My personal challenge of being in a silent retreat for 10 days
On my trip I met a couple of people who told me about silent retreats.
I had never heart about it before and was immediately curious about it, even more, I was challenged.
What is a silent retreat?!
It is a very special time, a special time, I think, everybody should try at least once in a lifetime.
One goes to a place where one commits to be silent for 10 days on the search for ones inner self, hopefully finds freedom from the busy life we all have nowadays. One can experience inner peace and forget the world for a bit by learning how to meditate.
This time gives you the chance to reflect on your life, life style, let’s you recognize how fast we live and how many simple things we miss and enjoyed as we were younger. A time which points out to you to stop every now and then (actually always) and live in the present, not in the past and not in the future.
The past is gone anyways and needs to be let go, one can’t change it!
And the future is something you should not worry about, living in the present.
We constantly concentrate on the material world. Always trying to get more and more, being better than the other, following from society dictated rules like blind puppets, trying to fit in and burning ourselves out by working our fucking asses off. And for what???? When we leave this world at some point (hopefully late), we leave with nothing, so why accumulate more?!
At the end it’s all about possessions and status, nobody really needs in life. Adding more and more things into our lives in the hope they make us happier. But those things are exactly the things we then worry about all the time, ending up in unhappiness and depressions.
So How does it work?
You live in a monastery for 10 days and all participants need to follow certain rules.
- Keep complete silence (no talking, no sign language, no body language)
- Don’t destroy, kill any form of life (even Mosquitos when they enjoy some of your yummy blood :)
- Don’t take any things without permission (no stealing, not using other peoples things (you can’t even ask for toilet paper :) – check point 1)
- No sexual activity of any kind (verbally, mentally, bodily) – I don’t need to tell you, how difficult this is do I ?! lol)
- Harming others by speech (easier said than done)
- Smoking or intoxicating yourself with any intoxicant (no beer, no coffee, no cigarettes – wow, that’s gonna be tough!)
- Living on 2 vegetarian, healthy meals a day (not eating after lunch and before dawn – that’s doable I think)
- Beautifying or entertaining yourself (no make up, no jewelry, no music, no books , no camera, no mobil, no nothing)
- Sleeping or sitting on a luxurious bed or seat (sounds easy – wasn’t ! will give you the details later)
- Stay the whole 10 days if possible
- Follow the retreat schedule (17hours)
If I broke any rule ??? I will tell you later! Give it a guess !
Who knows me, knows me as a very active person, almost never able to stand still, to stop and pause, always on the move. And if I am forced to sit or stand or lie still, my mind goes nearly nuts! To totally relax – WHAT? ME? Impossible I thought and knowing all the rules, I was immediately challenged! So let’s do it I thought, let’s go to Suan Mokkh – South-Thailand, a lovely place one of my new travel friends recommended to me.
What was I looking for ?
Some me time, some time out, some more balance! You might say, hey, you are traveling, so what’s so hard about your life at the moment?
Yeah true … nothing really. But there are moments, when I am at the most beautiful places and I am not able to stop and just enjoy. My mind is always distracted and already 10 steps ahead. I wanted to be more balanced!
Some inner voice told me to stop and give it a try, I haven’t had something to lose after all!
But let’s start at the beginning here and let me tell you about my personal experience in Suan Mokkh.
One day before registration day I went to Suan Mookh main monastery and stayed there for 1 night in the dorm.
That was some kind of a preparation for the things to come, because the sleeping arrangements are exactly the same like in the retreat center.
Basically I slept in a prison cell. A small room with a concrete kind of table (not a bed) in it, a bamboo mat and a wooden pillow. Yes you read correctly, a wooden pillow :) Ahhhh and I had also a mosquito net!!!
I tried to make myself comfortable – which is nearly impossible lol, but hey I wanted the challenge, so I have to live with the circumstances too and go with the flow, give it a try and not to be scared off because of a unpleasant bed.
