Doing a meditation retreat was something on the very top of my to-do list for a long time after my –rather sparse- practice back in Brighton, and there couldn’t be a better place to give it a go than a Buddhist monastery in Thailand!
This text is just my personal experience during my retreat, and it is not meant in any case to review the retreat taking place at Wat Kow Tahm.
Koh Phangan. Wat Kow Tahm. 10th of January 2016. Registration day.
I woke up in my hostel, equally excited and nervous, full of doubts about the oncoming experience.
I decided to arrive early in order to secure a place in the retreat, as it has a maximum of 60 people. There were just three people waiting, and after signing up, we started chatting about our previous meditation experience and what brought us there. I soon started feeling the calm energy of the place, and the gentle and warm vibe of the other retreatants.
Once a certain number of people have arrived, you are shown the whole area of the monastery so you start feeling at home. You are also given your mosquito net, your pillow, bed sheets, and a blanket.
Then you will finish with the registration, getting a daily chore assigned, a room, and handing in your valuables, which are safely stored.
The rooms were basic but more than sufficient. The hardness of the bed eventually becomes unnoticeable, thanks to the demanding schedule!
Silence, Rules, Chores & Schedule
One of the key points is to maintain absolute silence. You are not allowed to speak at any time with anybody, unless strictly necessary (health concerns, encounter with dangerous animals/insects etc). Although the silence seems to be what scares people the most, in the end it turns out to be extremely easy, and certainly desirable. After almost ten hours of daily meditation be sure that you do not feel that chatty!
Apart of the silence, the most important rules are to be respectful towards other retreatants, the nature, and the environment. To stick to the schedule and to hand in your smartphone are also mandatory, as well as no reading, writing, drawing…
Needless to say, you are asked to undertake the 8 Precepts during the course of the retreat.
On the registration day you are assigned a daily chore, and asked to do it mindfully. Sweeping the leaves, tidying up the dinning hall, cleaning the toilets… Guess what I had to do?
The rules are strict, and two people were actually kicked out and sent “home” for breaking them.
The schedule is tough, especially during the first days, and you wonder whether certain people are actually mutating into zombies.
|4:00 – 4:30 a.m.||Wake up bell|
|4:30 – 5:15 a.m.||Sitting meditation|
|5:15 – 6:15 a.m.||
|6:15 – 7:00 a.m.||Sitting meditation|
|07:00 – 08:30 a.m.||
|8:30 – 9:30 a.m.||Meditation instructions|
|9:30 – 10:15 a.m.||Walking meditation|
|10:15 – 11:00 a.m.||Sitting meditation|
|11:00 – 1:00 p.m.||
|1:00 – 1:45 p.m.||Sitting meditation|
|1:45 – 02:30 p.m.||Walking meditation|
|2:30 – 3:30 p.m.||Dhamma teaching|
|3:30 – 4:15 p.m.||Walking meditation|
|4:15 – 5:00 p.m.||Sitting meditation|
|5:00 – 6:30 p.m.||
|6:30 – 7:30 p.m.||
|7:30 – 8:15 p.m.||Walking meditation|
|8:15 – 9:00 p.m.||Sitting meditation|
|09:00 – 09:30 p.m.||
In my case waking up at 4am was okay, and I soon discovered that my concerns about ‘not hearing the waking up bell’ were unnecessary. You will hear it, and like if it was one meter away from your ear!
Environment, Flora and Fauna
I honestly think the place couldn’t be better for a meditation retreat. The monastery is located on the top of a hill, and actually very few tourists come to visit. This helps with the practice, as you become very sensitive to noises and external distractions over the days.
Surrounded by beautiful nature, you end up getting used to see all sorts of animals and insects. Dogs and cats become almost part of the meditation team. Geckos, spiders, snakes, scorpions are also around… At the end of the day, you are in the jungle!
Our best friends, the mosquitoes, are also very common (especially at dawn and dusk). Remember that you cannot kill them, but you can spray yourself with DEET. Some people were almost taking showers in it! In my case, I just wore long sleeve t-shirt, and long trousers, and sort of kept them at bay. My relationship got quite intimate over the days with the mosquitoes, and the impulse to kill them faded away, and I would rather ‘push them away’ gently. I started noticing different species, some of them way more aggressive and persistent, others acting more slowly and less bothering.
