MY EXPERIENCE AT A SILENT MEDITATION RETREAT IN THAILAND
„Why am I doing this? I need a break. I could be lying in my hammock with a great book right now. It’s too early. I’m hungry. Why, why, why…“ When I signed up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat in a monastery in Thailand I knew it would be an extreme schedule, but it was harder than I expected. And more fulfilling than I expected too.
About the silent meditation retreat at Kow Tahm
The silent meditation retreat took place at Wat Kow Tahm, a Buddhist temple and monastery on the island of Koh Phangan in Southern Thailand. This beautiful location has been offering meditation retreats for over 25 years. In 1987 the Head Nun requested that two foreigners, Rosemary and Steve Weissman, help teach meditation to the growing number of travellers that came in search of spiritual guidance and instructions. And for the next 25 years they developed the meditation center and taught meditation to foreigners. Now Anthony Markwell, an Australian who ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1995, is the resident teacher. He was on a break while I was doing the retreat and Tan Dhammavidu filled in. Tan Dhammavidu is an English monk who for 20 years has given the Meditation and Dhamma instruction at Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage in Surat Thani, Thailand.
You can learn more about Kow Tahm and the retreats here: http://www.kowtahm.com
The setting is simply beautiful. Located on a hill behind Baan Tai, the buildings of the meditation center are surrounded by jungle, huge rocks and exotic trees and plants. Small paths and stairwells lead from the meditation hall to the dorms and washrooms and down the hill to the dining hall.
The dorms consist of small rooms with one mattress or a bunk bed and nothing else. I was only struggling with the very hard mattress out of some styrofoam material (I wouldn’t even call it a mattress, more a pretender for a mattress…). There is a reason for this of course. On the retreat we adhere to the rules of a Buddhist monastic life and one of the rules states that “you shall not sit on high-risen chairs or sleep on high-risen beds”. So I accept it and just curse very quietly inwardly when I wake up at night from turning over.
We bathe Thai style by scooping water over our bodies out of big barrels. We all had to some chores each day and the girls cleaning the washrooms did an amazing job, they kept them really clean and I was very grateful for that. My chore was sweeping the floors in front of the dorms, an easy task compared to that.
The location in the jungle comes with a lot of wildlife and animals. A small scorpion that was hiding in the handle of a broomstick bit me twice in my hand on my first day. This was painful but thankfully only for a few hours and it didn’t get infected. Beside scorpions you get geckos big and small. Mosquitoes. Snakes. Spiders. One day I found a huge toad in my room.
Beautiful birds. Dogs and cats, always supporting us in the meditation hall and offering humorous distractions from time to time. Roosters and chicken roaming the dining hall and the grounds surrounding it.
The food was amazing. For breakfast we could choose between porridge and rice soup and also have fresh tropical fruits, coffee and tea. For lunch there was always brown rice, a curry and another vegetable dish or dhal as well as some salad. Everything was very tasty and fresh and lunch was easily the highlight of the day. We didn’t get anything to eat after lunch (another monastic rule: “thou shall not eat before dawn and not after midday”). Surprisingly I found this really easy and I wasn’t hungry at all in the evenings or at night.
Okay, here it is, the schedule for the 6 silent meditation days (the days before and after are for registering, settling in and moving out):
4:00 – 4:30 a.m. Wake up bell
4:30 – 5:15 a.m. Sitting meditation and chanting
5:15 – 6:15 a.m. Yoga
6:15 – 7:00 a.m. Sitting meditation
07:00 – 08:30 a.m. Breakfast, chores and rest
8:30 – 9:30 a.m. Meditation instructions
9:30 – 10:15 a.m. Walking meditation
10:15 – 11:00 a.m. Sitting meditation
11:00 – 1:00 p.m. Lunch and rest
1:00 – 1:45 p.m. Sitting meditation
1:45 – 02:30 p.m. Walking meditation
2:30 – 3:30 p.m. Dhamma teaching
3:30 – 4:15 p.m. Walking meditation
4:15 – 5:00 p.m. Sitting meditation
5:00 – 6:30 p.m. Tea and rest
6:30 – 7:30 p.m. Chanting and metta meditation
7:30 – 8:15 p.m. Walking meditation
8:15 – 9:00 p.m. Sitting meditation
10:00pm Lights out
Yes, that’s 10 hours of meditation a day. I said it’s intense. Also not enough sleep. I wasn’t the least bit sad that the meditation retreat was actually one day shorter than normally.
The Meditation Sessions
I have a daily meditation practice but this schedule was something else. A completely different animal. I had some deep blissful meditations but also a lot were I was struggling to focus and it just felt like hard work. Tan Dhammavindu taught us Anapanasati,”Mindfulness with breathing”, a technique that I didn’t know yet and that actually worked wonderfully. You can read more about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anapanasati
In the walking meditation sessions we walked very mindfully, setting our steps carefully and deliberately, back and forth and back and forth. Trying not to let the mind wander and concentrate on the task at hand – walking. I really enjoyed it – for about 15 minutes. After that I got pains in my shoulder, got bored, and found it really hard to focus. Those where my least favorite sessions. But some of the others loved the walking meditations.
I didn’t have any deep insights in my meditations, but when I was in deep concentration one time I heard a voice say “Hip Hop, Susanne?” No idea where that was coming from. I swear I didn’t think about Hip Hop. I think it was my mind making a joke and telling me not to take myself too seriously. It worked, I couldn’t stop giggling (quietly inwardly of course).
Silence doesn’t just mean that you don’t talk. There’s also no smartphone. No books. No internet. No distractions at all. When I signed up for the retreat I expected that I would have some time to think about my journey, maybe even get some insights where it will take me next. But instead my mind got more calm and empty with every day. Nothing was important. No other people, not work, no plans. Not the past and not the future.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now…
Every single day I wanted to leave. On the second day my right shoulder acted up and I was in so much pain. Walking, sitting, everything hurt. I was tired. The heat. The mosquitoes. But I stayed. What kept me? A small inside voice that told me it would be worth it in the end. My yoga students (I was teaching the morning yoga class). The other retreatants and their silent support. I took it day by day and this way got through to the end.
There were a few people who left. One lady didn’t want to hand over her phone and had to leave after she was caught. A young guy had problems to concentrate and adhere to the rules and was asked to leave because he disturbed the others. But otherwise I think everybody made it through to the end.
Breaking the silence and talking to the other retreatants was such a beautiful moment. I loved everyone and was grateful for their silent support. I was happy that I could support them in turn by teaching yoga in the mornings and a few people came to me and told me how they loved the yoga and that is was their highlight of the day. I nearly cried. It felt really special. We had a last breakfast, packed our things and I drove back to my bungalow in Srithanu.
Do I feel different after the retreat? Not in a big way. I’m still a bit tired. But definitely relaxed. Calm. More mindful. I’m happy to have my freedom back, to get back to my own meditation and yoga practice. To enjoy the beach and the beautiful island Koh Phangan, work on my websites, see friends, eat and drink. Life is beautiful.