Drag (Camino Lessons – #1)

¡Las cigüeñas crotorea! (The storks make stork sounds!)

The Spanish word crotorear means to make the clacking sound a stork makes with its beak. I didn’t learn this magical word until after I returned from Spain and had completed the Camino, where this reverberating sound sometimes mesmerized me from above. These majestic birds perched in their enormous nests, clattering to each other but seemingly greeting me from church steeples and tops of posts.

This was the best picture of storks I got. 😅

Seeing them in flight one day on the Meseta, I was enthralled by the way they moved their wings to maneuver around the sky, gliding exactly where they intended. A simple spread and dip of several feathers on the tip of one wing created enough drag to turn smoothly in a full, looping circle. And I thought, as one has plenty of time to think on the Meseta, “Huh. That’s metaphorical, innit?”

Even the smallest amount of drag can put you on a completely different course, for better or worse.

The old patterns pull,

dragging toward well-worn ruts.

The overcoming of wired-together paths

feels insurmountable

unless done one lurch,

one pulse,

one beat at a time

with feather lightness.

The Way Back

Five weeks ago, I had tears in my eyes as I boarded a flight back to the United States after having walked the Camino de Santiago over 800km (500 miles) across Spain. I’ll be sure to write more about those adventures (some actual jaunting!), but first, some thoughts about reentry. I always have this sense of sadness, of mourning when a grand adventure comes to a close. I had it when I moved back from Cambodia, after my trip to Australia – after most big trips I’ve taken, really. Depending on what I think I’m returning to, that sadness may be tempered by the joy of returning to a loving home, to adored friends, a beautiful romance, or simply a fresh perspective on life.

I’ll always be grateful for the anticipated joy that tempered this most recent return, because I’m not sure I would have boarded that flight had I known how this would all feel.

I can only describe it as someone having taken a cheese grater to my skin. Each step of the Camino was like a mala bead, repeating “open, open, open,” each of those million steps somehow scrubbing me raw. I now feel so raw that even simple suggestions, questions, and differences register as criticism or personal attacks. Only the most soothing things are welcome, and sometimes not even those.

But that rawness exposes all the wounds that need lovingkindness, beauty, self-compassion… and a bit of work.

When I have told others about this, somehow it gets interpreted as fear, grief, sorrow or other emotions. But no other word seems to sum it up better than just discomfort. And I know in my sensitive heart that this discomfort comes primarily from a lack of good fit, whether that’s with people, with work, with personal belongings, with my body, or anything else. And I don’t mean a fit with expectations, but with a fit for who I actually authentically am and the life that I hope to lead in alignment with my own values and priorities.

This current discomfort does feel a bit unstable, though, as if I am living that quote attributed to Frida Kahlo, “She was not fragile like a flower; she was fragile like a bomb.” It is not comfortable to be around a bomb, as there is usually at least some measure of collateral damage when it (she…) explodes. I am no longer protected from the outside, and others are no longer protected from me.

As I’ve been sitting with all of this, I have started re-reading Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. Her writing always hits close to home, but sometimes it hits in a way that feels a little too close to home. Recently I found myself repeatedly slamming this book into my lap and shouting “Fuck! Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck FUCK FUUUUUUUHHHHHCCCCCCKKKK!” after reading the following passage:

When that … fell apart, I tried hard – very, very hard – to go back to some kind of comfort, some kind of security, some kind of familiar resting place. Fortunately, I could never pull it off. Instinctively, I knew that annihilation of my old dependent, clinging self was the only way to go.

also Pema Chodron in “When Things Fall Apart”

In the past, I’ve done so much “going back” to comfort, security and familiarity in so many areas of my life during moments of transition. I’ve “pulled it off” to a certain extent – I’ve fit back in, made things work. But now I know I have to sit in this place. In discomfort, uncertainty, and the unknown. Annihilation hurts. I watch myself, with curiosity and with piles of self-compassion and self-care, as I try to find the ground under me.

Yet I know that this groundlessness, rife with the possibility of transformation, is exactly where I need to be.

