I had heard about an overnight introduction to a Buddhist meditation retreat in Chiang Mai by a local Buddhist University. Always looking to try something new and experience the local culture, I researched further into it and decided to give it a try. It is only held once a week, starting on Tuesday at 1pm, and ending around 4pm the following day. Luckily, I had planned to head back from Pai Tuesday morning, so it fit perfectly into my schedule.
To be perfectly honest, I did not know much about meditation prior to this retreat. The first thing that comes to mind is actually Yoda from Star Wars, with his cryptic sayings, yet maintaining a wise demeanor. Actually the two monks who ran the retreat were similar in that regard.
The description on the website ran as follows:
“Healing, both emotionally and physically, is the purpose of Vipassana meditation. The causes of suffering that come from within must be removed for healing to happen. The mind becomes purified with acceptance of what is. There are no judgement or opinions as focus is placed on the present moment. Happiness and contentment are achieved as moods and external experiences have no effect. This is the essence of vipassana.”
I arrived at the designated meeting
point at Wat Suan Dok temple. We paid the course fees of 500 baht, and I also purchased a set of white pants. We were instructed to wear all white for the duration of the retreat in order to minimize any distractions that clothing might bring. After filling our a few forms, we watched a video giving a brief background on Buddhism, explaining their beliefs and precepts, the Four Noble Truths, and telling the story of the Buddha himself. We then took turns introducing ourselves and stating our previous experiences with meditation. Since this course is aimed to Westerners, not surprisingly a majority of the 30 other participants were first timers as well. A couple people however, seemed to be staunch Buddhists, and told the rest of us that they had been meditating for a few years now.
It was then time to be transferred to the retreat center, located away from the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai. After a 45 minute ride, we were divided up into pairs by sex for rooming assignments and were instructed to change into our white attire. It was also at this time that we were no longer permitted to talk to one another, and to remain silent until the retreat’s end.
Our retreat leader, a monk in his 30’s explained the four different types of meditation: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. To begin with, we would be focusing on the sitting one first. He instructed us to sit in a cross legged position on our mats and to close our eyes and try to clear our minds to just be present in the moment. If we found our minds drifting, (which mine often did), we were told to acknowledge the thought, and then to let it pass. Our first attempt would only be for 10 minutes, but even that I found difficult to force myself to sit still and not think or fidget. After a few more attempts, with slightly more success, we were then taught standing and walking meditation.
Walking meditation turned out to be a bit easier for me, as I was able to focus all of my thoughts and attention on my feet and the intended next step. The monk told us to chant in our heads “right foot goes thus, left foot goes thus” with each step we took. I imagine we might have looked a bit silly as a group with our walking the room with our eyes closed, chanting quietly to ourselves.
Soon it was time for dinner. We were instructed to walk to the dining hall slowly in a single file line and to reflect on our upcoming meal. After we all went through the vegetarian pad thai that was laid out cafeteria style, the monk reminded us that we were expected to continue our silence during mealtimes. Before we began our meal, we did have to recite several beliefs that the monks do before eating any sort of food. They revolved around food not being a source of enjoyment, but as nourishment for the body and to remove the pains of hunger. It was in chanting these lines, that I first felt a bit “cultish”, with our white robes and everything. Eating in silence with 30 other people was definitely a strange experience, but the monk encouraged us to focus on the act of eating as a form of mediation as well, so I directed my efforts towards that.
After dinner, we again practiced sitting, walking, and standing meditation. The monk told us to focus on our breathing and if we still needed help staying present in the moment, to slowly count up to 5, and then back down to 1 with each breath we took.
9pm was our designated bedtime, as we would be arising before the sun at 5am the following day. Surprisingly I was able to fall asleep fairly easy, as I was a bit tired from the past few weeks when my friends Alex, Alex, Laura, and Matt, were in town, having only parted from them a couple days prior.
At 5am, the monk sounded the gong, indicating it was time to wake up and reconvene. After a 30 minute (!) sitting meditation session, one of the fellow retreatants led us in yoga, giving us a respite from the stillness, while still remaining mindful. I did enjoy this part, as it allowed us to move around a bit and be active.
Before we ate breakfast, we participated in the traditional almsgiving ritual to the monks. Almsgiving is the respect given by a lay Buddhist to a monk or nun. The act of almsgiving serves to connect the laypeople to those who devote their lives to the religion. The people are said to feed the monks stomachs, and in return they feed the people’s souls. We lined up in a single file fashion, with our alms-a small bowl of rice each. When the monks went down the line, we spooned a bit into the bowl, simulating the ritual that takes place every morning near the temples.
After breakfast, we were permitted to talk for an hour during a Q&A session, where we were allowed to ask the monks questions about their daily lives and questions about Buddhism in general. I really enjoyed a lot about this part and found it very informative. Although I can’t say that I agree with all of the Buddhist beliefs.
That afternoon, we had some “freestyle” meditation, where we were allowed to choose the form of meditation we wanted to practice. I chose a mixture of the four, which allowed me to switch it up every 20 minutes or so. As the end of the retreat grew near, I admit that I did start to become restless, and chose to end the retreat via lying down meditation, and took a quick nap.
The monk then explained that our vow of silence was ended, and we were allowed to change back into our normal clothes and head back into the city. I definitely felt more calm and relaxed after this short retreat, and can see the benefits of meditation, albeit in small doses. I do really appreciate being able to take part in this unique experience and learning more about monks and the Buddhist culture. Rest assured, friends and family, that I will not be converting to Buddhism anytime soon. I also don’t envision myself attending a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat in the near future, as for now, 24 hours was enough!
Has anybody had any experiences with meditation or mindfulness?