a day in the life of a silent retreat in Suann Mokkh
When we started on this trip I never imagined doing a silent meditation retreat. When we were in Singapore we decided to do one in Thailand. So we took our time from Singapore, stopped in Penang for a few days and made it to Suann Mokkh on time.
This was generally the day to day schedule:
A 04:00 wake up call: The bell, pictured, would be rung for roughly 15-20 minutes. It would start slow, then the beat would be faster, faster, faster, louder, louder, louder. Imagine someone frantically knocking at your door. Still in the dark we found our way to the main hall for the morning reading.
04:30 – 05:15; The hall, a large structure made of concrete pillars and a wooden roof. The floor is covered in sand and no chairs, only old sacks (think coffee bean sacks) to sit on and some small cushions. Women are on one side, and men on the other. The talks varied, but were mostly around breathing, different techniques and processes. Followed by some “pratice” time, which for most of us meant trying to sleep while sitting. For me, at such an early time in the morning, I was mostly trying to stay awake.
05:15 – 07:00; We had two options: go to yoga/taichi class or go to a different hall to do yoga routine at own pace. I initially went to the class, but found it to be slow and not very challenging. After a few days I decided to do my own practice; I wasn’t the only one. However in the hall there was always someone that fell asleep and started snoring loudly. It was interesting to deal with conflict in silence, but the guy didn’t learn and kept snoring… I guess we all have our definition of being mindful.
07:00 – 08:00; Back to the main hall for another talk and more meditation practice.
08:00 – 10:00; Breakfast and chores. Breakfast was always boiled rice with vegetables. Imagine sort of a porridge, but not as dense and with more of a clear broth. We always had to wait for the staff to do announcements and talk about the “30 precepts for alms food”. Why and how monks are supposed to eat. During registration we signed up for chores. We had been warned by Irene (Selina’s sister) about not getting there late as those who do usually end up getting stuck with toilet cleaning duties… We were able to sign up for sweeping and moping, a hall for me and the dining hall for Selina. During chores I found it to be very therapeutic. Three of us signed up for the chore but one guy was useless and never did anything. The other guy and I always figured out which direction to go without speaking. We usually finished before ten and had time to relax. The third guy, the same guy that slept in the morning and snored loudly was supposed to sweep. During moping I found it difficult to mop, finding dirt as I went. One day I made it a point to try helping sweep, then I realized the guy’s version of sweeping was simply going around and picking up what he could see. My initial reaction was to give him a piece of my mind and a lesson in sweeping, but decided to practice what the retreat is teaching and just let it go. This simple annoyance reminded me of so many times at work and in relationships where small things would trigger my ego.
10:00 – 11:00; Dhamma talk. The talk was pre-recorded (in the early 1970’s) at the main monastery. In English by an American with roosters and helicopters for background chorus. Often times it was difficult to pay attention, especially when they would treat Buddhism as a religion and Buddha as a God -of which they say neither is true-. The talk did do a good job explaining the different terms by providing examples and thorough explanations. For me it felt like I had joined a cult and this was the brainwashing exercise. But they did have some good lessons. The recording never went the whole hour, so we always had time to “sit up comfortable, back straight, not too tight, not too loose. Let us practice mindfully”. But I could only practice for 5-10 minutes.
11:00 – 11:45; For 45 minutes before lunch we had the chance to practice either walking or standing meditation. The first two days we had a class on how to do this. This is not time for exercise, jogging or running… walking meditation is the process of taking very slow and short steps to the rhythm of deep and slow breathing. I found myself walking from one end of the compound’s perimeter to the other. There are roughly 500 steps from end to end. Assuming one of my steps is 80 cm in length = 40,000 cm or 400 meters. One lap was 800 meters, and depending on the day I would do roughly 3 to 5 laps or 2.5-4 km in those 45 minutes. All of this walking in the summer Thai heat and after fasting for 20 hours. I wondered how much weight I would lose during this retreat.
11:45 – 12:30; Back to the main hall for sitting meditation; where I could only meditate for 5 to 10 minutes and found myself looking at the trees in the distance. With no watch or phone I started memorizing the shadows’ location in order to tell time. When the shadow hits the side of the round concrete leaf compost bin, it is time to go.
