Originally, I had planned to write a guide of what a silent retreat is like based on the day-to-day activities, but I don’t think a guide could ever prepare someone for what a meditation retreat in Thailand is really like. Almost everyone I spoke to before leaving wanted me to update them on how it went, and there’s really no way to put it into just a few words. No brief explanation could ever sum up the pain, the joy, the irrational anger, or ultimately what I learned.
Before starting, I decided that I would keep a diary while at Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage. It was the first rule I broke and the only one I broke on purpose. The 10-day silent retreat isn’t just about learning to meditate and not talking. It’s complete isolation from the world. It’s being put in extremely uncomfortable conditions and seeing how you handle them without anyone else to lean on. It tests your mind in a way I’ve never felt before. I can honestly say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done mentally.
I think it’s important to share my entire journey, so I’ve included an excerpt from the morning I left for the retreat. If you don’t know where I started, you won’t understand how I got where I am. I’ve chosen to share my very honest and very vulnerable moments (minus parts about other people for their privacy). It’s the most personal thing I’ve ever published on this blog, so I hope you’ll read it with an open mind and an open heart.
Finding My Truth at a Meditation Retreat in Thailand
The Day Before
I can’t breath. There’s a weight on my chest and it’s getting heavier and heavier. I gasp through tears and struggle to catch my breath. Is this what a panic attack feels like? “Just breathe,” I tell myself and the crying comes out harder. It’s the only way I know how to calm myself down, but then the image comes back into my mind. “Just breathe, it’s okay, I’m right here.” It’s the last words I said to my dad over and over again, and it keeps replaying in my mind. I can’t make it stop.
People have told me I’m brave, that they could never do what I do, but bravery to me isn’t going to another country by myself. That’s not scary. At this moment, sitting in silence for 10 days with only my thoughts is the most terrifying thing I can imagine. I’m frozen in place unable to move. I try to calm myself down again, but I can’t stop seeing his face, and I can’t stop hearing my words, “Just breathe, it’s okay, I’m right here.”
“Silence is the loudest sound.”
I hand in all of my electronics, eat lunch, and have an interview. We are supposed to tell them any concerns we might have. Right now, all I have is concerns. I’m almost positive I won’t make it past a few days. I keep telling myself I’m brave and ask my interviewer if it’s ok to cry during meditation. She reaches over and touches my hand gently. “If you need to cry, you can come and find me. I too lost a parent. Memories are ok, but you need to see them and let go. You can’t attach to them because then they get bigger and bigger and you start to feel sad. Maybe then you cry. So you see the memory, you breathe, and you let it go. Don’t cling to it.” Her voice is calming and sincere, and I begin to feel a little more at ease.
“Your mind is a wild animal.”
Waking up to the sound of bells is jarring. It’s loud yet calming at the same time, so you don’t remember to get up which is already hard at 4:00am. In our first meditation our dhamma friend (teacher) taught about feelings. How we are all slaves to emotions. During meditation my mind ran wild with every action ever committed because of a feeling. Spoiler, it’s all of them. If I have a need to feel accomplished I work hard. If I want to feel happy I have fun. Then it gets deeper. What do you do when you’re sad or depressed? What about when you’re being really hard on yourself? What are your habits, and why do you do them? Every action is caused by a fleeting feeling.
Today feels like a week. It’s like we are in the Hunger Games in a dome with no real time. The sky turns to night whenever someone hits the switch, and today they make us suffer by prolonging it.
“The past has left us. The future has not arrived.”
Today we are working on being in the present. We talk about how the past causes suffering because we long for something no longer there. The future causes suffering because we create certain expectations and hope leads to being let down. It all sounds so sad to me. Living without hopes or dreams.
Today has been extremely hard. Tomorrow will be three months since dad died. We learned to do walking meditation this afternoon. We focused on every single step and what it felt like. Our dhamma friend kept repeating how we take things for granted, and how some people can’t walk at all. I pictured dad telling me that he had a dream he walked to the kitchen and was doing the dishes. When he woke up he was heartbroken that it wasn’t true. Instead he was stuck in his bed, unable to move. I took every step I could today for him, and I tried to savor each one.
