Pa Pae Meditation Retreat & My Mental Breakdown

After I said goodbye to my parents in Chiang Mai, I went to Pai. It’s a small town in the mountains and from what I’d heard a backpacker’s paradise. Although I mostly don’t like places which are made only for tourists, Pai is different. Maybe because it’s not really made for tourists, but at least for backpackers, or travellers. In the daytime it is hard to choose from the incredibly large choice of super cosy, nice, hipster, superfoody coffee bars and lunch cafes. And in the nighttime the main street of the city turns into a big street food market with a lot of bars around to enjoy some nice and cheap drinks with reggae, hiphop of deephouse music in the background.

When driving to Pai by scooter, I saw some signs for a meditation retreat. I’d been wanting to do this kind of retreat for a longer time, but after two failed attempts for doing a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat, I forgot about it. I checked their website and saw they had a 3-day course starting a couple of days later. I emailed them and they still had place for me! I actually don’t really know what to write about the course, because I mainly have been sitting still for 3 days. Except from a few things in my mind, not much happened. But I will try to write as much as I can about the whole experience, since some people asked me about it.

I’ve been meditating quite a bit already. My sessions never last very long, especially while travelling, but I try to do it every day, at least 10 minutes. When I was living in Antwerp and had a more regular life, I did it up to 30 minutes a day. I was curious what 3 days of more than 4 hours per day of meditating was going to do with me.

The schedule was easy, 4 sessions a day, with one hour of total silence before each session. Apart from eating twice a day (we didn’t eat dinner) and some gardening work, I didn’t do much else than sitting or lying in the hammock. There were only 3 others following the course, because of the Songkran Festival (Thai New Year) which would start during our course. The location of the retreat couldn’t have been more peaceful: in a small village, hidden between the mountains. The meditation halls were built against the slope of the hill, all with different features but all totally aligned with the surrounding nature. Every session we would meditate in a different hall, each with the lovely sounds of nature: birds, gecko’s, crickets, water coming down from the fountains and the wind blowing through the trees. Our teaching monk guided the first part of the meditation and would teach us the basics about Buddhism after our meditation session.

I went in with no expectations at all. I was just happy to be in a place where I didn’t have to think about anything for 3 days. And this turned out to be the best way to start a meditation retreat: without any expectations. I just enjoyed the sitting down in nature, even if my focus on meditation wasn’t always perfect. What also happened because of this, was that since almost 6 months, I felt for the first time how tired I actually was. I was napping in the afternoon, went to bed at 9 pm and caught myself falling asleep during the meditation sessions (something that is quite extraordinary for someone who can’t sleep sitting in (night) buses or planes). I totally relaxed, because I didn’t have to think about anything except for myself. But the 3 days were a little too short to get a proper rest, and I was a little sad that I already made plans to travel back to Chiang Mai en Bangkok. It was after I got back from the retreat that I got my first glimpse of anxiety again. The meditating had brought something to the surface: the fact that I was getting totally run-down or even burned-out from my 6 months of travelling. After this first half panic attack in Chiang Mai, I started to have problems sleeping and got stressed out or even anxious from the smallest things. My mind just didn’t seem to be able to handle any kind of stimulus anymore outside my hostel room. The noisy motorcycles on the streets, the calling taxi drivers and sellers, the travellers in my hostel where I felt I was expected to socialize with… Having to figure out how to get from A to B felt like a huge obstacle and in the end, it was the only thing I could and had to focus on, since this needed all my energy.
Something had to change, and I decided on taking a flight from Bali to Australia. The whole story about this change of plans you can read in my update on my ‘current mission’.

The meditation technique we learned is called ‘the Middle Way’. Instead of focussing on your breathing, like many meditation forms do, this technique focuses on your ‘middle point’. About two fingers below your belly button, in the middle of your body. It is kind of a ‘still’ point where you can imagine the pith of your soul, your spirit to be. To help you focus on that point, we had to imagine an object and you could use a mantra  to describe this object. My object varied between a bright diamond and a clear crystal and my mantra changed every day but was something like ‘bright and clear’. If the meditation went well I felt myself becoming transparent and I only saw my crystal floating in the air, reflecting my surroundings in it’s mirror-like faces. After such a meditation I felt totally calm and relaxed. One time I associated this feeling with waking up on a sunday morning at my parents home and smelling freshly baked bread and coffee for our brunch. It’s like coming home.

1 Comment

  1. Wim van Vierssen says: Reply

    Indringend. Goed besluit!

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