I had always been aware of meditation, but like a lot of people I thought it was for hippies in a drum circle or old time martial artists. I first started becoming more exposed to meditation when I saw this segment on 60 Minutes where Anderson Cooper explores Mindfulness meditation (first aired December 2014). I didn’t really think much of it at the time, but meditation slowly started popping up in the health and fitness podcasts I listen to (Ben Greenfield Fitness, Endurance Planet, Fat Burning Man). More and more doctors, researchers, and top athletes on these podcasts were all singing the praises of meditation. Indeed, people like Jerry Seinfeld, Oprah, Phil Jackson, the Golden State Warriors, Lebron James, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Steve Jobs, Russell Simmons, Dr. Oz, etc., etc., all have/had strong meditation practices. Many Silicon Valley Companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple all offer employees free meditation classes. In his newest book, “Tools of Titans,” Tim Ferriss interviewed over 200 of the most successful people in their respective fields to discover some common trends that all of us could apply to our lives. Among other commonalities, he identified that over 80% of those interviewed have some form of daily mindfulness or meditation practice. So meditation is becoming more mainstream, but I still think it has a stigma attached to it for a lot of people as being too “woo-woo” or hippie.
All that being said, I wasn’t going to take everyone’s word for it. Being an engineer, I wanted to do some of my own research. I started reading up on some of the different types of meditation. The two most common types I saw were: 1) Mindfulness Meditation; and 2) Mantra Meditation. I’ll put a list of the different books and resources I read or listened to for research below but here’s a quick primer on both.
Mindfulness – Mindfulness focuses on the ability of people to be fully present and aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. Mindfulness meditation focusses on the breath, not because there is anything special about it, but because the physical sensation of breathing is always there and you can use it as an anchor to the present moment. Throughout the practice you may find yourself caught up in thoughts, emotions, sounds—wherever your mind goes, simply come back again to the next breath. You can read more about Mindfulness meditation and listen to some sample guided meditations at http://www.mindful.org.
Mantra Meditation – Instead of focusing on the breath, Mantra meditation focuses on a word or phrase said out loud or internally. The most popular form of Mantra meditation today is transcendental meditations or “TM.” In TM, you repeat a given sound or mantra for 15-20 minutes twice a day. The mantra word or sound has no meaning so your brain isn’t supposed to associate any thoughts to it. This may allow you transcend all mental activity and experience the “source of thought”, which is said to be “pure silence,” “pure awareness,” or “transcendental Being.” You must sign up for a TM course to fully learn the TM technique and be assigned a mantra and a teacher. The fees can be pretty hefty, in the US it is about $1,500. You can learn more about TM at http://www.tm.org.
I decided to experiment with Mindfulness for two reasons. One, I could find a lot more scientific research on this form of meditation, and two, there was a lot more free information and support about this practice and it didn’t cost $1,500 to start practicing like TM. I decided to use the 10% Happier app to get started and used their free 7 day course with guided meditations. After completing the course, you can go back and watch the videos again and do the guided meditations any time. I used the free guided meditations for about a month and then decided to buy a month subscription to the other meditation courses offered on the app. After finishing the Basics of Meditation course, I went through different courses which focused on things like Stress, Effective Communication, Being Less Distracted, Mindful Eating, and Meditation on the Go. They were pretty informative and it was nice to switch up from the free guided meditations.
I’ve been doing meditation fairly regularly for the last six months or so and recently, I talked Diem into doing a deeper dive into Meditation by attending the two-day Monk Chat Meditation Retreat in Chiang Mai which is every Tuesday-Wednesday. Diem had never meditated before and I had never done more than a 30 minute session but I was excited to learn more. I had researched other meditation retreats but most were 7-10 days long which was a little too intense for us. Monk Chat also offers a one day retreat on Friday but we opted for the two-day. Buddhism in Thailand is largely Theravada Buddhism “Doctrine of the Elders.” It is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. 95% of Thai people are Theravada Buddhists.
Day 1 - The course meet-up is at Wan Suan Dok which was a 20 minute walk from our Airbnb. We emailed monk chat ahead of time to reserve a spot but you can also just show up and fill in a sign-up sheet. We had about 60 people in our group but they said they sometimes get more than 100 so I guess they don’t really fill up. The course costs 500 THB per person for transport, accommodation and food and 300 to buy white clothing. We bought our own white clothes so we didn’t have to pay the extra 300 THB.
After you sign in, the monk leading the retreat (ours was named KK) does an hour and a half introduction to Buddhism presentation. He explains basic Buddhism 101, as if you had never studied anything before. Most of the attendees were beginners so it was a nice intro. The monk was really funny throughout the presentation while he described the story of Buddha, the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, and a little about how the monks live.
After the intro we were loaded into Songtaews (red taxi trucks) and went for a 45 minute drive to the ‘International Buddhist Study and Vipassana Meditation Centre’ where they would conduct the rest of the retreat. The center has really nice grounds with birds chirping away outside, cows mooing in the distance, and manicured lawns and gardens. KK allocated room keys and we were paired up by sex and in twos (it was my first night away from Diem since we were married!). KK also told us to keep quiet for the rest of the retreat once we came out in our white clothing. I got paired with a tall German guy name Hadel, but we didn’t talk much. We had maybe 30 minutes to drop our bags, take a shower, and get dressed in our whites before the first meditation practice which was at 4:45 PM.
