By Nadia Pidgeon
Exclusive to the Lost Girls
When I announced my intentions to attend a 10 day silent meditation retreat, some friends said it sounded interesting but most said I was crazy and that it sounded either miserable or pointless. Ultimately, it is difficult to provide a meaningful summary as it is a personal, self-reflective experience. But I attempted anyway. Here is my story:
I showed up at my retreat on a hot Thai November day with just one hesitation…spiders. I tend to have a rather illogical and desperate response to these creatures and I knew that, following Buddhist principles, I would be unable to kill them. I checked out my room/cell, set up my mosquito net, and tried out my wooden pillow. The pillow actually wasn’t as bad as I expected. It was carved and smooth and held my head at a comfortable level. The concrete slab, however, was painfully hard and immediately created sore spots where my bony parts made contact. I unpacked my few belongings and checked once again for any human-eating spiders.
A young Thai woman who appeared to be a nun-in-training led the women on a grounds tour. She was pretty and smiled very big but unfortunately in Thailand it is impossible to tell if smiles are to express awkwardness or happiness. She covered the rules and explained how to wash clothes and bodies with the open water wells within the dorms. Buddhism is not all that different from other organized religions. It too is oppressive and fearful of sexuality and the human body; we were to wash and visit the hot spring wearing a sarong. Our guide explained that seeing a bare shoulder could make the men have sexual thoughts. She specified that the young, attractive women must be especially careful. Not great for the ego of those excluded!
There was a short orientation provided by an unsmiling German man who spoke in very stilted English. He asked for questions in conclusion but then answered by saying, “Good question but I don’t know the answer. Best to ask a monk.” A little odd since in just a few moments, no one would be speaking for 10 days. Once the orientation was completed, the silence began. It was 9pm and we all headed back to our rooms to get some sleep before the 4am wake up bell. I opened my room/cell door, turned on the light, and immediately realized I had a little friend there to greet me. Not the spider I had feared but a scorpion! Not only was it the first one I had seen in Thailand but I had taken a vow of silence only three minutes prior and there he sat, teasing me. I trapped him and slid him outside the cell, and left him outside the door. If he managed to escape during the night, he would surely reenter my room which was only sufficient at keeping out creatures larger than a grapefruit; ie men.
Four am came and I was relieved not to have been stung by any creatures. I stumbled out of my room and to the first meditation. Remarkably, I was able to stay awake at four am and focus on my breathing. That first day I felt starved. Starved for good food, for music, for comfort, for companionship, for running water with which to rinse my toothbrush. I was relieved that I had turned in my phones (yes, both of them), because I would have contacted people those first days. I bargained with myself and did not think I would stay the entire time. Just till day ____ (fill in number depending on current state of “starvation”).
Meals were particularly disappointing. Breakfast was a rice soup with perhaps three or four little pieces of frozen veg floating around per bowl. There were also uncooked kidney beans which I crunched down on as it was the only protein. There was some sort of green tea provided that tasted exactly like the aluminum container that kept it warm and small bananas that came from the grounds. By day three I was eating only the bananas after my stomach swelled to an uncomfortable size from the rice.
We sat around long tables and it was unusual to sit facing someone and not speak to them. Women and men were again separated as the act of chewing food must have been dangerous to our unchecked sexual urges. After days of spending all of our time together, we never learned each others names and could only guess the nationality of those few that volunteered for a reading or to say grace before meal time. While awkward at times, it also meant that I did not have the opportunity to develop negative feelings towards others. In silence everyone remained great companions.
Hot chocolate was usually offered at tea time. Now, this is not French hot chocolate but Thai hot chocolate. The first night I thought it tasted like weak Ovaltine and the aluminum pot it was served in…the remaining nights, I thought it was delicious! On night five there was some bitter, salty red tea instead of hot chocolate. I almost quit. Anger flooded over me. I just wanted one simple pleasure… It was remarkable how this one beverage option could make or break an entire day but, for me, it was true. In the heat of anger I knew I was ridiculous but I just wanted the damn chocolate! The anger was so palatable I was flooded with the desire to hit something, a foreign desire, and in that moment it dawned on me that anger is my default emotion. Fear, disappointment, frustration…all manifests as anger for me. It was a major self-discovery of the retreat.
The monks insisted that we should not think and when thoughts popped into our heads, we should acknowledge them and let them go, returning our focus to the breath. There were moments those first few days I could clear my head and feel the pleasure well up from my throat and over my face and I saw a flood of brightness. But when those moments happened, I immediately thought I was succeeding and then, of course, I would loose the moment. Truthfully, this did not upset me. I didn’t come seeking enlightenment or to test myself for the ascetic life. I came because I wanted the freedom of silence… to shut my mouth for the first time in my life. I did focus on my breathing and my surroundings and found it far easier to have congruent thoughts unaffected by others or the outside world. There was a sense of purity as they flooded my mind and I welcomed them. I hope to impart some of what I learned in my life and to extract what is innately good from the practice from the oppressive nature of organized religion that hinders its beauty and purity.
I did not arrive at the retreat a Buddhist nor did I depart a Buddhist despite the fine monks’ attempts. One of the messages the monks kept emphasizing was the idea of an impermanent world and I agree that change is constant. One of the other concepts discussed constantly was “dukkha” which is their word for all negative feelings: worry, sorrow, pain, want, etc. They believe that dukkha is in every moment as even moments of happiness will inevitably end in sorrow and the solution is to give up the secular world and seek enlightenment through meditation. Give up relationships, comforts, good foods, and all other pleasant things because then you will never be sad if the pleasures are missing and you can live a life free of dukkha. What I heard was “give up” and I saw this life as a blatant cop-out. I found myself feeling that all my struggles had been easy and worth the journey that is my life. Every disappointment linked to a moment of hope. Every loss linked to fulfillment. Every pain linked to joy. Every unbearable sadness linked to uninhibited bliss. And I was proud of myself for not settling, for taking risks, for seeking beautiful sunsets, calm seas, a man’s gentle smile, and no part of me wanted to “give up” and hide from life’s sadness anymore than I wanted to hide from life’s love, bliss, or beauty.
Perhaps the monks would say I am too simple for feeling this way but the Buddha says people should experience these things for themselves and not trust others. The retreat was not fun but I am thankful for my time there. I survived the ten days despite my bargaining in the beginning and I left happier than I had been in years. I departed with a renewed sense of direction, a renewed faith in my journey, and a appreciation for my struggles as well as my successes. I am tremendously grateful for the silence and will find a way to create days of silence in my future. I am thankful for what I found there… within myself. I am thankful for the lack of traumatic spider incidents. I am thankful to know… that I would not do it again.
Nadia Pidgeon is a designer and owner of Denver Architecture Tours. She writes, sharing her experiences and passions influenced by her travels around the world.
First three photos courtesy of Suan Mokkh International.
Final photo courtesy of the author.