If you’ve never taken time off from everything just to be, you might want to consider it. Taking time off from everything provides you with a mental clarity that can be difficult to get from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. “How do I do it”, you say? There are many ways. I took a ten-day silent meditation retreat. The following is an account of what transpired at Suan Mokkh, silent meditation retreat in Thailand, February 2015. Silent meditation retreats are not only silence and meditation – They are love, beauty, insights, drama and danger. Buckle up!
My master’s degree was finished about a year ago, after a few months of living the life of a hermit; in the cave I called my master’s study room (sounds better in Norwegian). It wasn’t exactly an adventurous time in my life, so I was starved for excitement. I felt sure that if I stayed for any longer in those rooms and corridors I would grow stuck to my chair, develop a nervous excited stammer any time I discussed physics and feel obligated to become a bitter professor. Of course, the academic life CAN be exciting, but I felt that I had passed that point where this was were I could develop and grow the most as a human being. It was time to do something new.
The plan was to travel around Europe from September to Christmas and then do Asia and Australia after Christmas. Quite randomly, a friend from Switzerland told me that she’d been to a monastery in Thailand called Suan Mokkh, and that it was a fantastic experience. I had also discussed the notion of going to a monastery with another friend a few weeks earlier. As chance wanted it (or maybe The Universe, I, God or The Higher Self) an idea was planted in my head. Brimming with wanderlust and excitement for the times ahead, I started my journey by hitchhiking around Iceland.
After a Christmas-break from traveling I boarded the plane to Thailand. The first five days was spent on Koh Samui. Partying was the name of the game. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy partying and especially with friends. Partying is a part of the human experience and it can be tons of fun – There is no point in demonizing it. I have to say however, that in this kind of environment it is a great advantage to have developed a sense of calmness. It would have been difficult to find someplace more different from where I was going afterwards.
Of course my stomach started yelling obscenities at me the night before I had to get up early and travel to Suan Mokkh. I woke up in time; not feeling particularly fresh and healthy, I walked 10 meters from where I was staying and entered one of the many pharmacies. Ten minutes later I had downed a few capsules with antibiotics and sat waiting for the bus to take me to the ferry.
On the ferry I picked up one of my favorite books, The Three Pillars of Zen, and felt motivation bubbling in my stomach – Or maybe the antibiotics hadn’t kicked in yet.
I arrived safe and sound in Surat Thani, a place where tourists are not that common apparently. I had barely eaten anything that day, so I bought the only things that were available where I was waiting for the government bus – Two bags of chips and a couple of sticks with some unidentifiable meat and copious amounts of sugary gravy. This moment sent ripples that affected me a bit later in ways unexpected.
The bus arrived and it was full – Really full – And here I was with a backpack and a suitcase (I know). If it was full before I got in, it was definitely full afterwards. It was a bucket load of Thai women and me. Just before the bus took off, the bus driver opened the side door and a Thai girl that was standing outside nearly jumped into the arms of the old woman standing beside her, her face filled with pure terror. White men are definitely not normality in these parts of Thailand. I sat and laughed for two minutes while the women in the bus stared at me.
About an hour later the bus arrived at Suan Mokkh and I got off. There was a monk sitting by the road, not doing anything in particular. I had absolutely no idea where to go so I figured I had to ask the monk. How do you ask a monk for help? Do you bow? Do you put your palms together? Up to your chest? Up to your face? I had no idea. I said to myself that I must not make a fool of myself. I went over to the monk and made a fool of myself. I put my palms together at my stomach and did something in between a bow and a curtsy. My face took on a hint of red and the monk smiled knowingly.
He pointed in the direction of the temple. I said thank you, did another weird gesture-thing, and walked in the direction of the temple while laughing at my awkwardness.
Right after I entered the temple area, a Thai man in a pickup truck came over and told me to get in. Apparently I have that look. He was driving people the one and a half km to the meditation retreat. There were three other European guys inside the truck – A German guy that was in Thailand to practice Thai boxing, a Belgian guy that was traveling around Asia for fun, and some guy that none of us connected with. He gave up after five or six days of silence, maybe because he didn’t connect with anyone in the car. The other two guys became my friends.
I got there the day before registration day, because there was no online registration and no way to reserve a spot. There were only 160 spots available and those would be filled up quickly since February is usually the top month. We each got our own room, richly furnished with a big wooden bed that was elevated from the floor, a straw mat, a wooden pillow (a source of many bad jokes the coming 11 days) and a mosquito net (not in the picture).
Food was only served at 8am and 12am. The next meal was 16 hours away, so I felt panic creep a bit inside me. The Belgian guy and I needed something in our stomachs, so I suggested we eat my two bags of chips. Eating outside of the meals in the dining area was strictly forbidden, but this was an emergency. We couldn’t possibly know that we would get no food that day. The day passed uneventfully and we went early to bed.
