Notes on a 10 Day Silent Meditation Retreat

Today’s post is by Drew, my husband. This year he did a 10 day meditation retreat in southern Thailand starting on New Year’s Eve. I was so fascinated by his experience, I asked him to write about it.

silent meditation retreat, thailand, surat thani, inspirational travel

I rolled into Suann Mokkh monastery with what I expected would be plenty of time. Ten minutes later, they closed registration.

A very near miss. I was thankful to be one of the last of the 113 people spending New Year’s Eve not only in complete and utter silence, but hopefully also asleep, assuming you had no trouble sleeping on a concrete slab with a wooden pillow.

silent meditation retreat, thailand, surat thani, inspirational travel

It seemed the price for rolling in late was that I was given a pink mosquito net. Up to that point, the idea of turning your malaria protection into anything resembling a fashion statement never entered my mind. Beyond the insect fashion accessory, we all were otherwise treated the same, which could range from fair treatment to abject torture, depending on what your expectations were going in. If you didn’t realize before you arrived that you would be waking up at 4 every morning and only eating two meals a day, I suspect you might think you were being mistreated.

None of these things bothered me in the slightest though, I WAS HERE! Even now, I can’t recall if the idea to do this came from me or Christine, but as a sucker for anything remotely quirky that will push me out of my comfort zone, I knew as soon as I saw the International Dharma Hermitage website that a ten day, silent meditation retreat was just the sort of thing I had to try.

In the hours between registration and silence, I set up my living space and chatted with a few fellow meditators, none of whom were American, as far as I could tell (I have something of an ear for American, being one myself). If you are an antisocial wretch like myself, you would forget the simple nicety of asking for another person’s name, and be stuck for the rest of the retreat, as I was, creating nicknames for everyone. Names like Daddy Long Legs (gone by day eight), Disney Movie Villain (gone on day ten), Dutch Topher Grace (made it the whole way), or Old Man Klang-Klang (ditto).

Also, If you are as cynical as I am, you will spend much of your first hours within the group sizing people up, deciding with utter certainty who will and will not make it to the end of the retreat. More often than you expect, you will be surprised at how wrong you were. I could not have guessed that Forty Something Triathlete wouldn’t make it past day 8, or that Homeless McDealSeeker would make it all the way without being thrown out for bringing his iPod to listen to during meditation sessions. (I have a strong feeling Freebird was on his playlist). The biggest surprise though, was Pooh Bear.

silent meditation retreat, thailand, surat thani, inspirational travelA young kid, Pooh Bear looked like he had lost a bet at his frat house, one that got him sent to this retreat as punishment. I was sure he would be gone by day three, but I was wrong. As the days passed, certain people (I’m looking at you, Jeremy Sisto’s Pudgy, Slow Cousin) would grate on me with their lateness, or what seemed to be a far-too-casual attitude to this very deadly serious business (to me, at least) of meditation. Pooh Bear, in direct defiance of my cranky rule mongering, endeared himself to me through daily lighthearted silliness. Things like attempting to do his walking meditation along the edge of a rain well, or finding some sort of insect along a tree that was so fascinating, he could not keep himself from trying desperately to communicate with others, silently, that he had found something amazing.

He made it to the end, and I was happy to be able to make his acquaintance after the silence was broken. At 19 years old, Torian (His actual name, as it turns out, is not Pooh Bear) was partying his way through Thailand with his best friend. I was happy to hear him talk excitedly about the trek he had agreed to go on after the retreat, accompanying several of the Monks as they walked through other parts of southern Thailand, visiting schools and talking to people. After I admitted to him what his nickname was, he showed me a tattoo in Thai he had gotten on his chest:

“It says ‘Big Bear!”

Man, did I call that?

And the meditation, you ask? Well if you have ever tried it, you know it’s incredibly difficult. If you are now thinking to yourself “I actually think it’s pretty easy”, then you are either doing it wrong, or you have been doing it for more than a decade.

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My monkey mind is stronger than my ability to “follow the breath” as I was regularly reminded to do. Early on I would downright scoff at being told to “observe the thoughts as one comes up, then gently return to the breathing.” Fat chance. My mind is very much like when you go to wikipedia to look up information on Athens, Greece, and an hour later you are looking up the filmography of Dwight Yoakum. How did that happen? I don’t know either. I get a full six or seven separate threads of thought in before I even realize I’ve lost the breath. It was incredibly frustrating. Fortunately, I did progress. Very, very slowly. In the first five days, it seemed that a talk given or the words of encouragement posted on the bulletin board spoke exactly to the worries and frustrations I was having. I kept working at it, gently doing my duty. By the end, I could catch a thought just as I was finishing the first one, or just as a second one cropped up. I could follow the breathing a little longer. If this sounds like an incremental gain, you are right, but it made a monumental difference to me to know that, as one piece of advice stated, the mind is malleable, workable, like clay. I was approaching the practice with more wisdom than before, and knew that this was not a useless pursuit.

