(Discomfort Zone podcast) BONUS EPISODE: A Monastic Skunking

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Meditating at a jungle monastery in Thailand brought me inner stillness. Then Rob showed up.

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Here’s a short video documentary I filmed during my stay at Wat Tam Wua Monastery:

https://youtu.be/mKNdmyu6guc


TRANSCRIPT

IT WAS JULY 2012…

The summer following my final year of university. My chronic pain was in its infancy stages; always present but it didn’t control me.

My friend and I were on week 7 of 10 on our grad trip in Thailand. It had been an adventure thus far. Scuba diving on the coral reef, full moon party, motorbiking in the mountains, and a near death experience with a king cobra. That’s a story for another time.

Jason (right) meeting two members from a long-neck tribe during a jungle trek near Chiang Mai, Thailand

We were seeking a peaceful escape from the tourist hotspots. With the help of Google, we hatched a plan. A 10-day meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery in the jungle. This was perfect: culturally authentic and an avenue for self discovery.

I didn’t know it back then, but this place would impact me in a way that I never expected it to.

I’m Jason Herterich and this is Discomfort Zone. As I mentioned at the end of last episode, I’ve got a big story in the works. It traces back to the injury that led to my chronic pain. In the meantime, I’m sharing a bonus episode with you.

WAT TAM WUA FOREST MONASTERY

Steep mountains blanketed by a deep-green forest tower over the monastery grounds. Valleys between the peaks are enveloped by a white halo of mist like a breath from god. The intermingling aroma of roses and sweet lychees laces the air.

I ease through the grassy meadow towards the pond. Get outta here! *mosquito in ear* buddho, buddho ~

Meditators practicing walking meditation in the meadow at Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery

When I arrive, the hungry fish race through a maze of purple lotuses and lily pads towards me. I shower them with their favourite treat: freshly fallen ripe mangos diced on one of the kitchen’s bamboo platters.

It was my sixth day at Wat Tam Wua monastery and I had never felt more alive, more connected to myself and to nature. This place had a dreamy feel to it; other meditators drifted around wearing matching white outfits. Everyone was calm and collected: young wise old grandparents.

Jason wearing all white clothes with a big smile while he’s sitting in the gazebo during afternoon tea break

As I walked back to the kitchen, I saw an unfamiliar face. A new visitor that somehow didn’t fit. He was hunched over on a bench rolling a cigarette. Military buzz-cut, skull and crossbones tattoo, bruises lining his lower lip. He looked like someone you’d find in a run-down kick-boxing gym.

I was open to meeting anyone, I walked up and introduced myself. I asked the typical questions: where are you from, how’d you find the place, how long are you staying. He just gave one-word replies. The bell rang for evening meditation. He appeared to scowl at me for interrupting his smoke break and stormed off.

Meditators sitting on their mats and on blue plastic chairs in the meditation hall during a sitting meditation session at Wat Tam Wua

AS I SAT IN MEDITATION…

I was seething with anger. “What is his problem - I was just trying to be friendly. If he hadn’t lost his temper at me, I’d be in bliss right now.”

I decided that I’d avoid him for the rest of my stay.

But the next day, he joined our table at lunch. His name was Rob. When I asked about his education, he laughed and said he had purchased a fake teaching certificate in Bangkok. He had been living in the city of Chiang Mai teaching English to children for the past two years. When his contract ended, he was hired by the local mafia to smuggle drugs in from Myanmar. His nights were spent bouncing around nightclubs, shooting up heroin, and sleeping with prostitutes.

He had an arrogant tone to his voice, he sounded proud of his reckless lifestyle. The entire time he was talking, I had this nagging question in my head: what the hell was he doing here? I didn’t build up the courage to ask and soon the bell rang for afternoon meditation. I was left wondering…maybe he’s trying to turn over a new leaf? Maybe he’s here to pick up women? Or maybe he’s taking advantage of the free room-and-board?

