I hope you have all been well. I missed writing to you all. The feel my fingers tapping away at the keys, as these characters emerge on the screen, fills me with a sense of warm familiarity. It is incredible that I can write these letters, knowing that there are humans on the other side and that you are interested in what I have to say.
Thank you for taking the time to read these words of mine.
On the last episode of this, I wrote to you before embarking on a one month stay at a local Buddhist monastery, I now write to you having arrived back in “real world”.
As I wrote to you one month ago, the reason I left on retreat was simple. I wanted to get to know this mind of mine, and to do this; I sat with it.
During those weeks, I lived very much like a monk.
- I woke up each morning at 3:30 am
- I did not have my sim card, or any contact with the outside world
- I spent hours each day in meditation
- I did not eat after 12 noon
- I shaved my head on the new moon and the full moon
- I took part in chores and activities to help run the monastery
Why did I do this?
I wanted to remove all the distractions and stimuli from ordinary life and see what my mind would be like. I wanted to see if there was a form of happiness that I could connect with that was free from all the conditions we all-too-often demand.
Is there a form of happiness, of well-being, that isn’t dependent on getting my way all of the time?
I did not want to change who I am, grow as a person or even alter my mind in any deep way; I simply sought to understand it.
I often remind people that the Tibetan word for meditation is “sgom”, which means “to familiarise with” or “to get used to”. Much like breaking into a new pair of shoes, we sit so we can break into this mind of ours (and find real peace there).
Chop wood, carry water ⺢
This whole thing has been surprising to me. Not what I expected at all, yet remarkable nonetheless. I was expecting a period of silence and mental solitude, but enjoyed one far more social and filled with chatter — mental and otherwise. To stay in the monastery, we needed to help run it. This means working with people.
One day I remember helping out in sorting out all of the firewood. I overheard the senior monk commenting on the Tibetan Tradition of performing a hundred thousand prostrations in preparation for meditation practice.
“Here in the monastery we experience a hundred thousand frustrations instead.”
There is a way of looking at this as a feature and not a bug. The reason we meditate is not so we can become a good meditator, but so we can bring all of its benefits off the cushion and into day-to-day life.
When we arise from our seats, we take our mindfulness with us into the kitchen, the garden, the office and all the arenas of our lives.
“Master, how do you integrate your practice with your day-to-day life?” 
“That’s simple, I eat and I sleep.”
“But master, everyone eats and everyone sleeps.”
“But not everyone eats when they eat and sleeps when the sleep.”
Towards the end of my stay, we were all in the kitchen preparing the daily meal. We had a deadline when everything was to be ready, and we were all cognizant of this. We were all performing our respective chores, helping in different ways, when we heard a crash. One of us had accidentally knocked over a glass, shattering it all over the floor.
What happened next really left an impression on me. No one reacted in panic, there wasn’t a trace of stress, and there was no gesture or impulse to blame anyone. We skipped all of that and went straight to addressing the situation. One of us fetched the broom and began to sweep, and another found a box to put all of the broken shards. The rest of us maneuvered around the incident and quietly resumed working.
Meditation works, and being in an otherwise ordinarily stressful environment, made this more apparent.
A Day in the Life ♪♫
It was half-past three in the morning when we would rise to the sound of our alarms. Then, under a beautiful starlit sky, free of the usual light pollution, we walk from our Kutis and into the Sala for the first meditation of the day.
Kuti, by the way, means “little house” in Pali. I was staying in one that was built decades ago called “family house”, it was quaint, small and very cosy with only a few small rooms, a few beds, kitchenette and a fireplace.
The Sala refers to the hall where we meditated. It was the largest building on the campus with a shiny wooden floor, plenty of mats, cushions and blankets and an alter housing a large statue of the Buddha.
The morning session would begin with chanting, we would chant the Buddha’s words every day, and we alternate between English and Pali (the language from the Buddha’s time).
The chanting itself served as a kind of meditation. It was an activity to rest our attention on, and the words served as a continual reminder to why we were there.
These words are from a passage called Reflections on Impermanence, and are a direct translation of the Buddha’s words. In those cold mornings, before the crack of dawn, we would find ourselves chanting about the inevitability of our deaths. It is the very reality that most of us try to push to the back of our minds, that we try to keep fresh in the forefront of our awareness.
It is as the ancient Greek philosophers have always said; Memento Mori: Remember that you are mortal.
