It's been almost three weeks, after all, and I haven't really told you about that process. That's largely because I'm frustrated by it. As you will see.
I've had some training in meditation, mostly through my theater studies. I even teach it to my students. I've learned here that what I'm familiar with - breathing meditation - is very common in the Western hemisphere, and even in parts of Asia like northern Thailand.
Apparently, this particular wat I'm at teaches a different kind of meditation technique. Essentially, you're supposed to get into a relaxed state (okay, that's typical), then calm your body and your mind (sounds familiar), and then you are supposed to get a vision of a sphere or ball of light of something like that (Uh...). And then you're supposed to go to the center of the sphere, become one with the sphere, and then be in the sphere. There, you're supposed to find... another sphere! You get to the center of that one and Pop! Another sphere! And so on for 17 or 18 spheres.
When you get to the center of each of those, you're supposed to then see a body - your body, but in a more perfect form. You become one with that body, and then find another body inside. The process repeats itself until you get to higher levels of the body where you can actually converse with it - ask questions, get answers, and so on. That is supposed to be the path that leads you to Nibbana.
At my first session, I was too tense. Phra Bart leads the sessions, giving us an oral narrative to lead us through the process. I was too caught up in listening to him, figuring out what the heck was going on, and trying to make sense of what I was seeing when I closed my eyes. He called me on my tension right away.
The next session, I relaxed. Totally. Phra Bart has said many times how surprised he was that I made such huge progress from the first to the second session.
I've been able to relax, calm the body, the way I should at almost every session since then. I've been working hard on calming the mind. It's really, really hard for me to shut down mentally. Phra Bart advises me that when thoughts come up, I should just acknowledge the thought and then let it go. Which I don't understand, because acknowledging the thought is actually another thought and then I have to acknowledge the acknowledgment and before I know it I'm filled with narrative again.
I've had moments that come close to having a calm mind. Lately, I've been having kind-of waking dreams while I meditate. A lot are nonsense and I forget them almost immediately. Sometimes they seem a bit more focused, more process-driven, and those are ones I can remember afterwards. I've had a few experiences with quasi-out-of-body-feelings - times where my consciousness sort of drifts away but as soon as I realize it, SWOOP! I'm back in my head again.
Oddly, there have also been a few times where I get so deep in my mind that Phra Bart tells us to move our eyes or open them or something and it takes me a while to figure out where my eyes are. I actually have to mentally creep up the inside of my face until I find the right muscles and figure out how to tell them to work again. That feeling's a little strange.
BUT! I'm frustrated. I can't see the damn sphere. It's been two and a half weeks. I've meditated two or three times a day most of that time, and I've been in virtually the same place since the second session. I've tried, I've tried to not try, I've tried to let go, and I just can't see that stupid light that I'm supposed to be seeing. Phra Bart has even seemed to give up on me - today when he asked how it went after the session and I reported that there were still no changes, he shrugged and said he didn't know what to tell me.
I have wondered, though, if I'm blocking myself. I wonder if I'm keeping myself from totally letting go and doing this method because of my non-belief in Buddhism.
Which, in and of itself, has been a bit of a struggle. I overheard Phra Bart call Sean "a good Mormon" one day, and asked Sean about it later. He said it was a joke between them, since he had grown up Mormon but gave it up a while ago. I told him I was curious because I was a Mormon. Sean, surprised, asked, "Then what are you doing here?!"
I told him that I came here to understand. That I like learning about different people and ideas. And also that I like to look for the similarities between what I believe and what others believe. All of which is very much true.
Studying Buddhism like this has been more of a conflict than I anticipated, though. The very first day our my culture week oh-so-long-ago, J.J. took us to a wat and, when we reached the Buddha image/shrine for that temple, she said she would teach us how they pay respect. She knelt on the floor, we followed suit. She explained how to bow, pressing the hands to the floor as you go down, then bringing them up to a wai three times. The others copied her actions. I started to, but then, quite clearly, I was told not to do that. "Do not bow down to golden images," in fact, was the phrase that came to mind.
And I've respected that. I respect the temples, I go to them and about them with reverence and respect, but I have not and will not bow down to the Buddha.
Since then, I have treaded very carefully. I am very much aware of the spirit and try to find ways to be appropriate. The exercise has actually been interesting. For example, the monks begin and end all learning activities, including each class, with a chant to Buddha. It would be quite rude for me to sit it out or refuse or interrupt. So, I stand behind the monks with the other teachers, I press my hands together and raise them so my thumb is touching my forehead, as they do. And while they chant, I pray to my own god.
I've actually enjoyed that. I love the sounds of the chanting, and I've really loved saying a short prayer so often each day. A lot of days I try to focus my prayer to one of thanksgiving specifically.
I enjoy the discussions about Buddhism in my morning class, and I've been surprised at how many similarities there are deeply rooted in our beliefs. There really are parallels at the heart of the philosophies of Buddhism and Mormonism, and more so than a pat "be good" or "good v. evil" basis.
Still, the fact that the meditation is about talking to Buddha; that the ultimate body we're supposed to see is a version of the Buddha; that we're supposed to reach Nibbana, heaven or a perfect state, in this meditation is a conflict for me. It's not what I believe, and I'm discovering how deeply to the core I'm not willing to bend or allow or make exceptions for these things.
Which, I suppose, is a pretty significant lesson in and of itself.
Still, the eternal "good student" that I am is frustrated that I can't do what the teacher's asking me to do. And I don't know how or if I'll reconcile that.
Especially since I only have three days left.
On the other hand, thankfully, I only have three days left!
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