At first my heat-saturated brain groped for the metaphor. Meditation as nourishment for the mind. Then I frowned.
“Do you mean breath?”
The novice monk nodded. “Yes, bread. Controlling monkey mind, always trying to have, always wants. Just focus on bread.”
Then, of course, I became headily aware of my own breath. We were sitting under an awning in Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, engaged in ‘Monk Chat’. He was telling me about his life as a novice monk and I was theoretically helping him with his English. I wasn’t intending to join them as it seemed rather contrived – people were asking stilted questions like “so what does Buddhism mean to you?” – but we got chatting about a dog that had sprawled out asleep under the awning so there I was, listening to my bread.
I read somewhere – and would dearly love to remember where – about breath being the key to life but also the key image of a happy life. You can’t live without balancing breathing in with letting breath go. Each breath out makes way for the next one in. Happiness is also a balance of drawing in and letting go, without getting stuck in either state. The same balance was in our conversation, both of us teaching and being taught at the same time. In the same breath.
The monk was from Laos, and had come to Chiang Mai to study. He wanted to become fluent in English and get a job in the tourist industry at home. I was struggling to get to grips with how monasteries seemed to double as colleges, having seen loads of shaven-headed, orange-robed teenage boys as I travelled around. Partly, the monk said, it was because there isn’t much choice if you want an education. (We didn’t discuss what options girls have.) But the discipline of monastic life also aids study. Meditation improves concentration and control over distracting thoughts. Boys enter monasteries to learn specific subjects, but also to master their own minds.
Back in Bangkok I put a little video clip on Instagram of raindrops falling on my balcony and instantly being absorbed by the hot planks. I loved the pattern of appearances and disappearances it made. It strikes me now that this is another image of a quiet mind, absorbing each fresh impression to make room for new ones.
To me, travel is all about finding tiny moments like these. Breathing out the familiar to take in something new; then letting it fade, and making space for whatever comes next.