A lot of people have reached out and messaged me to ask about my experiences in Myanmar, curious (as I was) about this unique country seemingly shrouded in mystery. It's been exactly two years since I spent a month exploring the country and its people, and it's about time that I finally tell the stories I've been eager to share!
an awesome little interactive map showing where I went:
I have so much to say about my time in this magical country, so my Myanmar posts will be split up into portions so that each post doesn't get too ridiculously long!
Anyways, here it is - Myanmar through my eyes. My best friend Morgan and I, with no idea what we were getting into.
Our first stop: Yangon, to experience life alongside monks in a Buddhist Monastery.
10 Day Vipassana - Silent Meditation
Morgan and I landed in the capital city of Yangon after a quick flight from Bangkok, and hopped into a taxi headed to Chanmyay Myaing Meditation Center, where we planned to deeply practise meditation for 10 days and take a vow of silence.
Upon arrival at the Center, we handed over all of our electronics. We traded in our street clothes for traditional monk-in-training attire and had a vaguely embarrassing time with a resident nun as she tried to teach us the proper way to wear the skirt they call a lyongi (pronounced long-ee). It’s a long and giant piece of cloth in the shape of a tube that is intricately tied in a knot at your hip. The people of Myanmar wear these lyongis every day because they're comfy, breathable and you can do that classic Asian squatting/sitting position without exposing anything. It felt alien and overbearing on me. Orientation took place right away - a tour of the area and an introduction to how things work there. We were then given a brown sash to always be worn across the shoulder, and shown to our separate rooms.
When I entered my room and shut the door, the gravity of the inner journey I was about to embark on began to settle in. I had given up my right to speak. With that, I had also handed in my right to read, play my guitar, write, listen to music, and check my phone. My meals were going to be small, few and far between - eating at 5am and 10am, a juice at noon, and that's it. All of the things I chose to leave at the door were such automatic distractions to me that I didn’t consider them to be distractions until this point. But in the world of Buddhist Monks, they are. To be stripped of all this extra stuff I do and carry with me.. compulsive speaking, compulsive eating, compulsive technology use, compulsive daydreaming, sex.. forced me to face what's left after all that is gone.
At 5am every morning, a loud and eerie gong resounded through the area - our alarm. Everyone began to stir in the dark. We would line up in the foggy mist outside the Food Hall in order of rank: male monk, male monk in training, female monk, female monk in training. After we filed into the cafeteria in silence, we ate in silence. I would steal glances at the monks, filled with endless curiosity about them. I'd briefly dare to glance at my best friend sitting next to me, but with caution - I knew if we locked eyes, we would both start laughing and completely lose our composure.
This is what it's like at the Center: When you eat, it's an Eating Meditation, chewing your food slowly and thoughtfully, tasting the notes of every bite - a far cry from my usual eating style which more closely resembles a pack of lions attacking and devouring a giraffe. When you walk, it's a Walking Meditation, slowly and with intention, placing one foot in front of the other, feeling your heel on the ground and your padded toes that follow. Noticing any passing thoughts or emotions, acknowledging these feelings but not attaching to them. Thoughts are clouds that are to be noted but not to be dwelt on.
Every action you do here is a meditation, there is no “break” from it, 15 hours a day.
Practising constant meditation at the Center was a transition more abrupt and challenging than anything I had ever attempted. That is, until four days into it I was plagued with food poisoning so vicious that I became bedridden for the rest of my stay. The sickness forced me to break the rule of No Writing, which I am grateful that I did because I love looking back on my journal entries from this time in my life!
I’ll share some of them with you here…
Day 2 - Successful continuous mindfulness. I alternated between sitting and walking meditation all day, 1 hour each. I'm becoming hyper-aware of the chaotic circus that is my mind. I stare at the Buddha in the meditation hall, silently pleading for guidance. Please let me in on your secret! But she only smiles back at me serenely. I'm in so much physical pain from the sitting meditation, my feet go numb and it's so hard to walk afterwards with dead leg. When a monk with a big smile came into my room to fix my shower, I felt so joyful at this almost-interaction with another human, even though we didn’t talk. Over all, I'm feeling joy and presence throughout most of the day, and truly embracing the silence. No small talk, no filler words, no pressure to engage. I love the sound of the Burmese monks chanting and the children outside of the walls singing in their mysterious language. I sat by the lotus pond, staring into it, trying to penetrate its secrets with my eyes, wanting something to happen so badly. Suddenly a koi fish burst into my view in all its colourful glory and brought me so much delight it was ridiculous. It really is the little things here. I envy and admire the monks for their diligence and ceaseless apparent serenity.
