Suan Mokkh: Silent Meditation & Us

Image "borrowed" from the Suan Mokkh website

Duncan and I had long talked about meditation. We both have friends who meditate and rave about the benefits. So, what better an opportunity than on this trip to book ourselves into a 10 day silent retreat?

We opted for Suan Mokkh an international hermitage attached to a local Buddhist monastery in southern Thailand. It came recommended and fitted well with our travel plans.

Bloggers who had been to the retreat recommended that we take up the offer of staying the night before registration at the monastery, so that was the plan. We booked an early train for the 8 hour journey south from Bangkok. For the first time on our entire trip I set the alarm wrong. A whole hour later than we were supposed to be up, ie. 7.15 instead of 6.15. So a crazy last minute rush to the train station ensued on empty stomachs as we had no time to eat the breakfast we'd arranged with the hotel.

On arrival at the station, the tanoy announced that the train was delayed for up to 2 hours. Grrrrrr. Not a good start to the day and particularly worrying as the monastery requested that all guests arrive before dark. At this rate we were cutting it fine.

An uneventful train ride followed and on arrival in Chaiya the taxi that we had been advised to take to the monastery had stopped running because it was so late. It was now getting dark so the only option was to jump on motorbike taxis with our huge rucksacks. Fortunately, and quite contrary to the norm, the drivers were very careful.

We signed in at the monastery and got directed to our separate dorms. These would be the sleeping arrangements for the next 12 nights. It felt ever so strange after almost 6 months of being with each other 24/7 but we had no choice in the matter!

We arranged to meet back up before bed and so I went and set up my room. I was given a mozzie net and a pillow. Annoyingly the room was infested with ants and I had to dispose of a rather large cockroach before really struggling to get the net up. Thank goodness I had some emergency twine in my backpack! Been carrying it around for 6 months and I knew it would come in handy. Having the twine made up for the insects.

I then went back to say goodnight to Duncan. He'd gone off to find his dorm in the dark only to trip over a tree root and really hurt his big toe. Oh dear! Not good when for the next 10 days he was meant to be sitting cross legged putting pressure on his toe...

We met up again the next morning at 7am to be ferried to the actual hermitage, just a few minutes drive away. There we registered and although the silence was not to begin until that evening, the mood was very sombre and quiet. The setting was lovely, very peaceful. Lots of coconut palms, small ponds and some hot spings. Lots of wildlife too: frogs, spiders, scorpions (I only ever saw a tiny one, the size of my little fingernail) and mosquitoes, of course.

We registered and got assigned rooms in the women and men's dorms and our chores for the week. My chore was to sweep around the outside of the women's dorms. Duncan was to rake the sand floor of the meditation hall. Each person had their own room which was great. A small 2x3m box with a concrete slab raised off the floor. This was your bed. No mattress, just a bamboo mat and the pillow was wooden, yep, you read that right: wooden. Here is the only photo I got a chance to take there as cameras were not allowed but I quickly managed to nab this:

"Live plainly, aim high" was the motto encouraging us to embrace these sleeping arrangements

We had read about these sleeping arrangements so both decided to take yoga mats and we 'borrowed' airline pillows from Sri Lankan airlines. Surprisingly we actually both slept very well on these beds. Although that was probably more to do with the getting up at 4am and going to bed at 9pm than the comfort of the bed!

This was the daily schedule: (*** = Monastery bell)

04.00 *** Wake up
04.30 Morning Reading
04.45 Sitting meditation
05.15 Yoga
07.00 *** Dhamma talk & Sitting meditation

08.00 Breakfast & Chores

10.00 *** Dhamma talk
11.00 Walking meditation
11.45 *** Sitting meditation

12.30 Lunch

14.30 *** Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.30 Walking meditation
16.15 *** Sitting meditation
17.00 *** Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation

18.00 Tea & hot springs

19.30 *** Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30 *** Sitting meditation
21.00 *** Bedtime

Image "borrowed" from the Suan Mokkh website

To cut an already long story short we lasted 2 and a half days. The mishaps at the start should have been a sign! Absolutely no way were we ever going to last 10. We put it down to 3 things:

1. The religious rhetoric was a bit too much. We are both confirmed atheists, we knew there would be a Buddhist element but it was just a bit too much. Add to that one of the monks giving the dhamma talks each day was particularly condescending and negative. We couldn't stand to listen to it for another week.

2. It was boring. Of course, had we been able to meditate that boredom would have passed, but right at the start when your mind is still wandering time passes soooo slowly.

3. And probably the main reason was trying to do it together. It was so hard to switch your mind off from worrying how the other person was getting on. And letting go and switching off was exactly what we were supposed to be doing in order to meditate. It just proved too difficult in the end.

So, half way through day three I made a request to talk to Duncan. We had had a quick whisper previous to this but felt it was unfair to our fellow silent meditators so followed protocol instead. We were led off to a private place where we discussed it and decided to try to stick it out one more day and then see. Immediately after speaking to Duncan was another dhamma talk. I now knew Duncan would happily leave, he'd even mentioned a beach, a bottle of red wine and smoking a cigarette (turns out that last bit was a joke though, thank goodness). Cue another excruciatingly boring talk, full of religious diatribe and that was it, I could stay there no longer and straight after that passed him this note:

So, depart we did. Both very relieved and dying for a beer. We got in an air conditioned cab and talked all the way to Ranong - a 2 hour drive away and the departure point for a lovely little island called Koh Phayam. Highly recommended to us by my friend Marta.

I must just add, we have not given up on meditation. I may even try a 10 day retreat again... but on my own this time, and Duncs might look into Transcendental Meditation (which you learn a lot more quickly apparently). And I'd be happy to answer any questions about it if you fancy giving it a go...


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