The bed was strangely comfortable, but lying on the side was out of the question if I wanted to keep blood circulation going. Over time, however, I learned how to distribute my weight evenly. The sound of crickets and a staring gecko lulled me to sleep. I had a gecko or some other type of Lizard staring at me more often than not, the coming 11 nights. How they’ve got time for all that staring is beyond me. Do not lizards eat?
I woke up and it was still dark. Something was wrong. I heard a crackling sound from inside my room, like someone who tries to unwrap a chocolate bar in a study hall without making a sound, and ends up making a sound for a whole minute. Just rip it up! I sat up and looked around me, but didn’t see anything. The sound was coming from the floor. I threw the mosquito net to the side and looked down on the floor in the dim morning twilight. My bag of chips was slowly inching towards the door. Perplexed and slightly scared, I fumbled around for my glasses and put them on. The entire floor was carpeted with ants of all sizes. There was more antsy black on the floor than concrete grey. The prohibition of food in the rooms suddenly made much more sense. I had to figure out how to get the foodstuffs out of my room, but there were no available spots on the floor where I could step without stepping on ants. To add to the drama, I heard someone screaming outside my room every 20 seconds or so.
I reached out towards the bag of chips to throw it towards the door. Only a couple of ant bites – Great success! After a few moments of summoning some courage, helped by men screaming outside my room, I jumped into the sea of ants and ran out with the bag of chips. I estimate less than a hundred bites from this foray – The other side suffered great losses. Safely outside, past the paved corridor and outside on the grass, I saw the source of all the screams. There was a three-meter wide stream of ants on the pavement going in and out of my room. My room was in the middle of the picture to the right .
I ran into my room again, making imperceptible dents in the size of the ant army, even though they lost great ants by the count of tens for every step I made. Safely on top of my bed, I saw that my backpack was also crawling with ants, courtesy of the wooden sticks from Surat Thani that was coated with sugary gravy. Eventually I got them out of my bag and onto the grass outside. To my relief, the stream of ants gradually diminished throughout the day.
Registration started at 7am. The course was quickly filled up with 80 men and 80 women. The long awaited breakfast started at 8 am. All food was vegetarian and most of it was quite tasty. Honorable mentions go to some kind of coconut rice cake that was roasted inside banana leaves. De-Li-Cious. Don’t give up until day 6 or so!
The rest of the morning and mid-afternoon was spent getting to know the people that had registered.
At 16pm the abbot welcomed us and took us around the area for a tour. After some tea and bathing in the hot spring there was an orientation talk, were we went through the coming days and what was to happen, and all the rules we were expected to follow. When they told us the first of the eight precepts, “Intend not to take away any breath”, my thoughts drifted to the legions of ants that had lost their lives that morning.
At 7pm the silence started. At 9.30pm lights were out.
I am a notorious 9-hour sleeper; the bell rang at 4am. A recipe for trouble if ever there was one, so I slept. At 4.20, ten minutes before the morning reading and meditation, my Belgian friend from the pickup truck woke me up. That’s what friends are for! I jumped into the meditation pants I had bought at the retreat the day before (they had a tendency to unwrap in the front, exposing my boxer shorts and causing many eyes to widen before I noticed), threw some cold water into my face and hurried slowly (no running allowed) towards the meditation hall.
I didn’t hurry for long, because I was greeted with the most insane pulsating bird choir the moment I stepped out of the “dormitory”. It is difficult to describe it, but if you’ve ever tried out binaural beats, this pulsating choir was like alpha waves of medium pitch bird sounds. I loved that choir. It helped me concentrate and gave me a majestic feeling from meditating. It felt like they were chirping for us to spur us on.
The walk to the morning meditation at 4.30 was probably my favorite part of the stay. The pulsating choir from the birds was made even more magical by the clear night sky filled with innumerable stars. There are few things in the world of duality better than walking through a coconut grove, looking upwards to the night sky.
The meditation hall was an open structure, with a large roof supported by 28 pillars distributed over 4 rows. It was carpeted with sand, on top of which we had our straw mat, optional Zen meditation stool and pillow. The men sat on the left and the women sat on the right. At the front there were three tables, on which the speaker sat in the middle, and one or two monks sat on the two tables to the sides.
I found my place to the back right of all the men – To the far right in the picture above – Which was a good or bad idea depending on your perspective. I had like 5 or 6 crushes on various women those 10 days. Not being allowed to talk, and beautiful women walking slowly all around you, does funny things to you. A few rules were broken.
Our days started with a 15-minute morning reading. Those 15 minutes were all about waking up for me. Afterwards we did 30 minutes of sitting meditation. Those 30 minutes were usually the best for me.
