Friday 10 July 2015

Going Deeper into the Forest Within - Templestay at Woljeongsa

People with Asperger’s Syndrome are often described as having difficulty in not being able to see the woods for the tree. Historically, professionals have referred to this as ‘weak central coherence’. Such a weakness though can translate to a strength, eye for detail. Through initially noticing such strengths translated from weaknesses, by starting with what one has, it can open one up to hidden qualities and further possibilities.

To notice and acknowledge strengths and qualities that one may have, including in relation to how they are affected by their Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, it helps to find an environment where one can step back from the flow, free from distractions. Staying at Woljeongsa, a Buddhist Temple in South Korea, I felt that I was able to notice with clarity where I was able to notice with awareness where strengths Asperger’s Syndrome can have can be expanded upon, including being able to see where small, often obscure detail fits into the bigger picture.

Main meditation hall and nine-story pagoda at Woljeongsa Temple
Situated in an expansive fir tree forest in Odaesan National Park, around 140km east of Seoul, Woljeongsa provided me with an appropriate setting for me to help expand my awareness. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I tend to focus on and become interested in very specific details, but seeing where such details fit into a plot or setting can still sometimes be quite a challenge for me. Being able to notice sensations and sounds in a very peaceful countryside environment gave me an opportunity to expand my field of awareness beyond the tree into the woods and beyond.

It is fascinating as to how when many of us find ourselves in environments that are outside our comfort zone, including the comfort zone of our thought patterns and the daily routines and actions that arise from them. On my first meditation retreat, I was also able to notice how much I continuously talk to myself.  During my stay at Woljeongsa, I felt I noticed as well as how my autopilot mode is often a response to my thought patterns, but also how easily distracted I am by them, and how such distractions can become over-obsessive.

Being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, even now, I still find it difficult to adapt to social situations, including being able adapt to topics of conversation especially where I don’t know anybody so much that behind closed doors I find myself having to almost practice conversation and non-verbal communication. But what can’t be practised behind closed doors is being able to respond in conversations, especially as it is difficult to anticipate how someone may respond to you. In this way, I began to notice how my speech can sometimes feel almost ‘scripted’, perhaps coming across as repetitive, and sometimes out of context through not always being able to read the mood of the conversation or situation.

For the duration of my stay I was given a temple uniform to wear and I slept on a thin mattress on the floor, in accordance with the eight precepts that Templestay participants have during their stay, one of which is not to sleep on luxury high beds. An effect that I noticed when sleeping on the floor was, and something that the thinness of the mattress contributed to was in being able to notice the sensation of contact of my back against the floor, thus opening me up to being able to notice the effects of my breathing on the body. This was very conducive to me being able to sleep soundly. Quite often, distracting thoughts can keep me awake. But, as I was to find when waking up at 4.00am in the morning going to the Zendo (the main hall for practice) for the first meditation and chanting session, a sound night’s sleep helps to ‘still’ the mind. Whereas a mind distracted by excess thoughts, many of which arise from outside influences, can feel full of waves, a mind that has been stilled through being able to ‘switch off’ in such a way can feel very calm, thus enabling openness. The mind stillness I felt was enhanced during my first sitting meditation practice.  
In my temple uniform

As well as morning and evening chanting and sitting meditation sessions, another activity I took part in during my stay included making the 108 prostrations practiced in Zen Buddhism alongside making a chain of wooden beads, adding a bead for each prostration. A prostration is a triple bow made for each 108 actions to help purify 108 defilements (unwholesome states), with the bow and adding of the bead to the chain representing the action. Though such practice may appear to some as just ritual, from a mindfulness perspective, I found it helpful not only in noticing sensations with the body in what was an unusual position and performing an unusual action for me, listening to the English translation of each prostration, it also helped me notice and get in touch with my consciousness. When performing rituals or stretching exercises including yoga stretches, it can be easy for one to be caught on autopilot, possibly also engaging in repetitive movements. Getting in touch though with my consciousness with each prostration though while focusing on the sensations of my physical movement and in putting each bead on the chain, enabled me to be aware of each action. I also felt I was able to concentrate effectively while being mindful of physical movement involved in each prostration.

Through being able to get in touch with my consciousness in this way, I felt that I was able to look deeper inside myself, and how I can be so oblivious to my consciousness, including emotional feelings. The Vipassana retreat I participated in last summer enabled me to look within myself to an extent that I was able to notice myself more clearly in a sensory context, including how physical sensations to which I am mostly oblivious to directly and indirectly contribute to shaping my thought patterns, which in turn determine my moods and actions. During my experience at Woljeongsa, I felt my awareness went deeper, opening me up to being able to change the way I respond my thought patterns, including noticing the restrictions they can sometimes bring. The openness a calm mind contributed to I felt enabled me to go deeper in this sense, enabling me to notice aspects of my consciousness that normally I am oblivious to.
Going deeper into the forest, Odaesan National Park

My visit to Woljeongsa was, physically, a retreat into an expansive fir tree forest, in which the trees depending on each other for their existence together with the fertile land which allows them to grow, yet each also exists independently. Mentally, within I also felt there was a journey into the forest, into which going deeper enabled me to notice the inter-dependent existence of body and mind with much more clarity. 

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