What I Learned During A 3 Night Silent Retreat In The Jungles Of Thailand
Right now I’m sitting on a cushy king sized bed. If I look up, through the mosquito net blowing with the breeze, I see the ocean. I can hear the waves hitting the cliffside boulders that hold my apartment up above the sea. From where I sit I can see that the ocean goes on until it blends into the sky. Deep blues fade to light ones.
And I remember last night when I was punching my pillow, partly to rid it of the bug infestation but mostly to relieve my frustration. Last night I felt anxious about finding a place to sleep for another night. The internet was so spotty it took me hours to create even a tentative plan. I fell asleep annoyed and tense, but with the balcony doors open and to the sound of the ocean moving.
This morning I woke to the sun rising over the horizon. Still in bed, all I had to do was open my eyes and witness its beauty. All of this back and forth to make the point that nothing stays the same. Ever.
Even in the presence of undeniable beauty we can experience things that feel unpleasant.
The unpleasantries fade into pleasantries and back and forth they go.
I’m currently a little over a week into my month long Thailand adventure. While cuddled up with my pup in my cozy Los Angeles apartment I decided I should do a silent meditation retreat at the start of my trip. I checked out the schedule:
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
19.30 Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30 Sitting meditation
21.30 Lights Out
Ok intense, but doable. While I had never done a full blown meditation retreat before, I had done retreats where we've meditated. I’ve also completed a 24 hour meditation marathon where we sat for 45 minute to one hour intervals so I thought a half hour at a time sounded reasonable. Plus, I’ve been meditating on a daily basis since 2011.
Final verdict: ain't no thang.
You know how when women have babies a chemical is released that makes them forget just how awful delivering a baby is so they keep having more babies?
I think there’s something like that for long sitting meditation. I forgot how much it sucks.
I’m not going to pretend it was incredible and life changing and that I had intense states of bliss or breakthroughs. It was hard. Pretty damn hard. And I like my meditation practice. But this was something entirely different. This was an authentic Buddhist Vipassana Meditation retreat. No reading. No writing. No talking. That was the easy part. Aside from washing big metal pots twice a day, my only job was to meditate.
We slept on a wooden platform with mosquito nets tucked tightly under straw mats. We bathed with cold water (it was not hot out) in rusty cement stalls. We ate mindfully and only twice a day (7:30am and 11:30am). We practiced a 5 step walking meditation where you lift your foot in increments and concentrate on each tiny moment of that step. We chanted in Pali and practiced a Loving Kindness meditation. We rose at 4:30am to a loud gong and had 5am morning readings from teachers like J. Krishnamurti (I’m a fan) and Dhamma talks from a visiting monk.
So many of these experiences were beautiful even if they all didn’t feel like it at the time.
The authenticity of the experience also meant that I was sleep deprived. My bony body ached on the hard wood and woke every so often to attempt to find comfort; it rarely came. So each break, after food and chores, I fell into deep sleeps, woke to the gong, and went back to meditating. In the evenings I was so exhausted that there were times I was sitting for meditation and all I could do was try to keep myself awake.
Toward the end of the first day I had either developed a knot in my back or a pinched nerve so sitting became painful. My mind became focused on pain, discomfort, tiredness, and the fact that I was in paradise and not enjoying it. I had ideas about how I would make my own retreat in a way that was more accessible, more practical, and more fitting for what I needed. I had moments of cursing myself for signing up for this retreat. And then I remembered: Riiiiiiggghhhht. I signed myself up for this!
This meditation retreat was a choice, and I had a choice in how I experienced it.
Sometimes we have ideas about things, but the reality is not that way. It doesn’t mean those things don’t hold value or that your experience of them won’t be different another time. It just is what it is in that moment. In the second Dhamma talk of the first day the monk said, “Trying to make anything different from what it is creates suffering.” Oh yeah. This is what I write about. This is my truth.
When we try to change things outside of ourselves we cause our own pain when those things do no change. What we can control is our own experience—our acceptance of it. So each time I felt resistance I accepted it. I embraced it, and the anger and frustration subsided. At times the experiences even transitioned into enjoyment.
And now it’s over.
The retreat is a moment of the past, but the experience has become a part of me just as all of our experiences do. As I write this a dull ache in my lower back is creeping in. I’m going to close this laptop, have a stretch, walk down to the cliffside, and dive into the water. I’ll emerge and become dry again. I’ll take in the view and appreciate its beauty. I’ll have more late ferries, lost paths, language barriers, and uncomfortable situations on this trip. I’ll also have beautiful memories, new friends, and delicious food to experience.
Life is full of highs and lows and middle tones.
The task is to be capable of being fully present with each of them. To do so means we have to learn to be mindful, to control our minds so our minds don’t control us. When we do that we can learn the art of letting go, the practice that allows us to move on from the last moment so we can fully experience the one right here right now.