Panting heavily from a long day of cycling in humid southern Thailand, I arrived uninvited at Wat Tham Tu Khao Tong Buddhist monastery after dark. I was immediately surrounded by six vociferous dogs and it took me a couple of fearful minutes of fending them off before I spotted a doorway illuminated from within by the dim flicker of candlelight. I approached the door and, as my pupils swelled in the dark, 60 silent monks came into view, all sat in the lotus position and facing a large, gold-gilded Buddha.
An old woman, shaven-headed and androgenised by age, materialised in the doorway and took me somewhat sternly by the wrist. She led me to a floor space at the front and gestured that I should sit down and meditate along with the rest. It was not a request but an order so, cowed and with difficulty, I bent my legs underneath me, feeling them quickly swell with the pulse of lactic acid. The calm was unnerving. Five minutes earlier I had been cycling at 20mph and now I sat before an orange-robed sea of tranquility with sweat beading on my skin and my heart thumping almost audibly.
It wasn’t long before I grew uncomfortable and restless. With no idea how long I would be here and not wanting to disturb anyone, I didn’t dare even to turn my head for a sidelong glance. My busy mind began darting around and leap-frogging over itself while I imagined 60 enlightened ‘third-eyes’ burning a hole in the back of my head. After a short while I weakly compromised and decided to count down from 300, one count with each exhalation, and creep out after reaching zero.
300, 299, 298, 297... I impatiently stared at a gently-swaying candle flame two yards in front of me. 274, 273, 272... My breath steadied and the count slowed accordingly. 237, 236... My eyes began to glaze and the crawling count required all my concentration. The orange sea’s tranquil tide swept over me. I don’t remember reaching 200 but the next thing I knew, a hand settled softly on my shoulder. I looked into the deeply-lined face of the woman who had showed me in. She was smiling knowingly. The monks behind me were stretching out chatting quietly.
I was wide awake with my back bolt upright and my eyes wide open when she roused me but my mind was utterly without thought. I was happy. I checked the time; over an hour had passed. Through coercion and the self-imposed social pressure not to disturb, I had successfully meditated. I was shown to the washroom and then given a large plate of rice and a glass of mango juice before sleeping very soundly on the prayer hall floor.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.
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