko name in Pali, so I found out his name is Luis. One of the lay guests asks how it feels to leave and I say honestly that I’m excited and ready. After the meal I clean my bowl and I’m headed over to get my stuff from one of the monk’s offices, but turn around because I have the beginnings of having to poop and figure that’ll be the last thing I do before leaving here. Not only will I not have to worry about it when I travel, but it’s also a symbolic releasing of weight and moving on. I’m getting rid of some weight here, not carrying it with me, and making room for more adventure. Sorry, that’s probably the grosses metaphor I’ve used, but I couldn’t help myself. Literally though, I really had to go.

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I took a few selfies on my way out of the monastery to give an idea of the kuti I stayed in and the forest around. Yup, I really took a selfie in a monastery. I think there’s a Buddhist hell for that. That’s me almost 2 weeks after I shaved my head. My eye brows and head hair is still only just starting to come back in.

I get my bag out of the room and start my next journey on the long road out of here. It feels very strange to be leaving. It feel surreal and at the same time it feels so right. I’m now just bubbling with excitement for this next adventure. I get to the main road and plan to walk down to the hotel where I met that guy before heading to the monastery. I’ll ask him about the best way to get to the bus station. Before I even get half way there I see a car pull up off the side of the road in front of me. It’s right in front of a shop so I half think they’re going there and half think they’re stopping to give me a ride. I’ll probably just deny the ride and keep going to the hotel because I want to see my friend again and won’t know these random people here. As I get much closer, two women, one young and one much older get out of the car, dressed in all white. They must be some of the lay people who were just helping out at the monastery. The younger woman speaks good enough English, so I explain where I’m going as they move stuff around for me to have a seat in the back. I tell them to just drop me off at the hotel, but then they keep going, so I figure it’s no problem. Then I ask them to drop me off at the gas station at the corner of the street. Instead the young woman says that her mom said she knows this area well and that I should come into town with them. I tell them I’ll go with them. I speak some Lao and they are giddy in excitement, especially the older woman who knows no English. We get out in what seems like the downtown area and they tell me to wait here to take the public red truck transportation cars for 10 bhat to the bus station. 10 bhat is about 30 cents. They ask a shop owner next to us and the shop owner tells us we’re in the wrong area. The old woman grabs my hand very gently and we go back to the car together to find a new location. Right when she grabs my hand I get a strong feeling of grandmotherly love. A wave of gratitude washes over me and I feel like there’s nothing I have to do to figure this out, instead I just relax and enjoy their help and presence. Next, we go to the old woman’s shop and they take me inside where they pull up a chair and give me a glass of cold water as they call another car. One pulls up and they go to tell the driver where to take me and the woman in the front passenger seat, which I think is the driver seat at first because it’s all opposite here, is also from the lay people group who helps out at the kitchen. We recognize each other and burst out laughing. At this point this all feels staged or something. I certainly don’t feel like this is the real situation of traveling through a city I’ve never seen before. Instead it feels more like home already. I suppose this is one of those feelings that keeps pulling people back to the big religious institutions every week or month. It’s a wonderful feeling to join such a big network of people so quickly and feel like they all really love and want to support me from the get go, even though we don’t really know each other. I’ve heard of that, but never really felt that part of group religion until now. It’s nice. I get into the back of the red truck thing, awkwardly am too big to be standing in the aisle between the seats. After the first stop, I get out of the aisle and stand on a metal platform for people to take a half step up on before getting into the actual bed of the truck. That’s basically all this is, a transformed truck with a big bed into a multi person taxi. Now I’m literally hanging out of the back of the truck on the metal bars. The woman from the front gets out and makes a big motion telling me to take the car straight. I don’t know how long I should take it straight based on that motion though. If I were to guess, the motions means to never get out, but that’s a bit counter intuitive. Another 10 minutes and we’re pulling into the big bus station where everyone gets out. Ooh, straight all the way to the end, okay that motion makes much more sense to me now.

At the bus station I go over to the information area and ask about my options to get to the final destination. I want to cut some corners and take a bus straight there. It will also be much cheaper if I could find that option. The woman starts to ask me some questions and then another one comes up and looks like she’s trying to help. Next thing I know they’ve stopped talking to me and are both looking up ahead of us. I look up to and realize they’re posing on either side of me as their third friend is taking a picture of us. Haha I haven’t had that feeling of being a celebrity since being in Ghana. That kind of thing happened all the time, especially then after the picture, insisting on taking my number. They don’t ask for my number here, which still probably explains why I haven’t memorized it yet. I think I had it memorized after the first few weeks in Ghana after so many people asked. After the picture they take me over to the correct bus and I wait for 45 minutes for them to collect people before we leave. At the boarder people try to get me to buy their extra transportation to the boarder and I laugh as I say I’m happy to walk. They laugh too and call me a crazy foreigner. I can literally see the office about a half mile away, but that would be preposterous for people to consider here. Same thing in Ghana, that’s strange to me. If I don’t get enough exercise then my legs try to vibrate off my body when I get sleepy at night. It was a 10 minute walk and I’d much rather do that than try to negotiate with all them while they’re in a big group. I’m slightly worried about getting the extended visa and them seeing that I came over on land and that I shouldn’t have gotten that, but everything goes very smoothly. I get over to the Lao side and the guy at the immigration gives me his number, his sisters lodge place, and asks for me to call him and give him an American woman. Wait… Am I in Ghana? The people’s skin looks so light, but I’m confused because they’re acting more like Ghanaians then any experience I’ve had since leaving Ghana. If after I leave here someone hisses loudly at me to get my attention, then I’m going to call my boss to apologize that the immigration room was actually a portal back to West Africa that I wasn’t aware of.

I walk down to the public transportation section to get a ride to my first destination, into the town of Pakse. My final destination is much smaller town called Pak Song. After about 30 minutes in the van I start to get feelings that I don’t want to go to the monastery anymore. It feels like I’ve used so much time and it’s already around 1:00 PM. I start to justify why I wouldn’t go there and then I hear a quick ring that is cut off and sounds awfully like my phone. I look at the number and look at the contact paper I have, to find that the Ajahn I’m going to visit just called me. Wait a minute here… I haven’t called him yet and when we called him at the monastery in Thailand, we used someone else’s phone, I didn’t even have mine with me and since I don’t know my own number without checking, I didn’t give the Ajahn my number. Okay, maybe he called the monastery in Thailand and asked for my number, which I did put on a form when I first got there. That’s still strange how he called right now also, when I’m thinking about not going. I can hear the twilight zone music starting to play softly in the back of my head now… I get out of the van to call the Ajahn, but there’s no answer. He calls me back soon after I get back in the van, but the door  is stuck so I take the call in the packed van. He tells me that I should still come and gives me directions for which stop to get out and that he will send someone to collect me and take me to his monastery. Apparently it’s a 15 Km ride on a motorbike, which is what the Ajahn with the glasses told me. Okay, I’m back set on going to this place. Especially after I warn him that it might be a bit later in the after noon or early in the evening.

After some more navigating, I make it to the bus station in Pakse and get pointed to the bus to take me to Pak Song. I buy the ticket for 25,000 Geep, which is about $3 for an hour bus ride. Not a bad price. The bus looks packed with things already. There are tons of motorbikes strapped to the top and a lot of other people with packages waiting for them to be strapped to some part of the bus. I get on and the middle aisle is already filled with giant sacks of what feels like some kind of densely packed grain. I’m thinking rice or maybe even sugar. I step up on the sacks and walk back but have to be in a low crouched position not to hit my head on the ceiling. An old woman is sitting in the middle of the row and I wait for a few seconds for her to move. She looks at me and doesn’t budge. I finally tell her excuse me in Lao and then try to squeeze by her. I want to sit somewhat close to the front so I can talk with the bus driver about where I’m supposed to go and so I can easily tell him to stop. The closest seat I find is about in the middle. There’s trash all over and some half eaten food. I find a bag in the seat next to me, but stupidly ignore it. I want to be toward the front, so I just stay. The engine turns on and a man comes to sit next to me. Then right before we back up and leave two women come and tell us we’re in their seats, duh there was a bag and food you idiot. They have a small child, so we immediately pop up out of the seats into a crouch in the aisle. I look around and see people two rows up and down lining the middle of the rows, sitting on the bags. I guess they oversold the tickets. I take a seat on the sacks in the middle and put my bad in front of me. I can’t quite sit with my legs relaxed because they will shoot off into the seats next to me so I hold onto the edge of the seat I was just in for support. Then the woman uses that part of the seat, so I nestle my knees into part of the people’s seat around me. I get into the meditation posture or Indian style or just the regular crossed leg thing people do when they sit. The people to my left are a young couple with a kid who is directly behind me. I think they will be good targets if I need help with a part of this journey. That’s a strategy in Ghana I picked up, to ask women or people with children to help me because I figure they will have more compassion for me than most other groups of people. Hey, it’s worked well for me so far. I sit up straight and try to have a good posture, so I don’t destroy my back before I get to this place. After about 10 minutes of driving we get to a steep hill, which is throwing the upper part of my body backward, which is what the very tight tendons in my hips have been fighting for this whole time. I try to bare it for a little bit, but the hill doesn’t seem to end, so I get a good grip of the lower part of my shins to use my arms to support my back as well. I focus on getting in the best posture possible. I ask the young couple if they could help me figure out where to stop. I’m asking them in Lao and speaking very slowly, so they are extra nice and patient when they wait for me to finish and say they will help. I call the Ajahn back and ask him to explain where to stop to these people. They tell me they know exactly where it is and they will help me get out. I go back to sitting and concentrate on supporting my back with my arms. We’re still going up hill. It’s been 30 minutes and we’re still going up this damn hill. I thought I was further away from mount Everest, but I suppose that’s where we’re going because another few minutes and we’ll have been going up hill long enough to summit. Then as if I needed any more conditions against me, the guy in front of me falls asleep and is leaning on my backpack with is right in front of me, so he’s basically leaning on me and adding to the force of my hip tendons and the uphill gravity trying to move my torso backward, away from being in a good posture. When I thought the conditions couldn’t get worse the kid behind me starts to get restless and keeps bumping and kicking me. I guess that’s not all that bad because at least that’s sending me in the other direction. I take the deepest breath I can take, dig real deep into my shins to get the best grip possible, and close my eyes to meditate. I try to get so deeply focused on my breath and just let everything be where it is without thinking it’s bad or all against me… which it totally is. Someone clearly set this up and is laughing really hard right now. I wouldn’t have survived for 5 minutes if I hadn’t had so much practice the past 17 days at the monastery. I really calm down and feel like everything is no problem at all. I don’t know if I would put a label of being peaceful or happy, but I do know I just became okay with everything right here and now and eventually opened my eyes to watch the scenery go by outside. I actually feel like I’m now in on the joke and start to find the situation hilariously funny, but resist laughing because I don’t want the people to think I’m crazy and then not help me.

After about an hour on the bus, the couple and their son get off and I walk up to the front with them. They tell the bus driver where to drop me off and after another minute of driving they stop and dump me off. I call the Ajahn and tell him I’m here and he seems like he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore after all the times I’ve called him already. He tells me to wait there and someone will pick me up… or he tells me to that I missed the time and I’m not welcome anymore, I didn’t quite make out what he said. Either way, I wait in that spot. I’m so far off into the country side now that everyone who passes on the road stares at me the entire time.

A guy pulls up on a motorcycle staring at me. He doesn’t say anything, so I figure I’ll initiate the conversation. I ask him if the Ajahn sent him for me and he just grunts and nods. I’m really on a role with these translations so far; his grunt either means yes I’ll take you there or yes, I’ll take you to the woods and feed you to my pigs. Either way I’m in for an adventure so I jump on and we set off away from the main road and civilization, toward the countryside. Before long, we go off the paved road, onto just dirt road. The further we go the worse the road gets. He seems to know it well though because he tears down the good patches and then slams on the break, almost to a stop, right before we go over a big pot hole. Okay, I hope he knows it well and isn’t just seeing it at the last second because going over a giant pot hole at 30 mph would feel really bad. As we get further down the dirt path, the houses start to get less dense and the yards around the houses start to get much bigger. The smells become much more of freshness. I think it rained recently so there is that wet grass smell mixed with all kinds of wonderful countryside smells. Even though we’ve been away from the big city for a while now, this is the first time all my sense really take it in. There are clouds looming over head, so the breeze is really cool and the sun setting makes everything look stunningly beautiful. I don’t know if it’s from the meditation, the scenery, or making it through the hard part of the journey here, but I feel a deep sense of relaxation and appreciation for everything right now.

Not much longer we get to a point where the houses disappear and we’re just driving through countryside mixed with foresty areas. Yup, I’m definitely going to be a pigs breakfast… Well, I had a good time at least. Now the road gets much worse and starts going up and down steep hills. The foot thing slips and I kick it back into the bike. I can’t get it out again and I can feel that my attempts are knocking him off balance a little bit. I stop and just stick my food anywhere I can on the side. We go down a steep hill where he slams on the brakes and my body is now squashed up against his. He has to put his feet down and we almost fall down. I can feel him using his full strength to steer the bike and keep us up. I don’t think he’s used to driving with people as large as I am. Lao people are juuust a bit smaller. We make it through the hill without falling somehow and then we come to the end of the dirt road and enter under a big wooden sign that says something in English that just mixes a bunch of big words that don’t make sense together. I think we’re in some kind of reserve. The sky is much more threatening now and we’ve changed scenery to now driving through an open forest. It’s much less dense than the one in Thailand, more like the ones I’m used to in California. I can feel it sprinkling and I’m slightly worried about having to stop somewhere to wait out the rain.

We pull up to a knocked over tree and the guy stops. That’s funny, I don’t see any pigs… He tells me to keep going. I guess now I have to finish the rest on foot. On foot! Okay, I’d rather voluntarily offer myself to the pigs. Does he even know what kind of a bus ride I’ve just been through!? Oh yeah, he lives with this. I’m about 50 yards from the entrance and then at about 30 yards the sprinkling turns to rain. With about 10 steps left it starts to pour. I can see people coming over to the edge of the tin roof and calling me to come faster. Instead of running, I stay in stride and only get a little bit damp before getting under an enclave to this big rock formation. I take off my shoes and wash my feet and then enter a dinky made structure under the lip at the base of this giant mountain. There are a few Buddha statues surrounded by candles and a monk sitting directly in front meditating. He looks up as I pass and gives me a big smile. Then I follow two other guys dressed in all white, like I am, and they set up a mat for me to sit on. The pouring now gets even worse and is deafening as it hits the tin roof we’re under. I suppose this is their sala/meditation hall thing. It’s certainly less extravagant then the one in Thailand. I sit down with the two pakows and they bring me a water and soda. We just smile at each other at first and then one of them breaks the silence, so we get to know each other a bit. They don’t know how to speak English, so we do everything in Lao. It’s really strange how perfectly everything went on the trip over here. The Ajahn called me right when I was thinking about not going and then the pouring rain started when I was 10 steps away from getting into their monastery. No one could plan timing like that more perfectly, especially a place like Laos, which doesn’t run on time schedules.

After some time we go and sit on a mat in front of the Buddha statues. I don’t see any cushions in sight. At the other monastery, we had one square pad to cushion the floor and then a thicker and softer pad to put directly under our butt. This place is filled with people who’ve been sitting on the floor their whole lives, so it probably didn’t occur to them as a big deal. I’m slightly worried, but more ready to accept the challenge. Ajahn Chah told a story once about a guy who would sit in his meditation hall and support his back when he got tired. Chah pointed him out to everyone and used him as an example that if we don’t use ourselves as our own support, we’ll never be strong enough to go deeper into our meditation and practice. At some point we will go deep enough where the cushion won’t be there to help us and all we will have is the resilience we’ve built in our hearts and minds. That story really stood out to me and the many other related ones to that I’ve heard have only strengthened my conviction to build my resilience as my foundation.

They say the Ajahn is coming as I see a man come down from where I entered. He goes behind the statues and fixes his robe, but looks more like he’s a vampire putting on a cape. Cool, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a vampire. I imagined it more with a hot woman version of Dracula, but I guess I can’t be too picky. Then, he comes over to sit down and face the Buddha. He doesn’t say anything to me. Everyone is in the chanting posture, so I guess that’s what we’re doing, but the rain is making it impossible to hear. I sit the same way and look at the Buddha statue just barely illuminated by the candles. It gives a really interesting atmosphere I didn’t get at the other place. I feel more like I’m off in a cave, under a mountain, in the middle of the countryside somewhere…

After sometime of chanting the Ajahn and the monk turn around and face us. I look at him, but because of the candles behind his head I can’t make out his features. He’s not saying anything, so I cast my eyes down a bit, to make sure that I’m not being disrespectful, but it’s so natural for me to look right at someone, especially when I’m expecting them to address me, and then realize that everyone is meditating. We’re all so close it gives me a very intimate atmosphere I never felt at the other place. I feel more accountable as well. I start to scan my body for tension and relax those areas as best as I can. Slowly my knees start to come down to their level when I had the cushion. Even though they’ve dropped significantly, I can still feel the tension and the pain is probably worse now than ever. However, it’s not in my knees and it doesn’t feel like I’m going to hurt myself, so I keep pursuing the meditation. The weight is making the outside of my anklebones hurt. I think about what one of the monks told me at Nanachat (place in Thailand) about walking barefoot. He said it’s not very important to have tough feet past a certain point. He said that it could actually damage your feet if the callouses get too thick. He was telling me this as he was rubbing some course rock on his foot to file away the callouses. Then he said that the most important thing is the balance of your weight. He said it’s important to divide the weight into the whole foot and when there’s a lot of pressure in one spot, the fine tuned muscles in the leg should shift the weight slightly to relieve that spot and then will even everything out again. I think about that here with my ankles. I concentrate on how my weight is divided and try to put more weight into other areas with a bit more natural cushion. To my surprise it actually works this time and the pain in my ankles has reduced enough to continue with my relaxation meditation. Or sorry, with my relaxation, I’m still trying to get to the actual mediation part. I think I spend most of my meditations trying to talk my body into doing something. When the pain reduces in my ankles I also feel a surge of confidence and my resilience building, just like Chah said would happen. I can feel quite a few ants crawling over me now, to the point where I think I’m sitting right in the middle of their line. This is another thing that I dealt with the whole time while being in the forest at Nanachat, so I just let it go and keep going deeper into relaxation. I can feel my back relaxing a lot and it feels like I’m not sitting up straight, but I can open my eyes and see that I am. I guess I’m just used to sitting in the tense up right position I thought I always had to be in for the good posture. I’m still not good at that part. Maybe my back isn’t perfect, but I can certainly now feel there’s no tension, so I stick with it. I concentrate on getting rid of the tension everywhere else in my body and then focus on where it’s still being held in my legs. I start from the easy places to relax and then move closer and closer to the stubborn part of my legs. Finally I get to the middle of my legs and after a few long exhales, I let go completely of the tension.

