Last week, I spent 10 days in Penang, Malaysia, alone.
I’ve been to Penang before, so exploring and sightseeing wasn’t my top priority. Besides, there’s wasn’t much left to see that I haven’t already seen before.
I just wanted to meditate, be with myself, and spend the rest of the time contemplating about my life.
I packed 10 articles of clothings. They were sufficient. I didn’t need anything else. Besides, carrying too much equates to a heavy burden on my back and shoulders.
I lodged in a small hut. One window, a small wooden desk, and a basic toilet/shower enclosure (the water comes from the adjacent stream, so it can be a little muddy, and, sometimes, bits of tiny sand particles). Single bed, too.
I spent most of the time locked away from the outside world (except on a few occasions when I did laundry, got groceries, and bought supplies for my wife).
I ate alone. I walked alone. I slept alone.
It was magnificent.
It was beautiful being alone. Being alone does not mean being lonely. It means the mind is not influenced and contaminated by society.
I woke up at 4:00 a.m. every day and meditated for up to 10 hours each day.
I also talked to myself — a lot. In doing so, I cleared my interposing thoughts and revealed more about myself.
The more I understood about myself, the more clarity unravels. Self-knowledge has no end. There is no conclusion, because it is an endless river.
I wrote everything that happened on this journal, here. Writing them helped me decipher what actually occurred inside my brain.
But it wasn’t Penang that did this to me. I could have locked myself away in my room at home in Shanghai and have done exactly the same thing.
But I would be distracted. I would have felt like I was missing out. I would have probably gone out and met-up with friends. Watched movies... what have you. I wouldn’t have been afresh and renewed like a flourishing snake after shedding its old skin.
I came here for one purpose: mind and body purification.
It is essential sometimes to go into retreat, to stop the routines, to stop the experiences completely and look at them anew, not continuously repeating them like machines.
Such retreat is not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality. It allows me to observe reality as it is. Such retreat also allows me to breathe, to reflect, and to organize my life.
All in all, every time I go into such retreat, I found the reset button.
7:30 a.m. I took a red-eye flight last night from Shanghai and just landed in Kuala Lumpur. As I dash through the immigration and security lines, my mind is empty — probably because I’m sleep deprived from the past two days.
10:30 a.m. Arrive at Penang International Airport. I’m looking for the counter to exchange some money and purchase a local SIM card. Then off to hop on the bus.
12:00 p.m. At the meditation center. After meeting with the coordinator, he assigns me to a corner hut (kuti number 6). As I expect: it is super dirty. I grab a broom and begin to sweep the floor. Then I wash the mop and start mopping. I wipe every visible surface (i.e. table, window, and chairs). The water looks and smells a little suspicious too. Since it comes directly from the adjacent river, it has to be. But never mind, I just use what is available. No use complaining, right?
1:30 p.m. I’m going outside of the center to do laundry and get some supplies. While the laundry machines work their magic, I walk across the street to the grocery store.
4.00 p.m. Back at the center and I’m finally done with chores. I go inside my kuti, close my eyes, and just sit. Nothing else. If I could hang on for an hour that would be wonderful. I’m surprised the mind is very quiet even after all the activities I did before.
6:30 p.m. I haven’t ate anything since yesterday. I was planning to water fast the entire day today, but it seems my tummy isn’t tolerating well. So I munch on some light snack and a glass of chocolate milk. Then it’s time for a quick shower.
7:30 p.m. I’m doing one full cycle of 60 minutes walking and 60 minutes of sitting. The walking part feels easy. I’m moving as though the mind is not controlling and the body is moving by itself. It reminds me of the time when I go to teach everyday. I don’t feel any sense of remorse, but I have a tremendous amount of energy teaching the whole day.
10:00 p.m. In bed. I’m completely exhausted from the day. Training begins tomorrow.
Total time: 4 hours
4:00 a.m. My alarm goes off. I immediately hit the snooze button. I usually build in some time to my morning for this, mostly in case I want to read or something. But I’m way too tired this morning — probably this fragility has been building up from a few days back, so I roll over in bed.
4:30a.m. My eyes finally open. I head off to brush my teeth and clear my face.
4:45 a.m. I begin my first cycle. I decide to walk across the big lawn today. I must say, standing in an open space early in the morning makes me feel small. As I look up at the sky, the moon and stars make me feel even smaller — minuscule.
6:45 a.m. Spending the next 10 minutes wishing “Merry Christmas” to my Shanghai-based friends.
7:00 a.m. My teacher and I go out to receive alms from around the neighborhood. The practice of alms or almsgiving is the respect given by members of the community to a spiritually-developed person or other sentient being. It is not charity as presumed by Western interpreters. It is closer to a symbolic connection to the spiritual realm and to show humbleness and respect in the presence of the secular society.
