One may think I was crazy for considering this, let alone signing up for it. Every luxury was to be taken away from me… No technology, no phone, no electricity, no books, no music, no tasty food, no hot water, no sleeping in, no comfy bed or pillows (we get concrete beds and wooden pillows), and to top it all off, no talking. With ANYONE! For 10 days!
Some may call what I just described as prison camp. Others know it as Vipassana, or insight meditation, and consider it a vital spiritual practice for coping with suffering, making peace with what is, and finding a deep sense of joy.
I jump at the opportunity to try things that will test my limits, my beliefs, or my comfort levels. So it took me all of 2 seconds for me to make the decision to go. My boyfriend (who is now my husband) and I left Bangkok on an overnight train and headed south to a small town deep in the jungles of Southern Thailand. I had butterflies in my stomach and I felt the anxiety take over me due to the unknown of what I would encounter. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into!
We arrived to the sleepy steamy town the next morning. As we got off the train, we were greeted by one solitary tiny bench right next to the train tracks surrounded by jungle. I thought, “I really hope this is the right place because there are no signs, no train station, nothing!” We wandered around aimlessly and eventually found a couple of tiny hole in the wall restaurants and found someone to give us a ride to the monastery. We drove through dirt roads and more jungle and finally arrived. There was no turning back.
We checked in and were given a set of rules we had to abide by, including warnings to watch out for poisonous scorpions, snakes, or spiders. I was horrified! If I would have known about this prior to arriving, I probably wouldn’t have come! I also had to sign up for my daily chores and turn in all electronics and items that would distract me. I was assigned my room, a tiny 7×7 concrete cell block. My room felt like a prison cell except not as luxurious. The only other items I received were a straw bamboo mat for sleeping that would provide me a tiny bit of comfort from the concrete, a wooden block with a cutout for our head to use as a pillow, a mosquito net, and an ancient lantern; the metal kind with a small thin candle inside.
The 10 days of silence began that night and we were in bed by 9:30pm. The first night was also New Years Eve and I couldn’t believe I was on a concrete slab in the jungle trying to sleep instead of ringing in the New Year with friends! That first night of sleep was torture! I couldn’t get comfortable! I like to sleep on my side and my hip bones would ache after a few minutes from the concrete so I was constantly tossing and turning. I also had to pee really bad for about 2 hours prior to waking up but I refused to go to the toilet because 1) the toilets were in little outhouses about 50 meters away from my room 2) there were strange animal noises that echoed through the night, some sounded so close to my room! And 3) the slab that I slept on jutted out from the wall about 3 feet up from the ground leaving nothing but empty space underneath. Who knew what kind of bugs or creatures were hiding under there waiting to prey on the first set of feet that hit the ground! I was soooo thankful for my mosquito net. It was my safe haven and I felt like nothing could attack me, bite me or sting me when I was inside.
At 4am, I was woken up to the sound of an absurdly loud repeating dong. It was so loud, it was impossible for anyone to sleep through. I wouldn’t be surprised if people could hear that thing from miles away! As I walked half-asleep through the dirt to the meditation hall, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a spooky movie scene. Everyone was walking through the dark foggy jungle to the hall slowly and silently holding their old-school lanterns. It was very eerie and surreal. The meditation hall was lit with torches to give us just enough light for us to see. I sat down on my straw coconut sack in the dirt and began meditating. As the sun began to rise, I could feel the earth and the animals come alive. The birds began chirping and flying around, the sky lit up with the most amazing shades of pinks and purples I have ever seen, and the energy of the day felt vibrant and magical. This time became one of my favorite parts of the day and I would wake up looking forward to it. I felt like I was a kid again, like I was looking at things with brand new eyes.
At 8am, we had breakfast of rice soup and raw vegetables or fruit. Pretty bland if you ask me, but the point was to not eat for taste. We were instructed to do everything mindfully including eating our food. We had to eat slowly, taste every bite and experience all our senses as we ate. Another strange scene out of a movie… Everyone in the dining hall eating together in nothing but silence except the clinging of silverware on our plates.
After breakfast, I did my daily chore of mindfully raking the leaves around the meditation hall. Initially, I wanted to get it over with as fast as I could so I could go back to my room and chill for a bit. But I noticed as the days passed, I started to enjoy this chore and looked forward to doing it everyday. There was something about it that was so peaceful and a knowing that I helped to turn the mess into order.
We meditated for most of the day with a 12pm lunch break (another vegetarian bland meal) and a 6pm tea break. We had to fast for 20 hours a day so we didn’t get to eat dinner. After the evening tea break, we would get a little time to ourselves so I always went in the natural hot springs that were on the grounds. This place was like heaven. The water was as warm as a jacuzzi and was surrounded by lush jungle with no sounds except the beautiful song of birds, bugs, and whatever other animals lived in there. I would often think “How did I get here? So far away from home, from my family and friends, so far from anything familiar.” I was in awe that my life path has led me to that exact moment. After the hot springs, I would go back to my room and shower. Well, as close to a shower as I could get. The water was pumped from a well into a big square concrete block and I would use a small bucket to scoop up the cold water and pour some over my head and body. Oh, how I longed for those long, hot showers I used to have at home!