Immediately, I notice the pain disappears completely. There’s absolutely zero pain in my legs. Now, I’m finally ready to meditate and concentrate on what my mind is doing. There are a few times where I thought I’ve been totally relaxed in meditation, but this confirms that I hadn’t been. I now really know what it feels like to be totally relaxed and how most of my bodily pains come from my resistance and tension. It’s so backwards because my body stays tense in order to avoid hurting myself or being in more pain, but that’s actually the source of the pain itself. I’m able to stay with my breath for a bit, but the first time my concentration drifts away from my breath and relaxation, my legs spasm. My knees shoot up like the first fireworks to break the silence of the night before a big show. They go back to their normal level and the pain comes coursing right back. It’s almost like my body when back into it’s habitual state of operating and realized, “Wow! You can’t be that relaxed in your legs, you’ll hurt us!”

I try to get back to the same level of relaxation again, but it’s just never the same. I’m back to the level of relaxation when I thought I was fully there, but now I know I can be more relaxed, to the point of the abolishment of my leg pain. Then, I start to feel little sensations of pain firing in different parts of my body. I’m not sure if it’s twitching or what. Maybe I was hurting myself and now I’m feeling the affects. Then, I realize where the pain is coming from. The ants crawling all over me are now biting me. I sit there and endure through the meditation until I hear a bell telling us to stop. I wasn’t able to get back to that relaxed state, but I’ve reached a new frontier in my practice and now I really know what it feels like, beyond just the conventions of what the words “relaxed legs” means. This is a huge benchmark now for me and therefore something to strive for in the future.

After the meditation ends, the Ajahn addresses me in Lao and I put my hands to my chest in prayer position to show respect while someone senior is addressing me. It’s hard to understand him because I can’t see him speak, but I get what he’s saying after he points. He says that I’ll be staying the night in one of the rooms up stairs and we’re going there now. We drop off my bag at the room and the packow shows me what’s there for me to use. Then we keep walking along the dark rocky ground. The trees aren’t thick and the ground is all rock, so I figure we’re climbing a rock, duh, and going above the forest area. Then the Ajahn stops and tells one of the packows to take me somewhere. He hike up for a bit more and then come to a big Buddha statue. We go to the rock behind the statue and look out over what looks like a horizon. I can see all black below and then up to the horizon, which is more lit up than the land below it. We’re standing above the horizon, so we must be at some kind of tall look out point. Did I mention we’re on a rock yet? The night is a bit overcast, so there aren’t many stars to see. Then, he takes me back to my room and says he will see me in the morning at 3 in the sala.

In the room there’s a hard cushion and then the same thin mat we just meditated on, which is basically like sleep directly on the ground. I’m still tired from going to sleep a bit later last night after the Dharma talk, so I pass out right away.

I wake up in the middle of the night really cold, so I take the blanket in the room, but it’s not long enough to cover my body, so I curl up and fall back asleep. I wake up again with my body aching because of the hard floor and my bottom half that slipped out of the blanket cold. Then, I realize the blanket is long enough, I just had it sideways, so I turn it around and then get warm enough to sleep through the rest of the night.

Lots of Holiday Food, Last Full Day, and a Disappointing Dharma Talk

Today is Friday, day 14. Today up at normal 2:40. At the morning group meditation I have to get up out of the sitting meditation because I’m worried about hurting my knees or anything else I use to sit. After a quick sweep, I go back to my Kuti because I gave my alms round away to one of the new lay guests. I’m really enjoying this extra time in the morning I’m now getting to do some extra of my own practice. I’m feeling a bit more tired than usual still though. I’m not sure why, whether it’s because the charm of the place has worn off a bit, the early mornings in general are catching up to me, or just because of those different sleep schedules when I was helping with the dying. I go back over to help sort the food and talk with my lay Thai woman friend there, Paet. She thanks me for all the help every day and apologizes if she ever got frustrated with me or any of “my friends,” meaning the other lay guests. I chuckle and tell her it’s no problem and that everyone here likes her and that she’s probably the reason so many of the lay guests want to come and help set up in the morning. She’s the one who give the food prep its efficiency and direction.

At meal time, I’m still toying around with how much to eat. Still grab a heap of vegetables, fish for protein, fruit, and some sticky rice to keep me full. A new guy from the U.S. came during the funeral, but now I’m able to give him a bit of an orientation. I’m also happy because he picks up half of my chore that I got put on me after Bing, the quieter Chinese guy just left abruptly. Everything else in the day goes like the normal routine.

I’ll add Saturday, day 15 into this same blog post to give it some more meatiness. I wouldn’t even know what to make the title from the first part I added. Maybe something like same ol same ol with a little Paet mixed in… Now you see why I’m continuing here.

Today is the moon holiday again. That means there are a lot more people donating the food today and some of those people stay for morning chanting and meditation. The real troopers will stay all day and practice throughout the night before they leave after the morning chanting and meditation tomorrow morning. Most people just come and bring in a special dish of food and get the hell out of dodge. I don’t blame them, I wouldn’t want to stay and meditate all day either… Oh wait.

I don’t make it through the meditation again without stretching my legs, but I manage not to get up and instead just get right back into meditation. Then after sweeping I go back to sort the amazing amounts of food people bring. This almost beats the first holiday combined with the New Year celebration when I first got here. The other lay guests and I are all sitting around the food laughing at how much there is and how delicious it all looks. My mind is totally going crazy with all the wonderful smells and colors. Every new dish has a different wonderful aroma of garlic or freshly cooked chicken and fish. I’m not even hungry though, so I’m not sure what my body is trying to say to me. I think it just comes from my body being in emergency mode from only eating one time a day. Part of it is also just being more aware of my relationship to food and it reveals probably how often I used to eat when I just thought it was time or saw something delicious, instead of stopping to think if I was actually hungry. I realize before the meal that I’ve been eating less food, but my craving for the food has been squeezing out desires that I don’t normally have, like craving and indulging in the sweets every meal. In the beginning the fruit was enough for me, but the last few days, I’ve really had a craving for the sweats as well. That’s definitely something that is very strange for me. Normally I like sweets and will eat them on occasion, but don’t really crave them, like I do with other foods. Pizza and fruit on the other hand are much different, those cravings will probably never go away, no matter how long I stay in a forest. At the meal, I eat closer to an appropriate amount of food to keep me full, but still cave in a bit and get a small chocolate drink and some crunchy rice sweet thing that I’ve never tried before. It’s amazing to see how my cravings will fight so hard and create all kinds of arguments to justify caving on my resilience. I thought, oh the drink has extra vitamins and minerals in it and oh I haven’t ever tried that rice dessert. Even though I already get enough vitamins and minerals from the fruit and vegetables or with the other less sweet drinks with the vitamins and minerals and the rice thing is just one of many types I haven’t tried and it would be nearly impossible to try them all in my short stay here. I’m still making progress though because I’m now aware of my cravings and things my body does to justify giving into them. I’m definitely proud of my progress so far and developed a real passion to keep exploring and learning about my relationship to food. It’s such a great tool for learning more about myself, specifically how I deal with cravings. I think also it’s something I would have never brought to my attention because it was never bad, but only eating once a day has brought the small issue right into my awareness and now it’s shattered the glass of my previous ignorance.

I can’t believe today is my last full day already. My plan is to leave tomorrow right after the meal so I have plenty of time to make it over to the next town where I will join the new monastery for a night. I spend most of the day organizing things in my Kuti and getting ready so I don’t have to rush around tomorrow in the morning before the meal.

At tea time the new American guy brings out some honey that he raised in a bee farm at his house, some dark chocolate, ginger pieces, on top of the already prepared tea snacks of black liquorish and chocolate ginger ball things. Steve from Philly is preparing the snacks and tells me to try the black liquorish and I tell him no thanks that I really don’t like that candy. He says he has never like it either but will try some. I say okay, why not, I haven’t eaten some since I was a kid, so I’ll try it again. It’s wrapped in some natural earthy flavored thing and the taste is so mild that it’s actually really wonderful. I think the candy we get in the US is just overly potent and this candy takes away everything I hate about that other candy. At the tea time I grab some more because I liked them so much. My mind is going crazy again and I can’t resist the snacks, ahhh! I grab an extra drink because I want to try it with the amazing honey. Now that this craving thing is in my mind, it’s really interesting to keep watching the craving after I indulge and to see how It just goes away. There’s no sense of relief or real lasting pleasure, in fact most of the time I indulge in the craving, I’m thinking about something else. How crazy is that! That has also really helped me to look at cravings in a different way. Before I indulge in them, I think what will I get out of doing this anyway, and then it goes away for a little bit. I think that also opens a mental discussion to see if the craving is of something that is actually important or not. At the end of tea time, I grab some of the hard candy sweets to keep and give out to the other lay guests in the morning. One of them did that one morning and I like the gesture, so I figured it would be nice to do on my last day with them.

At night we go through the chanting and meditation in the sala and then over to the Dharma talk. Tonight will be the guest monk and I’m excited to hear what he talks about. He pulls out a book and says that he wants to read something to us. I immediately start to grumble and then stop myself and try to stay open to the possibility of it being quick and leading into his own thoughts on the practice.  He reads about the upper stages of development in the practice, those that are so close to enlightenment that they just don’t even mean anything to anyone here. No one can even relate in the least and as I’ve ranted about so many times, why the hell are we even talking about this part of practice and trying to put it into words. Who cares if it exists and even if it does then why are we trying to fit it into conventions that we can’t fully understand it with. I can hardly even put into words the way I dealt with my distractions, let alone being able to describe the practice right before reaching enlightenment. He also defines a lot of words and does it so often that he probably loses the attention of most people in the room. Who cares about the big made up words, if he’s going to talk about it then I think he should just stick with the small words used in the definitions. I was really hoping this would have been better! The talk ends and the new lay guest asks a question, which makes me think of another one. The answer to the question is so drawn out and the answer has beaten the dead horse so much, there’s just dust on the ground now. I almost fall asleep a few times and by the end almost forget my question. Out of pure stubbornness or just plain stupidity, I still ask my question as well. I ask about the object of meditation being the breath and he mentioned if we pick that then to stick with it. I ask then if the object of walking meditation is supposed to be on the feet touching the ground, then how we should fix those conflicting suggestions. I answer goes around in circles and floats by a few points and then wisps away like smoke in the air. I’m not even sure what the answer was to the question, but I try my best to be respectful and thank him for his time. There are no teachers here who speak in short provoking answers or similes that make you then go back and think for a long time. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies at this point, but I want a teacher to answer my question with another question or give me a puzzle that will nudge me toward finding the answer for  myself. I also wish the teachers would take a second to take a breath and think about their answers before speaking. They should also speak in in a grumbly voice with backward sentences. Oh wait, that’s Star Wars, okay that confirms it, too many movies.

I head back to my kuti right after the talk in order to get plenty of sleep before the big day of traveling tomorrow. I’m really excited to experience a new monastery, especially one on the Laos side.

Eating for Pleasure, Funeral, and Packow Steven from Philly

Today is Thursday, day 13. I’m on the regular schedule, up at 2:40 again. There’s the usual chanting and meditation as well, so I don’t have to worry about practicing on my own. I talk to one of the packows about taking his alms round, but he hesitantly maybe gives it to me because it’s his only form of exercise. I’ve seen him without his shirt on and exercise is the last thing he needs. He should be looking for a cheeseburger or a piece of cake instead. At the last minute before his alms round he comes over and as if he completely forgot our conversation asks where I’m going. I tell him to take my bag and go on his alms round. I think I’m just mostly confused more than anything, but take the opportunity of more free time and go back to my kuti to meditate some more.

At the meal today, I’m set again on only eating a little bit. I grab lots of vegetables, some carbs for energy, and some cookie things for dessert. We do some chanting right before we eat and it talks about not eating the food for beautification, fattening, or pleasure. I think the first two are related and come from a long time ago any way. The one about pleasure is still a struggle for me because I love food so much. I don’t eat food in a gross excess, but I do really enjoy having good food, like I think most people in the US do. That’s not really the same for people in Ghana or Laos. They are picky about their certain dishes, but I think they eat more to be full than to savor and enjoy their dishes. I should have been Italian where we would eat 17 courses for lunch, drink some wine, and then sleep most of the afternoon. Now that sounds like a practice I can follow. Then when the guys come to bring the smoothie they say there’s a surprise today with the meal. They say that the monks decided to bring this out and then show us a bowl full of all kind of different chocolates. We’ve had chocolate at tea time before, but it was 100% cacao and didn’t taste like even a bit sweet. These were all milk chocolate, some white, and some with nuts. The part of the chanting about eating for pleasure is ringing in my head, but I still go for it because I didn’t make the rules and technically the leaders here are the ones who initiated the chocolate. Then I start to think about it a bit more. Why are they passing around the chocolate like this and what kind of a lesson is this supposed to provide. This really bothered me, so I’ve mentioned it to my family a few times right after I got back and a few of them told me in a jokingly way that this might have been a test and I just failed making it into their secret society. That’s funny to think about, but hey I’m in the middle of a rant here, no humor! I would agree if I hadn’t seen their gluttony come out during tea time when some of the guys with have three cups of tea, a soda, and two juice boxes. Tea time only lasts an hour and we generally get up at about 45 minutes. Drinking all that in 45 minutes has to be overconsumption and especially drinking all the sugary stuff has to be doing it for pleasure. So, I’m sure they took some chocolate for themselves. A few days ago we had a bunch of young novices, who were in some kind of spiritual summer camp, come to visit the monastery. I think that would have been the PERFECT time to bring out the chocolate. I bet those young kids would have gone wild. Maybe some of them would have even learned some important lessons of generosity, I know I would have and probably even some of the monks here. Instead, we saved it for ourselves and broke a few of the basic precepts that we chant, literally right before eating that stuff. I wish I didn’t sound so bitter, but I can’t help to analyze the leadership here, and if they don’t want to follow a rule, then change it! Okay, rant over, I’ll let the humor seep back in, but only a little bit, I feel more rants bubbling!

Either way the chocolate is delicious and I’m grateful for the lay people bringing such good quality sweets in for us to enjoy. I know I’m certainly enjoying them, guilt free. After the meal, I go to the guest monk to ask him about continuing to study meditation where I live in Luang Prabang. I will still do it on my own, but it will help a lot to find some kind of teaching or group practice. Before I ask him I think about my night in Pakse before my plane leaves and instead I ask him if the know of any monasteries over there I can stay that night. I want to continue my practice and avoid the extra costs of hotel and food if possible. The Ajahn with the glasses comes over and we all three sit down as the one with the glasses calls some people for me. They set up with one Ajahn in a place about an hour from Pakse, the boarder town in Laos I will stay in before my plane leaves to go to that airport back to Luang Prabang. He confirms my stay and now I’m set to continue my adventure with a nice surprise at the end. Okay, maybe I like him a little better now…

At 2:00 there’s a funeral procession for a woman who has been a supporter of the monastery since it was first founded in 1970 something. There’s actually even a corner of the monastery meant for just this type of thing. I go a bit early to make sure I have a good seat. The procession comes in with people walking and holding a string attached to the grill of a truck which is being driven with the woman’s casket in the bed of the truck. They bring it around to these two sets of brick stairs that lead from opposite directions into the same point with about a 4 foot gap in the middle. The middle gap is filled with logs of wood. They put her on top and then hand everyone some kind of paper origami thing. The monastic community go up to the body first. The lay guests follow the packows and when it’s my turn I make sure to get a good look at her face before putting the thing down in the coffin. That’s the second dead person I’ve seen up so close. It’s much less strange than seeing Moma Fausty in Antoa, right after I had been talking with her a few weeks before. That was an experience I’ll never forget. I also saw a dead body, from a distance, in the north of Ghana which was up on an elevated platform, sitting in a chair, dressed like a lavish, alive person, but with their head hanging like they’re asleep. This one at the monastery is certainly the least strange of the dead bodies I’ve seen. But the way this one is dealt with is quite unique. After all the lay people go up and give their offering and the family take pictures, people light the logs on fire. The coffin burns off quickly and then a lot of the monks move real close to get a look at the body. This is probably the most we have in common so far. I’m right there behind them wondering what the body looks like and if it will smell really bad as it’s burning. First of all, there’s no bad smell, at all. I don’t know if it’s the wind or if it’s a myth that burning bodies smell bad. We start to identify the parts of the body and one of the guys figures out that she’s on her side.

Later that day, before tea I go to the kitchen to help the packow, Steven from Philly, get the drinks ready. I ask him about all kinds of things about why he came here and why he wants to stay. He is one of the guys who will be ordaining in early May. I want to get all kinds of different perspectives here, so I figured talking to someone about to commit their life to being a monk here would be a great opinion to add to the bunch. He talks about a bunch of interesting stuff, a lot of which were the reasons that originally attracted me here. However, he never touches on the stuff that is driving me away from here. I know Steven is a smart guy and seems down-to-earth enough, so there must be another reason why he want to ordain here so badly. Maybe he just looks over that stuff and is only focused on his own practice and not worried about other people. I don’t bring any of that negative stuff up because I don’t think it would have been really appropriate to talk about. Now that I think back on it, I probably should have at least brought up some of the negatives on my mind. At tea time there is one Ajahn, who is in second in command, who just came yesterday from some Check country in Europe. He’s really obnoxious as he talks loudly, about unnecessary things, and consumes drinks like a madman. He irritates me so much, I want to leave the area, but I stay to endure the feeling and watch my own reaction to it all. I try just to breathe deeply and focus on how silly it is to let what he’s doing bother me so much. I get over that pretty quickly and then just watch it all in amusement.

After tea I head back over to see the body again after the flames have died down a bit. I can make out the ribs and pelvis, but everything else is quite burned up now. The monk who I had along conversation with comes over and we chat some more. He tells me that the person is put on their side because in the past the bodies on their back had a tendency to sit up or raise an arm, due to the heat of the fire changing the pressure. With such a widespread fear of ghosts in the Thai and Lao culture, I could imagine that didn’t go over to well. However, I think the opposite. I would want them to be on their back so I could see something like that. Sounds like a great story to me. Then, the monk and I walk back to the tea area and we talk about Qigong again to more depth and talk about other alternative practices. My discussions with him have really opened a door in my plans to explore as many types of these practices as I can pursue. That will probably be the first thing I research when I get back to the land of internet and worldly things. Not much else happens the rest of the day.

Waning Alms and the Chat With the “Normal” Monk

Today is Wednesday, day 12. I’m up at 11:45, again, and when I get to the shed there are three people already there, joined shortly by my favorite Ajahn… the guy with the glasses. Now we’re in different stage of the process. Before we were adding chips and creating the dye and now we’re just boiling and reducing the liquid down to concentrate the mixture. I leave 30 minutes before my shift ends at the invitation of the Ajahn to get more sleep before the days activities.