Khmer Goodbye

I’ve drafted eighty-four blog posts about this transition back to the U.S., but none of them really work. They don’t capture it.
I wrote about the “Miss and Won’t Miss” list I’ve made, and how so many of the things are just different sides of the same coin (except my landlady. that gal’s such a goddang treat, she gave me hugs and kisses on the cheek when she gave me my security deposit back yesterday. she’s only in the “miss” category).
I’ve written, reflected and meditated on this transition so much in the last week or so, both with people and solo, that I think I’m just ready. Don’t get me wrong – there are tears that will undoubtedly be shed (and have already been shed) over this transition.
But right now I’m incredibly grateful for having had this year and for what it’s brought me. Mostly for durian, but for lots of other things, too. (okay, maybe durian’s not the *top* of the list, but seriously, people, there’s a reason they call it the king of fruits.)
The other prominent feeling? Curiosity. So incredibly curious about what this next chapter will bring, what everything will feel like, and how I’ll perceive everything. I’m curious about this current balcony time with the sky pinking up. About handing over the keys to my apartment. About the upcoming trip to the airport. About the flights back. About seeing family again. About moving back to Duluth. Each step, right now, feels like a new adventure I’m about to undertake, even though it’s going “back.”

View from the balcony

So, sitting here filled with gratitude and curiosity, waiting for my regular corner place to open up to go get some noodles, I’m realizing that the noodles are really just a perfect metaphor. They’re the things that are right on our block that bring us joy, that are so simple they’re beautiful, that cost barely anything but seem invaluable, and that can best be enjoyed surrounded by smiling faces.
Go get your noodles. Because I’m gonna go get mine.

A Picture is Worth…

… well, hopefully enough to make up for the fact that I haven’t posted in ages.

The last six weeks have been travel. A little bit of solo travel, and a lot of travel with my ex-husband, an opportunity for which I am so very (SO. VERY.) grateful. I know that this is different; not ordinary.  I also know that my ex is not ordinary. So much gratitude!  (did i say that yet?) We were able to travel around SEAsia, both to places I’ve already been and to a bunch I haven’t. Here’s a picture tour of the last six weeks…

In Cambodia, we went to Kratie to see the endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins (seriously, you guys, they look like the love children of belugas and reg’lar dolphins)…

…and to Siem Reap.

Then we met up in Singapore with a gal with whom I’ve been friends longer than just about anyone I know.

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Rooftop bar view

In Laos, we went to Vientiane…

…Vang Vieng,…

…and Luang Prabang.

In Vietnam, we went to Hanoi…

…Halong Bay…

…Cat Ba…

…and through Ninh Binh to Hue, before heading to Saigon.

And, since I had 10 days left in PP before leaving, and couldn’t seem to just stay here, I hopped a bus up to Ratanakiri. 

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Hotel view

Rainy season made it less than perfect (and a bit crazy – ask me about the trip out to the hotel outside of town!), but it was still good to see yet another place in this country that’s come to feel like home over the past year. But more on those feelings soon…

Because It Ain’t Always Pretty…

Since I last posted, I’ve spent 20 of 30 days in silent Vipassana meditation courses and have traveled to Yangon, Myanmar, but this is not about those things. This is one of those posts that involves neither jaunting nor jauntiness. Be warned.

I have approximately 2.4 million words to write about this, but you’re getting under 800. Be grateful.

Over the past few years, I’ve been looking at things I include (or don’t include) in my life and have been really examining whether they are things I truly still do want (or don’t want) any more, rather than simply continuing to follow a decision made years ago with a different knowledge base and different life experiences (basically, a different brain) driving my decisions.

And I have recently been thinking quite a bit about image. This has come up in light of some recent events (not the least of which has been people’s … ummm… interesting? responses to my khmer-style photos in full hair and make-up…and photoshop; see below for evidence), and I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on why I have made some of the choices I’ve made in the past regarding my physical appearance and how those choices play out in my life today.

And, while it doesn’t make any sense for me to buy any new cute dresses in the next month or two before I move back, to replace my clothes here that really have seen better days, I thought it may be kind of fun to go buy some mascara and see how it felt to wear some on a “normal day” after having only worn it a handful of times in the last 15+ years (literally, only to the weddings I’ve attended, and to have those photos taken that I mentioned above). I mean, maybe I’d feel like a million bucks! Maybe I’d have a new spring in my step. Or maybe I’d feel like a five year old playing dress up with mom’s makeup. Maybe I’d feel like a cheap hooker. The thing is, I didn’t even know what it would really feel like in my life. And I kinda wanted to know.

But then tonight, full stop on all self development, specifically regarding physical appearance. I looked at pictures of a woman I don’t even know and thought, “Well, your playing around with some $2.50 mascara sure isn’t going to get you that, Julie. You’d never even look like that with all the goddamn makeup in the world. And all the goddamn makeup artists in the world.” And I felt horrible about the choices I’d felt confident about just moments earlier. Oh, puke. I mean, I get it, this (especially) women comparing themselves to others negatively is a thing, and while this isn’t something that has affected me negatively lately, it hit me like a charging elephant tonight. The texture of the whole feeling changed pretty quickly as I watched what my brain was doing, but it happened. And it made me not want to buy the mascara because I wouldn’t be able to achieve what I thought others think I should be striving to achieve. Double puke.

