New Years Monastic Double Date
When I got sent on the strangest double date in the world I was not to know it would lead to the best training in massage available. The date my former beau and I went on with 21 year old Pizo, Auntie San San’s youngest son, and Tanda, Pizo’s bride to be, took us across the breadth of Myanmar on hard seats in the back of a jeep, to a monastery in the hills far above Mandalay. There may have been no massage in the monastery but there was the best education I have ever received in one of the disciplines essential to a massage therapist. Meditation.
Pizo’s mother, a Myanmari refugee known to the inhabitant’s of Thai border town Mai Sot as Ma (Auntie) San San, had an extreme fondness for meditation. An eight hour stretch without a pee break was a walk in the park. Her eyes were very gentle. She must have known Tanda was going to need a little something extra in order to spend her life beside Pizo, a man-child whose consumption of whiskey was as broad as his smile. Tanda and Pizo spoke little English. It seemed my beau and I had been unwittingly enlisted as their chaperones. None of us had a clue where we were going. Their faces, open to new beginnings, made us laugh.
A massage therapist and bodyworker needs three things. Comprehensive understanding of human anatomy and physiology, a highly developed quality of attention and the ability to act intuitively. A good sense of touch helps too.
Ideas about sense, the senses, and how one experiences them is a large aspect of the learning in meditation, or mindfulness, that was consolidated for me at Thabarwa monastery above P’noolwin after Ma San San picked a day and, in broken English, told us to pack.
After a 20 minute jeep ride from Mae Sot town centre to the Irawaddy river, a walk across the bridge to Myawaddy town in Myanmar, a 12hr bus ride from Myawaddy to Yangon, a midnight taxi to Thabarwa village on Yangon’s edge, a few hours kip with a dog that would not leave my bed, a dawn rise for a 14 hr ride in a jeeps rear, and 4 more hours through the next night packed into a van with a load of young farmers, we arrived at the Thabarwa monastery.
In Thabarwa village, the night before, we had been ushered into an upstairs room to meet Seyado, the village’s holy overseer. It was 11.30pm December 31st 2016. As our party of four sat quietly on the floor of a sparse room amongst a handful of people gazing at a monk in the corner an old lady had tapped my back. She said ‘You should ask him some questions’. I passed the New Year talking philosophy with a man who told me that 800 people had died in his village since he founded it 5 years before. It was a place for people without money to die. His name was Seyado, and he calmly explained that my understanding was wrong. Especially my understanding of self. He asked if I would like to know more? He had many worlds in one face and a point when he said being attached to notions of self in order to make art was unnecessary. We were off next morn.
Seyado mostly gets what he asks for, including a jeep, plus driver and his friend, to carry us away. I was lucky to chat with Seyado – he usually has a queue.
However, sometimes a favour falters and our double date found itself on shaky legs in the dead of the next night’s chill when we stood round the driver at a dusty roadside and a worried Tanda did her best to translate.
“He no drive more,” she told us, “He go now”.
Fourteen hours is a long time to drive because a holy man asks you to, even if he is highly venerated, and our jeep driver may not have enjoyed the view of Venus passing the pink sun as it set over plains dotted with palm trees as much as we did because he was not on the strangest double date in the world. The driver was tired. It was late and cold. Eventually we found the farmers with their van and guffaws. A series of strangers were woken for water with which to sluice the over-heating engine as we climbed through the night, slowly, up winding roads into the hills.
In the Thabarwar monastery everyone sleeps on the floor. We woke not long after our late arrival to breakfast on Le pet dho - tea leaves and peanuts - and were re-met by Uzin, a handsome man of great depth and kindness who assured us that before his hair was removed he was as silver a fox as any George Clooney. Uzin had a longer title, Uzin Shwey Peaso, which translates as Monk Crown of the Golden Country, but he asked us to call him Uzin. Monk.
