Having left our little island paradise of Koh Jum, our next destination was the popular island destination of Koh Samui. Well known for it’s beautiful beaches and lively nightlife, our plan was something pretty different-we had booked onto a three day meditation retreat!
From Krabi a 3 hour bus journey across Southern Thailand to the port, where an hours’ ferry got us to our destination with no problems. An established route, we found ourselves in the midst of a heap of travellers making their way over to Koh Phangan for one of the famous Full Moon Parties…Quite a contrast the three days of silence that we had ahead!
We had a few days to hang out in Koh Samui before the retreat, so we headed to Lamai Beach where we had booked a hut to stay in and looked to getting a few drinks under our belts before the spiritual journey ahead! Lamai Beach was much quieter than we had expected, and it seemed as if the area was suffering from a drop in tourists from the UK due to recent widely publicised events-whether that is true or not is difficult to measure-but for sure it gave the beach a slightly odd atmosphere. The main street is absolutely jam packed with bars and souvenir shops, with a central market area that is populated with ‘go-go’ bars where you find girls and lady-boys dancing on poles behind little open bar areas. In the centre of all of these bars, quite bizarrely, is a Thai boxing ring…More about that shortly.
Mooching around the shops and you discover that they all sold the same things-for sure there is an opportunity for someone to offer some diversity to this area! Anyway, our major find was the street food market, which served a plethora of gorgeous food for around 60 baht for a main meal (around £1.20). We ate here every night, picking out a different stall to sample their offerings and not a bad meal was had-the more time we spend out in Asia the more we appreciate the wonders of street food, and wherever we go now we try to search out these vendors in preference to eating in restaurants.
Given the upcoming days in the retreat we made the obvious decision to have a night out on the cocktails, unfortunately we made the unobvious choice of the night prior to retreat to go out-first rule of meditation retreat rookies, don’t start with a stinking hangover!
Anyway, back to our last evening of freedom and having ate at the street food market we indulged in a few beers and found out that there was actually going to be some Thai boxing in the central market area that night-bargain! We settled in one of the bars surrounding the ring and sponsored one of the female fighters, which essentially makes up her purse for the evenings’ work. Around half way through the fight they halted proceedings and invited ladies of the audience to get up and get in the ring for some sort of contest, with an iota of encouragement Jo was up there and having a balloon tied to her ankle-basically the purpose of the contest was to be the last one in the ring with an inflated balloon on your ankle. What followed was funny, disappointing and a little disturbing…Jo’s balloon was ‘faulty’ and just went down of its own accord and soon she was out of the ring, what followed was a bizarre few minutes where a guy who had entered got quite far on in the competition-and lets just say that he got a little ‘over enthusiastic’, and was soon dealt with by a group of remaining ladies and a lady boy….it got a little heated to say the least! Still, fun was had and certainly the beers and cocktails seemed to have done the trick:
Awakening the following morning with what could only be described as a monster hangover, we readied ourselves for the Diphabhavan meditation retreat. Having limited experience of meditation in the past, and knowing that we were facing three days of silence, what was about to happen certainly had the butterflies excited in our already troubled stomachs!
Here’s the schedule that we were facing for the next few day, while not being allowed to speak at all:
04.30 Wake up
05.00 Morning Reading
05.15 Sitting meditation
05.45 Yoga / Exercise
07.00 Sitting meditation
07.30 Breakfast & Chores
09.30 Dhamma talk
10.30 Walking or standing meditation
11.00 Sitting meditation
11.30 Lunch & chores
14.00 Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.00 Walking or standing meditation
15.30 Sitting meditation
16.00 Walking or standing meditation
16.30 Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
19.30 Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30 Sitting meditation
21.30 LIGHTS OUT
Soooooooo…..Yeah, that was it-this was the challenge that we were facing. I had no idea how hard this would be, and it’s only really a ‘taster’ course-usually these retreats would be 7 or 10 days, so the quick fire few days should be a breeze right? No, not at all. On arrival you’re reminded of the rules of the retreat, and you sign up to these rules and pretty much commit to staying there for the duration-all electronic devices and reading materials are packed away, and at eight o clock on the first evening you begin ‘The Silence’, clearing the mind allowing for effective meditation.
Some of the rules:
-Men were to sit on the left hand side of the meditation hall and dining area, women on the right.
-Wherever possible try to avoid non verbal communication as well as verbal, so if you’re going to smile at someone-try to make sure that you’re already smiling before you make eye contact
-Respect all living creatures, do not kill any bugs
-You sleep on a mat on a wooden platform, with a wooden pillow (male and female dorms separate, obviously!)
-You must attend all sessions
-You do not leave the boundaries of the retreat
-No drinking, smoking, sexual activity or drugs
-No nudity in the wash area (something that I didn’t realise and broke this rule on the first day!)
So, feeling rather daunted by it all (and still REALLY hungover), Jo and I said our ‘goodbyes’ and entered ‘The Silence’!
The first evening and we had our introduction to meditation techniques and postures-it was actually surprising to discover how difficult it is to find a sitting position that you can stay n comfortably for half an hour…Try it, straight back, legs crossed, hands rested on your knees-remain in that position for 30 minutes without moving-it’s harder than you may think.
The meditation technique that we were being taught was that of breathing and walking meditations, or Vipassana. In it’s most basic and simple explanation, by focussing on your breathing or walking you clear your mind of all other thoughts, and achieve mindfulness and focus. Easier said than done I tell thee.
So first evening out of the way, and we retired to our wooden platforms for a night of broken sleep-looking forward to the chimes that awaken us at 4.30AM.
The first full day really hit home how tough it was going to be….It was a REALLY long day, and over the next couple of days, I think that I speak for both of us when I say we experienced quite significant feelings of loneliness. It’s really difficult to not to be able to engage with your partner, just a smile and to check on how they are feeling.
Still, our underlying competitiveness drove us through the day, neither of us wanting to give up! One highlight of our days was the Dharma talks from one of the monks there called Hubert. This guy was incredibly happy, and gave talks on the meditation techniques and their grounding in Buddhism. He had an infectious smile, and really did emanate calmness-for sure he was a fantastic advert for the benefits of meditation!
Pretty much until the last two sitting meditation sessions I didn’t ‘get it’. I didn’t feel that I was clearing my mind, and really it was just a case of ‘getting to the end’….However, following Hubert’s penultimate talk, something happened…I found myself in a mental space where there was no inner dialogue, there was only the sensation of air passing in and out through my nose. Nothing else, just this mindfulness/consciousness of my breathing. For me this was something of a breakthrough, and to some extent the ‘trial’ of the retreat was looking justified. Jo also found meditation success, both through the latter sessions of the breathing techniques, and also in the walking meditation-where you focus entirely on the sensations and mechanics of slow walking.
The final morning came and following a few more sessions of meditation the silence was finally broken. This was such a strange time, people didn’t really know what to do! You felt like you had some sort of connection with your dorm mates, however you hadn’t spoken to them for days so when the opportunity finally came-it took some time to get comfortable with being able to speak once again. At this point we were reunited with each other, and felt the relief of being able to converse once again. To share our common struggles, and to give each other a hug! Reunited with our technology, predictably I got my camera out to take a few snaps of the location for this ‘journey’:
There may be more to add to this post once I’ve given it even more thought and reread it a couple of times, but for now-that’s your lot! Now onwards to back-to-back night trains, a revisit to old faithful Terminal 21, and Chiang Mai….Oh what stories await!