Today on alms there are only two monks and I figure that they did that because they must have known that there would be even less lay people out giving alms food today. I suppose these lay people are just like what seems like the majority of people in other religions who only practice on holidays or when it’s necessary in their life. I suppose the Buddha was smart to make two spiritual holidays per month. I’ve never thought of Buddhism and business as being related, but the Buddha clearly created these holidays right after he finished his marketing class. I’m not sure why the other main religions have their holidays only a few times a year. I find out later that there were less monks only because there were so many of them fasting that day. When the monks fast, they usually won’t go out on alms round or participate in any of the meal processions.

After the meal I run into the monk who I mentioned earlier in my stories is someone I wanted to meet and discuss spirituality. I overheard him talking about traveling and practicing in a few different places around the world and found out that he’s been here for 2 years as a monk. I think what also caught my eye was the fact that he doesn’t seem to fit in with the others here. He’s not as caught up in the culture of this monastery and generally does his own thing. We walk around and I get his background a bit before we go to sit down at one of he kutis. He tells me that he ordained at another monastery and then moved over here to this one. He said that he requested to move to one in San Diego because he had been following the teaching of an Ajahn out there for a while. He was denied his request by the Ajahn in San Diego due to lack of room and then through all that managed to stay here for two years. I have to say I do love how honest all the monks are when I ask them about things. It doesn’t seem like anyone is trying to hide anything, even if it doesn’t look to good for them. He told me that he’s probably going to disrobe soon an go back to the US. Even though he’s one of the most normal guys here, he tells me about a lot of messed up stuff that happened in his life. Come to think of it, I think that’s a similar case for a lot of the monks here. One of them is covered in tattoos and has some gold teeth, another looks always angry and so red that he just had stopped drinking the day before he got here, a few are very strange and socially ackward, and the rest seem basically normal, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they’re hiding demons like this monk I’m talking to now. I guess, at least for this monastery, most of the people here are trying to get away from the world enough so they can heal their gaping wounds. I suppose then the new crazy sounding names fits in a bit better then I had thought before. I don’t think this is the case though for the Thai monks at the other monasteries around Thailand, but I haven’t stayed there, so I can’t be sure. Just what I get from everything I’ve learned about the Lao and Thai culture so far, it doesn’t seem like they have big damaged physiques like we do in the West. Still though, I don’t have anything in my life I’m trying to run away from or any big things I’m trying to heal. I’ve had a wonderful life and always had great support from my family and friends. I’m just trying this experience to directly know my self, to connect with something deeper within, and to catch at least a glimpse of the connectedness of everything. This place is how I feel about all institutional religions I’ve studied so far; it’s great for the people involved, but it just doesn’t fit me. Religion is a beautiful thing, but my time hasn’t come yet where I have decided to take one as part of my identity. Instead, I am much more attracted to taking bits and pieces from them all that speak to me and putting them together to form my own personal spirituality. Near the end of the talk he tells me that I shouldn’t ordain here because of all the reasons that I’ve been talking about so far. He gives me a bit more detail, but it wasn’t hard to see the glaring facts of how things operate here. One thing he does though, is resparks my interest in Qigong. I started to study this in school and ordered a big scholarly textbook to read more. Unfortunately that wasn’t too long before I went to Ghana and it was too heavy to bring with me. I read enough to keep a latent interest that I think now has been reignited.

The talk with that monk really was the nail in the coffin of me staying at this monastery. I was heavily leaning towards not staying, but now I’m 100% sure, it’s not going to happen. I think also what I took from the conversation was that I don’t want to stay at any monastery at all. Maybe for a short time, but not to ordain. I think I’m meant to get a more diverse set of experiences from different teachers and traditions. That sounds like more of an adventure anyway. I can already feel a deep building of a lot of processing that will need to happen when I leave this place. It will certainly be interesting to see how it will be getting back into the everyday work life and what I will decide on as the next adventure. At least for now I want to concentrate on keeping as much of myself in this experience as I can until it’s time for me to leave.

Mixing the Dye, Power Sprayer, and Discovering a New Approach

Today is, almost, Tuesday, day 11. I wake up at 11:45 after a few hours of sleep and make my way over to the dying shed. For some reason I’m really not afraid of the dark, being in the middle of the woods and all. I make my way over, but almost get lost a few times on the way. I guess it’s pretty hard to get lost here, but I do almost walk into someone else’s kuti a few times. I find out that I have the guest monk with me on my shift. We go through some of the dying process, but I’m not really interested in learning about how to dye materials. All I know is that we’re putting the wood chips in a big pot of boiling water and taking chips out every 2 hours. The most surprising part to me is how good the dye smells. I could stand over the smell the whole shift and just keep taking in the steam. The guest monk asks a bit about where I’m from and all that, which again is in a basic precept to avoid talking about unnecessary things, specifically listing topics that cover all of his questions. I’m fine with talking about that, but then again I’m not the one who made that rule. I steer him toward talking about mediation, different types of Buddhism, and reading Buddhist scripture. I ask him why they all use Pali names, which are impossible to remember by the way. Their names are like pasadeko and passumado and rukaleeko. After the first one I’m already mixing up the different sounds. I have an idea what the answer is and I think he can tell because he starts to get a bit uncomfortable, but I push further. He first says because of tradition. Then I ask if Chah is Ajahn Chah’s Pali name and he says that it’s his regular Thai name. Then he says it’s because the Thai people don’t want to appear to formal and therefore some don’t even know their Pali name, which apparently is given to every monk upon their ordination, dating back to the Buddha. Then, I say “oh, so you guys just do it for tradition then?” At this point I’m thinking I probably should just have been more forward with where I’m trying to go, but I also don’t want to be disrespectful. Then, he answers and gives me what I’ve been digging for. He says they also take the new names to help them take on a new identity. Wow… that is by far the least attractive thing about this practice I’ve heard so far. That’s the last thing I’m trying to do with my spiritual practice. I don’t ever want to try to erase who I am or where I’ve been. That to me looks like running away from something, which is something I never plan on doing. I would rather face my problems directly and then maybe look weaker at first, but be confident in my own ability to be able to deal with problems myself. I want to use my past to build upon and become the best, same, person I can be in the future.

Dying time ends and the next shift comes. I go to meditate at the sala, but this morning I’m more tired than usual, for good reason. I also realize I try to start my chores an hour ahead of schedule, so I take a quick nap in my kuti before going out to sweep. I go out on alms round with a new team of monks. Almost no people are out giving alms today and those who are mostly give a small pinch of sticky rice. It’s interesting to see the ebs and flows of the local people and their support for the monastery.

For the food I talk with some of the people coming in and find out there is mashed potates, homemade brownies, eventually find out there is a jack fruit smoothy, and bars of nice chocolate. While I’m eating my head is repeating the chant we do before the meal about not over eating. I fail at not trying all the amazing food, but succeed at not overeating.

The work monk asks me to use a special power sprayer to clean the bathrooms. In the middle of using the sprayer I really think about the situation. I’m not sure why I’m using tons of electricity, water, and expensive equipment to clean what could be done with a little elbow grease. If the monastic community, meaning the monks, novices, packows, and lay guests staying at the monastery don’t’ have enough time to clean the bathroom to this extent, then I’m sure someone from the community would be willing to do it for them for merit or a small fee. Monks can’t pay them, but the people who paid for this fancy power sprayer sure can. Also it would be supporting the local community monetarily and a spiritual way. After my silent rant in my head, or actually quite loud rant to hear myself think over the water gushing out, I finish my job and head back to my kuti to sweep around my area.

After I sweep around my kuti, I continue to go from sitting to walking meditation. I really get into the walking meditation, like I never had before. I keep going until I have a huge break through, but not so much in my levels of depth in the meditation, more in the understanding of how to go about the process. First, I’ll talk about how I used to approached the practice before realizing what I just did. Every book I’ve read talks about following a meditation object and when your mind wanders, keep pulling it back and just to keep going and eventually the persistence will make the progress for you. The part they never talked about is exactly how to pull my mind back to my meditation object. I know how what I just did feels, but I’m not sure I can really explain the feeling that I just had, but here it goes. I think I’m also beginning to understand for myself how little words can describe experiences like this. When my mind would wander, it would act like a wall and just knock everything down and then I would pick it all back up again and continue to meditate, concentrated on my object. Then, this time I changed and my mind felt more like liquid. When the thought would come, I would watch it go right by me. The attitude I had was everything that allowed me to do that. First it started with physical relaxation, then I was in a good mood, almost to the point of laughing. I think the best way to describe my attitude toward my wandering mind is a simile I’ve read in the past. Ajahn Chah talked about a situation where you’re just walking down the street and someone starts to yell at you and insult you. At first, you might get disturbed or offended and take what they’re saying personally. Then, if someone comes up to you and says not to mind the person because they’re crazy, you might have the reaction of letting the tension go and thinking “oh, that doesn’t bother me anymore because I know that  person has lost their mind”. That’s how I felt about my mind wandering off. I just saw it happen and laughed about it and it became a playful game. I wasn’t trying, just observing it happen and being totally open to the fact that a crazy person (really myself) was controlling my mind and trying to make it think of ridiculous and unimportant things. I didn’t reach any deeper level of meditation, but this experience solely made this trip worth it because I really got to feel, beyond words, how it is to just let things flow by like I’m made of water. That was definitely the most profound spiritual understanding I’ve ever experienced and it went right to my heart. I’m trying to explain it, but somehow it doesn’t feel like I’m able to capture how I felt. I think it’s just one of those things that I can try to explain, but until it’s really felt, it’s not fully understood. I’ve read about all that stuff separately, but never as a specific step to put all together. I think it would be nice to write up something after all this and put it into more detail and use more examples to prime people’s minds in the way that I never though of doing to my own.

After I’m done I go to the sala to continue to meditate there. I continue to switch between sitting and walking meditation, but I’m too excited from my breakthrough to keep my mind still. I keep thinking about finally understanding how to deal with distractions in meditation and how it’s never been described in a way that could explain what I just experienced and possibly writing a book about the process as I go through this step and further ones. I’m clearly off in another world and not concentrated on my meditation right now. Eventually I stop and appreciate the progress I’ve made so far.

At tea time, no one signed up for the 12-3 shift again, so I bite the bullet and sign my name up again. I head back early again to try and get a few hours of sleep before heading back to the shift.

Talk With a Disrobed Monk (no he’s not naked), Ideas for What’s Next, and a Good Belly Laugh

Today is Monday, day 10. Last night I went to bed a bit early and set in my mind not to sleep too much, so I also got up a bit early at 2. I go to the sala and just turn on the dimmer light over the Buddha statue. I sit back somewhere near the middle in darkness. When I get sick of sitting meditation I get up and go immediately to walking meditation, trying not to give my mind a break at all. Before I even know it, people are coming into to clean because it’s 5:30. I needed that especially after seeing how it got to me yesterday when I didn’t do my own practice in the morning. I don’t go out on alms round because a journalist from Mumbai is here for one day and want to see what the alms round is like.

At the food preparation I saw one of the monks who I got to talk to a bit before he disrobed and went back to the States, or apparently not yet. I didn’t write about him because our interactions were really short, but he seemed like a great guy. He’s half Thai and half American and because of his Thai side, he is allowed to come and ordain as a full monk right away. They make this rule for Thai people because otherwise I guess they think that less of the men would come to spend time at the monastery. It’s a custom in Thai and Lao culture for the men to spend at least a few weeks at a monastery, generally after they graduate from school or before getting married. It’s seen as paying respect to their parents and giving back to society. I think there’s also something about making merit, but I ignore that part of the lesson because that’s the part of religion I’m not interested in following. I’ve seen something similar to that with other religions, when I played baseball, and even when some of my friends would drive. It’s basically something someone does that creates confidence in themselves because they think they now have more luck than they did before. I think luck is important, but it’s something that comes after the hard work and preparation and something that I believe shouldn’t be counted on. I never did any of the superstitious things on my baseball team, steered away from the religions that prayed to some higher being in their life for small favors, or even how some people would touch the roof of their car if they were passing through an intersection with a yellow light. For me, I get confidence by putting in the effort before hand and then relying on my self to get something done and not asking for it from some higher power. Okay, that rant is out of my system now, thank you. Anyway, this guy is now back helping to set up the food, but now in his lay clothes. I haven’t seen him since I shaved my head, but I sit next to him to help sort the stuff from the giant bowl in front of him. He recognizes me instantly and we start talking away. We start to talk about the benefits and possible reasons not to stay here. He tells me that even though he only had a temporary or short ordination it really helped direct things in his life. He told me that if he had the opportunity he wouldn’t ordain here in the long run and I shared my change of heart about that as well. We both agreed that we could do better if we learned different things on our own and then stayed in the outside world to touch more people, especially those people in the West who might be looking for it, but not as open as the Thai people. We kept talking about things we loved about Ajahn Chah and how it wasn’t reinforced here. I told him to look up the Dharma talks from Ajahn Chah at forestsanghapublications.org. They have audio talks and books, listed by teacher and I think the only ones that are worth it are from Chah. We split up and do some other things and then he comes back across the room to keep talking to me. I think he’s enjoying getting his thoughts out with someone who understands, especially before he goes back home and then probably won’t be able to talk about them with many people. He tells me that he feels like he didn’t learn anything here that he couldn’t have learned going to retreats and living a normal working life. I still only partially agree with that, but I see where he’s going. I still have been trying to do this with a job or school for about 3 years now and these past 10 days, while I might have grumbled and ranted about a bit so far, I felt have enabled me to make the most progress I’ve ever made in my own spiritual growth. I think his feeling also comes from being at a place where everyone is studying a spiritual path together all from the same perspective, with no strong leadership to steer everyone. I think that’s also the problem for me in general with becoming a monk. This path might have worked for the Buddha and his followers 6,000 years ago, but I’m living in the 21st century, so I think I need to take the foundations of his teachings and find other ways to go down the same path without sitting in terribly uncomfortable positions all day. Something like that will help a few people and then maybe they will inspire some more, but my passion is to find a way for the masses to be able to go down and enjoy a spiritual path where they also feel like they are able to make good progress. Again, I think this is so personal and that requires someone who is more experienced to then apply a different spiritual “prescription” for each individual person. We wish each other luck and then separate for meal time.

I go down and get a little more and some small dessert. I still think one of the hardest conditions to bare here is the amazing food and not being able to take a spoonful of everything that looks good down the line. It’s really gotten me to think about my relationship with food in a different way.

After the meal I go back and help them chop some more, to help finish up the batch and make sure they have enough for all the dying. The Ajahn with the glasses from Australia, who gave the terribly long Dharma talk is there also chopping wood. He’s quite nice for the first bit while we’re there. There’s nothing wrong with him, I just think I judge him a little bit harder since he’s one of the teachers. The guest monk comes over and asks why the fire for the dye has been started and the Ajahn with the glasses starts to argue with him. The guest monk says that is something that should have been discussed with the other monks because now everyone needs to be on a strict schedule for the next 3-4 days, including all night. Again, two of the highest ranked teachers here are discussing something they shouldn’t be in public and can’t even get basic cooperation down. They continue to argue in circles and it’s mind numbing to follow, so I tune it out and concentrate on chipping.

Now, after two days of making the wood chips, I’m too worn out to continue, so I call it and head back to my kuti. The vibration from hitting the wood so many times has made it difficult to close my hand, which will probably be a good object for my meditation.

At tea time I chat with some of the other lay guests about this retreat center in Burma, which seems to be like the hot topic at this monastery. I remember the young guy who had just disrobed mentioned that also. I think that’s something that I’d like to give a try, after I do some more research on the web. I think between that one and the one in Vientiane, which ever one speaks to me more, I will go stay at for a few months after my contract is up in September. I talk to a half Thai, half British lay guest about Buddhism and compare different types. I’m also developing a better relationship with the packows, so their dropping their guards and “monk faces” when we see each other around the monastery. Lately, I’ve been trying to break that culture a bit. I’ve been greeting almost everyone or at least giving them a smile when I see them. I think the packows like this break in their very rigid demeanor. I guess they all want to impress the monks and get ordained quickly. Makes sense to me. One of the packows, Steven from Philly, and I get along really well and greet and sometime have a few words whenever we see each other. It feels so much more natural when we communicate compared to some of the other packows and most of the monks. At the end of the tea time I but in on one of the conversations amongst the packows after I hear them say something about someone losing their head. Steven turns around and we lean in so he can fill me in on the conversation. At that moment, one of the packows is crossing between us and a huge bug zips down and lands on the ground literally directly under his foot as he’s half way through his step. He crushes the bug with an audible squish. We see the guts of the bug on the ground and all look at each other for a second before bursting out in laughter. One of the precepts is not to kill anything, so that just fuels me to laugh even harder, especially since these guys are trying so hard to ordain. It feels really good to be a bit louder than normal and get a really good belly laugh in with a group of good guys.  It’s nice especially since that doesn’t happen very often here.

After tea time everyone passes around a sheet to sign up for times to watch the dye batch. I’m the last one to get the paper and I see the time from 12 AM – 3 AM is left empty. I decide to take it and help out these guys a little bit, especially those packows who are so busy getting ready for their ordination. They have to sow their own robes and because of that can barely get their routine chores done. We’ve even stopped the morning and evening chanting for the next few days because everyone is too busy. Back at my Kuti I try to practice a bit before falling asleep very early to get atleast a few hours of sleep in before my shift at 12AM.

Chipping Wood, Finding the Machine in Myself, and a New Plan

Today is Sunday, day 9. Up at about 3:30 today and since there is no group meditation, I skip my own practice. We go right to sweeping and I feel a bit sleepy and just plain off. I probably slept 8 or 9 hours last night, which is significantly more than I’ve gotten any other night. It’s strange that I feel more tired after all that sleep than I did after all the other nights with much less sleep. They did tell us that we will find we need less sleep, so maybe this is the aftermath of oversleeping. One of the Monks tells me that the alms round has changed people and I should check the schedule. I see Bing, the quieter Chinese guy, and tell him he should check his alms round schedule because it’s changed. I check and find out that the lay guests names haven’t changed, but the monks have changed around. I’m still on the route called Bung Wai and Bing is on a different one called Non Suan. I tell him the name of his and that I think we didn’t get switched around, just the monks. That’s important because normally we pick a certain monk to follow to our route. I tell him and he’s a bit confused so I explain again that it was changed, but we are still on the same route. He didn’t even know the name of his route somehow and told me that he just went. He tells me he understands and thanks me for checking his route for him.

