What Would KK Say?

I am sitting on an airplane on the way to Bali while attempting to write this article. There is occasional turbulence bouncing the plane. I hate turbulence. It makes my blood pressure rise, my tummy jump, and stories of our certain doom run through my mind painting vivid pictures I wish were not there. I close my eyes and put my attention on the sensation of my breath as it goes in and out of my nose. For the next few minutes I try to let go of the scary pictures, let go of the doomsday thoughts and try to keep focused on my breath. My mind interrupts frequently; it incessantly tells me, “I hate this. I hate turbulence. If the plane were not bouncing like this I would not be feeling this way”. Jacob gets my attention to check if I am ok but for some reason this annoys me and in a harsh whisper, I give him some snappy, dismissive comment. Then a memory pops in my mind and I think, “What would KK say?”

KK is an exuberant Buddhist Monk and one of the meditation instructors at the two-day meditation retreat that I attended while visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was a silent retreat, which means that no one spoke for the entire two days. Though, I admit, I did giggle and speak with my roommate in the evening before going to bed and I am glad I did because I made a new friend from Australia. However, for the most part, I spent two days in silence learning the basic teachings of Buddhism and skills for meditation. A week later, I took Jacob, the girls and Todd and Sherry (Jacob’s Aunt and Uncle) back to the Buddhist University that sponsored my retreat. Many of the temples around Chiang Mai provide something called a “Monk Chat” to foreigners, a sort of meditation and Buddhism Q & A. Prior to Todd and Sherry joining us in Chiang Mai, we had all agreed we wanted to experience one of these Monk Chats. Because I loved my retreat so much, we decided it needed to be the one at the university temple named Wat Suan Dok. KK happened to be the chosen teacher for our chat. Later, we processed the experience at dinner (while a woman sitting at the adjacent table entertained us by producing several loud farts) and this question was born: “what would KK say?”

So what would KK say about my relationship with airplane turbulence? He would tell me that it is not the turbulence that is causing my suffering (or the woman farting) it is my thoughts and emotions causing my suffering.   I am the one with the thought “I hate turbulence”. It is this thought that causes my body to go on high alert and flood with the fight/flight hormones that induce the feeling of anxiety and panic. This, in turn, allows more and more intense stories to have power in my mind and my anxieties continue to rise. AKA: suffering. The turbulence is just doing what turbulence does; I am doing the rest.  KK would tell me that first and foremost I must practice or train my “monkey mind”. To do this I must sit in a meditation for just ten minutes twice per day, like the one I previously described. Then, when I am on an airplane freaking out about turbulence, I will have more awareness about my thoughts and emotions and improved ability to consciously choose my reaction (especially my reaction to Jacob). I will have an understanding that I am in control of what makes me suffer and with this mindful awareness, it is up to me to make the decision to let the monkey have his way and keep on suffering or calm down through conscious focus on my breath.

These concepts are not new to me. I have been using these skills for years in my psychotherapy practice under the name of “mindfulness”. What I have discovered over the years is that I, as well as many of my clients, spend a heck of a lot of time in pain about the past or in pain about the future. So much time is spent lamenting the past and worrying about the future that many of us lose our ability to experience life RIGHT NOW. I have learned that much of our stress comes from these worries and can cause depression, anxiety and panic. Instead of noticing the pain, we try to numb our suffering with substances, incessant web-surfing, shopping, you name it; whatever it takes to get away from the stories in our head, we will do it! What a gift it is to discover the calm of the present moment and use breath as the anchor to bring us back from the stories in our minds. My horrific scenes about plane crashes are an example of worrying about a future that is: a. unlikely to happen and b. I have no power over.  Mindfulness and meditation practice helps me become aware of the rollercoaster of fears created by my untrained “monkey mind”.

Living in the present moment is what we have been doing for the past 10 months. Living right now, day to day. Well, at least that is the opportunity that this trip affords us and I will admit, I have not always been there moment to moment. Sometimes I have drifted to the past full of pain or longing and when I finally came to, I realized I had missed the experience right in front of me. During our travels in Thailand I spent several days feeling irritable and snappy until I finally stopped and listened to my thoughts and realized that they were full of worries about the future and causing a bummer of a rainstorm on my parade. The end of our journey is nearing as well as the deadline for our “reentry” plan. My anxious thoughts were saying, “What are we going to do? We sold our house? What were we thinking? We have nowhere to land. What about jobs? What about schools? Will we be able to create a life that is still filled with travel and exploration?”

The timing for my meditation retreat couldn’t have been better. Not only was I reminded that I already had the mindfulness skills to calm my anxiety but KK reminded me of one very important lesson taught by the Buddha:

Life is impermanence.

Everything changes moment to moment. My anxieties are reasonable. They are trying to move me forward to a solution, however; they do not need to cause me suffering and they are impermanent if I only just let them pass. That is not to say that I shouldn’t be working on a reentry plan.  No, it is more that the worry is actually blocking me from thinking clearly and rationally about our choices. Our moms would tell you that we most definitely have a place to land should we need one and our education tells that that we will most definitely have jobs; it just might take a little digging to find the right one.

Suffering comes in many different packages from unresolved wounds, work and parenting stress, to worries about the future.  It makes us less effective and sometimes say and do things we regret.  Buddhism and meditation is not a religion per se, although many would argue with that notion but according to KK it is more of a philosophy of life. It is a way to decrease our psychological pain by understanding that we are each responsible for our own actions and reactions and any suffering that comes from those is ours. KK watered down the Buddha’s teaching by simply saying:

Do Good
Don’t Do Bad
Purify the Mind

Have a goal to practice Right Action, Right Thought, Right Speech and dedication to daily training of your monkey mind and you are on the path toward happiness and a life free from suffering. Most importantly, remember to have compassion for yourself and others as well as forgiveness of yourself and others. Sometimes the latter is the most difficult to achieve but I ask you, if you are holding a judgement or grudge against someone is that their suffering or yours? What would KK say?


