Self Awareness and Self Identity Guided through Buddhism

Self Awareness & Self Identity Guided through the Buddhism Religion
Life has a funny way of bringing people together. As we humans come from all different walks of life, it is amazing how we can unite on such valuable life experiences. Being all female and all college students in a large and diverse city, we are presented with many “ways of life,” and have deeply rooted internal and external experiences that shape who we are as young adult women in this very society. Though, the five of us come from very different histories, experiences, and families, we have all found ourselves traveling to Thailand together. Having some idea of what the Buddhist religion entails, we all have a common interest in how self awareness and self identity plays out through Buddhism. Here are our stories: 
Jessica’s Story:

As a recent undergraduate student from the FSoS major, I have spent the past few years learning so much about families including their likely rituals, rules, dynamics, beliefs, and outcomes depending on the world around them. While the primary focus of my studies has been narrowed down to families, there are endless scenarios which each unit of people may face. I have learned to be sensitive, think critically, and remember that no two families are the same. With that, one lesson I would like to draw attention to is “the stages of life” taught in a family psychology course at the U of M. For the purpose of this assignment, I will relate the ideas surrounding expected stages of life with the beliefs taught from a Buddhist perspective as I have come understand more throughout my journey in Thailand.
I find the connections between our created expectations, our reality, and our feelings very unique and certainly interdependent. For starters, the “stages of life” concept draws a map through one’s life and lists typical ages in which events would occur. Usually, the events are seen as great milestones. For instance: first communion, sweet 16, high school graduation, moving out, 21st birthday, first serious relationship, graduating college, getting married, having children, living after children move out, potential divorce, potential re-marriage, old-age, and near death are a list of common experiences amongst Americans. As discussed in the psychology course, the list above is often the order in which the events are said to occur. 
As of last week, I have gained more knowledge about the Buddhism religion and the perspectives provided by Pra Acharn Jolee through our amazing Monk Chat. During our time together, Jolee provided creative metaphors to help explain the religion. I can remember feeling at ease with his conversation flowing between some explanation, some story telling, and even some demonstration. Jolee was very wise, but let us know that he too is still a learner. Everyday we are learning and knowing that while focusing on the moment we have now is very important in the Buddhist religion. The chat provided me with some peace in my heart. I felt emotional as Jolee mentioned some of the most important factors are to be kind and live simply. How delightful! While this concept may seem clear cut, it can be so hard to grasp when wondering if our reality is “right” or how others would like it to be. 
Some drawbacks from the “stages of life” concept may be focusing useful energy on areas that sometimes are out of our control. And then, when things are out of our control, we may feel anxious or sad. While I know Jolee had a dream for a life ahead of him it didn’t seem as though he had strict expectations. Just having ideas in our heads about ways we think we should be living can pull us from the true moment we are in. Having a new outlook through the Buddhism perspective and balancing that with my FSoS knowledge, I have found some common ground. I know I want to continue my studies on families as well as my personal self and I think this is an exciting start to a beautiful adventure!
Kya’s Story:

“Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.”
     Our last activity as a group for the day was a monk chat, or a chance to learn about Buddhism and Thai culture from Pra Acharn Jolee, a Master monk in Chiang Mai. I was exhausted from the Thai sun and jet lag, but we pulled onto a gravel road and suddenly my senses came alive and my exhaustion faded. I was suddenly on a university campus for monks and I did not know what to expect. There’s a certain image I had of monks before arriving and quite honestly, I found them intimidating. They didn’t seem human and I was terrified I would offend them in any way. We walked into a smaller room and were all seated as we waited for the monk to arrive. We were all quiet, the air was still, and there seemed to be a feeling of nervousness surrounding us. However, we were quickly put to ease as Pra Acharn Jolee cracked a joke within thirty seconds of entering the room. Then, towards the end of the chat, Pra Acharn Jolee began to de-robe himself, I vividly remember being consumed by the present. My entire mind, body, and soul were in that room, in that very moment. I was absolutely amazed that a Master monk stood before me and demonstrated the different ways of wearing the robe right after sharing bits of wisdom I will certainly never forget. During the monk chat with Pra Acharn Jolee, I was not consumed by the future. My mind did not drift to my plans for the evening. I did not worry about my family or friends at home. Paying bills, doing homework, and cleaning my apartment were not on my radar. For the first time in a very long time, my entire being was engaged in the present. I felt at peace.
    I remember being told to plan my future out from a very young age. American culture thrives off punctuality, planning everything out meticulously, and most importantly, success. Naturally, I was raised to believe that planning my future out in detail was the only way to become successful. I suppose I never thought a way of life could be any different until I arrived in Thailand. Although I do not know the exact details of how Thai children are taught to think about their futures, the general pace of this country is slower and more at ease. I fell in love with the vibes I felt from the Thais: why be stressed and high-strung when the present is so beautiful? But, as I reflect upon my high school days, I remember how the future started to consume me. My first week of freshman year I was assigned to fill out a “Five Year Plan”. At the age of fourteen, I was already stressing about college and my future career. Where would I go to college? What type of career would be a good fit for me? What do I see myself majoring in? Did I want to stay in Minnesota or move out of state? My fourteen year old brain was not even fully developed but was being forced to plan out my life. This time in my life was a time of intense anxiety for me and I thought certainly the other kids in my grade knew what they wanted their future to look like. I felt alienated and became completely consumed by the future. Even my family began to ask me questions about my college and career plans. It became impossible to enjoy the present because I strictly lived in the future. And the worrying about the future didn’t end once I graduated high school, it only worsened. College is a time of planning: studying for tests, building our resume for the future, and striving for graduation day. 
    Pra Acharn Jolee told us in the monk chat that the three basic precepts of Buddhism were: abstain from bad, do good, and clean the mind. While all three of these are important, I really resonated with the third one. Clean the mind. Something clicked when he said those words. How could my mind be clean when I am living in the future? Living in the future leaves my mind in a state of anxiousness, confusion, and worry. Of course, having goals and dreams are great but just like all aspects of life, there needs to be a balance. Aside from the monk chat, I witnessed an incredible sense of balance from the teachers at the Mekong School. The leaders all had incredible goals on how to save their beloved Mekong River, but were also able to live in and enjoy the moment as we all danced under the stars next to the river. I have missed out on so much because my mind was running towards the future instead of enjoying the now. This trip to Thailand has been the beginning of my goal to clean my mind and that starts by thriving and engaging in the present. 
Julia’s Story:

