Life in Phnom Penh is noisy. Most mornings, I am woken at dawn by the squeak and yell of the refuse collectors; as I try to doze some more, my slumber is punctured by the revving of motorbike engines and the shout of street vendors. The cycle to work is fraught and hectic, and even in the relative sanctuary of my air-conditioned office, I am bombarded by emails and harangued by the trilling of mobile phones.
It’s not just the city’s sounds that distract me, I also have a lot of head noise. As a single 20-something, I’m constantly reminded via the medium of Facebook, that unlike my friends and university peers, I have so far failed to: enjoy an insane 24-hour party lifestyle, bag a six-figure salary, afford a mortgage, nab a handsome husband or create a beautiful baby.
In a bid to find some silence, I took a friend’s advice and on Monday night, attended a meditation session at Wat Lanka.
My friend Kim beautifully describes the feeling of balance and groundedness that she draws from spending time meditating. “It is particularly helpful in Phnom Penh where there is a lot of peripheral stress from all the chaos and traffic,” she says.
Tucked behind a concrete wall on busy Sihanouk Boulevard, very little of Wat Lanka but its glorious golden roofs are visible from the road. However, stepping though the gate and into the compound, its beautiful facade, the colour of soft rosy sunsets, is revealed.
At the back of the building a flight of stairs takes me up to the meditation hall where three rows of saffron-coloured cushions have been laid out on the tiled floor in front of a vast golden statue of the Buddha. Around the top of the room are a series of enchanting frescos and underneath, carved wooden doors are open to allow in a cooling breeze. I found out later that Wat Lanka was used as a storage room by the Khmer Rouge during the regime’s ruinous rule and so it was spared total destruction.
Many of the 25-odd cushions had already been occupied when I arrived, but a vermillion-clad monk swept over to offer me another space.
The meditation sessions at Wat Lanka do not offer instruction and so I sat down, tucking my feet under me in what I imagined was an appropriate meditation pose and closed my eyes.
It’s an interesting feeling to sit silently with 20 other people and to concentrate only on the contents of one’s own head. I was aware of people around me, but with my eyes closed their being there was irrelevant other than a small sense of shared stillness. The sounds of the street were still audible but muffled, as if we were sat in a bubble.
Kim had told me about her experience of meditation, “You don’t feel the time passing, sometimes it’s like you’ve not even been there,” she explained. “You feel completely centred on yourself”.
It was interesting to try and force my mind to clear, not to let it get caught on petty troubles or silly daydreams. I found that random thoughts began to slip across my consciousness like oil on water.
For a few moments I was able to concentrate on my breathing and it was lovely to be so conscious of a light draft across my face and the sensation of rise and fall as I filled my lungs.
Soon, though, my feet filled with pins and needles and I became uncomfortable on my little cushion. I’m told that by focusing on the little pains, they can be made to go away, but I am afraid I will need much more practice until I can meditate with such concentration. In the meantime, my toes will have to get used to the numbness, because I will be back there next week, trying to find that elusive inner peace.