We are all Monkeys
We are all Enlightened Ones

We all have suffering
We all have pain

We are all Monkeys
We are all Enlightened Ones

We all have love
We all have joy, compassion and anger
We all have the capacity for hate

We are all Monkeys
We are all Enlightened Ones

Who do I let drive the car?

~Amy D.


**the featured image is of the monks in Luang Prabang, Laos as they walk in the early morning hours for Alms collection or donations of food by the local people (there are hundreds of them walking it is really an amazing sight and so peaceful to watch).  The locals who participate in this practice do not eat or drink their own breakfast before first giving food to the monks.  The Buddha started this practice with the intention to remind the community to Give before you Get.**

purple lotus flowers growing in water

From the Mud Blooms a Lotus Flower

As soon as we landed in Cambodia I felt an energy that I couldn’t quite name until we got to Phnom Penh a few days later. I began to wonder if I was sensing a deep sadness or a kind of low energy from the people. We of course met plenty of service providers who were welcoming and friendly. They too, were drawn into the girls’ tractor beam and then opened up a little to tell us about their own kids at home. Our hosts at the hostel in Siem Reap were wonderful and friendly especially young Meng who is in year 11 and making decisions about going on to study tourism at the university. Maybe I was projecting this feeling upon the people because from the little I have read about the history here, I felt sad. I felt sad when I saw people begging on the street who were missing limbs or the entire bottom half of their body seemingly due to a surprise landmine that are still found in the jungles, leftover from when the Khmer Rouge was on a killing spree. My heart was ripped in two with each child we encountered who was begging or selling trinkets on the street; I can still hear their haunting, monotone song of “one dollar, one dollar, one dollar”.

Cambodia has a long, long history of war and devastation. I am positive the lasting result is a country full of people who are traumatized and attempting to heal from witnessing violence, the loss of their family members and culture. Their way of life and religion was all but wiped out at the hands of corrupt rulers, secret bombings by the US and genocide by the Khmer Rouge. The people are faced with trying to reestablish their stolen culture and heritage in a country racked with poverty, lack of schools and basic needs for survival. What I have learned in my 20 years of working in the field of Mental Health is that healing from trauma is beyond difficult when your basic needs are not met. The people here are still in survival mode just trying to find clean water, food, and a decent place to sleep. Can you imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have the luxury of good, public education in the US or the basic infrastructures we enjoy? Come to Cambodia and find out for yourself whether or not tax dollars are well spent on schools, keeping our streets and water clean and traffic organized and safe. Come and see the trash piled high on the sidewalk attracting flies, stench and starving people who pilfer through it. Come and see what happens when the government no longer cares about the people but only themselves.

While staying at our hostel in Siem Reap we met a lovely man who is from India but is now living in Thailand. We traveled with him to Phnom Penh. He was nice enough to help us secure a bus ticket and then Tuk Tuk to our guesthouse once we arrived. Not only did he help us to navigate our way but also provided great insight into Buddhist and Hindu symbolism and practices. While visiting the National Museum in Phnom Penh he shared with me the meaning behind the lotus flower in Buddhist culture. Before we spoke, I had a vague understanding that the Buddha was born from this flower but Raj told me that its symbolism is also about learning to grow out of the muck and the mud toward goodness and beauty. It is a reminder that there will always be bad, negative and awful things in this world but if you move toward the light, led by your heart, and toward goodness then you can provide that light and goodness for others to follow as well. I know this in my heart already but my faith in humanity has been shaken for a long time, longer than the beginning of our travels. So, for me, he came across my path as a little messenger to remind me how important it is to see the lotus flowers in the world.

I held onto this symbol very tightly as we spent our last day visiting The Killing Fields and learned more about the gruesome genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh that hold over 300,000 bodies is just one of these kinds of sites in Cambodia, there are many, many more. It is estimated that 1-3 million people of Cambodia were killed and dumped into these mass graves. No one whom Pol Pot believed was a threat to his mission was spared, not even babies. He rationalized his murder through slogans used for propaganda, one of them was “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake”. After we finished walking through the grounds the girls each said a prayer and made an offering of incense and flowers to the deceased souls and afterwards I had to sit down and let myself cry. I felt the pain of Cambodians, of the Syrian refugees fleeing their lands, the people of Istanbul, of Baghdad and all people who have lost their family members to violence around the world including my home country. It seems this slogan does not just belong to Pol Pot but it is also the propaganda of war.

However, this is not the end of the story. Underneath the scene of the woman picking through the pile of garbage, underneath the child begging on the street, the pollution, and the crazy traffic is a lotus flower growing out of the mud. What I know about trauma is that it takes great strength to survive and also to heal. I can feel the sadness here but I can also feel the strength. I can tell there is a movement of Cambodians who are saving their culture, who are finding their happiness once again and working toward changing the darkness to light even in the face of continued government corruption. I can feel it in the love that spices their food; in the sweet smiles we receive from locals relating to our family and in the Khmer artistry. My wish for Cambodia is to be the lotus, to find your thriving people again and lift them toward the light so they may see they are living in a field of lotus flowers.

A Prayer
Refuse to fall down
If you cannot refuse to fall down,
refuse to stay down.
If you cannot refuse to stay down,
lift your heart toward heaven,
and like a hungry beggar,
ask that it be filled.
You may be pushed down.
You may be kept from rising.
But no one can keep you from lifting your heart
toward heaven
only you.
It is in the middle of misery
that so much becomes clear.
The one who says nothing good
came of this,
is not yet listening.

~Clarissa Pinkola Estés, The Faithful Gardner: A Wise Tale About That Which Can Never Die