I find 30 minutes to be at the top end of the range for a perfect-length meditation session. Deeply concentrating, and letting go of thoughts for longer than 30 minutes straight is taxing. It is also physically painful if you’re not used to it or an expert at yoga. My childhood soccer playing, with no stretching and many hours in front of a pc, has left me wanting in the flexibility compartment. The last year or two of yoga and stretching has significantly improved my general flexibility, but the half-lotus position is still very uncomfortable. Very.
After the morning meditation, we did yoga and tai chi from 5.15am to 7am. The women and men were separated to two different locations for this. Our instructor, Supol Lohachitkul, was apparently a quite famous tai chi instructor. His 45-minute yoga instructions were painful and funny. He had about 10 sentences that he rotated endlessly. Some examples include (you have to add a funny and charming Thai accent):
“Feel the fleeting awaaay of tension”
“The waaay the naaatule functions”
“Not so seliouuus!”
What a guy!
Then we did 45 minutes of Tai chi. Learning tai chi is HARD – At least if you want your movements to be perfect. It was tons of fun, however, and Supol was a great instructor.
The bell rang and it was time for the first “Dhamma talk” at the meditation hall, so we walked over. At this point the sun arose over the tree line by the ponds. A routine developed over time, where most of the people would stand along the pond and watch the sunrise. It was quite picturesque. When the monks arrived we sat down in the meditation hall, where the day’s first rays of light shone in between the pillars.
The Dhamma talks were mostly tape recordings of translations of a talk made by the founder of Suan Mokkh – Ajahn Buddhadasa. The translator was an Englishman who had stayed at Suan Mokkh for several years. I found these talks to be clear and concise, with no nonsense. I later found that some of the people at the retreat found him to be rude and condescending. I never felt this at all, so I guess it is a matter of perspective. He went straight to the point. I can see how he might have ruffled some feathers, but there is no need to sugar coat things. The talks had a scientific angle on Buddhism, which I resonate with. There is nothing supernatural. Everything is part of one truth of nature. We might not understand everything, but nothing is apart from nature, or God if you’d like.
Buddhadasa went through the practice of mindfulness of breathing, or anapanasati – The sixteen steps to enlightenment from the Pali scriptures. He also went through the Law of Dependent Origination – Paticca Sammuppada. It is a clear and concise explanation of how ego arises, and is something I will return to in a later article.
After the talk, we did another half an hour of sitting meditation until the breakfast at 8am.
The breakfast started with a short reading of some sort where everyone repeated a few sentences. I guess some rites and rituals have arisen in all religions when it comes to food.
The breakfast consisted of a kind of rice or grain porridge, a banana or two and large amounts of leafy green vegetables. I found it relatively enjoyable, even though I suspect it was designed to be only OK. We don’t want the food to result in a judgment of how good it is, and further build on our ego, do we? I have to admit I judged a bit, although positively.
Depending on which chore you signed up for on registration day, you had to do chores either after breakfast or after lunch. I signed up for an after-lunch-chore. Being a notorious 9-hour sleeper, I went straight to my comfy wooden bed and slept for an hour until the bell started ringing 10 minutes before the next point on the agenda – Another Dhamma talk.
This Dhamma talk lasted from 10am to 11am and usually consisted of the previously mentioned tape recordings or a talk by one of the monks. The head monk did the first few of these talks. His English was almost unintelligible, so I mostly spent that time just meditating. The other monk who did some of the talks was both funny and proficient in English.
After the talk came the real comedy of the day – Walking meditation. We went from the meditation hall to another open hall with a pillared roof and paved floor (picture under).
Our Tai chi instructor instructed us on how to do walking meditation. Walking meditation sounds easier than it is in reality. The two very advanced techniques he taught us were as follows:
- Raise your foot from the ground
- Move it forward
- Place it on the ground
- Raise your heel from the ground
- Raise your foot from the ground
- Move your foot forwards
- Place the ball of your foot on the ground
- Place the heel on the ground
This might seem easy, but when it had to be combined with breathing (in rhythm) at an extremely slow pace, you have no idea how difficult people found these techniques. The best illustration of how people performed can be seen in this sketch by Monty Python – Ministry of Silly Walks:
You might think I’m exaggerating. I’m not.
The silly walk instructions lasted for about 20 minutes. We were then told to keep going without instructions. We’re in a beautiful coconut grove, with open pillared buildings, three beautiful square ponds and large open grass areas. A few people were lying down, some were scratching their heads, and the rest were walking in completely random directions, scattered all over the place, everyone doing silly walks. I burst out in spontaneous laughter and looked around at the others, searching for someone to share this funny moment with. Everyone was looking at their feet doing silly walks. That was the first time I realized that this is not something I can do the rest of my life. Sharing laughs, looking into other people’s eyes, and talking (!) is a much too important part of the human experience. I could do 10 days, however. I was there to evolve as a person, so I reinforced my resolve to go through with it and resumed working on my own silly walk.
