So I did a Vipassana 10 day retreat at Wat Pah Tham Wua in Mong Hae Song, in the North West of Thailand past Chiang Mai and Pai. I ended up recording it day by day in a journal style, but if you just want a snipet, scroll down to the conclusion. Enjoy!
I got out of the mini van alone, and was given a knowing look and reassuring smile from a local on the bus. The driver handed me my suitcase and pointed me in the direction of Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery. I headed off down the road lined with yellow flags…and walked with all of my luggage for maybe 25 minutes.
The monastery is beautiful. Hugged by mountains, covered in green and divided with little creeks, fish ponds and footbridges…this seemed like an okay place to decide to spend time with myself!
Someone ushered me into the main room, where I sat and listened to one of the monk’s talks on the “monkey mind” and that we must just “know”. “My mind has angry, my mind has angry”…to manage emotions with Vipassana, one must simply be aware of them.
11am Lunch Time. I ate as much as I could manage, knowing that it was the last meal of the day.
I registered at Information, was given a run down of the rules and timetable, and sent off to my bungalow with private bathroom. It wasn’t much…but I had privacy and a room to myself.
The bed was literally a wooden slab. I was given a very thin mat – maybe half a centrimetre thick, a blanket, and a rock-hard mini “pillow” [if you could call it that]. No slothenly behaviour here! I would discover later that, as the retreat went on, I would shed some weight and find the hard surface uncomfortable against my bones.
Tip: Grab an extra blanket from the laundry to lay down as extra padding.
I set off to do the first set of meditation – a talk by one of the monks, a mindful walk around the beautiful grounds, a sitting meditation, and finally a short lying-down meditation. All up this was about two hours, then we had a break and did chores.
It’s finally the end of the day. I’m physically exhausted even though I’ve snuck in naps during break times during the day. My head is full of the repetitive chant tunes that stagnated more or less around one note and were mostly in another language.
Each hour of meditation felt like a million years…
Each hour of meditation felt like a million years, and especially during the final hour, within which I was struggling to keep myself from surrendering to the floor, despite my efforts to shuffle my position every so often to keep upright and alert. So much for concentrating on the breath – it was a challenge enough just to be there and follow the rules!
Other Highlights Today:
swept leaves mindfully
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried practicing mindfulness on the toilet, but it’s not ideal. Day 2, I was hit with explosive dioreahh. I could barely keep my eyes open for the times I wasn’t turning my walking meditation into a running to the toilet meditation. So after the bulk of the “matter” was dealt with, I opted out of the rest of the day in favour of sleeping in my Kuti.
woke up to pee in the night, saw my first fire fly buzzing around my bathroom. Like a bug with headlights – EEEE!! 🙂
So I met someone here who is a naturopathic student. She scanned my body (with her mind) and figured out I made a mistake by popping the Wormwood tablets I was carrying around with me. She said my body needed 2 and a half capsules of ginger with warm water and told me what dishes of lunch I could eat today.
I felt like I was in good hands. My tummy issues had more or less subsided by the end of the day, but I did still sleep at every chance I got. Exhausted! It’s harder to practise mindfulness when you’re distracted by the body…but then…what a great opportunity for a challenge?
Hand-washing my clothes like a peasant
We had real pumpkin soup tonight [we don’t usually have dinner, but there are many pumpkins growing on the property]
I discovered that “silence” wasn’t necessary and never even mentioned by Buddha. If we speak to each other, it must just be mindful interaction.
The hours of meditation and sleeping amongst bugs has paid off! For the first time today, meditation finished seemingly quickly. This was a pleasant surprise for me, because I’d usually get bored or tired, or give up completely well before the meditation was over. Amazing!
Also today, after interacting with a few people, I noticed that my focus was on hyper-drive. I was so focused, that I noticed other people interrupting each other, I noticed when people went off topic (and remembered which topic they were talking about, which I never usually do), and – most importantly – I seemed to notice where people were at emotionally. This could be that I saw an emotion I needed to empathise with, or noticed when the other person wanted to add more to what they were saying. I seemed to tune into a sense of intuition, like I’d never experienced before.
Funnily enough, I started this day wondering if I should continue the Vipassana or not.
It seemed like most people were coming and going every couple of days…I had wondered if there was no point to get. Yet, here I was, possibly in a better position to figure out this whole enlightenment thing…
Speaking of which, a lot of the talks by the monks involved “Bud Dho”, i.e. the Knower, i.e. awareness. I must’ve leaned into this state several times today, as I could see everything. I mean EVERYTHING – my thoughts, my emotions, my intentions, my body. Having that kind of non-judgemental state can be very rewarding…and dare I say, relaxing!
It’s like sitting on top of a tall hill…watching the world go by…except you’re watching yourself.