Like the wick of a candle being consumed by the flame with every passing day, our lives grow shorter. Every breath we take, is one more that we will never be able to take again — and we only have so many — how much longer will we go on taking all of this for granted?
Sam Harris once described a key reason we pursue a spiritual life as so we do not suffer over stupid things.
“Death makes a mockery of our lives.”
“You know this, and yet if you’re like most people, you’ll spend most of your time in life tacitly presuming you’ll live forever. It’s like watching a bad movie for the fourth time or bickering with your spouse. These things only make sense in light of eternity—there better be a heaven if we’re gonna waste our time like that.”
Sam Harris, It is always now
We meditate so we can cut through the incessant chatter and find fulfilment in the simplicity of the here and now.
After chanting the meditation would begin.
We were free to alternate between the usual sitting meditation, as well as walking meditation. The essence of meditation isn’t sitting still, but being aware of what is.
In the morning, we would alternate between break periods, work periods and meditation. Breakfast is at half-past six and lunch is at ten.
Ten might seem early for lunch, but it makes sense. In the Vinaya — the discipline for monks — one is not supposed to eat after noon. Having lunch at ten means, we have plenty of time.
A younger monk — only a little older than me — explained it to me; the point of the rule is to prevent us from seeking food unnecessarily. The discipline is not to restrain ourselves or to cause us to suffer, but rather to release us from stress. The anxiety of having to worry about what we’ll do for dinner is vanquished if there is no dinner to have.
On that point, the reason monks shave their hair is the very same. If they have no hair, they don’t have to think very much about their hair. If they only have the one robe, they do not have to stress very much about what to wear. Various problems that come up regularly for most of us have been eradicated, as if a weed pulled up by the root.
When examined closely, it seems most of our fears and worries do not stem from our need but only our desires.
“If you let go a little, you’ll be a little happier.
If you let go a lot, you’ll be a lot happier,
If you let go completely, you’ll be free.”
Ajahn Chah, who is revered in the Thai Forest Tradition
After lunch, we help pack up and clean up which usually finishes at noon, and after this, we immediately taste the fruit of our austerity; apart from rostered duties we are free from work for the rest of the day.
The Forest Tradition
As much as I have read about meditation, there is still a lot I do not know about Buddhism. Shortly after arriving, I learned that it was a period known as the Vassa — or the “rains retreat” — which hails from all the way back during the time of the Buddha.
In the rainy season in India, conditions were ripe for planting crops, but before organised agriculture, we sowed seeds all over the place. A large congregation of monks roaming the lands on foot was not ideal.
Thus, the Buddha declared that during the rainy season, rather than wander from town to town with their begging bowls, the monks would stay in the forest on an intensive meditation retreat. During this period, lay followers were instructed to travel to the monks to make offerings.
The Theravadan school of Buddhism is the oldest, and many consider the most authentic teachings of the Buddha.
The Thai Theravadan school places special emphasis on the ancient practice of forest retreat.
“Therefore in these lovely gleaming woods,
With joy that’s marred by few concerns,
Where mental wandering will cease,
I will remain in blissful solitude.”
The Bodhicaryavatara, Chapter 8
The truth is the practice of living in the forest isn’t meant to be an austere one; rather, it is an expression of joy.
Concentration and Wisdom
Sīla, samadhi and pañña (pronounced “Seela”, “Samadhi” and “Puhn-ya”). These are the Pali words for morality, concentration and wisdom. Some say that these three were all the Buddha taught. The various Buddhist schools share these in common but emphasise different pieces.
Different traditions have different ideas on how to practice meditation. Some are minute, some are significant. In the conservative Thai Theravadan Tradition, the importance of the jhānas — states of high concentration — are emphasised in a way they are not in similar traditions.
Concentration is key to much of the bliss we experience in life. Whether we are reading a book, listening to music, playing a sport or sucked into a movie, when we are having a good time; we are really stuck into it. There is a collision between our mind and the activity. Our attention is on the here-and-now, we are concentrated. The rest of our lives disappear as we give ourselves entirely to what we are engaged in, with whatever it is that has enchanted us.
One of the secrets of the mind that meditators discover is that our happiness is not from the activity, or object itself but rather from the quality of the attention we give it. If we give ourselves entirely to it, even the activity of mindful breathing proves to be deeply rewarding.
When you single-pointedly concentrate on an object — be it the feeling of the breath, the sounds in nature — it is possible to reach a blissful stillness. A serenity beyond what most of us realise is available.
