|Sweat drips from my chin as I walk along the narrow dirt concrete road in the midday sun. It is almost 11AM. My pace is as fast as I can manage in the intense heat. I really really hope the retreat isn't full.
It is a two kilometer walk from the highway to Suan Mokkh International, a place set aside for monthly meditation retreats for international visitors. When I've walked part of the distance, a large truck comes by, stops, and honks for me and the woman I'm walking with to jump aboard. We're dropped in front of the large open dining hall where people are milling about and chatting. We're shown some registration forms but encouraged first to have breakfast. A large pot of rice soup steams in the middle of a large table and I happily serve myself a large portion. It is tasty. I recall reading how bad this soup is, being warned that by day 10 you will come to dread it. Strange. It is quite good.
The retreat is far from full (in fact, we're later told that it is the smallest group of the entire year). There are only about 50 of us. I've heard there can be more than 150 in high season! I register, and am briefly interviewed before I pay the 1500Baht fee (about $50CDN). I'm assigned a room, given a key and lock, and told to get cushions to mark my place in the meditation hall. I have all afternoon to get settled before the retreat begins in earnest in the evening. I leave the dining hall and walk the path past the large bell tower and between banana trees. I find the men's dorm and my room: number 220.
The dorm itself is a large square building with an open grassy area in the middle and a couple of large trees. The rooms are arranged around this large courtyard. I have a window, one laundry line outside and one inside the room. A slab of concrete extends from the wall to form the bed. A woven bamboo mat lays atop the concrete. Beside it is a varnished, carved wooden block: my pillow. I'm provided a mosquito net and a thin wool blanket. The bright green net adds colour to the concrete room that resembles, more than anything, a prison cell. No luxuries here! There are no chairs in the dorms or, it turns out, anywhere on the property except for inside the dining hall. Sitting on a chair would soon become a luxury I would treasure.
I had been told to bring a mattress to make sleeping easier so I had purchased an air mattress in Ko Pha-ngan. As quietly as I can manage, I inflate the mattress. I don't want my neighbours to hear I'd brought one and, by implication, bent the rules a little. After all, the brick walls between each dorm room were vented with large holes above a few metres high. Noise travels freely between rooms and the slow hiss of an air mattress would give away my secret luxury.
Having set up my room, I wander the grounds and take some photos before turning in my camera and money belt to the staff. All distractions, we're told, are to be turned in. If we will be tempted to read books, use cell phones or mp3 players, we should have them locked away for us. For the next ten days, we should do nothing but eat, sleep, meditate, and listen to lectures from the monks and laypeople. It is suggested we remove our watches as well. You won't need them, we're told. Just listen to the bell and it will tell you when you need to do anything.
In fact, life at the retreat is designed carefully to avoid distractions, to isolate you with your thoughts. And, because Buddhism claims that it is the mind's constant seeking for pleasure and stimulation that causes suffering in the first place, life is made as basic as possible. In the daily chanting session (a welcome opportunity each day to actually use one's voice), we recite the 8 rules of monastic practice:
I will not take away any breath.
I will not take anything that is not given.
I will keep my mind and body free from any sexual activity.
I will not harm others by speech.
I will not harm my consciousness with intoxicating substances.
I will not eat in between afternoon and before dawn.
I will not dance, sing, play or listen to music, watch shows, wear garlands, ornaments, or beautify myself with cosmetics.
I will not sleep or sit on luxurious beds or seats (thus the concrete pad and wooden pillow!)
During the afternoon, others arrive and follow the same routine: set up their room, find a place in the meditation hall, then wander about. Mostly, this is done in silence, though we are still allowed to speak. It is as if we have settled into silence already, knowing that we will soon have to cease any interaction we may start.
There is a video shown. A welcoming talk. Then the silence begins. For ten days, we will speak only to the residence manager or staff in case of problems or emergencies. Otherwise, we will talk to no one.
The first evening's activities are finished by 9PM. I return to my room and crawl beneath its bright green mosquito net. The air mattress, I discover, has completely deflated. Resigned, I take my yoga mat out of my bag and place it on the bamboo mat, then put the wool blanket on top. It offers about a quarter inch of padding on the concrete. With a bundle of clothes as my pillow, I try to sleep.
