“You're going to find this really hard,” the Thai nun with a shaved head and white robe told me during the interview process, “happy people find this harder than people with troubles.”
“Happy people are more likely to go home earlier than the sad people. But if you make it through the ten days in silence, then when troubled times come, when you have dukkha [suffering], it will be easier for you.”
Nun Supranee was right. I had a hard time at the meditation retreat. The problem wasn't the sleeping on a cement bed with a wooden pillow, and it was not the no speaking for ten days. The problem was the removal of all stimuli. No internet, no phone, no books, no writing, no going on leisurely walks, no spinning in circles when bored- NOTHING. Nothing, but focusing on your mind.
And when I say focusing on your mind, I actually mean separating yourself from your mind. The goal of the meditation retreat was to focus solely on your breathing while hearing everything around you.
Sounds boring- well, it was. Even though I hated almost every minute of it, I still walked away learning about the benefits of meditation to the mind and body. And while ten straight days of meditation is intense, I discovered a couple of cheats to get me through them.
1. Stare at the sand crabs and ants for entertainment.
I successfully achieved a proper meditation for a whole ten minutes in the ten days of silence. While sitting in the lotus position, the body seemed to lift, relieved of all aches, as if inflated by helium. The mind emptied, bursts of colors like the Northern lights appeared, and the most natural form of ecstasy took hold. That happened on the fourth day some time after breakfast. The rest of the time I stared at the tiny sand hermit crabs endlessly digging up sand balls twice the size. They traveled in spirals and curves, leaving sand balls behind them, working tirelessly. But they were easily spooked. They hated it when I stared at them, my head inches above the sand. They lay paralyzed for a good ten minutes before continuing on with their work. Those were a hard ten minutes.
During the walking meditation time (walking meditation does not imply taking a leisurely walk through the woods, but actually just pacing back and forth), I often said fuck it, and hung over the railing to see if the tadpoles in the lily pots had sprouted legs yet.
At lunch time, I'd watch different ant species massacre each other if they dared to cross each other's lines. The small black ones had numbers, but the big red ones had shear force.
The majority of the time, meditation was done in this hall. Every morning you woke up at 4 AM for readings and meditation. I, along with others, spent most of the session sleeping. Many times I watched the head monk's head bob up and down as he fought off impending sleep.
2. Tell yourself you are on the easiest forced diet in the world, and remember that you will come back thinner than you arrived.
Buddhist meditation retreats in Thailand have delicious vegetarian food cooked up by locals. The catch was you only got two meals a day and nothing but a cup of tea after lunch. For breakfast you ate the traditional Thai rice porridge. This was filled with ginger and other herbs, and was truly delicious. Lunch was different everyday. A new curry, some noodles, fried eggs, soup, served buffet style all cooked by local laywomen. I'd fill my bowl up to the top, unashamed at the woman behind me rolling her eyes at my large portion. There was no chance to come back around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for a snack. This was it. So even with my extra portion, I still managed to lose a couple pounds.
One of the perks was getting to use this hot spring during our breaks. Nothing felt better than after sitting for hours with your ass and back hurting, than to crawl into this in the late afternoon and ease out every ache and pain from every nook and cranny in your body.
3. Listen to the stories from the monks and nuns.
One monk in particular, an English man who had denounced the Western way of life years ago, was a favorite of most participants. He'd give talks after the lunch break to which every participant showed up to on time (a rare coincidence), sharing the anecdotes of his past and wisdom, “I'd rather eat a pile of vomit than ever have sex again.”
The entire hall chuckled, relieved for a moment that a western monk talked about committing blasphemous acts rather than achieving some form of enlightenment. “I haven't practiced meditation in years,” he said staring only at the bell in front of him, “you should. But I've been focusing on other things.”
This was your bedroom. In addition, you received a thin straw mat, a thin blanket, a mosquito net, and a wooden pillow to sleep with. Sleeping on your back was easiest, but I like sleeping on my side. Problem was, my hip bone pinched, so I stuck a sock beneath my hip. Problem solved.
4. Think about how embarrassing it would be to come back early from the meditation retreat.
Whenever I thought about leaving the meditation retreat early, I knew it wasn't worth the hassle. I'd rather keep counting down the days than to come back like a little princess complaining it was too difficult. “Oh no, the cement bed was hard.” “Oh, I was too bored.”
I was going to accomplish this. If I could get through the hundreds of university term papers, this should be easy. I didn't actually have to do anything. I would have given anything to research the globalization of Mumbai or even read a dictionary, but that defeated the purpose. So I let my mind wander, and I focused on my breathing. When I left on the eleventh day, I talked for hours and ate meat. I left with an acquired new life skill- a skill that allows you to catch yourself when you find yourself obsessing over a trivial though. A skill that allows you to relax. And most importantly, I walked away with the knowledge of breath.