Last week some guys with a digger turned up, and begun tearing up the road next to my apartment block. One would assume they’ve been contracted to do this given that they’ve spent several days creating various sized holes and trenches, and no one has stopped them.
Are they searching for buried treasure, I wonder? Ancient artefacts? Could they be excavating for something useful, like Medieval fibre optic cables?
‘Nothing down here boss. I guess everyone will have to carry on with the sloppy broadband.’
I shot myself in the foot with this one, you see. I’ve been going around telling everyone that I found somewhere quiet to live, and that it’s likely to stay that way since there’s ‘simply no room for building anywhere in the immediate vicinity‘.
In every direction there is either a large apartment block, or a restaurant. There’s even a huge Graveyard just up the road, and if that isn’t a promise that the area can’t be developed any further (and that the area might be uh, quiet), then I don’t know what is.
Of course, I was so caught up worrying about things going up, that I didn’t consider downwards development. I forgot that things can happen beneath the surface. And in order for anything to happen in thrilling depths of subterranea, the earth needs to be torn up. This process, as it turns out, is a LITTLE noisy.
Sheesh, maybe I just need to move 30 miles outside of town. Or live in a monastery. That’d solve a lot of problems, actually.
Anyhow, this drilling and banging has seamlessly coincided with my glorious return to the game of Meditation. As if the unruly chatter of my subconscious isn’t enough to contend with, I now have pounding vibrations of industrial pneumatic tools serving as background ambience to my morning practice.
But that’s okay – I’ve decided to embrace it as a ‘useful’ distraction.
Concrete-mixin’, pavement-drillin’, rubble-diggin’ bedlam might not be an ideal environment to be doing my ten minutes a day, but it seems self-defeating to let it stop me. It’s either carry on, or go outside ranting and raving, causing a huge scene, attempting to halt something that won’t be halted.
And this scenario involves myself and everyone involved losing all their face. You don’t wanna do that in Thailand. People here would sooner quit green sugar drinks than lose face.
Dealing With Chaos
One thing I’ve long wondered about Meditation, or more specifically, Silent Meditation, is the degree to which it has true application in the outside world. That’s why most of us do it, right? To cope with life better, to cope with ourselves better, and swiftly readjust when we’re emotionally descending into a five year old.
Remove all the spiritual and cultural load, and Meditation is fundamentally a skill. Much like learning the Piano. To be ‘good’ at Meditation and reap all the touted benefits, you need to put in the hours.
But the path to ‘skilled’ is not linear. To become a proficient Pianist, you need to expose yourself to different external (and internal) stimuli. A thousand hours of practice in your private study room is most likely going to make you a great Pianist, but how does this translate to a new and foreign environment?
Are you good on a Piano that isn’t your own? Can you play with other musicians? What if you say, find yourself opening for Slayer, in front of 90,000 excited and impatient fans, who have zero interest in a your down-tempo swing version of Stella By Starlight, and just want to throw their limps around, to the delightful theme of Raining Blood?
Can you keep your cool, in a not ideal environment? How will your thousand hours of private study serve you in these awkward, antagonistic situations? And why in God’s name did the promoter think it was a good idea to book you supporting Slayer?
Being able to relax in chaos appears to the most desirable benefit of Meditation. A ten day Vipassana retreat in the tranquil mountains of Bhutan will no doubt be a rewarding experience, but how much of that is transferable to sitting in a five mile traffic jam, with horns beeping, and other angry motorists barking abuse out their window at you? Can you keep calm?
That is the challenge. At some point, you have to take the stabiliser wheels off, and bring your game in to the noisy, unregulated, outside world.
Training in the fire of your every day life, with the banging, and drilling, and yelling, and chatting, is where true proficiency and strength are acquired. Can you be centred when emotions are running incredibly high? CAN YOU BE AT ONE WITH YOURSELF IN THE FIRE?
I know a guy. Yeah, his name was Thích Quảng Đức.
On 11th June, 1963 in Saigon, Vietnam, Quang Duc covered himself in Gasoline and set himself on fire. He then proceeded to sit still until his body collapsed backwards under the destructive force of 900 degrees Centigrade of heat.
