Something has changed.
There is an inner stillness, a quiet that I haven’t felt before. At times, I feel as though someone has flicked on the ‘High Definition’ switch of my vision as everything seems so crisp, so alive and so new. I often find myself involuntarily transfixed. This happens at random impromptu moments where I’ll just stare at the most mundane things. I’ll sit and just observe how the light hits an object and how it casts shadows with great detail, focus and attention or as the Buddhist call it – Mindfulness.
When I get frustrated, I find that I can now just observe my mind as if I’m an objective third person. Without judgement or commentary I can watch my thoughts. It’s as if my mind is a blank white screen and my thoughts a projector. My thoughts get projected one the white screen of my mind but instead of experiencing all the associated emotions attached to the thoughts, I just watch. Like an audience member in a cinema, I just watch what comes up on the screen. I don’t get involved, I don’t judge, I don’t like or dislike. I don’t allow the thoughts to carry me away into their story that endlessly interweaves with many other stories one after another after another until you find yourself lost in the dense jungle of neural pathways leading to old decaying memories. I just watch and once I start this, the thoughts stop and the silence arises.
I’ve just come out of a meditation retreat at Dipabhavan Meditation Centre high up in the dense jungle covered mountains of Koh Samui, Thailand. During my time at the retreat I; did not speak to anyone as we had to observe a ‘vow of silence’, only ate two vegetarian meals a day and had no access to mobile phones, electronic devices or even books. I was completely isolated from the outside world and left alone with only my thoughts to contemplate as I lay on my wooden bed on just a straw mat with a wooden pillow. Around me the jungle sang loudly in an ancient rhythm as the thrum of insects, birds and animals would build, rise and fall away out of the jungle darkness like waves crashing on a beach.
I was scared before going in to the retreat. I sat in a bar on the morning before I left, rapidly drinking my last beers and sending last-minute text messages to my wife. When the time finally came, I walked down the road to the meeting point at one of the resorts on Lamai Beach where our pickup was. I sat in the reception and a small smiling woman looked at me in my lose Thai white shirt and fisherman pants and said “meditation retreat?”… I was dressed the part! Before long I climbed in to the back of a truck with a man from China, an Israeli girl, a French girl and a Canadian. We gripped on to the railing as we slid backwards with our backpacks while the truck undertook what felt like an almost vertical climb up the mountain.
We finally reached the retreat and the view was outstanding. The palms wafted slowly in the balmy breeze offering glimpses of the deep blue ocean between their fronds. Behind us was more mountain and dense jungle. Registration involved a short interview with the monk asking if I’d meditated before and highlighting that the retreat will be ‘difficult on the mind and body’ and that there ‘will be times when you want to leave’ and then I had to hand over my smart phone and camera… Very difficult to do!
They then gave me a bag with a blanket and a mosquito net and sent me further up the mountain to the male lodging where I picked a ‘bed’ (or straw mat) to peg my mosquito net over. Next to my bed was an opening – like a window without glass – it had a grid pattern of wood inserted in it which became handy shelves to store things like soap and mosquito repellent. On the other side was the jungle that was in constant song as strange noises emerged from the dense greenery and echoed up toward me. Underneath us were the bathrooms. There were no showers, instead there was a reservoir of fresh water with several plastic bowls. You would use the plastic bowl to scoop water out of one of the reservoirs before tipping it over yourself. This was quite refreshing in the middle of the day, but a little cold in the darkness of our 4:30am waking time, so I would postpone my ‘shower’ until after breakfast.
Before long the welcome talk began followed by a ‘boundary tour’ where we were shown the ambiguous boundary between the retreat grounds and the uncultivated jungle that surrounded us. We were also told of snakes, scorpions, spiders and stinging centipedes and advised to ‘tuck our mosquito nets under our straw mats’. However we were reassured that none of the types of animals in the jungle were fatal and they have been here longer than us so we’re not to kill anything (including mosquitoes) because what right do we have to take away any life?