I’m not allowed to let my feelings take hold of me, so I push dad out of my mind. It only makes me want to cry more. A few tears escape and the girl next to me notices, unable to ask if I’m ok or comfort me. At this moment, I wish I could do nothing more than scream, but I continue with the exercise. I force a smile because I know dad would want me to enjoy this walk. If not for me, for him.
My heel lifts off the ground placing all the weight on the pad of my foot. Agonizingly slow, I move the weight to just my toes. I can feel the stretch all the way to my thigh. I’m not sure if it always feels this way or it’s because I have been sitting so long. My weight shifts to my other foot, and I lean outward automatically. I waver, unsteady. Closing my eyes to feel, I realize how unstable I really am. I place my heel in front of me on the ground and watch as my foot subtly changes shape. My toes spreading apart against the cool concrete at the last second. I decide that I like taking off for a step. Like my toes are projecting me forward. Like I could almost take off and fly.
“Let go of simple mindedness.”
They say the first three days are the hardest, and I hope they’re right because that means it’s all down hill from here. I’m having a hard time sitting still. My back hurts so badly. Meditation either flies by or goes so slow that I swear the day is moving backwards.
We talk about how in the real world everything is “What’s next?” and now we are being told, “What’s now?” Our minds can’t accept the change that quickly. We need time to adapt. My mind has been so defensive to everything being said, partly because it’s like someone telling you you’re ignorant a hundred times a day and partly because it might be true.
I did an interview today to talk about having trouble focusing and wanting to cry. I was told to breathe slower which only made me more upset. I have been breathing slowly. How slow could I possibly breathe? I think she could sense that this advice was not helpful for me so she told me a story…
A woman lost her baby and brought it to Buddha to bring back to life. Buddha sent her to find a household that had not experienced loss. If she was able to find it, she should bring a cup of rice from their house, and Buddha would be able to bring her child back to life. The woman asked every household, but all had experienced loss.
Death is part of nature. We can’t stop or change it, only accept it. I don’t know what part of the story resonated with me, but I felt a sense of calm and acceptance wash over me. It was as if she had said nothing and everything all at once.
“Heaven and hell are here on Earth.”
Today I woke up feeling ready to try. My brain has stopped rebelling and instead it thinks about what is being said and forms its own conclusions. Usually, it ends up agreeing with the teachers. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m finally starting to understand it or if it’s Stockholm syndrome, but I feel lighter and freer. I hope it lasts, but that would be a desire, and I should acknowledge that this feeling is fleeting.
In morning meditation we talk about greed. How someone can have everything, and it’s not enough. I think back to my life and contemplate how I got here. I had a beautiful home, a wonderful boyfriend, and my own business in my chosen field. No matter how much progress I made, I always felt I should be further along. A stranger once told me that I accomplished more at 25 than he did at 40, but I was never satisfied.
Now, I’m trying to live in the present and appreciate what I have. In this moment, I’m writing in my contraband diary and breathing. It’s all I need. I don’t know what tomorrow brings. I don’t even think about what I’ll be doing five minutes from now. My fears of being here 10 days are gone.
I feel bipolar. We have a lecture that talks about how to live modestly. Eat food only to survive. Live in a simple house with nature (i.e. spiders). Dress for cover, not for style and absolutely no entertainment. There is a huge emphasis on how sex is the most popular entertainment in the world. Like we are all heathens. The word ignorant gets thrown around at least twenty times, and it’s said in the most condescending tone.
I go to walking meditation in a bad mood. The only rule in walking meditation is to choose a path that doesn’t intersect with someone else’s since you are basically pacing back and forth. A girl literally chose a path that cut directly through mine. I seriously wanted to slap her across the face for getting in my way. If I was allowed, I would Muay Thai kick her in the side or scream, “I’m trying to meditate here!” Both of which are against the rules.