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So am I now a Buddhist? Nope. As with most things for me, I take what works in a practical way for me, and discard the things that don’t. Buddha, as I was told, taught only suffering, and the end of suffering. Suffering (or dukka, as they called it) is caused by attachment, and to eliminate ego, attachment, self, is to eliminate dukka. The problem is, I have attachments. Namely a wife and child, both of whom I have grown quite uh, attached to. Thankfully, it was never my intention to eliminate suffering from my life. Merely to see if I could effectively calm my ever racing mind. And while it’s often hard for westerners to hear that there is no quick fix for life’s problems, that real change actually takes time, effort and some discipline, I am happy to have learned once and for all that my monkey mind can be tamed. This retreat has made a fairly profound impact on me, and I am thankful that I got the opportunity to do it.

45 Comments

  1. I attended this same ‘retreat’ a few years ago and am happy to be reminded of it now. I agree that it was much more difficult than I expected. I considered leaving early on many occasions, but the sunrise yoga, hot springs, and delicious food kept me in place. I was never quite able to grasp the meditation aspect (though I did manage a few moments of clarity here and there), but the experience was worthwhile nonetheless. I had forgotten about the wooden pillows which were more comfortable than I expected them to be.

    • The wooden pillows do sound like pure horror until you actually use it, then it almost feels ergonomically fit to your own head. The only problem is when I woke up, it would be much harder to get back to sleep, which I think was the point of it in the first place:)

  2. What a great read! Love your descriptions. You’re right, it’s so hard. But you tried it — bravo to you, and to you & Christine as a couple for supporting each other so one can go off and experience that. I’ve learned about mindful meditation through Jon Kabat Zinn and others and try to practice it, but I’m mostly all talk and no (in)action; it’s very tough for me to unplug and meditate. I try to use running as a form of silent meditation, but it’s not the same. Thanks for this post.

    • I do think the mind/body connection can’t be ignored, and that the monks do themselves a disservice by only incorporating a light amount of yoga in their regimen as a way of keeping limber. I hate the act of running but I love the way I feel afterwards. I think my next retreat will be a yoga-focused one, to see what it’s like to pay full attention to what my body is doing, then compare the two approaches.

  3. I’m so glad you had a chance to write about your experience Drew. I have been wondering how it was for you. Sounds challening, but rewarding. How did you fill all the hours of the day? And did you find it monumentally difficult to keep quiet the whole time?

    • Aside from catching regular naps, we were able to sign up for chores, mine was to sweep a long path free of twigs and leaves.

      Also my teeth are in FANTASTIC shape.

  4. I guess my question is what most others are thinking, “What happened if you talked?” Was there a beating that took place? Were you kicked out? Does a laugh count? What if you fall and smash your nose, is it cool to yell out pain or do you have to monk it up and keep it inside?

    …and what did it costs to go by-the-way? I have heard some are free but then I have heard of people paying crazy tourist money to do these things and it sounded like a total rip off. Just wondering! 🙂

    • You would just get a dirty look from people. It happened *very* rarely. Once after yoga, the instructor thanked us and someone with a very deep voice started saying “KAAAAAP” starting the Thai “thank you”. We all just looked shocked and laughed a little.

      The price was 2000 Baht, about US$60, for ten days, it is incredibly cheap, mostly paying for just the food.

  5. Drew, amazing that you did this. I also suffer from the wandering mind syndrome and have been known for finding myself watching Dwight Yoakum on the interwebs. Now if I could just find 10 days!

  6. Glad to hear it was a positive experience for you Drew. I think too often people consider meditation a waste of time because, like you mentioned, our problems cannot be solved by one two-hour meditation session. But even a tiny step of progress makes a huge difference as you’ve discovered.

    So did you learn if any of the others had made up a nickname for you?

    • I only told a couple of people about my nickname thing, and they didn’t fess up to doing the same. Honestly, I don’t know if I want to hear that someone secretly called me “Young Alfred Hitchcock” or worse:)

      • We were on a sailboat in Greece a few years ago with all foreign speaking guests. We nicknamed everyone with names from Gilligans Island. It worked quite well for us as no one else spoke very good English!!

  7. It’s an exercise I would love to have, and it sounds like you took some techniques with you that will work outside the monastic context.

    It is, of course, possible

  8. oops! To combine Buddhism with family life, as millions of people do across S-E Asia all the time, but that’s a different type of living from the monastic retreat…

  9. “My mind is very much like when you go to wikipedia to look up information on Athens, Greece, and an hour later you are looking up the filmography of Dwight Yoakum.”

