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En-masse, the people of this world have an aversion to pain. Its part of the survival mechanism, is it not?

From my experience I think physical pain is easier to deal with than mental pain. That’s possibly influenced by the five times in my life where I’ve broken bones (eight in total). Plus the multiple sports injuries and operations (too many to count). Not to mention a bone graft. I feel like I can get to know physical pain. I understand what makes it better or worse. I can see when I’m getting better. Compared to years of depression and trauma, physical injuries are a cake walk.

Yet it’s amusing to think that I was afraid of getting a tattoo for years because I thought it would hurt.

Though perhaps, I was just waiting for the right one. I never wanted a rose or some arbitrary design I’d eventually grow to dislike. I hadn’t seen anything that got my attention until my Guru took his shirt off on our 2007 retreat in the US.

He had a huge Thai Singha Lion in the middle of his back and I was very attracted to the design, the style and energy of it. Very. Like, purrrr… over a tattoo.

At this year’s retreat word went ’round: we had a chance to go and see the man (Arjan Tong) who’d done my Guru’s ink after retreat. WOW!

There was a lot of interest but my Guru didn’t want all and sundry going, especially if it added to anyone’s idea of themselves as “spiritual”.

He surveyed those who put their hands up, asked questions where he thought people were kidding themselves.

I thought you already had a tattoo, he says. I say nope! He nods. That was the extent of his questions for me.

In the end there were two groups of five to go on different days.

It was important to bring offerings, not just money. In fact, we’d been asked not to pay more than 500 baht ($17AUD) so as not to risk insulting him even though it wasn’t a lot to us. But if we brought rice, flowers, fruit, sweets – that would be respectful and well received.

We took a Thai “red eye” bus overnight from Loei to Bangkok. Not recommended. There was scant time or room for sleep as we poured into a friend’s tiny unit to shower and change. And a little meditation and prayer. Aum namah sivaya.

Somehow we flagged a cab in peak hour on Sukhumvit and we were off to the outskirts of Bangkok. Somewhere!

An hour later (thanks Bangkok traffic) and a few wrong turns, we’d arrived. We wouldn’t have known we were there except for a tiny Thai lady who walked up to our cab and almost dragged us out, beckoning us down an ordinary looking lane way. Left turn into a two-man aisle.

Walking past the backs of people’s places, or was that the front? At the end of the lane was a red gate with a red embossed trishul.

Through the door, past people waiting, a sharp right turn and up rickety stairs.

Whoah! The room is alive. Its clear puja (ceremony) has just been completed with the offerings and incense spread under the wall to ceiling altar.

Puja offerings at the altar

In fact the whole room is an altar. My heart is running a mile a minute, the back of my skull feeling like it’s been removed and is expanding dramatically. Wait, I know this feeling from my meditation practices…

We’re sitting on the floor, remembering to take everything they offer us (water, food) as we wait, so as not to be rude. All looking at each other, knowing eyes: This place is off the hook.

The altar is made up of statues and pictures, carvings and images. So many. Members of the tattoo lineage Arjan is a part of. We wait in near silence.

The monks arrive, giving us incense to make offerings. Pray to your god, they say. Everyone who comes in does this too, and soon there’s twenty or more sticks burning at the same time.

Our eyes burn as the incense is pumped around the room by a fan turned on to combat the extreme heat of the day. These are only minor distractions though.

One of Arjan’s students – a Thai man named David – speaks to us, helps us prepare. His English is excellent and he also talks to us about his own meditation practice.

An hour later Arjan himself appears. There’s no rushing this. His eyes light up when he sees our offerings, particularly the rice. He takes his snuff, makes his preparations. This is a ritual folks!

We all jostle nervously – most of us want to go first, deferring to each other. The order changed again. We are all a little bit afraid, but it was something we want regardless. I’ve been told it’s gonna hurt like crazy but I don’t care.

My eyes feel as large as saucers, the back of my head and my spine are expanding. No longer limited to what I generally consider the bounds of my body.

I end up going third. I kneel, placing my money in the polystyrene offering plate decorated with orchids. David and I talk about what I want – not that its necessarily what you’ll get! David translates Arjan’s words back to me – we’ll give you a lovely figure design, everyone will love you. No, I want to have love for all beings, I protest. Well, when you love everyone, then everyone loves you.

I lean forward and hug my knees to my chest. I have to stay as covered as possible. Three men stretch my skin, pulling it taut like a canvass. Arjan draws freehand to guide his work. Then takes the long old fashioned spear and dips it in ink. I relax. He starts and I think – this isn’t any worse than pricking your finger when sewing. And I’d done plenty of that!

This wasn’t pain, not really. But even when it felt a little sharp at times, through breathing it was possible to relax that and remain in the moment. Guruji had spoken to us about zoning out, and I didn’t want to do that.

Smelling the incense, feeling hands and the spear on me, seeing nothing externally as I closed my eyes and meditated, hearing Thai conversations of Arjan with the men around me and the whisperings of my fellow yogis. Tasting the sweat rolling down my face.

David is instructed to give me a mantra to repeat silently until Arjan is finished. When he’s done Arjan prays over his work, tangibly putting some serious energy into it. I turn and bow. I’m given another mantra that I now must do before each meal, three times a day. Every day. Good thing I like ritual!

The remaining two people in our party have their tattoos done as well. We’re all ecstatic!

We bow our thanks when the last of us is done, and farewell the now very crowded room. This time we get a cab to the closest BTS station and train it back to central Bangkok, which is much faster.

I can feel my tattoo. It doesn’t hurt and it barely bleeds, unlike western ones. But it pulses warmth and energy. It radiates and opens. There’s a sense of bliss. We go and visit Erawin Shrine (the wish fulfilling Brahma) and the Pappy Ganet (Ganesha) shrine before finding our hotels for the night.

I know some of my friends had the same experience as me – that it wasn’t painful at all. But others (including the guys) found it almost unbearable.

And I wonder. What is this thing called pain? Why does the same experience cause different levels of suffering for different people?

Is it just that some people have had more dealings with pain, and therefore their tolerance increases? Is it transferrable? Because I’ve had so much physical AND mental pain, does that mean that things phase me less and less? I don’t think I’m less sensitive, in fact I think I’m very sensitive. But perhaps I am less-so in some ways?

Does it also mean its harder for someone to reach in and really touch my heart?