For the last few years, as I’ve wandered across the world, through weeks and in and out of days, finding my independence and self worth in dark, locked boxes that, unbeknownst to me, had always been hidden in strange nooks of my soul waiting to be discovered and set free, I’ve begun to find that… surprise!
I, the eternal atheist, am deeply spiritual.
Before, when I happened across someone at a bar who was half blazed and three beers deep, uttering the words, “I’m spiritual,” I always just assumed I was about to enter a one sided conversation with a pretentious, wanna-be-hippie who would quickly start spewing off a bunch of forced, existential sentences that I would barely understand.
And now, here I am, hesitantly declaring my bizarrely individual and nearly unexplainable sense of spirituality, desperately hoping I don’t come off as the aforementioned stereotype.
Nonetheless, the concept of spirituality, with or without organized religion, is something that has recently sparked my ravenous curiosity.
By exploring chakras, the tarot, astrology, energies, meditation, the idea of communication with spirits, trance dance and earth religion, I’ve begun to find a sense of connection that I had never found before. Particularly not with the religion I was raised in and around.
And so, all at once, these things; these often-dismissed concepts, had awoken something within me. Not a blind belief or a wholehearted acceptance of their trueness, just something new: An intense desire to find something to believe in.
These more unorthodox ideas and rituals took hold of me and drew me in. Lit the match that started a small, spirituality-fueled flame I never knew was there. But as a woman with absolutely no convention in her life, a part of me was craving something conventional. An established, institutionalized religion that holds some real weight in the eyes of whomever cares about such things. But nothing seemed to come remotely close. They all seemed to me, too brutal, too exclusive, too far-fetched or too far from my heart.
On a whim, I began to read books by the Dalai Lama and quickly found myself reveling in his wisdom and gentleness. The way he painted the principals of his religion while avoiding a suggestion towards conversion was refreshing. He was simply saying, ‘I’ve found these things to be true. I’ve found that they make me happier. If you’d like, apply them to your own life in whatever way feels good to you.’
Whereas a lot of time, preaching religion seems, to me, to have some underlying agenda, his total lack of one encouraged me. I wanted to learn more about the religion that birthed such an enlightened and open-minded human being.
I began to read book after book about the Buddhist religion finding that much of it seemed to make sense to me.
Like the fact that Buddha doesn’t claim to be above us, but only to have achieved something that we too can achieve if we try. He is not a god, only a teacher. There is no dogma, only a mapped out route to follow that has proven results. And a big part of the appeal for me (something I, perhaps naively, misunderstood) was that within the realm of Buddhism, there was total equality. My vagina would not make my path towards enlightenment any more treacherous than that of my male counterparts.
I had been practicing meditation for a few months in a not so committed way. It was totally unrelated to religion. Just a flighty attempt at achieving some semblance balance. But suddenly, I was dedicated to the task of learning more about Buddhism; a religion based in Vipassana meditation. (Vipassana is a form of meditation that doesn’t control the mind or quiet it, but simply watches it as it moves. Observes it with the hope of one day being able to separate mind and body. Recognizing that your thoughts and feelings are not you. Just occurrences within the mind.)
So I decided to combine the two interests and dive right in by spending some time practicing meditation and studying Buddhism at a temple in Thailand. Baptism by fire, so to speak (pun intended.)
I arrived at the Wua Tam Forest Monastery in Mae Hong Son, a rural area five hours north of Chiang Mai with a backpack, a good deal of apprehension and a heart full of idealism.
I walked up to the information desk without a reservation. I gave my name and was given the key to my very own Kuti. Piling onto my outstretched arms a small blanket that would cover me on the hard, wooden platform that would act as my bed and a pair of loose fitting, all white, donated clothes, the receptionist told me how I would be living for the next week.
0500: Wake up, meditate in your room.
0630: Offering of food to the monks
0800 Morning meditation
1030: Offering of food to the monks
1100: Lunch (this would be our last meal of the day)
1300 Afternoon meditation
1700: Free Hour
1800: Evening meditation
2000: Mediate in your room
2200: Lights out
Dear god. What had I gotten myself into this time?
