With a pang in my heart, I handed over my laptop, mobile and kindle and with that, my vipassana meditation retreat in Thailand at Suan Mokkh International had started.
10 days of silence, 10 days of simple living, 10 days to a quieter more peaceful mind.
Image from Creative Commons
I felt mixed emotions. Part of me was excited to discover what lay beneath the busy thinking of my mind. Part of me knew that this would not be an easy ride.
Gone were all the creature comforts that I’d always taken for granted – food whenever I wanted, a comfy mattress and pillow to sleep on, warm water for my showers and endless forms of entertainment. This would also be the first time in 8 years Paul and I wouldn’t be in touch for more than a few hours.
I waved goodbye to all this for the next 10 days, all in the name of finding inner wisdom and peace.
I imagine you’re curious to learn what it’s really like to go through a vipassana meditation retreat, or maybe you’re considering doing one yourself. What I write here is just one perspective, a very personal and unique experience. Your experience, if you’ve had or will have one is likely to be completely different to mine. But I’d like to try and give a real sense of what you can expect, both the good and the difficult.
I’ll say this from the start, I left 3 days earlier than planned. This alone should tell you that I didn’t find the retreat easy. Every day I had to fight the will to run away, back to my cosy comfortable life that I loved and missed so much.
The question is, would I recommend it? Read on to find out.
My vipassana meditation retreat: What I loved
Suan Mokkh Retreat Grounds
The grounds at Suan Mokkh are nothing short of magical. Imagine large open meditation halls surrounded by lush greenery and vegetation, tall trees and shimmering ponds. I spent hours walking around this garden of Eden, breathing in the uplifting fresh air and resting under the shade of the hundreds of trees.
While the aim of any vipassana meditation retreat is the same, the settings can be very different. Being surrounded by some much beautiful nature made a huge difference and provided many moments of joy.
The morning reading
At 4.30am every morning we would start the day with an essay reading from an inspired writer such as Pema Chodron on the topic of meditation, Buddhism or retreats.
Imagine sitting down in a large open air hall with about a 100 other people. The sky is still black, the only light is coming from 4 large candles at the corners of the hall. The air is still, yet heaving with the sounds of crickets happily chirping away. The occasional rooster greets the day with a loud çuck-coo-roo-coo.”
Suddenly a light comes on at the front of the hall, illuminating a Buddhist nun all dressed in white, sitting cross-legged on a wooden platform. She rings a tiny bell with a light touch of a small baton and proceeds to read in a slow, soft, clear voice words that will inspire and enlighten.
Loving kindness meditation
At 5.30 in the evening we would gather in the hall that faced the large ponds and hear a monk share his views on being loving and kind in this world. Something he said has really stayed with me.
“When you help others keep in mind that you’re not doing it for them. You’re doing it for yourself, for the joy you feel when you help someone without expecting anything in return.” When I heard the words I remembered going up to a fellow retreater that afternoon and gently mouthing ‘Happy Birthday’ before smiling and moving on. I remembered the tingling of joy that washed over me when I saw her eyes light up at having had her special day remembered by a complete stranger, whom she had told 5 days earlier that the 6th of February would be her birthday.
His words felt so true at a very deep level and I remember thinking to myself, “this is why I came, this is what I needed to learn”.
We would follow the talk with a loving kindness meditation where we used different techniques to radiate love and kindness to the people around us and to the rest of the world. I cannot begin to describe the feeling of wellbeing that enveloped me after these sessions. It was one of these sessions that led to my next favourite thing.
A meditation high
I’ve been meditating infrequently for over 3 years now and in that time I’ve experienced this high twice, so it’s quite a rare occurrence and should definitely not be your aim when you meditate.
It was the evening of day three. We had just finished our loving kindness mediation and instead of heading to the dining hall for our daily cup of hot cocoa I felt compelled to walk amongst the trees instead.
I looked around me and it was like I was seeing trees for the first time. Everything looked incredibly beautiful, movingly so. I felt connected, and joyful. My heart just felt so full. Imagine happiness amplified to the power of 100.
Raking the leaves
Every morning after breakfast we all had to do our daily chores which we got to choose on the day we registered. My task was to rake the leaves under the big banyan tree by our meditation hall.
