A journey to love from fear and guilt (Part 2)
In their orange robes, the Buddhist monks sat before dawn in a semicircle in the dense Thailand forest close to the Cambodian border. The light from a small lantern danced on their faces as they chanted in the ancient language of Pali, the incantations seeming to reverberate within their chests and rumble out from their throats. The chanting ceased and they began silently meditating, the forest canopy broken only by the sound of cicadas, until approaching dawn heralded an increasing cacophony of noise.
It was 1993, and after a short working contract in a remote location in the far north of Vietnam, I had decided to join the Sangha of around 30 Monks who were taking an annual multi-day retreat into the forests to deepen their spiritual practice. This time, the Abbot of the monastery was taking a small party of us with the purpose of showing us the contrasts between natural forest growth and the hot, dry, dusty land resulting from destructive forest practices.
All my decisions at that time in my life were heavily influenced by undiagnosed depression , caused by a combination of several years struggling to stay sober again and a recent divorce. I’d left it too late and had lost everything by the time I took my last drink in 1992. Two months after the divorce I took off to North Vietnam… the sort of decision not made by a healthy mind. That I was able to ride the emotional storm was, I believe, thanks to an expanding foundation of spiritual awareness. My relapses hadn’t stalled the spiritual journey that had begun on the ski mountaineering trip. (See Part 1) If anything, it had intensified.
My decision (irrespective of my emotional state) to participate in the forest trek was based on previous experience. During a 12-month trip around the world two years earlier, I’d attended a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Thailand. That experience—as well as the week I spent studying A Course In Miracles at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland—stayed with me longer than Scuba diving in Fiji and on Australia’s Barrier Reef, treking in the New Zealand Alps and scrambling up Nepal’s Mountains. They had a long-term impact.
The forest trek event would offer a different experience. We walked for two days across land denuded of forests, and then for eight days (two more than expected) through dense, unexplored forest, sometimes having to struggle and crawl through the undergrowth. The contrast between the two was extreme, but even the natural forest was dry before the rainy season. One night we were unable to cook dinner for lack of water, and only found it the next morning in a pool muddied by wild animals. We boiled the water for cooking and added purification tablets so as to have water to drink during the day. It looked like weak tea.
At night we each cleared a space in the forest to hang a “Monk’s Umbrella,” the term used for a small mosquito net which would be our sleeping quarters for the night. It was essential to weigh down two or three inches of the netting to prevent unwanted intruders. Upon retiring, I also used my boots and other personal gear from the inside because the forest floor seemed to move with nocturnal creatures and my mind was filled with images of snakes, spiders, and centipedes.
The Abbot eventually agreed to a meeting, after some participants started complaining about how tough the trip was proving to be. Through an interpreter, he told us: “All of you had expectations of what this trip would be like. It hasn’t met with your expectations and you are suffering. It is often failed expectations that cause suffering: try not to have any.” This idea was not new to me: yet at that time and place, its truth went deep. I don’t know about you, but I am able to look back on my life and see all those minor and major events that left me feeling disappointed and often full of self-pity and resentment.
The Abbot went on to say: “It’s not doing that which is easy that gives the greatest reward; it’s doing that which is difficult. If you find this challenging, the memory will stay with you for a long time.” It was 23 years ago and I still vividly remember that trip.
Recovery is also tough. Whether from substance abuse or a major trauma, the early years are often difficult. Many of us fail a few times. The secret is to keep trying.
Are you someone who has succeeded or are you still finding it difficult?
(Next Up in Part 3—Is a Dark Night of the Soul necessary for transformation?)