Meditating With Monks: Insight 4 - Adversity
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
This 12-post blog series is dedicated to 12 of the most valuable insights that I gleaned during my 10-Days of Silent Vipassana Meditation at Wat Suan Mokkh, a Buddhist monastery in Surat Thani, Thailand.
Having listened to monks speak for 10 days, I can confirm that most of them are closet comedians. In honour of their light-hearted approach to life, I’ve tried to write these 12 blog posts in an amusing and entertaining way.
The 12 insights are: 1) Silence. 2) Expectation. 3) Fatigue. 4) Adversity. 5) Cleaning Toilets. 6) Impermanence. 7) Attachment. 8) Authority Figures & Control. 9) Pace of Life. 10) The Present Moment. 11) The Pond. 12) The Tree.
I hope that these insights prove to be as valuable for you as they were for me.
Insight 4 - Adversity
It is inevitable that we will face difficulties and hardships throughout our life. But how much of the adversity that we face on a day-to-day basis is self-inflicted?
There will always be events out of our control that bring us suffering, for example the death of loved ones, other people’s behaviour, natural disasters, and so on. It can be argued that we’re still in control of our mindset in terms of how we choose to respond to these events – but let’s set this type of adversity aside for now. Life will throw shit at us, and we’re the ones who will have to respond to it and clean up the mess as best we can.
In this post, I want to focus on self-inflicted adversity – the shit that we create in our own lives. We moan and complain about it as we suffer on the surface, but on some level, we need to recognise that it is serving us to keep creating our own shit!
It might be an addiction to drama that gives our ego the impression that we’re leading an exciting and interesting life. It might be a ‘victim syndrome’ that gives our ego the satisfaction of feeling sorry for ourselves and the burden we must carry. Or it might be a sense of pride that drives our ego to create mountains to conquer in order to validate our superiority.
There are many more examples of these – the main common factor is that they are caused by our ego and the narrative that it creates to define who we are.
Managing ego starts with the self-awareness to understand how ego manifests in our own behaviour without judgement. It’s natural for us not to want to consciously admit to ourselves that we like being a victim on some level, or that we believe ourselves to be superior or inferior to others. But in doing so without judgement, we recognise and accept that it exists within us at this moment – and can then make a choice as to whether we want to change it.
I faced issues with pride and a superiority complex throughout my teenage life. Honestly, they were born of insecurities and a lack of confidence in myself. My ego created the narrative that I was ‘better’ in order to justify the challenges I faced and to drive me to excel above others.
Through a combination of experience and self-reflection, I’m grateful to have learned to manage and transform this unpleasant trait.
But that doesn’t stop these deeply ingrained thought patterns from emerging when I feel threatened or uncomfortable. Threat, discomfort and fatigue are the most common triggers for ego-driven behaviour.
As I discovered during the meditation retreat…
I couldn’t sleep for the first 3 nights on my concrete slab. There were a number of reasons for this.
First, it was a fucking concrete slab. I couldn’t sleep on my side, and I had a bruise on my (already-protruding) tailbone from sliding down natural waterfalls in Chiang Mai, making it painful to lie down. Second, the wooden pillow felt like it was imprisoning my neck – I’d wake up in the middle of the night gasping for breath, as if I was being choked. Third, I was conscious of ants, mosquitoes, scorpions, snakes and other unpleasant creatures invading my room at night. There are more reasons, but you get the picture…
On Day 3, I decided that something had to change. I was already out of my comfort zone. I was getting more and more fatigued, and it was influencing my state of mind.
A part of me told me that I had to continue to suffer my concrete slab as it was. It was part of the ‘authentic experience’. It was part of the mountain that I had to conquer. And where a lesser man might fail, I had to succeed, or I would be weak and worthless…
…and five years ago, I may have listened to this voice.
It was the voice of pride and ego…
…and it was talking complete and utter bullshit.
There are no ‘lesser’ people. There is no ‘authentic experience’. There is no ‘need’ to suffer more for the sake of pride. These were the thoughts of a child who had something to prove to himself and others, thoughts ultimately born of insecurity and a lack of self-confidence.
And I was no longer that child.
I managed to find a spare yoga mat, and put it atop my concrete slab. It was thin, but far better than nothing. I went to the meditation room and borrowed a cushion, and put it in place of my wooden pillow. I got a mosquito net and tucked the ends under the cardboard atop my slab, preventing mosquitoes and other larger insects from sharing my bed with me.
And that night, I slept fucking blissfully.
The next day, I still woke up at 4am. I still got drenched by monsoon rains. I still got bitten by ants. I still cleaned toilets. I still ate my last meal of the day at midday. I still got ambushed by spiders the size of my palm. I still winced as I took a bucket shower with cold water. I still struggled with meditation.
There was still adversity to be faced. There were still challenges and obstacles to overcome.
But by setting aside my pride, I’d made my life just a little bit easier. The other obstacles would be dealt with in time – but at least there were fewer self-inflicted obstacles draining me of my energy. And the less suffering there was for my ego to wallow and indulge in, the more I could focus on my meditation practice and immerse in the present moment.
Buddhism preaches the Middle Way. No excess in terms of luxury, but also no excess in terms of suffering. Complexity unnecessarily compounds suffering. Part of living simply and in accordance with the dharmic laws of nature is about removing complexity from our lives, both in terms of material excesses and psychological excesses.
To set pride aside and block out the voice of ego is a part of removing that psychological excess, and therefore reducing self-inflicted adversity.
In the words of my father: life will throw enough bulls**t at us as it is – so stop creating more where there is none!
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.