*A NOTE FROM SPIDERFIT CO-FOUNDER, BRETT KLIKA: While the post below does not include drills, activities, or research regarding youth physical activity, it’s my hope that the perspective shared from my recent experience helps you as a parent, coach, or educator bring a calm and awareness to your life that reflects on your kids. Remember, our kids are a mirror of us! Enjoy.
Right, goes, there.
Left, goes, there.
Right goes, there.
I was repeating this mantra over and over in my head as I slowly and mindfully put one foot in front of the other. I had been walking for about 39 and-a-half years, but this is the first time I had brought so much awareness to the process.
No, I wasn’t experiencing an OCD- inspired meltdown.
I was participating in two days of meditation and silence at the Monk Chat retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A few months prior, I had signed on to speak at the Asian Fitness Conference in Bangkok. Having never been to Southeast Asia, I wanted to spend a bit of extra time after the conference and soak in the culture. Unfortunately, my wife couldn’t come, but I was able to bring my mom.
As I scoured the “things to do in Thailand” websites, I came across a “Two-day silent meditation retreat” located in the mountains of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
I’d been messing around with daily meditation for the last year, beginning with futile 60 second attempts, then progressing to about 10 minutes of labored silence with the Headspace app on my phone. Two days of silence in the mountains of Thailand with Buddhist monks was definitely out of my comfort zone, however.
I signed both my mom and I up immediately. I’m wired with this “if it scares you, you should probably do it” thing. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad.
In the last year, this wiring has had me skiing the backcountry of Whistler, B.C. off a snowcat, surfing Dominical, Costa Rica, and speaking in front of crowds around the world. Nothing, and I mean nothing, made me more anxious and uncomfortable than the thought of 48 hours of silence and introspection with monks in the mountains.
After a successful and quite comfortable first half of the trip, the time came to hop on a plane from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. After a few days of checking out the markets and riding elephants (another story altogether), the time came to meet up with the monks.
Monk Chat is a sort of Buddhist “outreach” program, providing retreats and other offerings to educate people about bringing more awareness to their life. They are housed in Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya (yup, real name) Buddhist University in Chiang Mai.
We met at their office with about 20 other travelers from all over the world. We received all- white clothing and boarded small open-window busses that transported us about 45 minutes out of town into the high country. Once we arrived at the meditation center, our monk guide, Phra Ke-Ke, let us know the “rules” for the next 48 hours.
Immediately, my anxious premonitions were validated.
- No Wi-Fi or cell reception (I checked).
- We had to select a stranger as a roommate.
- We would not be allowed to talk during our time at the retreat. Not during meals, not in our rooms. Complete silence.
- We were only allowed to wear the all-white clothing they provided.
- No air conditioning was available in the rooms (it was an extremely humid 90 degrees with rain).
- All meals would be vegetarian.
- We would be sleeping on 2- inch mats on wire- framed beds.
- We would be spending roughly 8 hours meditating over the course of the next 48 hours.
None of the above would be considered part of an enjoyable vacation for me. However, the next two days would prove to be one of the most valuable investments of time I have ever made.
We started immediately with a short “object meditation” in which we sat on the floor cross- legged for 10 minutes. Not only was my mind darting the entire time, my knees and back ached and my legs fell asleep. It was a rough start.
After this short intro, Phra (meaning “Monk”) Ke-Ke shared some of the basic principles of meditation.
- Meditation isn’t just “clearing your mind.” It’s teaching your “monkey mind” to avoid attaching to every thought that comes into your head. It’s OK for thoughts to appear, we just need not dwell on them. In essence, let the rabbits run by, but don’t chase them. This was extremely helpful for me.
- Our brain and mind are two different things. Our mind and mindset provides a continuous context for how our brain processes the world around us. A frantic mind will create frantic thought processes that bend the logic our brain is capable of. Meditation helps create a more centered and grounded space from which our mind can create proper footing for the actions of our brain. This helps us make more empathetic, compassionate, and pro-active decisions in our life.
- Meditation isn’t about “ignoring”. It’s about acknowledging, inquiring, and accepting. If I was meditating and began to feel anxious, I would acknowledge that I was anxious. I would then let my mind dig a bit deeper as to why I was anxious. This was an amazing space to explore. With a quiet, accepting mindset, my brain would realize there is no logical reason for an anxiety response. My anxiety would then dampen. Instead of ignoring or numbing unpleasant feelings, actually acknowledging them without judgement provides a better result.
- We take many of our day to day actions for granted. Having awareness of little things, like our heart beat, breathing rate, muscle tension, the effect of gravity on our body, and other aspects of being human create a unique and pro-active mental space.
