Oliver is…

He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man

…done with secluded monasteries

Those who are fond of good memories may remember that a few years back I went to Surat Thani with the hope of joining a silence retreat at Suan Mokh. Events, and curses, conspired against me back then, but when I headed to Koh Phangan nothing could stop me joining a ten-day silence retreat at Wat Kow Tahm. I’ve written about my experience already (it’s on page 16 of this magazine) but I snuck in a pen and paper to keep track of my thoughts, here are those notes expanded with a few exclusive quotes from my scribblings.

Shhh!

My expectations going into the retreat were that I’d spend ten days speaking to no one and that no one would speak to me. I’d have no outside stimulous — no books, internet or newspapers — to get new information, so I’d spend the time going through the thoughts in my head, getting things straight and coming to many a conclusion. Through a friend of a friend, I was informed that at some point my mind was likely to run through all its available thoughts and get lost looking for a new one, giving a sense of bliss that’s hard to find elsewhere. Things weren’t quite how I expected.

Day one

I arrived at the monastery after a long, hot, sweaty walk up a bigger than expected hill. I got given my bed (a thin mattress, a small pillow, a mosquito net and a couple of sheets to throw on the floor) and the much-needed shower (a bucket of water with a small pot to throw that water over myself). Things were basic, but that was to be expected, but I have noted “don’t like”.

Silence didn’t start immediately, and after a tour of the complex (which included seeing the actual monks at the actual temple next door) the people who signed up for the retreat (18 for this one) had a chance to chat and get to know each other a bit, which at the time felt like a strange thing to do as we wouldn’t be speaking to each other very soon. In the end, it turned out to be quite a good things. This group was mixed — I spoke to people from Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Russia, Germany and Austria (and later found a Hungarian) with a split of nine men and eight women, all white. We were led by an American man (Tom) who was assisted by an Englishman and a Ukrainian guy.

A rumour went round that there’d be no evening meal (meaning no food after 11am) but that was soon squashed and in the evening we had our first sitting and walking meditations plus a talk about Buddhist philosophies. Silence started when we went to bed.

I’d never meditated before so it was a learning experience for me. “Not sure I ‘get’ walking meditation”.

I found some fruit Polos in my bag that had been there for a couple of months. I rationed these out over my time here and the treats, although slightly sticky, were always something to look forward to.

silence_retreat_bed

Day two

Despite the early bed time, I slept well, although being a bit cold. The wake up bell was also early, around 4.15am, but I had no problem getting up in time for the 5am start. The first thing we did was a ridiculous session of chanting — I signed up for a silence retreat, remember? This was one of three times we were encouraged to speak each day, but I refused all of them. I was there to be silent, not to meditate. (The other two were a sort of grace we spoke before eating [I at least said the words in my head] and a Q&A session with Tom, the American leader, after his evening talks). During the retreat we were also encouraged to go to two meetings with Tom to discuss our progress, both of which I turned down.

After the chanting and some exercise (mainly stretching but also a bit of core body strength) we sat for meditation and walked again, this time I apparently ‘got’ it. After breakfast I started to get bored of it all, not a good sign so early on, and rather than empty my head like I was meant to I started to think about things. I made a note about my girlfriend and her friend who were meeting up that day, but two of the lines of my notes are gone because of the sticky strip on the paper.

In the evening Q&A one of the ladies complained about the chanting and speaking before meals, saying it was ruining the silence aspect for her, and she was told that the silence wasn’t that important! That’s the whole reason I signed up!

Despite this, I did speak today. As I was walking around, the bell for the next session was rung. I just happened to be passing a dog at the time whose head perked up and interest piqued by the noise. Instinctively I said ‘What is it, boy? What is it?’. It was a bell, but he didn’t tell me, being much more seasoned at this silence thing than I was.

By the afternoon, I was “very bored”, but the longer afternoon session went quickly. During the day we had about seven hours of meditation in total, with slightly more sitting than walking.

At sunset, one of the times we got free time, I went to look over the island as the sun went down — one of the perks of walking up that big hill. As I went to the viewing spot, I noticed that the resident chickens were roosting in the trees for the night, which I somehow didn’t know they did. Did you?

My opinion of Tom was mixed at this time. A lot of what he was telling us seemed like sage advice, but at other times it seemed “weak & wishy washy”.

chicken_in_tree

Day three

I woke up earlier than the 4.15am bell because somewhere on the island was a party, which went until about 5, when we started our days. That is what Koh Phangan is famous for, after all.

