Fellowship of the Bling

Part the Third:

The last article was mainly a story of internal drama. Externally, what was now happening was that I was in a communal room with half-a-dozen assorted westerners, inside a walled compound containing around fifty detox patients overseen by eight or nine monks. This, in turn, was within the large sprawling monastery that is Thamkrabok, nestled at the foot of a range of small, but dramatically craggy, limestone mountains. Conditions were not luxurious, but wouldn’t seem shockingly spartan to anyone who has travelled Asia on a backpacker’s budget.

Phra Hans dropped in every day to liaise with the foreign patients, but on the whole, we were expected to muck in and mingle with the Thai contingent and do what they did. This worked pretty well, despite the language barrier, since the schedule was straightforward and consistent. There was a nice communal spirit among the Thai patients who cheerfully chivvied us through the day’s activities without any need for complex explanation.

At 4.30am everyone got up to sweep the compound. This, more than any other single thing, has always seemed to give rise to the most resistance and outrage amongst Western patients, as if it were the quintessence of scandalously sadistic tyranny, on a par with the worst excesses of the Khmer Rouge, and proof that Asians are a cruel race.

One perhaps shouldn’t be too quick to judge, since people arrive with habits and presumptions, and are probably not at their most sparkling or receptive. So we can gently point out a few factors underlining that we are now in quite a different place to where most of us have come from (and so perhaps a little adjustment could be in order). To wit:

Firstly that, since we are in the tropics, sleeping late in a non air-conditioned room isn’t really a pleasant experience – you’ll wake up bathed in sweat and with noise pouring in through the open windows. Secondly, that quite a lot of stuff falls from the trees all year-round, so it is vital work. We would be knee-deep in detritus if we missed three days in a row, and so pretty well everybody around here does at least some sweeping on most days. And you too live around here now…

Finally, if that still doesn’t make an impression, then that: since Thamkrabok offers an unfunded treatment facility staffed by unsalaried monks, which you are currently enjoying for naught but the asking, we are a bit short of professional cleaning staff. And besides we thought it might be nice to give the servants a day off, your highness. In all the years that have followed my own confrontation with these stark facts, I have never seen a better single indicator of how well someone is likely to do than the enthusiasm (or at least, lack of sulkiness) with which they then pick up a broom.

I offer no explanation for that. It’s just evidence-based. An observation…

Women Glow, and Men Chunder

That said though, the monks are merciful on shaky new arrivals, so I was left to sleep a little longer. I was shortly to face a different challenge though – the infamous Thamkrabok cleansing medicine. A potent black liquid made from 108 herbal ingredients, this stimulates the body to eliminate toxins in a rather dramatic manner. Since far more has been said and written about this than anything else that happens at Thamkrabok – and despite every journalist who comes here being emphatically told that we consider physical detox quite a small part of the process – I’ll keep it to a bare minimum here:

Luang Dta Mon RIP, The former potions master of Thamkrabok, administering the medicine to a fresh victim patient

Patients are required to take this once per day for the first five days of their stay. Back then we did it just before sunrise, but nowadays it happens in the afternoons. Although it does taste quite spectacularly vile, it doesn’t automatically induce vomiting – that is then stimulated by consuming large quantities of water. It doesn’t prevent withdrawal symptoms, but it will shave a bit off the total time needed to get back to some arguably normal state, and make detoxification more thorough, as well as having other general health benefits. In fact, people are known to take it sometimes even when they’re not required to, and I still find that it is good once in a while if I am feeling sluggish or run-down.

Does it work? Yes. I don’t really know the science, but I have seen enough anecdotal evidence to have confidence in its usefulness. More crucially though, it provides a huge psychological benefit – it transforms the narrative of what is happening in that first week of abstinence.

Because addiction is a passive kind of a thing. You may start by deciding what substances go into you, and when, and how much, but then that turns around, and the chemicals are in charge. If you try to argue back, they have many unpleasant and undignified ways to punish your impertinence, so you will snap out of that quite quickly. Soon pretty well everything you do, and think, and say, has to work around the tyrannical demands of your habit. You start to disappear as an autonomous person. Eventually you will accept your slave status. It’s just easier.