In the main monastery I met already a couple of people which had the same plan.
At this time I was still able to talk to others and of course we did.
I (and the others too) felt the need to talk A LOT. Knowing I will be restricted from talking for the next 10 days, it almost seemed like I needed to talk even more!
The rest of the day was a matter of drinking coffee (as much as I could), smoking (yes I do smoke :( and talking and talking and talking and talking. ahhh and eating ice cream :) all the „good stuff“ I needed to stop when I registered the next day.
On registration day, I went to the retreat centre, which is about 2 km away from the main monastery in the middle of beautiful breathtaking nature, no traffic noise to hear, just sounds of the nature.
I filled in some paper work, had an interview with a nun, who made sure, that I understood all the rules and I knew, what I was getting into.
Then I moved into my ‚Dorm-prison-cell‘, picked up a mat,pillow and a small wooden bench for the meditation and chose my spot in Meditation Hall 5. This was MY place for the next 10 days! Wow standing there and being aware this is real…. awww take a deep breath and calm down I told myself….!
Lucky me one of my neighbors for the next 10 days gave me a lovely, cosy cushion (rule number 9 broken, not totally though, the surface I slept on was still damn hard – it’s like a concrete floor !!!!)
The blood was rushing through my veins, my body needed to cope with all kinds of emotions. From being excited to being freaking scared, from wanting to run away to staying. But hey, I was already here, so there is no running away, just staying and being curious. I asked myself, how I will be able to ‚survive‘ the ‚torture‘ ???? OMG, what the hell am I doing?!
After the registration a couple of us went outside the gate again to chat more, to have some more cigarettes, ‚celebrating‘ our last ones together. My heart was pumping and it wasn’t able to slow down even just a bit … damn … this is already such an intense start. Within this small group of people I met a guy (let’s call him Mr.X)…. Yummy for my taste (hahahah hey I am a woman, so why not have a bit of an eye candy – blushing a bit here while writing that lol).
At 3 pm we needed to be back inside. We all got an orientation talk and walk, where we were shown around the whole facility and again been told what was allowed to do and what not!
By the way before I forget it, men and women are separated! separate dorms (of course), separate sides in the meditation halls (men left, woman right) and separate sides in the dining hall as well.
In our female dorm we had a place where we were suppose to ‚shower‘, but not the regular way. There was no proper shower, just a huge basin filled with water, some smaller bowls to pour the water over yourself.
The WAY of taking this kind of bath is not normal for us ‚Pharangs‘ – white heads – westerners either. We were not allowed to be naked at all times! We needed to use a sarong to cover ourselves. Hahahahah it’s a mission to clean yourself with a sarong wrapped around your body believe me. But we all figured it out more or less. Pouring the water over the body first (cold by the way – which was pleasant considering the temperature of more than 30 degrees), open the sarong somehow without dropping it, washing yourself and rinse, again by pouring water over yourself.
There are also no mirrors anywhere .. rule Number 8 (no beautification)! Clever me, I found a surface which was a bit reflecting. Second rule broken partly :) come on … just to make a pony tail and look a bit representative, that doesn’t count does it?!
By 7 pm on the 31st of March the silence began …….. phhhhhhhhhh ….
This will be tough and it was! Just breath and try to relax I told myself again and again!
By 9.30 pm it was lights out! (every day) and we got up the next morning, woken by a bell, which you can’t overhear at 4 am!!!! 4 am !!!!
Every morning I toiled myself out of bed and a long day of 17 hours was lying ahead of me and all the other silent souls. All in all being about 50 men and 50 women, you pass each other every day and you don’t know a thing about the other person.
That gives you already a lot to think and one is not suppose to think. What’s his/her name? Where is he/she coming from? What’s their story? What’s their intention of voluntarily going into a silent retreat. Mind spinning almost out of control.