    I laughed SO hard at that — and related to that more than anything I’ve read this week.

    Glad it was such a positive experience for you! A friend of mine from Sihanoukville did the same retreat as you and he got a lot out of it as well! A friend from home also did a silent retreat while at uni — a seven-day Jesuit retreat of silence and prayer. She snuck her iPod in as well. :-/

    • I held off on using the iPhone for pics and vids for about six days, then got fed up with people brazenly trotting out notebooks to write in (no reading or writing was supposedly the rule).

      I viewed my rule breaking as better though, as I was just documenting what I saw, while they were using words, even unspoken, to give their lives a context that helped them get through that time, something most of us didn’t do.

      The point of this story? That I can be smug, even in my rule-breaking:)

  10. I’ve always wondered what such a retreat was like, so thanks for sharing. It sounds very challenging, but ultimately rewarding if you can stick it out. Kudos for going all in for 10 days. I hope the lessons learned continue to serve you.

  11. So glad to hear that it was as success! Monkey minds are hard to tame!!!

  12. I attended a Vipassana meditation retreat in India last year and those 10 days were some of the hardest days of my life but they were so WORTH it! Incredible experience and I’m so glad that you enjoyed your time there as well!

  13. Wow! I signed up for my 10 day silent retreat about 2 weeks ago and I funny enough, I did it for the same reasons. Anything that looks uber challenging and super rigorous is exactly what I like to get myself into. Thank you for sharing your experience! Fantastic story telling too. 🙂

  14. What an experience! I doubt I’ll be able to do it successfully….looks really challenging!

  15. Good for you Drew! This post was fantastic and I loved it! I have tried meditating and I agree, it is REALLY tough. Quieting the mind is something I have never been able to full grasp. Doing something like this sounds really interesting though, is it wrong that sleeping on the floor is the one reason i don’t want to do it? did you really have to sleep on concrete with a wooden pillow? That sounds wretched.

    • Technically, it was a concrete bed in a room with a straw mat laid over it, so it wasn’t straight concrete. Most people spent at least some of the nights on clothes they fashioned into a pillow, but most of them turned to the pillow eventually, and it was much better than it sounds:)

  16. Thanks for sharing this, Drew – because I read another travel blogger’s post about a 10 day silent retreat which made it sound too painful and challenging for me… but if you can do it, i CAN! Just kidding. What I MEAN to say is you make it sound possible despite the potential personal challenge of it and ultimately gratifying and rewarding in important ways. And I appreciate your humor about it too. Anyway, thanks again for sharing this.

  17. Fantastic! I am so glad you posted on this. I’ve very intrigued by these meditation retreats and plan to attend one myself while I’m traveling. It struck me one day that I’ve never even spent one full day with my mouth shut. Surely, that can’t be good for the soul. Anyway, thanks again, your words were insightful.

  18. Now I don’t feel so bad about not remembering names. What a great idea to nickname people! However I imagine that I’d forget those names too.

    Thanks for the insider’s look into this retreat. Sounds like you found a place that fit your spiritual tune up needs. Taming the monkey brain is not easy, but it seems like you’re a step ahead of the rest of us westerners.

  19. Sounds like an incredible experience!

    I think that’s the best way to do it, take what works for you.

    I like different things from different religions, and I take what I like from them all and mix them together to fit my own beliefs and lifestyle.

  20. Wow what a treat to read this! I spent 10 days at Suanmok nearly 20 years ago and it’s amazing that so little has changed. I’ve wanted to go back every since. I think you’ll find that what you learned there was much more than you think – it keeps coming back to you years down the line.

  21. Drew, thank you *so much* for sharing this story. I have dreamt about doing a meditation retreat and listen, my husband bets I can’t make it past day 1 (talk about support)! I truly hope to make it to one someday. Your experience was fun to read, fabulous to imagine and easy or not, I think you were brave to go for it. THANK YOU for sharing!

  22. What a neat experience! Thanks for sharing, Drew. I can only imagine how difficult that must’ve been, but it sounds like you made some real progress. Baby steps to tame that monkey mind!

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  24. It seems like a good experiment and a nice experience. Thailand is such a wonderful place to spend your holiday! I’d go back there in a minute 🙂

  25. Thank you for sharing your insights into this experience. Like you, I am often subject to the branch swinging, poo flinging madness of my monkey mind. For that very reason I would like to engage in a meditation retreat…
    So do you mediate at home now?

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  27. I really enjoyed this, as it is something I am considering either in India or Thailand as we make our way around the world. Thanks for sharing.

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  32. I want to do this so badly! Except two meals a day worry me I’d get too hungry… I love food too much for that I think!

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  34. What a great story! I want to do this retreat when I’m in Thailand this summer. It sounds challenging but in a good way.

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