I took what Phra Ke-Ke shared with us and applied a competitor’s mindset. I was 100% committed to being the Michael Jordan of meditation for the next two days. Despite our leader’s insight, however, the first 24 hours were horrible for me. I quickly realized my connection and need for sources of stress and adrenaline was much stronger than I thought. A calmed mind does not pursue thoughts of “what’s next?” “I really have to…”, etc. While this sounds like a peaceful space, a brain that is used to getting constant “jolts” does not react favorably to stillness at first.
Without physical or mental access to this adrenaline, I actually felt nauseous and panicked. I needed a drug I wasn’t getting. My brain has learned to live in “fight or flight” mode.
I know I’m not alone in this.
With repeated practice however (nearing 8 hours of meditation), things got considerably easier. I developed an awareness of my wandering mind and was able to bring it back into focus with breathing techniques, or by counting the string of beads we received.
I learned how to acknowledge thoughts during meditation, but to let them go as quickly as they appeared. By the morning of the second day, twenty minutes of seated meditation was becoming easy.
Our Phra went on to introduce walking meditation. With eyes open, we would recite a mantra to ourselves, “Right, goes, there. Left, goes, there”, coordinating this with our gate. The goal was to have an awareness of the balance, muscular contraction, and rhythm necessary for walking. Being a kinesthetic person, I found walking meditation much easier than the seated version. Almost immediately, I was able to lose myself in concentration during twenty-minute meditation sessions.
The “silent” aspect of the experience was the one that I (along with everyone else that knows me) thought that I would struggle with. It was actually pretty easy and quite liberating. When everyone else is silent, being silent isn’t that hard. It was strange and uncomfortable during meal time and when we retired to our rooms in the evening though.
Whether you are an introvert or an extravert, the presence of other people creates a certain amount of pressure to interact. While this is a functional aspect of being part of a society, we fail to realize how exhausting it can be when we’re around other people all the time. It’s important to remember that silence is a valuable tool. Finding times for silence, both within us and around us can improve our clarity, happiness, and focus. Busy people may need to find silent time either in the morning, or before bed (without television).
Late into the first evening, the introspection and self- awareness created by the silence and repeated meditation began to have a profound, almost drug-like effect on me. During walking meditation, I was noticing every detail of the property. It was like the different types of trees, insects, and other features surrounding us were highlighted in hi-def. I felt like I needed to call someone over, “Have you SEEN these leaves?” During our de-brief the next evening, everyone said they shared a similar experience. Another reminder of how much of the beauty of life we let fly by in our perpetual fight-or-flight mode.
Retiring for the evening was a unique experience as well. We broke from mediation at about 10 p.m. and went to our shared rooms. Use of phones, books, or periodicals was discouraged, disrupting almost everyone’s evening routine. Despite being in a peaceful mental space, my brain was BEGGING for some sort of distraction to lull me to sleep. I laid on top of my mattress practicing the techniques we had learned that day. Eventually, I fell asleep and experienced an evening of theatre-quality dreaming.
This experience wasn’t the type in which you finish and feel like jumping up and down. You’re grateful for the opportunity, but are left in a space of deep self-reflection. Actually, it wasn’t until a few weeks after being home that the things I learned really began to become more part of my life.
Here are the biggest take aways I can share from my experience:
- Bringing discipline to the mind is as important, if not more important than bringing discipline to the body (exercise). The mind creates a powerful context for how we experience life.
- Much like training the body, training the mind requires discipline, commitment, and consistency. Struggle is part of the journey. Meditation is much more than just “chilling out”. Bringing focus to an unfocused mind requires a committed process. A meditation practice, much like an exercise practice, must be addressed with clear purpose and intention.
- A consistent meditation practice brings awareness not only to the world around us, but to the world within us. Even when not actively meditating, we can deal with thoughts and emotions much more pro-actively when we consistently train these self-awareness tools. While we don’t always have a choice in regard to the things that happen to us in life, we always have a choice in how we react. Assessing our thoughts and emotions objectively through meditation helps us slow our mind and improve our resiliency to adverse events.
- Positive and negative emotions have no body. They only exist in a space where we allow them. In essence, we give them a body. We will experience everything from elation to despair. Regardless of the emotions created by these extremes, we must acknowledge they are temporary and do not define our existence.
I can’t recommend an experience like this enough. However, you don’t have to brave Southeast Asia to create change in your life. Start by merely closing your eyes and feeling the weight of your body on the chair or floor beneath you. Count 10 breaths in and out through your nose, taking about 4 seconds in, 4 seconds out. Congratulations! You just meditated. Now, see if you can make it to 20 breaths.
I hope you are able to join me in spirit every morning as I start the day wrestling my monkey mind back into its cage, clearing the mental space to live extraordinary by helping others do the same.