On my first day I kept grumbling to myself what a pointless, thankless task this was. I knew that the minute I stopped raking fresh leaves would fall onto the ground again. I remembered a quote I had heard ages ago. “Your attitude to anything is your attitude to everything.”
I realised that while I was busy thinking all sorts of negative things about the job at hand I was forgetting the one thing I was here to do, to be present in the moment and focus all my attention on raking the leaves.
By day two I started to find the repetitive movement of raking the leaves very soothing. By day three
I started making patters in the sand with the rake, taking pride in the pretty albeit impermanent surroundings I was creating.
I realised that raking the leaves was helping me deal with the usual sadness I had started to feel around breakfast time every day and helped it pass, replacing it with a peaceful sensation. Sometimes simple actions have the biggest effects.
The evening group walk
At the end of the day, just before the final sitting meditation we would all go for a walking meditation around the big ponds. We left our torches and flip-flops behind and followed one another in the darkness. A few candles and their reflection in the water lit the way. The first walk around the ponds was tentative. With each step I hoped I wouldn’t be stepping on some insect and get bitten. But this fear quickly dissolved as I got to into the rhythm of feeling the sand and the grass under my feet, listening to my breath whilst following the girl in front of me.
Occasionally we would stop walking and just stand on the grass, looking up at the stars above us. One night as we stood there looking up at the starry sky with the usual crickets providing the background music, a huge number of frogs started croaking all at the same time. It was like they were exclaiming “isn’t the sky particularly beautiful tonight!”
It was another magical moment that I will savour over and over again.
Once again I was learning that by placing my attention onto what was happening in the moment instead of getting caught up in the thoughts of my mind I was finding peace.
The hot springs
Suan Mokkh has a very special extra that I would use every evening during our free time. A quick walk from our dormitories brought us to a hot spring surrounded by palm trees in a quiet secluded area.
The ritual was the same every single night. I would dip a tentative toe into the hot water as I watched the steam rising from the spring. My whole body would follow and soon enough all the aches and pains I had from sitting upright for most of the day would wash away.
What I thought I would struggle with but didn’t
Waking up at 4 am.
I am NOT a morning person. One of my biggest motivations to becoming self-employed was to stop having to wake up to an alarm every morning. So I was expecting to really struggle with this one.
I found it surprisingly easy to get out of bed once I heard the gentle chimes of the bell going off a few times. I suspect it had a lot to do with the fact that I was sleeping on a concrete bed. There was nothing tempting about lazing around on this hard platform.
No food after 13.00
I’m used to eating my largest meal in the evening so I wasn’t sure how I would cope with no food in the evening. My usual meal was replaced by a cup of hot cocoa or sweet lemon tea, hardly fare that would normally fill me up.
I was expecting to feel a lot of hunger pangs but surprisingly I felt none. It doesn’t seem like your body needs much if you’re spending the day meditating. From day 1 this was a non-issue.
Insects in the room
Ok so I struggled a little with this before the retreat started. I had spent the night in the Monastery across the road so that I could go and register for the retreat early in the morning. When I went for my shower I saw something strange dangling from the ceiling. It turned out to be BATS! Yes, the flying kind. Not only were they hanging there, but they decided to swoop down and fly around the shower as I opened the door. Needless to say, no showers were had that day.
When they showed us our rooms on the next day, they warned us that we were likely to find large spiders, geckos, centipedes and even scorpions in our room. I am not an insect person. I have a phobia of cockroaches and the sight of one is enough to reduce me to tears. I expected nights full of terror as a result.
Every time I entered the room I swept my torch around, heart in my mouth praying that I wouldn’t find a scorpion in my room. I’m happy to say there were no scorpions around but a large spider did take up residence in my room.
I think in my uber relaxed state I realised that she couldn’t really harm me and that since I had a mosquito net protecting me there wasn’t any chance of her climbing over me. And so every night I’d bid her good night and sleep soundly with my new friend standing quietly in one corner of the room.
I’m happy to report that none of the blood curdling screams that we would hear every day at 9pm because someone found some insect in their room, came from me.