So, as I move through these decisions about inclusion or exclusion of things in my life, I’m going to have to continue to take extreme caution to make sure that these are my decisions, that they are things that bring me joy. And I would love to say that that will be easy, that I can simply and always say, “Yes, of course, this is what I want, not something based on what I think others want of me, not based on those not-truly-me voices I’ve cultivated so strongly in my mind over the past 4+ decades!” But I know it won’t be easy. I also know I will give it my damndest.

And this applies to so many aspects of my life, not just physical appearance. So, just know that, when you see me in the next few months, I may or may not be wearing makeup. And I may or may not be drinking a beer. And I may or may not be wearing a cute dress. Or pants with a hole in the ass. And I may or may not be dating. And I may or may not be running. And each of those things may be the opposite the next time you see me. Because regardless of what I am specifically including or excluding, I am aware that I lead such a privileged life that I have the opportunity to both choose and to refuse in virtually every area of said privileged life.

And I absolutely choose to absolutely refuse to let that privilege go to waste.

Persistence Pays

If you’re reading this, you probably know me quite well (hi, mom!). And if you know me quite well, you probably know that I can… shall we say ‘struggle’ with decision-making? Many times, it’s not that I don’t know what I want. It’s that I want it all. Cake to be eaten. Promptly. I want to have the comfort of home, but I also want to venture out. I want to make a meaningful contribution to society, but I also want to sit around and read books. I want to train to run another half marathon, but I also want to have leisurely coffee on my balcony as the temperature rises ten degrees above what anyone would consider good running weather.

This inability to make and stick with decisions has sometimes made me the bane of people’s existence. I get it. Some things never change…

A couple of months ago, I met a guy looking for trekking partners (that’s what they call hiking over here, i guess, as i can’t seem to get anyone to tell me how hiking and trekking might be different, a question i once asked a gal hiking hadrian’s wall, only to be looked at with disdain and to receive the “it’s just… trekking” condescending answer). I was finding myself in my typical decision-making pattern, going back and forth as to why I would or wouldn’t go trekking with him from Chambok.

Pros:

  1. I love hiking, and I miss it tremendously.
  2. I also miss being out in nature, seeing green.
  3. I have been feeling a need to challenge my body, other than just running in heat.

Cons:

  1. It’s hot as hell here in April. I mean, have I mentioned yet how I sweat nearly a liter every time I just sweep the floor? (yes, yes, i know i’ve mentioned this before)
  2. The expense was not something I had in my budget. While it really wasn’t that expensive for the services, it’s just that I’m not trying to completely and totally run out of cash while hanging out in Cambodia. I like my landlady A LOT (she gave me more beers the other day!!!) and would like to continue being able to give her rent money each month.
  3. I don’t really know this guy and he could be
    1. a serial killer, or
    2. just annoying as hell.

There was also more than a twinge of fear that I wouldn’t be able to keep up on the trek (this is founded in the reality of past hikes, like when trekking gorillas at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda – you’d have to buy me a beer to tell you this whole story), but I was able to give fear a big F-U. Still, indecision.

I eventually messaged The Dane, my to-be hiking partner, saying I wasn’t going, citing monetary issues. While he expressed disappointment, I agreed to still meet up with him later in his trip, trading the use of my washing machine for a bottle of his homebrew. And I know I’m good at drinking beer, so no fear there.

But as it turns out The Dane is a hella persistent guy, and each time I met up with him here in PP before the planned trekking trip, he kept trying to convince me to go with him (all the while succeeding at convincing me he was neither a serial killer nor annoying as hell). But it was actually a TED talk by Ruth Chang about “How to Make Hard Choices” that made me fully change my mind. She talks about hard choices being those with no truly “better” answer, which is what this decision was – definite pros, definite cons. Here’s what Chang had to say:

“So when we face hard choices, we shouldn’t beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be? You might decide to be a pink sock-wearing, cereal-loving, country-living banker, and I might decide to be a black sock-wearing, urban, donut-loving artist. What we do in hard choices is very much up to each of us.