I gave them nick names because some where looking like famous musicians or actors :))) .. there was Justin Timberlake (Matt as it turned out later), a young Antonio Banderas (Marco), one Milli Vanilli (Anton) and Lanny Kravitz too :)))
What amazed me most was the fact, that despite the not talking, when you pass by a to this point stranger, somehow you build up a relationship. I felt close to the others, to some more to some less, but nevertheless close. There is a certain connection,energy hanging in the air, maybe because we were all sitting in the same boat, I am not sure.
What I am sure about now is, that they enriched my life and we will keep in touch!
At 4.30 am everybody was sitting in meditation hall 5, listening first to a morning reading, which was always very interesting, but at the beginning hard to concentrate on. The morning reading was full with wisdom and I enjoyed it very much. After I got used to the daily schedule (quickly), I actually was looking forward to this part of the day. After the reading half an hour sitting meditation followed from 4.45 to 5.15 am. That’s very tricky, because at this time of day I was very tempted to fall asleep again, who wouldn’t?!
Thankfully after the first sitting meditation a 1 1/2 hours lasting yoga-session followed .. it was still dark by the way, which is a bit spooky but at the other side also beautiful. The calmness in the early morning hours reflected on my body and soul.
When was the last time you got up early and saw the sun rise?
I got to see 11 sunrises :) and every single one was different and more beautiful and breathtaking than the other. Every morning at about 6 am I was patiently (usually not my strength) sitting leaned against a tree covered by a pashmina and was waiting for the sun to show up. The orange-blue sky sometimes with more sometimes with less clouds was carrying the light of the sun and every single beam touched my heart and my body, warmed me inside. Those moments I will never forget, being by myself and really enjoying every single second of it. Very often my family was in my thoughts and I had tears in my eyes, because it touched me so deeply. To be surrounded by nature and feeling it …. that is soooo intense. You should give it a try, if you haven’t had this for a while or maybe never so far … TRY IT!
It was hard for me to get up again and move on to the next part of the day. Guess what?! Another meditation session combined with a Dhamma talk (I will explain it later) :) from 7 to 8 am. This was particularly hard because by then I was starving and couldn’t wait to have breakfast. Every session was finished by a tiny bell which was rung by the teacher 3 times. That was the moment where most probably everybody thought … awwww finally :)
Everybody was walking quietly to the dining-hall to have breakfast, which consisted of rice-soup with some veggies every single day. It was yummy don’t get me wrong here, but firstly we westerners are not used to having rice soup for breakfast and secondly … no variation at all …. I hoped for a change, but it never came.
After the breakfast I had a break. During this break everybody is required to do some chores. On registration day I signed up for mopping one of the meditation halls (number 4).
This particular meditation hall was one of my favorites, because it was surrounded by a pond with fishes in it and it was the location where I experienced my first meditation ‚success‘ (later more about that).
A tranquil place and even mopping the floor was somehow relaxing. After finishing, I could either catch up with some sleep for half an hour or wash my clothes. Washing clothes by hand … something nobody would like to do voluntarily in times of using washing machines. But here it was different, because I could not entertain myself with something else (rule number 8), doing your washing was very distracting from the rest of the daily schedule and therefore it gave you something to do aside from the meditation. Simple things in life one usually doesn’t like to do become a pleasure again.
Short before 10 am the big bell rung again, which is always the sign to go to meditation hall number 5. This time it was 1 hour of listening to a Dhamma talk.
11 am walking or standing meditation, 11:45 am another group sitting meditation, till the tiny bell rung again and it was time for lunch.
Lunch was always great, very yummy and healthy. But it was the last meal of the day. From 1 pm till 8 am the next morning (rule number 7) I was not suppose to eat. It turned out not to be a problem and most of us lost a bit of weight :)
2:30 pm back to the usual business of meditating .. again hall 5. Till 5 pm it was a mix of group sitting meditation and instructions, walking or standing meditation and another group sitting meditation.
