Immediately after leaving my silent meditation retreat, I was bombarded with one simple question. “How was it?” Three teeny tiny words, yet it was an impossible question to answer. Honestly it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done mentally, but saying that sounds like such an exaggeration. The ironic thing is that being silent wasn’t hard at all. In fact, that was the easiest part. So what was so hard about it?
What’s the hardest part of a silent mediation retreat?
Showing Loving Kindness
This sounds so lovely doesn’t it? It’s two beautiful words put next to each other, but let’s think about what they really mean in Buddhism. Loving kindness is shown to everyone, and more importantly, every thing. Everywhere you walk you need to be mindful of where you step because you don’t want to step on an ant. You can’t swat away those pesky mosquitos that keep biting you. On top of that, you have to make friends with whatever critter decides to take up residence in your bedroom. For me, this included four lizards, one cockroach, and two tarantula sized spiders (one of which was a ninja and ran faster than me).
Clearing Your Mind
Meditation is a funny thing. If you’ve never done it before, you don’t really think about how hard it is. Try to sit still and not think of anything. Really. Try. My mind ran a mile a minute. I’d start my internal dialogue thinking about yoga and end up dreaming about 7 Eleven toasties. And there was an actual train of thought that got me from one to the other. Trying to clear your mind and stop thinking is like trying to stop breathing.
To be honest, this was the easiest part. The only times I was tempted to talk were when someone sneezed. I would automatically go to say, “Bless you” and catch myself. Sometimes I would want to say thank you and couldn’t. Other times, I saw girls struggling and wanted to give them a hug and say it was okay, but I couldn’t. I did yell “Holy s***” after almost stepping on a giant lizard. I mean it was like five feet long and scared me half to death, so I feel like that doesn’t count.
In the past, my life was moving a hundred miles a minute. Somewhere along the line I’ve learned to slow down. I mean really slow down, but sitting still is still not something I can do. Especially on the floor, cross-legged, with a straight back. And definitely not for a half hour. My back hurt so bad and trying to clear my mind while in pain felt impossible.
Buddhists believe in minimalism to the extreme. I kid you not; my bed was a concrete slab with a wood pillow. The showers were buckets of cold rainwater that accumulated. The toilets flushed only by pouring water into them by hand. Laundry was done by hand in a bucket. Life is simple and easy to navigate, but there were days when I just wanted air conditioning and a tv.
Disconnecting from the World
A silent meditation retreat isn’t as simple as not talking for ten days. It means no communicating for ten days. No writing things down. No computer. No cell phone. No form of communication whatsoever. In the ten days you are there, you have no idea what is going on in the world. It’s weird to know that life goes on without you. That everything just moves forward whether you are there or not.
This one isn’t hard per say, just annoying on top of everything else. You wake up at 4:00am and go to sleep at 9:00pm. Considering everything else that you’re going through in these ten days, it sucks that you can’t get a full night of sleep. I think this made everyone a little grumpy, especially the people who had trouble falling asleep on the cement “mattress”.
Not Eating After Noon
I will admit that you get two very large meals for breakfast and lunch, but you don’t get anything (except tea) after 1:00pm. By the time you are getting ready for bed you start to hear your stomach rumbling. The morning meditation session is the worst because you don’t get to eat until 8:00am despite being up at 4:00am.
Listening to someone tell you over and over again that you are doing everything wrong in life is tough. They aren’t trying to make you feel bad, but having feelings causes suffering. Being attached causes suffering. Craving causes suffering. Being happy causes suffering. Basically, everything causes suffering. Considering how Buddhism is meant to end suffering, you are basically being told to uproot your whole life if you don’t want to be miserable.
It’s a lot to take in and the translations don’t always work out great. The word ignorant is used so many times. They really mean that you don’t know their truth, but the word ignorant strikes pretty hard. On top of that, you can’t ask for clarification, and you can’t debate. You can’t even vent about it to your neighbor, so you just end up steaming about it until you want to scream.
Want to do the same silent meditation retreat? I attended Wat Suan Mokkh in Thailand.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.