It is a restless night. I awake every couple of hours with aching sides where they have pressed into the concrete. My makeshift pillow is bumpy and too thin. And I am constantly anxious that I'll sleep through the wake-up bell that will sound at 4AM.
When the bell finally does begin to ring, I realize there is little chance I'll sleep through it. On and on it rings, loud in the quiet of early morning. Then the sounds of my neighbours waking: the groaning, scratching, sighing, farting sounds of everyone waking in the dark, stumbling for the light switch, and trying to begin the day. My mind has barely reached consciousness, but I am aware enough to do what will become an early morning ritual for the next ten days: I shine my flashlight across the concrete floor before putting my feet down. Then I turn on the light and peer cautiously beneath the concrete slab of my bed. Scorpions and centipedes find their way into rooms, we've been warned. So do snakes.
I stumble along the concrete walk past men splashing water on themselves from the large concrete tanks arranged around the dorms. In the bathroom, I keep an eye out for scorpions and centipedes, but see only some large spiders. So far, so good.
Soon, I'm walking through the dark toward the meditation hall. The sky is an expanse of stars and there is no sign of the rising sun. At 4:30, I am sitting cross-legged on my cushion in the meditation hall when a little bell is struck three times and the morning reading begins. Day one has begun.
We are surrounded by the sounds of crickets and frogs, the chirping of birds, and a cacophony of night noise. We close our eyes and are guided through our first meditation: concentrate on your breathing, in and out, try to put all other thoughts out of your mind. At 4:45 in the morning, this is a pretty good way to promptly fall asleep. I fight to keep from nodding off and my thoughts from jumping from one thing to another. All I can manage is to think about sleep!
Next we go to a nearby hall for yoga. While most are guided through a yoga routine, I am happy to have the one designed for me during my time in Hat Thien. I watch the class "bounce" their legs up and down in stretches, spin their necks in circles I've been told you should never do, and be asked to "be aware of the compression in your lower back" after each backbend. I'm convinced someone will get hurt but try to just focus on my own practice.
Partway through yoga class, the sun begins to rise. It fills the hall with yellow light. Then the bats appear: bats with foot-long wingspans swoop through the hall on their way back into the forest, catching the freshly swarming mosquitoes as they go. They are quite amazing and I cheer them on in my thoughts, encouraging them to eat more of the buzzing mosquitoes swarming around me (but which I am not allowed to kill).
After yoga, the bell is rung and we return to the meditation hall. We are guided through another seated meditation session. It is then that I begin to really see how challenging the next ten days will be. Before long, my legs are starting to ache, the joints in my hips and my knees throbbing, my back starting to become sore. After 20 minutes, the pain is starting to become unbearable. I shift position and last another five minutes. By the time the bell is rung to end the session, I can think of nothing but my own physical discomfort. And this is only the first 30 minutes of sitting. We would proceed to sit for 8 hours a day for the next ten days! Sitting there on the first day, I was certain that the discomfort would ease after a while. It would become more comfortable, easier. But it never did.
To give you an idea of what it was like, try sitting cross-legged with no back support for a half an hour some time. Use cushions if you like. You'll quickly see what I mean!
The rest of the day alternates with sessions of seated and walking meditation. The former is, effectively, a time when you sit and concentrate on your breathing and attempt to prevent your mind from wandering away from the sensation of your breath. Not easy! My mind jumped around from topic to topic, thought to thought, and at first felt almost uncontrollable. In time, however, I was able to concentrate longer and longer on my breath without stray thoughts interfering. The mental effort, however, is constant. Walking meditation is slightly different: you walk very slowly from one point to another, back and forth, and attempt to concentrate all your thoughts on the process of moving your feet, the sensation of your feet on the ground, the entire process of walking, without letting any stray thoughts interfere. This, if anything, was more difficult: with your eyes open, just about anything offers a distraction more interesting that concentrating on your feet. What should be a simple matter of concentrating on something is surprisingly difficult!
The meditation practice sessions are broken up by lectures from monks about the theory and goals of meditation practice. It is, I learn, the foundation of the Buddhist philosophy. The lectures are fascinating and, after a year travelling through Buddhist places, I finally get a sense of what the philosophy is truly about ... at least in the form practised by monks at Suan Mokkh.