On my alms round I see one of the packows waiting across the street and when we pass him I ask if I made a mistake and should go back. He says that he is there to get phone credit, instead of going on my alms round. Then, at the part where they wait and then officially start the round I see Bing. I walk up to him and ask him what he’s doing here on the Bung Wai route. He says in astonishment “ooh, this is Bung Wai?” I tell him just to take the route and turn around to go back to the monastery. I don’t care that he took my route, but I’m concerned for the route that he should have been on. Now those monks won’t have anyone to support them because this guy didn’t check the board and couldn’t admit to me he still didn’t understand. One of the biggest things that has driven me crazy about the different cultures I’ve lived in with Ghana and now Laos, is that people will say they understand when they still don’t. I love that about the American culture, at least the part I grew up with, that if the listener says they understand, but actually don’t, then it’s their fault for not speaking up and making sure they understand. It seems like more of a sign of embarrassment if people here and in Ghana have to ask for clarification. I don’t know how they get anything done if things like this happen throughout the work world. I can see their side of putting more importance on the speaker making sure they’re clear, but I don’t understand people saying they understand when they still don’t. I’ve also noticed this at my job at PoP, but I’ve had more time to get to know them and can tell by their body language if they really understand or not. One part of American culture I miss badly. With that said, it’s also a good lesson for me to change my language around with the way that I ask for clarification.

Back sorting food, I still feel a bit off from the morning and the alms mix up certainly didn’t help. I also feel quite hungry after eating so little yesterday. I feel a bit weak, but I think the disruption of normal sleep also is affecting me quite a bit. For the first time yet, I leave the food prep early and head to the sala where a few of the monks and some lay people are meditating. We sit and meditate and I continue when they’re chanting to really try and focus and continue to meditate. After, on our way to the food room, I notice that I’m feeling a little bit better. Back in the room where the lay guests wait for the monks to get their food, I meditate again. Then, the monks are done and we all get up with our bowls to get the food. I feel 95% better now and barely hungry, like normal. I guess one of my biggest problems was not doing my own practice in the morning, especially with all the other disruptions to add. I’ve notice other direct benefits from meditation like this with another example I forgot to mention was that I like to walk around the monastery with bare feet. My feet have always been like a baby’s butt, so when I step on the littlest thing I really feel it. Well, the alms round has certainly been helping with that. Also, throughout the day I walk specifically over some small sharp rocks in one area and slightly bigger rocks that will press into my feet and give a whole different kind of pain. Okay, here’s the actual example now, the other day I was walking on the bigger rocks and would really concentrate on relaxing my whole body. I had nothing else to do, so I spent a lot of time messing with it. Finally, I was able to relax my body in the middle of walking and instantly I could feel the pain much less then I could when I was tense and not concentrating. I’m not sure if that’s paying more homage to relaxation or to meditation, but I think they go hand-in-hand anyway. It’s really wonderful to see the effects of meditation right there first hand. I’ve never felt such a dramatic turn around directly from mediation before. This really sets in my head how important this practice is and how much I want to continue to get better to improve my own health and maybe someday teach it to others to be able to help improve their own.

I grab a little extra food to make up for yesterday and because I heard we have a hard job of chipping wood for dying robes for the soon to be ordained packows. Also, normally the sweet fruit is enough for me, but this time I give in a little and go for some of the piles of desserts they bring.

After eating, I take care of my daily chores and then run over to the dying shed on the outskirts of the monastery to help with the chipping. They use the wood from a jackfruit tree, which is blasphemous to me because that fruit is so delicious. I guess that wood is what gives the robes their orangish/brownish color. The guest monk tells me that it’s also good for washing the robes because it has a natural detergent in it that cleans really deep into the fabric of clothes. Damnit, alright that’s a pretty good reason to use these trees. I just hope they eat the fruit that’s growing on the tree before chopping it down. The chipping is quite simple. I basically just held a log of wood and chopped down on it at an angle to get off small pieces or chips on the ground. I keep chopping until the last few people are still there hanging around. The Machine is hilarious when he chops the wood. He has a much bigger axe and with the piece of wood stuck to the end he brings it up all the way over his head and smashes it with a huge noise on the ground. He kept doing this the whole time. I’m glad we’re training to meditate together and not how to box Muay Thai. After he leaves, it’s just me one other lay guest and the guest monk. The guest monk is in his late sixties and he’s still pretty strong. I watch his technique on how to chop the wood. It’s basically the opposite of that Russin guy. He take small, almost effortless swings at the perfect angle and almost every wack chips off more and more. I try my best to copy him and realize that even my technique was using way too much energy. I’m also copying him because my hand is starting to hurt from the constant vibration and a little effort is about all I have left. I go back to my Kuti to rest a bit before the afternoon tea time.

At the tea the Russian guy tells me he’s leaving right after we finish. We start to talk some more and I find out that he was in the Russian military for a long time and now is an actor/model in Bangkok. Apparently he has been to this monastery before and like to go here to get away from the big city. We share our passions for finding work that has a lot of meaning to it. He tells me that next he will be moving to California to live with a friend and find some work. He gives me some tips on living in Thailand because I tell him that I might want to live there and use it as a hub to then travel around to different places to explore other spiritual trainings. I think that’s more what I’m leaning toward now that I’ve pretty much decided that I won’t stay at this monastery for a longer period of time. Maybe I can stay in Bangkok and then travel to monasteries around the countries surrounding Thailand. After all the flights will be quite cheap since Bangkok has so many flights going in and out every day. I have to say I’ll be missing The Machine to push me to do things, but I think this is a good lesson to find the machine part of my heart that will inspire me to push my self, with wisdom of course, past my limits to really see what I can accomplish. I think at some point I will have to build that kind of resilience if I want to keep going on the path I’m on now.

After tea time I go to the kitchen and talk with one of the lay guest women, who’s been here almost the whole time I have. She tells me she’s been traveling like this, from meditation center to meditation center, for a few years now. She tells me that there’s one in particular in Vientiane that she stayed at for 8 months. She said they have an interesting way of teaching meditation with making circular motions with the upper body, above the waist, while sitting and concentrating on the feeling of that motion. That’s another lead that I will have to check out at some point. Especially now that I’ve decided to not stay here, my new mission is to talk with as many people as possible about their experiences in other places to get some leads to other types of practice. My goal is now to get a much wider breadth of spiritual experience, so that I can someday bring that back to the U.S. and help those, including myself, who don’t want to follow the daunting spiritual prescription of a monk.

I finish the night with some meditation and then head back to my Kuti to get sleep, but not too much!, for tomorrow.

“The Machine”, Eating Less, and a Chat with Two Monks

Today is Saturday, day 8. Since I was up so late last night, I sleep in today until about 4. As they start the morning chanting and meditation, I’m the only lay guest out of 6 of us total who made it on time. Two more trickle in during the chanting and meditation at some point. I feel more tired than usual, but not enough to make me fall asleep during meditation. My issue is still calming myself down enough to meditate well.

The alms round was easy again and they don’t need me. It seems like it’s only on holidays that someone should go to assist on this alms round. I still enjoy going and think it’s something important to experience as part of my monastery stay.

Yesterday, a big Russian guy came to stay. I’ve only heard him say a few words, so I don’t really know anything about him. I gave him a nickname, just for myself, “the machine” because when we’re meditating in a group we’ll all be packed up and leaving and he’ll still be there sitting in the same position. Well, today at the meal he goes through the same motions as everyone else and then when it’s time to eat he puts his dishes away and fasts. Again, I like what Ajahn Chah said that it’s harder to do something just a little bit with mindfulness, instead of completely taking it out of your life. I don’t really have an opinion on fasting and I know that a lot of different religions take part in the practice. However, if I wanted to eat less to help with my spiritual practice, I would want the most delicious food I’ve ever had and to only take a few bites. I think that would be harder than just setting my mind to not eating or even considering it. Or an example would be some one how has a problem with, eating cake for instance, if they were to take one bite, they would probably go overboard, so most who are avoiding it, do it fully. Anyway, the Russian guy inspires me, so I decide not to fast, but to eat very little to see if it helps my practice at all. Apparently it’s supposed to give more energy and leave the mind clearer with less food in the stomach. Great, more energy, that’s exactly what I need… Even though I grabbed too much food, I eat a little bit of it and throw the rest away. It’s really hard for me to throw food away, but I was encouraged to do so by the guest monk if I take too much food. He told me it’s better to waste a little food and feed the animals, then to eat too much and not be able to practice well. Still my mom’s voice is ringing in my head that I can’t get up from the dinner table until I clear my plate. Normally, I’m licking the last grain of rice off of my plate.

Back at the Kuti I hand wash my clothes in a bucket. It’s a good thing that I’ve had plenty of practice with this is Antoa. I get it done no problem and then go to meditate. At 3 we all go to do a big clean of the main meditation hall. Most of the time I just spend wiping down the shutters with a wet cloth. I run into the monk from Luang Prabang and he tests my Lao a bit. We’re also talking with the monk in the purple Burma monk robes, who told me not to ordain here and instead go to the place he will go soon in Burma. I talk with him for a bit and then out of nowhere he tells me that I’m a very calm person and will be a great meditator some day. Calm!? I feel the opposite of that. When I meditate I feel like my knees will flap so hard they’ll lift me off the ground. I thank him for the compliment and appreciate something like that from coming from a serious monk, who I know limits what he says to things that he feels are totally necessary.

Tea time was nice to talk with the other lay guests. The Russian guys talks a bit and tells us that he stayed up all night last night and decided to fast along with that. I asked him how it went for him and he gave me a general answer that didn’t really help much. I’m not sure eating the amount I did really helped me focus any differently either. I’m not sure I get that part of the practice. I think I will need someone much more experienced to help me through that if I ever try it again. I go back to my Kuti after and try to practice before I give in to sleep a little early, especially to catch up after the lack of sleep last night.

Busy Alms Round, The “Mindfulness Look”, and a Long Dharma Talk

Today is Friday, day 7. Normal routine, up at 2:40, chanting, meditation, and sweeping. It’s still baffling me at how I’m not even a little bit tired. I expected it in the beginning from all the excitement and change, but after a week I expected it to subside a bit… Maybe that’s soon to come.

On alms round today, in the very beginning of the round the Ajahn turns around and says something about giving merit today. I’m not sure what he means so I just stand there. Their bowls aren’t full, so I’m not sure what’s going on. The junior monks tell me to go up to the front of the line and collect the food. This is the first time I’ve collected their food from their bowls, so I’m a bit nervous and not sure what to do exactly. It seems quite simple, but I don’t want to break a rule by having a real human engagement and actually make eye contact and smile at them. Sorry, that’s not fair… Okay, maybe a little bit. I grabbed a giant black trash bag, actually larger then the nicer looking bag it’s sitting in and so now I’m standing in front of the ajahn, trying to pull the black bag up to the top equal with the other bag. I think the food is supposed to go into the plastic bag, that’s something I heard the other lay guests talking about from their alms rounds. I try to open both bags, but the opening is so small he can barely fit one item at a time. Normally, they just turn their bowls over and dump the stuff out. He starts to load the stuff faster and a piece of fruit doesn’t quite make it in the hole, so I grab it from him and try to put it in at the same time as holding the bag open. Well, since I haven’t meditated long enough to grow a third arm, I don’t hold the bag open enough for him or myself to add more food. I sort of toss the fruit where the hole is and like one of Shaq’s free throws it bricks hard and starts heading for the ground. I didn’t hear anything about this rule, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be banished straight to hell if I drop offered food on alms round. I snap into baseball instinct and drop the bag with my other hand to catch the fruit at the last second before it hits the ground. Then, I realize that the strap is going across my chest, so I shift it to go over one shoulder and then can open the bag enough to get the rest of the food from the Ajahn. We’ve taken so long to get the food out, it’s now alms round for the next day. I get a better hand of getting the food with the next monks down the line and then get back behind them in total embarrassment. We continue and they don’t tell me to go home, so I don’t think I’ve totally failed. Then as we continue some people give flowers out and they’re passed down the line to me. How the hell am I going to fit flowers in with my bag and not crush them!? I’m trying to keep pace with them which changes drastically because by the time the last guy is done collecting the food he walks like Flash to catch up with the rest and if I miss that que then I’m left in the dust. Now I’m trying to shove 3 bouquets of flowers into my bag without totally destroying all the leaves. As half the flower petals are being dumped on the floor I look up and realize that I missed Flash before he took off again. I’m trying not to run, but I’m walking as fast as I can with both of my feet always on the ground. I think a big purpose of the monks coming around on alms round is to be a living example of patience and mindfulness, but with me practically running behind them, sweaty, destroying the flower offerings, and as red as a tomato, I think I’ve reversed any of their lessons for the local people. The bad part of having a bald head is that when I’m flushed, my whole head is red and stands out quite a bit since the Lao and Thai people I’ve seen don’t really have that reaction. By the end of the round I start to get the hang of things and walk up to the front of the line when I see flowers and after the person puts them on a wooden chopping board, held by the Ajahn, he rotates and lets me pick them off. We finish the alms round and go back into the monastery. I’m surprised I don’t get any lectures from any of them.

I continue to practice with getting only a little food. I get still much less than I did yesterday and fill my bowl with fruits. It’s mango season, so they’re delicious. It’s only the beginning, so they’re better ones to come! It’s hard not to just fill my bowl with those. After the meal I go to the guest monk and ask him about techniques to relax my body. From all of this meditation, I’ve been noticing places in my body where I’ve been holding tension just as a normal habit. Now that it’s being revealed to me, it’s quite daunting. I do feel good knowing that I’m at least aware though. I know that’s the first step and the only way to deal with a big issue like that is to take small persistent steps, so I’ll keep doing that the rest of the time here and hopefully after I’m back in the work world again. He gives me a few tips like taking deep breaths and using the body scan meditation, but nothing that I didn’t know about. I also ask him about what the Ajahn had said about making merit on the alms round. He said that was the way of the Ajahn making a joke that he wanted me to gain merit by holding food for the monks. I’m a bit shocked and certainly grateful, but I think that the best way for generosity to come is from the person’s heart, not it just being done for them by someone else. Or maybe that was his way of making merit as well. Either way, I’ll pick up on that better next time.

The rest of the morning and after noon is pretty normal. While I’m sweeping the main Ajahn walks by me and I look at him from a distance and then look again to acknowledge him again as he passes by. It feels so awkward to even do that, which is honestly the way I feel when I see most of the monks around the monastery. I know it’s important to develop constant mindfulness and part of that is through walking meditation, where the person concentrates solely on the felling between their feet and the earth, or just on their breath, (either one is really just up to their preference) but genuine human interaction trumps that for me. I understand sometime people are in the zone, or just don’t feel like greeting the person they’re passing. Even just a head nod or smile is fine enough, there’s no need to break noble silence or any other rules. The problem here is that someone has established this kind of “in your bubble” lack of interaction as the norm here and it really rubs me the wrong way. I couldn’t imagine if these people were to live in Antoa, my village in Ghana, for a week. They would be eaten alive if they didn’t make the people around them the first priority. I suppose that something that’s really beautiful that I took from Ghana that I keep appreciating more and more, even though I despised it on certain days when I was there. This whole atmosphere is just another point that is shifting my thinking to this not being the place where I want to spend a significant time trying to foster my spiritual growth. Right when you thought I’m done with my rant, I have one other thing! He also walked by with a poop face on. I call it a poop face, but basically looks like someone just smelled something really bad, with their face all tense, especially around the eyes, with hint of a frown. It’s bad enough that he’s not happy or at peace, but he’s totally tense while he’s trying to look in the midst of practice. This is only a stand in Ajahn for the Abbot, but this is not the only person in a leadership position with this habit. I can also already see it influencing some of the less experienced guys as well. I’m was hoping for someone, like Ajahn Chah, who has conviction with their practice enough to inspire me to try and bring the best out of myself. Okay, I’m done with the rant, but don’t relax too much, I’ll always have more ranting to come.

At tea time we have a special guest join us at the very top of the sitting hierarchy. He’s a very old monk, who I find out later is someone who studied directly under Ajahn Chah. His name is Ajahn Liem and he’s here to give news to the guys here who are ready to ordain as novice monks in the beginning of May. He’s quite entertaining to watch actually because he says so little and mostly just grunts at people and waves his hands at them when they ask him a question. He looks quite peaceful, or at least more so than the teachers here.

It’s the Buddhist holy day (new moon) so we do one hour of meditation, instead of 30 minutes in the evening, and an hour of chanting. I chicken out again during the meditation and get up. I get up because of the pain in my legs, but probably more so because of the mental agitation. It’s really difficult to face two different types of really intense pain at the same time along with part of my habitual self is telling me not to let go of the tightness I’m holding onto. I’d have to say this process is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever tried. I think like I said earlier, it’s not easy in the beginning, like most skills as they’re built from the beginner levels up to more complicated ones. No this is extremely complicated and distressful right from the get go.

During the chanting I sit in the Japanese position on my shins for a new record amount of time, but really feel it afterward. Then, we get up to go to a Dharma talk with one of the other Ajahns. I guess this guy is from Australia and ordained there before coming to stay here in Thailand. I don’t know why, but he gives me a bad feeling. He just seems to me like one of those people who is too proud of themselves and isn’t hungry to learn or do more. Maybe it’s also because I’ve caught him at times when he did things in not so teacherly ways with nervous twitches or shortcuts in his work. He starts the talk at 9:15 with a basic overview of Buddhism, which is always a nice thing to keep in mind. I’m always a fan of building the foundations first. However, he keeps going and going and only hitting on the painfully obvious things that everyone has already heard a million times. He also does it in such a scatter brained way, that there’s no way to take any lesson from it all. There’s a monk at the front sitting facing sideways, toward the Ajahn. I can see the left side of his body and the Ajahn sees his front. He keeps drifting off to sleep and leaning in different directions. I can’t help but be distracted because of the lack of motivation from the speaker. The sleepy monk starts to dip and catch him self and ends up going in a circle and looks like he’s doing some really strange dance. I have to try my best to keep the laughter down inside. It’s especially funny because one of the rules here is no dancing. Okay, I’m focused back on the talk and he’s really not pronouncing his words very well. With most of the people listening speaking English as their second language, I can’t imagine they’re picking up on any of this, not that they’re missing much anyway. Then he starts to figit his robe and at one point leans back on his arms to support him. I feel like he’s totally thrown everything about the strength of being a monk out the door. I would hope for him to be totally upright and so focused on the talk that he’s just oozing out the words from his being. I guess I just wish it was a bit more natural and in the flow of the practice. We stop at 10:30 and the people behind me start to get up, but the more experienced guys in front of me stay seated and wait for the Ajahn to get up first. I guess that’s a rule. He opens up the floor to questions and thinks that no one raising their hands is an invitation to ramble some more. Now I’m getting the idea that maybe he’s testing us. I’ve read about experiences where Ajahn Chah would do this, so maybe it’s a test. I’ll play along and test my patience a little bit. He starts asking more and more pointless questions, which is also against the basic precepts of living here with talking little and keeping it to necessary discussion. He keeps going and going until from the original group of about 15 it’s just now me and two packows. These two are the ones who will be ordaining in May if they stick around. He finally gives in and gets up out of his seat. It’s 12:00 AM now, so we walk over to the midnight tea session for those who will stay up all night. I finally make my way to bed at 1:30. I’m not feeling up for staying up all night with some of the really dedicated lay people.

