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 7 - Attachment
In Buddhism, attachment refers to the act of clinging or grasping onto a material thing, person or concept, such that our sense of self becomes intertwined with it. It is the association of ‘I/me/my’ to objects, people or thoughts. It is also very misunderstood in Western culture...
Contrary to popular belief, attachment does not mean that we should go through life without loving or committing ourselves to an idea or person – it simply means that we should be wary of letting that love or commitment define our sense of self.
The challenge we face is that it is very easy to develop attachments. Our ego wants our sense of self to be defined, and attaching to material things, people or ideas is an easy way of accomplishing this. Attachment makes us feel comfortable – very ironic given that, through attachment, we create a dependency on something that will inevitably change or pass as a result of its impermanence.
By becoming aware of our attachments, we can begin the process of ‘detaching’ from them. This leaves us able to fully enjoy and appreciate them – whether they’re material objects, people or concepts – without having our sense of self intertwined with them or defined by them.
As one of the nuns said before our chanting session, “I/me/my are not always going to translate to suffering. But they are bad habits, because they are illusions that may lead to attachment. They are illusions because nothing is entirely ‘self’. Everything is a manifestation of a combination of components that happened to lead to a certain outcome. So nothing is purely of the ‘self’.”
Many of my own attachments became apparent during the first few days of the 10-Day Vipassana retreat. Nothing uncovers attachment better than an unfamiliar, isolated environment with no distractions...
Being unable to message or talk to my mother and father uncovered a surprising attachment. I realised that I wasn't attached to the need to talk to them, but the comfort of having the option to talk to them. I felt truly separated and disconnected from those who loved me most. I desired not just to share my experiences with my mother (who did this same retreat 30 years ago!), but also to hear a few words of encouragement as the meditation retreat brutally removed me from my comfort zone.
This was particularly difficult on the first 2 days, but once my mind realised that this would be my reality for a further 8-9 days, it quickly detached itself. Given the choice of 'suffering' or 'no suffering' in any given situation, our mind is very capable of adapting itself to achieve the latter once it accepts that it can't change the situation.
I also realised how dependent I had grown on music. I have playlists for every mood, season, and occasion. I use music to augment my mood when I’m joyful, and to strengthen my resolve during challenges. In the absence of the former, I found myself craving certain songs as I walked blissfully in the sunshine. How better to ruin a beautiful moment by needlessly creating a feeling that something is missing?! And in the absence of the latter, I felt tremendous discomfort when I had too much time to think during my breaks. My mind would become ultra-conscious of the unpleasantness around me (biting ants, bucket showers, concrete slab beds etc.) that I would be sure to experience later in the day.
As I adjusted to retreat life, my mind was able to detach from this 'need' for music. There was no extra suffering because of the absence of it. Since the retreat finished, I listen to music to augment my mood and strengthen my resolve as before, but no longer feel a 'need' for it when it is unavailable.
On Day 8, I noticed just how addicted I’d become to having instant access to information at my fingertips. With the retreat nearly over and too much free time on my hands, I felt a sudden urge to decide whether I would go to Vietnam or Indonesia after a brief visit to Cambodia. In the past, I would have grabbed my phone, connected to Wi-Fi, and researched my options. I’d then make a decision based on the information available. At the retreat, this wasn’t an option. It was impossible to make a decision due to the lack of information. I had to let go of my immediate desire to figure out my next step, and allow myself to put my thoughts on hold until after the retreat.
Since the end of the retreat, I'm so much more conscious of how easy it is to become dependent on 'instant information' - especially in a society that has facilitated 'instant gratification' in many forms. It is my hope that by being consciously aware of this - and of the many other ways that 'instant gratification' dominates our decision-making in everyday lives - I can take advantage of its practical benefits without becoming a slave to it. An instant gratification mindset can be dangerous, as it lowers our resilience when faced with long-term goals that require (initially undesirable) short-term changes.
I also observed how quickly we develop new attachments in the absence of our comfort zone. In an unknown, unfamiliar place with no distractions, the mind desperately tries to cling to the small moments of comfort that it encounters.
In my case, this represented itself as an attachment to our 6pm hot chocolate – my little cup of peace, as I referred to it mentally. All good... until day 3, when they decided to serve tea instead. Ahh…so much dukkha (the Pali word for 'suffering')!
I also developed an attachment to my tai-chi practice, which I would do during lunch breaks and some walking meditation sessions. It was one of the highlights of my day, pure bliss amidst the unpleasant adversities I was facing. All good, until day 8. Not only did my attachment to tai-chi become apparent, but another one of my ugly demons reared its face…
...check the next blog post to find out!
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.