My favourite is a British monk who is both incredibly knowledgable and a brilliant speaker. He talks for over an hour without notes, outlining the foundations of Buddhist practice and of the stages of meditation practise taught by the Buddha. Quite impressive and very interesting.
Apart from meditation practice and lectures, we also sign up for a daily chore. Mine is sweeping leaves from the walkway around the dining hall. So it is that when my mind desperately seeks a distraction during my meditation practice sessions, it is the action of sweeping leaves that it often decides to put in my head. That, or an image of one of the swarms of red ants that criss-cross the many paths around the grounds.
After breakfast and chores would be free time for laundry and showering (using buckets of water from the big concrete tanks in the dorm), then back for more meditation practice and lectures. Lunch, when it comes, is plentiful and tasty. Big containers of rice, curried vegetables, and greens were available. Men stand in one line, women in another (sexes are separated to opposite sides of the dining and meditation halls to avoid "distractions"). The food is vegan and on the first day, everyone nervously returns for more. It would be our last meal until breakfast the next day.
It turns out that meals were not a problem. I actually never felt hungry, despite only eating two meals a day. On day nine, we only had one meal -- breakfast -- which is the way that monks eat every day. Surprisingly, I never felt hungry. A substantial breakfast and some tea at lunch and dinner seemed to be all that my body wanted. In time, I realize that I only need one helping of lunch and breakfast. I soon struggle to eat the rice soup served at breakfast anyway, so skipping second helpings is not a problem.
The time between breakfast and lunch, however, is the hardest time for me. My back aches and my knees throbb. Soon, no position would help. We are told not to change position as soon as it becomes uncomfortable. Instead, we should try to concentrate on our breathing and forget the pain. Train the mind to accept some discomfort. It's all in the mind. You can overcome it.
It was true that if I concentrated hard enough, I wouldn't notice the discomfort. The spasms in my back would go away and I would be less aware of the ache in my legs. Eventually, however, I had to find a different position. It would allow me to sit for another 20 minutes or so, then I would move again. I've never been so aware of my posture, of the muscles in my back, and of the desperately needed -- but temporary -- relief of stretching.
After lunch, I would return to my room and sleep. A Thai monk urged us to try the wooden pillows we were provided ("if you do not try wooden pillow, you will cry when you go home!"). So I did. Surprisingly, it is much better than my bundle of clothes. It is the right height and, with my bedsheet on it to soften the edges that would dig into my cheek, it serves quite well. My afternoon nap (I was exhausted by then) would always be on the wooden pillow. After a couple of days, I started using it at night as well.
Having napped, I was able to concentrate much better in the afternoons. That turns out to be my "good time". Then our afternoon tea break and a dip into the very hot hotspring before returning for evening meditation. It takes a few days for me to realize that the afternoon hot spring is disastrous: try sitting in a hotspring on a day you've woken at 4AM, then immediately afterward sit with eyes closed in the dark listening to crickets and frogs croaking. Try it and see if you can avoid falling asleep! In fact, I would deliberately contort myself into the most uncomfortable, painful sitting position possible just so I would stay awake. It didn't work!! I'd be wincing with pain while drifting off to sleep, starting myself awake each time I started to slump over. No, the hotspring didn't work well for me, not in the evening.
So I dipped in the hotspring after breakfast on most days, and took the time in the afternoon to spread Tiger balm over my back and lay down, in hopes of relaxing some of my cramped back muscles. It works ... at least as well as the hotspring!
So that was the routine each day ... each night when I walked back to my room at 9PM, the fatigue was complete. All I could think of was sleep. I don't think I've ever felt so tired. By the way, on the second day, I inflated my air mattress again. That night, I tried to sleep on it. I couldn't. It was just too uncomfortable. So at some point in the middle of the night, I pushed it aside, opting instead for the concrete. I slept that way for the remaining 8 days: a 2mm thick yoga mat, a thin wool blanket, and a bamboo mat were my padding. I couldn't sleep long in any one position, but I did sleep. Quite well in fact!