7:45 a.m. I sit for an hour. The mind feels very peaceful (even though it’s Christmas Day) and I’m away from my family. After all, the whole purpose of this practice is to develop non-attachment to family and to tradition.
9:00 a.m. It’s time for my initial report with my teacher. We talk for about 1.5 hours. We touch on many points ranging from politics to education. We discuss about the nature of the mind. We also share ideas about my work back in Shanghai.
11:00 a.m. It’s lunch time at the meditation center. Everyone (monks, yogis, and lay people) are allowed to eat meat and dairy. The food comes from various contributors and donators within the community. Today, for me, just happens to be black rice with green vegetables, two slices of chicken breast, a nutritious bowl of soup, and a generous plate of colorful vegetables. I don’t want to eat too much because eating too much will make me sleepy when I meditate. I usually eat until I feel half-full.
12:30 p.m. Going for my third cycle. It’s scorching hot outside so I’m doing the walking portion inside the main hall. Everything goes by smoothly, except for a few imbalances here and there. Not many thoughts intervene during the walk. However, the sitting part is not quite as pleasing. I constantly fall asleep. Every time I do, my body would obviate me from falling. I don’t feel bored, and there is not a lot of thoughts that bother me. My body is just tired!
3:00 p.m. I feel exhausted. My body wants to rest so I take a quick nap.
5:00 p.m. I keep rolling in bed for another 15 minutes. I don’t want to nap too long. I finally have the sac to get up.
5:30 p.m. It’s time for my fourth cycle. I want to do the walking part a little different. I split it up by walking 30 minutes outside then finish the remaining 30 minutes inside the main hall. As I’m walking, I see a monk walking on an adjacent path. Rarely I’d see a Buddhist monk practice. Most of the time, monks study writings from the scriptures. It is also said that 99% of Buddhist don’t meditate. I guess this monk is one of those 1% who DO. Kudos to him.
6:30 p.m. Taking a break to say “Merry Christmas” to friends and families back home. The 12-hour time difference puts me in a position to send my wishes before they wake-up.
7:00p.m. My last sitting session for the day. One hour flies quickly. The mind is clear throughout. There are very few interrupting thoughts, but I mentally note them and they dissipate away. Towards the end, my back feels very painful. I have to adjust position many times. Overall, this is my first good sit since coming here.
9:00 p.m. Going for a short breathing and stretching session.
10:00 p.m. Bedtime.
Total time: 8 hours
4:00 a.m. Time to wake up. I quickly turn off all my alarm settings on my phone. Do some bathroom stuff and get things going.
4:30 a.m. It’s raining outside. I don’t want to get wet, so I’m walking on the porch in front of my kuti. It’s less than 10m long. I start with step 3 all the way to 6, and keep going until I finish the hour.
5:30 a.m. I go back inside my kuti and start to sit on my mat. Throughout my meditation experience, the first sit of the day in the morning is usually the best one. As it turns out, I have a few relapses of flashing images. Often, I mentally note them before coming into contact. Sometimes I don’t even notice that I’m dwelling deeper into the illusion. Surprisingly, my mind is conscious the whole time and breaks loose by itself.
6:45 a.m. Starting my second cycle. This time I choose to walk in the same path as the monk from yesterday. The path is a little rolling so I have to learn to balance from time to time. I’m walking for 45 minutes, and it passes by quick. I hardly feel the boredom. I think I get the walking part — at least. During my sitting, there is a lot of pain on my lower spine. I adjust position several times — even stretch. Near the end, there is pain around the knee. I mentally note the pain and it withers. A minute later the pain re-emerges. I finally open my eyes and gaze at the timer: 5 minutes to go. I stop — that’s okay.
8:30 a.m. It’s time for my daily report. I tell everything what happened both yesterday and this morning to my teacher. We only spend a little time talking. Then it’s time to go back to practice.
9:30 a.m. l feel a bit pinched for time. I won’t make it to lunch if I start another cycle. I decide to do a quick calisthenics workout instead. There are no equipments or weights lying around here, so I have to improvise. Some squats, lunges, push-ups, and crunches should do the trick. I’m thinking about getting a pair of large water bottles today and use them to do shoulder presses next time.
11:00 a.m. I feel a little hungrier today so I’m eating more than usual. I even pack-up some extra fruits in case I get hungry later.
12:00 p.m. I’m excited about this cycle. I have energy from the food I just ate. Walking is just so so; dry with some mix of thoughts. I mentally note them. The sitting part is not as fun. I keep feeling impatient. I’m able to calm my mind but my thoughts would re-emerge from time to time, disrupting the peacefulness. I open my eyes 10 minutes too early and just lie down on the mat to finish the clock. No need to fuss about the time at this point. I know this happens a lot.
