The first time I meditate my legs hurt so badly that I think there must be something wrong with them. I am in a mango grove just outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The mangos are ripe and so heavy that they bend the branches of the trees. The ground is crawling with red ants that bite. My legs are crossed and the pain is oscillating in red waves up and down them. I have been sitting with my eyes closed for forty-five minutes. Or has it been fifteen? Have I been here for hours? I am restless and constantly moving. I readjust my legs only to feel them fall asleep once more, the tingling growing into a sharp ache. I hear the Buddhist monk’s slow, light footsteps as he walks through the garden around us. This is the first hour of a three day meditation retreat. I will spend all day meditating, breaking only for brief moments to reset the mind, eat, and sleep. The first time I meditate I am miserable.
The monk who is teaching us calls himself Master T. When my knees and legs hurt, when my mind is quickly becoming a monsoon, thunderously loud and chaotic in the face of the quiet concentration being asked of it, his calm, blossoming smile, and the contentment with which he speaks to us, are the only things that convince me this will ever be worthwhile.
I am told to focus on my home, the space where the breath meets the nose. I am told to relinquish control of my breathing and simply note its in and out movement. At first, my thoughts drift like sailboats over a sea, entering quietly. I remember performing in my high school’s production of Legally Blonde. I bring myself back to my home. I think about the three day trek through the jungle and rafting down on the Mekong River. I bring myself back to my home. I remember reading that, when trying to relinquish control of your breathing and simply observe, it may feel like you are drowning, but the body will not let you drown in open air and you must simply allow yourself to breathe without prompting. I find my home.
The longer I sit in silence, with nothing but my thoughts to accompany me, the more combative these thoughts become. I immediately notice the lack of distractions. There is nothing at my fingertips diverting my attention. There is only the sensation of thick humidity on my skin, the pain in my legs, and my mind, lashing out against its constraints. Before this first hour ends I have remembered things I haven’t thought about in years: the hot-faced shame of being rejected by my crush in the 6th grade, lying to my 4th grade teacher about why I hadn’t done my math homework, hearing that my grandmother was dead. Master T calls this propensity for the brain to be anywhere but the present monkey mind. If my brain is a monkey, it is King Kong. The monk gently strikes his Tibetan singing bowl and the sonorous ring informs us that the hour is over. It is time for us to open our eyes and stretch our legs. I open my eyes. I don’t know whether I was breathing in or out when he did.
That first night, I crawl into a small tent I had pitched when we arrived. “Before you sleep, try to note whether your last breath of the night is in or out. And when you wake, do the same,” the monk tells us. My brain screams to life as I lay there. I worry. I doubt. I cry. As if in response, the sky opens up and dumps rain. It shouts in loud, rocking thunder, and strikes the earth in bright white flashes of lightning. We all move our tents under a thin stretch of concrete ceiling at the far end of the garden. I don’t remember whether I fall asleep on an inhale or an exhale, but I wake up breathing out.
The next day is easier. The rain has stripped the air of most of its humidity, and though the sun shines down, it is easy to find my home draped in the cool shadow of the mango tree. My mind is still an untamed animal and after fifteen minutes, still grows restless and uncontrollable, but halfway through the day I find myself noticing these thoughts, instead of being dragged behind them. They pass and sail through my mind simply, and upon noticing them, I watch them recede. My legs still hurt, badly. After sitting cross-legged for longer than ten minutes the numbness begins to crawl up them once more. I was more able to let them sit.
When I go to bed, I am exhausted but when I lay down in my tent, my mind is no longer grasping for thoughts, or angrily tearing me into the past or the future. I find myself revelling in the peace of having nothing other than myself.
By the third day, when it is time to leave, Master T sits with us and reflects on our experiences. He leaves us with one final, haunting piece of advice.
“You should always practice this, always come back to your home, always notice. It will give you control over your mind, and when you can control your mind, you can be happy. And I am happy. When you die, if you are scared of dying, find your home. Notice whether your last breath is in or out, and you will die happy.”
I don’t know if I will ever be strong enough, in my final moments, to remember my home and note whether my last breath is an inhalation or an exhalation. I do know now, that when the world spins with the vigor of a monsoon, or my temper rises, that if I can remember to find my home, I can discover, in the heat of my worst moments, something like peace.
I am a senior English major. I am originally from San Jose, California and spent most of my life in the Bay Area before moving to Philadelphia for college. I travelled to Thailand for six weeks as part of a USAC study away program to study Buddhism, and Hill Tribe cultures. I also had the opportunity to teach English to high school aged monks in Buddhist monasteries.