His name is Max.
His skin is vaguely dark, his hair shiny grey and his smile remarkably peaceful and true. He’s thin and tall, and his age somewhere around 65. He comes from the islands of Java my dad tells me. I can’t even understand where that is but sounds afar and interesting.
Max lives in Costa Rica, just a few steps away from our house, in my uncle’s place on top of a tiny wonderful hill where he has been renting the cottage for years. We visit him occasionally on the weekends.
While adults talk, my brother and I are free to explore the place.
Max allows us to do so. The house is large and fascinating, with grey and cold stoned walls. Ceilings seem high and hallways endless. As we move around driven by curiosity, we discover this particular corner of the house. A room that appears both mysterious and magical at the same time.
In our sense of wonder, we timidly move a few steps forward into the large and squared room. It’s nor dark neither full of light. It’s also empty, no furniture at all except some long grey carpets all over the floor. Many of them, touching corners in a geometrical way, parallel and perpendicular to one another.
We stare and walk a bit around, barefoot – the rule is “shoes remain at the main door.”
Max and my dad are still adult-talking out in the living room and they suddenly join us here on this squared carpeted mystery room. Max smiles calmly like he usually does and ask us with his vibrant and methodical voice:
“Do you kids imagine what this special room is about?”
“Well, funny thing that you ask…” – I think. We are asking ourselves the same question inside our heads. My brother and I look at each other and giggle. No idea!
“Well,” says Max in his forever friendly tone, “you see, this place is very special to me. It could be something like an airport, and these carpets are like runways. I move around them every single day. Up and down and up and down again”
I can’t really understand what he says rather than imagine some kind of travel machine…my mind is blown! My brother instead actually imagined our old friend flying while sitting crossed-legged, taking off and landing throughout the room. Is a person even capable of doing that? Flying? I think to myself while a take a longer look around.
We always wanted to see him doing his flying manoeuvres but we were never able to actually experience it. Max explained to us that in order to do this thing, he required complete silence and loneliness every time. No people around or he could risk getting hurt. We had no option rather than nodding with our tiny heads while letting our imagination fly, creating pictures and images of our old happy flying friend.
Still today, 25 years later.
I am 33 years old now and I recently visited Asia for the first time in my life.
Countless things happened there. Things and events that changed me, challenged me, impressed me, humbled me and touched me. It was an endless discovery and waterfall of knowledge, feelings and my favourite: senses.
But among all that and at some point of my trip, I thought of that tall dark-skinned man, Max. Exactly after getting myself into a meditation center up in a buddhist temple up in the mountains of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
It’s 2:00 pm on a Monday and I arrive anxiously and happily at Doi Suthep temple. I walk with my backpack and my belongings towards the main office.
A monk is waiting for me inside a small room, isolated from the warm humid air outside by a refreshing air conditioned box. I’m travelling solo and I decided just one day before and after three weeks on the road that I I’d go and put myself through a meditation retreat for the next (and last) week of my trip. It felt just right. In the end, it still felt right.
The door opens and a young monk in orange robes comes out to welcome me inside. He points to my feet in order to take off my flip flops and walk into the small office. I walk inside and sit down on a chair towards a desk on the corner. He is friendly and polite. We introduce ourselves and start talking as he speaks understandable english.
We must wait for a few minutes until two more people join the group. After a while, no one shows up so the monk decides to begin the welcoming ceremony.
“You seat down on the floor over there and I’ll sit here, on the opposite side of the room” – he says.
I do as he says, following his movements and sitting crossed-legged. I am wearing a long beige skirt because of the heat. Is October and the monsoon is about to end. I’ve been lucky about the rainy days but the humidity is definitely high. However a lot of this climate makes me feel at home, so the culture shock seems not as tough as it should’ve been.
And so he begins. I listen carefully.
A general introduction to buddhism: postures and basic habits from their daily routine are thoroughly explained to me by the friendly monk. Things and rules I will have to follow during my stay for the next five days, while living the monk’s life. Something I would’ve never imagined in my life. And yet, there I am.
One more reason to love travel as an act of growth, challenge and self-improvement.
