Photo of Thai moutain landscape

Beauty and Doubt in Thailand – Emily Koshin Oliver

This time last year I was in Thailand, embarking on a two-month stint that became everything I didn’t know I was looking for. I kept diaries of my reflections, particularly throughout a stay in a Vipassana temple, and started to write up a piece on my return which I eventually abandoned. It feels personally apt for me, at this point, to finally give some air and life to this formative experience.

After ending an 11-year, meaningful but increasingly intense and unbalancing job, I knew I needed a complete shake up of my routines, concepts, comfort zone, fixed self. No plans, no control, no expectations. So off I went. It was exciting, stimulating and nerve wracking, immediately confronted with my need for people and my need for aloneness, and a constant process of gain and loss. After a few weeks of exploration, soaking up the life, food, scenery, being welcomed in and discovering the warmth of a culture infused with Buddhism, I felt the need for some quieter, inner exploration. The universe handed me a Vipassana temple quite unlike any others I’d typically heard about. What follows are a mixture of thoughts I wrote throughout my 9 days there (mostly in quotation marks), that I wrote shortly afterwards, and some current additions and amendments.

Nestled in the mountains around Chiang Mai sat Wat Sopharam, a temple complex of dusty Buddha halls, rudimentary facilities, mini monks in orange trying to stay awake during 5am services, imposing stairways, life, chaos, and peace. Of course it’s hard to have a completely open mind with many years of Zen training behind me, and the first challenge that hit me squarely in the face was the complete lack of any form or schedule! So long as you don’t touch a monk or point your feet to the Buddha, anything goes. I didn’t even know what direction to place my cushion (answer: on the ceiling for all they care) or where or when to be (answer: everywhere and nowhere – rock up when you want and do what you please). ‘Thai time’ is an amusing mystery, things start when they start and change constantly. I had to really work with my resistance to this, let go of all my Zen programming, and fall into my own rhythm and discipline.

Next arose a strong resistance to the teaching. After one lesson, “I felt a thousand contradictory questions arising!” Against the absolute certainty that their way was the correct way, with an awful lot of ‘mindfulness is the key to happiness, and if you just try hard enough you can also be enlightened’. ‘Don’t suffer, choose happiness!’ Simple! There was Faith, there was Determination but where was the Doubt? Where was the not knowing? Where was facing the fear and exploring the void? Showing up fully to every aspect of your life? I couldn’t bear any more diagrams on whiteboards and dry theory! And felt very uncomfortable with a room full of people being instructed to strive for happiness, grasping for a state of mind that is anyway impermanent, without the subtleties of what happiness actually meant. “Doesn’t this just produce guilt? How do they deal with old age, sickness, death and grief? Don’t we create our own suffering by clinging to the pain – and the joy?”

Well, put my questioning into practice then, Emily. As the days passed and I found my voice to dig a bit deeper, it started to point towards more familiar territory. Some of my gripes came down to semantics – happiness, unwholesome mind, fixing, enlightenment! But they were just words. And probably blunt translations too. Happiness had layers and the ‘highest’ one actually meant wisdom. Mindfulness was observing, and observing led to acknowledging the present reality, whatever that is. And the essential truth of all things.

“Am I just making it too complicated? Is Vipassana the way, just breathe in and out? Observe that. Wisdom will grow. Freedom with happen.” I decided to take the lessons for what they were and instead just focus on the concentration techniques we’d been taught. Rising, falling, sitting. Maybe these are the key to wisdom and truth! Soon it dawned on me that while I may not be clinging to happiness as an end goal, I was just clinging to this instead.

A trap. What to do. A very amusing and very wise Israeli monk changed things for me about halfway through. He didn’t give formal lessons, but had a tendency to float around either spreading jokes or dharma. Just when I was in the midst of despair, he magically wandered into where I was meditating alone and started to talk to me properly for the first time. I told him my struggles with the teachings, and he retorted ‘you can’t choose happiness’. But we’ve been told the opposite all week! He blew it all out of the water. There will be no sudden click through this (or any) technique. By staying present you slowly realise your thoughts are just ideas and concepts, and you let them go. Flooded with relief! It is all the same, and my doubts an important process. “To move away from this word happiness to acknowledgement, from enlightenment to wisdom. To cry, but not think about why.”

Things became looser for me after this, peaceful, softer. Letting it flow in and out more. Less words. ‘There is the breathing but no breather… there is the sitting but no sitter.’ (Thich Naht Hahn). I slowly understood that the formal lessons were likely starting with the basics, encouraging trust in the simplicity of separating out feelings and mind. But before jumping to a life free from all suffering, perhaps the missing middle section was to be found in the power of just sitting.

It still felt a rudimentary teaching for people who may be completely new to practice, or with deep issues to work with, or who aren’t staying long enough to make their own discoveries. But finally, towards the end of my own time there, came a class that did away with diagrams and theory and instead pointed towards discovering one’s own true nature, not to trust even Buddha, to find out for yourself. True to its formless way, the temple provided.

We were asked whether we wanted peace or truth. “But what is that truth I can feel exists but can’t get to? Is it in fact everything they said from the very beginning after all? Just be mindful and observe every moment, there is nothing more than the changing nature of the present, so long as you are breathing everything is there, nothing more, nothing less.”

The final month of my journey carried this flavour. It had its ups and downs, but I felt more present to experiencing all of it, and a sense of gratitude for snippets of luck in situations I would have ordinarily classed as unfortunate. It all flowed seamlessly, even when it flowed in a direction I hadn’t expected.

There were moments of feeling perfectly content. “Nothing is missing; no person, no thing. Yet, when I really look at these mountains, I want to cry. With the beauty, the stillness, the permanence, the impermanence, the timelessness, the slowness. The joy.” Those mountains were my greatest teacher of all. This ache inside can be overwhelming, one I used to label as lack. But it is awe, it is sorrow, it is joy, it is love. “They are all the same, and they are all complete.”

Maybe in danger of getting stuck up this proverbial mountain, I crash landed back into the UK. Where did my warrior spirit disappear to? The more fearless Emily who let go of clinging, who stayed present to the beauty and to the challenges, who felt softer and more at ease? Can I find her again in amongst the anxiety, the storm, the loss? How do I find freedom in where I am? Slowly I examined my life. A life I had built up around me, reclaimed as my own. It is not as seductive or addictive as the freedom of travelling in another’s world, one that I didn’t create and blissfully can’t control. My own life is harder work. It carries anxieties and responsibilities. But it is mine. And it’s good to be back in it.

“Nothing is missing
All is complete
Nothing can change this moment.”

And a year later? I need reminding constantly, but it still rings true.