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.
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.
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.
A 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.
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.
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.