Now, people who don’t exercise their normative powers in hard choices are drifters. We all know people like that. I drifted into being a lawyer. I didn’t put my agency behind lawyering. I wasn’t for lawyering. Drifters allow the world to write the story of their lives. They let mechanisms of reward and punishment — pats on the head, fear, the easiness of an option –to determine what they do. So the lesson of hard choices: reflect on what you can put your agency behind, on what you can be for, and through hard choices, become that person.

Did I want to put my agency behind being a fiscally-responsible safety-seeker? Or did I want to be a slightly less financially viable, albeit sweaty as hell, experience-seeker?

Exactly.

I eventually caved, bought bus tickets, and joined him on an early Sunday-morning bus ride out of the city. Of course, everything was a great experience. We laughed (tons!), ate great food (also tons!), and got to see some of the culture of rural life in Cambodia (making rice wine, dancing and drinking beers for Khmer New Year, staying in a homestay, learning about medicines and foods from the forest, hearing the stories of the locals (ranging from stories of toasts made while drinking to stories of refugee camps), riding around on a tractor and bicycles…).

Okay, this is already TLDR, and I didn’t even talk about the trekking yet! Here, look at some pics of the whole trip (photo credit for half of these to the dane)…

Biking around the area:

 

 

Just some of the delicious foods we had:

 

 

Some of the sights and activities around town:

 

 

Our homestay:

 

 

Short day trek to Second and Third Waterfalls (where, as we were hiking down what our guide called an “adventure” path (read: most people don’t go this way), The Dane said, “If they want to expand their ecotourism, they’ll have to look at safety,” right before I completely bit it — my only fall this trip that left bruises):

 

 

… And the big day trek from Chambok to Kirirom National Park:

 

 

Feeling gratitude for persistent Danes.

Next undertaking? Another vipassana course (like this one I did a few months ago, but in Kampong Cham). Glutton for punishment, but putting my agency behind, trying to be for meditation and self-improvement. Here’s hoping!

Non-stop Catch-up

Dear sweet heaven. I just looked at the last time I posted. JANUARY??? Well, dammit. That’s too much to catch up on! Can I play my blogging start-over card, please?   No? Okay, how about a super-quick bulleted list catch-up, then a start-over? Ok? Ok. Thanks. (shhh… i’m not even going to edit this… just get it posted already…)

Here’s a list of some of the places I’ve gone, things I’ve done, people I’ve traveled with over the past 2+months:

  • I went to Lazy Beach out on Koh Rong Samloem with SLT1 and A.
  • I traveled solo to Siem Reap, including a trip to Koh Ker and Beng Melea (intentionally avoiding some of the major temples near Angkor Wat as I knew they’d be on the agenda in the near future).
  • I headed back out to Lazy Beach with SLT1, A, and A’s sister, Iron Squid (long story…).
  • Right from there, we went to Tatai for river swimming, SUPing, and jungle trekking.
  • A couple of days later, I flew to JAPAN! to meet up with my sister. I’ve gotta say a bit more about this, though…. But I’ll stay with  a brief list. We hit both Tokyo and Kyoto, and here are just a few of the things I loved about this country:
      • The organized, clean chaos of the big city (such a difference from PP)
      • The beauty of the fabrics
      • The lovely people
      • The greenery around Kyoto
      • The ramen
      • The sushi (fatty tuna=fish butter… mmmm….)
      • The ramen
      • The soba
      • The ramen
      • The udon
      • The okonomiyaki (how had I not even heard of this before?)
      • The sushi
      • The Ghibli Museum
      • The Kabuki-za theater
      • The parks
      • The otaku culture
      • The temples (so different, too!)
      • THE PUBLIC BATHS, especially Kurama Onsen
      • The ramen
    • Seriously, I dream about the ramen. Maybe it was the roasted pork, but daaaaaaaaaamn. Sis says she’s going to open a vending machine ramen counter where she lives. I plan to live in the upstairs apartment (not that I’ve thought about this much – ha!).
    • And even though the ramen was that good, the best part was spending time with my sissypants. Damn, I love that gal…
  • Several days later I welcomed my first visitor from the U.S.! This is an immense journey to make, and A² had some airline issues that made it even more immensely immense. But once he and (eventually) his luggage arrived, we got in some memorable travels:
      • We headed up to Siem Reap and did the temple tour thing, proving to me that I could still be “wowed” by and really enjoy temples (even if I did lose my phone – oops!).
      • We hit some of the touristy things in Phnom Penh that I’ve been putting off, like the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom.
      • We took the train down to Kampot, rented motos to ride up Bokor Mountain, and drove over to Kep for crab and to eventually report a missing moto (another long story – let’s grab a beer sometime and I’ll tell you all about it!).
      • Then we took the bus to Sihanoukville for the night before heading back over to Koh Rong Samloem, this time starting on Sunset Beach. A² spent the days diving to get his open water cert (an impressive undertaking!), and I spent them hiking the trail to hang with SLT1 and A at Saracen Bay and Lazy Beach (equally as productive, right?).
      • Next we took a tiny (FAST, BUMPY) boat ride over to Lazy Beach for a couple more days before heading back to Phnom Penh.
    • While I know this trip wasn’t easy (and certainly not as a first international trip!), I can barely express my gratitude at being able to share this place with someone from another one of my “home”s.

