Years ago, on my first backpacking trip in Asia, I abandoned my plan to explore the Thai islands and instead left Bangkok to return to India, where I’d just spent a few months. Choosing introspection and reflection over full moon parties and excess, I had decided to do a meditation retreat and flew to Calcutta, then embarked on a fifty hour train journey across the sub continent to the southern city of Ahmedabad.
I bought the bits and pieces I needed for the out of town retreat – toilet paper, torch, spare batteries etc – and readied myself to spend ten days with very limited external stimulus. No speaking to or communicating with other meditators, not even by expression; no books; no writing materials; no walkmans (this was back in the old days, before apple came with a capital A). Nothing at all to distract my mind. Just me inside my own head. For ten straight days.
As I finished packing and prepared to leave the hotel I found myself saying to my boyfriend: ‘I’m not going. I can’t do this.’ I was suddenly aware that the idea of ten days totally alone with myself terrified me. No matter that we’d completely changed our travel plans and endured another endless train journey. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – do it.
Fast forward a few years and I’m much more aware now of the benefits of meditation and I live in an area where if you throw a stick in any direction you’re likely to have it fall outside the doors of a Buddhist temple running a meditation retreat. I’d like to do a full ten day Vipassana meditation retreat. I really would like to prove to myself how hardcore I am but fear still holds me back. While I’ve matured and the idea of it doesn’t terrify as it did all those years ago in that dingy hotel room, there’s still something about it that intimidates me.
When the chance came along to do a shorter meditation retreat, four days long, I jumped at it. I was doing a third temple stay Wat Sri Boonruang and the temple had recently built meditation huts about a mile from the temple compound. The retreat area is quiet and scenic and ideal for its purpose. There were five of us on the retreat, the Scottish monk, Phra Graham, who runs the temple stay programme, a English novice monk, a Canadian, an American and me.
The days were structured with set times for chanting, meditating, eating and sleeping. I felt unsettled on my first day, feeling like I ought to be doing something and uncomfortable being still. The evening chanting, in the Pali language, was wonderful as ever, as was doing outdoor walking meditation with the only light coming from the amazingly bright full moon.
Day two continued in the same vein as I felt restless and frustrated. I had my iphone with me for the alarm clock and I was battling the almost overwhelming urge to look at the news or Facebook or just anything for some outside stimulus. I was keen to know how the others were getting on but of course we couldn’t talk. I then had a light bulb moment and realised that there was absolutely nothing to be gained from discussing our experiences whilst we were still at the retreat. What would be the benefit in exchanging details of my mental struggle only to have one of the others confirm that he, too, was struggling and then we’d both risk sinking into a negative spiral of whinging and self pity? Or to have somebody say it was going really well for them and leave me with sense of failure, like I’d never get this ‘right’.
I enjoyed the silence once I’d had this realisation but still wished I could talk about non-meditation topics – to Anton, the American, about his recent working experience in Vietnam. Or to the novice Andrew, as we’d had great conversations about travel and Buddhism before the retreat.
I needed to settle myself before I went crazy so I turned to my go-to self help tool: EFT/tapping. I tapped to find out what was underneath these feelings and the answer was fear. I still don’t know what I’m afraid of but I tapped to release the fear from my body, to have it radiate out from every cell, and I replaced it with calm and harmony. The tapping worked, I felt relaxed, calm and grateful to be there when I went into see Phra Graham for the daily reporting/support chat. Graham was great, with a perceptiveness and wisdom befitting somebody of much greater experience. He suggested I try metta (loving kindness) meditation instead of Vipassana. So instead of trying simply to observe my thoughts as they leapt around inside my head like monkeys on meth I was thinking thoughts about loving and being kind to myself, thoughts of wishing health and protection for myself. The idea with metta meditation is to practice showing loving kindness to yourself before you can move on to sending it out to others. It fitted well with my own beliefs and I loved doing it.
When the four days came to an end I had made progress with my meditation and I now do it regularly (though still not every day). They say nobody is ever really ready for a ten day retreat where you are sitting meditating for many hours per day. I know that I’m not. And maybe I’ll never feel like facing the physical and mental discomfort that it inevitably brings. To face the fear of the unknown, of what lurks not in my deepest thoughts but in the space in between my thoughts.
For the moment, I’m comfortable with that. I can challenge myself in many other ways, I don’t need to do it at ten day Vipassana retreat, no matter how ‘hardcore’ I’d feel afterwards.
The temple, Wat Sri Boonruage, is in Fang, three hours from Chiang Mai, buses leave hourly from Chang Puak bus station and cost 80 baht. You can ask to be dropped off at the temple gates, just outside of Fang town. There are also daily buses from Chiang Rai which take three hours.
Payment for the temple stay is by donation as it’s not allowed to charge for spreading the Dhamma. The programme has to cover costs of electricity in the guest rooms, cleaning of bedding after you’ve gone, supply of drinking water, and wireless internet. They will not suggest an amount so I just donated slightly less than I had paid in my last guest house. Any excess goes to supporting the many community programmes run by the temple for local people.