A warning is given here in most traditions. A meditator can miss the point and start to crave for these states. To neurotically strive in meditation to achieve the jhānas is a trap that must be avoided. To strive for anything, after all, is to overlook the beauty of the present.
Teachers in the Thai Theravadan Tradition believe that other traditions took this warning too far. That because of them, too many meditators dismiss trance states as “cheap highs” or a mere distraction to spiritual growth. While the jhānas themselves are not the goal, they reveal the capacity for the mind to experience bliss and contentment away from the usual pleasant stimuli. While the goal isn’t to land in a never-ending high, understanding the mind’s capacity for this happiness is itself wisdom and frees one from neurotically striving for the mundane. Indeed if there is neurotic striving, it may as well be for the highest bliss, it may as well be for the end of the striving itself.
One evening the Ajahn explained to us rather elegantly the relationship between samadhi and pañña, that is; concentration and wisdom in meditation. Ajahn, is the Thai word for teacher, by the way. In this tradition, to have earned the title of Ajahn, a monk needs to have sat through ten Vassa retreats. This means they would have had to have been a monk for at least ten years and have sat a three-month retreat every year.
When we meditate, we bring our attention to an object, usually the breath. We rest it there, and when we get distracted, we gently bring it back. Slowly we learn to stay on the object, in what is called one-pointed concentration. This is a blissful experience; this is samadhi. Many have criticised seeking these states, as they are not the true goal of practice which is to develop insight into the mind. That is; wisdom or pañña. Samadhi comes and goes, but pañña never fades.
Ajahn explained that there is a neat connection between practising concentration and developing wisdom. When we are mindful of the breath (or any object), we start distracted, and the practice is unsatisfying. We are interrupted by thoughts of the past, and ideas about what we want from the future. As we practice, our mind becomes clearer, more steady and concentrated on the breath we experience bliss. This bliss is indeed samadhi, it is indeed impermanent, and it is indeed not the point of meditation. However, to get to this bliss, we must go of the clutter in our minds — if only for a little while. It is this letting go, which is pañña, and this is the real purpose of meditation.
My Meditation Practice
I came into the monastery prepared to put aside my usual practice for a few weeks and immerse myself in the Thai Theravadan style. I was surprised to find that no instructions were given, and everyone was practising meditation styles that they had learned elsewhere. Ajahn and the others had no issue with me practising my usual meditation which is from the Tibetan tradition.
I’ll take a moment to describe my practice.
When I take a seat upon my cushion, I make the aspiration that my practice will be of benefit of all beings, and then I rest the mind as it is. Whatever thoughts arise, whatever feelings arise, I leave alone. Like ripples in a glass of water, the thoughts settle on their own. In that time rather than try to be this, or that, whatever arises is okay.
“Mindfulness is non-judgmental awareness of the contents of consciousness.”
“Don’t meditate, but don’t get distracted”
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
We call this objectless shamata. Shamata means tranquillity, objectless means that there isn’t a reference point like the breath, sensations or sounds. There is no specific focus, simply natural mind, how it is.
This is my main practice, and all others lead to this.
“Complete — all key instructions end up in utterly natural release.
Complete — all key outlooks end up in no conceptual position.
Complete — all paths of practice end up in making no effort.”
Meditation at its heart was never meant to be an expression of dissatisfaction. It isn’t supposed to be yet another outlet for our neuroticism. We are not striving to change the mind, but only getting to know it as it is.
There is nothing to do, but be as you are. It has also been called undistracted non-meditation.
When the mind is too agitated to rest in its nature, then I fall back to the breath, sounds or another object of focus and use it to bring my attention to the present.
When the mind sinks into dullness, sleepiness or lethargy, then I resort to contemplation and analysis to bring it back awake. This involves questions like “why am I here meditating?”, “What do I want?”, “Who am I?” or the contemplation of my inevitable death and what it means. Sharp questioning and the analysis of everything that I am, snaps my mind out of its inertia and I arrive in my seat, vividly awake.
If you are interested in the kinds of meditation I practice and recommend, I have an upcoming piece explaining all of it. Watch this space.
The traditional framework in dividing the teachings, at least in Tibetan Buddhism, is into the View, Meditation, Action and Result.
- The view is how reality is.
- The meditation is how we integrate that view into our lives.
- The action is the kind of conduct that we naturally engage in from holding the view.
- The result is the fruit, the benefit, the profits, what we gain by having established the view.
There are many different paths and styles to Buddhist practice that divide their teachings into these four stages.