Breakfast at 7am, lunch at 11am, and hot chocolate/tea at 5pm. That’s all! No food allowed after noon.
This was tough at first, cravings invaded my mind, and spent hours picturing delicious ‘mango sticky rice’ in my mind. Weirdly enough, I was also craving pizza (I don’t eat it often), and I realized I was reaching madness point when I started craving ‘mango sticky rice pizza’. That cannot be healthy!
Breakfast consisted mainly in a rice soup and delicious porridge. You could even add cinnamon, and some days nuts! I could not believe that it is possible to find people who love cinnamon more than I do, and wondered if they were having ‘cinnamon with porridge’ rather than porridge with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Lunch was vegetarian, and surprisingly delicious and varied, amazing!!
Before eating any food we all had to read in loud voice the ‘Food reflection’, following our food master Hillary!
‘Considering it thoughtfully, I eat this food, not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on bulk, nor for beautification, but simply for the survival and continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, and for the support of the holy life. Thus will I destroy old feelings of hunger, and not create new feelings from overeating. I will maintain myself, by blameless, and live in comfort.’
During the first days, being all hungry, it was rather cruel to have to wait with your food in front of you. In a later stage, my body got used to it, and I would pay attention to my food, applying mindfulness to the act of eating, savouring, feeling the textures, taking it very easy. There was no rush, and nothing to focus our minds on but the act of eating.
I began taking smaller portions, and I just ate what was necessary to ‘destroy old feelings of hunger, and not create new feelings from overeating’. And after my whole life eating quite fast, I started eating slowly! In other words, things start to make sense!
Teacher & Interview
Anthony is the resident teacher at Wat Kow Tahm, and after giving retreats for several years with no vacation, he took a few months off to rest and deepen his practice in India. His name and energy feel very present in the place even without him there, and everybody speaks marvels of him. Probably I would consider taking a retreat when he is back.
It was a real challenge for the volunteers there to carry out the retreat for the first time without Anthony, but they coped really well and did a truly amazing job!!
The substitute teacher was Tan Dhammavidu. Certainly one of the most knowledge people I have ever met in my life, listening at his dhamma talks was fascinating. The meditation technique he taught is called Anapanasati, quite an advanced technique, that I personally found quite challenging to grasp.
We also were given the opportunity to have a brief interview with him. Quite an honour to speak to someone like that face to face!
Practice & mindfulness
A total of 4 hours and a half sitting meditation and 3 hours walking meditation, plus chanting and yoga. Yoga was given by the amazing Susanne, here you can read her post on the retreat.
I must admit that I personally felt defeated by the practice, specially the sitting meditation (Anapanasati). I did not get to focus on the breathing as requested, being my main hindrances (obstacles) my sharp and constant physical pain on my back, and my wandering mind (food, love, travelling..). For whatever reason one of the most recurrent thoughts was picturing myself travelling the world by motorbike (to be more specific, on the new Africa Twin)!
After discussing with other retreatants, though, quite a few people got into it and experienced amazing things, such as pity, visualizations, deep insights… some people started even hearing voices in their heads! (given the situation I don’t blame them!).
Walking meditation consisted in choosing a walking path and sticking to it for the session, from point A to B, so you will not step in another retreatant’s path. Here, rather than focusing on your breathing, you will focus on your movement. You could just focus on ‘right, left’, or split your steps in up to 5 stages. In my case I would use three stages, ‘lifting, going and dropping’.
Mixing both practices was ideal, if you were feeling sleepy or too deep in concentration when sitting, the walking meditation will refresh you, and if the walking was activating your mind too much, sitting will help.
Even though I did not feel especially successful at the practices themselves, I did achieve a high level of mindfulness. We were asked to act mindfully during the day, while eating, doing our chores, taking a shower, walking, and so on.
Constant practice of mindfulness re-wires your mind, and I started becoming more sensitive than normal to noises, smells, subtle gestures.. even colours seemed brighter to me, and I did swear several times that ‘that was not there yesterday!’
Another interesting experience for me was to spend the whole time barefoot, it helped me to feel more grounded and connected with the earth, the experience, and ultimately with myself. At first it felt awkward and dangerous, soon it became natural and smooth, as long as it was done mindfully, of course!