At 5 pm chanting and loving and kindness meditation was on the time table, in meditation hall 2. Very relaxing with a lot of love for everybody’s heart. (google chanting or check it on youtube, if you don’t know what it is).
6 pm another saving bell rung and it was tea-time. The first 2 days we could also choose to drink a hot chocolate :) the highlight of the day :)))) and now you can imagine how disappointed I was on day 3, when there was no hot chocolate available! What? seriously? The only thing I was looking forward to in the afternoon and now you take it away???? NOOOOO! You could read in everybody’s face the disappointment … like children who don’t get what they want.
But in times where you don’t get what you want even a good tea can be something amazing. On day 5 the hot chocolate was back and there were huge smiles on all our faces. We learned to appreciate again, something nobody should loose on the way of getting older. Make yourself aware again in which kind of luxury we live in nowadays and hold onto to the important and necessary things!!! Close your eyes and enjoy the tiny things in live!
After the tea-time, I went to use the hot spring :)))
Yeahhhhhh they have a hot spring and after a painful day of sitting (in all kind of positions) and meditating this is such a huge relief to step into about 40 degrees hot water to get rid of all the tension and aches.
7:30 pm another group sitting meditation in hall 5 for half an hour followed by half an hour group walking meditation.
In the darkness we walked around the ponds, the way just slightly lit by candles. We were suppose to walk in synchronization max 3 feet apart from each other and of course in total silence. Every now and then we stopped and had the chance to star gaze … another awwwwww…..
The last group sitting meditation session from 8.30 to 9 pm, in an as well by candles lit meditation hall, was for me the hardest. At this time of day or actually night, I couldn’t concentrate at all and every single minute felt like being 5. The tiny bell rung and everybody walked quickly ‚home‘ to brush the teeth and finally fall onto the bed… the hard concrete again! But you know what? As unbelievable as it might sound, now I miss it and every new mattress I was lying on since felt much too soft hahahaha. Sometimes I struggled to fall asleep after a day full of meditation … pain nearly everywhere and no comfy position to be found to relax in and sleep. I usually sleep on my tummy… a mission impossible!
This time table was repeated every single day apart from day 9 where we had also a working-meditation in the afternoon – raking leaves around the nuns accommodations.
I had never meditated in my life before and felt a bit lost sometimes. But at the end, I wasn’t the only one. I would say the majority of people haven’t had any experience with meditation up to this point!
I asked myself at the beginning how am I suppose to meditate?
How do you meditate?
It’s called ‚mindfulness with breathing‘ – Anapanasati, thought by buddha. That’s about it, concentrating on breathing in and breathing out through your nose, feeling it in your belly, lungs and on your nose. Sounds easy does it?!
You need to sit in a comfy position, crossed legged for example with your hands in you lap or on your knees, eyes open or closed, straight back to be able to breath freely, paying attention to your breath.
My legs, my back were hurting so badly that I needed to shift all the time, but others did too. We were in the same boat.
And then I tried to concentrate on my breath like our teacher explained .. it lies all in ourselves, it’s there, you don’t need to search for it, it’s inside of all of us, just concentrate on the breathing.
At the very beginning it is so damn difficult, you can’t imagine. I was not suppose to think and as soon as I closed my eyes my mind went berserk.
Thoughts permanently appearing. All kinds of thoughts from …’what will there be served for lunch’ , ‚how do the others do it‘, ‚awwww does the bird sound lovely‘, ‚how is the eye candy doing?‘ … opening my eyes, checking on him (hahahahah) and being interrupted again to start from scratch… in short all kinds of stuff coming and going. Our teacher (Mr. Supon) told as, as soon as a thought comes, we are suppose to let it go again and then concentrate on our breathing again.
Dear friends, who know me as the restless person I am, believe me my busy soul was struggling NOT to think, but needed the rest so badly!
The first 3 days I was concentrating so hard, that I had a tension headache for the whole 3 days. My head felt like exploding any second, terrible!!! Painkillers didn’t help at all!
