What its really like at a 10 day silent meditation retreat in Thailand.
What good is anyone who just sits around on his arse all day anyway? You could be building a school in Africa or something right? With his legs crossed and his eyes closed and doing, well not much at all really. Rest assured, its not as easy as all that and the truth of the matter is that anyone can get busy doing something external but it takes a lot more courage and patience to turn inward. Only when the inner world is in balance can we be of benefit to ourselves and consequently others.
Vipassana is an ancient Buddhist meditation technique that essentially means insight into the true nature of reality. The reality that I was facing on my first day upon arriving at Wat Suan Mokkh Hermatage retreat in Southern Thailand was laid out in the pamphlet before me. 10 days of complete silence in a tranquil rural location, meditating for up to 10 hours a day, with nothing to distract me but my own random thoughts. Sounds like a walk in the park right?
Well I knew it wouldn’t be because I had heard about Vipassana through friends and family who had attempted similar retreats before. Their advice had all been the same – its not easy but so worth it. You should give it a shot. Other people I spoke to said no way. How can you keep silent for 10 days? Try 10 mins to start with I thought.
I’d already put myself on the back foot by not booking my train earlier from Bangkok and I spent the overnight train ride cramped into a hard wooden seat in 3rdclass trying to get some broken sleep. Its a 638 kilometre journey South of Bangkok and can take 10hours for a cost of approximately $50.AUD.
It’s a pretty hot and slow train ride if you don’t have an air-conditioned sleeper.
When I stepped off the platform in Chaiya I noticed some other far more organised westerners step onto the platform from their first and second class sleeper carriages. From the station it’s a short bus ride and a walk up to the retreat grounds where you must register before 3pm on the last day of the month.
At this point everyone must do a short interview to asses their mental stability and to see if you realise what you are actually signing up for I think. Judging by the drop out rates, I think there was a few young backpackers with higher expectations. I’m not sure what they thought they would get for their 2000 Baht (approx. $80.AUD) but it’s not a five-star luxury resort. That’s $8 per day for all meals and accommodation, but sorry no room service.
The rooms are in fact dormitory style over two levels. You have your own room that can be locked which consists of a wooden slab for a bed, a wooden pillow (that’s not a typo, they have pillows made of wood) and a mosquito net. If you are a bit sneaky you can bring a yoga mat and possibly nick a cushion from one of the meditation halls to soften your sleeping arrangements.
The bathrooms have sit down western style toilets but must be flushed with a bucket of water. Bathing is done around a communal tub where you must keep your underwear on at all times and there is no running hot water. There are however lovely natural hot springs that you can laze around in perfect silence with your fellow meditators in the afternoon. For the first couple of days I reserved this time for a quick nana nap.
I’d tried to mentally and physically prepare myself for the retreat by giving up coffee the week before and generally fretting about whether I had the fortitude to go the distance. In retrospect, a useless thing to do. The worry that is, not the coffee. Because as meditation teaches us, to think about the past or speculate about the future is pointless.
They are illusory movies of the imagination that should have no bearing on how you feel in this moment. Unless you let them. Which is what most of us do most of the time.
And you can get up early and go without coffee if you try really hard.
Guests are reminded at the beginning of retreat that it is a serious business and they should try to strictly adhere to the schedule.
4am rise, discourse for 1 hour, mediation for an hour then some exercise. Tai Chi or Yoga for an hour.
Breakfast and then meditation for a couple of hours. Break. During break its necessary to do your chores. Cleaning duties are assigned on registration day so turn up early if don’t like cleaning toilets.
Meditation for a few more hours ,mostly sitting, some walking. Lunch was also dinner, served in the late afternoon. Same vegetarian fare as breakfast. After lunch/dinner more meditation.
Afternoon tea was a cup of hot chocolate. At this point we would have another break and some people would choose to use this time to have a dip in the natural hot springs. For the first few days I had a sneaky siesta.
Often in the afternoon we would join one of the young monks in a loving kindness meditation. His accent sounded Russian or eastern European and I often wondered about his circumstances and how he had arrived in this place.
The early evening would consist of some walking and sitting meditation finishing up around 8:30pm and lights out with the gate locked at 9:00pm.
Breakfast and lunch are the same fare of rice and vegetables with herbs and fruit and although its monotonous its fresh healthy and plentiful.
Afternoon tea was a cup of hot chocolate. The only sweet thing on the menu, the afternoon hot chocolate, was not there on the afternoon of about the seventh day the distress on some people’s faces was unmistakable.
Whether they do this as a lesson about impermanence or whether they just ran out of powdered chocolate I’m not sure, but if you were close to breaking as many people were, then this minor deprivation was almost the last straw.
The physical demands serve to merely habituate your body into a routine that you can adapt to after a few days but the real challenge is asking your mind to succumb to a different type of conditioning in a similar timeframe.
At the end of the second day I sat in my room and stared at a Snickers that I had accidentally smuggled in, wondering if I could break it into 10 pieces. It didn’t last past the third night.
