Buddhist Meditation Retreat (April 1st - April 11th)
Distance biked so far: (14, 226 km)
On the morning of April 11th at about 7:00 am, I spoke my first words in over 10 days. Actually, they were my first words spoken out loud; I spent a lot of time talking to myself over that period. The words were "I wonder if we get a different breakfast today?" We didn't.
On March 31st I arrived at the Suan Mokkh Buddhist retreat in Chaiya around lunchtime. There were about 100 people, almost all foreigners from the West. We had a tour of the facilities and were given the instructions for the next 10 days. After a briefing in the early evening we were told that for the next 10 days you were not allowed to talk to anyone unless in an emergency. We all got up from our sitting positions and went to our respective male and female dorms to sleep.
My reasons for going to the retreat were not to convert to Buddhism or to try to solve some hidden secret to happiness but to learn and experience a different religion and way of life. Prior to entering my biggest concerns were how I was going to get up each day at 4:00 am and how to survive on 2 vegetarian meals per day, the typical fear of things you are not familiar with or that get you out of your comfort zone. As it turns out, those were issues I rarely gave a second thought to for the entire stay.
The facilities are set in a beautiful forest and you are in the midst of nature with lots of trees, plants, water and no sound. Here are a few pictures of the grounds.
We were assigned to male and female dorms with a nice courtyard but the dorm rooms were like prison cells. I was assigned cell 228 and it contained nothing but a cement bed, wooden pillow, a thin bamboo mat, blanket and mosquito net. The reasons for the cement bed and wooden pillow are simple; it is to discourage you from sleeping too much. One of the precepts a Buddhist agrees to when they become Monks is that they will refrain from luxurious beds or seats. The idea works because without a chair, desk, music player, television, books, newspapers, computer etc., there was very little incentive to go to your room and lounge. Getting up at 4:00 am is a lot easier when you don't want to be in your room. There was no fan but the forest surroundings kept the place cool and I would end up covering myself with my thin blanket in the middle of the night. I couldn't get used to the wooden pillow though so just went without. I have camping gear and could have used my sleeping pad and pillow but I didn't want to cheat or have an unfair advantage. Here is my room for the 11 nights of the retreat.
At 4:00 am a bell would be rung signifying you had a half hour to get to the meditation hall for the morning reading and meditation. We would get up and head towards the Hall down this path with the way lit by our headlights.
At 4:30 we had an early morning reading where someone would read an article written by a Monk or other Buddhist practitioner and they would typically go into detail about the benefits of meditation or the need to focus on the present moment. We would sit on mats placed in the sand and the reading and meditation would end at 5:15 am.
The purpose of meditation is not to simply relax although that is a great benefit. The idea is to focus your attention on your breathing. You sit in a quiet place with your legs crossed and spine erect, but not rigid. You have to be comfortable or the focus is on your pain and not your breathing. You breathe in and out and mentally follow your breath from the tip of your nose to your navel and back out again. It is not as easy as it sounds. If you try it you will notice that your mind wanders very quickly away from the focus on breathing. Within a few minutes at most, you will start thinking about something in the past or plans for the future. You might think about something someone did to you that wasn't fair, the assignment due later this week, your unruly neighbor or a myriad of things that occupy our minds 24 hours per day. The benefit of meditation is to learn to let go of those thoughts and just focus on your breathing. It calms the mind and the focus on the present helps with concentration. The focus shifts away from you and your problems to being at peace.
The sitting for extended periods and the inability to focus on breathing were by far the most difficult parts of the retreat for me. I would repeatedly try and put any and all distractions out of my head but there were times that before I completed a single breath, my mind was wandering. It can be very frustrating but it is normal to experience. Our entire lives have been geared to noise and most people are not comfortable when things are too quiet. If you go into your home at night, most will turn on a television or stereo to avoid the peace. Then we hear television commercials filling our minds with the need to buy things that will make us happy or to engage in activities that will keep us busy. If you ever go to a professional sporting event, watch how the gap between activities on the field is filled with noise. They have large screens flashing messages, games to be played to win prizes, seventh inning stretches to get you up and of course food vendors to get your attention away from sitting quietly watching the actual event. It is extremely rare where you can go to hear silence and most people avoid it at all costs. We are so used to distractions that it has become difficult to concentrate on one thing and uncomfortable to be in silence.