 

Now the last couple of days I’ve just been lazypants. To the extreme. The first day after A² left, I was actually too lazy (and maybe experiencing some travel/visit-ending let-down) to even go to the theatre to watch movies. Yep. Wow.

But now I’m feeling rejuvenated and ready to jump back in to life in Phnom Penh.

And maybe actually process some things rather than just running in to them head-first non-stop…

Borneo to Bangkok

You know how sometimes you get so far behind on something that you just want to scrap the whole thing? Well, this is my attempt to catch up on blogging in one fell swoop. I’ve just been traveling a lot, which has been delightful — just not conducive to keeping up on anything else. I also feel that way about running. And about keeping up on sweeping the gotdamn apartment, for crying out loud.

But here’s another catch-up post… Not much to write, and just a few pics to share…

Directly after KL, I flew solo over to Borneo. When I landed in Sandakan, it was pouring, but I took a taxi downtown to check it out. I did a bit of the walking tour, but then ditched that and went and saw the new Star Wars movie (yes, I realize how ridiculous this is).

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Down by the waterfront, “downtown” Sandakan

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View from the movie theater lobby (and a break in the rain)

I headed over to Sepilok to the lovely Sepilok Jungle Resort for a few days, and checked out the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.

After a drenching walk to lunch at the Lake Bistro, I walked in the rain some more toward the Rainforest Discover Center. But as I started walking on the raised boardwalks (adrenaline bump!), it started to clear up a bit, giving some nice views of the rainforest.

As I got further and further in on the trails, I found myself in literally (actually, really, completely, literally) one of my favorite places on earth. Once I got beyond all the boardwalks and wide gravel trails, I walked for hours on the sometimes muddy paths, not seeing another human the entire time. Exactly what my soul needed.

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I’ve got a thing for magnificent trees, and there was one here that made the top 5 list.

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Those hours hiking were perhaps some of my favorite hours in Southeast Asia thus far. Which says a lot.

The next day, I took a bus past the kilometers and kilometers and kilometers of palm oil farms (read up on “The local impacts of palm oil expansion in Malaysia” if you so care, which I maaaaaaay assert that you might want to care) to get to the Kinabantangan River for a boat tour.

I love me a good wildlife tour, so it was no surprise that I absolutely loved this one. The tour guides said we were incredibly lucky to see the things we saw (orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, crocodiles, mangrove snakes, and birds a-plenty — hornbills, bee eaters, herons, and a bat hawk), but doesn’t every guide say that to every group???

This feels like one of those places where I wished I could have spent another few days, just exploring a bit more, getting out into nature a bit more. Fortunately, though, I headed to Bangkok directly after Borneo to visit J, who had moved to Bangkok about six weeks prior. Not too many words to say about Bangkok, other than the food and especially the company were fabulous.

And, while I’m based in Phnom Penh, it seems like I’ve barely spent any time here because, shortly after getting back from Bangkok, I picked up a bit of work but then headed out to Lazy Beach out on Koh Rong Samloem for nearly a week (started as a 3-night stay with SLT1 and her beau, A, but we couldn’t bear to leave!). This, my friends, is the charmed life of Julie.

While we were on the island, A asked me about my journaling. “Do you write about events or about your thoughts about them?” My answer was both, but I find it interesting that this blog has really only contained a non-edited, quickly-scrawled catalogue of events for the past couple of months. Just wait — I’ll undoubtedly post a painfully introspective brain barf in the not too distant future. Promise!

New Year in Malaysia

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“From Nice Kuala Lumpur”

I was lucky enough to be invited on a New Year’s trip by a group of friends going to visit another friend who lives in Kuala Lumpur. It was a great time, and the guy who lives there did a stellar job of showing us around — food, a trip to Batu caves, the botanical gardens. We were only there for four nights, but it was a great time, including watching fireworks from the roof on New Year’s Eve!

Not feeling many words about this experience, but just catching up, so here are some pictures from KL…

 

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The tour inside the Dark Cave was the coolest part – creepy bugs and all (and this creepy picture)!

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Not a bad start to the new year…

Meditation Madness

So, I was nervous like crazy about this retreat before going, and as it turns out, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know what I was in for. I’ve been meditating off and on for 10 or 12 years, but this was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

What did I know going in? Ten days (well, plus day zero evening and day 11 morning). Over 120 hours of meditation. Silence for nearly the whole time. Scary enough.

Vipassana ended up being something very different than what I initially thought. I thought it more of a “see things as they are” idea, more like mindfulness and that whole ballgame. Which it is, but it’s a ballgame with a whole ‘nother set of rules. It’s all about recognizing things in your physical body in an attempt to get at the deepest level of the mind and its reactions to sensations. Which is undoubtedly an oversimplification that doesn’t really do justice to the things that it *really* does, but it was a different way of looking at things for me while still incorporating some elements of ideas I’d encountered in the past.

But here’s how it played out.

Arrival Day (Day Zero):

After an hour+ ride out of Chiang Mai, I checked in at the “Foreigners Registration” table, locked all of my contraband in a locker (cell phone, all reading and writing materials, etc.), and got to my assigned room. I had no idea what accommodations would be (dorm-style rooms? one big room with all of the beds, camp-style? shared bathrooms?), so I was actually pleasantly surprised to find a solo en-suite room. Which makes it sound all posh, but really it was just “my own.” A piece of OSB with a 1-inch mattress turned out to be surprisingly comfortable!

On this day, we could talk to each other, but very few people seemed to speak English, so I was in that familiar situation where I could smile at people and say hello in their language, but then just kept walking or whatever. Visually, I was one of two Western women of about 75 (which turned out to be true in reality, too — me and the German girl). It made my transition to silence seem a bit more gradual than for those who could communicate better verbally with others, I’d guess.

At the “English Orientation” that evening, there were about seven women and four men. Since men and women are to have no contact, the men sat on one side of an imaginary line drawn down the middle of the room by Fu, the absolutely lovely organizer and our translator, and the women sat on the other. It cracked me up, even though this practice is probably to accommodate one of the five precepts that “all those who attend a vipassana course must conscientiously undertake … during the course”:

  1.   to abstain from killing any living creature;
    • (not even mosquitos. or ants on your cookie)
  2.   to abstain from stealing; 
    • (not sure what i could have stolen, honestly)
  3.   to abstain from all sexual activity;
    • (thus the separation of sexes, i guess, although this only accounts for strictly heterosexual attraction, so….)
  4.   to abstain from telling lies;
    • (not so hard when you can’t really talk)
  5.   to abstain from all intoxicants. 
    • (i only made up drinking games, like take a drink every time the recorded teacher, s.n. goenka, says diligently, ardently, persistently, patiently, equanimously, anicca…. We would’ve been shitfaced).

And then we started meditating (waaaaaait a minute. it’s not even day one and we’re meditating? huh.) and the Noble Silence began.

I went to sleep Night Zero feeling hopeful.

Day One:

When the bell chimed (loudly and persistently) at 4:00 to wake us all so that we could arrive at the meditation hall and be on our mats by 4:30, I swore aloud (is this breaking Noble Silence if a gal cusses in her room and no one is there to hear her?). I started coughing the most unhealthy cough I’ve coughed in years, felt my throat on fire, and found welts all over my face when I looked in the mirror. What. The fuck. Some allergic thing, it seemed, but I only had about three minutes to think about it after I’d actually gotten dressed and washed up. Off to the mediation hall it was. In this “silence”, I repressed coughs and felt the pain as I sat. And sat. And sat. Two hours of meditation before breakfast at 6:30. Which is longer than I’d ever sat at once for meditation in my entire life. (but, okay, i got this. i can do this.)

Three more hours of meditation between breakfast and lunch.

Four more hours of meditation between lunch and dinner.

My body now ached. My hips were on fire when I sat, and my back felt like I was being stabbed by my worst enemy.

The manager is the only person to whom we were supposed to talk (other than Fu), and only at appointed times, so I went and said, “I’m wondering about getting a chair for meditation. My body hurts so badly that I can’t focus.” She looked at me with concerned eyes and said, “Oh, you must talk with teacher about this.” And we could only talk with the teacher at two times during the day — after lunchtime (must sign up in the morning for a time slot) and at the end of the day (9:00. yes, mediation goes from 4:30am-9:00pm). So, I could talk to the teacher about getting a chair, but I’d have to make it through the three more hours of meditation between dinner and the end of the day. Tears welled up. “Okay.” And a “thank you” in Thai that I didn’t really mean.

