I am afraid of the truth, almost as much as I am afraid of pity. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in Thailand, it is to face the uncomfortable in order to make it comfortable.
This post is not for myself, but for the small number of people who may take something from it.
In early October, I attended a 3-day Buddhist meditation retreat in Koh Samui. Nestled high in the only mountain of the popular tourist island, I found a peculiar kind of tranquility over the chaos that lured beneath me. I learned many things, among them:
Simple living is the best kind of living. Although sleeping on nothing but a wooden board and straw mat was quite extreme for my liking, it was actually quite refreshing to wear no makeup, to be free of electronic devices, and to put on the same clothes each morning.
Buddhism is a way of life, not a religion. The first thing I saw when I walked into the meditation center was a giant poster reading the Three Resolutions of Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, the founder of the center and one of the most influential Buddhist philosophers of the 20th century:
If that doesn’t convince you that Buddhism is awesome, then I don’t know what will.
Mindfulness is key. A large aspect of meditation, it is important to watch and listen to the body by looking inward. Recognizing and being aware of the basic functions of the body help to keep us grounded in a world of distractions. It urges us to be aware of the mental state, to recognize why certain emotions are felt, so that we may know how to properly deal with them. Above all, it helps us to be thankful.
Meditation is more than sitting. It is standing and walking. It is mindfulness with breathing, or anapanacity in the Pali language. It is clearing the mind, or as the Polish Buddhist monk so rightfully put it, “emptying the glass of stale water that is the mind so that we may have room to fill it up again.”
And on the third and last day I learned Loving Kindness Meditation.
First, we were instructed to close our eyes, to sit comfortably, and imagine ourselves as a warm sun. Then we were to “radiate warmth in the form of love and kindness” to a number of people – first to ourselves, then to someone we love, to a person we admire, to someone who has wronged us deeply, and finally to all beings of the world.
I found it beautiful, nonetheless enlightening. I was intrigued yet emotionally distraught by how it was equally difficult to send love and kindness to myself and to the one who had wronged me. I sat in my meditative position confused and saddened. I understood why it was hard to forgive my father (and it was pretty damn hard), but why was it so hard for me to love myself?
For such a simple word, love is much more complex than we’ll ever know. It is impossible to quantify, to categorize, or to organize love. It is uncontrollable – therefore you cannot pack it up and store it for another time. Although it grows, you cannot decide when and where it will do so.
I thought I loved myself until that very moment – I really did. But only now I know it was not love, but appreciation. It was easy to pat myself on the back for every major stride I’d made in life – whether it was as meager as losing a few pounds or as esteemed as graduating with high honors from business school. But it was not love, because all of those things I had accomplished were admittedly for the approval of those I loved. Not often did I think I was smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, or even worthy enough to deserve the gratification for my successes, however great they seemed to be in the eyes of others.
Love for one’s self, I’ve determined, is therefore non-existent if the value you see in yourself is lower than your value in the eyes of loved ones.
Only here in Thailand, on the other side of the world, with nobody to impress or nobody from which to receive approval, had I seen this clearly. Since the beginning of this experience I thought I was destined to find what I love doing, when in reality it was self-love that I needed to find.
November 25th, 2015 marked the 12th month of the traditional Thai lunar calendar and also the date of the festival named Loy Krathong. It is custom to light and float a krathong, which is made of a banana tree trunk, banana leaves, flowers, incense and candles, into streaming water to give thanks to the water goddesses.
However, there is a dual meaning to the floating of the krathongs, as it also symbolizes purification, or liberating of the negative things in life to make room for the new.
Following custom, my new friends and I cut our nails and small pieces of our hair (symbolizing the old and negative) and scattered it onto our krathongs, kindly handmade by my English director’s adorable daughter. We then lit our candles, walked to the bank of the river, and made our wishes.
I cannot explain how or why my wish for self-love came first, as I hadn’t thought about it since I departed from the meditation retreat. I asked God for forgiveness in being selfish, but that I desperately wanted all feelings of negativity, all self-doubt, to find a place in the Gulf of Thailand. It had no business taking up residence in my mind anymore. I lowered my krathong into the river and shed a tear as I watched it float away.
In the days that followed I felt lighter, happier, like a burden had been lifted from my soul. Although it was Thanksgiving and I was missing my family more than ever, I became engaged in my work at school. I arranged a number of exciting activities for my students – they improved their English skills while creating advertising posters for a beach cleanup, then they made “thankful trees” by tracing their hands on paper and revealing what they are thankful for in life. I watched them smile, learn, and create – all from my doing.
Like I stated before, you cannot decide when and where love grows. The love I’ve cultivated for my students has been growing all along and is stronger than ever at this moment.
I cannot say when or where my self-love will grow, but I can confidently say that I am seeing my value again, and I think that’s a pretty good place to start.