Silence was easy. It was the sitting that was difficult.
Like painfully difficult.
I had a two week vacation from work. The initial idea to go to Bali, Indonesia, and learn to surf wasn’t practical (flights were too expensive) and the Ireland trip was ill-timed (I’d need at least three weeks and the ability to commit myself to a lifetime there if all went as planned).
So I opted for the next obvious choice: I went to a Buddhist forest monastery in Southern Thailand to take a vow of silence and meditate for 12 hours a day, abstaining from caffeine and meat and alcohol and exercise, staring at butterflies and banana palms and devout, emaciated monks and trying to think of absolutely nothing.
I lasted 8 of 10 days. And then I threw up a white flag.
Because I went to soften a restless mind. A mind unaware of the present because it’s too busy flittering from one trivial thought to another. A mind seeking to escape unpleasant thoughts with more stimulating ones, like past memories and future plans and desires and worries and that hot guy in the American flag t-shirt sitting across the hall from me. A mind so involved in some silly internal dialogue about what it wants to do with itself in the next 12 hours that it’s oblivious to the delicate smell of nearby frangipani (plumeria) trees or the warm, humid air that leaves palms clammy, or the way the leaves of banyan trees turn a vivid emerald green right before sunset.
In Pali, an ancient Sanskrit text, this restlessness of the mind and the subsequent suffering it causes is called dukkha. Buddhist doctrine says that instead of confronting these unpleasant feelings and the restlessness they cause, we seek stimulation: ideas, habits and behaviors to entertain or preoccupy or numb the mind.
For me, that ranged from craving a GLBC Dortmunder to daydreaming about getting my private pilot’s license to biting my nails like a cannibal to worrying about my political incorrectness in past conversations.
All of this though, it’s what we’ve been taught to do. We live in a world that allows us to have no attention span. We’re encouraged to have no attention span. Blame consumerism, Instagram, technology, Netflix, multi-tabbed browser windows, capitalism, the overwhelming selection of donuts now available at Dunkin, whatever. The world we live in has made it hard for us to concentrate on what’s not stimulating to the mind, forgetting about what’s most important, like breathing and clarity and what that Chipotle burrito is really like when you experience it using all five senses instead of just shoveling it into your mouth.
Instead, we preoccupy ourselves with these other irrelevant things that claim our attention, because they’re way more interesting than teaching our mind to think of nothing. We then give value to these “things” or attachments, which can be as destructive as alcohol and cigarettes, as everyday as your relationships and your dog, as superficial as fake handbags and new car leases, as addictive as Facebook newsfeeds and smartphone text message alerts. So we begin to rely on these things for happiness, and when we lose them, we suffer (Buddhist teachings no doubt, but still universal truths).
The problem is, eventually, we will lose all of these things, because they’re not permanent. They change. And we hate change. Change shakes up our views of happiness – because we think happiness is stability. But nothing is stable, really. From the feelings of like and love you have for others, to the weather, to the way your gut reacts to lactose or Frank’s Red Hot or gluten, to the way tectonic plate shifts move mountains. Everything changes, nothing is permanent, and so on.
As a disclaimer, this is a bit of Buddhist indoctrination, but not because I’ve converted to this religion, (as it’s not really a religion or belief system; rather it’s a science that encourages observation), but because there are universal truths here that we can all learn from.
So I went to a Buddhist temple, Wat Suan Mokh, to learn how to concentrate, using the easiest, most obvious tactic: by focusing on breathing and mindfulness. By observing breath, dismissing thoughts, clearing the mind.
I went to breathe, to contemplate breathing, to sit still, all with the hope that I’d eventually get my thoughts to quiet the hell down.
I went to fight a small war with my mind.
The schedule was perfect. For someone who never spends more than three nights in a city, where no day is ever the same, this would be a glorious holiday because of its rigid structure:
04.00 Wake up
04.30 Morning Reading
04.45 Sitting meditation
07.00 Sitting meditation
08.00 Breakfast & Chores
10.00 Dhamma talk
11.00 Walking or standing meditation
11.45 Sitting meditation
12.30 Lunch & chores
14.30 Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.30 Walking or standing 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
Monastery living conditions were basic: a concrete bed, a straw mat, a wooden pillow, a mosquito net. Communal bathing sans shower heads and hot water; just buckets of water and bars of soap and geckos.
One could argue that prisoners in some correctional facilities slept in better conditions, but I thought this was all excellent. To be honest, those two daily vegetarian meals were of Michelin star status, and always included a variety of Thai dessert that often left me delusional, if I wasn’t already.