After 45 minutes of walking meditation, it was time for some more sitting meditation. These 45 minutes were usually spent watching an insect that made a small cave in the sand right in front of me. What a hero this little guy was. He just worked and worked and worked. He had decided to make the sand cave under the straw mat of the guy in front of me. This resulted in the cave opening caving in repeatedly. But our little hero just did what needed to be done. He made a new cave opening, and a new cave opening, and a new cave opening.
We’ve got a lot to learn from insects and other animals. There’s no complaining. I never even once heard this little guy stop and lament how unlucky he was that his cave opening caved in. There was no nonsense – Just the doing. The doing of what nature is telling him to do.
We’ve become removed from our evolutionary roots. Our natural environment of trees, mountains, grass under our feet and a buzzing animal life has been substituted with a concrete jungle where food is made at the store and grows on shelf. The certainty of what you needed to do, like mending your cave or ramshackle hut, or hunting and gathering, has been substituted with distractions and endless possibilities. Even in relatively modern times you knew that if your father was a blacksmith, your day would involve a lot of banging on metal, or that if your father was a farmer, you would be tilling the soil after breakfast.
This is the natural way for us to learn – From we’re small we’re quite certain about what life involves by looking at the people around us. Then we start playing grown ups to learn how to be like them. After a while we’re allowed to join the grown ups in doing the real thing. Over time and with plenty of repetition we become experts.
Now, we go to school to learn everything, and instead we learn almost nothing. We can’t even learn from our parents because we’re most likely not doing the same as them. We don’t see them much anyways since they drop us off a kindergarten where our role models are other drooling kids, or at school where we are not allowed to play to learn.
Excuse the ranting. The point is that we lack certainty in our lives. If you can rediscover that certainty you will rediscover peace and fulfillment. The way to rediscover certainty is by following your joy and excitement shamelessly and fearlessly. Commit to mastery in whatever you love doing and always take steps forward towards your dreams. Nature implores us to move forward. Take the forward steps in the now. Be aware of the dreams, but be rooted in the present – Moving forward.
On this path, it is only the first step that counts. – St. Jean Baptiste
If you need to do things that are not sparking your joy and excitement, just do it. Do what needs to be done, like our hero insect from above. Make that cave opening until it stays open. Then you can bring your friends over for some buggie wuggie (bad pun). No shirking or complaining. Do the doing and take steps towards mastery in it. Taking action always leads to new possibilities and increased clarity. When you’ve done what needs to be done – Take steps forward in what sparks joy and excitement in you. Everything caves in? Get up and find a new angle. Your life is an endless journey of doing. No one ever arrives. Arriving is not part of the human experience. Only change is permanent.
Still feeling uncertain? Sit down and meditate or do some silly walk meditation. Life is silly, so laugh at your self.
After the sitting meditation/bug watching, the next point on our schedule was chanting and loving meditation. This was optional and many skipped it. I for one have always wanted to chant while meditating, but have mostly refrained from doing it to avoid being sent to a mental hospital. I’m talking deep OM mantra, like this:
I’ve even thought about going up on a mountain back home, sleeping outside and chant my lungs out, but even when I’m out in nature I barely get a sound out of my throat before my head automatically starts swinging around to see if anyone is standing behind a tree laughing or calling the mental hospital.
This was the first time I really broke one of the rules – Keeping complete silence throughout the retreat. We each had to pick up a copy of the “lyric” book for the chanting. A nun was handing out the leaflets with the lyrics. Being extremely polite and a complete airhead, I loudly said “Thank you” with a big smile. Several heads swivelled around and the nun looked at me with wide eyes.
Still being a complete airhead, I said “shit”, turned around with my facial color taking on a red tinge, and walked over to where the instructor was waiting.
We chanted along for about 30 minutes, with guidance from a monk, about how we take refuge in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha among other stuff. I believe that words are powerful, as they direct your attention among other things, but I don’t think there is anything magical about words like Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. They’re just words like any others, and their powers are only coming from your associations with them. To me they don’t really give me that much. I only wanted to do the deep resonant growling.
Afterwards, we did some loving kindness meditation of how we want everyone and everything to be happy. We had to include all sorts of people from our past, so I suspect this had some therapeutic effect. Talking about love and happiness is always good though – You get more of what you focus on.
Next was lunch, which also started with a short reading about how food can be both tasty and disgusting. Yep.
Every time we had a meal I had the same dilemma. Do I sit with my face pointed towards the women or away from the women? I don’t know how many people think about this, but I always want to be able to see people when I eat in crowded places. People are interesting to watch. The first few days I decided to sit with my back to the women, so that I could keep the third of the eight precepts, “Intend to keep one’s mind and one’s body free from any sexual activity.