It’s a troubling sight, seeing a human-being burning to death in silence. And in equal measures, it’s extremely impressive. ‘Impressive’ might not be the kind of review you’d give as an onlooker (nor likely an accolade Quang Duc was chasing given he was, allegedly, a devout, egoless Monk, without Instagram), but the mental prowess involved in such a feat, is hard to deny.
Oh, and it also won a Pulitzer Prize for being one of the greatest photos ever taken, and fuelled a rebellious zeitgeist for generations to come. Excuse my teenage Metal-Head bias.
The image is extremely powerful in it’s own right, but is frequently accompanied with a moving quote from The New York Times journalist, David Halberstam, that captures the essence of this ‘serenity in chaos’ idea. It reads:
I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him
It seems highly unlikely that Quang Duc had prior experience of burning himself to death. But the amount of dedication and hardship this man experienced to get to a level of concentration so intense, that he can remain unfazed from BURNING TO DEATH INSIDE INSIDE A FIREBALL, is rather incomprehensible.
One might suggest that I’ve used most exorbitant example possible to qualify my point (cos damn am I just the best at doing that).
But you know, I do think The Burning Monk is a useful lesson to humble folk like you and I (and that shithead in the car behind, ramming his horn repeatedly) – the ones who can’t fit 60 years of silent retreat into our schedule, and have minimal interest in being set on fire – of what is possible with this Meditation thing. That keeping cool in an uncool (or as it were, BLAZING HOT) situation is entirely possible with continued practice.
In conclusion, my meditation will carry on, diggers or no diggers. If they’re still here in April, I’ll consider setting myself on fire in protest.
Note: I dare not write about Stoicism since every guru and his mother has done that. But yes, ‘Stoicism is great!’ is essentially what I’ve been trying to get at in the past 1000 words.
The first time I walked into a Thai massage parlour, I was greeted by a lady wearing a counterfeit Man Utd shirt, with ‘Bee’ emblazoned on the back. I’d surmise that this was her name, or that of a counterfeit Brazilian forward.
It was the cheapest place I could find in my neighbourhood, without any inherent seediness to speak of. As I said – counterfeit Man Utd shirt. There’s absolutely nothing erotic about that. Unless…well, it’s a fringe fetish.
Bee asked me to adorn a baggy traditional garment. Of course, I couldn’t meet this request, and much like a mother dressing a four year old, she intervened and provided assistance. Bee and her colleague laughed at me, a scenario that was repeated three or four more times down the road, at various other establishments. (Yes, I forgot how the thing worked each time, because I’m an idiot).
I presume the Laugh at Farang fumbling around trying to put on stupid garment is part of the pre-therapy ritual, as I can’t begin to guess how many of us have passed through these places without knowing how said oversized assemble is attached to body. How many times do they laugh at the same thing, I wonder? Maybe, 25 times in a month? Can the same thing be that consistently hilarious? I’m skeptical. But hey, whatever gets them through the day.
I made it extra clear during my entrance (post music and fireworks), what I was after: a back and shoulder massage with some tempered violence.
To emphasise the scale of my back problems, I held up a tight fist and gritted my teeth before rubbing my shoulders. Which is the international gesture for ‘IT’S BROKEN. THE WHOLE THING IS BROKEN.’ Bee and her colleague gave me several nods to assure me that we are on the same wavelength.
We aren’t on the same wavelength.
Bee proceeds to give me a full body Thai Massage. Which despite not being what I requested, relaxes every ounce of my being, and I float out of the place an hour later, feeling as though I have been sexually pleasured in areas without any erogenous response.
Like, I had no idea my hands were tense. And my cheeks? Who knew? My wrists were so up tight that they might as well have been pulling 60 hour weeks at the office. [Insert masterbation innuendo here].
Aside from this trigger-point-nailing, dopamine-wave-riding encounter, my massage experiences in Thailand have been somewhat underwhelming.
Many westerners who visit Thailand (including, rather fraudulently, me) like to harp on about how cheap massage is compared to home. And while it is comparatively excellent value for money, sometimes you simply get what you pay for.
Like an hour of having your spine massaged with an elbow. Yeah, that’s the kind of back massage 200 Baht ($6.30) will get you (Especially when don’t do any research and lack of Thai Language skills.) I had one a few weeks ago and it was every bit as unpleasant as you’d expect it to be.
