POSTCARD#287: Chiang Mai: 04.30 hrs: Waves of coolness enter through wide open window, and air that’s almost as warm outside as it is inside, wraps itself around me like a thin light quilt on my shoulders. Soft and comfortable, gently quiet, no sounds disturbing conscious awareness. There’s an easy silence about this place, surrounded by trees near the foothills of the mountain rising up from the town to an elevation of 5,499 feet. This is what it feels like, sitting on the meditation cushion – I’d forgotten how simple it is, in this place, to fall into a contemplative state and the mind becomes still (samādhi).

Maybe it’s because at this time of the day, and all around us here, the monks are also sitting in quiet meditation, and everywhere in Thailand too, of course, as it is in a Buddhist country. Centuries of meditation, mindfulness and the quiet still mind of the monks has had an historical effect on the outer environment. This is still the Old World… or you could say simply that it’s just a gentle place, no extreme life-threatening weather conditions – except it does get hot in the hot season in the middle of the day. But then, sensible people have a nap in the afternoon, not exceptional, just sort of normal here.

I can’t rule out the fact that maybe this is simply me, a foreigner in Thailand, experiencing the easing away from the stress and dukkha of Northern Europe. Over there we don’t have so much of an awareness of metta, loving kindness – more like Greed, Hatred, Delusion (sounds like members of a Heavy Metal band?) means it’s warlike by comparison to Thailand.

People here are rural, humble folk, shoes off at the door, and everything is done quietly, with the family and the community and anybody passing by outside – including me, ‘Where are you going?’ someone asks and smiles pleasantly as I pass their door. A simple friendship we don’t have as a rule, in the West. ‘Going to the shop to buy things.’ I tell her. An understanding arising from mutuality; the shared experience of being alive. It’s this trusting quality that’s everywhere, all around. It says something about social behaviour, the Thai quietness.

That’s all well and good, the sceptics might say, but Chiang Mai is engaged with Western strategies of greed, and if Western consumerist greed can get a footing in Thai society, the evangelical aspect of it follows… worshipping a consumerist God. It will undermine existing systems, powered by right-wing fundamentalism and then you discover you have to buy your way into the halls and palaces of the Kingdom of the Consumerist God.

In these terms, you could say there’s almost no belief in God at all, here in Thailand, but there is a deep understanding of integrity… if it’s ethically good, it’s the right thing to do. If it’s thought to be ethically bad, or mai dii, no redeeming attributes and not good at all, it’ll create bad kamma – think superstition, ghosts – and it’ll be dropped immediately.

Straightforward, uncomplicated and what’s all the fuss about? On a certain level, the Thai expression, ‘don’t worry about it’, (mai pen rai’), and ‘there’s no problem’ (‘mai mi panha’), suggests there’s nothing impossibly difficult about this. But there has to be a profound understanding of ordinariness – the word is: dhammada: the dharma of everything. In everyday usage it just means that; ordinary.

In the West, the word ‘ordinary’ doesn’t have meaning for most of us, holding on, as we are, to a mild anxiety most of the time; the uneasy gnawing away at the innards, and ‘ordinary’ seems like something extraordinarily complex… we have to struggle for an understanding of it.

In Thailand, things are straightforward. You don’t feel ‘obliged’ to accept the consumerist way of life, disguised as a sort of social responsibility. For the Thais, that’s crazy! All your hard-earned income is going into the pockets of the corporations and the government taxation systems, isn’t that obvious? The economy works for the people, not the other way round. Even Thai politicians know that social responsibility is about how the population relate to one another in society, through kindness, generosity and compassion. There is Greed, of course but that’s just uneducated and plain weird.

Who knows, maybe there is something about the Thai reaction to the influence of consumerism – if it grows into a genuine social movement, TV and media dependent on advertising revenue will in some way see the wisdom of ‘downshifting’, a voluntary simplicity, in order to (at least) be seen as aligning with national opinion in this small country. It may be enough to swing the emphasis and change the direction from the way things are presently going in the Western world.

Present time feels like it’s not completely arrived, not quite yet becoming future time – as if held in that one long elongated moment before it all gets to where it should be going, but it doesn’t, and is replaced by a great nothingness that invades everything and it becomes something like a huge freshwater lake – small islands appear on the horizon…

… Restrict the role of advertising on the grounds that today much of it has become as bad for our psychological and spiritual health as tobacco is for our physical health.’ [David Loy, ‘Pave the Planet or Wear Shoes’]

Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Head of Buddha, 5th – 6th century, Afghanistan.

18 thoughts on “downshifting

  1. Like me you probably remember the “old-fashioned) idiom “go west”.

    “When something goes west, it stops existing or working.”

