When Brian told me he wanted to attend a meditation retreat in Thailand, I was all for it. I like meditation. I’ve had many positive, relaxing experiences through guided meditation, breathing meditation, walking meditation, empty mind meditation and transcendental meditation. Insight meditation was another story.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when we arrived at Wat Suan Dok to check in. After purchasing uniforms — loose white shirts and pants — we listened to general information about Buddhism from retreat founder Phra Saneh Dhammavaro. Then, he gave us the retreat guidelines, which included separate rooms for men and women, 5am daily wake-up calls, and silence at all times.
Although I was a little nervous, we went ahead, hopping into the back of a flatbed truck and sitting on benches for the 30-minute ride to the meditation center. We were allowed to talk until sundown, so we chatted with fellow travelers and found same-sex roommates.
Then, after dinner, silence began. I don’t consider myself a big talker, but I discovered how much I depend on sharing my thoughts and feelings with Brian when I couldn’t. In fact, I sucked at silence. My mind was so rebellious that I took to writing down my thoughts to get them out of my head (and I still whispered to Brian when I needed to). While it was a complete violation of the rules, of course, it was all I could do to keep it together.
And then, the next morning, I started tearing up at breakfast…
Having to be mindful of every bite I took and to trust someone else to provide for me set me off. I know I have food issues. I have for as long as I can remember. I’ve learned to eat consciously in everyday life, but giving alms to the monks — which thrusts food scarcity into mind, making me worry that they won’t have enough to eat — and chanting about not eating for pleasure or in a gluttonous manner before each meal pushed me right over the edge.
Twenty-four hours in, I was struggling so much that we almost left early. But I decided to persevere…and the real fun began.
Insight meditation requires mindfulness at all times. If your mind wanders from your breathing, for example, you’re supposed to acknowledge it, mentally chanting, “Thinking. Thinking. Thinking,” until your mind returns to your breath. If you’re feeling pain, you mentally acknowledge, “Paining. Paining.” (It’s a Thai translation thing.) Doing this with your thoughts all day long is both tiring and enlightening. I came face to face with many of my issues, most notably rebellion to authority, food scarcity concerns and negative self-talk.
My in-the-moment journal entries detail my experience pretty well:
1pm: Just when I’m feeling comfortable and decide to stay at the retreat, Phra Chai (the monk) announces that all we’re doing for the rest of the day is meditation practice—15 minutes walking and 15 minutes sitting, and repeat—until 8pm, with two 5-minute breaks and one dinner break. I have to still my mind for the next 7 hours. Holy sh*t!
Sometime later: My mind is like a bucking bronco, refusing to calm. I open my eyes and Phra’s head is bobbing. Is he napping during seated meditation? I think he might be.
5:30pm: Roomie (a lovely gal from Hungary) and I are delirious from hunger. We are giggling and talking in our room when we’re supposed to be silent. Starvation imminent. Phra would say meditation is working: we’re happy.
7pm: The chefs prepare a delicious pumpkin curry for dinner. I imagine it’s a treat for meditating so well today. It backfires on them, however, because we eat enthusiastically and vigorously rather than consciously and without pleasure. Some even go back for seconds.
The call to evening meditation is loud and long; is it because Phra is irritated because his last meal was 7 hours ago? (Buddhist monks don’t eat after noon each day.)
5:30am: Brian leads morning yoga class: morning series, hip opening series and 5 Tibetans. It’s so popular that he’s asked to do so again tomorrow.
7am: All ready to face my food issues and give alms to the monks but we don’t do so today. Oh well, I guess I learned enough from my reaction yesterday. Today’s breakfast: Clear soup with pasta tubes and some kind of non-meat protein, accompanied by toast. It never looks like enough but it is.
My mind is rebelling against the idea of another full day of meditation. Why is that? Does it seem too long? Do I want mental peace? Do I believe I can achieve peace this way?
I’m raging mentally whenever we bow and chant, and we do so A LOT (eight different times on day three). Brian wants to know why I’m having trouble. I’m thinking about it. I’m not a religious person. I dislike ritual. Perhaps it’s just ego overdrive.
We have significant free time after breakfast. It’s nice to wander the grounds quietly, listen to birds sing and visit Buddha statues. Maybe Phra knows we need a break.
During group discussion, Phra tells us that, often at meditation courses, you are given a little instruction and then are asked to go practice on your own all day. I think that would work better for me. In part, I’m chafing at feeling obligated to sit here in this room all the time.
