As our 2010 Yoga retreat draws near, I can't help but remember back to my 10 day meditation retreat in Thailand. Although ages ago, the lessons learned are well remembered.
Here is a copy of my travel journal at the time. To read more about our 6 month adventure click here .South East Asia travel log
Silence. It can produce wonderful feelings of peace and serenity, or drive a rational person to insanity. Not speaking for 10 days I believed would be the hardest part of the 10-day meditation retreat - I was wrong.
What caused me to wake up in Ko Lanta, the morning before the retreat started and suddenly make the decision that I should travel 4 hours to Suan Mokkh Monastery in Chiaya to attend a 10 day meditation retreat?
The idea had been planted many months before, in Laos by a German fellow, Dieter. He was on Ko Pha-Ngan to partake in the infamous Full Moon Party when he saw a poster for a meditation retreat. Having already attended 7 parties, he thought he'd check out the retreat that month for a gag. Many years and four retreats later, he said it had changed his life. Our neighbour in Ko Lanta had also mentioned a retreat in Chiaya, just show up on the last day of the month in time to register and you're in. Even then I had no intention of going, we were on our way to Ko Lipe and then Malaysia, but sudden plan changes had us heading north to Ko Pha-ngan for 3 weeks so that we'd be there for the Full Moon Party. Three weeks! In one place!! I'd go mad, or so I thought. So a snap decision was made. Paul and I parted ways in Surat Thani, he rushed off to catch the ferry to the Island, while I scoured the street in search of transport to Chiaya.
One other influencing factor was a book we picked up by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. After Myanmar, we became somewhat disenchanted with Buddhism. Before coming to South East Asia I held romantic notions of Buddhism in my head; you create your own destiny, at one with nature, doing no evil, peace and serenity, what a wonderful way of life! But then Burma changed all that. In Burma, I saw people giving ALL their money away, children going shoeless, without an education, all so that their parents could give all their money away to get merit, so that next life would be better. At the Monasteries the donation bins were marked "FAME", "WEALTH", "BEAUTY" - yup, carnival style, give your money and merit will be yours. Terrible! But then this book changed that. It removed the ceremonies and rituals that were bastardizing Buddhism and went back to the basics, as Buddha taught. When I found out that Biddukasa Bikkus, the most famous and respected monk in Thailand was the one who founded this particular Monastery that I would attend, and it was his interpretation of the Dhamma that we would learn, I was intrigued.
Suan Monk Monastery - http://www.suanmokkh.org
DAY 0 - THE RULES
What did I get myself into?? As I, along with about 80 other women were guided around the premises I kept thinking to myself - thank god Paul isn't here, he'd have left already. No talking, last meal is at noon, sleeping on concrete with only a thin blanket, a wooden pillow (!), vegetarian meals, men and women separated at all times, wake up at 4:00 AM (!), lights out at 10:00 PM, 'showering' outside with a bucket while wearing a sarong, no reading, no writing, and almost 7 hours of meditation a day! Worse, although I didn't get there late, everyone else got there early, and there were no rooms left - I'd be stuck sleeping above the cafeteria. Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all.
The abbot, Ajahn Poh, led us through a short meditation and welcome, and then sudden at 7:00 PM they announced, "And no more speaking until 7:30 AM on day 11." Day 11!? I thought this was for 10 days, and today's not even day 1 yet. But then, as I left the meditation hall a funny feeling came over me, a feeling of, was it relief? Suddenly, I didn't have to make eye contact with the 186 people present, I didn't have to smile, say bless you or excuse me. I could just focus on me.
THE SCHEDULE, Day 1 - 8
04:00 Rise & Shine
04:45 Sitting meditation
05:15 Yoga / Exercise
07:00 Sitting meditation
08:00 Breakfast & Chores
10:00 Dhamma Talk
11:00 Walking or Standing meditation
11:30 Sitting meditation
12:00 Walking or Standing meditation
12:30 Lunch & Chores
14:30 Meditation Instruction & Sitting
15:30 Walking or Standing meditation
16:15 Sitting meditation
17:00 Chanting & Loving Kindness Meditation
18:00 Tea & Hot spring
19:30 Dhamma Talk
20:00 Walking or Standing or Sitting meditation
22:00 LIGHTS OUT
So, this was to be my life for the next 10 days. You are supposed to be mindfully aware at all times, and even when not in meditation, stay in a meditative state. What this means is keeping your mind free from thought. Buddhism is about living in the present - try it and good luck. As soon as you start, you begin to think, I can do this, its not so hard. I remember the time when....there you go, living in the past. Okay, start again, clear my mind. Breath in, breath out, not so bad. When I get out of this retreat I'm going to teach everyone how great it is to.....there you go again, living in the future. Instead, enjoy the wind in your hair, the sound of the birds in the trees, the lizards in the bush, focus on your breath, your step, your food, how happy we would be if we could. Day 1 to day 4 were great. I achieved a nice level of relaxation during the meditation sessions, focused on my food, walking, brushing my teeth, I was a good little pupil. On day 3, I was finall given a chore, watering plants, so all was well.
