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(Written March 2006)
Yesterday I completed 10 silent days of anapanasati (mindfulness with breathing) meditation at Suan Mokh monastery in southern Thailand. And though there was probably little expectation that I would disappear into the jungle permanently to embrace a life of seclusion and contemplation, I’m writing to confirm that I have in fact returned to Bangkok, and am currently making application for a Laos visa.
Not having said, written or read anything for 10 days, it’s hard to know how to articulate the experience of the retreat – it seems like every word has more (and paradoxically less) meaning! Maybe the basics will speak for themselves. For the past 10 days my life looked like this:
4:00 am: Awoken by the patient, persistent ringing of a large bell. Though the sound was not unpleasant, it came to haunt much of my life. I seemed, by the end, to be hearing it in my mind constantly.
4:30: Morning reading and sitting meditation
7:00: Morning talk from the abbot. It took me three days to discover that the harder I tried to understand his English, the less I got. It was only when I gave up and started to meditate when he started to talk that I started to understand!
7:15: Sitting meditation
8:00: Breakfast: rice gruel.
8:30: Mopping the dining hall. Around 1/4 of the total meditators did not complete the retreat, including half the moppers. By Day 9 only half remained.
9:00: Hot springs. An odd moment of luxury punctuating our otherwise ascetic routine.
10:00: Dhamma talk. For the first three days these were given by the oldest, tiniest, sharpest, most hilarious nun (Nun Pairoh), whose favourite subjects were teasing us mercilessly about relinquishing our desire to eat anything other than rice gruel, and the Dukkha (suffering) of George W. Bush.
11:00: Walking meditation. Highlights included: 1) struggling to release the extreme ill-will (one of the Five Hindrances) that arose towards anyone who unwittingly crossed my meditation path with theirs; 2) fixating on myriad fascinating images continually forming in the concrete ahead (puppies, dwarf princesses and various scary monsters are much more interesting to the wandering mind than the process of taking a step).
11:45: Sitting meditation
12:30 pm: Lunch. The last meal (and probably the most anticipated moment) of the day. Deliciousness combined with panic over the prospect of nighttime starvation resulted in compulsive overeating for the first few days, and a stark and honest look at food as a distraction and Dukkha with a capital D!
1:30: Napping, a result of heat and digestion.
2:30: Meditation instruction. Intense philosophy, without sugar coating of any sort for the sensitive Western mind, delivered by a strange, dark, brilliant British monk (Tan Dhammavidu). Dependent Origination, No Self, Five Aggregates, 16 Steps of Anapanasati…By turns unacceptable, depressing, mind blowing, inspiring…
3:30: Walking meditation
4:15: Sitting meditation
5:00: Chanting and Loving Kindness meditation.
6:00: Tea (aka Hot Soy Chocolate/Supper/Nectar of the gods)
6:30: Hot springs. I’d try to go as late as possible to avoid the humans and catch the rising moon and swooping bats.
7:30: Sitting meditation
8:00: Group walking meditation. Consisted of trying my hardest to focus on anything other than the desire to throw whichever manically fidgeting woman was ahead of me into the pond.
8:30: Sitting meditation
9:00: Bed. I tried my best to find a comfortable position on my concrete bed (with mattress of plywood and straw mat) and wooden pillow (apparently what the Buddha slept on), but all I got out of the deal were sleepness nights and a numb right hip.
The days continued like this, until Day 9, when everything except meditation practice was suspended (including lunch!). Alternating sitting and walking at our rhythm, I made the mistake of congratulating myself on making it through the worst of it (a 3.5 hour session), only to be completely destroyed by the subsequent 1.5 and 2.5 hour ones.
What I thought would be difficult – the silence – turned out to be a huge relief, followed by new huge waves of relief each time we got a gentle reminder that even unncessary interaction such as eye contact would detract from the inward-looking process and was best avoided. All social pressures were lifted, and I was extremely and unexpectedly grateful for the experience. At the same time, we were a group going through similar circumstances in the same environment, and there was huge support in this. And though we weren’t interacting, we were encouraged to smile and to put each other into Loving Kindness meditations for support and good morale, which by all accounts seemed to work wonderfully!
On a physical level, I must admit that I’m not sure I’ve never really known how to breathe before this! I discovered parts of my nose and throat that I didn’t know existed, let alone were closed. Towards the end my nostrils felt nearly raw from so much air passing through, and I’d lie awake at night wishing I could turn it off so that I could get some sleep. But rawness was well worth it, since there was an accompanying release of a tightness in my chest that I can’t remember not being there.
But I guess it was the moments of insight that felt most significant. A couple of days before the retreat I dreamt that I was standing on a mountain that began to dissolve into sand under my feet. The symbol stuck in my mind – how could something as strong as a mountain turn into something as insecure as sand? I managed to reason out that even mountains evolve over time (erosion, avalanches, etc.), but when I got to the retreat the image kept coming back to me, until one day Tan Dhammavidu was talking about impermanence and brought up a Zen saying:
First there was a moutain
Then there was no mountain
Then there was a mountain
It stuck with me again: how could there be a mountain and then no mountain? But in my walking meditation after I seemed to get it in that way that comes experientially more easily that theoretically: “mountain” as a thing is a concept that fixes what is actually a perpetually changing process – not a thing so much as a mental convention. Like any other concept (including the step I was about to take or the Self I was having the conversation with), what I perceive as a fixed entity is actually a process made up of infinite changing factors that create each moment. The mountain seemed to dissolve beneath my feet, and the impermanence, the no self, the oneness and the whole kit and kaboodle seemed to fall into place (until, of course, the dwarf princess appeared in the concrete to distract my attention away from my profound insight!).
To sum up: most definitely one of the hardest and most rewarding experiences I’ve had.
Words of wisdom:
1) Boredom is not possible when mindfulness exists!
2) Gentleness with ourselves is probably the best tool we have in our practice! (This came early on and miraculously stuck with me. Bring on the baby metaphors (which were plentiful)! When a baby is learning to walk, do we say, “Bad baby!” every time it falls down? Of course not. And for the baby’s part, she just keeps getting up and falling down again and again until she finally stands. I love it!