When you’re a physically broken westerner that has spent an inordinate amount of time in traffic, or in 3 hour meetings, or on a couch for seven hours eating Doritos, you need to be wary about what you let a Thai Masseuse do to you. Because, remember – for all their extensive experience, they aren’t trained Physiotherapists. They like to tug and pull at things [Insert masterbation innuendo here] that aren’t necessarily primed for such movement.
And if they accidentally rip one of your arms out of it’s socket, your rights are roughly equivalent to what they would be in a Thai road accident that wasn’t your fault. That being: you have no rights.
So my advice would be that unless you are young, durable and open to the possibility of some damage, then don’t enter a run-of-the-mill parlour and and be too cute with your massage requests. Save your immobilised shoulder for a licensed professional that can ask you questions in English. I mean, questions other than ‘FEEL PAIN?’
When in Thailand, Go for a standard Thai massage, and ask them to be gentle. Or if that still worries you, then a foot or head massage. Because your Feet and Head are much tighter than you realise.
Too Much Hammer
After a string of these low budget, arguably dangerous, spinal-bruising back massages, I was keen to find a masseuse that knew the difference between muscle tissue and bone. So I decide to follow some advice of a former masseuse friend and visit an reputable establishment on Chiang Mai’s South Gate Road.
My opening statement was something like: “I need an upper back massage, it is very tight. Please help.”
“Okay, do you want relaxing massage, or sports massage.”
“Uhh…both? I don’t know. My back is very, very tight, and I just need a firm massage.”
After being given a brief postural assessment, they advise me to go with ‘sports massage’. Which happens to be the most expensive option. How about that.
My masseuse is the establishment’s “very best masseuse”, a old wrinkly guy that looks like he’s seen some real shit. He carries deep wrinkles that suggest life has been a right slog, and that he’s possibly fought in a war or two. But my foremost concern is whether or not he can sufficiently brutalise my thoracic spine back into the mobile structure it once was.
Although our man speaks little English, I’m able to convey that I lift a few weights here and there, and have ruined my posture in the process. For unidentified reasons, this gives him a real chuckle, and he proceeds to start slapping his elbow with his arm repeatedly.
I don’t get it. Failing to unlock this barnstormer of a joke in my head, I force on a few nervous laughs and follow him upstairs.
The ‘back massage’ gets off the a shaky start, and he spends ten minutes applying lotion to my feet, before scraping in between my toes with a flat tool.
Being a victimised western consumer type, I feel the urge to immediately lodge a complaint, or possibly sue someone’s ass. But I conclude that there is most likely some energy voodoo at play, and continue respect the process in silence.
My patience is rewarded as masseuse begins attacking my upper back with firm kneads and presses. All whilst intermittently screwing around with the window blinds, he starts to make some effective headway into my knotted T-Spine.
Things are going decidedly well until….until he introduces his secret weapon – THE HAMMER.
Acknowledging that my back muscles have the texture of concrete, he decides a more forceful approach is required, and starts banging away with a wooden mallet and chisel. This is unexpected.
But not in a good way. This technique is as effective as it is enjoyable- that being, not very.
The remaining 30 minutes are frustratingly dedicated to this futile method, that feels something closer to a thousand miniature earthquakes than it does manual therapy.
A few hundred more tiny judders later, and it’s over. I’m tempted to raise my concerns and lobby for some actual massage. ‘You were doing so well’, I would say. “Why did you use the hammer? Things were going so well, before the hammer.”
But I decide that is a little patronising. Plus I’m hungry, tired and a bit seasick. So I decide to call it a write off.
“Better?” he asks in his limited English
“Mehhhhhhhhh, a bit. Not really.” My dissatisfaction is clear as day.
“Too much Hammer.”
He has no idea what I’m saying, and just wanders off to the other side of the room, before collapsing on a mat.
Upon departing, I’m asked by an English-speaking staff member whether my back feels better.
“No. Too much Hammer. I wanted a massage, not 40 minutes of Hammer.”
‘Too Much Hammer’ is the kind of feedback you don’t expect to give in any of life’s strange encounters. Maybe if like, someone is just playing U Can’t Touch This for 17 hours on a loop, but that’s about the only situation.
Staff lady offers me some vague promises in regards to the next time, but we both know there won’t be a next time.
Next time I’ll just go back to Bee, and she can spend an hour caressing my hands and wrists.
Now there’s value for money.