    Perhaps this is an idiom that could do with reviving as it has an awful lot of relevance.

    At 30 I spent six months living in India (not in cities) and I recall that when I returned to England I was immediately struck by a stench. Not physical and yet one both powerful and pervasive. A stench of serious wrongness, illness, death. Of course after a few weeks it faded away into the background the way that constant elements of our surroundings tend to do. It certainly appeared that none of the people around me felt/smelt it.

    • I think I recognize this; coming back to UK after many months away and finding that moribund smell of old tube stations and London buses. It used to be these old heavy coins but even the more recent thick gold pound coins you need at least 3 of to get a cup of coffee, with slightly mouldy crevices and covered in a patina of unseen fingertips and palmings. And of course the Bromodosis problem we have in the cold damp island environment. I was in Switzerland for 8 years and coming back to UK more frequently, finding all of the above and be smitten by Bromodosis on the way to the airport and finding it gone a few hours later in central Europe.
      Pretty scary, curious and strange and not sure how the idiom could do with reviving but interested to hear more…

      • “The West” as an approach to existence seems to be well on the way to dying and possibly bringing the rest of humanity and the planet along with it unless things change rather drastically.

      • Well on the way, as you say but I’m not the person to ask for comments having abandoned ship more than 30 years ago; my old age will be lived in in the East, and at the slightest invitation I can embark on a negative raging about how the West is just not what it seems to be at all. Perception is everything, if you’re on the outside, as I am these days of living in hotels in my old home, and the reality is pretty scary…

  2. Pingback: downshifting | MOONSIDE

  3. Tiramit,
    Precisely as you say… The West is dying from greed and consumerism. Oh, to be in a place like Bangkok where there are no hideous leaders like the red-haired clown. But he is not the only one. His backers and his Republicans in Congress are dying and killing off what was good in America. America and Britain are going down the tubes to ruination. Bangkok seems to hold the secret to how to live in this world. Thank you for writing about this so lucidly.

    • Thanks Ellen, I understand what you’re saying about ‘the West dying from greed and consumerism’. This is why I came to the East and never went back. In Thailand the problem is different. Can’t explain here but let’s say when the funeral of the King is over and his memory slipped into the past, there could be a power struggle. Same in all societies one way or another, a reflection of the majority of the electorate. Sometimes it’s straightforward other times complex and hard to read.

  4. Comparing one point of the compass to another is a magical and analytical creation of the mind. What if it was all the same, and it only our conditioning that observes it differently. What story would evolve?
    I’m in a contemplative mood, that seems to come when there is no imminent change or shift of energies. Wishing you peace in your new place of residence … and home 💕

    • Thanks Val, you’re right of course. It’s cultural behaviour resulting from conditioning and in the East it’s historical. Today and local politics is not interesting because it’s the same old thing. Even so, Thailand would seem to offer solutions to problems in the West we cannot see. But every time we need to switch to an understanding of what it means in the localised context, which could be very different and everyone there understands it in their own way. A ‘magical and analytical creation of the mind’, as you say. But it interests me because I have one foot in each camp and moved to focus on these differences.

  5. Sadly, humankind has a long and dubious history of greed. Want to know the future or where something or someplace is headed, follow the money.
    Communications in the west outpaced the east and far east for a century or two, or maybe twelve when I think about it.
    Now, everyone has a computer in their pocket, a world wide web of information and infommercials, satellite TV to see what must be envied, coveted.
    With the Golden Cat out of the bag, it’s only a matter of time before the human desire to want more for ourselves pollutes those places that have remained free of the worship of the Golden Idol.
    When everyone has nothing, it’s easy to be equal.
    When “others” start to “have more”, the Green Monster takes over.
    Enjoy it while it lasts.

    Seek peace,


    • Thanks Paz
      I recognise this train of thought and understand exactly what you’re saying. For a long time during my 30 years in Thailand, I struggled with this same depressing hopeless way of thinking. Only recently have I been able to let it go and listen to the voices of my Thai family and friends. For them, it’s not like that at all and I keep silent for the most part, of the desperate struggle in my mind.
      So now I’m thinking it could be I’ve been fighting the conditioned thinking all of us born in the West have gone through, arising any time we start thinking of deserting the sinking ship in whatever form. All over Asia you see a happiness and vibrancy that’s truly historical, remembering the cultural heritage spanning 3000 years or more. My conclusion has to be that, thanks no, I’m not going back to live in the West, and it troubles me to think it could start to seriously fall apart as you describe, but it really doesn’t matter to me now. If there were soldiers, say, from the West coming to steal and grab land, The armies of Asia combined are a formidable force, but’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
      Thanks and take care

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