When we heard the bell ring we went into the meditation room. KK started out by instructing us how to meditate and told us that there were three basic positions for meditation: sitting; walking; and lying down. As discussed above, mindfulness meditation that Buddhists use consists of focusing on the breath and being mindful of the sensations of the breath (e.g., watching as the breath falls in and out and feeling it through your nostrils and deep in your stomach). KK also showed us three lotus positions commonly used by the Theravada Buddhist monks and led us in our first session of sitting meditation that lasted about 15 minutes. We then went outside and did another session of sitting meditation that lasted about 20 minutes. It was really nice outside, perfect temperature and lots of peaceful animal sounds. However, I’m not the most flexible guy in the world and during the second session my foot started to fall asleep so it was getting pretty hard to focus by the end of it.
After the second session we went for dinner in a separate dining hall. KK told us to keep quiet, grab our food, pick up a laminated page with Thai and English writing on it, sit down, and wait until everyone had done the same before eating. We recited the pre-food precepts before eating. It was similar to saying a prayer for those of the Christian background, except it was focused on the purpose of eating (e.g., for nourishment and not for joy and overeating). The center served some form of noodles and vegetables with watermelon for dinner. It was really good and there was plenty of food to go around.
After dinner, we did some chanting to pay respect to Buddha as a teacher and to the elders of Buddhism. KK then instructed us on walking meditation. KK joked that it was so we wouldn’t fall asleep after eating during sitting or lying meditation (which was pretty much true). You begin by simply standing on a spot with your eyes closed, hands together in front or behind. You feel your breath and feel the sensations of standing (e.g., the feeling of your foot on the floor, your posture, your shoulder and hand positions, etc.). When you begin walking, you open your eyes and gaze forward and slightly downward. You begin by having the intention to walk and then by mentally noting that you’re lifting your foot and then mentally noting when your foot touches the floor. We walked back and forth very slowly while trying to be mindful of the feelings of walking. It was pretty amazing on how slow you can walk. We walked back and forth probably 20 feet and it took about 30 minutes. We did a second session of walking meditation and then KK gave us 45 minutes to go on our own and do whatever meditation style we preferred. We actually went over time and we didn’t get to do a guided lying meditation but it was fine with me since I’ve done it before. It’s pretty much the same as sitting meditation except you’re lying down and focus more on the rise and fall of your stomach. We went to bed around 9:30 PM and KK told us that the bell would ring at 5:00 AM and meditation would start at 5:30 AM the next day (yikes).
Day 2 - We started the day with 10 minutes sitting meditation inside and some chanting before going outside to the grounds in front of the Buddha statue for 4 more sessions. We brought our mats from inside the building out with us. After this we did an Alms demonstration. In Thailand and other Buddhist countries, the monks go out every morning to collect food from the people. The monks are mostly vegetarians but since they get food from the people, they eat what the people give them, including meat. We were giving a bowl of rice with a spoon and KK would go around with a large jar and collect the rice from each of us. We then went for breakfast which was a rice and vegetable stew with toast, butter, and jam.
After breakfast we split up into two groups, one would have a Q&A session with KK to learn more about Buddhism and the monks’ life and the other would have the time to meditate on their own. Diem and I were actually in different groups. The Q&A session was interesting. This was the one time during the retreat where we were allowed to talk and I think some people were itching to finally start speaking. People asked why there were few women monks, what rules the monks follow, whether euthanasia is accepted in Buddhism, why there are statues of Hindu gods in some Buddhist temples, who do the Buddhists think created the earth, and some other ones. I won’t answer those questions here since this article really isn’t about Buddhism but more about meditation. If you’re interested you can look them up.
After the discussion with KK we met up again for another guided meditation session before lunch. For lunch, we ate a very tasty noodle and vegetable stir-fry dish with a red curry and pineapples. After lunch, we did a guided sitting meditation and then had about 45 minutes to do our own meditation before the ending the retreat. Overall, I really enjoyed the retreat and Diem did as well. Sometimes it was pretty funny to look around and see people dressed all in white, slowly walking or sitting outside. It looked like either a cult or a mental institution, but it was good to see most people take the retreat seriously. I learned a lot about meditation and have a few techniques I can apply in my own practice. I would definitely do another one but it will be a while before then. If you’d like to learn more about the meditation retreat you can visit the monkchat website or email them at email@example.com.
Even after the meditation retreat, I still struggle to consistently find time to meditate. I can imagine that finding time to meditate, like finding time to exercise, can be a big barrier to entry for most people. Most meditation advocates suggest meditating once in the morning and once before bed. One thing that has helped me fit in meditation is developing a morning routine that is flexible and doable. I recently finished “The Miracle Morning” by Hal Elrod which proposes starting each morning with 6 habits: 1) Silence (Meditation/Prayer); 2) Affirmations; 3) Visualization; 4) Exercise; 5) Reading; 6) Scribing (Writing/Journaling). This routine can be as short as 6 minutes or as long as you want. It has helped give structure to my mornings and helped make my entire days more productive.
I’m not saying everyone is going to achieve inner peace simply through meditation but I think that it has been beneficial for me. I also think it can also be beneficial for anyone who is willing to give it a chance. I would recommend starting with some of the resources below, especially the free week course on the 10% Happier app.
Let me know if you’ve found meditation helpful for you or if you any questions.
Books on TM or Mantra Meditation: Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation; Success Through Stillness
Books on Mindfulness Meditation: 10% Happier; Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation; Mindfulness Meditation: Cultivating the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind
Podcast: 10% Happier Podcast