At 5:15 it was time for a 90-minute yoga session. Yoga was introduced to the foreigner retreats due to most people having difficulty sitting still for extended periods without pain. We grow up sitting in comfortable chairs and our bodies cannot easily adjust to sitting cross-legged on the floors. I was having a lot of problems with my back and the yoga sessions saved my experience from being a disaster. Sitting on a bike in a forward position is not the same as sitting erect on a floor and I really struggled so looked forward to the morning sessions. The men and women were again separated during yoga as they were in all activities including meditation and eating. The idea being that the opposite sex is a distraction from focusing on the present. The yoga hall was a large cement floor and we would gather our mats and form a circle around the instructor, it was really well done and the 90 minutes was time well invested.
The large bell would ring at 6:45 and that signaled a return to the meditation hall for a Dhamma talk. These talks about the Buddha's various teachings were given by an 80-year old Monk with broken English. He was one of those very wise men that I find present in all religions. I have a lot of respect for the learned Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim men that have devoted their lives to learning and following their specific faith and it is the strong belief in something that seems to give them a quiet confidence that inspires respect whether you share their belief system or not. They seem to have a quiet nature that reflects the true meaning of religion verses the often-shrill voices of those who seem more intent on convincing others that their beliefs are right. Once again I am reminded that it is the people and not the religion itself that causes problems. Listening to any of the wise men is a great experience. The talks would last about 15 minutes and it would be followed by an hour of sitting meditation.
At 8:00 am we would go to breakfast. It is now 4 hours since we woke up and 19 hours since the last meal so the bell would ignite a much faster walking pace from the participants than you would see all day. Breakfast would consist of rice soup with small vegetables cut into it and a cup of green tea. The food is all organically grown on the premises and the retreat may be the only place in Thailand where the food was bland. We would get 2 vegetarian meals per day with one at breakfast and the other 4 hours later at lunch. There was no meat, sugar, dairy or coffee so you get a healthy diet. The idea behind the 2 bland meals is to break the addiction or desire for food and eat just to maintain a healthy body. Before each meal we would recite a food reflection that stated we eat this food not for play, intoxication, fattening or beautification but simply to maintain life. I had no problems at all with a caffeine restriction and never really thought of food at all. I came away thinking most people could live on half the calories that they normally consume. The Monks only eat one meal per day at breakfast and none of them are dying of hunger. The long gap between your last meal and going to bed at night also means your body can sleep instead of digesting a large dinner. In the West we eat too much and too late at night with too high a percentage of calories consumed after 5:00 pm, both are leading causes of obesity. Of course we try to make up for it by exercising but often use exercise to justify poor eating habits. The idea being we can eat whatever we want because we burned off calories but that logic focuses strictly on weight and ignores health. It is healthy to eat lightly and early and that has nothing to do with weight. If you eat that way, the weight will take care of itself. We had the same breakfast and lunch for 10 days with only minor changes to the type of vegetables.
Each day after breakfast we were assigned chores. Mine was to sweep one of the floors of the many halls on the grounds. The purpose of the silence during the retreat is so that during the day you can carry on what the Buddhists refer to as mindfulness. This is an idea similar to meditation where you focus on the present and not on the past or future. When you eat you are to eat slowly which also helps you eat less but is mainly to practice mindfulness. You don't eat while rushing off to work or reading a newspaper, you eat and are aware of how your food smells and tastes and how your body chews and digests. It is a slowing down of activities instead of racing off to do other things. We tend to try and pack as much as we can into a day but a lot of times we are rushed because we waste time. If we didn't stay up and go on the Internet or watch television we could sleep and get up earlier and get the same amount of things done without rushing around. You could get up a little earlier and eat a slow and healthy breakfast instead of stuffing food down while you drive. These are things you don't often think about but it is reality for most of us. During our chores we are to focus on the work and I found that also very difficult. It is boring to watch your breathing or think about the movement of the broom.