This week's podcast episode has less of a focus on chronic pain. It dates back to 2012 - the last time I felt at ease. I was celebrating my university graduation, after a grueling 4th year, with a 10-week trip to Thailand. ✈ 🇹🇭 * The first 7 weeks had been truly special. My friend and I would wake up each morning and decide over breakfast which excursion we'd go on that day, be it motorbiking, scuba diving, trekking through the jungle, or exploring the local street markets. 🌄 🛵 * * We were looking for a culturally authentic experience to end our trip on. If you've been to Thailand, you know that Buddhism and meditation are integral to their culture. I had never meditated before but had met many tourists along the way that raved about it. So, my friend and I traveled to Wat Tam Wua monastery located in the jungle for a 10-day retreat. 🕌 🧘‍♂️ * This episode is a story from Wat Tam Wua: an unlikely interaction I had with a deeply troubled individual that has impacted me on my chronic illness journey to this day. * * SEE LINK IN BIO! * #meditation #monastery #mindfulness #vipassana #meditationretreat #retreat #discomfort #discomfortzone #thailand #endthestigma #breakthestigma #itsokaynottobeokay #journeybacktoyou #depression #suicideprevention #mentalhealth #mentalhealthawareness #addiction #addictionawareness #rehab #drugaddiction #heroin #addictionrecovery #travel #travellife #southeastasia #podcast #podcasts #podcastcommunity #podcastersofinstagram

Rob was absent from the meditation sessions that day and the next. In the evening, a group of us were hanging out in the gazebo sharing stories, when he emerged from the darkness. He looked detached; white-eyed, gritted teeth and shivering. He told us that he was going through heroin withdrawal. His 30th birthday was coming up next week. If he wasn’t clean by then, he’d kill himself.

The energy drained out of the air. I wish I could say that I responded with compassion, but I just froze.

Marco, a long-term guest, broke the silence, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to support you. You can come by my hut any time if you’d like to talk. We’re all here for you.”

Rob flashed a smile and thanked him. We all stayed there for hours, skipping the evening meditation to exchange tales from our travels.

THE NEXT DAY…

I was getting ready for afternoon meditation when Rob dropped by my room looking for food. He’d been awake all night and had slept through the morning, missing the only two meals of the day. I gave him the cashew nuts I had stashed away in my backpack. As he was walking out the door, he spotted the cribbage board next to my sleeping bag and asked if I was up for a game.

Meditators walking across a wooden bridge above a river towards the temple

TO PLAY OR NOT TO PLAY?

It was my second last day at Wat Tam Wua. I wanted to follow the monastic schedule, but playing cards with Rob felt way more important. We played for three straight hours. I lost every game but one. He said that his grandma with dementia could outplay me. I told him that his haircut looked stupid.

He told me that his dad passed away when was young and that his skull and crossbones tattoo was a tribute to him. He had ignored his sister and mom’s emails because he was ashamed of the man he had become. He dreamt of returning home to New York, attending teacher’s college, and putting purpose back into his life. As the afternoon carried on, this bad-boy figure I had constructed in my mind faded away. Rob was a sensitive guy trying to get rid of his self-destructive habits. He had fallen prey to addiction, constantly chasing his next high. He was just trying to find his way again.

A wooden sign posted on a tree reading, “The wise learn many things from their enemies.”

SEEKING PURPOSE

I had traveled to Wat Tam Wua seeking a unique cultural experience and personal insight through meditation. The monks and meditators embodied the stillness of the surroundings. It was the ideal environment for self exploration. But my most meaningful insight didn’t arise during meditation. It arose while I was playing cards with Rob.

I had barely known Rob and yet he had shared his most private and haunting thoughts with me. We had sat through his discomfort together and bonded over it. I used to avoid this type of conversation. I used to think that vulnerability was a sign of weakness. He helped me see that it is through exposing our weaknesses that we find strength. Rob’s teaching certificate was not valid, but the lessons I learned from him were.

RETURNING HOME

After leaving Thailand, I was faced with my own existential crisis. Over the next 5 years, my chronic pain grew from moderate to severe to excruciating. My personal and career aspirations were shattered. I had no quality of life. I was overwhelmed with grief and depression. I realized that I needed to share my suffering with others, just as Rob had done.

Fortunately, my family and friends received me with open arms. It has been a very bumpy ride. But with the help of my support circle and doctors, I’ve been healing, physically and spiritually.

I’m enduring the bad days while planning for the better days that lie ahead. I’m letting go of grief for my former self by practicing gratitude for the life I’m living. I’m shifting my focus from what I can’t do to what I can and will do.

Sometimes we learn about life in ways that we never expected to. Suffering is always more bearable when we’re not alone.

CREDITS

Produced by: Jason Herterich

Sound design by: Jason Herterich

Editing help provided by: Mel McPhail and Igor Rakic

Audio Engineering by: Justin Maradin


LINKS:

Wat Tam Wua website

Resources

Substance Abuse and Suicide: A Guide to Understanding the Connection and Reducing Risk

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255 (1800-273-TALK)

The Crisis Text Line 7 Cups of Tea An anonymous, 24-hour chat with trained professionals

Audio:

I’m Letting Go by Josh Woodward

small-group-laughter by ch0cchi



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