Rigid Alms, Shaving My Head, and Some Thoughts

Today is Day 6, Thursday April 16th. I’m up at the normal 2:40 and I feel great, not tired at all. During the morning meditation and chanting I’m able to relax and get that tight feeling back in my chest again. After sweeping a bit I go on alms round. Alms round is supposed to be like a walking meditation for the monks and they have precepts not to talk unless necessary, but I think the people here take it too far. I don’t understand why they don’t talk with the people giving food on alms round. They don’t even look at them either! That’s going against principles that I’ve been taught my whole life and I don’t agree with what they’re doing at all. I think they should get over the specific rules, which were probably changed somehow over the past 5,000 years somehow anyway, or they were meant for a specific group or generation of people that don’t apply any more. All I know is that the basics of the teaching in Buddhism and all other religions talk about loving and connecting deeply with other people. How is it showing love and deep connection if they don’t even look at the people let alone give a smile or a short sentence to make the other person smile or laugh. If I was steering this ship, I would be smiling and joking with the people and maybe even ask them about their practice or something about their life. I would get to know the people who are supporting my practice. Then, instead of them just giving alms to make merit, it would be a time where they could relax and release a little bit of their everyday tension. I watched people faces very closely in this exchange and the villagers have a terrible tense and lack even the smallest bit of happiness in their face. It looks like the face of a baby who is being force-fed some vegetables it doesn’t like.

After the meal I go to the guest monk and ask him about some of my experiences last night after meditation. I tell him about relaxing and feeling the tightness in my chest and he just confirms the obvious when he says he thinks that is where I hold tension and it’s just something that I couldn’t feel until I got relaxed and quiet enough to listen. That’s good at least that it’s not a big problem yet, but something that I want to continue to learn how to release and learn how not to store tension there again. I told him about my experiences with the standing meditation and my vision changing. He looks a bit surprised and said that is very common and usually comes when people have high levels of concentration. That sounds nice, but I’m not sure I totally agree. I still have plenty of distraction that comes in to pull me away from whatever I’m concentrating on. Either way I’m not doing this so I can goof with my eye sight, I’m doing this for a much deeper reason, so I’ll just keep practicing and be comfortable that someone didn’t just drug me if I ever get to that part of practice again.

Today, the monks are all shaving their head, so I’ve decided to shave in line with their schedule. The monastery asked me to shave before my eighth day anyway, so I figured it would be nice to do it with everyone else’s schedule. One of the novice monks told me he would help me to do the razor part as well. I brought an electric razor with the side burn shaver on the side. I use that to make my hair as short as possible before I get help from the monk. After getting most of it off I go over to the work shed where everyone shaves their heads and washes/dyes their robes. The monks at the shed are telling me not to shave my eye brows because I’ll look like an alien, but I if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go all the way, plus I’ll probably never do this again. The novice uses a razor with one blade and the safety broken off to get my hair down as close to the skin as possible. After he’s done I shave my face and then go to the mirror to take a look. My first reaction when I see my self is “Hey, it’s Uncle Doug!” I go to feel my smooth head and find out it’s not smooth at all. If I rub in the direction the hair grows then it is, but if I go back against, it feels like dense, sharp sandpaper.

My head is done so I thank them and leave to go back to my kuti to sweep. I can feel the breeze on my head which is a strange feeling I’ve never had before. After sweeping I feel really hot, so I go over to the water spicket next to my kuti and wet my face and my head. Almost instantly the water starts to evaporate off my head and pull the heat away from my body, I’m in total ecstasy. This maybe the most refreshing thing I’ve ever felt on a hot day. I relax for a bit and think about staying here long term in September again. I’m feeling better about this place after the discussion yesterday with the crazy evangelical monk, but I’m still ify about staying here. Ajahn Chah and some of the Buddha’s lectures talk a lot about needing to find a spiritual teacher and I just don’t feel like there are any here. It feels more like everyone is working together to use Ajahn Chah’s words as their guidance. Well, I have a huge problem with doing that. In fact, that’s one of my biggest pet peeves about institutional religion. I personally don’t believe in following exactly, the words of these leaders who came thousands of years ago, or even their disciples who came after. There’s so much room for interpretation changes by the languages it has passed through, the people who’ve been translating, cultural meanings, and so many more factors. With all that said, let’s say that they were all tracked very well and done in a skillful way that didn’t lose much. My biggest issue is that I believe these teachings, from any religion, are just a signpost pointing to something much bigger. They point to something that can’t be fully described in words. Can’t be described into words like a parents love for their children or explaining color to someone who’s never had sight. You can try to explain those things, but it will never be the same as the experience itself. I think that’s partly because some things are just too complex for language, but more so I think it’s because they’re so personal. I think if this weren’t true and we could understand and pass religion through words, then everyone who reads the bible or scripture from the Buddha, or any other religion, should have realized the same spiritual progress. As we all know that’s not true. They have to read the scripture and then put it into practice and realize it for themselves. A big part of teaching that process requires the leader to have gone enough down the path themselves, by putting the readings into practice, in order to be able to look back and help those still traveling the beginning parts. Someone like that doesn’t exist here because all I hear them say is quotes from Ajahn Chah or the Buddha. It’s fine to talk about those general lesson and themes, like I do as well sometimes, but to quote things like which foot to start walking with is absurd to me, without actually having realized that lesson and understanding why. At some point we have to put the scripture away and just teach/learn from our own hearts and experience, other wise we’ll just be studying the sign post and without ever actually reaching the destination where it’s pointing.

We have a big sweep where everyone goes around the whole monastery. I see one of the top Ajahns and of course he looks at me and then looks quickly away, like oh I can’t interact with the peons, I have to act like I’m mindful. He sweeps in the opposite direction in a very hurried manner and his path isn’t thoroughly swept either.

At tea time I walk over to sit with the other laymen. I keep scratching my head really hard and forgetting I have hair. You’d think after the first time I almost scratch through my scalp I’d learn, but I keep doing it!

At the tea everyone gives me a strange look because it’s the first time some of them have seen me with a shaved head. I don’t mind the looks as I don’t think it’s a big deal at all. One of the laymen talks about some of his amazing experiences from meditation and it makes me think about my own last night. I also remember what the guest monk said about the experiences that made me more determined to keep practicing and less attached to those experiences when they come up again in the future. He told me those feelings are wonderful and a sign that you’re reaching higher levels of concentration. He said it’s okay to be “blissed out” for a bit and enjoy them and even gave an example of the Buddha doing the same; uhhh huh. Then he said if we keep stopping at these feeling and indulging in them, then we will have missed out on the point completely. I’ll use an analogy to explain what he said next, mostly because he said it in a boring way. It’s like someone handed you a key (being your concentration and bliss) and told you that you can use the key on the door (analyzation of life and gaining of wisdom) in order to leave to your freedom (The next step or level of depth in practice). If we just hold the key and don’t use it on the door, it will have been pointless to have gotten the key in the first place. The point of this practice is not to gain super powers of concentration or just feel amazing all day. Instead, it’s a tool to gain more wisdom about ourselves and life in general. Then, hopefully through that understanding there will come a more sustainable peace that might then be useful to others on their own paths.

Back at my Kuti I open all my windows and my door. I have a four pane view of the forest and it’s stunningly beautiful. I can only see one Kuti and can’t hear anyone, so I feel very secluded also. I sit down to meditate as the sun is just beginning to fade. I listen to the sounds of the forest change as I’m guessing the sun is going down. Then after some time I open my eyes and it’s totally dark outside. That was a pretty cool transition. Time for sleep to prepare for another day.

Alms Round, Evangelical Monk, and a Breakthrough

Today is Day 5, Wednesday, April 15th and I’m up at 2:40, on my schedule to be able to shower and get completely ready before the evening chanting and meditation. I don’t like to rush in the mornings, like I did through most of college, waking up 45 minutes before class, so even if I’m 15 or 20 minutes early I’m happier than if I rushed and got there right on time. Also, even with how early I’m up, I don’t feel any sleepiness after I get out of the shower, especially since I’m walking through the dark woods to get to the nearest bathroom. I’m not sure if I’m awake from the excitement of being here or the fear of the forest monsters getting me in the dark. Today is the last day of the New Year celebration and I can still hear music playing from those last few people who still haven’t given up partying from last night. I think it’s nice still being connected to that part of the world. I’m waking up before 3 to get up to mediate and learn more about myself, while some people are staying up until 3, still partying their heads off and yet, we’re still connected is some way, even if just through the distant bass thump.

After the morning stuff the guest monk asks me if I’d like to go on alms round and without hesitation I tell him I’m ready. I ask him about the monks going barefoot and he says not to worry because I’m assigned to the easy route. I get an orange colored shoulder bag with some plastic bags inside to help the monks of their route. Apparently when the monk’s bowls are full they will stop and then I will go up to the front of the line, starting with the senior monk, and collect their food into my plastic bag. I wait out on the path to the gate for the main Ajahn (meaning teacher in the local language) to come and then follow him roughly 10 steps behind. I walk with my hands clasped behind me in walking meditation form. In front or behind is fine, but looks better then just swinging at my side. Hey, this is serious, no swingy arms! Walk out down a paved road and cross a busy highway with cars going much faster than I’m used to in Laos. When we get to the other side there are 3 monks already waiting for us. One of them, assigned to assist the main Ajahn with everything he does, is carry his bowl and hands it to the Ajahn when we all get together. I didn’t realize it until we start to walk again, but we were practically jogging out to this point, we were walking so fast and now that we’re on the actual route, we’re walking much slower. I take one plastic bag already filled with stuff at the beginning and put it in my shoulder bag. Did I mention there was a bag? People wait on the side of the road, more or less, some are kind of more in the middle and when the monks approach they take of their shoes and the ones who are more dedicated will kneel down on their knees. Everyone takes off their shoes because it is thought that if the monks has taken off their shoes, the person giving alms shouldn’t leave theirs on and be on a higher level. Good thing I’m not giving alms, or I would have to hack my leg off to be at a lower level. Most people give a handful of sticky rice and some will add a piece of candy or sweet drink. Some of the more dedicated ones will give a plastic bag of some kind of mixed vegetable or a piece of fruit. My role on this whole thing is totally useless because some guy with a bucket jumps out of nowhere at the perfect time to collect the alms from the monks and load it in the back of his truck. I give him my plastic bag on his first surprise appearance and then walk back empty handed the rest of the way.

Before the meal I still don’t feel hungry, so I’m able to wait with not much problem. Again I take a little less food and I’m still more full then I think I should be to really hone my practice.

I go over to the drink in the afternoon and talk with one of the monks who was actually born in Luang Prabang. We get along instantly and he tells me about his previous life in Canada and how he used to be in a rock band touring all through North America. He told me about his wife and two kids and how he waited until they were 18 until he left them all behind to become a monk. I had a real sense of sadness for his situation and how he left his family behind somewhere. I guess it’s better that he waited instead of leaving when they were still small children, but still left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Then, he went on to tell me about how I’m so lucky that I’ve come here at such a young age. I agree with him. Then, he goes on to talk about how this is the only path and how all other paths are not correct. He rambles on about how perfect this practice is and how he’s glad he joined this life before it became too late. He sounds to me like one of those crazy evangelical Christians, the way he’s talking about how what he’s doing is the only correct path. That made the taste in my mouth really bitter now. I’ve always taken pride in explaining Buddhism and how it’s like an “add-on” religion because it can be paired with any religion harmoniously and has such an open view. I never got the impression and never will hold the view that one spiritual path, especially Buddhism, is correct and all others are wrong. That statement is dripping with arrogance, which, I think, really stems from fear and ignorance. This kind of thinking is exactly what causes all of the problems we have in this world with not thinking in a compassionate way about how other people are different and learn in different ways. I greatly respect the Dalai Lama for saying that we aught to have over 7 billion religions, one for every person on the planet. Everyone learns in different ways and different things resonate with different people. All religions are going toward the same general place of love and compassion and when someone gets caught up on their path to that place being the only correct way, it makes me run for the hills.

I think with this interaction, what the Vietnamese monk said to me about ordaining somewhere else, and the blatant contractions I’ve seen so far, I’m not feeling like I want to come back here in September. I think my path is going to be learning from all these places something different and then coming to my own conclusion to better myself. After all, I’m the only one who can really make that change, no one can do it for me.

In the evening I try sitting meditation for a while and get to calm down a bit, but still have really intense pain, deep in my leg. I get up and go into the corner of the hall and try some standing meditation. They don’t teach that here at all, but Ajahn Chah talked about being able to do mediation in every posture, sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. I’m so relaxed from the sitting meditation and now that my leg isn’t bothering me I’m able to go deeper into my relaxation. I also have my eyes open, which I don’t do during sitting meditation. This doesn’t even sound real to me as I’m writing it, but I know it happened and it was quite confusing to me at the time. As I got further relaxed my vision started to shake a bit. I know this happens when the eyes are relaxed. Then I started to hallucinate. I wasn’t seeing anything that wasn’t there, but the things that were there started to change slightly and move around. Some things started to grow and shrink and others were getting wavy. I thought it was quite strange and frankly that’s not what I’m looking for and I’m not sure why it’s happening, so I go to sit back down. I’ve had a similar experience before where one time before yoga with my mom I was sitting and just softly gazing at the floor in front of me, waiting for the class to start. Then, my vision started to black out around the edges and move toward the middle of my vision. I stayed calm and snapped out of it a few times and was able to get back into it every time. I didn’t tell anyone about it because I thought they would have called me crazy, so I just kept it to myself and it never really happened again. This was probably the closest things that’s happened to that since.

I go back to sitting meditation and my leg pain comes back pretty quickly. I start to look at the pain and soften things around my body. I realize, quite obviously, that there’s no way I’ll be able to rest my legs if my face isn’t relaxed as well. Especially since I don’t believe my legs can relax in this position. I focus on relaxing my whole body down to the point around my legs. I get everything very relaxed and narrow it down right the area around my legs. To my surprise, my leg pain drastically dulls as my legs start to give in a bit to the relaxation. I’m almost totally relaxed now, when I feel a slight tightness in my chest, exactly at my heart. I can feel it through my back as well. I get worried because of all the heart problems males have in my family, especially my dad. Then, I remember that the hear attacks in my family are caused by stress and I look back inward and can literally feel my heart holding onto something, what exactly I’m not sure. I have mixed feelings about attaining this level of relaxation and being able to tap into my own deeply held stress. I feel a great sense of appreciation that I’m able to practice like this and identify a problem with myself before I perpetuate it and land my self in the hospital with an early heart attack, like my dad and uncle.

The bell rings for the meditation to end and I get up feeling much looser. I also feel a light sense of sureness. I’m not sure I would even call it confidence because I think that might leave room for the potential for arrogance. The best word to describe it is just being sure that I’m here right now at this place and this is where I’m supposed to be. I walk back to my kuti, through the woods without my flashlight. Again, I just feel sure that I don’t need it and I can see everything well. Even though we just came from a brightly lit building, I can see the path and enough of the details around me to walk back with ease. After I get to the Kuti I try to sit and meditate for a bit, but end up going to sleep with the great feeling still with me. That was by far the biggest break through coming from my own practice. I’ve had other breakthroughs similar, but it feels good because this time I know exactly where it came from and a slight idea of how to get it back again.

A Monk I Want to Meet, Move to a Kuti, and Change of Perception

Since I’ve given the structure of the day already, for the rest of these stories I’m just going to highlight anything I did that stood out and then cover the spiritual aspect, leaving out what I did from day-to-day.

Tuesday April 14th: I was helping the lay people as usual to prepare and offer the food to the monks. This was still one of the best practices for me because of how much I love food and after not eating for 24 hours it really got me to think about my eating habits. I wouldn’t be hungry, but when I saw some delicious food, my body would have the yearning as if I had to eat it to stay alive. After offering the food I asked one of the monks still hanging around before the pre-meal chanting if I could help him. He said absolutely I can’t because it’s already been offered and if I touch the food they would have to reoffer that food and maybe even the whole table again. They lay people brought over another few bowls, so I got down on my shins, like the Japanese style of sitting and the position for chanting here and offered one to him. I sat there waiting to offer the second one as he was poking around at the set up on the table. My mind at this point is going crazy and I’ve totally lost my patience, I think because of a combination of my legs hurting in this position, the smell of the amazing food mixed with my falsely yearning stomach, and that he’s taking forever to come back over. I just take a deep breath and note why I’m being impatient and how ridiculous my reasons actually are. Then, he comes over and takes the food. We chat for a bit about how long I’ll be staying here and some things about Buddhism. He tells me about a guy who practiced in Thailand for a while and eventually settled in San Diego who has a nice short-to-the-point delivery. I’ve seen this monk before and have wanted to talk with him since then. Some of the monks look angry all the time, some don’t talk to me or the other lay guests, and others are just really strange. I think this guy is on the opposite spectrum with seeming like he’s a really normal guy who’s completely open to talking to anyone. He also tells me about how he’s traveled to different parts of he world to try different spiritual practices. I didn’t find out his actual name until the day I was leaving, but I will refer to him as Luis for the rest of these stories in order to make it easy to refer to him.

I still feel very impatient at the meal time, so I take even less food, little fruit, and only one fruit juice drink. At the end I still feel quite full, but not uncomfortable. After the meal I show the Thai lay guest the order of how we do things and explain things again to him using Lao. I’m not sure why he’s not in the Thai monastery if his English is so bad, but I know how it is to be around a bunch of people speaking a language you can barely understand, so I’m more than happy to help him around. Hey, it also gets me to practice my Lao a bit.

It’s the fourth day I’ve been here, so I’m able to talk with the Guest Monk about whether I’m able to extend or not and if so, get my kuti. A kuti is a basic room on raised stilts that is very common in the Thai forest tradition. He doesn’t even consider it for a second and says of course I can stay as long as I’d like. I collect my things and he points out on the monastery map where my Kuti is and gives me the rule break down.

Everyday I have to make sure to sweep the path leading to my Kuti and back behind to the walking meditation path. It’s in the middle of the woods and difficult to see the other kuti around me. It feels like I’m really isolated in the woods. I sweep the path back to the walking meditation spot and it looks like it hasn’t been done in a while because it’s almost impossible to find. I thought I didn’t have one at first.

I go over to help carry things for teatime. They’re not ready yet, so I talk to one of the lay guests and a monk, both from Vietnam. I guess the lay guest is the monk’s “assistant”, meaning he carries the monk’s money and buys things for him because he’s technically not supposed to own anything as a monk, except for his robes and bowl. Wait, that sounds like he’s bending the rules quite a bit. I guess even monks try to find loop holes in the rules. It just shows how some people follow rules without asking or knowing about their meaning. I’m the opposite, if someone tells me not to do something, the first thing I ask is “Why?” Mostly because I’m an obnoxious and arrogant American, but also because I really want to understand the principle behind a rule. I want to know why it’s I place so that way, if I think it’s also a good idea, I can apply it in other situations. Anyway I think there’s quite a good reason that monks shouldn’t have money or buy things and I think using someone to do that is completely missing out on the essence of that rule. I think either become a monk and follow that or don’t become a monk.