Around 8pm, we would do a walking meditation around the grounds and through the jungle. We would walk slowly in a line with the front person holding the lantern. I was beyond scared when I first started doing this because we had to do it barefoot! I thought “Are they crazy??” They warned us about watching out for poisonous snakes and spiders and we have to walk around barefoot with barely any light at night?? For the first few nights, I could not focus on anything else but the fear in my head. I felt so much anxiety and fear take over me. Then it hit me. My epiphany moment. I was worrying about something that hasn’t happened to me and probably won’t happen to me. Why was I stressing myself out over something that hasn’t happened? The next few days became easier as I began to release that imaginary fear.
I got used to hanging out at the private party in my head. Whenever I zoned out or couldn’t meditate, I would sit and watch the bugs, birds, or the trees. I would watch flying bugs go about their day, or lizards moving about in their curious ways, or the trail of ants that walked by me. I became fascinated of what their daily life consisted of. I don’t think I ever watched bugs or animals so intently since I was a kid! I was also very fascinated with the monks. They would walk the grounds barefoot and very mindfully. They would walk slowly, staring at the trees, leaves, or the sky, sometimes stopping to touch a leaf or a tree. It’s so fascinating to me that one can become so present as to notice the life in the trees and leaves as they walk by.
On the second day, a friend from the jungle made my room his room. I looked up on the wall and there was a massive lizard that was the same size as a baby alligator. I begged “Why my room? Why do you have to choose mine?” Just what I needed. Another thing to scare the living daylights out of me. But, I pushed through that fear as well. I noticed he would come and go from the opening near the ceiling. A few days passed and I noticed myself saying hi to him when I walked in. Believe it or not, I began to enjoy his presence in my room and had a sense of peace whenever he visited.
As the days went by, I lost track of time. My sleepless nights turned into nights of amazingly deep sleeps. Once I hit my mat, I was out like a light. Everyday was exactly the same as the last. I felt like it was Groundhog Day every single day. Although, some days were harder than others. Some days I wanted to scream from sitting for so long! My body ached from being in one position for hours on end. Some days I was forced to deal with thoughts or issues in my mind that I had conveniently suppressed with our everyday distractions of daily life. I went through so many emotions. From crying on my meditation mat to being scared of large spiders crawling next to me to being overjoyed with happiness. Other days, it was easy to get in my zone and meditate for hours without moving. It was then that I would have an out of body experience where I no longer felt my body anymore. I felt as if my mind was suspended in time and space separate from my body. What a crazy ride it was!
On the 9th day, my husband and I locked eyes from across the room and he motioned for me to meet him around the side of the building. He left first and once I made sure no one was looking, I followed. I felt like we were kids sneaking around at school. Once we were out of earshot from everyone, he said to me “Let’s leave. We’ve been here long enough. Let’s head to an island and just lay on the beach somewhere.” He said the magic word. “Beach.” I thought about it and said, “Let’s do it.” We decided to leave the next day which was the 10th and final day. I figured I already got what I wanted out of it. What’s one more day? Besides, the thought of laying on a beach somewhere soaking up the sun and swimming in warm ocean water excited me.
When it came time for it to be over, I was happy to go back into real life. A major world event could have happened while I was in there and I wouldn’t have even known about it. I was so happy to talk to people again! However, it was hard to go back to technology so soon. I didn’t even want to look at my phone! For some strange reason, technology felt like an anchor that was weighing me down. I realized at that moment, that although I missed communicating with friends and family, I did not miss my phone or computer.
If you would have asked me immediately after the retreat if I would do this again, I would have said no way! I couldn’t even stand the thought of meditation! But if you ask me now, if I would do it again, I would say yes. Nowadays I miss the simplicity of that life. I miss not having so many distractions. I miss not being worried about all the modern day problems. I miss dedicating most of the day to just being. Nowadays, I feel like my life has become so hurried and rushed, trying to fit in as many things as I can, trying to make sure everything gets done, that I feel it is almost essential to experience the opposite end of the spectrum and reset.
Even though I only completed 9 out of the 10 days, I learned a lot about myself. I learned to be okay with just being, to know that I don’t always have to be busy doing something. I learned that most of my fears are made up and I can easily step through them to live a more fulfilling life. I learned to be present and to do things mindfully, to enjoy every moment of it. I learned that we have way more control over our body and mind than we think we do…we have the power to heal ourselves and others. I learned that the answers to my questions are all within me; I just have to ask. I was reminded to be grateful for the simple things in life, such as hot showers and comfy beds. I was reminded to be aware of the dialog inside myself, to monitor my thoughts to ensure they are headed in a direction I want them to go. And most important, I was reminded what a great gift it is to be alive on this planet today… To experience, to learn, to grow, to love.
I love this quote and feels it completely relates to my story.
“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” – Alice Morse Earle