By Geertrui Tavernier
Photos: Click pictures to view sources
Event: 10-day meditation retreat
Venue: Don Suan Mokh, Chaiya, Thailand
Date: 1–11 December ‘13
So, I decided to go on a 10-day meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery in southern Thailand.
The training is called Anapanasati or mindfulness with breathing and is basically a mediation technique in which you study and focus on your breathing. These were the basic rules:
1. Keep complete silence throughout the retreat
2. Stay within the boundaries of the retreat centre
3. Abstain from killing (even mosquitos or aggressive ants can’t be smashed)
4. Do not steal
5. Keep one’s mind and body free from any sexual activity (men and women were separated as much as possible to avoid any temptation)
6. Do not harm others by speech
7. Stay away from intoxicating substances that lead to carelessness (no alcohol, drugs or smoking)
8. Fast between noon and before dawn (we had two modest vegetarian meals daily – an early breakfast and lunch)
9. Do not dance, sing, play or listen to music, watch shows or beautify oneself with nice garments, perfumes or cosmetics
10. Do not sleep or sit on luxurious beds and seats (our beds were concrete covered with a thin bamboo mat and we had a wooden pillow)
The last eight are called the eight precepts and if you think that’s a big deal, try over a 300 of those for the rest of your life, which is exactly what monks voluntarily choose to live by.
All of us Western soul-searchers or character-challengers signed a form on day one, stating we’ve read the terms and conditions. As such, we were bound to try as hard as we could to outstay the retreat.
About 40% left over the next 10 days. And each time I was perplexed and needed some time to get over yet another empty meditation spot in my vicinity.
There is no running water and we showered by pouring little buckets of rain water over our heads while wearing a “sarong” – a piece of cloth covering us from shoulders to knees. This was also to be worn while bathing in the hot springs.
Aaaahhh, the hot springs. Highlight of the day. Even if you were sweating buckets because of the tropical heat, you’d still crave the moment of releasing all tension when you can immerse in this natural hot bath.
After giving in our valuables and distractions (mobile phones, tablets, laptops, books, travel guides, etc.), we indulged in conversing with those around us for a few more hours. On the evening of day one, we met in the main meditation hall for the first sitting meditation. After that, silence began.
If you ask yourself why a person would freely choose to undergo an experience like that, I can tell you this: A very dear person to me had done the exact same retreat and several other friends had done something similar elsewhere. They all stated that, even though it is hard and extremely intense, the feeling of calmness and inner contentment you attain towards the end is more than worth it. Besides, I wanted to put my discipline and endurance to the test yet another time.
Every morning, we were woken up at 4am by a gong. The patio of the women dormitory would fill up with the soft sounds of us girls washing up. After a morning reading, which never failed to move my heart, and the first sitting meditation of the day, my favourite part of the day would start: yoga in the darkness of dawn.
Holy Buddha! 10 days of Vinyasa yoga have turned me into an addict and my body is so grateful to reach a flexibility it has always longed for. I keep on doing it fanatically now, however, the awakened thrill your body and mind experience when you open up your eyes after Shavasana to see the first rays of sunlight pierce through the jungle trees is hard to recreate.
It was pure magic.
The rest of the days were filled with sitting, standing or walking meditations as well as with occasional Buddha teachings but also lectures on how to implement those in day-to-day life. Chanting was also a part of our daily routine, followed by a love and kindness meditation. I experienced those as surprisingly intense and they always left me with an open heart through which emotions and loving feelings were flowing harmoniously.
Now, this all sounds as if it was as a walk in the park. It wasn’t though.
Those 11 days have been the hardest of my life. For my mind, that’s because my heart has been going through much rougher patches before. You consciously choose to stay in an environment where the mind does not want to be. It does not like to be silenced. It does not like to be deprived of distractions. It wants immediate pleasing with food, sex, shopping, movies & books, parties and get-togethers.
Yes, the wandering of the mind is meditation’s biggest enemy.
Instead of following the slow body movement of breathing in and out, my mind often went on its own journey. It dug up forgotten memories, good and bad, leaving me in a joyous state of gratefulness or with deep sadness and an aching heart. It also creates the most amazing fantasies.
Mainly about sex.
Oh boy, the mind does like to think about sex. My continuously improving flexibility steered my mind to contemplate all the new positions it can bend in and the higher pleasures this would endorse. I also had the most enticing affair with Tom Hardy, what a considerate man he is. Now don’t go thinking I did nothing but playing naughty scenes on my mind’s screen.
I thanked myself numerous times for the gift of temporary detachment of worldly pleasures and distractions to induce inner calmness and silence of the mind by simply focusing on slow breathing in and breathing out.
Even though I have not reached any level of enlightenment, I realised by day nine that I had never been so calm. My worries no longer pressed on my heart, restlessness was no longer there. Also, I got acquainted with my own breathing and experienced what a powerful tool it is to calm myself down when feeling stress of any kind.
I intend to go to this or a similar retreat once in a while to rekindle this feeling and realise every time again that there is no need for worry or fear in life, it is what it is.
What I missed the most though, was laughing. Even just the pure physical movement of the corners of my mouth in the upward direction. It made me realise that I actually do want Dukkha in my life, even if Buddhism advises against it. Dukkha is loosely translated as “a state of discontentment” but it actually means everything that brings the heart and mind out of balance. So it’s not just negative experiences or influences, happy moments can also induce Dukkha. Because happiness creates attachment to the thing that made you happy. And then you crave it. And that creates suffering.
I get that but please do give me a life with ups and downs (and they can be extreme). For then I truly feel that I live and experience and learn and go forward. This precious experience has made me feel so much lighter.
But I guess I’ll say no to enlightenment, for now.