Koh Sumui, Thailand is a world famous party hub, known for the four S’s: Sun, Sex, Surf, and Sin. But, we spent our time on this lovely island completely silent, hungry
and dry (but for sweat) at a 3 day silent meditation retreat called Dipabhaven.
I was inspired by a client who returned from a 10 day silent meditation retreat with a new interest in mindfulness. I felt strongly that hungrythirstygame should include a spiritual journey alongside our physical, intellectual, and gastronomical ones. As the next phase of our individual and married lives promises to be packed with constant change, decisions, challenges, and multitasking, I wanted a tool that would help us manage anxiety and strengthen our spirits/focus. Enter: Meditation.
My prior meditation experience was limited to a 7 minute YouTube video where a soft-voiced lady told me to envision a beach. There were wave sounds. The closest thing to meditation Michael experienced was transcending the pain of a crew race – which actually turned out to be a lot more applicable than my YouTube beach visuals.
At the designated Dipabhaven meeting point, we and a few other meditators piled into the back of the typical Koh Sumui taxi – a pickup truck with bench seating in the bed. As we drove the few KMs into the mountains of the retreat center, I sized up my comrades: a very young Scottish girl said she’d never done anything like this but “was pretty open-minded” so felt okay (I liked her immediately), a New York man made me nervous by mentioning that this was his third meditation retreat at Dipabhaven, a British guy in reflective sunglasses sat very still and gave me the creeps, and a Russian girl rubbed me the wrong way by saying the isolated surroundings of the retreat center was unnecessary because if you really understood meditation, you’d know that the sounds around you are inside you as well – got it, thanks. I made an excellent impression by blubbering on about how I was afraid of not being properly fed.
When we arrived, we were greeted by our retreat guide/camp director, Verner, whose silver mushroom cut, missing (??) front teeth, flowy garb, and habit of slipping into extreme facial expressions (eyebrows pulled high, eyes and mouth hanging open) during much too long pauses in speech, gave you the impression that you were talking to an easily shocked, glitchy German meditation robot. Or a vampire, depending on time of day.
“The purpose… Of the Dipabhaven retreat is not…. To promote Buddhism, but rather to… Teach the practice of?… Being mindful. By practicing focusing one’s attention on the… Present… The simplest acts… of Breathing? … Eating? … Walking?… You can begin to achieve?… Clarity of mind?… And resist… The temptations of Dukka. Please hand in your phones, books, electronics here.”
We would spend three days mindfully focused on the present. We would not distract our minds through speech, reading, or communication of any kind. We would avoid sexual distraction by separating men from women and covering our bodies. We would avoid overindulgence by eating simple vegetarian meals twice a day (!!). And we would spend 9 hours a day meditating, silently.
Our daily schedule looked like this: Wake up at 4:30 and meet at the meditation house at 5. Hear a reading or lecture from Verner or the resident Buddhist monk, mediate sitting, meditate standing, meditate walking. Yoga. Breakfast at 7:30, then do your chores (everyone had a chore), then a break until mid morning, when we would do another lecture, sitting/standing/walking meditation cycle. Then lunch at 11:30, break. In the evening, we would do another lecture, sitting/standing/walking meditation cycle, and then a group walking meditation, and then something called “loving kindness meditation,” when you try to send all of your good vibes to someone in particular, starting with people you like, and ending with people who’ve harmed you.
At night we would wander back to our gender separate, non AC-ed dorms, and sweat the night away on wooden “beds” with only a knit mat and wooden “pillow” for comfort, praying to our separate gods that we didn’t have a hole in our mosquito nets.
Here’s how the meditating part “worked:” For sitting meditation, sit on the floor in one of the preferred postures (you’re provided pillows and blocks to make it easier on your body). Try to focus on the present – it helps to watch your breath (both michael and I tried counting breaths, but really you’re supposed to watch it… Where is it right now? Are you at the top of your breath? Middle? How does that feel?) Meanwhile your regular human brain is beginning to think of the most absurd things – memories, or a weird story you just made up about the people around you, or planning out next week. You suddenly realize it, and you may feel frustrated or angry or doubtful that this is even possible. We were allowed to break our silence once for a personal interview with the monk, during which I asked about how I’m supposed to feel about and deal with my wandering mind, and he said that you should just see that it’s happened, not judge it, put it away, and refocus.
You may also fall asleep, which happened to everyone, most notably the three-time veteran New Yorker, who wouldn’t just nod off like the rest of us – he would all out collapse, fall over, arms flailing and pillows flying everywhere, look around wildly, panting, “sorry!!” This happened 3-4 times. It was the BEST.
You may also make up nicknames for everyone at the retreat. Like John Snow and Wildling, or Corbin Dallas, or Yoga Man.
For walking meditation, which was easier for both Michael and me, walk slowly, focusing on every sensation of walking. “This is my weight moving forward, this is my foot starting to peel off the ground, this is my foot off the ground…” And so forth. Actually very relaxing.
I took a lot from the retreat. I’ll try to summarize the top three points here:
1) Reality, the present, is incredibly important – I am a daydreamer. I am imaginative. I multitask and plan all the time. Sometimes this is great. But without anchoring myself in the reality of the present, I can get caught up in anxiety of missing out, couldn’t I have done this better? Or shouldn’t this be different? I can ignore harsh realities – the mean things I think about myself in passing, the rude comment from the waiter or a colleague that I should address. I let things slide a lot until I’m forced to accept the consequences. I see how these things are connected now, and I need to practice being anchored in what is happening right now.
2) Meditation is actually a practice – Being mindful is something that you cannot turn on and off. Like learning improv, it’s a journey and the only way you progress is by practicing it. You might have peaks and valleys, but you benefit even from the valleys.
3) I prefer a life with pain – Many of the monk’s lectures focused on not becoming too attached to things, as all things are passing, even people. Becoming too attached to your joy, love, or life/lifestyle will make the inevitable pain worse. Alternatively, becoming overwhelmed by your current pain fails to recognize that it, too, is passing. Okay I see that. But Buddhists also believe in reincarnation, and Nirvana – the moment of achieving peace/release from reincarnation only attainable by letting go of your attachment to worldly things. I believe you only live once, so I want to love and feel joy aggressively, even if it means I suffer the painful inevitable consequences. It’s a good thing to realize about yourself, I think.
After the retreat, people slowly started to talk again, and we realized that many of the people we thought were hardcore meditators had been, like us, trying this out, laughing and struggling along with us in silence. They were all actually awesome people, and we happily traveled together with John Snow and the Wildling to our next stop – Koh Tao.
So, was it hard? Yes, incredibly so. Not so much the silence, as the physical and mental challenge of long periods of meditation. Will we continue meditating? Yes, in our own ways. Would we do it again? TBD. Stop asking about the future – I’m trying to focus on the present!