Chom Tong Retreat Debrief
Yesterday, I left Chom Tong and returned to central Chiang Mai. My retreat is over! As you might gather from the exclamation point, this is an exciting thing for me. But don’t jump to any conclusions. I have a lot to tell, and even telling that cannot hope to capture what happened over the last 21 days. The meditation retreat impressed upon me the futility of my stories. My mind is not yet good at grasping what is happening inside it, at least not intellectually.
When I got to the retreat, I was provided with a room, white clothes, a timer, and bedding, and after an introduction of the meditation technique used at the retreat, I was told to begin meditating, with sessions that include a mindful prostration, 10 minutes of walking meditation, and 10 minutes of sitting meditation, and to take breaks of 20 to 30 minutes between sessions. On the second or third day I was introduced to my teacher, Carmen, and each day, she increased the length of the walking and sitting sessions by five minutes.
The technique was Ajahn Tong’s adaption of Mahasi noting, a technique taught by Burmese master Mahasi Sayadaw. Walking meditation begins with saying “Standing, standing, standing” to acknowledge the posture of the body. The meditator then proceeds to walk, noting each step. When the meditator notices something other than the walking, the meditator says “stopping, stopping, stopping” and proceeds to note whatever they noticed. For me this was often “thinking, thinking, thinking,” “doubting, doubting, doubting,” or “worrying, worrying, worrying.” Sitting meditation was pretty similar, except we would also note the status of the breath (“rising, falling”) and touching points on the body were introduced — 28 in total — that I was also meant to note in a certain order. I only noted a few of them, though, because my mind was busy, and I was meant to restart the touching points whenever something else arose. My teacher said this was not a problem.
As I recall now, the retreat was quite bumpy in the beginning. I would get into a state of peace for brief moments, think I had life figured out, and then quickly fall into stress again. By the tenth day, however, I started feeling quite good. This seemed to correspond to my giving myself up more fully to the technique. Before, if I was uncomfortable with something in my environment, I might stop practicing and go to change it. For example, if I had a sensation in my foot I might think something dangerous is on it and go to remove it. But on the tenth day, due to guidance from my teacher, I stopped reacting and would simply continue practicing, noting “feeling feeling feeling,” “worrying worrying worrying,” “not liking not liking not liking.” However, on the fourteenth day everything somehow fell apart again, and the rest of the retreat was pretty bumpy. I spent a good amount of time thinking about how many days were left.
The retreat affected my understanding of Buddhist meditation. Before the retreat, I was firm in thinking Thanissaro Bhikku’s understanding was the best. He sees the Buddhist path as not just about acquiring wisdom naturally from direct experience but also about deliberately training discernment of good and bad. You try things and see if they work — in other words, if they reduce your stress and suffering — and this builds wisdom that ultimately leads to enlightenment. Thus, because the Chom Tong technique is basically just about direct experience, I went to the Chom Tong retreat without much openness to the idea that the practice there would become my main meditation practice. I thought that it would merely give me skills (equanimity, mindfulness) that could contribute to my official meditation practice. During the retreat, though, I started to realize that Thanissaro Bhikku’s philosophy might not be serving me. On paper, it was so attractive because it gave me control. If you are using a technique and suffering, you don’t have to use it anymore. You don’t have to surrender yourself to a technique and you maintain your agency. At the retreat, I came to realize that with this focus on analyzing my experience and figuring out what produced stress or figuring out what makes the breath comfortable, I am not really understanding what is going on in my mind. I’m lost in ideas, and my analysis of my mind is not producing much that is helpful. With the Chom Tong technique, however, I get to fully face reality and learn from it. This might make me helpless, and it might mean that I suffer, but at least for now, this way might be better.
The retreat also chipped away the orthodox Buddhist worldview that had started to dominate my life. In that view, the world is a burning house that the mind is trapped in. So we want to get the mind out as soon as possible. Hence everything in the world is of no inherent value. It is only valuable perhaps if it is a rung in a ladder to escaping from the world, to awakening. It might be true that awakening is actually the best thing we can have, but I think that I am not at a point to fully embrace that worldview. It created a lot of fear in me, and it also lacked support in my direct experience; it was just an idea I got from Buddhist monks like Thanissaro Bhikku. I am open to the idea that part of me loves the world and does not merely want to leave it behind.
Though I wrote that the retreat was unpleasant towards the end, since I have left I have become more aware of what it has done for me. Mindfulness is a powerful tool in our lives because it is easily applied to any situation. When I am feeling upset I can just start doing the technique, and I will gain insight into what is happening in my mind. It can really free me from my stories, both stories that I am screwed and the stories that I have figured life out. Worrying has been a captivating habit for me, but the technique enables me to see it for what it is, an object of my mind created by certain conditions. I don’t have to dwell in it as much. Another thing is planning. I spend a lot of time planning, thinking about what activities I want to do in the future. The retreat reduced my taste for it. I don’t know what I’m doing next, and I’m ok with it — knowing my own mind right now is more important.
So I highly recommend this lineage. It’s good for beginners because you start out slow, and the technique is so simple and intuitive. Practice continues all day, and even sometimes during sleep, because it is so easy to integrate with any activity. In addition to in Thailand, you can do retreats in this lineage in Europe and maybe the Americas. And, at least in my experience, you get a teacher who is very available. In times of distress, I met with her, and I usually felt way better afterwards. My teacher in particular was incredible. It was clear that she had spiritual attainment — she was so present, so compassionate. And she was willing to talk about basically anything, not just the practice. I haven’t had teaching that is anything like this at other retreats.
Mosquitos weren’t much of a concern for me. No one seemed to be worried about it, and there weren’t many of them. What I worried more about were the cats because I thought their saliva may have gotten on my feet and that they’d give me rabies. So if I die soon, you will know a possible cause.
That’s all I can think of now. Feel free to ask questions.