The food at lunchtime was more varied than at breakfast, which means that I don’t really remember much of what we ate. It usually consisted of some kind of vegetarian stew, the usual copious amounts of leafy green vegetables and some kind of vegetarian desserts. Some of the desserts were delicious, like the coconut rice cakes. Some were not so great. I was supposed to only eat though, and not judge its taste. I guess that’s why I’m not wearing orange.
After lunch I did my chore, which was sweeping the floor. I wish I had something interesting to say about my 10 days of sweeping the corridor – I don’t. It was mainly sweeping the corridor.
After I finished sweeping, I still had some sleep to catch to reach my 9 hours – my wooden bed beckoned to me for a 45-minute nap. You can safely assume that my napping routines were followed every day.
The giant bell rang and woke me up for some meditation instructions and sitting meditation. By now we had gotten some preliminary instructions on Anapanasati – Mindfulness with breathing – and the 16 steps to enlightenment. I started getting deeper into concentration on my breath and went for longer periods without getting impatient. After about 20-30 minutes of meditation, I usually got tired and started falling in all directions while meditating, like this kid:
The walking meditation afterwards was always a welcome change from involuntary head banging. This was the second session of walking meditation, so people started getting slightly better. The silly walks were more refined and consistent, but many gave up on walking meditation quite early for some reason.
Walking meditation always started with 10 minutes of instructions and then it was free for all. Over the course of the days, I developed a routine, where I kept going for a bit on the under the pillared roof. Then I did some more walking meditation around the ponds. They were quite idyllic, with some fish that seemed to be vegetarian – I always saw them nibbling at the weed on the side of the ponds. There was also a one-meter giant lizard thing that frequently sauntered back and forth between the ponds and the woods. That guy lived a calm life. Sometimes it felt like he looked at me and said, “What the heck are you doing?” Maybe his default face was just that strange mix of contempt and pity.
There was a bridge going out to a small island on one of the ponds. Sometimes I walked out there and watched ants do their thing. Ants are some of the most fascinating creatures on earth. I watched them cooperate on the task of transporting a big insect from blade of grass to blade of grass, and then up a tree. They’re like the cave builder from before. They just do what needs to be done. No complaining. You don’t see an ant go to a meditation retreat. Well, technically, they were at a meditation retreat.
Next on schedule was another 45 minutes of sitting meditation. These were usually 50/50 meditation and watching the cave guy – Definitely no gazing to the right where the women were.
At 6pm it was tea and hot springs. Tea meant water with leaves in them or hot chocolate. The water with leaves in them tasted surprisingly… tasty. I have no idea what it tasted. The hot chocolate tasted pretty much like hot chocolate, which is usually too sweet for me. At this point, though, it was all about stocking up on calories.
The hot springs were natural underground streams of hot water that they directed into stony pools. The meditation retreat bosses had decided that using the hot streams was too hot in the middle of the day, so they put hot spring time to 6pm to 7pm – The time of the day when the mosquitos were active. Going for a bath was always a trade off. You could relax your sore muscles from the sitting, but you got mosquito bites in the weirdest places in return. I usually accepted the trade.
By now the sun had gone down and darkness laid over Suan Mokkh. The walk to the next sitting meditation session was again made more epic by stars and our beloved birds that sang alpha wave songs for us. The atmosphere was almost a bit culty because of all the people walking towards the meditation hall with lanterns and flashlights.
At the first of these nightly meditation sessions it all came together – the birds alpha wave song, the starry night, the culty atmosphere and the instructions on anapanasati. I effortlessly went into a deep concentration on my breath and went through the steps: The long breathing, the short breathing, merging of the two and the five manipulations of the breath to reach Samadhi.
I took the step into rapture. I’ve been there several times before, but I didn’t have a framework and name for it at that point. It can then be easy to exaggerate its importance and think you’ve had some deep mystical experience or that God thinks you’re cool or something.
My hands stopped moving on the keyboard just now, when I came to explaining it.
It was the feeling of everything stopping or maybe the dissolution of time. I couldn’t feel my breath anymore, or the normal sensations in my body for that matter. Everything in my body was completely still.
I believe it was a gradual progression of shutting down the conscious parts of the brain and going into deeper and deeper states of concentration. My heart rate and breathing slowed down because I was completely still, and probably also because my brain activity was low. At some point I got a sudden feeling of warm pleasantness starting in some random area of my body. This wonderful sensation spread throughout my entire body in the space of about a second.
My theory on this is that the deep concentration triggered a systemic release of nitric oxide, a known reaction to deep concentration, which in turn flushes out stress hormones and triggers release of feel-good chemicals. I will cover these chemicals in one of our upcoming courses.
The first time I went into this state at the retreat my concentration level wavered, because I was overwhelmed by how pleasant it was. It is difficult to say for how long I sat with this sensation, but it was somewhere between 5 seconds and 10 minutes. When I opened my eyes and looked around, I had the same feeling that I always have when I feel supremely confident. I sat there and just felt good for the next few minutes until it was time for the first of the nightly walking meditations.