Today I’m in a very silly mood.
I’m not sure if I’m just delirious, or if I’m enjoying chatting to so many people, the lack of responsibilities, the bowing and chanting, or because I’ve been working so hard…but it seems that today I’ve lost it!
Still feel very switched on and like the Vipassana is worthwhile…however there’s a definite heaviness to how I feel…which at the same time leads to silliness! One of the people here used to be a monk in the U.K. and is on his day four, and he said he feels the same way. He said you go through lulls for a couple of days with your meditation…still feeling buzzed but kind of zombied.
The realisation that I don’t actually need dinner (is food an illusion?)
Having someone I just met ask me to rub cream on his fungal infection that was in an awkward spot on his back (with a cotton bud)
Talking with a Russian and co-forgetting the words “cotton thread” (possibly a result of losing my mind)
All the chants are stuck in my head, and I nearly got through alllllll the pages of chanting tonight without a rest!
The crazy is STILL STRONG in this one.
It might be the lack of food…or that I’m completely comfortable in an institutional environment [school girl de ja vu?]…but I felt silly and giggly nearly the whole day…
I still had focus, but it’s like I was having fun with my increased ability…telling stories animately etc. I don’t think I could’ve ever done this in silence. It’s more like meditation camp…but that doesn’t mean it isn’t intense in every way. We are still working very hard for many hours in a day, it’s just that we have the opportunity to let loose a little or debrief during the breaks.
During the last meditation of the day, after the chanting, I couldn’t focus one bit. My peers were saying that it’s probably the lack of food because it gives you energy but your mind is all over the place. Last night I couldn’t get to sleep till around 11pm. Let’s see how the next few days pan out…
At this stage, I’m feeling pretty in touch with myself. Focused and zen…and having a ton of life-changing conversations. Not every meditation session is perfect – by any means – however, each one is going faster and faster…and I think that’s called progress!
Today is the day of honourable mentions. I’ve met so many wonderfully interesting people in here… If you go on a Vipassana retreat (speaking optional), here are some of the kinds of people you may meet:
Farlan. A highly successful, self-taught sales person from San Fran (grew up in Canada). He has to be one of the most charismatic people I’ve met. Well-read and completely self-motivated, he is someone that can inspire a crowd. Never completely satisfied with himself, his perfection pushes him forward to a whole new level of bad-ass. A very switched on guy…great for mulling over the fine details of life and meditation…also inspired me in many, many ways. Looking at problems with fresh eyes and ….there’s so much more I could say about this guy…so much praise…he really deserves to be happy and well.
Stewart. A sweet, funny ex-monk from London. His interventions in group conversations were typically intellectual British humour…we all thought he could probably do stand up comedy for his next career! His jokes were timely and entertaining, but were pleasantly surprisingly intertwined with words of zen. He grew intrigued by meditation and spent some time monk-ing around. A fascinating life…and a simple pleasure to be in the company of. Except when he was bagging me out for being Aussie! 🙂
Michelle. Although she didn’t want to take the compliment in the first five minutes I met her…this girl is truly a little go-getter. Exhibit A: She’s videoing some of our group discussions and moments for a Powerpoint presentation she’s going to deliver once she gets home of her time in Thailand, including photos and footage from her travels. Oh and she is planning on having an intermission, during which she’ll serve delicious Thai food she learned how to prepare in Chiang Mai. Ummm…what a girl!! Confident and up for the challenge of sticking out a few days in meditation even though she’d never done it before. If I have a daughter like her one day, I will be a very proud mother.
Jack. This unique human being lives in a yoga ashram live-in about an hour outside New York city in the bush. What?! He also lectured on eco-sustainability and perma-culture. He has a dream for the world: One day he hopes that something like a big chunk of iceberg will collapse and we’ll get the shock we need to get our act together. But he actually has that hope…he has a quiet confidence about the matter. The world needs more people like Jack. He even peeled and cut up a mango for me. True gent.
Today marks the day of disillusionment. I’m not sure if it’s just because two of our main players (Jack and Stewart) just left…or a whole bunch of other things…but we’re all feeling it today.
These are some things that happened:
– I got sushed twice by the Information Lady as I was talking to people when I thought no one else is around. I can be mindlessly expressive. I felt terrible each time…and left a flower on her desk to try to replace some karma.
– The monk said something that I don’t completely agree with about the evolution of dogs. Also he was talking a lot about some myths and legends in Thailand and trying to tie it into Buddhism. Personally not a fan.
– I’m so hungry all the time now and it’s taking me until midnight every night to get to sleep, even though I wake up at 6 (usually I sleep for hours and hours). I’ve been so well-behaved with what I’ve been eating (plain food, nothing fried and no sugar) while my tummy issues are resolving. All I want is…well, anything really.