This meditation experience is something I have never done before, even imagined on doing so. I feel rejoiced, curious and excited inside and out.
Introduction ceremony is over and it’s now time to head down to the actual meditation centre, away from the touristy rush since Doi Suthep temple is quite a visited one due to its beauty and greatness up in the mountains.
Down we go as we begin a slow and long descent through endless and uneven stairs into the woods. In between green, tall and vast trees, slowly taking us into the freshest jungle until we can see our final destination. Mind-blowing it is! Mind-blown I am.
The monk shows me a building and points towards a tiny door. Then he says farewell just silently at the same time as he turns around and begins his way up to the main temple.
Another young monk is waiting for me inside, with a key in hand. The key to my room. We sit down and I have to fill a few papers before proceeding to get me some proper meditation clothing – white cloths – which they provide at their store. 350 bhats ($20) per set. He takes a look at me and back to the shelves. He picks the S (small)-sized and handles it to me while he smiles. I smile back. Few words are exchanged. He is also friendly, kind and polite as we speak. My last words to be said for the next five days.
Yes, one of the main rules in this kind of meditation is ‘no talking’. I knew it but I had never done it. I certainly wasn’t aware on what a challenge it would be…
Five days went by as I followed the buddhist routine along with sixteen more stranger and silent meditators. Such a harsh routine I must say.
No easy task indeed.
5:00 am – Wake Up bells
5:30 am – First talk of the day
7:00 am – Breakfast time (silent, individual, mindful)
8:00 am – Individual meditation
11:00 am – Lunch time (last meal of the day)
12:00 pm – Individual meditation & fasting begins until the next day at breakfast time.
2:00 pm – Teacher’s report
3:00 pm – Individual meditation
6:00 pm – Group chanting & 2nd talk of the day
8:00 pm – Individual meditation
9:30 pm – Lights off & sleep time
Nothing ever felt healthier and lighter than these last five days over such a schedule, under a strict vegetarian and proper diet, with a vast intake of water, natural wooden teas, and quality sleep.
Nothing ever felt so natural and good.
As if my body and brain were suddenly deeply impressed, surprised and thankful for being finally able to reconnect and take control of their natural biologic rhythm. As simple and clear as that…and as amazing as it was to notice it all on my own skin as it happened. Being witness of my own body in 3rd person, while it was finding its most natural state and feeling the best ever was something I had certainly never experienced. And it was overwhelmingly beautiful.
While learning and practicing meditation in Thailand as I was taught every day, one step to the next, I could only feel a lighter body every time, as every minute went by.
I came to my first meditation session, into a large squared room full of light, air and with a floor all covered in perfectly geometrical grey rectangular carpets…just like the one at Max’s funny mystery room!
I sat there, one carpet to myself, with my eyes closed and focused entirely on breathing. Suddenly feeling light as a feather with every single breath. So light as if I could suddenly fly. As if my body could take off and move around in the air just freely, happy and mindlessly.
Yes, it certainly felt like flying. Probably like Max used to explain back then, about his carpet room back at home: his meditation room.
I suddenly understood. And I smiled in his memory.
It’s been a month since I went into one of the most life-changing experiences in my life, when learning the art of buddhist meditation. A month where I have found myself repeatedly wanting to meditate in my place. And actually doing it.
I have sensed myself like never before as every session goes by. It comes naturally. It clears my head in ways I couldn’t have imagined or desired before.
I notice my body as well, as it shines, glows, breathes and feels so light like flying inadvertently. I meditate at home ever since, at least twice a week. And my whole being has never been this clear and happy.
I understand now why Max, the old happy man from the unknown distant lands of Java living in a silent lovely cottage in Costa Rica, appeared so relaxed, calm and joyful to me. I was only eight years old but I certainly can recall the way it felt being around him, even if I never really knew much more about him or about his life. He was just a neighbour that we used to visit occasionally with my dad while running errands during the weekends.
And yet here I am, 25 years later, remembering, learning and understanding that all this feeling back then was probably a plain and clear result of this incredible thing that changed my life forever these days while in a faraway, welcoming and calming land. This wonderful act of meditation.