I went to lay in my bed (we did get a bit of rest time after meals before more meditation), and my hips ached that deep, deep ache that only comes when one has done something seriously physical. Ummmm…. Like sitting???? I mean, seriously, this was the ache only familiar to me from doing long runs training for a marathon. Or running actual marathons. And I get that this was “marathon meditating”, but I was NOT anticipating the physical component of this. And, of course, we weren’t allowed any painkillers, so my ibuprofen had been locked up in the contraband locker.

And have I told you that so far we’d focused on our noses? Just focused on my nose, from the ring of the nostrils and followed the breath in and out through the nose. All day. Nose holes. Nothing but focus on sensation in the nose holes. All day.

This is day one. Day. ONE. (there are NINE MORE days of this??? maybe i could leave. i could get my phone, call a cab. this is stupid. only gluttons for punishment do this kind of shit. i can do this some other time when I’ve built up some endurance. i’ll talk to the teacher at 9:00. dumb.)

Another hour of meditation, then the Dhamma Discourse (about an hour of watching taped talks by S.N. Goenka), during which Goenka talked about exactly (EXACTLY) what I’d been going through. About the pain. About the mental stuff. About the wanting to go. And I laughed (quietly, and followed by this hacking cough). Evidently I wasn’t unique in my experiences.

And in the next sitting, my pain subsided. Or maybe I should say that the suffering subsided (another one of Goenka’s topics… suffering being generated by the craving and the aversion (i won’t talk too much about the actual teachings here, but this was a biggie for me — trying to be equanimous in my observations of sensations)).

I went to sleep Night One feeling exhausted, achy, and schooled.

Day Two:

More cursing at the 4:00am bells. More focusing on the nose. Except this day we got to expand it to the upper lip where we felt the breath, too! Yes! An extra few inches! This truly felt like a gift. The pain was still there, but the suffering subsided, which made it just hurt less. And the food was really good for every meal, so that was a respite in the day. Still, with that cough (the welts had now gone away), and with some added congestion, I was less than physically comfortable in any way.

And in the kindest break of Noble Silence (although I’m sure it was for her benefit as much as for mine), a gal from across the hall gave me some cough drops. Or at least that’s what I assumed those things to be (all the writing was in Thai), and I shoved one in my mouth immediately without question for what it might actually be. Minty relief. They brought my coughing needs down to 432 in a two-hour sitting instead of 8,432, even though I only let myself cough twice (and wonder if I might actually drown). After lunch, I went to the manager and got more cough drops, a process I’d repeat multiple times. But I also got some coveted Ricola cough drops from that same lovely gal across the hall a few days later. I only allowed myself one of those each day, during the last meditation of the evening.

I went to sleep Night Two feeling relieved.

Day Three:

Cursing. Focusing on the nose (back to just the nose again). For a third day. Not kidding.

Pain just seemed necessary at this point and not to be avoided. But I was starting to get the things he was talking about doing. Focusing on sensation.

Feeling exhausted, though, I went back and slept every minute I possibly could after meals, so my schedule looked like this:

  • Wake
  • Meditate
  • Eat
  • Sleep
  • (Repeat above x2)
  • Wake
  • Meditate
  • Listen to Goenka’s discourse (respite!)
  • Sleep

I looked forward to the Dhamma Discourse each night, when there was only a bit of meditation left for the day, and I got to cough my way through some giggles (Goenka’s pretty darn funny and tells a good story!).

I went to sleep Night Three feeling exhausted but like I was settling into it a bit.

Day Four:

This day we learned the actual vipassana technique (it had been anapana up to that point)! But we also started doing one-hour group sittings where we did not move. We resigned to “not open our legs, not open our hands, not open our minds.” For one hour. Up until this point I’d been a bit of a wiggle worm, trying to adjust my way out of pain relatively frequently. So we started vipassana (which includes scanning the entire body for physical sensations – hooray! more area on which to focus!). And these one-hour sittings. And the pain came back. With a vengeance. I struggled, struggled, struggled, through the first sitting. At what must have been 15 minutes, my nose started running. My head itched. My right hip was screaming. But I didn’t move. By what I thought must be a half hour, my nose kept running. Then my eyebrow itched. And my arm. My back was alternating between cramping and shooting pains. But I didn’t move. At 45 minutes, everything either itched or was in pain or was cramping. But I still didn’t move. And then at an hour, Goenka started chanting and I moved. Into a whole ‘nother level of pain, but for just a moment before the relief and a sense of accomplishment flooded in.