3:30 p.m. Up for my fourth cycle. Walking is a breeze. I feel a little nag on my lower back towards the end. The sitting is excruciating. I keep on dozing off with thoughts. I keep on missing my count. I have to improvise. I open my eyes, just a little. I stop counting and just keep attending, not anxiously anticipating when this session will finish. This is the true lesson of suffering. And with all suffering, nature listens to your cry, and slowly, everything becomes peaceful again.
6:30 p.m. This is the last cycle of the day. I’m walking outside since it’s nice. The temperature is cool — just right. No obstacles here, except getting through the hour.
7:30 p.m. I quickly reply messages from my wife (Sandra) to make sure everything is fine back home.
8:00 p.m. I start to sit. In the beginning I’m really nervous and anxious to see if the suffering will continue to persist. For a short time, I couldn’t feel my body at all, like there is no body. Near the end, the thoughts begin to emerge. I keep thinking about the time. The knee hounds on more than one occasion so I have to adjust position several times. At the end of the hour, my body feels like it’s on fire. I remember my teacher mentioned that meditation returns the four elements (earth, fire, water, and air) within the body back into equilibrium.
9:30 p.m. Get in bed early. Feeling a little hungry. I can’t wait to eat in the morning.
Total time: 9.5 hours
4:00 a.m. I hit snooze too many times. I want to sleep more but there’s no time.
4:30 a.m. Regular day in the morning. Practice as usual.
7:30 a.m. After receiving alms, I eat breakfast. I’ve been starving since last night. I indulge a little on some rice and curry chicken.
8:30 a.m. I report what I experienced yesterday and my teacher tells me to keep going.
9:30 a.m. I sneak-in one session of sitting. It feels okay. I have no disturbing thoughts or anything new. Back or knee gets painful from time to time, so I adjust position when I need to.
11:00 a.m. Quite many people are in the dining hall today. Looks like it’s someone’s birthday today cuz I got a slice of cake. Yum!
11:30 a.m. I’m taking a walk down the hill to a coffee shop. I need wifi to download music and treat myself to a jelly ice cream for dessert.
1:30 p.m. Walking around the neighborhood for about an hour. I’m counting this as my walk session as long as I’m doing it attentively and slowly.
3:00 p.m. Up for another sit. Nothing unusual in the beginning. Towards the end, the heat energy keeps rising. It feels like extreme body heat signature. I don’t know what it is, but I will talk about it with my teacher tomorrow.
4:00 p.m. I’m cleaning my room and then taking a shower.
5:00 p.m. Doing my fourth cycle for the day. I’m getting the hang of it again. One hour seems easy both the walk and the sit. A few mosquito bites during the walk, but nothing serious. The sitting part is relaxing. That mysterious energy keeps on popping up again.
7:30 p.m. Walking inside the main hall. Going around in circles beginning with step 4 up to 6.
8:30 p.m. A quick yoga session to stretch the lower back a little. It’s getting too tight down there.
9:00 p.m. Last sit of the day. I’m getting a headache towards the end.
10:00 p.m. Lights out!
Total time: 10 hours
4:00 a.m. Still in bed. Feels chilly in the morning. I tuck back in.
4:30 a.m. Finally up. Get my face cleaned up and ready to go.
4:45 a.m. Walking outside my kuti. An hour goes by quickly. No thoughts emerging.
5:45 a.m. Feel relaxed during the whole sit. The heat energy phenomena isn’t as strong as yesterday, but still there. I mentally note the phenomena a few times.
7:00 a.m. Out to receive alms. As I walk through the courtyard, a bus driver stares at me then he looks away. I don’t know what he’s thinking. It doesn’t matter anyway.
7:30 a.m. Munching on fruits and yogurt for breakfast.
8:30 a.m. My teacher talks about being in the present moment. When the mind is in the present there is no suffering. The moment it creates a past or a future, the suffering begins.
9:00 a.m. In the main hall to do my second cycle. Both walking and sitting go on smooth and quiet.
11:00 a.m. I didn’t eat much at lunch. I have to make haste and catch the bus to town.
12:00 p.m. On the bus heading to the pharmacy to get some supplements for Sandra.
5:00 p.m. I’m back at my kuti. Starting my third cycle. I have to stop midway through the walking portion and stretch. The pain is unbearable.
6:00 p.m. The back pain continues. I mentally note the pain but it keeps coming back again and again. I go through the whole hour, but feel a lot of remorse.
9:00 p.m. Finish with my fourth cycle. The back pain kept bothering me the whole time.
9:30 p.m. A short yoga session to stretch the lower back.
10:00 p.m. In bed.
Total time: 8 hours