So what did I learn after 4 days in a secluded forest monastery, tucked away in the rural areas of northern Thailand, sleeping on hard wooden floors, taking very cold showers, spending time alone by myself, writing, reading, thinking, meditating without any TV or Internet?
Four Days Without Seeing My Own Reflection
That’s right, there were no mirrors in the bathrooms and restrooms of Wat Pa Don Hiay Soke. I didn’t think to bring my own, so I used my digital camera to make sure I was looking neat and tidy. Except for the rear-view mirrors in that 20-year-old Nissan Sunny, I never saw my own reflection for 4 days.
Which was a big change from my city life in Singapore, where there are mirrors everywhere you go. After 3 days without one, I realized that inside my head, I’d stopped defining myself by the way I looked. Instead, I’d very naturally began to define myself by the way I behaved and thought.
When you think about it, it really is absurd to define your internal self by the way you look. Being well-groomed is important, certainly, but it’s the silliest thing when you sell yourself short for having small eyes or something.
So in the villages of Thailand, I found the cure for anyone with low self-esteem: spend a few days in a community where you’re welcome and you contribute, where there are no mirrors at all. You’ll find your real sense of self in no time.
Forgiveness is the Road to Inner Peace
I asked Archan (teacher/master) Sa-ad what to do about people that transgress against us, i.e. piss us off, and he advised me to respond to them with loving kindness.
At the time I tried to understand it, but only later in the meditation center did my understanding really solidify.
To respond with negativity to negativity only creates more negativity. When you’re able to come from a better place and add positivity to negativity, that means you’re able to not react to negativity with a negative attitude. And you’re only able to do that when you create your own peacefulness and happiness from a strong inner place, that’s not dependent on outer situations.
So being able to respond to negativity with positivity means you’re happier most of the time than not.
Karma & Merit — Give and You Shall Receive
This is something that Paiboon & I discussed a lot during our trip. I knew he’d had some amazing learning experiences this last year and a half, and I kept pressing him for something useful and pragmatic he learned, that I could take home with me to use.
He told me the simplest principle to achieve success was simply to give, and I shall receive. The Buddhists believe strongly in karma and merit; karma being the law of cause and effect and merit the store of good you’ve done.
I learned that there were also different ways of accumulating merit, some with better results than others. I had difficulty accepting an unseen universal accounting system, and Paiboon confessed that he had the same doubts too at first.
But through his own experience and investigation, he’d found the principle to be true. This was something that I kept debating with him back and forth, and it wasn’t until the 17th night in a temple in downtown Bangkok that I finally began to understand, but that’s a story for later.
I Wasn’t Going to Die!
This was my first trip overseas on my own, and I really had no idea what to expect. I was excited, but mixed with that excitement were twinges of fear; what would happen? what if I ran out of money? what if my stuff got stolen?
On the 3rd day, I realized I was in a remote forest monastery, next to a small rural village far from the things I would ordinarily call ‘civilization’ – big concrete buildings, 7-11s and ATMs. And I was doing just fine. I wasn’t going to die, and there were lots of kind and caring people around me. That really helped me to relax, and trust myself — and humanity — a lot more.