After completing a week of it, I have to say, it’s not as bad as it sounds. In fact, it’s kind of nice. No phones. No outside world. The only entertainment being the inner workings of your mind and books about kamma, rebirth, the dhamma and the path to enlightment. It was peaceful. Quiet. An excellent space for growing.
And yet, at times, it could be overwhelmingly noisy and chaotic. Especially when you’re struggling with some of the fundamental concepts of the religion.
Through my reading I learned that Buddhism recognizes three characteristics that define all human beings. Impermanence: our bodies, our minds, thoughts, emotions, our happiness and our struggle are all temporary. Things existing for just a brief moment in time before they quietly disappear. Unsatisfactoriness: as human beings we are in a constant state of dukkha, or suffering. We fight incessantly to make this body we are tied to comfortable. Feeding it. Covering it with clothes. Shifting in our seats. Or we are constantly searching for things to make our minds happy; love, friendship, good food, entertainment. But it will never be lasting and that is a state of suffering in and of itself. (As a happy-go-lucky, eternal optimist, I had a hard time with this one, but I eventually gave in and said, “Okay, I can see it.”) And the third is non-self: the idea that our body does not belong to us. Our minds do not belong to us. There is no ‘I’.
I struggled most with the concept of non-self. I had so many questions…If my body is not mine, why is it wrong for someone else to take it without my consent. Why do I care for it in the way that I do. If my thoughts and my feelings are not me, who the fuck am I? I began to have a minor existential crisis.
After a few days of trying to figure it out on my own, I got the opportunity to speak with a monk. I knelt before him and asked my question. ‘Who am I if I am not my mind? If I am not a soul? If I am not my consciousness?”
He gave me a beautifully poetic response. One that is long and abstract that I would be happy to discuss with anyone who would like to know. But he told me finally, that in order to achieve Nirvana, the goal of Buddhism and the place where everlasting happiness is supposedly found, I had to accept these three things and let go of my attachment to the sense of “I-ness” Once I did that, I would forfeit all desire and finally achieve peace.
“So I let go of desire? Totally? I don’t want anything?”
Smiling and nodding he answered, “Dispassion and detachment”
He said it in a way that suggested this was something to strive for, but to me a life of dispassion sounds worse than a fiery, everlasting hell.
I amended my question. “Okay so what if I don’t want to achieve Nirvana. Can I still meditate and reap some benefits?”
I asked this (apparently very silly) question because I thought Vipassana could really help a semi-closeted basketcase like myself. By using it to not so much silence my mind (because I have come to genuinely appreciate its relentless and eccentric workings,) but simply to know it better. To recognize when it’s taking part in some of the not so healthy behavior it sometimes exhibits. To know when it’s writing a story that isn’t based in reality. When it’s blowing things out of proportion. When it’s being selfish or jealous or insensitive. I wanted to use meditation to get to know my crazy well enough to not be a slave to my thoughts and emotions.
In response to my question my monk friend threw his head back and laughed heartily.
“Why? It’s like working for no money.” I joined in and we laughed together for a while.
I left the conversation with more answers, but I still wasn’t convinced.
The rest of the day, my entire meditation was tinted with agitation and frustration. I wanted so badly to identify with Buddhism. But the religion was much more divisive than I originally thought (see previous reference to the vagina.) And more than anything else, the idea of non-self was not only hard for me to grasp, but totally unappealing. I found myself rejecting it entirely. I like my fire. My passion. I like that I have an intense need for knowledge and experiences and love. I didn’t want to let that go. Fuck it. I wouldn’t let that go.
The next day, I contemplated my small, new found revelations as I took a long walk through the mountains surrounding the temple. Nothing has ever felt so natural as my bare feet, pressing into the cold, sticky, red clay. The air was cool and balmy and every so often the morning sun would peek through the canopy and tickle my cheeks. As I ran my fingers from the plush moss covering the large, jagged boulders to the rough bark of the broadleaf trees, they tingled with electricity. And then it occurred to me. I was finally feeling the connection I had been waiting for all week. I found it alone in the forest.
I packed up my things and left the next day.
I didn’t leave sold on buddhism the way I was so hoping I would be. In fact, I’m not so sure I’m any closer to knowing the right outlet for my spirituality. But I know that I came alive in the silence and amongst the trees and for now, that’s enough to feed the flame.