About 25 years ago, I attended a 45-day Vipassana retreat with enlightened master Ajahn Tong (“Golden Master”) Sirimangalo, who came from Thailand to Mexico to initiate a group of Westerners who wanted to experience Buddhist monk- and nunhood. You see, it is part of Thai culture to have this experience during your lifetime, even if only for a few weeks or months.
After you test the waters of monastic life, you can decide whether you’d like to join a monastery and fully embrace the life of a renunciate or you’d rather go back to your worldly life. In any case, since we are all connected, this type of experience benefits everyone.
So I shaved my head and eyebrows (talk about an ego shock!), took the appropriate vows, received my white robes and initiation from Ajahn Tong during a simple ceremony, and became a Theravada Buddhist nun for the duration of the retreat. My day basically consisted in waking up at five in the morning to repeat some prayers, eat breakfast, and then meditate for the rest of the day, with the exception of lunch time before noon—after which we were not allowed to eat anything until the following day at dawn.
Part of my routine was reporting to one of the visiting monks every afternoon to review my meditation and receive the next steps in the technique. Each day he would add something new that would allow me to go deeper and understand how the mind gets attached to and judges everything, thus hindering spiritual progress. Sometimes the Ajahn would give talks about Buddhism and Vipassana, which means “insight into the true nature of reality” (and is also known as insight meditation or mindful meditation). The main technique aims at integrating mind and body to be completely in the present moment without allowing distractions from the senses.
Similar to Zen, Vipassana is a very austere and individualized path, mostly focused on sitting and walking meditation to instill ongoing mindfulness. During the retreat, we each had a small private room to meditate and sleep in, but we could meditate anywhere, and since this was a setting for Westerners, we would have meals together and could also join other silent meditators in the main hall any time we wanted.
I experienced a different reality later on, when I traveled to Ajahn Tong’s monastery in Northern Thailand for another intense retreat. The conditions there were much more austere and there was no group meditation, so I would get food from the nuns before noon and then go back to my tiny room to continue meditating, in almost complete isolation. Even my daily technique instructions would be typed on a small piece of paper and slipped under the door every afternoon. But that’s a different story…
Letting Self-Images Go to Embrace True Freedom
From the moment I met the Ajahn, I noticed that he wouldn’t even look at you unless he had something specific to say to you, and that he never felt obligated to please anyone or answer silly questions such as, “Are you enlightened?” during his talks. He had adopted the monastic life since he was 12, and everything he talked about came from direct experience. He wanted his students to learn to free themselves from all restricting illusions and self-images, and taught by example that you can exercise the right to not engage the ego, regardless of what others think or expect.
He carried a palm fan that he would place before him when sharing prayers or mantras, to prevent him from getting distracted and to be absolutely one with what he was transmitting. You could literally see light and love coming out of his eyes, but his overall behavior would make your ego feel rejected, disappointed, and angry, so you wouldn’t have a chance to hide behind it feeling like a victim, or special, or “spiritual.” He showed his compassion by shattering your ego to smithereens…
On one occasion, it was announced that Ajahn Tong himself would come and meditate with the whole group of Westerners in the afternoon. This announcement caused great excitement and anticipation in all of us. We were oh so happy and honored and proud to know that the great enlightened master was going to guide us in meditation! Was he going to share with us a secret, deeper technique? Perhaps he would give us a glimpse of his experience of Nirvana?
Some believed that the Ajahn was doing this to help and support such a big group of Buddhist monks and nuns in the West, because he truly enjoyed seeing people actually experiencing Buddhism as opposed to simply reading or talking about it, as most Westerners do.
Overcoming the Resistance to Ego Dissolution
When the task at hand is to meditate all day (and at some point all night too), and to observe your mind 24/7, the ego goes through an interesting metamorphosis. At the same time that it begins to quiet down, it also creates a huge resistance to facing the demons—your own hidden tendencies—that come up to the surface during and after meditation. So it will cause pain in the body to try to stop you from meditating, and it will also project a reality that reflects what is being stirred up inside, so you will engage with it again and feed it with your attention and energy, thus losing your focus and full undivided presence.
This becomes obvious during a retreat because the intensity of the practice brings things to a head and they get in your face, so to speak, but it happens every time you attempt to transcend the ego, either through spiritual practice or self-exploration and self-inquiry, or even when you set a goal that aims to break your childhood emotional patterns. The main difference is that being involved in the world makes it easier for the ego to resist and to create illusions and situations that will distort your perception and distract you from your goals—our life dramas.
As I was waiting for that afternoon meditation with the Ajahn, I could observe my own mind wishing and hoping for things that I had basically been waiting and hoping for all my life: to be seen, to be appreciated, to be loved, to be recognized, to be special, to be “good,” and to be validated by those people whom I had invested with authority and given my power away to, at one point or another—parents, teachers, friends, partners, lovers, and so on.
I was aware of all that and yet I was also creating a new illusion at the same time, one that would fit my present situation. And of course, I wasn’t alone. When the time came, we each got out of our rooms and walked toward the main hall, where we were told that the meditation with the Ajahn would actually be outside (the retreat was held at an old church surrounded by grassy yards).
Our first general thought was, do we need to go back inside and bring some mats? But we were told to simply gather outside and wait for the Ajahn to give us further instructions. So we did. He kept us waiting for almost an hour, during which we began chatting and sharing our excitement, which then turned into impatience, as we kept waiting for him to show up, and then finally became frustration. Every 15 minutes or so, one of the monks would come outside and say that we should just wait, that he was on his way.
By the time he finally showed up, the energy of the group had gone through all sorts of emotions, but they all subsided as we were ready to sit and meditate with our teacher. He walked around a bit, as if looking for the right spot, and we all followed him. Then he gestured for us to sit down. We sat on the grass, and so did he. When we were all settled, he looked at the group intently for a few minutes and without saying anything, got up and walked away.
Freedom Only Happens If and When You Let Go
Needless to say, our excitement quickly turned into confusion, then disappointment and irritation. You could almost see a big energetic question mark above the group… Why would he do this to us, after we had chosen to renounce the world and focus on reaching higher consciousness for the benefit of all, like good Buddhists are supposed to? Why wouldn’t he grace us with a special experience we could later boast about? How dared he make us wait and waste our precious meditation time? Why didn’t he deliver on his promise? And more importantly, how could he do this to me me me?
Ajahn Tong was a master at blowing up illusions and expectations—his path was that of total emptiness. He always taught to be alert and not allow even a seed of expectation or desire to be planted in the mind, and he would show us through experience how we were continuously creating and feeding those expectations and desires, and then feeling resentful if our desires wouldn’t come true or if we had to let go of our attachments.
We all have desires, attachments, and expectations because it is the nature of the mind to produce them. Constantly. Yet you can consciously choose which ones you allow to flourish and which ones you starve or cut out to experience more peace. As long as you hold on to your secret agendas and expectations—of yourself and others—you will feel betrayed and victimized, because each individual soul has its own path, its own timing, its own journey, and does not necessarily revolve around yours, even though your ego wants you to believe that it should.
You can choose to open up to whatever comes your way as a reflection of who you are, to learn from it, and accept that nothing is permanent—life is constant change. Inner peace can only come from doing things for their own sake and engaging with others without judgment or strings attached. Only by allowing others to be completely free can you become free yourself. After all, where there is no expectation, there can be no disappointment.
So from now on, watch when you get frustrated, irritated, or resentful, and follow the trail that leads back to your expectations—both old and new. Then let them go and utilize the energy released for something more enjoyable and positive. And if you need help and guidance figuring this out, or cannot see the blind spots that keep pulling you toward assuming the oh-so-well-known victim or righteous role, then contact me now to get started with intuitive spiritual coaching and pave the way toward a more peaceful, meaningful, and mindful life.
© 2013 Yol Swan. All rights reserved.