I’m pretty sure you can see the rage steaming off of me, yet she doesn’t notice. My reaction is so extreme that I’m pretty sure I’m going crazy. Add in the fact that I have a pet cockroach named Bob back in my room, and I’m positive. On the bright side there are only 6 ½ days until someone can check me into a loony bin, but who’s counting.
“Find your middle way.”
This morning I woke up exhausted. The bells ringing automatically put me in a bad mood. At morning meditation, we talk about balance. Not being too happy or too sad. Not sitting too tense or too relaxed. It’s all about balance and finding your own middle. The meditation bell rings but the speaker continues to talk. I can’t focus. She takes a long pause between each sentence, which would normally be calming, but suddenly it’s infuriating. Every time I focus, she starts talking again. I’m amazed at how annoyed I am at something so trivial.
My lack of sleep is taking a toll on me. Sleeping on a cement bed with a wood pillow and waking up to obnoxiously loud bells at 4am is just too much. I can’t handle it. I’m tired. I’m hungry. My back hurts. I feel like I’m not allowed to cry. I WANT TO GO HOME.
“Everything is impermanent.”
If the entire world had a lobotomy, would it be a better place? There would be no war or suffering, but it would be cold and distant. That’s how I feel about Buddhism today. Despite that, I’ve decided to give it 100%. No more daydreaming or feeling attached for the next five days. After that, I can figure out what’s best for me and find my balance, but for now I’m fully committed. I try to remember that this is like learning about Catholicism from nuns. They live and breathe their religion and have dedicated their whole lives to it, so it’s very strict. That being said, you can still be Catholic without being a nun.
There are parts of Buddhism I love. Living simply (in western terms), not being attached to material things, living in the present moment, and learning how to focus my mind when needed. Then there are parts that make me want to run for the exit as fast as I can.
What if the world had no mirrors? Would it be a better place? Buddhists don’t believe in beautification, so mirrors aren’t necessary. Without one (or a camera), I’m beginning to forget what I look like. It’s kind of liberating. I’ve stopped comparing myself to others. What would “pretty” be in a world where we can’t see ourselves? Would shallowness disappear? Would our differences be less important? Would our skin tone matter less? Would we be happier?
“There’s no need to rush. There is nowhere to be.”
During chores yesterday and the day before, I noticed there were tons of ants climbing in a single file line up to the ceiling of the pavilion. The line went on for two days, never stopping. I realized they must have sensed the monsoons coming. The observation makes me smile. It’s something I never would have noticed before. I could literally tell the weather from the ants.
I notice a few girls who look like they aren’t trying. Yesterday, it made me mad. Why don’t they just leave? After discussing not judging others last night, I look at them a little differently. One should observe, but not judge in order to learn. Maybe just being here is trying as hard as they can. Maybe this is so difficult that it takes all of their strength not to leave. I decide to smile at them every time I see them. Maybe loving-kindness will help.
The days feel shorter and longer at the same time. An hour can feel like a minute and a minute can feel like an hour.
“Anything we cling to imprisons us.”
I notice a few girls here never smile. I mean, I’ll look at them and smile and get nothing back. Other girls I seek out because they always smile and it makes my day better. I hope to always be the girl who smiles back at people. I can’t imagine living the other way.
I’m walking to meditation when one of the smiley girls waves to me and whispers “bye.” I wonder if I’m walking the wrong way. When I reach the meditation hall, I see that her mat is no longer there. She’s leaving. I want to run back and ask why, but meditation is about to start, and there is no time. I fear if I did ask, I’d end up leaving with her. Her empty space has a presence. I think of who else has left, and I realize I haven’t seen another smiley girl for at least a day. I look and she is gone. Maybe the happy ones don’t last long. Maybe happiness can’t exist here.
I want to be out of here. I want to feel! Not all emotions are good, but right now I want to feel all of them. Envy, love, fear, sadness, excitement, anger, joy. I want to hear the sound of my laugh, the sound of my cry. I don’t want an average life. I want to feel the highs even if it means I have to feel the lows. I wish I could just walk into the courtyard and scream until I have no voice left. I close my eyes tight and scream into the void that has become my mind. Free of memories and thoughts, the screams echo, bouncing off the empty walls as tears escape my eyes.
