At 4:30am, I was awakened by a bell. A big temple bell that went on for about 5 minutes. Getting up from my wooden bed with no mattress, none of my dorm mates said good morning. We weren’t supposed to. I started a 7 day silent meditation retreat at Dipabhavan Meditation Center on Koh Samui, Thailand. During this period, we meditated or listened to the monk talk all day from 4:30am to 9pm, while living like a monk: no mattress, no cushions, no killing, no talking, no reading, no writing, dressing conservatively, and eating only 2 vegetarian meals per day.
As a meditation beginner, I was somewhat worried what it would be like, and had no idea what to expect. I’m not the most talkative person, but had never gone a week without talking or without any form of communication. On registration day, one of the coordinators that interviewed me told me to “not expect anything” and “to stay openminded.”
Let’s see if I learn to meditate like this…
The days went like this:
04.30 Wake up 05.00 Morning Reading 05.15 Sitting meditation 05.45 Yoga / Exercise 07.00 Sitting meditation 07.30 Breakfast & Chores 09.30 Dhamma talk 10.30 Walking or standing meditation 11.00 Sitting meditation 11.30 Lunch & chores 14.00 Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation 15.00 Walking or standing meditation 15.30 Sitting meditation 16.00 Walking or standing meditation 16.30 Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation 17.30 Tea 19.30 Sitting meditation 20.00 Group walking meditation 20.30 Sitting meditation 21.00 Bedtime 21.30 LIGHTS OUT
How my meditation went
Usually, I would peek at the clock in front of the meditation hall, to see how much time had passed. In most cases, only 10 minutes had passed. After about 20 minutes, my legs would start aching and I needed to change my sitting position. I was simply not flexible enough, and not used to sitting on the floor for 30 minutes, even with the support of 2 cushions. On the last 2 days, there were a few sessions where I was able to sit straight for 30 minutes, which I was quite happy with to see a bit of progress.
Walking meditation was working for me more than sitting meditation, as my mind would be a bit busier with taking 1 step on 5 counts, and acknowledging the touch on the back of my feet. I enjoyed the texture of the wooden floor of the meditation hall. It reminded me of the corridor in my grandparents’ house.
My mind was wandering everywhere almost all the time, but that’s completely normal and why I train. Noticing it and gently bringing the focus back on the breath (or the object of meditation) is all that matters. That’s something taught over and over: Not to get upset that the mind was wandering again. It will keep happening. A lot of patience is required. Keep calm and meditate. That’s all.
What I enjoyed
The heart sutra chanted in Japanese
But in Pali, it felt like singing; singing without really knowing the meaning of the lyrics, like singing as if I were a child. Singing supercalifragilisticexpialidocious feeling. (Well not exactly, as there were translations in the book.)
Chanting in Pali
It also felt nice to be able to express something. This is the only time it’s possible.
I enjoyed the Dhamma talk as well. The monk was English, and was so funny he didn’t really sound like a monk. He enjoys internet, he likes sharing what his life was like before he became a monk, and talked quite a lot about sex. To clarify, most of his talks were about Buddhism and meditation. I think his “non-monk-ish” stories made the main talks more human and even brought up a sense of affinity.
A little bit about the food… they were delicious. Basic Thai food (vegetables and tofu) on rice every day. Yum. Dessert that was served with lunch usually made my day. We were not supposed to be eating for joy, we were supposed to eat so as to stay alive and healthy. But I couldn’t help it. The food was too good I was eating for delight.
What I struggled with
The most difficult thing for me was living with all sorts of insects. This place is basically in a tropical jungle. We are not allowed to kill anything, not even a mosquito. It drove me crazy. Within the first 2 days, I almost showered with 6 cockroaches, a HUGE spider came to say hi when I was washing my clothes, I stepped on a centipede but luckily it didn’t bite, and mosquitos ate me alive. I REALLY wanted to talk with someone about it, but kept my mouth shut, and in the end I sort of got used to it.
A jungle, see?
What I missed during the 7 days
What I missed the most was a mattress. My whole body was aching from sleeping on wood and also from sitting in the same position for a long time. I thought I would miss beer, since I had been drinking almost every day for a while. But I didn’t miss it at all.
Surprisingly, I didn’t miss talking, after day 4. I noticed my mind calming down. After wanting to talk to someone so much about how I didn’t like sleeping without a mattress or the life with insects, somehow it was all gone. I was getting used to this life, waking up with a bell at 4:30am, meditating all day, and eating 2 meals. I was concentrating more on meditation, whereas on the first few days my mind was trying to cling on they way I had been living and was more focused on finding ways to cope with this way of life.
Be in the moment. This is what this retreat is all about. By putting everything (like communication, plans, worries) aside, you don’t really have anything else to do. You don’t have to think about what to wear in the morning, you don’t have to think about what to eat, you don’t have to think about the boss you hate. By following the schedule and the rules, you are in a perfect environment to be in the moment and live mindfully.
Here, I truly realized I haven’t been living mindfully.
On day 3, during breakfast, I was enjoying not just the taste of each piece of food I put into my mouth, but appreciating the texture, the weight, the color, the smell, the sound, everything about this breakfast, and it came to me that life is this simple. Be in the “now.” I couldn’t remember the last time I ate breakfast without multitasking. I’m usually either online or watching TV. I realized I have too much of everything in life: too much things, food, information, plans, words, feelings, etc. and I’m complicating life in every way possible with them.
After noticing my mind calming down on day 5, I had only 2 days left to concentrate on meditation. That was too short. I wanted more time in silence and to practice meditation. After it was all over, I decided to participate in the 10 day retreat in the nearby Suan Mokkh Meditation Center, which was to start 4 days later. A few people I met already had experience there and they could not say highly enough of it.
Have you ever participated in a silent meditation retreat? Anywhere you’d recommend?
How to participate
- 7 day retreats at Dipabhavan Meditation Center start on the 20th of every month.
- Read, understand and agree to follow their rules and schedules. All activities are mandatory, you must attend. It is unrespectful to the meditation center, the monks/nuns, the volunteers who run the place, and the other participants to skip activities and/or break the rules.
- If you decide to commit 7 days, send them a booking request on their website. Simple!
- There are also 3 day retreats however I personally recommend the 7 day retreat as 3 days is just too short to feel the power of silence.