If I was to describe my vision of paradise on Earth a few weeks ago it never would have included complete silence, living on two meals a day, waking up a 4 in the morning, and sleeping on a cement block with a wooden pillow. But for 10 days I felt like I had found the closest thing to paradise. At the beginning of this month I attended the 10 day silent meditation retreat at Suan Mokkh Temple in Surrathani, Thailand. Every month there is an English retreat starting the first of the month. (There are also many events in Thai throughout the month, and many monks, nuns, and laypeople also choose to live at the temple or dharma center.) Initially, I was quite nervous about embarking on this journey, especially after reading the rules:
The retreat itself takes place outside of the temple, at the dharma center, located about 1.5 km away in the quietude of the forest. The main temple, Wat Suan Mokkh, was founded by the famous monk, writer, and thinker Bikasana. I had visited this temple once before and wrote a short post about him here. Bikasana believed in living simply and being one with nature. Although he passed away in 1993 Suan Mokkh temple still honors his legacy and has surprisingly few statues and no ornate temple on the grounds. He influenced many people, especially the American monk Santikaro, who trained with Bikasana and was his primary English translator. And, I was surprised to find out, before becoming a monk Santikaro had come to Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer! It is largely because of his work that the meditation retreat in English exists.
Before beginning the retreat you must arrive the day before, on the last day of the month prior, for registration. I went in October, which is low season, but even so there were about 80 participants from all over the world! After registering you must turn in any distracting items: cell phones, computers, tablets, books, etc for safe keeping for the entire retreat. You are given a tour of the grounds, which includes a number of meditation halls, hot springs, a dining hall, separate male and female dorms, and a number of beautiful ponds. Then, after an evening meeting, the silence commenced.
The style of meditation taught is Anapanasati, or mindfulness of breath, and is believed to have been the method used by the Buddha. It is an all inclusive form of meditation that includes both concentration and vipassana (insight). Anapanasati is a 16 step method, divided into 4 tetrads: the body(steps 1-4), feelings(5-8), mind (9-12), and dhammas (13-16). The first tetrad is focused solely on the breath and is meant to bring your body and mind into a state of deep concentration that will allow one to move on to the following steps, where one eventually gains understanding (or insight) into how feelings condition the mind, the impermanence of all things, and the cessation of attachments and therefor suffering (dukkha).
During our daily dhamma talks we learned about this process and how to use it in our meditation practice. There were also other teachings, rooted in Buddhist teaching but, in my opinion, applicable to anyone regardless of religious beliefs. One of these topics was dependent origination, and the cause of suffering that starts with contact. (Contact being any contact the inner system has from the outside through the six senses: sound, sight, smell, taste, touch, the mind.) The cycle of dependent origination is as follows:
ignorance leads to contact
contact leads to feeling
feeling leads to craving
craving leads to attachment
attachment leads to being
being leads to birth
birth leads tosuffering
suffering leads to ignorance
I was surprised at how systematic this approach was to the mind and feelings. It makes you realize that your responses, not just in action, but in thought and emmotional response, are in your control as long as you maintain mindfulness. If you are mindful upon the point of contact you have the ability to stop that contact from spiraling down the cycle that leads to suffering.
I learned so much from this retreat and came into a state of peace stronger than anything I’ve experienced before. I expected to feel trapped from all the restrictions, to want to burst from not being able to talk, and to be sitting in meditation posture feeling like I was secretly having a panic attack. But I quickly realized, as long as you follow the teaching, you can control any negative feelings or doubt and by following the breath you are naturally calming your body down which in turn calms the mind. The most challenging part of the retreat for me was actually the physical part, dealing with aching joints from sitting most of the day in meditation posture. By the end however, I could sit for much longer, and my body as a whole felt much more aligned than before. (The mosquitoes were a close second, especially since we had intended to abstain from killing- which included even the pesky mosquitoes!) Although there were definitely many moments that were very difficult, it was an incredible experience that taught me a lot about life and the value of meditation, mindfulness, and simply being.
To find out more information about the retreat and teachings go to: http://www.suanmokkh-idh.org