Anyway, now that I’m done ranting, for now… I talk with the monk and he asks me what my plans are for the future. I tell him I will probably come back in September and stay here for at least a year. He then tells me I shouldn’t ordain here because it’s not the complete practice given by the Buddha. He tells me that I should follow them to a big meditation center in Burma where over 1,000 people stay and practice a more laid out path to meditation, instead of Ajahn Chah’s very simple way of following the breath, at least for the beginning part. He then, just says to keep going deeper and not to attach to anything that comes up. Even though I disagree with the monk, I still take the website and intend to check out the place he’s talking about. He also mentions something to me about the lack of leadership here. I let everything he says sink in and honestly feel a bit defensive of this type of Buddhism that I’ve come to love so much.

The drink time is disappointing because the monks, especially the Ajahns who are supposed to be setting the example, are talking about silly things, like all the languages they know. The lay guests have a very rough version of all the rules that the monks have to follow. Ours are like the foundation of the monks list, which goes into much more detail. One of our rules is to limit our talking, especially about worldly things. It’s basically limited to necessary questions and things about Buddhism. Ajahn Chah would talk about this as a way to watch how you want to speak so much and really pay attention to the content of which you want to get out. He was very much for going against initial tendencies and analyzing them to see if they would help you along your spiritual path and if they don’t then to just let them go the same way they came into your head. Well, it seems like the monks can’t even get that basic part of the precepts correct and their sitting among all the lay guests and junior monks, who are still so impressionable with the way they all practice. I was hoping more for a big debate between the senior monks on one style of meditation versus another.

Rest of the day goes smoothly, nothing to report. 4 days down.

An Aggressive Chinese Guy and Holding Onto Piece of Plastic

Today I set my alarm for 2:45 because yesterday I was up at 3 and got the sala slightly after every one was already there and getting started. I go through the motions slowly and then still get to the sala before everyone else. Since there are no lay people today, the chanting is partially in English, so I get to appreciate the meaning of what we’re saying. I don’t make it all the way through the sitting meditation because I’m scared of wearing out my back, so I continue with walking meditation in the back of the room. Then, we go off to sweep. I’m getting a bit frustrated because the other lay guests (for now on I’ll call the ones staying here, like me guests, and then the thai people who come from outside as the lay people) are sweeping as fast as they possibly can to get the job done. I think that’s totally missing the point of the exercise. We’re supposed to be mindful of the motion of sweeping and the impermanence of the path being clean as often times leaves will fall in the same place a few minutes later.

One of the Chinese guys from Beijing is very much apart of that very aggressive Chinese culture that really no one in the word understands except for them. He calls my name and then as I’m walking over to him he’s walking away, leading me somewhere. I wish he would just have waited and then told me instead of playing this power game. I catch up and he tells me to finish the sweeping in the new area as the other lay guests go out on alms round with the monks. That’s fine with me, I don’t mind helping out while they’re out of the monastery. I go on with my usual sweeping, but I can feel the tension as they’re sitting there, maybe 10 feet away, watching me sweep. Then the Chinese guy gets up again and with the fakest smile I’ve ever seen and says “you don’t know how to sweep, do you?” He takes the broom and tells me that he’ll show me. My initial reaction is to get angry, but I just take a deep breath and watch him. He’s not doing anything differently, but he’s just doing it in a faster way. He’s also not being mindful at all because he’s sweeping one side of the leaves into a flower bed, with a sign that says don’t not sweep the leaves into the flower beds. I take the broom back and realize that I should have shown more gratefulness toward him at that point, especially because the other lay guests are watching all of this happen and maybe I could have inspired them. After all, even though he’s doing things in a not so friendly way, I could have been bigger than that and truly just appreciated his attempt to help. At least he wasn’t just sitting with the others and talking about how I don’t know how to sweep, without helping. I finish the rest of the job at the same exact speed I went before and then move on.

I go over to sweep the rest and find two pieces of plastic. I pick them up and go to put them in my pocket, but forget I switched pants and don’t have pockets anymore. I continue to sweep, with them clasped between my hand and the broom handle. Every time I go to move my hand and adjust the broom I have to remember about the plastic or I will drop it again. I think this is an analogy with what I and many other want with their mindfulness. I think that with each new step of mindfulness it is widely understood that it’s passed by like a checkpoint along the path of spiritual awareness. However, I think it’s more like the plastic, where we need to take these lessons and continue to hold on to them and be mindful, even as we pass onto deeper levels of our practice. If we get a part of the foundation and then put it into our pocket, it’s only encouraging us to go back to the less mindful way we were before. Each new lesson or level of practice has to be imbedded into our daily lives and habits before we can really focus on the next step with our whole selves. One of the biggest goals that is mentioned all across the Buddhist world is that one of the larger goals is to be mindful in every moment of the day. That’s why some use pain, rules for every part of their life, fear, or some stimulant to force themselves to keep that mindfulness. I think what those things are doing though, is creating a “pocket for those skills”. It’s using something outside ourselves to keep the skill with us, I suppose until it becomes a habit. I’m not sure, but to me it makes sense to work the skills into our being and not have it attached to something else outside of ourselves. I wouldn’t know how to do this, but I had an inspiration just now sweeping, that I need to take my spiritual path down a different direction, where it goes deeper then just beating rules repetition into myself until I get used to something. It will be interesting to see how this idea will develop and change as I get more understanding. At breakfast I get a little more than I would eat at an average meal, but afterward still feel like I’ve over eaten again. I guess I don’t use as much energy here.

After breakfast, I ask the Guest Monk if I can leave and go across the street to the internet café to see if I can try to push my flight back, now that I have some more time with my visa. Since I booked on small airline, the only way would be to contact them directly and that would take too many times leaving and coming back to the monastery. It’s not worth it, I’ll just accept the few extra days I got and be happy with that. Also, I’m only a few days in, so who knows if I’ll be totally sick of this place by the time I get to 16 days. Even though, that’s hard to imagine with this quite and peaceful atmosphere everyday.

It’s New Year here in Thailand and I think it aligns with some kind of Buddhist New Year as well. They have a ceremony where the lay people come and throw buckets of water over a privacy wall and get the monks wet as some people will literally scrub them and give them a bath. I think it’s the same idea as washing the hands at the other monastery.

After I go to the outside sala, which is much smaller and off in the woods than the main one we have group session in everyday. It’s largely unsuccessful, although I do feel better immediately after for a short time. I’m doing something right, but I’m also frustrated because I’m not pushing myself where I know I can go.

Back by the main sala the Vietnamese guy tells me it’s tea time, so we help the packow’s bring the things over to the tea area. There’s a new lay guest today, so I’m not the last one anymore. Hierarchy here is based on time spent in your position, not necessarily on attainment. I can see the point with that because then it might cause competition and miss the point of individual practice. However, I can also see it creating a group of senior monks who haven’t practiced well and bring a bad reputation. The new guy is Thai and barely speaks English, so I use Lao to help explain things to him when he’s confused. I drank much less this time, more of what I might drink if I wanted tea on a random afternoon.

Back at the dorm after tea I brush my teeth, because we won’t eat again until tomorrow, and get the mat and mosquito net ready for when I go to bed, so I won’t have to bother with anything after it gets dark. Then I go to the main sala, but it’s pitch black dark there. I feel around and end up sitting square in the middle of the hall. Weirdly I don’t feel scared or anything and I give the nightly, pre-bed meditation another go. I go back to the dorm and get some lying meditation in before falling asleep.

Second Day, Awareness Breakthrough

I rely on either the morning bell or one of the other lay guests to wake me up, so I have no alarm. Sure enough one of them gets us up, so I shoot up and head for the shower. There’s chanting and meditation again with the group of lay people and then they leave the monastery and their Buddhist holiday practice is over. Some stay however to help with the meal preparation. I go out to sweep the main path ways in front of the monastery. Once done, I go in to help with the food preparation. There are all kinds of delicious dishes with different smells and colors. A lot of this I have never seen before, so I’m craving to try. It’s interesting to see how my body is reacting to the food after not having eaten for 24 hours. I have to say even with how great the food looks, I’m not as hungry as I though I’d be.

Back at the main sala we chant and meditate again, then go to eat. After waiting for the monks to get the food we go with our one, giant, bowl to collect food. This type of Buddhism and I think many others say that it’s best to eat alms out of one bowl. That means you can’t get chicken soup and eggs. Or if you like soggy soup eggs, that’s fine. Then we sit down and do our own chanting about the food. Basically say we will eat the food just to help us sustain our body to practice and nothing more, specifically noting not for pleasure.

After eating I go to the schedule board and run into the work monk. He assigns me to clean the lay people’s bathrooms. I finish the task quickly and then have free time until 3. I go to do some walking meditation to mix things up a bit. I think I’m not very skilled at every type of meditation, but I do think that I will make a break through with the sitting meditation. The walking is too easy for me to drift off.

It’s strange how my body would rather suffer long term, then to sit and suffer a lot for a short period of time and then feel much better. I really believe in that breaking point as it happens in sports as well, with the runner’s high or finally relaxing into a position in a hard (bikram) yoga class. Those are primarily physical releases with mental benefits and now I’m trying to push my self to a mental release with the added physical benefits afterward. I try to do sitting meditation again, but chicken out, three times! This is embarrassing to admit, but now that I’m finally here, I feel like I’m scared to death of doing it and what will happen when I do. It might not make much sense logically, but it’s how I feel and what my body is holding onto. Ajahn Chah (the guy that made this specific type of forest tradition popular) gives a few examples in his teachings of times when he’s broken through that wall and even describes it as something necessary in the beginning of practice. Well, no wonder not many people want to practice Buddhism this way. The beginner levels of a skill should be easier than this!

Cleaning time with everyone in the main sala. I’m tasked to clean the gecko poop off of the bottom of the pillars. Now, I feel like I’m starting to earn this pampering I’ve received so far. At 4:30 we stop for evening tea and this time it’s just with the lay men, which means it’s much more talkative. Startin from the people who’ve been here the longest, there’s a Chinese guy, one from South America, another from China (different part), one from Vietnam, and the last from Canada. This is certainly an international group and quite interesting to be the only American.

After tea is over I have a realization of my patterns here so far. I’v erealized that I’m over consuming. They don’t limit food or drinks here and everyone takes so much. I just followed along at first. The food is amazing, we have a giant bowl to fill, and everyone knows we won’t be eating for another 24 hours. It’s hard to calm down and not eat until extremely full. Yesterday, I ate until I felt sick and today was only a little better in that I didn’t feel sick, but was still very full. The same thing happened at the first tea time. I drank more cups of tea and juice than I would every normally do in one sitting. All of this hit me really hard after just finishing this tea session. I’m setting my intention tomorrow to really watch and limit my intake, which will hopefully also make my meditation a bit sharper.

I finish the night with sitting meditation in the sala and lying meditation on my mat as I fall asleep.

First day at Wat Pah Nanachat, International Thai Forest Monastery

At 5 I leave the hotel and head over to the Monastery. As I’m walking down the road I’m filled with last second doubts. I feel like I’ve already made a mistake by forgetting a padlock and my pants feel like they’re too tight. I make a turn down the last side road heading to the gates and try my best to forget about it, there’s nothing I can do about it now. As I’m walking down the road I see some monks heading the opposite direction, going on what looks like their alms round. I’m not sure if I should greet them or not, so I just look and smile and the first two break the silence and ask where I’m from and then to keep going into the gates.

I walk down a long paved path, just past the gate, before getting to a sort of round about and a few scattered buildings. I see the main meditation room, so I head for there. When I get in the room I see a few monks, one sitting on the stage at the front. I look at him and smile and nod. I’m hoping that they tell me something about where to go or what to do. When no one says anything I look back at him again and wait for a second and then keep walking until I leave the building. Still, he’s said nothing to me. Oh great, he’s probably thinking I’m not going to help this tight panted kid who just walked all over our sacred floor. I really wish he had been more helpful. I walk back out to the roundabout and then just sit on a bench and wait. I’m not sure where I can or can’t go, so I’ll wait for someone who’s a bit more helpful to come by. Some people dressed in regular clothes talk to me a little bit and some are unloading things from their car and I ask if I can help, but it’s not needed. Then some older man comes up to talk to me in Thai and asks if I’ve been here for long. I try to tell him I just got here, in Lao, which is pretty close, but I’m interrupted by a monk who just came over to my left. The monk tells me to go over to the Guest Monk’s office and wait there for my instructions on the next steps.

He tells me this is a special day and the schedule will be the meal next, then visiting Wat Nong Pah Bong (Ajahn Chah’s main monastery) and then back to the monastery for the rest of the day. Before the meal I try to stand around and help set things up, but I think I just end up looking awkward because I can’t find anything I can help with. The food is quite extensive will all kind of homemade dishes, fresh fruit, drinks, and desserts. Go to the main meditation hall, or sala, and chant before leavin for the meal. I follow the other lay guests who are dressed in all white like I am and we sit on mats to wait for the monks to finish getting their food. Then, we get up and go down the line of food. I fill my, giant, bowl to the top with all kinds wonderful things. Then, back at the mat two of the lay guests come over with a mango-Jackfruit smoothie. Yeah, this is a really hard life at the monastery, I’m not sure how I’m going to make it. I get down most of the way through the bowl and start to feel really full. I don’t ever like to throw food away, so I power through some more before stopping in fear of being sick on my first day. I could see being around 100 monks at the other monastery and throwing up all over their sacred statue or something.

After the meal we all go out to meet by the roundabout. I get in the back of the van with the other lay guests and we’re joined by some guys with white robes and the orange/brown robed monks. I’ve seen these cars filled with monks driving around and now it feels strange to actually be in the car apart of their “group”.

We go in the big meditation hall of the other monastery and there must be 200 monks here. All kinds of people are entering and sitting at different levels from each other. When a new high ranked monk comes in big groups of people get up on their knees and bow three times. This keeps happening, until some one grabs the microphone and says a lot of things in Thai I don’t understand. Then everyone is chanting for quite a long time, so I just close my eyes and listen to the melodic rhythm. Then, everyone gets up and goes to these large wooden dragons to pour water down one end, which pours it over big stone hands on the other end. Apparently this is done every New Year, in order to celebrate washing away the old and starting with the new. I go to pour mine in, but see an ant drowning in the water of the cup. One of the precepts is to not kill anything, so I franticly try and get it out of the water. The line is moving anyway and there’s all kinds of commotion. I’m totally panicked now, ready kill the ant and move on. Finally, I get it out and get the water poured into the damn dragon. Now, my people are gone and I’m trying to fight back up the stream of people to put the cup back where I guess it should go. I make it back out of the temple and take deep breath. I’m over the throwing up, now just trying not to have a nervous break down on my first day. This is certainly more hectic than I expected with a stay at a Buddhist monastery. We all drive back to the temple.

I meet with the Guest Monk again for a longer meeting about all the rules and what to expect for my stay. We sit down on a nice wooden deck off closer to the forest area and some guy brings up apple juice. I’m really not getting what’s so hard about this whole thing. I feel very pampered so far, to say the least. We have a long discussion about what to do, expect, cultural things to watch out for, and some other basic logistics. Apparently I’m initially accepted for 3 days here and then I will meet with him again for a check in to see the interest for my extension is mutual. Then, after 7 days they ask the lay guests to shave their heads and eyebrows. He takes my information in my passport and I fill out some forms. I’m pretty sure this is the only monastery in Thailand that had you fill out a form. I guess that’s what I get coming to an international community. We also notice that on the visa, the guy gave me 30 days, instead of the standard 15, when crossing by land. That means that I get to stay a few extra days. The Guest Monk says that’s fine and a few extra day extension is completely up to me. I ask him some questions about how to bow and when to sit in certain positions at certain times. I walk around the 150 acre property and decide to leave my shoes behind. There are sections with palm sized rounded rocks that press into every part of my foot. Then there are paths where the rocks are much smaller and sharper.

I head back to the dormitory and try to do some sitting meditation, but quickly get discouraged. At 4:30 everyday there’s an evening tea time. We’re only allowed to eat once a day, but I suppose there are some small heal food snacks, like ginger or dark chocolate, that are alright to serve at tea time.

I haven’t accomplished anything yet with my spiritual practice, but I feel a bit lighter already. I’m not sure if it was my mediation attempt, the peaceful atmosphere in the forest, or that I’m finally in the midst of something I’ve wanted to do for about a year and a half. Probably a combination of all three. Then, we have a group meditation for an hour and chanting for an hour. Because of the holiday there are a lot of lay guests from outside the monastery here with us. After about 30 minutes, my right leg starts to bark at me, but nothing too bad. I think what would be the 45 minute mark my leg pain gets much worse. From all my studying of Buddhism, I’ve heard this can be a good thing if tested with the wisdom that the pain is just superficial and not something preventing me from injury. I don’t have a watch, so I’d guess at about 50-55 minutes, my body starts to shake like how it does when I get cold and shiver from the core of my body. I’m trying to make the pain the core of my focus, but it’s really difficult. I start flashing to my motivation and pump up songs to keep me going with only a few minutes left. I can tell that I’m breaking through some kind of mental wall because the pain is the same or maybe even a little less, but the shakes are getting worse. I fight all the way through the meditation until I hear a bell. No breakthrough the mental wall, but I felt like I got really close to hitting a big breakthrough. From there, we go into an hour of chanting. The chanting is done in a whole different posture, so now it’s starting to hurt a whole different part. This is much easier though because I’m able to switch between my legs on the right and left side.

Next, we go to a darma talk given by one of the senior monks. He starts the talk with a guided meditation about scanning the body. Then he goes on and talks a bit about something that I couldn’t pay much attention to. The tone of his voice sounds like he’s talking about his taxes and not about spiritual awakening. He opens up for questions, but everyone is in a stupor, so there aren’t any. We finish the darma talk around 10:30 and now there’s evening open time (sleep for most) until a midnight tea session and then the morning chanting and mediation at 4:00. Only some of the lay guests and monastics will actually stay up all night.

Feeling inspired still to be here, I go to the main sala to continue to practice. I want to at least make it until midnight and see how I feel then. I get to the point where I think I might be near wearing out my body too much. It is the first day after all. I acknowledge starting off on a good foot the first day and then head back to the dormitory to go to sleep. I’m in a screened in area, so I didn’t worry about setting up a mosquito net before. That was the wrong thing to do because I can head the mosquitos flying close to my head. I try to swat at them, but they’re aggressive like hungry flies and almost are back at my head before I’m all the way through the swat. I go over to look for a mosquito net, but they’re all taken. I think the lay guests staying downstairs by the kitchen took them all. There is one there that is kind of broken, so I take that. It doesn’t open up to cover my whole body, so I have to curl my body up to fit and then with no more mosquitos feeding on my head, I quickly pass out.

