Thailand made a profound impact on Jessica Festa. She’s learning to breathe through it.

I USED TO pass by the Dipamkara Meditation Center every day without ever giving it a second look. I didn’t even know it existed. But since returning from Thailand, I’ve been visiting the Buddhist meditation center every week.

My first meditation experience came during a trip to Thailand. Julie and I were visiting Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple in Chiang Ma.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it to the top without slipping and breaking my skull,” my friend said while looking at the 309 steps leading up to the temple.

“You better try,” I warned her, “we have to make it up there in time for evening prayer.”

The walk up the stairs was slick from the rain as we slid in our flip flops, almost falling several times. Although there was an option to take a cable-car up to the top, we thought it would be more of an accomplishment if we walked.

We took pictures of the 360 degree views of the city from the top before going off to find where evening prayer was being held. The scene was sprawling green, dotted with small white homes before a backdrop of mountains. Then we heard the chanting begin. The sound was strangely beautiful. Following the voices, we found where all the monks had gathered and quietly entered the room.

Wat Po

Finding a spot on the floor, Julie and I knelt down, making sure to tuck our feet under ourselves (pointing your feet in the direction of a Buddha is taboo). I took in all of the decor — the embellished Buddha statues of all sizes and colors surrounded by bouquets of vibrant flowers. I closed my eyes and folded my hands in my lap, letting the chanting wash over me.

At Dipamkara in my home state of New York, I learn the teachings of Buddha. The goal, as I understand, is to reach a mind that is completely at peace and full of happiness. Our instructor, Maggie — a woman around 60 years old who speaks with an English
accent — is kind and wise. I want to be just like her, with her gentle voice and effortless smile.

I learn about the importance of cherishing others. About how nothing, not expensive cars or designer clothing, can bring as much joy as cherishing others does. I learn that in order for the world to know peace that the people in the world must know peace. I learn that people should stop hating others, and instead help others. I learn that when we become impartial to our cravings, we can get rid of our unhappiness.

In Thailand, I took part in a ritual known as Alms Giving that exemplified these teachings. Alms Giving is the act of giving food to the monks, who are not allowed to cook or hoard food. I arrived at the site around the monastery where the monks would be walking and saw people congregating with offerings of sticky rice, fruit, and other forms of nourishment to give to the monks. Only the best food was given, as the monks are very well-respected in Buddhist culture and need the energy to study and practice their lessons so they are able to share their teachings with the community.

Alms giving

Women on the streets sold balls of sticky rice and bananas to people who either had nothing to give or wanted to give more. I bought three balls of sticky rice and five bananas. When giving Alms, I learned, it is vital to only give as much as you can, not too much and not too little. I was told it is a way to support the monks while practicing giving to others and letting go.

I had never truly been exposed to this way of thinking before traveling to Thailand; the trip had a profound effect on me. Immersing myself in the Thai culture, learning about their outlook on life, and seeing their sense of community helped me to realize how to have a more peaceful mind and how to experience genuine happiness.

Before Thailand I was more focused on myself and how I could acquire short-term happiness. I can recall an instance where a new relationship had quickly fizzled out and I was feeling low. Instead of trying to work through my attachment issue and reconsider my way of thinking, I ran straight to the MAC counter at Macy’s and purchased $160 worth of foundation, bronzer, and eyeshadow. I believed this would make me happy. While I did enjoy my purchase, it did not bring me peace of mind or a lasting sense of ease, and I did not understand why.

Since returning from my trip, I have encountered difficult situations but have felt more equipped to handle them. Most recently, I had a boyfriend break up with me in a cruel manner. As much as I wanted to hate him, I decided to take the alternative route, a more Buddhist approach.

“He was not your property,” I reminded myself aloud. “You are not the center of the world, and you cannot hate someone just because they did not follow your script and play the part that you had in mind for them.”

Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply, allowing my belly to fill with air, then exhaled. A smile formed across my face. So maybe I didn’t feel like doing cartwheels or dancing a jig, but I certainly felt a lot more peaceful.