I decided to do a 10 day silent retreat for the following reasons: the disciplined routine, the simple living, and the opportunity to explore my head-space.
For someone who’s never done anything routinely for 10 days straight, especially anything that deprived that self of food or sleep, this was a chance to challenge my greedy and slothful ways – and so I went to Buddhist bootcamp.
Bells gonged us awake at 4am and bells gonged us into submission of the day’s routine. I only slept through the gonging twice, yet I still made it to my meditation cushion by 4:30. Those early morning sessions were the most challenging part of the day for me, yet by day 7, I figured out that if I was able to wake up mindfully, to be slow and precise with of each movement of my morning routine from the minute I opened my eyes to the minute I sat down in the hall, my concentration was keener, I nodded off less and I could have some semblance of successful focus.
As far as daily living, I had the cultural advantage of being familiar with the local customs: how to take bucket showers under the modesty of a sarong, to use non-flushable toilets, to hand wash laundry, to tuck a mosquito net firmly and to reapply mosquito repellent religiously. The wooden pillow was a new experience for me, but for the others, the whole thing must’ve been culture shock.
After 9 months dealing with the nonexistence of toilet paper in Thai bathrooms, it wasn’t until this retreat that I finally decided to use the “Thai way” of cleaning myself – I am proud to say that I did not waste one square of toilet paper the whole 10 days and I am cleaner for it.
I did not expect the thorough explanation of Buddhism offered at this retreat. Every mi-morning and afternoon session we sat through dharma talks recorded on a CD, an English translator of Ajaan Buddhadassa’s teachings (the founder of Wat Suan Mohhk and revered monk in my community who died in 1993). His teachings are of the forest monk tradition, more fundamentalist and simplified than many of the other branches.
The main speaker constantly reminded us that Buddhism is not a philosophy but a science, based off evidence in nature and the law of conditionality. She encouraged us to experiment with what was being preached, instead of blindly accepting their truth. Although spiritual, Buddhism does rest on the basis of causes and conditions; furthermore, it promotes self-responsibility and self- reliance for self-improvement.
The basic teachings followed that we are slaves to our thoughts that arise due to our cravings and attachments, which in turn trigger feelings, whether good or bad, that perpetually binds us in a pattern of “suffering” or dissatisfaction. We will stay in this cycle unless we learn how to use tools that help us control our monkey mind, increasing our influence over the mind and body and eliminating our suffering by accepting the truth:
everything is impermanent.
Often the CD talks were repetitive, monotonous yet informative; however, the small gems of wisdom came through the heartfelt talks of the nuns and the monks sharing their personal experiences and advice. The monk who we all thought was so serious and nodding off to sleep every session, ended up being extremely humorous, making us all laugh from his expressive face, gestures and talks about craving chocolate or eating too many bananas.
Chanting in the ancient Pali language just before evening tea became one of my favorite activities. Most of us even got in to the habit of bowing 3 times before and after session in the Thai traditional way to show respect to the monks and humble oneself. It was humbling and impressive to experience first hand what it must be like to live as a monk or a nun dedicated to Buddhist practice on a daily basis.
Although it was a beginner-friendly retreat, the sitting meditation for a 30 to 45 minute session was extremely difficult. They instructed us to follow the breath in and out of the body, later fixating on one point or even creating a visualization to focus on. I went through a myriad of attempts to tame my wandering mind who I found liked to dream of the future moreso than monotonously follow the breath.
The past has left us. The future has yet to come. Both are illusions. Only the present exists.
Luckily, the yoga session which coincided with the awakening of dawn, always stretched me out and helped prepare me for the long day of concentration ahead. Some sessions I really tried. Other times, I let my mind wander and fantasize. I readjusted my position constantly, attempting to keep my back straight and my feet not facing the front of the room (considered rude in Thai culture) whether on the stool or pillow or flat on the mat or a combo of the options.
Walking meditation proved to be the best way for me to concentrate. Not only did it give me a way to regulate my breathing patterns, but I was intently in the moment observing every small creature crawling through the grasses, my bare feet tenaciously avoiding their paths.
More than anything, the mosquitoes helped me remember to stay in the moment and also agitate me out of my concentration, leaving lingering, itchy marks of suffering, persistently my nemesis and savior. Even so, I could not manage to extend my loving kindness towards them and ended up breaking the rule of “not killing” when the monks weren’t around.
Every breakfast was a plain rice soup with chopped vegetables and fresh greens, but every lunch there was a variety of delicious vegetarian curries, smorgasbord salads and coconut milk deserts. Patiently waiting for everyone to have food in front of them and to recite a food reflection together before each meal, prepared me to savor every bite. Day 9 was my worst day when we were limited to 1 meal. I ended up over-drinking the soy milk offered in the afternoon and the hot chocolate offered in the evening resulting in a terrible stomachache to punish my gluttony.
I took full advantage of the natural hot springs every morning and evening. It was the perfect luxury to relax the body and unwind the mind. Like all the nature around me, the hot springs were a picturesque oasis beyond the camera lens’ ability to capture.
Silence in Golden
Spending your whole day with people you never talk to is an interesting experience. It leaves you no other companion than the voice inside your head.
I would estimate that about a third of the people left before the 10 days were up – about 40 women and 40 men dwindled slowly as the days wore on. Men and women were separated throughout, eating on opposite sides of the dining hall, sitting on opposite sides of the meditation hall and with all this self-focus I barely even looked at a male until the day the silence ended. I occasionally exchanged smiles with my women companions, but mostly we were isolated in our own worlds.
Hell is inside, not down there.
The first thing I noticed were the comparisons and judgments my voice liked to quip; I quickly tackled these thoughts by disassociating with them (these thoughts are not me, not mine, not self) watching their pettiness drift past my consciousness – like a dog not given attention, eventually they stopped coming back. Self-consciousness slid away like a stepping out a bath – these people could not talk to you, comment on you, most of the time weren’t even watching you – everyone was focused on her or himself.
On the last day, any assumptions made were revealed to be utterly foolish. The girl whose bedroom and meditation seat were next to mine I thought for sure would leave the retreat before the 10 days were up. She was always restless in her seat, often sighing loudly and not making a conscious effort to be extra quiet when moving about. Yet she stuck it out, while others who sat diligently in the front of the hall, legs twisted into the diamond posture, backs straight as a board, did end up leaving prematurely. My side companion turned out to be a German woman who had been on many retreats and wrote the most poetic summary of her experience to share with the group.
On the 5th night, while standing under the full moon in a meditative posture, I finally succumbed fully to tranquility of what I think is the truth:
Each moment is new. There is only now. Breath is our natural medicine. Appreciate its taste. It goes and it comes just like everything in life.
Days after the retreat, I am still processing the experience. This contemplative mood and relaxed body seems to part of the aftermath. I am still riding the wave of waking up early, doing some yoga, moving mindfully about my tasks, be extra diligent with cleaning myself and my surroundings as well as doing a 20 minute meditation session in the evening. I plan to continue these habits for at least the month of October and hopefully beyond. When something is important, you make it a priority.
The benefits of meditation are often not immediately felt; however, I’ve tasted a piece of the peace when one master’s her mind and I’m always ready to fight peacefully for freedom.
*all photos were taken from the internet; I took no photos myself, deciding not to attach any image and instead cherish the moments in my mind’s eye