During my Yoga teacher training I battled to meditate. It drove the woman who ran the ashram mad, she said she could feel my thoughts ricocheting around the room. I’d had this kind of feedback once before – at a step class when the teacher asked me to move to the back of the room because my lack of co-ordination was distracting the others. But this felt like a bigger failure – not being able to control ones limbs while hideous 80s disco music distracted my mind was one thing. Not being able to manage my own mind whilst sitting on my butt, was entirely another.
The physical part of yoga – the asanas, are really just for preparing the body to meditate. To become a ‘real’ yogi – you need to have mastered all steps of astanga (eight limbed) yoga. The Yamas and Nyamas are our value system and the way we interact with the world. The Asanas prepare the body (yoga as we know it). Pranayama, breath awareness and control. Pratyahara, letting go of vices. Dharana, concentration. Dhyana, meditation. And Samadhi – ultimate peace and self-realization.
I did pretty well on everything up to and including Pratyahara. For the duration of the course we weren’t allowed to drink coffee or alcohol. Nor eat sugar. Which I managed.
Concentration – I knew I could do. When I work – I can concentrate fiercely for hours. And I certainly sat there for hours, ignoring the pain in my lower regions, trying. But Dhyana – never happened. The others reported slivers of samadhi, moments of blissful integration, minutes of nirvana. But not me: I always had a song lyric playing in my head or I spent the time menu planning. I think too much – and I wanted the peace. But as our teacher put it: “you’re just not up to it, yet.”
So she gave me a D in bliss. And told me that I reminded her of herself when she was young and unenlightened. All good – but the woman was only 2 years older than me. (Though you wouldn’t have known it to look at her. Must have been a hell of a two years.)
I was disappointed – the benefits or meditation are well documented: less stress, more sleep, lower blood pressure, calm outlook, increased productivity and creativity, serene appearance, improved sex drive. Even one of those would have made me happy.
While I was wandering around SE Asia – I visited a number of retreats and ashram. Fitting into the daily life seamlessly – waking at 5am, cleaning the kitchen, doing the asanas, reading the sutras, washing pots … but I just couldn’t hack the meditation. I sat there and sat … but no dice. Nothing happened. No union with the universe, no sense of complete peace, no deep inner joy. Just muscular agony.
I began to despair – was there no higher plane for me?
My last attempt came about through a brief encounter at the Sheraton in Hanoi. How yogic is that? It was monsoon time – so there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to do or see that didn’t involve sliding through mud. I’d broken a toe and cracked some bones in my foot running through the main town square loaded down by my backpack. And my foot was bound by thick elastoplast. So any hiking/diving etc was out of the question.
So I took myself off for a cruise on Ha-Long Bay and spent the time trapped on a boat with a family in crisis: the mother drunk as a lord, the father trying to cover up – the daughter cutting herself in the dank bathroom. It was great fun. After three days my clothes were covered in mould – and I had had enough. Vietnam felt like hard work and I wanted to go home. I decided to check into the Sheraton (who I knew would be doing laundry, have dry beds and make martinis) and figure that out.
As I walked into the hotel I bumped into a group of French flashpackers I had met a few weeks earlier in Cambodia. They were also tired of the rain and the Vietnamese (the meanies of S.E.Asia) – and were on their way back to Bangkok to attend a ‘meditate for peace’ event. Three days of non-rigorous, live-offsite, buddhist meditation in Bangkok at a gorgeous temple. With Thai food and hospitality.
Why didn’t I join them?
The retreat was being hosted by the Plum Village monks. Exiled Vietnamese Buddhists who had found a home in France. Led by Thich Nhat Hanh, these guys were less absolute about their meditation styles. Unlike most monasteries or ashram where meditation is taken cross-legged, in a hall, in the dark – they encouraged walking mediation and working meditation. So I liked them already. (The Vietnamese Government however didn’t – they had banned Hanh in 1966 – forbidding him from ever returning home. I later found out that the police destroyed the monastery in Vietnam in 2009 – leaving over 300 nuns and monks penniless and with nowhere to live. Peace and love my Viet brothers.)
It also meant that I could go back and stay at the Millenium Hilton – one of my favourite hotels ever. The hotel provided a complementary boat service up the river, to the temples, at the crack of dawn each morning. A beautiful way to start the day – and perfect transport-wise. Plus the hall was next to the Thai Massage School for the Blind – which offered sublime massages for $10. In a few seconds it all fell seamlessly into place. So I said I would see them at the end of the week, booked what needed to be booked and waved grumpy Vietnam goodbye
I tried my best. I didn’t drink coffee or alcohol in preparation. I stuck to a veggie diet in the days prior, and I put away my iPod. But at lunchtime on ‘Peace-Out, Day Two’, one of the monks approached me: Teacher wondered if he might speak with me?
Our conversation went as follows:
Him: Do you have success with your meditation
Me: Nope, not really
Him: So why are you forcing yourself to do it?
Me: So I can be calm and centered.
Him: What do you like to do that makes you happy?
Me: I like to sit and have coffee or a glass of wine … and read a magazine or think.
Him: Then do that. That is a meditation. What you are doing here is a waste of time for you. That is not a meditation.
Me: Oh, ok then. Sorry.
Him: No, not to be sorry – some people just can’t meditate in this way. You are one of them. It is not bad or good, it is just as it is. Your mind is your mind – appreciate it. Go now and have coffee and be happy.
And he put a garland around my neck, bowed to me in namaste and showed me the door.
So I spent the last two days of my holiday, sitting in a deck chair on the 4th floor ‘beach’ at my hotel. Sipping cocktails, as I gazed out over the Chao Phraya River and read the Vogue. And I’ve never felt closer to heaven.
(Note: images found in the public domain. This post was not sponsored in any way.)