The schedule, then, was as follows (each *** means the bell was sounded to let us know to go to the meditation hall):
04:00 *** Rise & Shine
04:30 *** Reading
04:45 Sitting meditation
05:15 Yoga / Exercise
07:00 *** Morning 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
15:30 Walking or Standing meditation
16:15 Sitting meditation
17:00 *** Chanting & Loving Kindness Meditation
18:00 Tea & Hot spring
19:30 *** Sitting meditation
20:00 Walking or Standing or Sitting meditation
21:00 *** Bedtime Goodnight ... (the gate is closed at 21:30)
22:00 LIGHTS OUT
So was it a terrible experience? No, it was not. Difficult, certainly. Not the silence, not even sleeping on a concrete mattress. Mostly it was the physical discomfort of sitting in one position on the floor for so long. And the mental energy needed to concentrate, continually, for such a time. On the fourth day, I recall walking from lunch, more tired than I think I even realized, toward my room. A kitten appeared, approached, and purred as I petted it for a while. It was a simple relief, some contact with another creature despite the silence I was immersed in, that gave me energy for a time, recharged my batteries in a way.
As did the visits of creatures to my room. A large soft-ball sized black spider appeared on the wall of my room one day, and decided to stay. I was happy to have its company, strangely enough. Even more welcome was the large lizard that would creep along the wall and stare at me for a while. Beautiful green-brown and harmless, of course, it was a welcome friend.
I was left alone for ten days with my thoughts and only meditation to practice. Isolating and lonely, yet also very peaceful. It is truly a unique experience.
So what did I learn? Well, I learned that the seemingly random thoughts that popped into my head had lessons in them, that by watching them I could see tendencies in the way I see the world, in the way I think. That the mind develops habits in the way it sees things and thinks, and that daydreams and random thoughts are ways in which already well-worn paths become deeper and more ingrained. I learned too that despite what I might have assumed, controlling one's thoughts is about as easy as controlling the behaviour of one's digestive system. My mind doesn't behave like MY mind!
I also learned that meditation does offer a way to calm the constant craving one's mind has for stimulation, for entertainment, for more and more comfort. And, ultimately, for a lack of calm and peace in our lives. I've been anxious about returning to the frenetic world we live in at home -- to the pressures of work and consumption that Laura and I have escaped for a time -- and the retreat hopefully provided the tools to maintain some calm and peace in our no-longer-travelling lives.
When the retreat finally ended and we left our last early morning meditation session, I was sad to leave. It was difficult, certainly. Yet it was equally rewarding. I'd never tried to meditate before. In fact, I'd always scorned the thought as something a little strange. I now see that it can provide peace and calm, a way to counter-act the mind's constant search for stimulation and distraction ... which also prevents people from feeling contented and calm in their lives. I'm surprised, after having experienced the process, how much sense it really makes.
By the end of the retreat, many have left. The woman I travelled with from Surat Thani left after a few days (despite having travelled from Australia just to attend). Every few days, there'd be another face missing. I'm not sure how many people left before the retreat was over. I'm guessing as many as 15 of the 50 who started. It is not surprising given how challenging it was.
Some miscellaneous moments:
-Realizing, on the eighth day, how truly awful rice soup for breakfast can be. It tasted fine (not much flavour though). But the mucus-like thick broth was enough to make me gag by the end of the retreat. I preferred the bananas ... and those who know me will realize how much I dislike bananas! What a change from the delicious lunches.
-Seeing the six inch long scorpion that made its way into the meditation hall one evening to escape the rain. A formidable creature ... glad it was the only one I saw.
-While taking a shortcut to the meditation hall one afternoon, I heard a rustling in the leaves beside me. Turning, I see a large green snake quickly disappearing around the corner of the brick wall I had just passed. It was about as long as I am tall: an amazing creature! I felt lucky to see it.
-Walking to the meditation hall at night after sunset and seeing the fireflies hover between the banana trees, flickering and flashing in unison beneath the stars.
-Walking single file in the darkness at night around the nearby pond, the path lit only by candles, the still water reflecting the light of fireflies and a sky filled with stars. Everywhere is the sound of frogs, crickets, the croak of toads, and the soft sound of our footsteps as we practice walking with mindfulness. Then stopping, twenty people at once and in silence, to look out over the pond and watch the night, the fireflies, and the stars.