“Today, we live like monks.”
Today, the no writing rule is being enforced. There will be no lectures. We’ll meditate for nine hours and have only one meal. I hid my notebook, so the thoughts below were written down on day 10.
The morning flies by but the afternoon stands still. I pace back and forth for so long that I leave a path in the sand. Someone walks by, and their soft footsteps sound like thunder in the silence. No one talks, not even the teachers. I’ve never heard the world so quiet.
By the afternoon, I can’t meditate anymore, so I decide to contemplate impermanence and death, only this time I think about my own. “I’m going to die.” It’s such an odd thing to say. My mind automatically adds “one day” to the end of the sentence, rejecting the idea. “I’m going to die.” Accepting this is supposed to free us from fear.
If we could live one day and do anything, knowing we wouldn’t die, what would we choose to do? I think I’d go base-jumping. I’d suddenly be brave. What if we knew no matter what we did, at the end of the day we would die? Would we go about our day like usual? Would we spend it with loved ones? Or would I still go base-jumping, knowing it wouldn’t matter? If we accept death, would we be braver or would we still hold onto life as long as we could, hoping to die in our beds at 95. “I’m going to die.” I repeat it to myself until it doesn’t sound so strange.
“Find your truth.”
Last night I woke up in a fog. I looked around and didn’t know where I was. I was sitting up meditating. I knew I was at the retreat, but I wasn’t in the meditation hall. All the candles were blown out. My eyes began to adjust, and I could tell from the small amount of light coming from the ceiling that I was in my room.
Did I miss meditation? Was I supposed to be in my room? I began to panic, thinking I was sitting on the floor with all the critters. I realize it’s nighttime, and I can’t turn on the light. I breathe and feel around me. The mosquito net is there. I’m in bed. I must have had a dream. I remember one of the teachers telling us to get comfortable and sit up straight. Then, she rang the meditation bell. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I sleep-meditated. Clearly, I need to get out of here. I laid back down and went back to sleep.
So far today feels great. I just started getting used to my room. I barely checked for animals when I came in. I’ve adjusted to the showers and bathrooms. I know the only reason I feel this way is because I get to go home tomorrow morning.
It’s been a few days, and I’m back in the real world. One of the teachers kept asking us to find our truth, and I can’t help but contemplate what I’ve learned. So here it goes…
I’ve learned that every breath really is a gift. I’ve learned to slow down. To appreciate something as small as taking one step. I’ve learned to meditate. I’ve learned to control my emotions. I can calm myself down quickly if needed. I’ve learned to be one with nature. I avoid stepping on ants, don’t swat flies (as often), and actually like lizards now. I realized this world doesn’t belong to humans even though we often act like it. We all inhabit this place together. I’ve learned not to get attached to thoughts. I can see them and then let them go without clinging to them, without getting stuck in an endless loop. I’ve learned how strong I am.
Most of all I’ve learned that it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to feel. This wasn’t taught here, in fact they taught the opposite, but I know now more than ever that emotions aren’t the enemy. I won’t let my feelings control me, but sadness usually comes from a loss of happiness. Buddhists believe we should stop feeling happy, but my truth is that happiness is worth the pain. I think of the 28 loving and happy years full of memories that I share with my dad. I think of the attachment with an open heart. I wouldn’t give up a single memory to feel better about his passing.
I want to live and love fully and accept the suffering that may come with it. I’ll always treasure the other lessons learned here, but this one means the most to me. I don’t want to be distant to avoid heartbreak. I want to dream and fail. I want to have loved and lost. I want to live and die knowing I did it all with my heart. I won’t fear getting hurt. I’ll embrace it. I’ll face it head on knowing I did everything in my power to experience this simple thing we call life because every breath really is special, and every moment only happens once.
Now, when I sit down to meditate, I smile, take a deep breath and say, “Just breathe, it’s okay, I’m right here.”
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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.