I’m a talker. Even when I’m alone I talk loudly to myself. Paul often has to remind me that he needs to concentrate as a polite way to get me to shut up. I thought I would hate the fact that I couldn’t communicate.
In fact I found it quite freeing. Not having to make conversation meant I could observe what was going on in my head. I became very aware (and quite shocked) at the running commentary in my head. I started to understand why I found it so hard to stay present.
As the days went by and I learnt to focus on my breath, the commentary slowed down, became quieter and in those moments I felt peace.
What I struggled with
I feel a little embarrassed sharing this. As someone who takes great pride in being independent I didn’t think this would be a huge issue. Sure I would miss Paul but I would be able to deal with it.
The sadness I felt at not being able to share my day with him, even for a few moments on a phone call made me feel like I was going through a break up. Knowing that he would likely be feeling the same made me even sadder.
Every day I started to dream that he showed up at the monastery and I’d wake up in tears. It made the mornings feel really hard.
The physical pain
For the first three days of the retreat I had a raging headache from the caffeine withdrawals I was experiencing. I could hardly think of anything else and part of me wishes I had stopped drinking coffee a few days before the retreat so I would get used to it.
The other pain came from sitting upright on a stool for most of the day. My back (that I had recently injured when I fell down a whole flight of stairs) was in tatters and again made it really hard to concentrate. By day 4 I asked for a chair and this made things so much easier.
Breakfast turned out to be my lowest point every day. While I had no issue with not eating after 1pm, I really struggled to eat rice and vegetables at 8 am in the morning. I would feel so depressed as I queued up for my food and slightly panicky that I still had 13 hours of the day left to go through.
This was the time when the urge to leave was the strongest. I would battle with myself to stay instead of running away.
Like everything in life, this feeling was impermanent. Soon I would be raking the leaves and all would be well in my world.
This was another huge surprise.
As someone who loves learning I was really looking forward to these. I had read accounts about an English monk who gave very inspiring talks and I couldn’t wait to hear his wisdom. It turns out that by the time I visited Suan Mokkh he had moved to Ko Samui and open up a meditation centre there.
We listened to Thai monks share their thoughts and to some talks that were played on a CD. While sometimes I struggled to understand the monks, it was the latter that I had a real issue with. The first few talks taught us how to meditate and they were fine but these talks soon turned into lectures on how to avoid suffering. I felt the teaching to be completely inconsistent with the kind of life I want to lead. Suggestions of loving a pet as being silly, not needing to laugh and being measured in everything we did didn’t really sit comfortably with me. I don’t care if I’m not enlightened enough, feeling emotion is what makes me feel alive and I would never want to give that up.
I do want to stress that this is simply my opinion and I’m sure others will tell you that the talks were extremely useful for them. I guess the important thing is to reflect on whether you think something will be useful for you or not rather than accepting it as the absolute truth.
Ultimately it was during one of these talks, as I was having a strong reaction to what I was hearing that my will to leave became stronger than my will to stay. At 2pm of my 7th full day on the retreat my legs literally lifted me out of the chair and walked me to the office where my mouth announced “I’m leaving now. Please can you call me a Taxi.”
So there you have it. A very personal and honest account of what worked, what didn’t and what shouldn’t have but did. I hope it gives you a realistic picture of what to expect
What I got out of it
Having said all this, the most important question, for me at least is, ‘was it worth it?’
It’s only been 24 hours since I ran away from the monastery so I don’t know how long this will last but so far here’s what I’ve noticed:
My mind is quieter and calmer, there’s a lot less chatter going on. And when the chatter begins I become aware of it so I can manage it.
I’ve noticed my instinct to get indignant with the frowny, shouty check-in lady at the airport and decided to feel compassion and kindness instead. I smiled instead of being snarky as usual and got a smile back in return.
I’ve paid more attention to my conversations with Paul, noticing when I’m about to change subject (which is my speciality) and instead asking a question to stay on topic.
I’ve written this post in one sitting instead of stopping to check Facebook every few minutes.
Most importantly I feel peaceful, and happy, and present. After all, isn’t that what we’re all looking for in this world?
Karen is a trained psychologist and coach. But really she’s an adventurer who believes travel can be one of life’s best teachers. She writes to inspire you to take the leap and travel in a way that is memorable and meaningful.