There was a final Q&A session, followed by a demonstration of the various meditation postures with encouragement to ‘experiment to find the right one for you’. The bell then rung three times which signified the beginning of the vow of silence. At first the silence was difficult. When you bump in to someone or drop something, you automatically and subconsciously go to say ‘sorry’, but after a while it not only became natural, it became wonderful. This may sound strange, however It is such a privilege to not have to talk. You can sit next to someone without having to worry about making incessant small-talk or worry about any of the usual social nuances we follow. People no longer became a threat or an annoyance and everyone just walked around the retreat focused on the silence… It was wonderful.
The ‘Meditation Hall’ is where we did most of our activities; sitting meditation, walking meditation, dharma talks, yoga, meta meditation and more. A large monastery bell hung from the front of the hall and a small man wielding a giant rubber hammer would strike the bell making it chime out over the jungle to signify we were to come to the hall. There was no need for a watch or even an awareness of time, as our whole day was dictated by the chiming of bells.
After settling in as much as you can when you have nothing to do, the bell chimed for the first time. By now it was already night. We all made our way silently up the steep path to the meditation hall with our small torches. The hall was beautiful and only lit by a large candle next to a Buddha shrine and bamboo plants. The candle flame would flicker throwing an assortment of large shadows across the walls and roof of the hall. I closed my eyes and tried to meditate along with the 50 other people with nothing but the flickering flame and sound of the jungle to distract me. After a while the bell chimed three times indicating the end of our meditation session. I felt calm, but thought I still had a long way to go as I hobbled out of the dark meditation hall with pins and needles in my legs from sitting cross-legged so long. I lay on my straw mat and stared out the opening at the jungle and the stars. I thought ‘how on earth am I going to sleep without a mattress’ but before long I was asleep.
The sound of the jungle outside my window:
Our first full day began with the chiming of the bell shattering the dark silence at 4.30am. Again we shuffled into the hall and sat in darkness with only candle light. Sometimes the monks would join our morning session which was always a surreal experience. They would sit at the front of the hall, raised on platforms. It was so dark, sometimes I wasn’t sure if there were monks there or if my eyes were playing tricks on me. Occasionally I would make out the faint orange of their robe and the silhouette of a dark body sitting in the dark silence. However, I never saw their faces and wasn’t even sure if they were facing toward us or away from us. They became these almost ghostly figures that were sometimes present during our morning meditation. Again I closed my eyes until the chime of a bell and when I opened them, the sun was beginning to rise and the monks disappeared. The hall was an open structure with no walls, and to my left I could look out toward the ocean in the distance as the orange sun slowly rose and its warm illumination started creeping gently down the mountain throwing the jungle from dark to colour.
Breakfast was an uneventful simple meal of rice soup with what I can only best describe as a Thai doughnut, even though it tastes very different. The only saving grace I found was the condiments I could add to the dish; prik khi noo chilli in fish sauce and red chilli in vinegar. We would sit in silence except before eating our food when we all said a food reflection together where we focused on the earth the food came from, the sun and rain that nourished the vegetables and the fire that cooked it.
After breakfast we had two hours of free time. I found free time the hardest. Ironically it was free time where I felt the most trapped and isolated. I felt alone, stuck in the jungle on this mountain with no contact with anyone. These feelings would come and go regularly throughout the retreat with good moments, amazing moments, average moments and moments that felt like hell.