Laos to Thailand

I’ve thought a lot about the lay out of my trip to the monastery in Thailand and I’ve decided to cross into Thailand on Friday that I fly into the boarder city, on the Lao side. I was originally going to spend the night on the Laos side and then cross in the morning. When crossing by land, the visa is only 15 days and I’ll be here for 17 before my flight back. Now, I decide to go straight into Thailand, as close to the temple as possible and then go early in the morning. It cuts a day off the trip, but I’d rather sacrifice that day in order to start the first day on a good note, getting there plenty early enough for the meal and time to talk with the Guest Monk and get set up. Probably wouldn’t happen if I started on the Laos side in the morning.

From the airport I have him take me to the bus station at 12 and wait there for the big bus to fill up and leave scheduled for 3:30. The taxi drops me off in front of a crappy building with some chairs that are falling apart and some people who look the same. At the counter, the guy tells me the ticket woman will be back later. I have plenty of time, so I sit and wait. The woman comes and many more people closer to 3 and then we board and leave. The nice thing about this bus is that it takes me all the way to the big city, right next to the monastery.

I get off the bus and it’s dark already. I think it’s 6:30 by now. I go and negotiate with the taxi people and reject some cheaper offers to ride on their motorbikes. I don’t know these people and don’t trust them enough to ride a motorbike here. They go much faster, on much bigger roads than in Laos.  The taxi driver I get is a little more expensive, but a good guy as he drives me right up to the monastery gates and the sign that says Wat Pah Nanachat, which means Forest Monastery Nanachat (Never figured out the Nanachat translation).

The gates are close and it’s dark, but just seeing the entrance makes my heart race. We back track and then stop at the nearest hotel just down the road. The guy at the hotel is really nice and when I ask him where I can go to buy shaving cream, he drives me to the store in his car. He tells me about his brother who is at a monastery right now and how he’s thinking of going for a short stay soon. He told me there are two types of Monasteries in Thailand. First, one called a city monastery, which is focused more on reading scripture and certainly less on the actual practice. Then, the other kind is called a forest monastery, which encourage you to read on your own, or have read already and solely focus on practice and seeing the truth of the practice within yourself. The forest monastery certainly matches with everything I’ve read about Nanachat (I just call the one I’m staying at for short). He wishes me luck as I go off to get sleep before the big day tomorrow. I make sure everything is in order one last time before going to sleep.

Rice in My Socks

Today, I’m leaving Luang Prabang to travel to Pakse in the southern region of Laos. Then from there, I will travel over into Thailand, spend the night in the big city there, and go to a Buddhist temple called Wat Pah Nanachat first thing in the morning. The Thai visa allows me to stay for 15 days and I intend to use that whole time for visiting the temple.

I get down to the bottom of my guesthouse to put on my shoes to get breakfast before starting on my journey. I’m trying to feel my socks by my toes because there something in them that was making me uncomfortable going down the stairs. I just had them washed, so it shouldn’t be dirt or sand. Maybe it’s string from the seem where they’re coming apart. I feel it in both socks too, slightly worse on my right foot. I’m talking to the women at the reception desk, so I’m only half paying attention on fixing my sock and half on talking, which actually means my attention was in the ether somewhere. We stop talking and I take off my sock and turn it inside out to find a crusty clump of rice, in the same spot in both socks. You’d think I’d be grossed out or wondering how the hell I got rice in my socks, but it catches me so off guard I just burst out laughing. There’s no reason to find meaning for it, it’s just there, so I might as well get a good laugh in. The women just cleaned the floors though, so I get out of there quickly before they find out I’m dropping rice everywhere. 

At breakfast I think about it again and laugh, but now for a different reason. I hope the rice in my socks can be a good metaphor for my trip to the monastery. I’m probably going to find a lot of strange and out of place things when I reach down into my own mind and I have to remember to take everything lightly, like I just keep finding more rice in my socks.

I’ll give full updates of the journey after I’m done scraping the rice off my feet.

Day of Reflection

Today, I’m grateful.

I didn’t learn an important lesson, no accomplishments, not even attaining a new level of progression with anything. There’s not even a long table filled with turkey, gravy, mash potatoes, and family. Well, that just covers about everything I could be grateful for. So, what the hell am I trying to get at here? Well, I spent the better part of the day today, just thinking… That clears it up, right?

I’ve been thinking about everything that makes my life wonderful. I have a loving and supportive family (friends included), just about everything genetically that makes up a “successful” person in our society, and above all my physical and mental health in tip top 25 year old, prime of my life, shape. I’m not trying to brag… it’s just hard to avoid the fact that my head is biggest and my looks are the best.

Through a lot of business and leadership trainings, I’ve seen more than one diversity workshop and when they list the type of person who gets to have their cake and eat it too, for the most part I’m in the winning category. Except for religion, which I’ve probably been closest to Buddhist and as far as privilege and power go, that’s like saying I’m Canadian. Yeah, it’s not a super power, but it’s like a cute kid asking for something ridiculous and silly. They’re still welcome at the table, even if not consider as a player. I read a book a while ago about a woman working in the development field and she was talking about being guilty for taking part in a privilege she had as a foreigner. It really spoke to me by helping me with how to go about digesting my position in life. Instead of feeling guilty or trying to deny the wonderful gifts that life has presented me, I’m going to embrace them and use them as my tool. Yes, that means big head beauty pageant. My privileges have really been a big driver in my life direction so far. Since the first time I recognized that not everyone grows up the same, when my dad and I first talked about how difficult life was been for one of my close childhood friends in particular, I’ve felt a deep inner need to use what I have and give back to help people, like my friend. Most of my life it’s been out of guilt for having so much in my life. In the past few years, I’ve readjusted that outlook to one of appreciation, for what I have and one of passion, for my path to helping others. It’s one hell of a time, on my 25th birthday, to think about all of my assets and how I can use those to accomplish my deepest passion of helping people. Then, through my study of Buddhism I discovered that after my job or extracurricular activities trying to help people in the physical relm, I want to learn how to free people spiritually.

I could talk about this for a long time, as I think anyone can about any of their passions in life. But to stop there would be missing out on why, today in particular, I feel grateful.

I started the day by watching a Jim Carrey (yes, Jim Carrey!) inspirational commencement speech I’ve seen a few times before. I love his movies, but off the set, especially in interviews, I always thought he was a nut, who was on the fence of rubbing me the wrong way. After seeing him talk at this commencement speech, I really related to him, to his story, and to the true Jim Carrey, underneath his façade of entertainment. (Here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V80-gPkpH6M) I related so much to him with his relationship to his life and the inspiration he got on his path from his father. There’s something about the way that he can free people from their worries that inspires me. Jim, does it with the way that he portrays characters and acts out his silliness in a way that transports people to another place. He struck me when he said that he has made it to the top because where ever he goes people show him their best face; one of jokes, laughter, and purely undistracted happiness. My dad, countless times when I was growing up, did this when we were in a grocery store. When it was his turn to go up to the person at the check out line, who was drowning in the drudgery of their day, he would do something or say something to make them light up and reconnect with their humanity and true self. You could literally see that person’s face light up and all of a sudden they were the showing the best side of themselves. They totally forgot about their situation and the loathing they were stuck in, seconds before. The effects we have on each other is still, to me, the greatest human ability. The greatest part, is that it’s a super power we all possess. Like Jim, that’s something I want to keep running with. But, I want to take it to the next level and figure out how to do it full time. I want to be present enough to do it everyday and spend a lifetime teaching people how to do the same things to others. Even a few generations ago, that would have been a bit of a crazy idea, but now it’s been brought to the surface and seemingly on everyone’s mind.

I kept watching videos of Jim on different talk shows and laughed the whole time. I’ve always been a fan of his humor and I think it is very similar to how my brother-from-another-mother, from way back in second grade, and I communicate with each other. Even with all the laughter, I still wasn’t getting what I wanted from the videos. None of them were like his commencement speech. I went to the one place where I knew that Jim would get the best quality interview, Howard Stern. It was just taken this past summer, right around the same time of his inspiring commencement speech. I love listening to Howard because he has a way of keeping the rhythm of the interview going so that everyone is immersed in a way so the listener doesn’t have time to space out and the interviewee goes further and further into the interview and therefore sometimes can forget their usual façade, presenting a more true version of themself. By the end, they talked a bit about Jim’s spirituality, which was largely uninteresting, and then they ended with Howard asking if Jim thought he was happy. Jim told Howard that happy, sad, mad are all like the weather. Then, he ended by saying he was content. The part that really stuck out to me was the lack of passion in his voice. He wasn’t on a stage in front of cameras or an audience, so he didn’t feel the need to put on his performance face and he didn’t have his sparkle. I felt so… confused.

I just put my computer away and lied on my bed and stared at the ceiling. The part that confused me was that he went through the same cycle that I feel I go through in my life. There are times where I feel like I really connect with people and am making their day a little brighter and with that I feel more alive and focused. Then, like a passing wave, when I’m alone I feel like I’m back to my normal distracted self. I was so absorbed by learning about him that I couldn’t look away, I was totally immersed in his story and relating that to my own. Then, when it was all over I realized I have the same lack of concentration and immersion in this moment I had before I got on the computer. I tried to focus my eyes on a board on the ceiling, but couldn’t do it for much longer than a few seconds. I’m talking about really focusing, not just keeping my eyes in one place. Focusing my keeping my whole body and soul focused, like how I was during the video.

Then, instead of thinking about the past 25 years of my life, I shifted toward the future. I started to think that the one thing that Jim was missing and the one thing that I’ve felt like I’ve been missing for so long, which is starting with myself. Okay, back to the past now, I told you, my attention span is like a squirrel. I’ve always made excuses with my spiritual growth that at least I was using my time to make other people a little better, or I had something else more important to do. I realized that I won’t ever be able to make the difference I want to make in other’s lives if I keep putting them or something else first.

How am I going to spread love and the joy of bettering others if I don’t first invest that love into myself? Too often do I put my own spiritual needs to the side out of the fear of the difficulty and failure, masked in the excuse that I’m investing that time, instead, into something seemingly more important.

This might sound negative to you, but at this point, lost in my thoughts, lying on my back in bed, I have a big smile on my face. I’m smiling because I’ve identified something and now all is left is improvement.

The most important thing with my spiritual path right now is to build the foundation of love, with myself. I feel inspired to create some kind of daily routine to help direct this inertia of understanding. My Aunt also gave me two different books with daily reads and ideas to hold for the entire day. If that’s not a message from the universe, I don’t know what is. I also think about my choices for the future. At the end of next week I’m going to Thailand to stay in a Monastery for 15 days. I’m going to get a taste of my plans from September on, after my job with PoP is finished. I’m going to take however long it takes to build the foundation of the skills I need to continue my spiritual growth in myself and to then have the presence of mind to let that ability become me and ooze out of every pore of my being. Realizing my path and being so close to what I’ve been waiting to develop for so long frightens me and leaves me with a feeling of butterflies. I know where I’m headed, I know what I have to do, all that is left now is to take the risk, to relax, and follow my inner voice.

Now that, is something to be grateful for.

Laos to JFK

The office on Friday was busy because I was trying to get a bunch of things done, so I wouldn’t have to think about work at all while I’m back home. Most of the staff are outside building a structure to park our company trucks. I so wanted to be out there with them, but instead I knew it was going to pay off much more if I just stayed in the office and worked all day. I think it bothers them when some of the people in the office, especially the falang (foreigners) don’t at least go out and support, but I think I have enough currency in the bank with them to use this time and still be thought of as really close with them.

By the end of the day everyone was very loving with the way they sent me off. They all wished me luck and told me to hurry up and come back, with some goodies of course. I’m standing out by the car structure and some of the people are way up, about 30 feet in the air, up on top of the rickety looking wooden structure they literally just got done putting up. They all jokingly tell me to come up to the top with them. I laugh and tell them I’m too afraid. Mai Sa tells me to go up too, so I say I’ll go after her. She tells me that there’s no way she’ll go up there. I ask her why, but expect the usual answers of being too scared or not coordinated enough. Instead, she says she can’t because she’s a woman. I respond before her answer can really sink in and I say “that’s no problem” and then she responds just as quickly and says, “yes, it is”. What she says and how she says it with such dismissing certainty, is really disheartening for me to hear. I’m washed over with feelings of sadness, frustration, and a bit of hopelessness. There was nothing I could have said or done to reverse the life long reinforcement of this female inferiority complex that her and so many other Lao women have received. When I hear things like this or when I see the men oppress the women here I want to let my anger explode and put an end to it right then. I would step in if it were something physical, but I haven’t seen any of that at all. It’s more of a constant bombardment of this tearing down of ideas that don’t fit into the well defined “woman box”. I want to tell the women to stop being complacent, the men to stop being barbaric, and both sides to stop writing this issue off as part of the culture. I know that wouldn’t do any good, but I can’t help to have that reaction. In order to release my frustrations and still be able to be decent with most of the pig men here, is to think of ways to use my time here to help empower the women in my life and get them to use their voice to make some changes on their own. For instance I met with one of the PoP Guatemala employees who started a women’s group there, in order for me to help organize and possibly start the same thing at the office here in Laos. Most likely, nothing will change with the culture in Laos or even the city or section I’m living around, but I will feel very accomplished if I can at least affect the lives of those women I work with and care about. They have the skills already, so I think they just need a small amount of guidance, especially in the beginning, and then a whole lot of work and passion on their part, in order to overcome this cultural barrier. I think this event really set an interesting impression on my trip back home. Taking a break from this culture and spending time with my family is so important for me right now. I’m going to forget about everything for a week and just enjoy my time back home. I’ll be able to do this so well knowing I have a wonderful team of people waiting for my return and some real challenges and opportunities for growth during the second half of my internship with PoP.

I get back to my guesthouse, shower and finish packing the last few things before our company driver comes and gets me. The check in at the airport goes as smoothly as it always does in Laos. Then because I’m trying to get onto the time schedule of being back East I’m pretending it’s morning time, instead of 5 PM. So, I go over to order some coffee in hopes that I can stay up at least most of the day, New York time, and then sleep most of the time from Korea to JFK, which will be nighttime for New York. I go up to the counter to order and the woman says “ow nyang baw?” Which in Lao basically means, what do you want?… No way! This me speaking Lao thing is supposed to make people surprised and impressed. They’re not supposed to assume I know Lao and then when I respond, act like, ‘yeah, so?’ Feeling let down, proud, and like maybe I’m embracing more of this Lao life, I take my coffee to the table and go to check in. I’m proud of my self with all of the progress I’ve made with the language so far, but I’m still greedy for those experiences when I get to show off.

I can’t check in on my Korea flight without checking in here, but I can only check in here in person. I tried to check in online before leaving my guesthouse, but because Luang Prabang isn’t a big hub for the airline they told me to go screw myself. And apparently what ever I did to get my boarding pass wasn’t proof enough that I checked in here in person. I do faintly remember when traveling on my own in the States my parents telling me to go up to the counter before boarding to check in. However, I don’t think the same thing applies here. I also already have my computer out, so I’m feeling too lazy to pack everything up, walk over to the desk, try to convince them that I can check in and then probably work with them to figure it out, walk back to my seat, have the coffee women force me to buy something else, and then get my computer out to check in. My excuse is that if my seat is bad, it will be a good story. I will at least check in when I get to Hanoi, which is only a few hours away anyway. Alright, time to go and wait by the gate for them to board everyone. Next stop, Hanoi.

The flight is only an hour, so the plane is a small propeller prop one. The inside isn’t tall enough for me to stand up without worrying about the health of my head. Everything looks worn and old around the edges. The only fresh looking things are the flight attendant’s outfits, but their faces take away from that, with their expressions of getting the short end of the stick on this plane. I put my back pack under the stead in front and a Korean woman next to me tells me “under, under” as she points to my bag and under our seats. I tell here you can’t put them there and that they have to go under the seats in front of us. She starts to complain to her friends and even though I don’t speak a word of Korean, I can tell by the way they’re all looking at me and pointing to my bag. I tell her that I will put it under my legs after the plain takes off, but she either didn’t understand or didn’t want to wait because she moves seats. Now I have the whole row to myself. Wow, that was easy, I should do that for every flight.

Before I can even really settle in we’re getting into Hanoi. I have a 3 hour lay over, so I’m relaxed with time. I go to the transfer desk and tell the guy that I’m going onto the Seoul plane and show him all my information. He tells me that he is going to call someone from that airline and that I should sit down and wait until they come. I see some guy with a necklace nametag badge thing walk by and I can tell he looks Korean, so I’m hoping he’s my guy. I don’t actually know the facial differences between Koreans and other Asian people, but his hair cut makes him look like the gangnam style guy, so I’m actually more confident then any kind of facial feature recognition skill I could get. After going to the desk he walks up to me and asks for my itinerary and passport. See, I have a flawless strategy for identifying Korean people. Then, he turns around and walks away, in the opposite direction from the check in desk, in the direction of the exit. I laugh to myself and look around to see if anyone just saw what happened. I feel like I’m on one of those game shows that plays tricks to get people to have funny reactions. Then, I say to myself, okay there’s no way I’m going to be that guy who lost his passport by giving it to a Korean music artist look-a-like with a badge around his neck. I get up and follow him and then he turns around to tell me to sit down and wait for him to get back. Okay, that proved it enough for me. If he told me to sit and wait over in the waiting area, then he clearly must be working here, so I turn around and sit back down. I can’t help but be nervous as I sit as I race through the situations of people asking me how the hell I just let my passport go like that and why I let it get stolen.

In the middle of these thoughts I get distracted by some people running and then I’m nervous and on edge for a whole new reason. It’s okay if there are a few people running in an airport, they’re probably late, but when crowds of people run, it scares me and makes me think of crazy people. I have the memory of Ghana when I went to that concert and people started all running toward me. Like the wildebeest stampede in Lion King, I found my stump to hand from and watch everything go by and then, very unlike Lion King, the tear gas hit and we got out of there. This is nothing compared to Ghana, but at first I have a similar reaction. Then, I start to notice how people are dressed and start to scan through the crowd. The people stopped running and I figured out it was just because some extra lines through the immigration opened up. Now, I’m calmed down and moved on to looking at the ridiculous hats and visors some people have on. My attention span is like a squirrel, as I’ve now completely forgotten about my passport and the rest of my trip all together. I think believing in stereotypes can be dangerous, especially if when something different is presented and ignored for the prejudice. However, I can’t help but laugh at how stereotypically Asian some of these people are. They’re all doing the things we poke fun at so much in America. First of all, we’re inside and some people have visors on that would block out the sun for a small family. I also can’t help but laugh at the way they run and how ridiculous it is that they’re running and cutting each other off to get one more person ahead in line. There certainly is a very different respect for other people. Then, in the middle of my amusement some guy comes up and taps on my shoulder. I don’t really look and think, “hey buddy, can’t you see that I’m in the middle of some good people watching”. Then he walks around in front of me and tries to hand me something. Who does this asshole think he is standing right in front of me when I’m clearly in the middle of a show? Oh right, my passport and the rest of my trip.