12:30 – 14:30; We would gather again at the dining hall, women on one side and men on the other. Food in the middle, buffet style, one for the men and one for the women. Get your food in a metal bowl, grab a spoon and wait for announcements, readings, in silence and without making too much noise = mindfully. The food I found to be quite delicious, always vegetarian. Rice base with one or two sides, leafy greens and sometimes dessert or fruit. My favorite was a tofu larb they made. It was the perfect spice level and taste. Another favorite was a pineapple curry. After lunch I always went back to the dorm to take a much needed nap. With no a/c and sleeping on a concrete slab I could only sleep for about 5-6 hours each night. Luckily we had our inflatable pillows with us to ease some of the discomfort, and a ~30 minute nap during lunch helped me get through the day. On the 9th day we actually skipped lunch, they wanted us to experience life as a monk and only gave us breakfast -apparently they fast for 24 hours-. In lieu of food they gave us hot tea that day.
14:30 – 16:30; More talks from the recording, from 1972 with helicopters and roosters in the background. One British fella turned one time and exclaimed “they could record this bloody talk again and find someone that doesn’t speak americanized english” in an english accent. I guess he doesn’t like “Americans” very much. I just nodded and looked to the outside and see where the shadows are. 15:30 judging by the shadow of the leaves on the tree behind us. Some days it seemed that the sun was going back up into the sky. Then I started thinking of our trip to Iceland last July, where the sun never sets and does go back to where it “started”.
17:00 – 18:00; Chanting. The lady that leads the chanting is very nice. She has a kind voice and a good sense of humor. However the message is all the same: you’re going to die, might as well make peace with it and meditate, let go of all material things, ego, etc, etc.
18:00 – 19:30: Tea and hot springs. Back to the dining hall for tea, I only participated once since I felt that the tea had natural caffeine and that didn’t help me sleep the first night. So I tried the hot springs. These are holes in the ground where natural spring water comes out. It’s very very hot! In the heat of summer Thailand I would have never thought to go in, but it actually felt good. I then showered with gecko infested shit bath water at the dorm. I say gecko shit water because all the gecko shit in it… and I would see people brushing their teeth with that water! By now it’s getting dark, so it would be the last time of the day to check for messages. See, at the beginning of the retreat Selina and I agreed on a spot to write messages to each other on the sand. Since we were not supposed to speak we thought this would be a fun way to say something to each other. It was pretty fun and exiting to see when there was a new message… I guess in our 30’s we still can’t follow all the rules.
19:30 – 20:00; Sit and meditate, or try to, or at the very least, pretend to. I opted to be in the back of the room, thinking maybe this way I could step outside to stretch without bothering anyone. Throughout the retreat I noticed people would start to lie down, stretch their legs out, use the cushions as pillows, etc. despite the repeated announcement and shoulder tap by the staff not to.
20:00 – 20:30; I’m fighting the urge to sleep, but I guess it’s time for walking meditation. One of the staff, the one I call John Malkovic -because that’s who he looks like- would explain in his thick German accent (John Malkovic image ruined) how to walk meditate: single line about 2 meters apart from each other with no artificial lights. He leads the men first to the pond and we start to walk around it. There are roughly 330 paces around the pond. Each night we do about 3 laps. On the last lap we stop and face the water. Every time we do I feel we will be asked to do mass suicide. But they don’t and we don’t. Although after a few days I notice people are missing, then I wondered what they put in the afternoon tea that people are dropping off.
20:30 – 21:00; Sitting meditation again. But by the third day I would skip this and go to bed. Lights out by 21:30.
That’s roughly the meditation boot-camp.
Before this retreat I thought I knew what meditation was, which was very different from what they taught us. It was a good ten days to learn about Buddhism, how they view “evil”, all their rules, their way of life, etc. I can say now that life as a monk is not for me. Selina agrees. It was also good to have some time away from technology, noise, etc. and be with nature. The first few days after the retreat were difficult for me, especially going into Thailand’s New Year celebration, songkran, with all the crowds and the noise.
I also learned that enlightenment is the act of sitting cross-legged and going to sleep without falling over. So many times I would look up at the monks in front of us at the main meditation hall and see him catching himself from falling. A sure sign that he was sleeping.
I still want fried chicken and will continue to kill mosquitoes. But will continue to be mindful, be in the moment and learn to let go. Not let small things trigger my ego and be aware of what is driving my actions.