Day 3 - I’m going a little crazy. No mindfulness, diarrhea and puking instead. My body's weakened state is allowing negative thoughts to creep in, thoughts about past boyfriends, lost love.. I’m craving intimacy. I need to learn to let go. I woke up literally bawling from a dream of my sister dying, it was so vivid. My pillow is drenched in tears. I've never experienced a dream like this before, so gut-wrenching. I have no way to message her to find out if this dream has any validity, so I try to forget. I sat by the lotus pond and the bamboo creaked loudly in the wind, soothing my troubled mind. Today is the day I break a rule and begin writing. I believe it will keep me sane and give me purpose. I want to be a writer. I write about my experiences constantly in my head, as if my life is a story and I'm the narrator. Today, I also picked up my guitar for a moment and gently played a note. Strange how things that I always do and carry close to my heart, like writing and playing my guitar, can feel wrong. I named the spider that hangs out in my window Dale, and the two geckos that chase each other across my wall are now Pickles and Gabriel. I’m feeling so lonely, and so utterly aware of my constant need for change, my lust for new surroundings. Am I running or chasing? I brush my teeth about 6 times a day and call it Toothbrush Meditation, commending myself for my immaculate oral hygiene. My daily cleaning tasks in and around the meditation hall are calming - sweeping the marble floors, smelling the air of a new country. The written language here is so tantalizing, so foreign, its letters all rounded and circular. I see it on plaques around the Center and in the dusty ancient newspapers that died in my desk. I don’t even know where I am, or what this country is like, because we came straight to the centre from the airport! What will I find outside these walls when I do leave?
Day 4 - At 6pm last night the gnarly food poisning set in, and it’s violent. I didn’t sleep last night, and still haven't. This is the closest I've ever felt to death by sickness. There’s nothing left in my body. A nun occasionally brings me water, jasmine tea and soothing motherly comfort. I took a bite of porridge that Morgan brought for me and immediately projectile vomited - guess I won't be eating anytime soon. I spent the entire day awake in bed, too nauseous to sit, stand or sleep. My mind flutters between memories and fantasies and I realized I’m having trouble deciphering which is which. The thread of my reality seems to be fraying a little. Oh, how the monks amaze me. Their simple joy, their slow grace. The way their deep burgundy robes cascade across and down the left shoulder, a peaceful storm of patience. I love seeing these robes drying outside my window, hanging in the breeze. I've been questioning human existence - all the different ways we choose to live. Some of us (especially in Western society) not even aware that the way they live IS a choice. Somehow unaware of the choices they have, blinded, following like sheep this one path they are shown. So this is how the monks choose to live. How are they happy like this? To never speak unless absolutely necessary, to never have sex. How come I am not happy like this? Do they know a secret that I just haven’t given the time or patience to learn, or is this lifestyle not for everyone? I miss being creative, I miss laughing, and singing, connecting. Playfulness. Expression. I'm realizing I have a whole lot on the inside that I need to express, almost like keeping it in would be detrimental. But this combo of not leaving my bed and my physical state makes me feel trapped, insane, dizzy, and more lonely than ever. I feel like the next breeze would lift me up and carry my frail frame away, if I ever left this room.
Day 6 - The monk with the big smile who fixed my shower had wondered where I had been and looked happy to see me back in the lunch room today. He gestured to ask me if I’m okay, and while I ate he motioned that I need to eat more rice. It’s funny and magical that we’ve never exchanged words, yet I feel like we are friends. Maybe words are overrated? The writer in me protests.
There are so many lessons to be learned when you face yourself directly. Blinds open, completely naked, stripped of all the other shit. Just you and your own reflection. My silent experience at the Monastery taught me many things. There’s a lot about Buddhism, the mind, meditation, and humanity as a whole that I have yet to understand. I learned that monks have an honourable amount of will and self-control, and that I’m not sure if I do. I learned how much I love and appreciate the liberties I have in my ife, the ways in which I get to enjoy and express myself, the creativity I am free to let loose upon the land. I truly cherish these freedoms and will never take them for granted. A monk told me that all feelings, thoughts, and emotions should be noticed and observed - the good and the bad ones alike. This will stick with me forever. Most of all, I now know that simplifying life and tuning into each moment leads to happiness, though I don’t know if taking it to this extreme is necessary for me. We all need different things. But balance and self-reflection are vital and can always be practised at our own levels, our own pace.
I will never forget spending 7 nights immersed in life with the Buddhist Monks of Myanmar, floating through their serene and silent world, taking it all in, and learning so much about myself. Thank you, Chanmyay Myaing Center, for the welcoming home you provide for any and all of us who are searching.
Side note: Almost all Buddhist monasteries in Myanmar offer a 10-day Silent Meditation. If you're interested in doing this, do some of your own research and pick the one that you're drawn to!
A link to the site for the centre that we stayed in is here