The monastery grounds were gorgeous. Set amongst dozens of hectares of land, with coconut and banana palm plantations growing parallel, my eyes never tired of looking around. One time, I think I spent 15 minutes staring at the severed claw of a scorpion. Often I’d just observe the way bees would buzz from flower to flower, which was quite interesting because these bees ranged from minuscule to fucking gigantic, and they all behaved according to their size, which was also interesting because I decided I’d much rather be the smaller species of bee. Those big ones just can’t pollinate anything.
Occasionally, there would be minor obstacles, like a mosquito in the pants. Monastery rule — foundational Buddhist beliefs — say you can’t kill life. Ants, scorpions, mosquitos… that all counts as life. So when you get a mosquito in your pants, and you can’t quite pinpoint where it’s at or where it’s headed, man, does that suck. No pun intended. On Day 3, I think a mosquito made a semi-permanent home on my right quad and I had to be still and allow him to rent this space out for the remaining hour of meditation. This was not easy.
The silence – eating next to 80 or so other women and men in forced solitude, locking eyes with others and passing only smiles, doing laundry and sharing bowel movements and bathing next to roommates maintaining complete silence – that was also great.
Oh, but the sitting. Now, I can get into full lotus quite capably and quite easily, and I quite enjoy sitting tall. But to sit straight and still for hours – the accumulation of aching and restlessness was sometimes intolerable. Our morning yoga practice got me through the better part of the retreat.
During walking meditations, where we practiced mindfulness by walking around monastery grounds, I’d flee to the corners of the complex and hangout in a forward fold after cracking every vertebrae in backbends, and hell, even get into wheel pose when I was sure no one was looking. This was kind of illegal by monastery rules (it’d be considered exercise), but if I was to sit for over ten hours a day, my body required it.
I was taught not to hurry. Hurry meant desire – desire to get somewhere and do something, ever removing ourselves from the present. I learned not to indulge my mind in unimportant thoughts. I ate less, slept less, thought less, indulged less. Discipline – life’s biggest challenge, in my eyes – I was taught to develop it. Not actively, not through thinking and theorizing about being more disciplined, but by meditating. Or trying to.
Damn was that hard.I can’t say I succeeded. But I learned a lot, and it was an experience that changed my life. As you may already know, I tend to say most experiences change my life.
I had highs and lows, progress and growth and regressions and mental fits. Then after the fifth day, the Dhamma talks and guided meditations and teachings stopped, and the entirety of the day was to be spent in meditation.
That’s when thoughts about escaping to Koh Phangan – just a ferry ride away – started to creep in. Over the next couple of days, I entertained those thoughts. I sat in the meditation hall, pain creeping through my spine and knees, and planned my time on the one island I hadn’t yet seen in Thailand’s Gulf. I’d have to be back at work in several days, I thought, I deserved a real vacation. It’s not that my mind is weak, I rationalized. This is just a battle I’d like to take a break from. I had been given all the tools and insights I’d needed, afterall. I could practice all this on my own terms.
I indulged in those Koh Phangan thoughts. Of wading through the island’s turquoise waters and rolling around in its salty sand like a pig in shit and making friends with coconuts. I went a bit crazy: I couldn’t shut my mind up. And I didn’t want to sit in half-lotus, or cross-legged, or even sprawled out in a semi-comfortable position from 4am to 9pm anymore. I needed to escape the restlessness.
And so on Day 8, I walked out of the monastery.
I caught a songthaw to Surat Thani, a bus to Donsak, and a ferry to Koh Phangan. With an Irish girl, no less. I went scuba diving at Thailand’s best dive site, explored the entire northern part of the island on foot (it’s big), practiced yoga with the sun every morning, read Haruki Marukami, and indeed, I made friends with coconuts. I continued my “Every Island” adventure, but this time, with a very different perspective (more on Koh Phangan adventures to come).
Because while I left the retreat early, I didn’t fail. Sure, I kind of gave up. But I learned about the immense power of the mind and its ability to distract us from life and living. I learned plenty of tools and practices and insight to help quiet it. I learned the importance of emptying my mind in order to use my head. I learned that most of my problems, our problems, usually stem from either two things: our inability to let go, or our failure to open up.
Sadly, I realized (or rather, was reminded of) something important about myself — something I think I knew going into this monastery, something I knew even a decade ago as an awkward teenager trying to understand herself, something I’ve known is more of a personality characteristic than a bad habit.
I am not fit to be tamed. My mind is not fit to be tamed.
At least not yet.