Then, one day you find what is left of your courage, will, dignity – or whatever internal Spartacus has rallied you to fight for your freedom – and you decide to quit. Hurrah! But then after the brief (metaphorical) intoxication of bravado has given way to the wretchedness of (actual) detoxification, you are faced with a double challenge. The first, obviously, is whatever your poison of choice does to you medically on its way out.

But secondly, on top of that, it is hard to establish the properly gladiatorial mindset you will need to overcome it, because again you are cast in a basically passive role. You have to abstain, refrain, wait, and suck it up. So there you are geared up to fight, but your battle tactic essentially is to lie curled up on the floor protecting your vitals and wondering when your biochemistry will eventually tire of kicking you. That doesn’t feel very heroic. That certainly isn’t how Kirk Douglas took on the Romans, not in the film, at least. No – he had great big burning logs that he rolled downhill at them, and then ran at them waving a big sword, and going “YAAAHH!!” That’s much more like it.

So, the cleansing medicine isn’t quite the same thing as that, but it does make you feel that you are taking the fight to the enemy, by actively chasing the toxins out. And you can feel a bit like you’ve been in a fight afterwards. And it makes almost as much noise.

“No! I’m SPAAAAAAAAAARRRRRR-tacus!”

Fellowship of the Bling

I hadn’t paid much initial attention to my foreign cohorts, partly because I was a self-absorbed puddle of self-pity, and partly because they all seemed to be leaving. I arrived on the 21st December, whereas most westerners had timed their detox to spend the holiday period back with family and friends. That had struck me as a terrible idea, particularly New Year with my friends, and two other people had had similar thoughts. 

Reiner had arrived the day before me, and I really hadn’t noticed him at all at first, because he was asleep pretty well all of the time. He would wake up just long enough to eat enormous quantities of food and then go back to sleep. This was because he was a massive cokehead, coming down from the mother of all binges, so he had a large debt to repay in natural sources of energy and recuperation.

Reiner was early-forties, German, and sported the hair of a man who was young in the 1980s and still young at heart. He spoke with the complacent delivery of a man who is right about most things, and presumes that as obvious to you as it is to him. A self-made businessman, he owned a company in Ibiza that had something to do with private swimming pools, and had the suntan that goes with that. There were paler highlights around his neck and fingers that were ghosts of the chunky bling jewellery he had been asked to remove before entering the detox. 

Then there was Chris who arrived the following morning. Early-twenties, American, with the thin lank hair of a career smackhead, and the reedy voice of a man trying to retain all the smoke inside his lungs, even when he wasn’t smoking. He had grown up getting high, and that was now actually his normal voice. Chris had no education or employment history to speak of, was of corpse-like waxy complexion, and was perforated with several large and weepy-looking holes that were the ghosts of the chunky “tribal” jewellery he had been asked to remove before entering the detox.

I assumed that I would hate them both, although it struck me as faintly amusing that I – early thirties, establishment-class but of bohemian disposition, still sporting a faint scar from the small eyebrow-ring I had voluntarily removed some months before, and addicted to both of those drugs – might be perceived as the mean-average of the sum of those two. Oddly [or perhaps predictably – you know how these mismatched-buddy stories generally work] after initial tensions we soon became quite a tight unit. First, Chris and I bonded over hating Reiner. This came very naturally as the two of us whiled away long insomniac nights to the sound of his contented snoring, and I grudgingly conceded that Chris was cool, and quite witty. Then by Christmas Eve, when we were both in very bad shape, Reiner began to redeem himself in our eyes. Having caught up somewhat on his sleep, he became energetically helpful and kind – keeping the place tidy, bringing us things – and just generally being chill and pleasant.

What really united us though [shared hardships, awareness of common humanity, hard-earned mutual respect, yada, yada…] was meditation, which we were introduced to in two quite contrasting ways, both equally excellent.

Sit down and shut up

Around midday all the patients trouped inside one of the buildings and sat down cross-legged in rows. Chris, Reiner, and I tagged along. Then an elderly and benevolent-looking monk spoke to us for a few minutes – in Thai, we understood not a word – and then everyone sat quietly with their eyes closed while one incense stick burned away. For about 25 minutes, I would guess. And – yeah, that’s it. It was very nice.