That was the first of two of those sittings we had do that day, and the relief and accomplishment didn’t come the second time around. I walked (hobbled?) away the second time with only feelings of pain.

I went to sleep Night Four feeling defeated, unsure how I’d possibly do this three times a day for the next six days.

Day Five:

More of the same. Pain, with accompanying and increasing suffering. I signed up to talk to the teacher after lunch.

I finally got to walk through the meditation hall and up to the teacher (a Buddhist monk) who was sitting cross-legged on a platform in his saffron robes. I sat in front of him on the floor with Fu in tow to translate. After bowing in respect, I muttered, “I’m struggling with equanimity. I just want the pain to go away.” Fu translates. He tells me to return to the respiration focus when I can’t focus elsewhere, be equanimous, blah blah blah. I knew this was what I was supposed to do, and what I had been trying unsuccessfully to do, so my face contorted and the tears started. I wanted some magic bullet, some secret monk trick to making the pain go away (while still not having aversion toward the pain). I struggled ineffectively to hold back the tears, and repeated, “So just return to the breath when I can’t stand it anymore. Okay.” He confirmed, and said I could change positions if returning to the breath doesn’t work after a while.

And now I am really crying. I am a 41-year old woman, sitting on the floor of an expansive meditation hall in Lamphun, Thailand.

 

Fully crying. In front of a Buddhist monk.

 

And then he gets this beaming smile on his face, adjusts his position so that his body now leans slightly toward me, his hands further forward on his knees, and he says with a trace of a chuckle:

“Don’t be so hard on yourself! And don’t be so serious about it!”

And now I am laugh-crying, and the monk is laughing with me.

And the suffering is gone.

Anicca.

 

The next group sittings were better. All of the sittings were better that afternoon. I observed. I was equanimous. Good things happened.

I went to sleep Night Five feeling cold. Crazy cold, but crazy good.

Day 6: And then the cold really came. The manager started distributing all the clothing the extra clothing they had (I was lucky enough to get another scarf for my head and an extra long-sleeved shirt but not lucky enough to get one of the few sleeping bags). I started walking around and sleeping with six layers on top (tank top, three short sleeved-shirts, two long-sleeved shirts), plus the one shawl/scarf I brought and the blanket from my bed wrapped around me, the borrowed scarf over my head, then three layers on the bottom (capris under long pants under a long skirt) and the only pair of socks I brought. When I sat for meditation with the blanket pulled up over my head, I looked forward and see a sea of golden blanket lumps. Well, with a couple of white lumps (the nuns) off to the right side, and a few saffron lumps to the far left (the other monks).

I went to sleep shivering, tucked around a Nalgene full of hot water. For Nights 6, 7, 8 and 9. During which days the pain returned, left, returned, left… Anicca, anicca, anicca…

Day 10:

The warmth returned (anicca… yep. always.). The meditation continued until the morning, at which point we could talk again. And then, after those ten days, the other English-speaking gals and I chatted and chatted and chatted. There is so much laughter everywhere, that I can’t help but think this is the happiest place on Earth in this moment. But it all seemed so loud, too. Such a cacophony of laughter and chatter everywhere! Such a different experience than the last ten days. These were now women again, not just meditating lumps surrounding me.

I went to sleep Night Ten smiling.

Day 11:

After the morning meditation, we took our contraband from the lockers, and everyone frantically turned on their phones. I hesitated. I hadn’t really missed it like I thought I would (although I had wanted to message people at certain points to tell them what I was thinking). When I did eventually turn it on, the screen looked strange. So vivid, so sharp, so different. Had there been some weird update? Nope. (well, not to my phone, but perhaps to my brain.)

I snapped some pics, laughed more with the delightful gals, and hopped in the van with several of them back to Chiang Mai. And back to reality, reflecting on so many things I haven’t even written about…

Serious things (the concept of physical body, true equanimity, craving and aversion, and on and on and on…) and giggle-inducing things (the farting nun, salt soup, the junk food table, the “Happy Bear” socks one nun wore every day, and on and on and on….).

 

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Getting ready to turn in my blankie and check out

And now the real work begins — to try to incorporate this new learning into my life. I shall do my best, but with the words of a lovely monk ringing in my brain….

Don’t be so hard on yourself! And don’t be so serious about it!

Straight to my ears from the lips of a Buddhist monk in the middle of a vipassana retreat in Thailand.

Charmed life example #1406.