Despite my indiscretions I was on my moral high horse, internally admonishing people I could see talking to each other behind a tree during walking meditation. ’Don’t you know the rules’ I’d try to telepathically shout at them. But the next day they were gone and by about day 4 it felt like we had lost about a third of participants.
Sometimes the cushion in front of me would be empty and I’d think, that blokes slacking off somewhere. I’d give everyone a label because without formal introductions you just make assumptions about who and what people are. I was quite impressed with the wild inventions of my imagination that were completely demolished once I did learn the facts about someone I’d fabricated a personality for. It made me wonder how often I make assumptions about people in everyday life that are without foundation.
One guy had a haircut just like Javier Bardem in ‘No Country for old men’. This guy looked super serious all the time too and I’d think to myself ‘Old Country looks like he’s ready to go on a murderous rampage today. Don’t make eye contact.’
Then of course I would admonish myself for not meditating properly or as a matter of fact not meditating at all. It seemed like every time Id sit into a session my mind would just run with all the silly, stupid, crazy and unchangeable scenarios from my past. Again and again the same topics would come up and Id be so frustrated with myself knowing full well there was nothing I could do to change ancient grievances. And if it wasn’t that, then I was thinking about what I was going to do when I get the fuck out of here.
Next week, next month, next year. O lord I’m gonna drink beer.
But again and again you are encouraged to persist. To simply bring your concentration back to the breath and try to observe your thoughts rather than chase them.
There was a kind (I assume he is kind) volunteer dressed in white who was in charge of our dormitory. I approached him in the bathroom. Desperate for some guidance I asked him what is the secret? I cannot get my mind to rest. He said do not be disheartened. I’ve been coming here for 12 years and my mind still runs away!
On about day 6 you can book in to see one of the volunteers for a short question time. I got one of the Thai monks and again, asked for the secret. Just keep trying he said. Clearly emotionally distressed and frustrated I told him, I can’t, my mind will not stop running away on its own, it’s driving me crazy.
“OK,” he said, ”maybe you come back next month”, and with a pause for effect and a little smile “or maybe you come back next year.”
Now I was infuriated. Fuck you I thought. I’m going to stick this out if it kills me.
The volunteers would write notes on the lunch room notice board daily. One said –“ Be patient. There is a change occurring within you that is not perceptible to you.”
On the second to last day the notice board informed us that there would be a slight change in routine. The monks only eat once a day, so today, so do we. I remember feeling like that was a real kick in the nuts.
The food was nothing to write home about but mealtime was a break from meditation and something to look forward to.
On the ninth day I had a huge insight. I Am Shit at meditation. I couldn’t sit there for five minutes and concentrate solely on my breath. I was beginning to think the whole process was a sick form of self-torture. So now I guess I just gave up. With only one full day left I decided to roll like the Beatles said and just let it be.
And as the sun set and the stars began to appear on the darkening sky the ripples and waves of the surface of my mind completely dissipated and my consciousness seemed to evaporate into a glassy stillness. My entire being felt as though it was humming in tune with the constant static undercurrent of my environment. The universe had just breathed me out. Truth be told I cannot fully explain my state because what I am writing now is only a vague recollection of how I felt.
The paradox is that whilst I was in this state of euphoric bliss I was completely unaware that I was in it. Because of course my mind was not labelling anything.
This experience is unique to me and everybody’s experience of Vipassana will be exclusive to their expectations and individual observations. This fact was highlighted on the last night when people were invited to stand in front of the whole group and relate what sort of experience they had had. One young American guy gave us a 15 minute discourse on how when he was deep in the throes of meditation his mind was transported to a desert of multi coloured cacti and animals representing various aspects of his personality crawled out of the sand.
Like I said, horses for courses.
On the very last day my bag was well and truly packed and I was ready to go. The joy and relief at having made it to the end was evident on nearly everyone’s faces. Laughter and gleeful conversation filled the dining hall where people collected their passports and waited for a lift back to the main monastery.
The guy in the room next to mine had posted a note in our dorm asking if anyone wanted to share a taxi with him to the port of Donsak, the main ferry terminal for Ko Samui. It turned out that he was also an Australian, we shared that taxi and a few beers afterwards and are still close mates to this day.
We threw our backpacks into the back of a truck and headed back to the real world and as I watched the sanctuary of Suan Mokkh disappear, I wrestled with contradictory feelings. On the one hand I felt like I had just been released from a short prison sentence and I was about to return to the world at large and society as we know it.
Then I had a yearning for that inexpressible place of peace and clarity that I had only had a short taste of and wondered if I would ever be able to replicate it. All of a sudden the chaos and noise and constant distraction of regular civilisation didn’t seem quite so attractive anymore.
Registration for the retreat happens on the last day of every month. The small town of Chaiya is 60kms north of Surat Thani in the southern gulf of Thailand and can be reached by train from Bangkok. For full details visit