My favourite depiction of the four parts is in the Shabkar Lama’s Flight of the Garuda a traditional Tibetan text on the practice of Dzogchen.
“The infallible guiding star of vision is called a guiding star because of its unfailing radiance: it is vivid perception of the here and now”
“The infallible guiding star of meditation is called a guiding star because of its unfailing radiance: it is vivid perception of the here and now”
“The infallible guiding star of action is called a guiding star because of its unfailing radiance: it is vivid perception of the here and now”
“The infallible guiding star of the goal is called a guiding star because of its unfailing radiance: it is vivid perception of the here and now”
It’s much easier to remember a framework when everything in it is the same. Vivid perception of the here and now. The view, path, conduct and result are nothing more than this.
Oh and how did my meditation retreat go? What was the result?
From the last episode of this:
“In the absence of people, projects and activities to think about, where will the mind go? What will arise in this mind of mine?”
Now, let me try and apply the framework.
The view: Taking my mind away from all the distractions of day-to-day life, I could sit alone with my mind and see it for what it is
The meditation: I simply sat and was with whatever arose, I left the mind alone
The action: I woke up at 3:30 am, had two meals a day and spent a good portion of the morning doing the dishes.
The result: I had a good time
Peace can be found amid any activity, indeed, to seek happiness in any given circumstance is to overlook how the mind already is. The chores we had to do to maintain the monastery were not separate from the practice of meditation. And yes, they did include both chopping wood and carrying water.
Everything I described in the last episode happened many times throughout the retreat. Fond childhood memories surfaced, and all sorts of insights arose. I experienced stillness, and I experienced a flurry emotions. In silent darkness, a whole host of remarkable experiences dawned in the sky of my mind. I started to wonder what they meant, if anything at all. Were they a sign for progress? How was I doing?
When I asked Ajahn about this, his response was pithy.
When I dropped my desire to make progress, to have a special experience or to attain anything not already present, peace dawned upon me.
“To know from the beginning there is no awakening,
Is to be where wanting has never been.
With this special teaching that rots the roots of samsara,
Wake up from the realm of misery.”
The Elimination of Errors, Jigme Lingpa 
The spiritual path is like the thorn that removes the thorn. We tend to seek fulfilment in material things, fleeting experiences and validation from others, but the spiritual life promises another way. The real and hidden purpose of the spiritual path is to come to the end of seeking itself. It is not to trade one neurosis for another but to learn to be content with what is.
The peace that we all yearn for is right here, and it is ironically only the yearning that obscures it. This is not something to work towards gradually — in levels, paths and stages — but can be seen in the moment.
Either your mind is at peace, or it is not.
To truly let be, to rest the mind as it is, is to take the goal as the path.
Back to the original question:
Is there a form of happiness, of well-being, that isn’t dependent on getting my way all of the time?
There is a peace with all of us, here and now. All we have to do is look. Can you see it? Underneath the storm of your apparent thought and emotions, can you know a calm that never fades? Is there a happiness that you can connect with right in this moment regardless of how the story of your life is going? Is it possible for you to drop your problems — even for a moment — whatever they might be? Can you rest right now in the simplicity of the present?
The remainder of one’s practice is to learn to stay here.
It’s now been two weeks since I have come back, and something else exciting has happened since coming back.
I have been interviewed by the wonderful Maria Issaris for her award-winning radio show New Voices on the Australian Radio Station 2PRH. Maria is a journalist and writer who I met early this year, when I started attending her writer’s meetup events where I have been meeting fellow writer, and we have been sharing our work with one another.
Her show New Voices, strikes me as rather innovative and fun. She structures her episodes in two parts:
- Maria interviews an emerging writer about their work, and tries to decipher the ins and outs of their mind. Why is it that they write? What is their writing process? She also has the writer showcase their work by reading out choice snippets.
- In part two, she approaches an established individual in the creative arts and has them do a blind review of the writer’s work
Last week I had the exciting experience of recording the interview with Maria in the radio station, we ended up talking for over an hour, but I hear it will be trimmed down to 17 minutes to fit the running time. After she finishes recording part 2 with my mysterious reviewer and has edited the episode, it will be broadcast on Australian radio and later uploaded as a podcast. I will be sure to let you know when it is available.
Before, I let you go; I want to let you know about another milestone I’ve reached: You are now reading my fiftieth letter!
When I started writing these in March last year, I wasn’t sure what would happen. I wasn’t sure how far I would take these, or whether people would be keen to read what I had to write.
I say this a lot, but I really mean it.