As well as meditations, we got to do chores while we were at the retreat. Each person was meant to clean the toilets twice and then every day there’d be time allocated to sweeping an area (or cleaning up after a meal). I got my two toilet days out of the way on days two and three, and my other chore was to get rid of leaves near the men’s sleeping area. (Men and women were separated. There was one couple on the retreat and I can’t imagine how hard it must’ve been for them to not only stay apart, but not to speak to each other that whole time.)

The food was generally amazing the whole way through — today we had pasta with tomato sauce for breakfast and, strange as it sounds, I was hoping that it would come again (it didn’t). The food was all vegetarian because of the whole Buddhism thing and breakfast (served about 7, I think) and lunch (served at 11am) would have a couple of choices; dinner (5pm) would be a light meal of fresh fruit. Normally for breakfast there would be some sort of rice dish plus something eggy — boiled eggs, French toast and pancakes were all served at some point.

It was on day three I discovered my enemy, an old Austrian guy who I’ll refer to as H. He annoyed me because he didn’t get ‘silence’, regularly making ‘mmm’ noises during meals and ‘hmm’ noises while Tom spoke. “Is he a test?” Later on he’d just start speaking to people when he felt like it, but thankfully he never directed anything at me. He was also the most vocal — in that he’d go on and on — during the Q&A sessions.

Again today I had a good early morning walking meditation (now preferred over sitting) and then a better late morning meditation. As I was walking behind a temple in my own preposterous style that I fudged from reading a poster somewhere on site, I saw a monkey in the trees right next to me. I went over to have a look, ignoring the whole ignoring your surroundings thing, and loved it because monkeys are ace. After a few minutes I went back up to the temple to continue walking around when a monk(y) came out of a track in the bushes on my left. He watched me for a few seconds and then stopped in front of my path. Obviously not impressed with my style, he showed me how he did it and then walked with me. I expected him to just stay for a few lengths so, when I thought it polite to let him go, I did a little bowing thank you. He refused to go and spent what I guess was at least 20 minutes with me. It mas magical. I don’t know if it was some sort of aura he was giving off, if it was just the process of doing the actions properly and with someone else or if it was just good to have a monk metronome, but this was by far the best session I had and the best memory I have from my time there.

Again, in the afternoon my concentration waned and every day I found I was much better in the morning than the afternoon. I find this with most things in life — with my freelance work I always try to get things done in the morning when they take half the time they would in the afternoon. I also wondered if the problem was because we had time off after lunch (a mixture of curries, stir fries, tofu + veg dishes) that took me out of the zone, or if it’s because a different leader took the session and his style wasn’t as encouraging or investing.

Looking around the walking meditation, it seemed ridiculous. Imagine a group of zombies idly walking round a piece of land — then mix it with Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

By evening meditation, we were down four people from the start — all of these would be gone for good by morning.

I walked this path many a time

Day four

My interest is clearing waning as most of my notes are about animals:
“Dog sniffed my bum during breakfast (same one who sniffed me during meditation)”
“Saw about 10 squirrels”
“Monkey again in morning, did well to ignore him for a while. Gone by lunch.”

By now, because of my expert cleaning skills, my morning chore didn’t take very long. I had time to wash my clothes in cold water, which is good because I was running out of T-shirts. I only had one pair of appropriate trousers, the rest of my leg wardrobe being shorts and knees aren’t allowed to be shown, so I tried to wash bits of them while I was wearing them.

I was also starting to get annoyed by the others in the group, which goes against the practice of meditation:
“H is v. annoying”
“Lots of people breaking rules — boys/girls sitting on the wrong side.” (As well as being separated for sleeping, we were given designated sides during meditation and tables during meals.)
“Think M might be leaving, flirting outrageously with Prezi girl.” (Prezi being presentation software, she had a T-shirt with it on for some reason.)

Others had it worse. A father of two was upset today because he was told that he wasn’t allowed to phone his children tomorrow (Christmas). There were only three references to Christmas all day, I’d have preferred none because I wanted to get away from that completely but was satisfied that there didn’t seem to be a big deal made about it.

Because of the unusual walking and sitting positions, and the extended lengths of time in each, my body was starting to ache — back, knees, thigh and feet — making everything that little bit harder.

wat_kow_tahm

Day five

Again a couple of lines have been ripped off the paper, probably something about Christmas. We got a nice present: pancakes for breakfast. Amazing!

