Meditating With Monks: Insight 8 - Authority Figures & Control
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 the insights prove to be as valuable for you as they were for me.
Insight 8 - Authority Figures & Control
10:45am on Day 8 of this silent Vipassana meditation retreat. Beautiful sunshine streaming through the sky. The pond reflecting the sunlight, still and serene. The trees glistening with life, leaves dancing to a gentle breeze. And there I am, barefoot on the soft grass, immersing in the art of tai-chi, flowing with nature, mindful and joyful…
A nun comes to me, smiling. I smile back. She starts to speak…
She tells me that it’s forbidden to practice tai-chi here, that it is considered exercise and can only be carried it in the privacy of our own room. She tells me that I should be practising my walking meditation at this time.
(Though silence is maintained at all times, one can speak to respond to a monk or nun.)
The entire conversation has caught me off-guard, but I recover my composure quickly. I smile, but with a pleading expression on my face. I quietly say that tai-chi isn’t exercise, it’s a flow of movement, like mindful walking! Her expression doesn’t change, she simply apologises and says that these are the rules. And then she walks away.
I take a few deep breaths. I try to do some mindful walking. 30 seconds later, I collapse onto the grass in frustration and resignation, grab my little diary, and let my thoughts and emotions manifest on paper.
The following is exactly what I wrote (including profanity...):
“Here we are again. BULLSHIT RULES THAT MAKE NO FUCKING SENSE. Everywhere I go, even HERE of all places, people impose their FUCKED-UP RULES on me – with no explanation! I just don’t understand – I’ve fallen in love with this art that THEY have taught me! And now they’re saying that I can’t do my tai-chi?! Come on, you're past this. You're better than this. Non-attachment, I shouldn’t be so disappointed. And it’s a lovely sunny day…and still there’s a lesson here. I need to take some time to contemplate…am I just being arrogant, disrespectful, entitled? The truth is, it doesn’t matter. I’m making my choice. That out of respect for all this place has given me, the lessons, the experience…I will respect the rules that I do not understand. This is now MY choice, and I will NOT complain about it. (Plus I can always practice when no-one’s around!)”
As you can tell by this little outburst, I’ve had problems with authority figures and people imposing their rules on me before. One of my fiercest values is that I despise the feeling of ‘being controlled’. Any time someone tries to control me, I respond harshly, rebelliously, and often disrespectfully.
Over the years, I’ve learned to manage this on a surface level in terms of my immediate reaction – but as many will tell you, I haven’t always been successful. It is one of my most prominent flaws, and as you can tell by the words I wrote towards the end of my diary entry, I am actively working on improving it.
On that note, the Universe is a funny bastard...
...because on that very same afternoon, we had a Dhamma talk on a Buddhist principle called “Dependent Origination”. It describes how lack of self-awareness (ignorance, using Buddhist terminology) when we respond to a stimulus leads to suffering …and the first few stages are perfectly exemplified by the tai-chi incident!
Stage 1: Contact. The stimulus makes ‘contact’ with our five senses, which give rise to conscious thought. This was my sensory response to the words the nun spoke, and my interpretation of what they meant. With mindfulness, we can catch ‘ignorant contact’ as it arises and transform it into ‘wise contact’, which breaks the cycle of dependent origination. Otherwise, ignorant contact leads to…
Stage 2: Feeling. Our sensory response gives rise to feeling – in my case, my written outburst ridden with profanity and frustration. We mustn’t attach meaning or significance to feelings, which are simply a natural reaction to nervous stimulation. They do not constitute a part of our self. If we’re unable to recognise this, our ‘ignorant feeling’ becomes…
Stage 3: Craving. The ‘ignorant feeling’ we experience gives rise to a desire or craving. In my case, a strong desire to do my tai-chi regardless of what the nun said. The more we reinforce this craving, the more we create…
Stage 4: Attachment. This is where our sense of self becomes intertwined with our craving. We begin to use language which contains ‘I/me/my’ (e.g. ‘my tai-chi’), solidifying our attachment to our craving. Our behaviour starts to become shaped by our desire to satisfy our craving.
Stage 5: Becoming. We keep repeating and reinforcing our attachment to the point of overt clinging. This refers to the formation of a new tendency or behaviour.
Stage 6: Birth. New tendencies are fully formed and manifesting in our lives.
Stage 7: Suffering. Suffering ensues as a result of our attachment. We tend to remind ourselves of how we're suffering and how dissatisfed we are. In doing so, we perpetuate it, leading to more ignorance which feeds the cycle again…
But, through practising mindfulness, we become quicker and sharper at detecting dependent origination from the first point of contact, thus preventing the cycle from occurring.
I couldn’t stop smiling during the Dhamma talk. I felt grateful that I’d been given a first-hand glimpse into the way dependent origination occurs in the real world.
Buddhists often refer to their religion as a science, not a philosophy. All lessons and teachings are derived empirically through the observation and analysis of reality. After seeing dependent origination in action, I’m inclined to agree with this!
I wrote the following passage at the end of the day: “I’m not going to lie and say I was completely peaceful after the incident. Ego frequently tried to catch me off guard that day, reminding me of this violation of our ‘principles’. And each time, I smiled at it like a parent does a child, reminding it that this is my choice, and that the decision has been made. And each time, its voice disappeared quicker and quicker.”
Yes – I still have a lot of work to do. But I’m also grateful that I’m making progress. It's the accumulation of daily incremental improvements that lead us to our biggest victories.
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.