The chore was followed by a daily bath. There is no running water but I was used to that after living without in the village in the Philippines for 6 months. There is something very refreshing about throwing cold water over your head when living in a tropical country. Here is the bathing area where you would get a small bucket, throw it over yourself, soap up and rinse off.
The large bell would ring again at 10:30 and we would march off to the meditation hall and listen to a brief Dhamma talk and do another 2 hours of meditation. The sitting meditation would usually be a half hour and we could then either continue sitting or do standing or walking meditation. This was designed to save our backs and legs but the idea of the meditation is the same regardless of the position. It's far easier to concentrate while sitting though and that is the preferred method.
We would hear the bell again at 12:30 and that meant lunchtime. Our second and last meal of the day included rice and vegetables with tea. We would always have a dessert that I found very tasty. They would be a vegetable of some sort mixed with coconut milk that added a sweetness that curbed people's sugar cravings. After lunch I would take a nap on my concrete bed and we would have another Dhamma talk and meditation session between 2:30 and 6:00 pm. The afternoon session involved a foreign monk who decided to leave England about 25 years ago and join the forest monastery. He was very intelligent and interesting because he grew up with a Western mindset so we could relate well to what he had to say.
One day he held a talk on reincarnation. It is a difficult concept to discuss and one he was not entirely convinced of the process. He would emphasize that he didn't know what happens when we die and neither does anyone else with absolute confidence. You can have faith that something happens but it is not the same thing as proof. He preferred to say that he just didn't know what happens after death except that you die and your physical body; mind, experiences and knowledge die with it. He said what happens after death is not something he worries about because it distracts you from living now and that is what is important.
At 6:00 we would march back to the dining hall for our dinner, a nice hot cup of tea. It is the only time of day I would get a hunger pang but the drink seemed to take the edge off and I easily lost interest in food. It was only a few days until I completely forgot about Oreo cookies or ice cream for a midnight snack. It wouldn't kill them to sell jellybeans though.
At 7:30 the night session would begin with a half hour group walking meditation session sandwiched by 2 half hour group sittings. The group walking was enjoyable as we paced in single file around a small pond and on most nights we were treated to a clear sky with countless stars. We had a full moon on one of the nights and it was magical to be out there in the peace and quiet. It is usually the simple things that you most enjoy and that night was certainly one highlight for all of us. The day's activities ended at 9:00 with lights out at 9:30 and the entire process would be repeated for 10 days. On Day 9 they threw one curve by limiting us to a single meal at breakfast but again, I never even thought about food the entire day. I think I often eat out of habit rather than necessity with a conditioned response to food coming at a certain hour whether you are hungry or not. A lifetime of habit and routine is really hard to change.
I spent 10 days and 11 nights there and it will take some time to assess the impact. All of us left with a sense of accomplishment because it was not easy and if you ever think of coming for fun you would be better served going to a beach resort or an all night moon party and not to the retreat. It was a great reminder of what a simple life looks like and how little you really need to survive. The founding Monk of the retreat is famous in Thailand and one of his main objectives was to help turn the world away from the materialism that has invaded our lives. The Western idea that possessions and activities make you happy is just not true and people always end up figuring that out later in life. It is hard to accept because advertisers constantly tell us what we need to keep up with everyone and the things that will make us happy. We are told the gadgets will save us time and that savings can be used to spend more time with our children or friends or the really important things but that is a selling technique designed to pull at our heartstrings and has little basis in fact. If all the labor saving devices we own were really making our lives easier, why are we so busy and why is it such a badge of honor to say we are busy? I can't count how many times I hear people claim with mock outrage how busy they are and if you ever say you have lots of spare time to just relax, you are considered a wasteful person and not making the most of your time. People sign up for one activity after another to cram as much into a day as possible but end up quitting most things out of frustration and then battle boredom until they sign up for something else.
It was a great experience and I learned a lot about myself and many of the beliefs I held about materialism and the simplicity of life were confirmed. It is a battle against the economic interests of corporations that rely on distraction and a short attention span to sell their products but it is ultimately up to each person to decide for themselves how they want to live their lives and what makes them happy. I enjoyed it for reasons other than having fun by the accepted definition but then again that was the entire point of the retreat.
I will be heading south to Malaysia next so a new country waits in a few days.