I take everything and follow him up to the boarding area. I get up to the top and it leads me exactly to my gate, but I still have a few hours to spare. I take a right and go all the way down to the end of the terminal. Then I turn around and walk all the way to the other side, which turns out to be much less populated. I sit down to try and check in, but it won’t let me now because I’m within 4 hours of my flight. Well, there’s no point now, so I pack everything back up and get ready to walk back down. It’s really interesting where I am because there are no people around and I can see all the way down to the other side of the airport. The building is massive and could probably fit a small ocean. I just sit there for a few minutes taking in the amazing feat of humanity I’m sitting in right now and how little time I spend really taking a look at things from this perspective.

I get up and walk back down to my gate and sit down for the last 30 minutes before boarding. I sit and position myself so I can watch the people coming through security. I love to people watch and this might be the perfect place. Okay, the perfect place not counting the backside of an immigration checkpoint in Asia, that takes the cake. I sit there and just watch as people come through the end of security and have the realization they’ve made it through the hard part and now they just need to find their gate and get ready for their planes. I mostly just spend the time looking at people’s faces and the way they dress and how everyone’s so different. The one thing about stereo types I certainly don’t get is how people say that a race of people all look the same. Yeah, if you compare Asian people with African people, they seem like they fit into two different boxes. However, after living in Ghana and now Loas, especially with my love for people watching, it’s really dispelled that idea for me. After really taking a look at mostly Ghanaian people, with a sprinkle of other Africans and mostly Lao people, with a sprinkle of other Asians, I’ve had the opportunity to see how diverse the two populations really look. It isn’t even true to say that most Asian people have squinty eyes or that most African’s have big lips and a broad nose. I have seen so many exceptions to those rules that I couldn’t possibly fall back into those grooves of thinking, which were so common during my upbringing. I think the only thing that I’ve noticed as being pretty similar across the board are people’s hair. That’s something that has been true probably up to 95% of the examples I’ve seen. I think that if I were to stereotype groups of people into looking the same, it would be those who look closest to me. There are some stark differences between different kinds of white people that are impossible to deny, but I can’t help and see so much of the similarities, especially with the way people act. It makes me think that stereotypes were probably first thought of by people of that group and then spread and seen as true by other groups. I’m not even sure where I’m going with all of this, but I think it’s very interesting to watch people and try to learn as much as you can about them just from watching them pass by, even if only for a moment. I don’t mean just gaze at a group of people, I’m talking about picking some people in a crowd and really looking at them well and trying to analyze everything about them. This is what I call people watching and I definitely love spending my idle time doing this and learning as much as I can. It helps to live in this area and to be able to ask questions about my observations to my friends in the related culture.

Now that I’ve analyzed the makeup of humanity, it’s time to board my flight from Hanoi to Seoul, Korea. I’m still trying to force myself to stay on New York time, so I have to make it all the way through this 3 hour flight, then through the 5 hour lay over I have in Seoul, before being able to sleep on my last plane. It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but will be well worth it when I get on the East Coast time much faster, plus I will be able to sleep through most the longest one of my flights. This plane is the opposite of the last flight. I could jump off of a seat and not hit the ceiling. Everything looks new and comfortable and there’s plenty of room for my legs and my backpack in front of my seat. The guy next to me even moves to another seat, but there’s no need because the seats have more than enough room. When they’re getting ready to take off, I’m spacing out and not paying one bit of attention to the safety information, just like everyone else in the plane. I look up at the ceiling and it looks like some kind of smoke is pouring into the cabin. It’s not filling up in the passenger space, but it’s pretty thick up by the ceiling. They’re either making it more humid or trying to poison James Bond. To distract myself during the flight and make sure I don’t sleep, I watch some TV shows, a movie, and eat the food they give me as slowly as possible. I don’t feel as tired as I think I should, but I don’t take the chance of leaving myself idle. The plane is getting ready to land in Seoul, Korea and I get back into game mode, knowing I have to go through security and then find where I’m going. I also don’t have a sense of urgency because I have almost 6 hours until my next flight takes off.

The first thing I notice when I get into the terminal is that there are more people here than any of the other airports I’ve ever been through. This terminal is also bigger than the others, so if it doesn’t seem like it swallows people up, then there really must be a lot. First thing I want to do is get to my gate and make sure everything is going well, on time, and where I think it is. Sure enough, it’s right by where on side of the airport. I check out the rest of that side of the terminal and then pass my gate to go through the rest. At the very center of the airport the amount of people is getting crazy and makes me feel like I’m in a mall during the Christmas shopping season. I go through every part of the airport, but feel like I have to rush the last part because my eyes are so dry now that they look more like their fluttering than blinking. The last plane ride was really dry and I haven’t been used to that in Laos. I get back to my seat with a few hours left. Now the exhaustion from not sleeping is hitting me like a truck. I drift off a few times in my seat and then get up to walk around just the little area around my terminal for a while. Then, I get back and stand in front of the terminal to make sure my legs are tired enough for this long flight and that I don’t fall asleep again.

I board and settle in on the flight and now I’m on good time for New York, so I don’t even wait for it to take off before settling into a deep sleep. I sleep, on and off, for a good eight hours and then mess around on the TV for the last few hours before the plane gets to JFK.

It was weird to fly over a long skinny island of homes, surrounded by water, and see the entire thing covered in snow. That I certainly haven’t been used to in Laos, my time back home, or in Ghana. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen snow for quite a few years now. I only have a few hours to get off the plane and go through everything at the airport and then travel to Penn station to catch my train. I gave a little bit of a cushion, but I can’t help but be a little nervous. I’m not sure what the pilot is doing because he’s driving down every row of the airport at a very slow pace. It looks like he’s taking his plane driver’s test. Or maybe he’s just trying to make it feel to everyone like we’re all constantly moving and not just sitting idly at our gate. The only issue with that is there are cameras on the front of the plane that are projected on the big TV screens at the end of each row that everyone can easily see and figure out that we’re just riding along with no aim. Those cameras were cool because during the landing it felt like I was playing a video game and actually controlling the plane. Then we get in front of the terminal and the pilot stops the plane a good distance away. Everyone gets up to get their bags and they tell us to sit down because they need to get someone to pull us into the docking bay. This little rover car comes and clamps on to the plane and pulls us along at a casual walking speed. We finally connect and then everyone is able to get up and get their bags. From the point when we touched down and now have connected it’s been nearly an hour. Now, I’m more nervous, but not crazy, yet, about getting to the train. I get off and make my way to immigration. I wore a nice long dress shirt and my slacks to make sure I would go through this part and the rest of customs smoothly. I’m trying to answer their questions ahead of time, just by how I look. I think I’m also playing my tall-white-man card a bit here. I realize that it’s not fair at all that I get treated differently than other people just based on how I look, but I think it would be silly to squander this privilege, especially when in this case there’s nothing I can do to change the status quo. The guy in front of me at the immigration desk looks like he’s Chinese, but has an US Passport. The officer asks him all kinds of questions about being out of the States for 6 months and how he is able to support himself and his family back here. I get slightly nervous because I’ve been out of the States for about 7 months now. The guy looks at my information and lazily rolls his eyes over to where I need to walk next and says next. Well that certainly worked out as planned. Now I come up to the last step of customs where they look at your information and then decide whether to scan your bag or not. I put down that I don’t have any food, even though I have a few bags of some naturally made snack food in my bag with seeds on them. If they find these things and I didn’t declare them, it could possibly lead to some questioning and more delay from my train. The guy at the desk is literally yelling at the person in front of me that he needs to go and get everything scanned. I think it’s more of a New Yorker’s yell and isn’t malicious, but it’s still a bit scary, especially coming from Laos where no one raises their voice because their worried about losing face in public. Then he looks at everything I have for a few seconds and then tells me to go through the middle and not get scanned. I want to make sure that’s what he said so I point and ask if I go there. His voice is now three times as loud as he tells me just to follow the sign and go down the middle. I thank him and scurry along to get out of there before some dog or sniffer animal smells the seeds in my bag.

I made it. I’m not on my way to Penn station. I follow the signs to get to the airport train. Other than it telling me what the next station sign is, there are no obvious signs or information on how to get to further out destinations. I go right up to a worker and she gives me detailed information on how to get to Penn Station. I’m taking the Air train to Jamaca station, the last stop, and then from there taking the E train to Penn Station. Easy enough to remember.

I get up to the exit of the JFK air transit and immediately walk up to a woman and ask for her help. I tell her where I’m going and ask her to get me there fast. She walks me over to a computer and helps me go through the steps. I put in my credit card, but it asks for my zip code, which is at my mom’s house in Irvine. I have no idea what the zip code is there, but try a few combinations anyway. When they’re all wrong, the woman teases me about stealing the card and that it’s okay as long as I buy something for her. I’m joking back with her a little bit, but have panic in the back of my mind because I have no way of getting through these gates. I have some Thai Bhat, but that would require me to go back into the airport to find an exchange place. I see an ATM and try that. With a miracle it spits out money and I take care of everything in cash. I thank her for her help and then get on the train going to Penn station.

Penn station is very confusing because it uses a bunch of train vocabulary that doesn’t make sense to a normal human being. I figure it out all the way to a big open room where everyone is looking up at a big lit up screen telling where their train is waiting. I made it, actually an hour early. I go up to the desk and pay a little extra to get on a train leaving right now and figure the extra money is well worth seeing my family sooner. I go right from the ticket counter over to boarding the train. After about an hour and a half, I get to the Wilmington station and somehow literally time meeting my dad, sister, and Darren almost perfectly. It’s really strange how we traveled from opposite parts of the world and still met each other at this small train station within 10 minutes of each other. That sets the week off on a good note.

Gom’s Ceremony

Today is Tuesday, the 17th. After work I ride my bike back to my guesthouse with some urgency because I want to have time to work out and eat before my Lao lessons starts. I get to the front and I see some women dressed up. Then, I see Ing, who hasn’t been there this early for a while and immediately I knew something was different because she was also dressed up. After I walk up with a very confused look on my face, without missing a beat, she tells me that they are having a ceremony for Gom at the guesthouse and 12 monks are supposed to come and conduct the ceremony. I tell her that I’ll go get changed and get something nicer on. She says I don’t have to and then mentions that I can take a shower as well. I think that was a jab at either me being smelly or sweaty from my bike ride, but probably a little bit of both. I go outside call Pavath and tell him to get back quickly, then I race upstairs and call my Lao teacher to tell her we’re canceling the lesson, and finally I hop in the shower. I put on a nice shirt and slacks and my nice long black socks.

Back downstairs I sit down at the front reception area and talk with one of the young women who helps out around the guesthouse and Ing’s paper shop. I ask if she’s seen Pavath yet and she tells me no, but that I should go in the other room because the ceremony has already started. She gives me a really beautiful sash made of silk to wear around my shoulder. I copy her and wrap it from my left shoulder and tie it at my right hip. She laughs at me and tells me that the men don’t wrap it around, but just let it hand on their shoulder. I have everything set and I don’t look like a woman, so I run over to the next room and I see a bunch of decorations in the middle of the room. There are big mounds of flowers in the front middle and behind those flowers are the head monks. To the left and right of them are the rest of the monks, all facing the flowers and all the other people watching the ceremony. On the very left side of the monks is a line of novices, sitting in a line that goes down the left side of the area. Then, in the audience, up front is Ing and a the rest of the crowd is behind her. There’s probably only about 30 people here and a total of 11 monks. I quietly come in and sit down in the back, trying not to disturb anything. The woman in front of me tells me that the men have to sit in front of the women, closer to the monks. Now I’m sitting one row back from Ing and all the way to the left from where she is in the front and middle. I forget how to sit politely because there’s a million things to think about right now, so I sit indian style. Right away, the same woman, who told me to sit up front, tells me to swing my legs around my body. So, imagine everything is the same except one of the legs, from the knee down, is off to the side, going down the right or left side of the body, depending on which side you want to lean on. Well there goes all my support I get from sitting Indian style. I’ve sat like this at Bossi ceremonies before but it was different then because I didn’t feel bad about moving around when my legs hurt. This is different because it’s much more serious being for Gom and I’m also in the front. I’m settled in now and my legs don’t hurt… yet. I look to my right to see what Ing is doing so I can copy her, as I have no one else to look at and copy because they’re all behind me and probably watching me to make sure I don’t do anything stupid.

All Ing is doing is sitting there with her hands in the praying position, both palms pressed together, right underneath her chin. I do the same and just sit there and try to absorb everything. As we’re all sitting there the monks are all chanting. The head monk has a microphone and the rest are chanting along with him. I’m pretty sure it’s all in the Pali language because the words I’m picking up on are from my study of Buddhism and nothing while learning Lao. I also know that some of the blessings in the famous Lao Bossi ceremony are in Pali. The Pali and Sandskrit languages are ancient languages that were used to record some of the first Buddhist documents. They’re also the languages that some of the Lao writing system is derived from. After some time a man comes and joins me at the front. I’m glad because now I’m not the only one up at the front of my half of the room and I have someone else to reference other than Ing. The commotion of him coming also gives me a chance to switch my legs to the other side and not feel like I’m disturbing everything or offending anyone’s mother.

Some more time goes by, I have no idea how much time that actually was, but my legs are telling me it’s beyond measurement. Not only are my legs hurting, but I worked out yesterday and made the sides of my torso sore, which when both of your hands are occupied, it’s either the legs or the sides of my core that has to keep myself up. I try to focus on one part of the pattern in the carpet to keep myself sane. I peak over to my left and can see Pavath out of the corner of my eye. I’m to the point of pain now that I can’t conecentrate on the ground anymore and I’m starting to think of exit plans out of here. My back, legs, and sides are all equally worn out and now I’m in the stage of wearing one of them down to the point of making it hurt for the next few days. Then, I snap out of it and realize this is way more important than my rigid joints. I can hurt the next day for Gom. Then Ing stands up with a basket and starts throwing small candies at people on the other side. She comes over to us and now with much practice at seeing my confused face, just tells me that it’s for good luck. It’s a nice change of pace because it gets me to giggle and most of all shift my weight and sit in a less proper way for a second while everyone is distracted. A small bill falls next to me and I feel strange taking the money so I turn around and throw it at Pavath to spread the good luck and get rid of it being around me. I probably just broke a big rule by doing that also, but that same woman didn’t bark at me, so maybe it was okay. Then Ing hits me square in the head with a hand full and I can feel some went down the back of my collar. I reach down and sure enough it’s another small bill. Okay, I keep this one and the candy that’s closest to me.  Another person is walking around the room with a small branch, dipping it into a bowl of water, and then spritzing it on everyone.

After that both women sit back down and the monks go right back to the same chanting. I pick up on a few words that have to do with reincarnation. I can hear them repeating Arahat and I think the Lao word for birth, so I’m guessing they’re praying that he’s reborn in a better form and possibly an Arahat, which is like a sacred person who is still living on this Earth. I guess part of it is in Lao now, or it’s the same and they were possibly using all words I’ve never heard before, which is entirely possible in a formal ceremony like this. I’m doing my best to understand the situation and enjoy and soak everything in, but now my legs are sending very loud and insulting messages to my brain.

Then, Ing gets my attention and tells me to take a flower pot with a few very tall branches coming out. Instead of their being leaves on the branches there are many small bills wrapped in plastic. At the base of the pot are fruit drinks and other various snack foods. I hand one over to Pavath and take on myself. She then tells us to move up to the front row so all of us are in one connected line in front of the monks. The monks chant again, but now everyone in the line picks up the pot and holds it at about the same height we were holding our hands when we were listening to the monks chant. I pick it up and hold it there and then the chanting starts again. It’s actually quite nice to sit like this because now my arms are burning a bit and it’s taking some of the attention of the pain in the rest of my body. The only issue is that this chanting is going on much longer than I had hoped. My body was about at the end of it’s ability to sit in this damn position and now they hand me a heavy pot to hold while staying in the same position. This time though I can’t adjust myself or put the pot down. I keep getting thoughts of “just put it down, it’s okay!” “Do you want a sore back all day at work tomorrow?”, but I push them aside and instead fill my head with “there’s no way in hell I’m going to be the first one to put this pot down”. Now my stubbornness is coming out and I’ve now set my mind to wait for my arms to fall off before I surrender and put the pot down, either to rest my arms or switch my legs around. The chanting keeps going and going… There are even parts where the rest of the monks stop and only one is going and I think that’s the sign for nearing the end, but then the monks all start up again. They’re all probably thinking the same thing I’m thinking. “how the hell do we get out of this? I don’t know let’s just stop chanting”. My whole body starts to get to a shaky stage and then, everything ends and we all put our pots down. I still make sure I’m not the first one to put my pot down, I don’t care if we’re all done, I set a promise to myself and my arms are still quite well attached.

We place the pots in front of the monks at the front of the room and then some women pass around envelops to all of them. I guess those envelops had more money in them. I suppose that all goes to renovations for the monastery, but I want to ask more about what happens with that. It probably goes into their casual Fridays when they wear tank tops and drink beer while they grill hamburgers. After the distribution everyone sits back down and MORE CHANTING starts. I’m about ready to throw a tantrum here. At least I was able to get up when I moved that damn pot, but I know it’s going to hurt much faster than before. Back in the torture position, I put my hands back up in prayer and try to listen as well as I can to the words being said. Now my arms are tired, my brain is tired, and the entire lower part of my body. Even though my arms are in prayer position, they start to shake a little bit. I’m not sure if they’re tired, crying, or trying to evacuate my body. I’m able to switch my legs again now, so I take full advantage and am doing it so often now I probably look more like a hired break-dancer then someone participating in the ceremony. This goes on for probably another 15 minutes and then the chanting stops again. People start to get up and I’m pretty sure that everything has finished now. I still haven’t gotten up because my legs have just given up at this point. I didn’t throw the tantrum, so they did and now aren’t listening to me anymore. I sit and wait for the monks to clear out. Then I look over at Ing and she tells us to wait around to eat dinner with them.

Finally I get up and see Caroline also came. I’m glad she came and showed support, but it feels awkward because I know she left Sakura with her and Ing being on pretty bad terms. At the same time I’m also proud of Caroline for being bigger than that and coming to support Gom. As much as Ing has done to put this whole thing on, it is for Gom. I walk to the front lobby and Caroline says she’s going to leave. Then Pavath and I go back and sit in the same room as someone brings us a circular table thing and two bowls of soup. I tell Pavath I don’t care what he thinks about how my legs are placed and I sat in the indian style or pretzel or whatever is culturally sensitive to say here. I think both those names aren’t as accurate as “the less torturous position”. The food is some small sweet things and a bowl of curry noodle soup. It’s amazing and one of the Lao guys sitting with us brings Pavath and I a second bowl each. After that I tap out and tell Ing I’m going to bed and than her for putting everything on and inviting me to join.