My back was really sore today, so for some of the sitting meditations I used a chair rather than the normal pose. Tom said this was okay throughout the whole practise — it was important to sit upright and with a straight back, but how you have your legs isn’t all that important. For the afternoon session, I was sitting at the back with three others who clearly weren’t meditating. Seems lots were finding it hard. At least none of us visibly fell asleep, like one German guy did farther forward, complete with snores.

Today I saw a snake (a bright green grass snake) and what looked like two birds hugging.

As well as the sitting and walking meditations, we get to spend a little time each afternoon not emptying our minds but rather utilising them. This is what I’d hoped to achieve in the first place and it quickly became my favourite part of the day. After a short talk from Tom, we’d be given a broad topic (‘I am fortunate’, ‘impermanence’, ‘karma’, ‘parts’, ‘I am!’ etc) and go out to think about it, to find it, to enjoy it.

Halfway!

Day six

In Thailand it’s rude to lie down in public places, something we were told at the start of the retreat. That doesn’t stop quite a few people lying down in the meditation hall, despite being told not to. Why don’t people follow rules?

There’s a guy, whose name I don’t know, who I suspected of leaving soon. He missed a couple of sessions, seems ill at ease in mediation, but today he seemed better. Maybe he’ll stay after all?

meditationhall_kohphangan

Day seven

Seems like the raves on the island are getting bigger, today’s went to about 9am. Wonder if my girlfriend was there, ours days overlapping in the strangest way. The little Thai lady who took our exercise program said something quite nice about it — they’re just looking for fun and enjoyment like we are up here, there’s no need to get annoyed at them for making so much noise, just let them have their fun and put annoyance out of your mind. It’s a nice way to look at things.

The guy I thought was getting happier yesterday left this morning, maybe he knew it was happening so he knew he had an escape.

Today I saw a monkey again and around six other people stopped their meditation to watch it play in the trees. Maybe we’re all ready to leave. If the end wasn’t in sight, say there was another week to go, and accommodation wasn’t so booked up and expensive on the island because of the festive mark up, I think I’d seriously consider leaving now too.

I can’t remember what day it was, but we had an interesting practise in one session about letting go of annoyance. We were told to pick something that was getting at us in our lives and I picked H’s annoying habits. First we were told to focus on healing ourselves, then those close to us (I picked the guy next to me, who also sat next to me at meals, who would also have to put up with the noises constantly behind us) then to those farther away (I picked H’s family, who would have to put up with him all the time). Today in my notes I wrote “H’s constant noises now amuse rather than irritate me”. If that’s not development, I don’t know what is.

People seem to have given up on the silence by now. In the other men’s block there are conversations going on during breaks and at night time.

During contemplation time I took the opportunity to walk around the retreat a bit more, going places that I hadn’t before only to discover other people had been their first. All manner of cool hidey holes to sit and ponder (and smoke for some people — also against the rules).

watkowtahm

Day eight

Getting close to the end now and my muscles, other than those in my back, seem to be getting back to normal. My concentration seems a little better than the start, but I still find it easy to get lost in thoughts or day dreams when I’m not meant to. I think my meditation peaked around days 3-5. Songs get stuck in my head very easily and it’s almost impossible to shake them. Found out today is Saturday, which has next to no meaning.

There are only 13 of us left now and at tea they put out 10 cakes. Teasers!

Some things H asked/said during the spiritual Q&A that got most people laughing, mainly at him:
“Are the large geckos at all dangerous?”
He spent about a minute talking about his painting ability, how so many people had praised him for his van Gogh style, apropos of nothing.
He called out one of the other guys at the retreat for using a fork at meal times, ‘like a kid’.

He’s now a constant source of amusement rather than annoyance. For a little while after the retreat I’d go to his Facebook page to see what he was up to, and he’d always have ridiculous things on there. (Update: he was married to a young Thai woman [he’s an old white guy, almost needless to say] but now he seems to be in a relationship with a white woman. What’s he up to?! He seems to have hidden his updates, as all I can see is his relationship news and a load of Thai dating sites he liked a few months back. Why keep those?)

Day nine

Last full day of silence. Despite it being a ‘ten-day retreat’ days one and ten weren’t really related to meditation or silence, making it more of an eight-day retreat. I think the same goes for the seven-day retreat.

Again, I’ve written about animals. Today it’s fowl: “The way a chicken forages is really cute. He can’t see what he’s scratching up with his feet [his head stays up, looking forward] so when he steps back to take a look he’s really eager to see if he’s unearthed anything. If not, he raises his head again, steps forward and goes at it again.”

