The Garden of Liberation

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.

The Day-to-Day

 

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.

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Dharma Talks

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.

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Mind Training

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.

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The Perks

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.

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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.

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Wisdom

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.

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*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

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A rare opportunity for silence&reflection

For the next 10 days I will be participating a silent meditation retreat at a temple not too far from where I live. I believe it will be mentally and physically uncomfortable, especially with no evening meals, getting up very early, surviving on 6 hours of sleep daily as well as not being able to write to reflect on the day AND I am looking forward to the challenge (although this whole week I’ve been on a food and phone binge like a worried bear going into hibernation).

I will be sharing my experience after the fact; for now, here is some general information for those who are interested. For Wat Suan Mokkh information click here.

DAILY SCHEDULE
(With some modifications on Day 9 and Day 10)
04.00  *** Wake up                 *** = Monastery bell
04.30 Morning Reading
04.45 Sitting meditation
05.15 Yoga / Exercise – Mindfulness in motion
07.00  *** Dhamma talk & Sitting meditation
08.00 Breakfast & Chores
10.00  *** Dhamma talk
11.00 Walking or standing meditation
11.45  *** Sitting meditation
12.30 Lunch & chores
14.30  *** Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.30 Walking or standing meditation
16.15  *** Sitting meditation
17.00  *** Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
18.00 Tea & hot springs
19.30  *** Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30  *** Sitting meditation
21.00  *** Bedtime
(the gates will be closed at 21.15)
21.30  *** LIGHTS OUT

How to Participate in a 10-day Meditation Retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh
01/29/2013 by Kristin 28 Comments

The 10-day meditation retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh in Chaiya, Southern Thailand, has been inviting English speakers to learn more about Dharma and meditation for several decades.

Thanks to generous donations of time and supplies, mostly by local Thais, the open-air meditation halls in the beautifully manicured forest of the monastery provide a perfect refuge for both newcomers and those who are deeply familiar with the practice of meditation.  The retreat is designed for anyone who wishes to achieve peace, compassion, and an ability to approach destructive emotions in a new and healthy way.

One of the main teachings is to be present and mindful – to let go of the past and not angst over the future.  Another teaching is to practice loving kindness towards all beings.  Yet another is to recognize what causes pain, and how to approach it in a healthy way.  Each of these teachings is meant to lead to inner peace and calm.

If you decide you’d like to give the meditation retreat a try, the best plan of action is to go in with no expectations.  One of the main issues with meditation is the near impossibility of achieving it if one desires it.  Have an open mind, and be a true student.   Also, recognize that this is a Buddhist monastery and, as such, will naturally rely on Buddhist teachings to communicate the meditation methods.  Of course, this does not mean you must convert to nor believe in Buddhism.

Be receptive and ready for change.  How often do you get ten full days with no speaking and no distractions to truly listen to yourself and recognize what you spend most of your time thinking about, all while surrounded by the beauty of a forest?  This, in itself, is a rare treat.

Things to Consider Before Participating:

Your objectives: you will be interviewed prior to admission into the meditation center, and will be asked what you hope to achieve through the 10-day meditation.  To know for yourself why you are participating is a good start.
Your physical well-being: can you handle concrete beds, hours of sitting meditation (you may not lay down), six hours of sleep, and are you free from physical addictions?
Can you be respectful of the rules: no smoking, speaking, no killing (this includes mosquitoes, centipedes, spiders, and scorpions, all of which you may encounter), no reading, no writing, no eating past afternoon, no laying down, no jogging or other exercise, no sexual acts, and no straying from the grounds of the meditation center.
Can you speak English fluently? All instruction and Dhamma talks are given in English.
The meditation is not rehab.  It is not suitable for those suffering from addiction.
Getting There:

Take the bus from Surat Thani bound for Chumpon for 50 Baht. Tell the bus attendant that you want to stop at Wat Suan Mokkh (What Soo-An Mock) in Chaiya.  He/She should know exactly where you intend to go.
There are two sides to Suan Mokkh: the International Dharma Heritage (IDH) is located on the opposite side of the road from the main monastery where most tourists visit.  You can get a ride from the information booth at the main monastery (where you will most likely be dropped off) to the registration area at IDH.
There are no reservations at Suan Mokkh – simply show up prior to 3pm on registration day, which is the 31st of every month.  The earlier, the better.
Helpful Information:

Sign up for your chore early on registration day in order to avoid getting stuck with a less-than-desirable chore, such as cleaning the toilets or foot baths (that’s twice a day for ten days cleaning out toilets – yuck).
Bring loose-fitting pants and shirts to keep your person covered without getting too hot – Southern Thailand is nearly always quite warm and humid.
Bring leggings, an extra sarong, or additional body covering to combat the mosquitoes, which are the worst at Suan Mokkh than I had encountered anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
Clothing should not be tight, and should cover past the knees and shoulders.  Clothing does not need to be white.
What is Provided:

Mosquito net
Individual dorm room
Blanket
Water bottles with filtered water
Candle lantern
Buckets, clothes pins and drying lines for clothing washing
Daily vegetarian food (most of which would also be suitable for vegans)
Mats, cushions, and wooden seats for meditation
Meditation instruction
Daily yoga instruction from a program participant
What to Bring:

A towel
headlamp or flashlight
Toiletries
Copious amounts of mosquito repellent
Toilet paper
Something to sleep on if you don’t fancy concrete and wooden pillows
Loose, breathable clothing that covers the shoulders and knees
A sarong to bathe in (no nudity, uncovered underwear, or bathing suits allowed)
An umbrella
Laundry detergent
Yoga mat (useful but not necessary)
You may even find a mosquito tent helpful
2000 Thai Baht (the equivalent of USD$60) to donate to the monastery – this is compulsory
What NOT to Bring:

Any kind of drugs or alcohol
Cigarettes
Stimulants such as tea or coffee
Food or candy
What you will have to submit for safe keeping during the retreat:

Books
Computers
Cameras
Cell phones
Passport
Excess money that you would like kept in a safe (they recommend you keep 500 baht on your person — about USD$15 – to buy provisions at the convenience store, which opens on certain days to sell repellent, toilet paper, candles, etc.)
Read more about the day-to-day schedule and overall experience  on the Wat Suan Mokkh website.

 

Tarot Cards read my stars

At the very beginning of my Peace Corps journey, a wonderfully warm and open volunteer, who I am now glad to call my close friend Libby Ferris, did a reading for me, that I still find relevant today. Taro readings are just another tool or lens to look at one’s situation and to explore the depths of oneself.

1st card: The Situation

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The tiny figure moving on the path through this beautiful landscape is not concerned about the goal. He or she knows that the journey is the goal, the pilgrimage itself is the sacred place. Each step on the path is important in itself. When this card appears in a reading, it indicates a time of movement and change. It may be a physical movement from one place to the next, or an inner movement from one way of being to another. But whatever the case, this card promises that the going will be easy and will bring a sense of adventure and growth; there is no need to struggle or plan too much.

The Traveling card also reminds us to accept and embrace the new, just as when we travel to another country with a different culture and environment than the one we are accustomed to. This attitude of openness and acceptance invites new friends and experiences into our lives.

2nd card: Internal Struggle

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The figure in this card is completely covered in armor. Only his glare of rage is visible, and the whites of the knuckles on his clenched fists. If you look closely at the armor, you can see it’s covered with buttons, ready to detonate if anybody so much as brushes up against them. In the background we see the shadowy movie that plays in this man’s mind–two figures fighting for a castle. An explosive temper or a smoldering rage often masks a deep feeling of pain.

We think that if we frighten people away, we can avoid being hurt even more. In fact, just the opposite is the case. By covering our wounds with armor we are preventing them from being healed. By lashing out at others we keep ourselves from getting the love and nourishment we need. If this description seems to fit you, it’s time to stop fighting. There is so much love available to you if you just let it in. Start by forgiving yourself: you’re worth it.

3rd card: External Struggle

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In our society, men in particular have been taught not to cry, to put a brave face on things when they get hurt and not show that they are in pain. But women can fall into this trap too, and all of us at one time or another might feel that the only way to survive is to close off our feelings and emotions so we can’t be hurt again. If our pain is particularly deep, we might even try to hide it from ourselves. This can make us frozen, rigid, because deep down we know that one small break in the ice will free the hurt to start circulating through us again.

The rainbow-colored tears on this person’s face hold the key to breaking out of this ‘ice-olation’. The tears, and only the tears, have the power to melt the ice. It’s okay to cry, and there is no reason to feel ashamed of your tears. Crying helps us to let go of pain, allows us to be gentle with ourselves, and finally helps us to heal.

4th card: The Solution

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The figure in this card has taken on the shape of an arrow, moving with the single-pointed focus of one who knows precisely where she is going. She is moving so fast that she has become almost pure energy. But this intensity should not be mistaken for the manic energy that makes people drive their cars at top speed to get from point A to point B. That kind of intensity belongs to the horizontal world of space and time.

The intensity represented by the Knight of Fire belongs to the vertical world of the present moment–a recognition that now is the only moment there is, and here is the only space.

When you act with the intensity of the Knight of Fire it is likely to create ripples in the waters around you. Some will feel uplifted and refreshed by your presence, others may feel threatened or annoyed. But the opinions of others matter little; nothing can hold you back right now.

5th card: The Result

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The figure pictured in this card is so preoccupied with clutching her box of memories that she has turned her back on the sparkling champagne glass of blessings available here and now. Her nostalgia for the past really makes her a ‘blockhead’, and a beggar besides, as we can see from her patched and ragged clothes. She needn’t be a beggar, of course–but she is not available to taste the pleasures that offer themselves in the present.

It’s time to face up to the fact that the past is gone, and any effort to repeat it is a sure way to stay stuck in old blueprints that you would have already outgrown if you hadn’t been so busy clinging to what you have already been through. Take a deep breath, put the box down, tie it up in a pretty ribbon if you must, and bid it a fond and reverent farewell.