Uzin was to preside over 60 Myanmari meditators and twenty Westerners, all already in situ when Tanda, Pizo, Alessandra and I arrived. It transpired a week long retreat was at its beginning. Uzin’s command of English was excellent and he switched between languages as he guided us. All the women wanted him, as a son or a lover, and Uzin knew he was better at peace as neither of these things.
He dipped back into his former life during his teachings and the subtlety with which he shared his battles with his own being lent a beautiful humanity to a wonderful teacher who explained that the name of the holy man had who had sent us here, Seyado, means, simply, Teacher. Uzin and Seyado. Uzin addressed the discussion I had begun with Seyado regarding sense of self.
The week at the monastery consisted of meditation at 4am, breakfast at 6am, walking meditation at 8am, theory class at 9.30am, lunch at 11.30am (the last meal of the day) with more walking, sitting and talking in the afternoon and evening. My lover and I took moments to walk to a stream and watch red dragonflies making love in flight, tails arched round to touch above faces kissing, two bodies curved to shape sides of a heart. We did not touch eachother.
Uzin explained that the chain of consciousness we experience is primarily our reaction to our senses. We humans spend most of our time liking and disliking, sometimes developing this liking and disliking further into craving and loathing. I considered my thoughts. Uzin had a point. Our idea of ‘self’ is a composition of this experiential sequence - the way we react to our sensory experience of the world - but if we acknowledge that all things pass, our thoughts too if we let them, then somewhere within we can find a less reactionary, purer, awareness.
Easier said than done. Also worth hours of debate and millions of written texts. But as the sun set on the fifth day of that week and I walked around the buddist stupa at one end of the monastery for the umpteenth time, avoiding the draw of the sweet roses planted around its edge, and wondering less if all we were doing was a knife free self-lobotomy, there was a moment where my thoughts left me. My mind was clear.
I know that when, during our theory classes, Uzin instructed me not to approach the beautiful flowers nor take pleasure in their scent he also understood that it is okay to find joy in things. Uzin talked of seeing the children in the village on his alms rounds. His pleasure at their beauty was as sweet as the smell of the roses. Uzin also understood that, in a world cluttered with wants and needs, to practice this less-reactionary way of being, free from ‘self’, is invaluable. I kept practising.
Massage is a meditative dance. After much study, and much concious application of a whole host of different massage practices and techniques, when I practice now, I clear my mind. My client should have a clear mind too. But perhaps they don’t have the same wealth of meditative practice that I cultivate for myself in various forms. Perhaps they are suffering from trauma. Most people are.
I help my client let their thoughts go. This starts with the calm nature of the space they experience as soon as they walk through my door. A cup of fresh cut ginger with lemon and honey, and a brief chat helps them to let go of feelings. The washing of feet and the placing of hot water with drops of lavender or cypress and citrus below their face eases them. They take deep breaths.
The scent of my place of work is carefully cultivated, from entrance hall to wooden beams, using Aequill candles. By the time we begin the massage itself our work is long begun and my client is on the way to a different level of conciousness, their thoughts far away. Their parasympathetic nervous system switches on and I can help them heal themselves.
A therapist provides prompts to a person whose body mind complex already knows what to do. To flourish is a natural inclination but life can cause us to obstruct ourselves. The releases that we find are best enabled when a person surrenders to the innate wisdom that will help lift these obstructions - the same simple wisdom that tells us to drink when thirsty, to breath deep so as to relax, to soften so as to release and to pause so as to heal. Wisdom without thought.
We instruct ourselves to flourish when our minds are uncluttered.
I help my clients unclutter their minds – and it helps if mine is uncluttered too.
Tanda and Pizo are happily married and the proud parents of a baby boy. Pizo drinks a bit less and Tanda knows how to meditate after she scolds him. Auntie San San is being re-patriated in Myanmar so may spend less time meditating as she must prepare her new home in her home country. James’ former beau remains former but that’s okay. Everything passes. Except, perhaps, learning.
It was a good double date.