If you haven’t ever tried meditation, then I would urge you to stop reading at the end of this paragraph, and not resume until you have. Seriously – you only get to lose your virginity once, so make it special – retain that innocence. There’s a thing oft mentioned in Zen circles that they call “beginner’s mind”, that perceives without imposing interpretations on what is perceived. Apparently, the basic mission-brief of Zen is to spend 30 years trying to get that back. All you need to know is – set a time, make it a minimum of 15 minutes, and whatever happens, decide that you won’t react. Certainly not with the body, and as little as possible with the mind. See what you think it’s about, and we’ll talk later…

Note: In the perhaps unlikely event that anyone actually follows this suggestion, I would be very interested to hear about it via the Contact page on the site. Preferably, before you’ve read what I have to say on the subject of meditation.

Welcome back. How was it for you? In parallel to this though, we were also receiving instruction. Thamkrabok doesn’t force Buddhism on its patients, but if you are interested, you can ask, and we did. Phra Hans was responsive to this and started swinging by in the late afternoons to give additional meditation instruction, but he still kept that very much on an experience-led tip. He would give us enough information to get going, then we’d do it, and talk afterwards about what had happened, rather than a lot of theory first about things that might happen. It went a little something like this:

It is easy to just say “don’t react”. We need some way of measuring this, so we will put our attention somewhere, and see how we do at keeping it there. The classic place to put it is on the sensation of breathing, which makes sense, because that’s one thing you just can’t stop doing. We are very used to not noticing that we are breathing though, so many people find it easier to accompany each in-breath and out-breath with a silent syllable – gives the mind a bit more to grab hold of. The classic syllables to use here in Thailand are “Put-toh”. You can keep Put-toh-ing all the way through, or you can stop after a while if your mind seems to be resting happily on the breath. Every time something pops up that pulls your attention elsewhere, you just gently-but-firmly put it back there. And you keep on doing that, because there is likely to be a LOT. 

Don’t get discouraged – many people when they first try this are dismayed at how unruly and trivial their minds seem to be. Mine resembled a bored six year-old charging around a posh restaurant being a fighter-plane, and in much the same way, seemed to regard my mortified attempts to make him sit down and act civilised to be an encouragement to act up even more. Being stern needs to be backed up by some kind of credible threat, and what can you threaten your own mind with? So you just have to wait this out. Even absolute little savages do get tired eventually.

That should improve a little naturally after the first ten minutes. The body settles down in that time, so breathing and heart rate will slow and stabilise, which will help the mind to. There will still be interruptions, but keep returning to the breath/syllable. Again – it’s quite appropriate to think of these like you would a beloved but needy child, although hopefully a slightly calmer one by now. This one perhaps just keeps wanting to show you some dumb stickman picture he has drawn, so kindly but firmly say that you’ll look at it later and return to what you are doing [I mean – you don’t have to actually say the words, but that’s the spirit of it]. Don’t shout, or they’ll cry. In plainer speech: If your determination to remain focussed tips over into irritation, then that is more disturbing to concentration than the original disturbance. Get this balance right, and they’ll go and doodle happily in a corner for a while.

This is what we did every afternoon with Phra Hans, and every lunchtime with the rest of the patients, and we all agreed that it was.. nice. It was pleasant to have the mental chatter quieten down for a bit, and even when we felt that we had not in fact had a particularly well-focussed meditation, afterwards we would still feel.. kinduv nice for a while afterwards. I could see that this could deepen over time, if I kept it up, and be a useful mild de-stresser (I had of course just given up a quite powerful de-stresser).

The basic idea seemed not unfamiliar to me. I had grown up spending a lot of time practicing various musical instruments, and knew that there was a zone you can get into which is a pleasant place to be, as well as productive. A happy absorption, in which other things fade away.

And yes – it kind of is that. Concentration is in fact enjoyable and energising. We perhaps tend to think it isn’t because usually when someone says “concentrate!” it’s when we’re not, because we don’t like what we’re doing. But then – why not concentrate on something that is useful, and pleasant in itself? Like playing an instrument, or reading a book, playing tennis, woodwork, or indeed anything at all? What’s the fuss about meditation? A good question. It requires a good answer. So, in the next article we’ll get into the Jedi stuff.

Published by phrasuparo

I'm a monk at Wat Thamkrabok, Thailand. Go me!

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