I notice a lot of people are escaping the moment by letting their minds wander. They describe fun mental trips, which isn’t what insight meditation is about. I’m trying to stay grounded and present, but my mind feels trapped and that makes me angry.
Dreading meditation. Why? I’m afraid of the pain, of digging deep in my emotions and really feeling them, staying present.
11:45am: Lunchtime. Eating (and journaling) in silence again. Boring, boring, boring. Scooping, mouthing, chewing, chewing. At least I’m being mindful. But I think that eating in silence—which seems to be a common Thai practice—diminishes the enjoyment of sharing a meal. I hate this! 24 hours to go.
1pm: It was so wonderful to sit and chat and laugh with other participants after lunch, until we got shushed. Back to silence mode, and meditation. Not everyone has shown up and Phra is ringing the bell incessantly.
Roomie is thinking of paying someone 500 THB to drive her to town. I talk her out of it. Am I crazy or what?!
I decide to revert to concentration meditation instead of insight meditation. No labeling, just being. It feels so much better.
2pm: Phra decides we look tired and can nap if we want to. I lay in the back of the room with the others and think about business and blog posts. Letting go of expectations for my meditation is helping. But I’m hungry and want a snack. I close my eyes to meditate and hear sonorous, nonsensical chanting in my mind instead.
4:30pm: We are released early because we still look tired. I realized in the last session that walking meditation works best for controlling my “monkey mind.” It’s so precise, chronicling each movement: Heel up, lifting, moving, lowering, heel down, toe down. Monkey mind has taken over my seated meditation. Brian seems to be having fun, however.
5:25am: Almost done. Sleep was like the first night, spotty. Just as I fell deeply asleep, the wake-up bell began. I understand why Thai children hid that thing once. I want to do it myself. Time for yoga.
6:50am: Phra Saneh is back. He wants to teach us to give with our whole heart. He talks about alms and so we do another round. I handle it much better this time, even though I still have nigglings of fear that the monks won’t have enough to eat, but I know this is just my issue and untrue.
8am: Another breakfast of clear soup and bread. I’m mindfully singing Dave Matthews Band songs in my head since silence prevails. I notice the monks are chatting in the other room.
8:30am: The bell is ringing again. It’s high-pitched ting-ting-ting-ting-ting sends shivers down my spine. Discussion time begins.
Phra Saneh talks about coming to understand the true nature of life—that is, impermanence—through meditation practice. He says that meditation helps us understand the nature of the mind. We are all the same: Human beings, not male/female, Christian/Muslim/Buddhist. Insight meditation is about observing the present, he says. We each must acknowledge and accept our emotions.
He recommends at least 15 minutes of walking meditation and 15 minutes of seated meditation every day, for all people.
I am feeling sad over lost time, of having let my emotions blow in the wind during this retreat and beforehand. But that is the past. I can only move forward, living in the present, acknowledging what I feel in this moment and knowing even that is impermanent.
We are each like Buddha—two eyes, two feet, two arms, one nose, one mouth. We can each work toward enlightenment. We each create our own happiness. [Through meditation] practice, we release endorphins to create our own bliss. Stop seeking happiness from external sources. We create this for ourselves.
Focus on the present. When we’re forever waiting and wanting, life is long. When we’re in the moment, time is short. Relax and be present.
~Phra Saneh Dhammavaro
10:45am: Final meditation session. My mindfulness is better but still problematic.
Final words from Phra Saneh:
As you live in the world, remember three things. 1) Practice forgiveness. Forgive yourself and others so that you are set free. 2) Learn to forget. Choose to forget all bad things. When we remember and dwell on bad things, we’re the first to suffer. And 3) Practice meditation.
11:45am: Lots of learning and emotions to review later but now it’s lunchtime. OMG, we can talk! It’s such a lovely feeling.
One last group photo and it’s time to go. Yes!
* * *
It’s now been months since Brian and I left the meditation retreat. I recall being sad upon leaving — Phra Dhammavaro gave a rousing speech, inviting us to consider the retreat center home and to return whenever we wanted — and also glad to return to normalcy.
It’s interesting how much “stuff” insight meditation brought up for me, but I haven’t returned to it since. I guess I’m just not ready. For now, I’ll keep my concentration, empty mind and loving kindness meditations.