The men and the women split up and started walking slowly in a long progression – The men around one of the ponds and the women around one of the other ponds. I sat far back to the right, so I usually ended up in the back end of the long train of the walking cult. If you’ve ever walked in a really long line, you know there’s an effect called the accordion effect.
It starts with the fluctuation in speed of the second person in line. The people behind that person then fluctuates their speed even more, and the effect just gets worse the further back you come.
I welcomed the accordion effect at this time – unlike when I was in the army with a 50 kg backpack – since I am a gooey romantic and love watching the stars. Every time the guy in front of me stopped, I took the chance to gaze at the stars. Oftentimes I even looked up when the accordion effect was not present, causing me to bump into the guy in front of me repeatedly. You would believe that this is just a funny and casual thing when it happens between two guys who are staying at the same place for a long time. We weren’t allowed to speak to each other however, so we didn’t know each other and I couldn’t even say “sorry” – the awkwardness of it all was further increased by it being almost completely dark and the crashing happening several times in 10 minutes.
There was only thing that really took me away from stargazing – the many ants that bit my feet (we were always walking barefoot). Small brave ants taking revenge for all the comrades lost on registration day, can be quite annoying. I guess I had it coming.
Needless to say, the amount of actual meditation in these walking meditation sessions was not much to brag about. The pure enjoying of nature was priceless however.
The only thing left on the schedule was 30 minutes of sitting meditation. As is the story of my life, when bedtime is getting closer, all I want to do is stay awake. I never fell asleep in this meditation session.
Walking back to the sleeping quarters was the usual walking with eyes pointed upwards – towards the stars. I love the effect of walking past coconut trees and seeing the stars fly through the branches. To other people it probably looked like I had a massive crick in the neck.
Falling asleep was never really a big problem. I did the first step of anapanasati – The long breathing – And fell asleep in the space of a couple of minutes. I had survived the first day!
Being true to myself, I slept through the bell again. This time the other friend from the pickup truck, the German, came to my rescue. I took my regular morning-shower in a hurry. This sounds more luxurious than it actually was. It consisted of using a ladle to throw water, chilled through the night, over myself. Showing loose-hanging body parts was not allowed, so this was done in bathing shorts. It was a nice morning ritual for waking up at 4am.
The pulsating bird choir accompanied walking to the morning meditation, as usual. Spurred on by yesterday’s experience I did the steps from anapanasati again. The same feeling of deep concentration and wave of pleasantness washing over me occurred. There’s something about mornings and meditation. Maybe it’s because my mind had finished going through all of yesterday’s occurrences and no new drama had occurred. The mornings have clean slates. It is easier to concentrate with a clean slate.
The second morning the yoga was slightly less painful; the Tai chi slightly more pro; the sitting slightly less uncomfortable; and the walking meditation slightly less silly. The breakfast was pretty much identical every day. My crushes changed however. I got new mini-crushes all the time. All those stars; a coconut grove; pulsating bird choirs; loose meditation clothes and a good atmosphere – Can you blame me?
There was a whole lot of mind watching going on those 10 days. Watching your own thoughts can be both funny and a bit disconcerting. At some point when I was meditating – Just minding my own business and watching my own thoughts – It dawned on me, that for the last thirty seconds I had been watching a dancing bear. A big black bear. Was this the first sign of insanity? I looked around and opened my mouth to share the funny story, before I remembered that talking was not allowed. No eyes met mine anyways. My lips slowly met each other again. Another example of how important friends are – Friends who are allowed to look at you, listen to your weird story and laugh at how silly you are.
We were told to watch out for some of the poisonous inhabitants of the area. There were small and large scorpions hanging around in the area – The small ones were the guys to keep clear of. They apparently liked hanging around in the toilet, making the daily visits to get rid of the copious amounts of fiber from all the plant food, even more exciting. The second one-to-watch was cobra snakes. I didn’t meet any of those bad boys. I did, however, meet the third poisonous troublemaker in the area – Twice. Poisonous centipedes, they told us, are fast, very poisonous and notoriously aggressive. The first time I saw one, was when I was hanging my bathing shorts up to dry and I looked down to see a centipede crawling over my bare foot. I would have made my gym teacher from primary school proud with my high knee lifts and high-speed running.
I also did some heroics at one of the meditation sessions when a centipede was running amongst the “cult members”. I slammed a bucket over its head and slid a tile under it. Then I wimped out and signaled to a guy to walk it over to the woods.
The third day when we did the walking meditation in the afternoon, I was again reminded of the importance of having friends to share funny moments with. We were doing our regular silly walks; again slightly more dignified than before. Our Tai chi instructor was instructing us on the intricate art of walking meditation. He was saying the usual things:
“Feel the fleeting away of tension.”