But I had the chance to go for an interview and I ask the teacher about it. He just said, you try too hard and you need to let go, relax and let it just come to you! hmmmmmmm I thought let’s see.
I decided to relax for an afternoon and just sat somewhere under a tree, feelt the slight breeze of the wind on my skin, being one with and in the nature. And it helped… thank God!
From then on onwards I was taking it less ‚serious‘ …. just trying and trying again but not too hard! To feel bad the whole time (10days) didn’t make sense for me and finally I let go.
One afternoon, as we were suppose to do walking meditation (which I can’t), I went to my lovely meditation hall number 4. I was lying down !!!! That was strictly not allowed and I did it anyways! I apologize for it, because actually it’s rude to lie down on monastery ground and it is disrespectful toward Thais. I am honestly sorry!!! But, nobody was there and it was soooooo peaceful. Finally I was not surrounded by a lot of people, had less distractions around me.
So I was lying down, much better for my aching body, my legs pulled up first, my hands lying in my lap, thumb and forefinger touching each other.
And then I started breathing in and out … you don’t need to put a lot of effort to it, because it’s natural. I dismissed one thought after the other and felt the cool and calm of my body.
At some point my thumb and forefinger parted … I didn’t do it actively, it just happened! My underarms started to feel warm and tingly. I stretched my legs out and this warm sensation went from my arms to my upper body down to my hips. My hand twitched at some point and one of my feet too.
It felt like waves moving through my body, like tiny with energy filled bubbles floating through me. Wow what a great feeling I never experienced in my life before. It automatically put a soft smile on my face, I could feel how I relaxed and calmed down.
The moment I was becoming aware of what is going on with my body, the thinking started again … ‚is that it?‘, ‚is that how meditation is suppose to feel?, ‚if so, wow, how can I get more, carry on?‘ …. Thinking, thinking, thinking and the moment was gone :((( the sensation disappeared.
But hey :))) my first success. I don’t know for how long it lasted, but for me it felt like ages ….. maybe 30 minutes, no idea. Nevertheless, even though I got distracted again, this was awesome. I felt so in peace in this moment. I couldn’t believe I did it, ME!!!!???? WOW! That was on day 6. All in all within this 10 days I reached this point twice. You might think that’s not a lot, but it is. To learn to meditate is definitely not easy and takes a lot of commitment. Only by practicing it again and again one succeeds. And if one is really really good with it, one can even reach nirvana (the extinction of suffering).
For the rest of the day I kept that smile on my face and felt great, deeply relaxed.
And of course ‚Mr.X‘ got this smile from me :) and I got one in return hahahahahaha.
On day 7 in one of the walking meditation times, I walked to a remoter part of the monastery. There was a small mediation hall standing, just a concrete floor with a roof on top. Maybe 4 to 5 people were sitting there.
I was wondering, what the heck are they doing, because they were quite loud?! Opening a fresh coconut from one of the trees :))) yeahhhhh I am in (rule number 3 broken, don’t take things without permission) and it was yummy and because it was after 1 pm rule number 7 was broken too.
Antonio Banderas had climbed the tree and I ‚slipped‘ and said to him ‚respect‘. ooopppsssss I talked (rule number 1 broken)! Damn, this afternoon was killing me :)))
Mr. X and Ms. Y (another girl from Germany) looked at me and then we started whispering. Talking nearly the whole afternoon, having fun, having amazing laughs(rule 8 broken, no entertaining). It was such a relief after not talking for 7 days!
At least we had made it to day 7 … better than nothing I guess. Not to talk for a week is a great achievement, I think. A good start and maybe I will go for another retreat at some point of my life to give it another try.