Annoyed by H and others again — really don’t seem to be getting much better. We were all invited to a special monk ceremony today (apparently Buddhists can eat fish/meat, but only if it’s given to them as it’s ruder to refuse a gift than it is to end a life) and for ages H and another had a conversation in the temple. Then he and a different guy took out their mobile phones to record the ceremony but hadn’t put them on aeroplane mode so the sanctity of the occasion was marred by beeping phones. If there was one place I thought I could avoid that…

This day went by a lot quicker than most, possibly because of the excitement of completion. Apart from the monk ceremony, there was an extra dharma talk in the afternoon which helped to break up the endless meditations.

In the evening silence was lifted and we were all invited up to the front of the meditation hall to share our experiences. It seemed like almost everyone there, save maybe the Russian couple, had some sort of problem in their life that they were trying to find a way to cope with: drug addiction, financial or family problems, business stress. I was just there out of curiousity.

I tried to wait until the end to break my silence, but one girl refused to go up so I had to be second last. I hadn’t noticed it building over the week, but when I spoke I felt really light and happy, as if an actual weight had been lifted from my shoulders. With over a week of thoughts, sights and new encounters, it was strange not being able to talk to anyone about what was going on.

I hadn’t realised at the time, but from my notes it seems that a lot of the time I was annoyed, particularly with one man and his refusal to follow the guidelines and rules (whether strict, lax or made up by me). One of our lessons was about separating emotion from facts and trying to find out why we were annoyed, something that at times I thought I could do. During one of the walking meditations I started to walk round in circles, getting quicker and quicker, and I noticed I was starting to get in a bad mood. I slowed trying to figure it out and it started to go away but as I sped up again it got worse again. I don’t know what it was about walking quickly (something I normally do to get away from touts and people trying to get me into taxis/massage parlours/brothels or when I’m late for something and anxious about missing out?) but it seems like even without the problem there, the basic act has a Pavlovian effect on me. Just learning something simple like that about myself made me feel like the retreat was worthwhile.

During one of the talks during the week Tom gave a quote that I really liked, about the importance of meditation and the ability to control your mind and emotions properly: “Wanting to reform the world without discovering your true self is like trying to cover the whole world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It’s much simpler to wear shoes.”

watkowtahm_meditation

Day ten

The next day I got to chat with the other people again. After eight days of silence, it was strange but I felt like I knew a lot of these people. The chat at the start of the course worked out well, as many of us felt a bit closer to each other, and there were times when many of us would struggle with the meditation, look up, and get a look of support or a slap on the back to motivate us to keep going.

As I walked down the hill to meet my girlfriend and her friend, I chatted with a few of the people a bit more before going to check in. I had a look around and didn’t see anyone I recognised so I sat in reception and got chatting to the only guy there. It was about 10am, and this Scot hadn’t been to bed yet. Apparently S had seen him earlier and he’d said he would wait for me and give me a chat and she said something along the lines of ‘He hasn’t spoken to anyone for 10 days, I highly doubt he’ll want to speak to someone in your state’. Little does she know!

After speaking to him for a good while, I noticed the friend to my right — her bright pink hair being a give away — and got speaking to some more sober people. S said that for the whole day I just couldn’t stop smiling — the effect of the retreat or seeing her again? — and I definitely felt a huge benefit from my seclusion. I made a couple of small changes, felt happier because of some of the things I thought through (when I couldn’t get into a mediation state of mind I decided to use the retreat how I wanted it to be in the first place) and generally felt more positive. Would I keep up the meditation then, seeing as it was so beneficial?
No.

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2 Responses

  1. Dave says:

    This is amazing (monk metronome particularly).

    I have the universal instinct to give an ‘I’d love to do this, but…’, but considering I could have easily done it at any time over the past three and a half years since you told me about it, I obviously wouldn’t love it enough.

    There are definitely parts that appeal, which I could benefit from trying out in my daily life if I was more disciplined, but would need the enforcement of a retreat (or power cut, or falling through a portal back in time) to bother doing. Like when I look out of my window at the people running on treadmills in my condo’s gym and wonder why they have to go into a room to use their legs when they could do that anywhere. Then I return to sitting on a bed all day and staring at a screen even when I don’t need to.

    • Oliver says:

      It was a hard thing to do, but something I’d like to try again one day because of the benefits I got. They vanished quite quickly, but maybe I’d get the encouragement to keep going if I tried again. Unlikely though, I’d just get distracted by more fun options and never meditate, go to the gym or do any good for the world because I’m too distracted.

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