“The way the natule functions”
“Not so selious!”
On the fifth rotation of his usual sentences – When he started on his trademark sentence, “Feel the fleeting awaaaaay of…” – A loud, whining “WEEEEEEEEEEE” was released in all its glory from his behind. I desperately tried to keep the laughter inside by clamping shut my mouth. This, of course, resulted in air and spit flying out through my nose, making a snorting sound. I looked around me searching for a beaming face to share this funny moment with, and was met with downcast faces and silly walks. I could almost cry. Instead I kept doing my silly walk, while trying to stop laughing for the next five minutes.
The fourth night was the most dramatic. I woke up in the middle of the night and had no idea where I was. No memory of a meditation retreat arose in my mind and it was completely dark – I had nothing to give me a clue. By instinct I flung my arms out to the side and hit… nothing! I sat bolt upright, still flailing my arms into the great nothingness. My heart was playing African drums. Not knowing up from down, I figured I might as well throw my arms up as well. They hit mosquito net – I was in the meditation retreat! I calmed down and started exploring the area around me – The pieces started to come together. I had rotated 90 degrees during the night – A little bit less than my usual 180 degrees. Laughing at myself, I search around and found my headlight. My gecko friend was in his rooftop corner and had shared the moment with me. It didn’t look like he found it funny.
On the 4th or 5th day I noticed the smiling girl. She wasn’t just walking around like the others – She glided around and looked at everything while smiling radiantly. She was beautiful. She was my next crush.
About the same time as I noticed smiling-girl, they announced that the two next days would present the possibility of having a one-on-one conversation with one of the monks about our meditation. I decided to put my name up for the next day. I had no idea which monk was called what, so I just put my name up for one of them.
The next day I walked to the dining hall where the one-on-one talks took place. I had of course put my name up for talks with the old head monk, which I didn’t understand at all. When I approached the table I did my usual parody of a greeting and he smiled knowingly. I told him about my experience with deep concentration and a rapturous feeling. I asked him how to take it further from there. What came back was what to me sounded like indistinguishable mumbling. I recognized some of his words from the talks, but not enough to decipher any meaning from it. He might as well have been explaining how he loved spaghetti. My face took on a mix of strained concentration with narrowed eyes and pursed lips, mixed with the perplexed look of a furrowed brow.
I did what people usually do when they don’t understand what someone says and that person is not a close friend – I fumbled out some long questioning yeeees’s, half trying to sound like I understood what he said, half trying to signal that I wasn’t quite following him. I also tried changing my questions slightly so that I could hear him repeat his answers. Nothing helped, so I said “thank you so much for your answers”, and further improved my greeting slightly. My questions were answered, but at the same time went unanswered, so I put my name up for another Thai, monkish-sounding name for the next day.
This time it was the funny monk with good English. I told him about my rapturous meditation experiences, not quite knowing which reaction to expect. He off-handedly waved it away and suggested that I just jump to step 13 in anapanasati – contemplating impermanence. A bit taken aback by his disinterest, I asked him how I could prolong or go further with the rapturous feeling. He replied that it is not desirable to do this, and told me that the girl he talked to before me had been going with that rapturous feeling constantly for two days and couldn’t sleep at all. Some things clicked in my mind at this point – I put two and two together and knew that this was the girl who went around smiling constantly. I thanked him and went back to the meditation session back in the meditation hall.
She kept on smiling and, needless to say, the crush on smiling-girl didn’t go away. The other women started fading a bit into the background. Smiles really are magical.
By the 7th day my mindset started to change a bit. I got a bit fed up with all the talking of how the world is only suffering – That even good feelings are a sort of suffering. It was formulated in a way that glorified the life of a monk and put down the regular human experience. I don’t subscribe to this view. I find life to be a fantastic experience, including both the ups and downs of life. You (and I) in the sense of being everything decided to experience this short interval through the lens of the five senses and the human mind. Do like the cave-building bug and live your life. Do the doing. Always move forwards as nature – you – implores you to do.
I started being a real badass rebel. I started seeking out eye contact with people and beamed big smiles at them, hopefully not looking too psycho. I started sitting with my face towards the women, taking in all the beauty. I let go of the silly walk at the walking meditations and started striding briskly around the ponds, smiling at everyone who met my eyes and not even looking at the ground in front of me. What a bad ass!
The 9th day there was a change in routines. Meals were cut down to only one and all day we were to meditate in our own way. There was no mandatory program. I switched between sitting meditation in the meditation hall and doing my new hobby of briskly walking around the ponds in my favorite number-8 pattern. As a physicist I call it the infinity sign.
At one of my infinity trips I noticed a sound that resembled crying, but could also be laughter. It quickly went away so I kept going around the ponds wearing my stupid smile. On the second infinity round I thought I heard crying again, and I looked across the pond to see smiling-girl sitting in the grass across the third pond. The idea that I should go over and see how she was doing formed in my head, together with increasingly sweaty palms and some more African drum riffs from my heart.
