April 24, 2013

saying goodbye

My time in Chiang Mai is coming to an end. Or rather, it’s coming to that predestined point that turns it from a now to a then, a present to a past. And like anything that reaches that point, I start brimming with emotions of all kinds. I’ve been in Chiang Mai for four in months, 110 in days, and countless in moments I’ll never forget. By living standards, it’s not a long time. But it’s enough to leave a substantial dent.

If I had to pick one thing that left the biggest of dents, it’s been the people I’ve met. (Isn’t it always?) When you’re out in the world, you meet a world of people who will add something, small or significant, to your life. You meet the kind of people great travel stories are made of. You meet the kind of people you swear you could've known your whole life. And if you're lucky, you meet the kind of people who will remain in your life forever.

Ironically, the things that make meeting new people so wonderful—the stories you share, the connections you make, all the random shit you learn (like how Australians call cotton candy 'fairy floss')—are also the same things that make it so dreadful. Because the thing is, when it comes to travelling, people show up quick, leave too soon, and eventually, goodbye happens.

I’ve said as many goodbyes as I’ve said hellos. The former is, and will always be, the worst. I hate it because it feels so permanent, like death. Saying goodbye sucks, and the only way I know how to make it not suck is by never getting to know people. But that would be stupid and sad. It's way better to say goodbye a thousand times over than to never say hello.

If there's one truth about travelling that they don't tell you in those Lonely Planet books, it's this: Everyone you meet and everything you experience is transient, every person and moment a passing memory, sometimes slipping by so fast you’ll wonder later if they had ever happened at all. This is the kind of thing I'm left free to think about when I’m alone. Somebody please call me!

That’s why I, you, and everyone else, seek out perfect distractions to keep us from being alone with our thoughts. Thoughts can be freaking scary sometimes. It's like our minds have minds of their own. I’m reading a book of teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who says it better than I ever can:

"Society is organized in a way that even when we have some leisure time, we don’t know how to use it to get back in touch with ourselves. We have millions of ways to lose this precious time—we turn on the TV or pick up the telephone, or start the car and go somewhere. We are not used to being with ourselves, and we act as if we don’t like ourselves and are trying to escape from ourselves."

So starting tomorrow, I will learn how to be with myself without self-destructing. I'm embarking on a seven-day Vipissana meditation retreat at a forest monastery in Chiang Mai called Wat Umong. The schedule is quite the bitch. Wake up at 4 a.m. No food after 12 p.m. Meditate for ten-plus hours each day. No music. No internet. No writing. No reading (unless it’s about meditation). No talking (at least not loudly or a lot). Retreat is probably the wrong word for this. It’s more like prison, except worse, because I’m pretty sure prisoners are allowed to read anything they want and spew every-other-word expletives around the clock. But it's what I need. After spending four months being with everyone, this will be the first time I'm being with me.

I'm not expecting anything profound out of it (re: enlightenment). If I make it through without attempting some clumsily executed barefooted escape, I hope I'll come out of it with a better attention span and a better appreciation for the present. No more dwelling on the past or longing for the future. Just the present.

Here are some photos of Wat Umong, my sanctuary for the next seven days: