This post serves as a journal of my experience participating in a 3-Day Theinngu meditation retreat just outside of Yangon, Myanmar. If you’re new to meditation and have been introduced to the fast-breathing Sunlun or Theinngu meditation methods, and are curious what it’s like to meditate on retreat with a local teacher and villagers, I hope to shed some light as to what you might expect. Of course, all meditators, teachers and centres are different – so your experience may vary greatly.
What do you get when you combine the Wim Hof Method, fasting, mosquitoes, broken English, and around 8 hours of gratuitously painful meditation per day?
Instant liberation and enlightenment!*
It all started, as all great stories do, with the falling-apart of previous plans. Instead of sitting and studying at the monastery that had sponsored my entry into Myanmar, I was at Thabarwa Meditation Center. Thanks, coronavirus!
At Thabarwa, the focus split is generally 90% volunteer work, and 10% meditation instruction and personal time. In the days prior, I had been participating in a variety of activities, ranging from caring for injured patients, to helping cook and prepare food. Although changing poopy diapers and caring for the sick and the elderly is humbling, important work, I was still hungry for a different kind of experiential wisdom.
Intro to Sunlun and Theinngu Meditation
The original reason I came to Myanmar was to practice meditation intensively, and so I began to focus more on the meditation instruction offered by volunteers and local teachers. During a scheduled meditation session, one of the resident nuns/teachers (referred to as Sayalay) introduced and strongly endorsed the Sunlun/Theinngu fast-breathing meditation method. I had read a little about the history of Sunlun Sayadaw, as well as the the method, in Jack Kornfield’s book: Living Dharma (refer to Chapter Six.)
“Walking into a hall full of heavily breathing Sunlun meditators is like finding oneself in the middle of a steam calliope. This enormous effort made to concentrate the mind by watching heavy breathing is then deepened in insight practice while sitting rigid, motionless, fully experiencing the pains of the body. The use of sensation, especially pain, is what most characterizes Sunlun practice. It is strongly goal-oriented, directing total effort in each sitting to the development of concentration and insight that will lead to nirvana and liberation.
Total effort to overcome pain and distraction is the way of Sunlun Sayadaw.”
-Jack Kornfield, “Living Dharma”
Sunlun was all about doing things the hard way. Also from “Living Dharma”:
“You are lucky to be born a human and even luckier to hear the Dharma. Take advantage of this special opportunity to really practice, be diligent, and work hard to win liberation.”
Sunlun and Theinngu Meditation in Practice
Having this prior knowledge, it was relatively easy to let go of my initial doubts and give what amounts to hyperventilating for forty minutes a try. During the session, I felt that I reached a good level of concentration, and got a bit of a buzz from the extra oxygen pumping through my lungs. At one point, I even lost all sensation in my arms to a sort of energetic wave of tingling (like pins and needles, but “bigger”, if that makes sense.)
For others in the session, many who were completely new to meditation, the practice was much more difficult. Sayalay came off as a bit of a rigorous teacher, constantly telling people to increase their breathing, or to jerk their heads to overcome the pain and itchiness they were experiencing in their bodies.
What’s more is that halfway through the sit, Sayalay started teaching asubha meditation. Teachers usually “prescribe“ this practice to help students overcome desire and lust. It consists of reflection on the various “unclean” parts of the body, and one’s corpse as it decays after death.
Sort of a big jump for newcomers that were just looking to “Zen out” for thirty minutes…
In any case, Sayalay mentioned an upcoming three-day meditation retreat, hosted for free at a nearby village. In addition to sitting, we would practice fasting throughout the retreat.
I jumped at the opportunity. Enlightenment, or your money back! What could go wrong?
When Sayalay asked who would like to participate, I was the only one that raised my hand out of a group of twenty volunteers.
Gulp. Was this a bad omen? Too late. I was in.
Day Zero: Arrival
The schedule called for a 3pm departure, but our transport left Thabarwa at 5pm. Yay for Myanmar time! We arrived at the village just before sunset. Here’s what the meditation hall and kuti (room for practitioners to sleep) looked like:
Day One: Theinngu Meditation Retreat Begins
The first day began at 4am. I was already awake at 3:30, having barely slept the previous night, due to the wooden bed, and having no earplugs. Totally groggy, I downed a spoonful of bitter instant coffee just prior to the first sit.
On entering the hall, I grabbed a thin meditation mat/carpet, and began searching for cushions… but there were none. Sayalay enthusiastically commented: “Here we teach natural sitting! No cushion! Just breathing! No pain, no hurt, only mind!”
Thus began my first lesson in pain. Sitting on the bare floor, with legs crossed, and having hips tighter than a clam with lockjaw, I was quickly in sore-ville. Focus came and went, despite the coffee. Sayalay kept encouraging me to breathe harder – that’s all it takes to overcome bodily sensations, after all. With a rounded back due to no support under my pelvis, and therefore a constricted airway, breathing deeply proved to be easier said than done.