The first day felt like a lot of meditation. We had our first Dharma talk from our teacher who was an English monk who now lives in Thailand. He’s talks were insightful, inspiring and full of knowledge. They were also very entertaining and funny at times with anecdotes from his life that he used to pepper the message. He spoke a lot about breathing and controlling the breath on the first day. At Dipabhavan they teach ‘Anapanasiti’ meditation which basically translates as ‘Mindfulness through Breathing’. Here we learnt that the key to successful meditation is to focus on the breath and the breath only. This is easer said than done. However the monk taught us the original method taught by the Buddha himself. It involves deep breathing techniques that make your breathing a much more conscious process and force the mind to focus on the mechanisms of breathing. The Buddha taught others to ‘chase the breath’ in and out. I followed the monks suggestion of feeling the breath first at the tip of the nose, then going in the nose, then hitting the back of the throat. At this point it’s hard to physically feel the breath itself, so instead you use the movement of the body to follow the breath in to your chest with the expanding of the lungs then imagine it going in to the back of your bellybutton as your stomach expands. Then simply reverse the process on exhaling.
After a while you slow the breath down more and more and count “in, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, out, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7” etc. You treat the breath like a tap. You don’t turn it on full and have the breath come rapidly in and out. You open the ‘tap’ only a little and make the breath more and more controlled, softer and less turbulent. As I controlled my breathing and counting, I found that my mind was starting to focus on my breath. Often it would then wander, however I leaned that instead of getting frustrated or following your thoughts, you just gently bring your mind back to the breath again and again and again and again. I did this probably hundreds of times on day one. What I learnt the most at the start is that meditation is hard and requires immense concentration and focus. It’s not just sitting there relaxing with an empty mind. At first it’s a constant battle between you and your wandering mind. The mind is so used to being stimulated by the world we live in, it would rather find more interesting things to focus on than the breath. This battle I found exhausting.
The key is to not expect anything and be patient. The monk told us to treat the whole retreat like an experiment and just see what happens to the mind. So, come with no expectations and just be patient and keep deep breathing…
By the afternoon of day one I started to realise that the gaps between having to bring my mind back to the breath were getting longer and longer. That is, I was able to focus on the breath for longer without my mind wandering. It was incredibly relaxing. The bell would chime and I would slowly open my eyes and just sit there, feeling the breeze on my face and listen to the palm fronds rustle and the insects chirp. The meditation was starting to have an effect.
By the evening of day one, I felt very relaxed. During our afternoon break I lay on my straw mat with a much emptier mind than usual. I remember lying there, staring at a light-bulb on the ceiling. I contemplated the shape of it, where it came from and how it was made. Perhaps it was a combination of the meditation and nothing to do, but I was definitely in a different state of mind that already seemed free from the usual background noise and mental commentary I experience.
That evening I entered the hall for my evening meditation and for the first time I found I was able to completely quiet my mind. When this happens, your breathing changes. You no longer need to focus on the deep breathing and counting because it’s as if the mind becomes interested and takes over the breathing. It becomes a subconscious process again. I sat there and felt like I was hardly breathing at all. My mind was blank. At first it was hard as I would do it and then the thought of “Oh My God I’m doing it!” would pop into my head, however soon enough I was able to tame my excitement and just sit there. Time started to go very fast when meditating and I was surprised when the bell rang to end the session as it felt too soon.
I sat there in the dark with a blank mind as the huge evening tropical storms raged over us. It was as if the environment was responding to my presence. The candles flickered violently in the noisy wind and the lightning flashed, dousing the jungle in bright blue electric light before thunder broke the silence. It really was an amazing experience, especially early morning before sunrise and in the evenings as the storms circled us.
Day two was again a good day. The more I meditated the better I got at doing it. I could sit still and silent. It was so relaxing. Afterwards I felt as though I was floating, not walking and the vividness of the jungle intensified. The environment suddenly seemed full of animals, colour, detail, texture, sound and smell. Even in my free-time I would meditate. There was one spot, deep back in the jungle that had been cleared and turned in to a meditation area. I sat there and meditated. As I went deeper in to meditation, I felt as though all the animals and the insects in the jungle were responding to me. It was as if their chirps and singing was completely in rhythm with my breathing. Perhaps I was following them, but it felt as though we were all connected for 30 minutes together in the forest as the sun set and vivid jungle colour gave way to shadow forms when dusk arrived.