After we started talking on day 7, day 8 to 10 were ‚lost‘ :) every day on more person joined our tiny group and we had a fantastic time, still trying to respect others (don’t know if that worked?, hopefully otherwise rule number 5 would have been broken too). We even built a tic tac toe game out of branches and played with stones and twigs (rule 8 broken again) – need is the mother of inventions I guess :)))
We also talked about food and our cravings .. coffee, cigarettes, a beer. Flirting was going on between men and women and we all felt so alive again. (rule number 4 broken – sexual thoughts). It’s unbelievable how weak we human beings can be under extreme circumstances!
The rest of the time with the obligatory meditation sessions we kept quiet though and at the end we made it through to day 10.
The last evening before we were all released out of our self chosen ‚prison‘, we had a sharing evening. Everybody who wanted, could step in front of a microphone in meditation hall 5 and share their experiences during the retreat and also their life stories.
We had people from 17 to 64 years of age from all over the world, Korea, England, Germany, Croatia, Poland, Canada, USA, Spain, Russia and so on. Some of the stories were pretty impressive, but also pretty scary. A lot of young people came to the retreat and were already burnt out with a lot of problems (in Buddhism called Dukka – suffering, dissatisfaction, pain, grief, desire, egoism, disappointment, frustration, selfishness, despair – happening through all kinds of attachments).
I was quite shocked and actually it should open all our eyes!!! What society makes with us and how blindly we follow, destroying our bodies and souls and ending up with physical or and mental problems. For a lot of them it was time to stop and get back to nature again, the law of nature (Dhamma).
What is Dhamma ?
Let me try to explain to you, what Dhamma means, even though I will be by far not as wise as our teachers, just to give you an idea. If you are more interested to know about Dhamma, Buddhism and Meditation, I am sure you will find some good books. (Here some recommendations: German: Kernholz des Bodhibaums, English: the natural truth of buddhism)
Dhamma by definition means, law of nature, the truth, the system how things are. This word is difficult to translate, because it has so many level of meanings.
It’s our duty to follow the law of nature. All things of material, mental, spiritual, conditional and unconditional nature are Dhammas.
11 sunrises, hot chocolate, a man and a coffee after
…. is only the coffee after missing :)
On day 11 in the morning we got up again at 4 am to have our last meditation session before packing and being thrown out into the real world again.
That was somehow really scary, to get back to reality after all what we had experienced and learnt together. For sure it changed a lot for all of us, but only for the greater good I convinced. Because if we all carry the good spirits out, we might be able to change the thinking and doing of people one tiny step after the other, but isn’t it worth to do so?! Yes it is :) Spread kindness and love and treat everybody equally.
We all met in the dining hall for the very last time and out of a sudden everybody was allowed to talk again. WOW was that loud!!! It’s so overwhelming when nearly 100 people talk again, to be honest, it was too much!
We got to know each other by names, changed contact details, made pictures, listened to stories and some made travel plans together.
I didn’t want to leave at first and I was sad (I hate good bye’s) but I needed to leave this safe haven again.
A group of about 15 people went together to the next small town named Chaiya to have a ‚proper breakfast‘.
I ordered an iced black coffee (after 3 days of thinking about it and craving for it), went outside and had my first cigarette after 10 days of not smoking (rule number 6 NOT broken during the retreat).
I enjoyed both even though it was stupid to start again after being able to resist for such a long time! anyways .. weak tiny person I am :) and maybe I will set my mind right and will stop soon again! I know, I can do it!
How many rules did I break ?
I will better tell you how many I didn’t break, only 1! The not intoxicating myself. Shame on me!
For all of you out there, wherever you are …. give it a try! It’s totally worth and even though there is a lot of suffering going on during the 10 days, you will agree with me later, this experience is amazing!
Since my stay at the retreat, I nearly practiced every day, even if it was only for 5 to 10 minutes. Tiny steps :)
Thanks Suan Mookh, thanks to all our teachers and also thanks to all my fellow meditators and your energy. Without this energy and the occasional smile when passing by each other, I wouldn’t have been able to make it through the 10 days of almost ‚total‘ silence.
As always … stay happy always my friends and readers.
Sending some LOVE