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Lions Roar : November 2019
Alone, A Monk Jumps on a Bed IRA SUKRUNGRUANG has an exhilarating discovery: loneliness isn’t the enemy. I AM BEGINNING TO ADJUST to this quiet, monastic life. When I first arrived, my brain buzzed like a hive. I searched for the next thing to fix, read, write, grade, play. My mind juggled multiple thoughts, unable to focus fully on anything. This is a “fast-paced world,” some say in the West. But the Western life is a fractured one. Back home in America, I was cleaved into different compartments. I was Ira the teacher, Ira the husband, the friend, the dog father. Each compartment had different rules and respon- sibilities. Each compartment demanded constant attention. But now, in the thick humidity of Chiang Mai, Thailand, at Wat Phra Singh, I’m a monk and only a monk, and part of being a monk is sewing the selves back together, uniting them in one body. Ajahn, my teacher, tells me this is the reason we breathe deeply during meditation. With each breath, we gather all our senses and join them. We’re trying to still our doubts, our inse- curities. In one breath, we’re striving to exist in the now. The now, for me, is the big empty concrete building that I reside in on the temple grounds, a space reserved for visiting monks and dignitaries. No one else is occupying any of the rooms on the three floors. I lose myself in all this space. I find myself alone most of the time, save for morning medi- tations and evening prayers. During the afternoons, I read book after book. My teacher drops off English translations of Buddhist texts—some philosophical, some autobiographical. The translations are horrendous. I flip through a text about forest monks, who seek the solitude of nature as a way toward wisdom. Their philosophy: how could you be alone when life teems all around you? MY MOTHER USED TO TELL ME that growing up in Thai- land she could never get time to herself, as her four sisters and four brothers were always demanding her attention. It’s the reason, she joked, for moving to America—getting as far away as possible. In America, my mother was alone and lonely. Our family was contained on our stamp-sized suburban lot in Chicago, and my parents suffocated me with their love because loneliness made them do so. An immigrant’s loneliness isn’t the same as other types of loneliness. An immigrant’s loneliness sticks with them, always, even among others—at PTA meetings, for example, sur- rounded by so many white faces. I don’t fear being alone, but I dread the sensations of loneliness. Today, a lonely afternoon in my room, I begin writing what loneliness is to me. I write because words are the only tool I have to dissect my loneliness, to understand it. I write because when I do, I feel less alone. I fill a page in my Hello Kitty notebook with metaphors. Metaphors make the leap from the abstract to the concrete. As novelist Orson Scott Card says: “Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” Metaphor: loneliness is a child lost in a mall during the holi- day season. For that child, it’s an overload of the senses—a mass of people, a symphony of sound. Confusion takes over. Fear creeps in. A world is out there, filled with people and noise, and the child can’t shake the feeling of isolation. Metaphor: loneliness is a cave without end. It’s perpetual darkness. Moving without seeing. You light a candle and the dark swallows it. Metaphor: loneliness is the mysterious space in the brain between self-destructive thoughts. Metaphor: loneliness is a child who’s given her first stuffed animal. She clings to her new friend. She never wants to part from it. She’d claw and bite if someone dared take it. At night, she talks to her friend, and her friend talks to her. Her stuffed animal says he’s all she needs. Metaphor: loneliness is that stuffed animal. THE BATHROOM I USE is in the room at the end of the hall, reserved for VIP monks and Thai royalty. The room is cavern- ous and impeccably decorated with Thai Buddhist art—gold bodhi tree leaves, ornate ceramic bowls, fake lotus bouquets, and pictures of the king and queen. The furniture is made from teak wood, dark rich tones, hand carved. The blinds are always shut in this room, and plastic covers chairs that aren’t in use. Stale air permeates—dust, humidity. I’m drawn to the bed, king-sized, unlike the small sliver of one I sleep on next door. One day, alone, I creep up to the bed. I feel like a boy about to do wrong, the quickened pulse of the thrill, the heaviness of guilt. The king and queen may have slept Am I Lonesome Tonight? Three writers share their experience of loneliness and what it has taught them. LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2019 41