But then half way through day 4 my mind just wouldn't stop. Chatter, chatter chatter all day. Even during the meditation sessions it talked away.
THE BEST OF MONASTARY LIFE
So, what kept me from packing my bags and heading home like over half of the people who originally registered, agreeing in their private welcome interview not to leave until the end?
The hot spring was like a little peace of heaven. The geckos would be singing for me as I slipped into the steaming water and butterflies would put on a performances in the sky. We created a spa for ourselves and plastered our bodies with the hot mud, divine.
The chanting was a hoot as well. The Chanting monk missed his calling as a comic, and was always good for a smile; also, chanting was really fun! Relaxing, beautiful, inspiring, and fun. We chanted in Pali, the language Buddha wrote in. I'll teach you some if you're interested.
Yoga at dawn, with the sun slowly rising as you complete your sun salutations is magical, this I will take home with me and treasure always.
Meditation truly does leave you feeling wonderful afterwards. Although I had never done it before, nor shown interest in it (what was I doing there again? To tell you the truth, I did have to remind myself why quite a few times) it really is something we should all try to bring into our lives. It makes you stronger.
The Buddhist teaching were inspirational, what a fabulous life style. Our teachers were also wonderful.
Mainly though, I kept going on pure will power. I had signed up for this crazy retreat, and I almost never quit endeavors I start. I can't fail. I would tell myself on day 6, tomorrow, you can tell your self that it's day 8 - this thought pattern kept me going. I couldn't think, tomorrow is day 7, that would still be much to far away from day 10.
THE HARDEST PART
Quieting the mind, and the body! Us untrained Westerners just simply can't sit still for hours at a time, on the hard floor with only a little cushion for comfort. My back ached, my legs screamed. I looked jealously at the people who could sit cross legged and look comfortable for more than 10 minutes as I faked comfort myself, and those people in the lotus position - they just SUCK!
(Note: As hard as this is for all you who know me well to believe, quieting the mouth was never a problem).
The room above the cafeteria housed 16 of us - 4 of us stayed till the end. Watching my roommates silently pack their bags and leave left me feeling doubtful. Maybe I should just pack up too.
The heat! After 9:00 AM the sweating would begin, yes, even when I was just sitting there doing nothing...I mean meditating. Seasoned mediators claimed (after we were allowed to talk again of course) that many a session they too faked it, the heat was just too much even for them!
I had thought not eating after lunch would be hard, such a long day with such little food. But this was never problem, who would have thought?
DAY 9 - THE HARDEST, BUT ENDED UP THE BEST
They didn't tell us until day 8 that day 9 would be different. On this day, no lessons, no teaching - all meditation all day, oh, and did we mention no eating after breakfast? I was dreading it. A forced 24 hour fast, and I can't even sit for 15 minutes anymore it hurts so much, forget about meditation all day!
I had been able to get quite relaxed during meditation from Day 1 - 4, and even had had some 'nimitta' (visual images), but since day 4, nothing. I would sit and force myself not to move until the bell sounded. Focusing on 'letting go' of the pain in my back, or my leg. But on day 9 I told myself to relax, more if I needed to, and that since it was all day meditation, there wouldn't be a bell after 30 minutes, so there was nothing to wait for. Not to tight, not too loose, as our Yoga instructor would say.
I sat down, got relaxed and had a wonderful time sitting there, I felt a feeling of great joy and happiness come over me during the time I was meditation, and even after I stopped it was still there. I couldn't stop smiling. I was surprised at how few people were still sitting around me when I opened my eyes, I'ld been there what, maybe 35 minutes? I snuck to the front to check the clock, I had been there for over 1 hour and 20 minutes!! Wow! I couldn't stop grinning. So that was my one really amazing meditation experience, where I feel that I experience a bit of the 'pita and sukha' (satisfaction and joy) that people talk about that makes them addicted to meditation.
So, I made it to the finale, and am so glad I stayed right to the bitter end. On day 10 an 'open mike' session allowed people to go up and speak about their revelations through meditation, it was quite interesting and inspirational.
Leaving the retreat and entering the real world was more of a shock than I thought it would be. I had been warned that I would be sensitive when I 'got out' but wow. People talking all the time about nothing, traffic noises, hostility and fear in strangers faces, actions, suddenly you notice everything.
All in all, it was a wonderful experience and I'm glad I did it. I learned a lot during my 11 days at Suan Mokkh. I learned about life in general, about myself, about Buddhism, spirituality, about Thais, Yoga, meditation, love and compassion and Dhamma - the law of nature.
If there is one lesson I will strive the hardest to remember, and wish to pass on to all of you is this: live in the present. The past is over and the future is yet to come.
To learn more about me, check out my website at http://www.drdebbie.ca/