I walked past the place where the path split into my infinity pathway and the pathway that led to her. There were two other women walking back and forth less than ten meters from where she was sitting and crying. I found it strange that they didn’t go over to her. I guess that was my excuse for walking on – They should talk to her.
Closing in on where I was halfway through infinity and starting on the reverse S, I made the resolve to go over to her if she was still crying and no one else had already gone over to her. The full infinity-round took about 2 minutes. She was still alone.
With my heart playing black metal and legs trying to buckle under me, I diverted my path towards her. I slowed down when I got nearer. She was sitting with her arms on her knees, face buried in her arms.
I stopped for a second beside her, reached down and placed my arm on her shoulder in a way I tried to make comforting. She didn’t look up. I sat down beside her with a meter distance between us and just sat there – Looking out over the ponds. Her face was still buried in her arms. The crying was interrupted by small fits of laughter every minute or so. We just sat there for about 5 minutes until I noticed her face emerging and turning towards me.
She looked straight into my eyes for 10 seconds. I looked straight back into hers. Her eyes were unwavering and watery, like the reflection of the moon in a completely still pond. Those ten seconds were some of the most intense seconds of my life. She whispered an almost imperceptible “thank you”. Then, we both walked off in opposite directions.
Again, needless to say, this didn’t reduce my crush, but there was nothing sexual about the encounter – Just someone touching someone else’s life for a brief moment. I never saw her look in my direction for the rest of the retreat, but at least she was walking around smiling again.
It was harder finding my center of balance while meditating for the rest of the retreat, but it was totally worth it. It was the right thing to do – Even though I broke a couple of rules – And it lead to beautiful moment.
The tenth day was similar to the ninth in that it was hardcore individual meditation time. At some point during the day when I went to the toilet to pee, I pulled down my pants and saw a really big snake. The big green snake was slithering away on one of the roof beams (Geeeez!). It was probably around one meter long and looking fierce. It retreated the moment I pulled down my pants, however.
The biggest difference from the ninth day was that in the evening there was the possibility for anyone who wanted to, to share his or her experience of the retreat with the rest of us. I was sure that smiling-girl would go up to the middle table, sit down and tell us about what had happened during her meditation.
One after another they went up and shared their experiences. There were a lot of people who had been through some rough stuff in their lives and had finally found their peace. Other people had funny stories to tell from the retreat. It was strange hearing people talk again. It felt good not being the only one who laughed for once. Time passed. Shortly before the sharing session ended, she went up and sat down on the middle table.
I was surprised by soft her voice was. It was difficult to catch what she was saying. She shared some of her story of how she had been incredibly shy throughout her life, that she couldn’t even look people in the eyes, and how everything had been turned upside down during the retreat. She didn’t go into detail on the meditation.
The last day of the retreat was over and we went to our rooms. As usual, a staring gecko greeted me when I entered my room. It was strangely comforting.
Day 11 started as normal with morning reading and meditation at 4.30pm. I think the birds made some extra effort for the pulsating choir that morning. I didn’t meditate much – There was simply too much to process. Being was enough. After the meditation session ended, we took our pillow, meditation stool and straw mat, and put them back into storage. After cleaning the rooms – The gecko was not there for the final goodbye – We went with our luggage to the dining hall.
At the dining hall we could buy some products if we wanted to, and there were free books given away. I helped myself generously. I love books.
I reconnected with some friends I met before the silence started. Both my friends from the pickup truck were headed the same direction as me – Koh Phangan. A lot of other people were too, which made Koh Phangan all the more fun.
Then I saw her walking among the tables with the free books. My palms did their thing and started sweating, but I walked towards her. A couple of meters before I reached her she turned towards me, shot me a beaming smile and flung her arms around me. The hug lasted for a few crunching seconds. I think. She said thank you. I have no idea what I responded. The conversation is a bit of a haze to me, but she told me how the meditation retreat had been an extremely emotional event for her, and how things had clicked into place.
She spiced up those days for me. Thank you!
Groups of friends formed and the conversation turned more, ehm, conversational. There’s a big difference between a one-on-one conversation and a group conversation. You share your attention between multiple people. You can’t have really long moments of eyes meeting. Different people need to hear different things and are open to different things. “It’s the waaay the naaatule functions.“
We were picked up in groups by pickup-truck-guy and brought to the highway. German guy, Belgian guy and I decided to travel together to Koh Phangan. We ate some food at the monastery by the road and then caught a pickup-truck-taxi heading for Surat Thani, together with some other people from the retreat. We were back in “real life”, heading for a new adventure on Koh Phangan – Back to the world of friends, partying, laughter, goals and dreams, and all sorts of other kinds of “suffering”.
Life is awesome!