That night I felt total calm going to the meditation hall and something strange happened when I meditated. I felt as though my mind was enormous and the sensation in my head changed. I felt as though as I breathed in, my breath was entering my mind and going up in to the sky before coming back down. My head and body started to tingle and I felt as if I was sitting alone in a giant expanse. I can’t really describe it except to say that I’ve never experienced anything like it. It scared me at first. The experience was so different from normal consciousness that I wondered how I would come out of this state and open my eyes, but the thing with meditating is you can think and you are totally aware of your environment. It’s just that your thinking doesn’t take the form of dialogue, it becomes more subtle and more abstract. This is, at least, what I experienced.
After this we did walking meditation where we walk in a line behind each other being mindful of our steps and trying to stay in sync with the group leader. I was still so peaceful that I felt as if I was almost walking in a trance. I remember looking at the guy in front of me and noticing he had a dimple on the side of his face. I watched how the light from the candle would cast shadows over his dimple as we walked around the silent hall. I was so present and so aware of everything around me… This had definitely been a breakthrough.
At bed-time that night, I couldn’t even sleep at first, because every time I relaxed, I found that instead of sleeping I was going in to a meditative state. So I woke myself up, and deliberately began to think and imagine things again. Like splashing cold water on your face in the morning to wake up, I did this almost as an attempt to snap myself out of it. Eventually I slept and slept really well.
It’s funny how you can go through so many ups and downs. I went through such an amazing experience on the third night and found that I was now quite good at meditating. I was amazed at this as I always thought my mind was like a cage full of restless monkeys and I always found it impossible to stop my thoughts, so I felt some sense of achievement. Despite this, day three was my hell day. I don’t know why, but the morning was just incredibly hard… It wasn’t the meditation or the food, it was the isolation. I missed my wife and my baby daughter and I just felt helpless and confused. I was only peaceful during the meditation sessions, but during free-time when I felt as though I was going crazy. I got through the day and continued my meditation and by the evening I was finally feeling better but now unsure about my endurance to stick out another three days and stay the entire duration of the retreat.
During the day I took the opportunity to have an interview with the monk (this was allowed on day 3 or 4 only and was reserved for questions on your meditation practice) and told him of how I felt which he described as anxiety caused by ‘losing the guard rails’ of daily life. Not having anything to distract the mind. However I think it was simply that I have so much going on in my life now that to be isolated and not contact family was just too much. I had come here to learn how to meditate and I feel I did that and did it well. I could now take what I learnt and continue the practice in my own time.
Day four arrived. After morning meditation a whole group of people were leaving. I spoke to one of the group leaders who told me that doing more than three days mediation for a beginner can be very difficult. I thought about going, I thought about staying. I chose to leave on day four. Not because I didn’t like it (it was one of the best things I’ve done in my life), not because I was bored and couldn’t silence my mind, but simply because I was alone and isolated at a time of turbulence and change in my life. I was eager to get back in contact with my family and apply what I learned to my daily life. So I crawled back in to the back of the truck that took us back down the mountain.
I felt as if I had been gone for weeks. Even the traffic and the people seemed so loud and abrupt. So much noise and movement, my senses felt overwhelmed as we pulled back in to Lamai. I checked back in to a hotel in Lamai Beach and Skyped my wife and baby daughter. I then went and ate the best beef penang curry I’ve had! However, I returned to my room anxious. I was worried. What if I could only mediate at the retreat? What if I needed the isolation and the silence of the mountain-top to achieve a quiet mind? I was too scared to meditate again in case I couldn’t do it!… And then what?
So I sat at the end of my bed, set the timer on my phone for 40 minutes, closed my eyes, took in a deep breath and began to slow and control my breathing as I had been taught. Feeling happy, having contacted my wife and daughter and with a full belly of meaty goodness, I sat on the end of my queen-size soft mattress under the cool air conditioning and slipped in to a wonderful deep, quiet meditation.