My name is Julia Rodman and my journey with Buddhism began in middle school. One experience I had was the day my dad told me, immediately after attending church, that he was a Buddhist.  I could not comprehend how he could attend a Lutheran church and be a Buddhist. I was flabbergasted, frustrated, you could even say betrayed.  There was not much explanation as to what my dad being “Buddhist” meant.  Through the years I learned that it meant he practiced meditation, read about Buddhism, and enjoyed the ways of Buddhism.  Another experience I had was a few years later in high school when I read the book Siddhartha for an English class.  For some unknown reason, this reading deeply resonated with me.  I felt a connection to what I understood as the Buddhist ways. I loved the idea of not having a so-called “god” to look to for guidance.  It was a practice that focused on the self and doing good – something so simple, yet so vital to life. 
I believe that there is a strong connection between suffering as humans we experience, mental health, and Buddhism.  In my world, suffering goes hand in hand with expectations and reality.  This is a phenomenon that I, along with many others, have experienced many times.  As humans we are constantly preparing for what is next to come, along with having visions of how things will play out.  Is there a way to lessen expectations and live in the reality? From the monk chat, Pra Acharn Jolee stated that, “Everything doesn’t belong to you.  You should not suffer because you attach.  Don’t attach.  Use it, but if it goes away, do not suffer.”  I understood this idea as not to abstain from attaching, which is something that I have often done, but rather find a way to connect, but also maintain your individuality.  In my life I have suffered many times because when I attached and the source of happiness went away, I felt the pain very deeply.  Opposite of what Acharn Jolee said, I did suffer because I attached. 
I have struggled trying to find a way to find a connection but not suffer if things do not go the way I expect them to.  This is something through ideas of Buddhism I hope to better myself.  I have practiced meditation from time to time and after I walk out, I feel refreshed, like I have been born again ready to live in the present again.  That is not to say that meditation is an easy practice.  In meditation, you are to focus the mind.  My teachers and my father have told me that when your mind drifts away, do not get upset, simply bring it back to where you began.  This is easier said than done and only improves with practice.  I am taking a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class in the coming fall and will spend several weeks studying and practicing meditation and other things. 
My time here in Thailand has been testing my interactions with expectations and reality.  In the beginning I had more expectations.  I think as time has gone by on the trip, I have begun to expect less and truly experience everything for what it is.  Often I would find myself in an unpleasant experience, sweating more than I would like, for example and my mind would be complaining.  In that moment I would change my thoughts and say “yes, you are sweating, you are hot, and that is okay. You are also alive, thriving in the jungle of Thailand with a group of wonderful people.”  Other moments of initial unpleasant experiences include eating strange and different dishes and being unable to speak to people in their language.  Walking through the markets I was often overwhelmed by the foreign smells and sights of raw meat and flies swarming around the food.  In the initial moment I wanted to walk away and escape from the moment, but through personal practice, I have begun to embrace the moment, no matter how unpleasant my thoughts make it seem.  I believe that a mindset can change the reality of a situation.  If I change my negative thoughts to positive ones, my experience will be truly present thoughts.  By manipulating the mind, eventually you will become happier and more at peace.  With the language, my thoughts were often sadness that I could not participate or say as much as I wanted to.  I think that this experience has been the most difficult for me.  I have never experienced this sensation of not being able to communicate through language before.  Initially I would feel sad and then frustrated because I felt like I was missing out on connection.  With the Thai students I had a desire to say so much more, but lacked the ability.  But rather than avoid, I would sit and absorb the language.  This experience tested my ability to live in the present.  At one dinner I was the only non-Thai speaker.  I found myself focusing on more than just the language.  I watched the ways their body moved, the expressions that their faces showed, and when I was addressed I would smile and attempt to guess what they were trying to say.  Sometimes I was correct because context gives many clues to what is being said, and sometimes Yer or Mongkon, two students on the trip that speak both English and Thai, would help translate for me.  These feelings have allowed me to experience the reality of the situation and focus on the present.  
Cecilia’s Story:

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” -Dalai Lama
“Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future” – Deepak Chopra
    Written above are two of my favorite quotes. I find myself often reading inspirational and meaningful quotes day to day because they keep me going, and they give me hope. Over the past few years, it is safe to say that I have not been dealt the fairest hand and have been left to tend too many feelings of sadness, pain, and disappointment. To combat all of those negative feelings, I have also had to acknowledge my extreme moments of success and happiness. Has the balance always been even? No. Do I wish some things could have been different? Absolutely, but what is life without lessons? What is life without both good and the bad interactions shared among family, friends, and lovers? How do we forgive each other for the pain caused to one another? How to we be present in a world that is filled with deadlines, appointments, and high structure? Most importantly, what can we take away from everyone and everything that comes in and out of our lives? A good friends once told me, “Every relationship, friendship, and brief encounter with another person offers us an incredible opportunity to learn more about ourselves if we choose to do so. All of the “good” and “bad” that we can perceive in others is a reflection of a similar aspect that we share somewhere within oursleves.”
    Spending the past two weeks in Thailand has allowed to me really reflect and unpack some personal emotions I’ve carried with me for awhile. Thus far, this trip has been absolutely amazing. I have had extremely memorable experiences and most of those experiences will be with me for life. Specifically, there is one experience that resonates with me the most and I cannot seem to get it out of my head; visiting the Monk Chat in Chiang Mai. Pra Acharn Jolee took time out of his day to speak to us about the history, evolution, and meaning of Buddhism and his personal experience of becoming a monk. 
Buddhism is a way of life; how to be happy. It is about finding a balance between the body and the mind. Pra Acharn Jolee captivated my attention immediately. He was soft with his tone and genuine with his speech. He was comfortable with who he was which in turn made me comfortable with who I am. Listening to him was easy and his presence was confident. I thought to myself, “this is someone who inspires me and this is someone who is honest and true with themselves. I want that. I aspire to be like that.” 
There are two topics that were discussed in the Monk Chat and both topics have stuck with me. The first topic being karma – action vs. reaction and the second topic being purification – how to forgive and forget. As I have both personally struggled with the idea of how to forgive and forget and work through action and reaction, my time spent in Thailand has forced me to really reevaluate both ideas. Reflecting on both good and bad interactions I’ve had within the past few weeks, I know I was not always fair towards others, and I know I could have reacted differently but in that given moment but my emotions were all I knew and it generally left me feeling more upset than before. But what about the reactions and actions people put forth towards me? They were not always fair and some of them left me emotionally distraught and stressed. Then I realized that those individuals acted in a way that was familiar to them and their emotions were all they knew. I can pinpoint a certain moment from a few weeks ago when promised myself I would change the narrative around action, reaction, forgiving, and forgetting. Pra Acharn Jolee simply clarified what I could not put into actions and or words for that matter. 
I am a firm believer of the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and I also believe in, “what goes around comes around.” In a sense Karma. I have made it a point to acknowledge and understand that my many daily interactions with people happen for a reason. Now, everything happens for a reason but I can change my reaction and actions towards others. I can also find a way to forgive and forget those who have hurt me. Having a strong understanding of my behavior, thoughts, and feelings towards others have pushed me towards the ultimate test of remaining as positive as possible in times where I feel like I cannot. Lastly, I have been forced to really self reflect and be aware of my presence in the places and people I interact with. 
Experiences and learned behaviors shape who we are as humans. Along with the influences of family, friends, and so many other life contributions it is so easy to fall into patterns and “a way of life.” With that said, I am so proud to share with you all that my short yet life changing time in Thailand has helped me become more aware of who I am and who I want to continue to be. My hope is to continue to abstain from doing bad, keep doing good, and really clean my mind. Finding peace with oneself and coming to an understanding that no one is better than the other, will ultimately create a positive “way of life.” 
Zang’s Story:

“Keep what is good and leave the bad behind”     -Pra Acharn Jolee
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”    -Confucius
One of the most memorable experiences from this study abroad course has been the Monk Chat we attended in Chiang Mai from our first week in Thailand. I can recall that it was the day where we visited temples then went to a Monk school to participate in the Monk Chat. It was a hot day with the sun shining brightly as we walked around everywhere. Upon entering the room where the Monk Chat was located in, I was sweating, tired and didn’t know what to expect; I had never participated in a Monk Chat before prior to orientation. When Pra Acharn Jolee walked into the room, there were multiple thoughts going on in my head. For some strange reason, I had thought that monks were not allowed to speak because of the rules or guidelines they must follow. There was this perception I had thinking that monks were someone high and holy (which they are) that I was not allowed to converse with them. Learning that monks are not allowed to stand close to women and vice versa, this may have contributed to it. I wanted to not only be respectful of the country and culture, but also be respectful of the Buddhist religion as well. After hearing Pra Acharn Jolee speak for a couple of minutes, I was so relieved to know how down to earth he was. I almost forgot he was even a monk because of his humor as well. What additionally amazed me was that he was a Hmong monk. I had always heard of Hmong men becoming monks from my parents but never thought I would ever encounter one in real life. This experience was very personal for me as I not only learned a lot about him, but also became enlightened on Buddhism, too.
I have always heard of the Buddhist religion, but never really resonated with it until now. Recently within the past year, I have decided to embark on a journey of soul searching. This journey is a path to becoming a better person, learning how to be at peace with my own being, and overall, finding myself. Growing up, life has always been a constant struggle for me both internally and externally. Internally, I have continuously put myself down through my own words. Words like “You’re not good enough,” “You’re not smart enough,” or “You won’t make it in the end” have all crossed my mind. Like the quote from Buddha, “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts,” this quote is indeed true. On the outside externally, I have body shamed myself because I don’t look like society’s portrayal of the ideal female body or don’t have perfect white, straight teeth. The expectations and standards I have built up for myself have made me my own worst critique. Leading up to my decision to embark on this journey, I have realized that “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk [our own] path[s]” (Buddha). During the monk chat with Pra Acharn Jolee a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned the three core points of Buddhism: Be aware of doing bad, do good and clean the mind. While I do believe in these three points and have always followed them, I find that the third quote most relates to my well being. The ideals of Buddhism have guided me towards enlightenment and finding myself.

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