At 5am, I took leave and tried to nap to regain some energy. I only a managed a few snore-starts, before deciding to brew a proper cup of hot coffee. I felt slightly more awake and alert, and so went into the hall for walking meditation at 6am.
Walking meant no hip pain! However, it was hard to distinguish exactly what to focus on – the motion and touch of feet and body? The sensation of the breath? All of the instruction focused around the former. Now, with such intense breathing, all I could do was focus on the latter. I walked about in mild confusion, as Sayalay recited her usual commandments.
“Increase breathing! Touch, no touch. Only change, only mind. Body change, mind change. Decay body, rotten body. This body impermanent nature, only change. Only mind.”
The rest of the day was broken up into 1hr sits, and roughly 30-45min walking sessions, consisting of essentially the same formula: sit on the ground, such that your lower back is bent, and your hips degenerate into pain. Hyperventilate until you feel you’re about to pass out, slow down a bit, get scolded, repeat.
I did feel markedly different halfway through the day. At 11am, I took a “shower”, aka bucket bath, and luxuriated in each bucketful of cold water. When looking at myself in the mirror, I noticed that I felt very lucid, and slightly bemused. It was as if I were on a comedown from a psychedelic trip.
Theinngu Meditation Troubles
As the day went on, though, frustration and disbelief built up in my mind. I was unable to detach and observe these feelings, instead feeding and justifying them. I mentally ridiculed the method, and kept chiding myself for having been so foolish as to commit to three days of this.
At the last sit of the day, I even resorted to reciting the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”), in an effort to usurp the refrain of “this is f@$&ing stupid” that had taken root in me. (I had just read “Franny and Zooey”, described to me by an Orthodox minister as the best reconciliation between Buddhism and Orthodoxy he had ever read.)
During this last sit, I also stopped listening to the teacher and went back to normal breathing.
I had had enough.
Sayalay took notice, and once the sit was over, we had a little chat about my difficulty with the practice. She reassured me that just as her master had taught her, I could learn too – if only I made sure to breathe strongly, contemplate deeply, and move only in little spurts and jerks if pain or temptation arises. Also, we’d start a little later tomorrow, so that I have a little extra time to rest. I’ll take what I can get!
I ended the day with a short journal reflection about gratitude for this opportunity, the support of the local community, and for the mosquito net that kept the little buggers at bay in the bed. Gotta stay positive!
Day Two: Mosquito Mania
5am rolled around, and the first sit of the second day was a disaster. I had zero focus, apart from on the mosquitoes that had suddenly taken over the hall. They quickly realized that while I was safe and sound in bed, out here I was a perfect target. In five minutes, I counted ten bites on my exposed hands and feet.
Anger and dissatisfaction arose, and I ran with them, full steam ahead. With blatant disregard for the first precept, I started killing mosquitoes left and right. Trying to be stealthy, I grabbed at the mosquitoes mid-flight, so as to make less noise.
Sayalay was sitting about ten feet ahead of me, facing the same way, and so did not see the massacre that was unfolding during the sit. Eventually, I had shifted my position so many times, and made enough noise, that Sayalay took notice. The session quickly ended. Oops.
At 6:30, I came back armed with a large blanket to completely shield myself from the buzzing onslaught. So much for detachment from bodily sensations… I completed the sit free from mosquito-based distraction, but still encountered significant mental resistance and pain.
In the break between sits, I began brainstorming how to make the most of this retreat with the sparse equipment available in the hall. With the sun out and mosquitoes now dispersed, I decided to try and solve my posture issues with a chair-based sit. I folded up a carpet to act as a pelvis support, and grabbed a chair to sit on.
Why didn’t I think of this before! No hip pain, a straight spine, and good focus. It was one of the best sits I had sat up till then, if judged by mental clarity and willingness to continue. I sat for close to an hour with very little distraction or resistance. I was keen to sit there and continue, and kept breathing steadily in awareness.
That is, until Sayalay came over from the other room, and literally pulled my little cushion out from under me.
“Chair okay, but natural only! No need cushion! Increase breathing, only change body, only mind. Changing, changing…”
I was in shock. Super peeved at having my chair cushion pulled out, I almost resolved to give up on the retreat then and there. No sense in senseless pain.
I managed to calm down relatively quickly and observe myself with mindfulness, but the concentration that had just been present would not return.
In one of the following sits, I observed a few enticing thought streams – a few of which I let myself indulge in, rather than immediately let go. Like a nice massage, conceptual thinking generates a pleasurable mental buzz for me and is a frequent distraction. I often took notes and wrote down my thoughts during the retreat – perhaps another no-no when the sole intention is to meditate without external stimuli, but the rules were far from clear.