– I went to the cafe a walk away near the entrance gate to get a cold bottle of water (a real treat), a pack of crackers and use the Wifi but the guy had gone to Bangkok for two days.
– I keep getting bitten by red Thai bull ants! They are really hanger-oner-ers too!
Sigh…so that’s my day 8.
One thing that helped me turn it around, was helping one of my friends through something…which did two things:
1. Helped me take the focus off me.
2. Showed me that I can help people and feel better for it after.
Sitting through the struggle…only two more days to go…and then VEGO FOOD AND ICECREAM! 🙂
Well and truly ready to leave here now. I think I checked out of meditating properly a while ago…and I can’t seem to focus very well and I’m sure it has a lot to do with the state of my body in terms of still battling some tummy issues as well as not eating or sleeping enough. Thankfully, there was a black out, so they cut the evening chanting session short.
Definitely looks like 10 days is enough this time around – especially for a first-timer.
I packed my bag and cleaned my Kuti for my departure in the morning.
Kuti cleaned, submitted white clothes that I didn’t want to keep, returned my key, and said goodbye to folks.
The naturopathy lady said to go to India then come back here. The administration guy said come back soon so he could take me to his school. A couple of people I made friends with in there said they received similar encouragement to come back. I guess at the end of the day, the place makes money for them…but I like to think they have a genuine interest in helping people achieve peace.
The Abbot sat with us while we waited for the bus. He pointed to a few of us and said we are lucky…that in our past lives we must have done good karma to end up in good countries with good opportunities in this life.
He said they often say around there “good karma, no barbeque”…referring to the plain food and phenomena of people loosing weight in there.
So we all caught a bus to Pai and some went on to Chiang Mai. For those of us who stayed in Pai, we went on a food rampage. I personally got high from a “coconut bowl” I had that contained four scoops of coconut icecream and mango sorbet. Then continued to crunch on coconut cookies as a talked to and giggled with a friend on the phone…who said it sounded like I was stoned and had the munchies. Fair call.
At Wat Pa Tam Wua, foreigners and Thais are allowed to come and go as they please, and many were coming to stay for just a night or two. It has to be said that one can’t simply *dabble* at a Vipassana retreat. One must engage fully…and if you come for a couple of days to get a taste, unfortunately one might leave bewildered and disillusioned.
Was it worthwhile?
All in all, I would say that for me it was definitely a worthwhile experience…but I think only because I’d had experience with meditation and I stayed for longer than a few days. For the ideal experience, come only after you’ve at least tried out the basics of meditation…and be prepared to stay for more than a couple of nights!
Which meditation type do you prefer?
I’ll choose whichever I think I need or am capable of at that time. If I’m feeling focussed, I can do Vipassana – which is like sitting back in your own personal cinema of your mind and watching your thoughts and feelings go by. This is the best method for attaining wisdom. Other times, I’m too physically tired or mentally exhausted to do anything, so I’ll just do “Samadha” – which is focussing on one object, like your steps when you do a walking meditation.
Thoughts keep entering my mind, what should I do?
That’s normal. It’s like training a puppy (or as the Abbot says, “monkey mind”) and it takes focus and practice to get it to be disciplined. The Abbot would say that focus usually only lasts 4-5 seconds at its best.
What do you think about when you meditate?
For the first 15 or so minutes I would be going over whatever conversations I’ve most recently had. After that, if I’m focussed enough or have done enough of the “Samadha” work to have a focussed mind, I’ll go deeper. Maybe thoughts will turn to something that I’m struggling with…and I’ll explore that feeling…try to understand it.
Do ghosts really live there?
There are sections of the grounds of the monastery, and not all are protected. So around the monk kutis there are spirits. One kuti near to this area, which my friend stayed in, was said to be haunted by the ghost of a girl who used to spend time at the monastery. She committed suicide, and is said to be a friendly spirit who is just grateful for the energy there. A worker there said sometimes he hears people outside or on the doorstep but no one is there. My friend asked him how he knows when spirits are around and he said he notices that all his hairs stand on end. My friend said this happened to him too when he was at the door to his kuti. I don’t really know how to explain this.
Why all the bowing and chanting?
It was a very traditional practice…lots of formalities, and lots of chanting each night. These are known to be tied to good karma and releasing meta…and I’m not sure I have arguments for or against that, but it’s not something I would’ve chosen to do if I’d had the choice. Since the Vipassana occured at a monastery in Thailand, it was necessary to follow the country’s customs.
Isn’t it better to do a Vipassana in complete silence?
Personally I found it useful for my first time to be able to compare my experience with the people around me, and to receive stimuli for my meditation, and also practice for remaining mindful in interactions. I’m yet to participate in a silent one, but will post it here when I do!