Most notable this time around was conceptualizing truth as an ultimate common denominator beyond description or enumeration. Infinite by nature, as close to God and the Absolute as you can get – synonymous, even. I tried to reconcile this into an actionable and practical conclusion, but was unable to grapple with the various topics that sprang to mind: morality, will and action, and ontology. The best I could do was rest in the somewhat trite saying of “the truth of all things as they are.”
There was also the idea of consciousness as the only way of introducing falsehood into the world – there is no false tree, no rock that can deceive… humanity is uniquely equipped to both perceive and generate untruth, at least as far as I can tell and think so far. This assumes human exceptionality, though – perhaps bat-consciousness holds similar properties. Thanks, brain ?
As the day wore on, I slipped further from the peak I had experienced on the chair. Although one of the fundamental Buddhist concepts is impermanence, it seemed like there was one thing stuck on repeat, never changing, beginning-less and fixed: Sayalay’s mantra.
“Increase breathing! Touch, no touch. Only change, only mind. Body change, mind change. Decay body, rotten body, worm eating body.”
Here’s a short video that might help you imagine what it was like to sit under her care. In the background you’ll hear a grainy audio recording of Theinngu Sayadaw’s teachings in Burmese that played on loop during meditation sessions. I don’t know if Sayalay was reciting the same asubha practice for the Burmese lay devotees, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
I grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of connection I was experiencing with the teaching. I finally reached my breaking point during one of the last meditation sessions of the day.
I gave myself a long moment for reflection, and carefully examined my thoughts. They came with accompanying feelings of pain and despair: a deep beating of the heart, a “rising” in the throat.
I took a stand, and once again discussed the situation with Sayalay. This time, she conceded. Tomorrow, instead of meditating, I would break my fast, and teach English to the village kiddos.
I sat one last time that evening, relieved to be so close to the end. Despite having failed to achieve the goal of completing all three days of the retreat, I was happy.
Day Three: Finally, Food!
The best thing about a fast is ending it. Food takes on amazing new dimensions when it touches taste buds that have been essentially dormant for a while. Combine this intensity with the application of carefully cultivated mindfulness, and you have a recipe for bliss in the form of noodle soup. Relishing each spoonful, I felt waves of pleasure in the salty, savoury broth, and gratitude for the fact that I was again able to enjoy a simple meal.
After breakfast, the village children came by for their “English lesson”. Since I’ve never taught English before, the lesson consisted of basic introductions and greeting phrases (“Hello, my name is, etc”) and imitating animals and reciting their names (“Woof! Woof! Dog.”)
Then, we made motorcycle sounds and chased each other around the building. Meditators can have fun, too! VROOM VROOM!
As I write this, I still feel hugely grateful to the kind local villagers that hosted me, and their rambunctious kids.
The locals support the meditation center and enable people like me to visit and practice. They offer donations of food, money, and resources to help clean and maintain the hall. I am forever indebted to them, and hope my practice, even in its failing and faltering way, brings them merit.
I spent most of my time in the meditation hall, but during breaks the village children would often visit. We would play ball, we’d practice their English, or they’d poke fun at my pronunciation of Burmese phrases.
Overall, I can’t say I took much out of the retreat meditation-wise. The teachings and dharma talks were difficult to follow and understand, not to mention learn from. I soon reverted back to the “normal” practice of Ānāpānasati without forced breathing.
That being said, the retreat challenged me to skillfully communicate that my needs weren’t being met, and to navigate the tension between acceptance and change. It was an excellent opportunity to watch all varieties of emotions and resistance arise, and in this sense was well worth the price of admission.
Is the Theinngu Meditation Method, then, without its merits – apart from the challenge? Not at all.
There are some highly-rated centres that use the method, and both Sunlun and Theinngu Sayadaw are said to have attained arhatship through the exclusive practice of heavy breathing meditation. According to Theinngu Sayadaw, theoretical knowledge may create obstacles for one’s practice and progress on the path, in that one may imagine ‘knowing’ the Dhamma intellectually to be ‘seeing’ it experientially.1
It’s not for everyone, though. Ultimately, the only way to know if it’s for you, is to come and see for yourself.
Best of luck on your path – and sādhu, sādhu, sādhu! ??
- 1.Kyaw PP. Entering the Stream to Enlightenment: Experiences of the Stages of the Buddhist Path in Contemporary Sri Lanka, by Yuki Sirimane. Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2016. 366pp. Hb. £75.00; Pb. £24.99. ISBN-13: 978-1-7817-9203-2 (Hb.); 978-1-7817-9204-9, Pb. BSR. January 2018:272-275. doi:10.1558/bsrv.35396