Empathy, Acceptance, “Let go”
My biggest learning was a huge boost, and way deeper understanding, in empathy, acceptance and ‘let go’.
These were big topics during the retreat for me, and thanks to the inner stillness, deep capacity to concentrate, and especially the constant mindfulness, I was able to see things through a totally different perspective, which marvelled me. Specially, because I could clearly acknowledge the improvement within myself. Putting it in different words, I was feeling so conscious that my mind was able to ‘observe itself’ during this process.
Deep thinking and motivation
Although I should have been focusing on the practices, it turned out that most of the time I would be in a state of very deep thinking, or concentration. Way deeper that I have ever experienced before. This, for me, was the ‘success’ that balanced out my lack of success with the practices themselves.
I went to the very bottom of so many personal topics, some of them unfaced for quite a while, some of them recent topics that I was feeling a bit lost about. In all cases, I was able to step back and have a wider and clearer view, and ultimately capacity to tackle them, with a sense of easiness that surprised me.
I had a glimpse of this state of mind some years ago at Boom festival, and the way I explained it to my mum was:
Imagine that you are inside an empty mug of tea. When you are inside, you are surrounded by the mug, almost in the dark, rather blind, and you feel constrained by the situation, issue, or by the present. The problem seems almost unsolvable.
However, in this case, you are actually outside the mug, and you can see the issue from all perspectives, walk around it, and eventually, take a resolution.
This capacity to think ended up causing an avalanche of self-motivation, happy to find an almost unknown capacity in my brain, and wanting the retreat to finish asap so I could face the ‘real life’ with this ‘new mental tool’. I haven’t felt so motivated in a long time!
Breaking the silence & Human interaction
Breaking the silence was a big moment, as big as starting with it. Both situations took place with the teacher ringing the bell, and the seconds before this happened I felt the whole of me vibrant with excitement. I could almost see the teacher hitting the bell in ‘slow-mo’, and the sound of it reverberated through me for a while. At first I did not feel like speaking, I was so comfortable in my silence!
Over the time I got to enjoy the silence a lot, even describing it as ‘delightful’. Along with the silence, you were encouraged to avoid eye contact, as it can be quite disturbing and distracting. In my case this was tough at first as eye contact is extremely important to me, but in the end this and the silence really helped me to understand introvert people a bit better. I could clearly see how “safe” you feel within yourself taking this approach.
First person I approached was Moisés. We really got on well during the registration day and over the week I came to the conclusion that he was one of the people with the most gentle and kind energy that I have ever come across. I felt “safe” talking to him, and hugging each other felt very touching!
People will start speaking timidly at first, and then the energy will shape into joyful and cheerful conversations, where people were very excited about starting sharing their experiences. There were also loads of hugs and kind words flying around! Wonderful!
I personally felt that as soon as the silence stopped, the mindfulness started to fade away progressively. It is then when the concept of the silence made total sense in my mind.
As Eckhart Tolle says in the Power of Now: “Silence without, stillness within.”
Coming back to the “real world” was not easy at first, everything felt so frantic and loud! Thankfully, I spent the two following days hanging out with other retreants, sharing our experience, laughing, and having very interesting conversations. Now they are good friends that I hope to keep for life.
It had been long time since I bumped into such a kind-hearted bunch of people. Genuine smiles, honest eyes, warm-hearts, altruist gestures and thoughtful conversations were common among them. Meeting them gave me hope in the human race!
It has been almost a month since I did the retreat, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to fully keep up with the practice, and all that “super” deep thinking and concentration capacity mostly went away too. The inner changes that looked really obvious being at the retreat, have soften up and become more gentle, almost unnoticeable at times. Another thing I noticed is that I crave silence way more, and I feel generally quieter, not that willing to socialize, specially between large-ish groups of people.
However, it is true that every time I practice I get close to the mindset I had back in the retreat, like when you have been practising exercise for a while, quit for a certain period of time, and then come back to it – you don’t start from scratch anymore, and it is easier to catch up with the stage you were previously in.
I don’t see this as a failure, but rather as a total success. Now I fully acknowledge that an inner change for the better is possible, and I believe that ultimately the way to achieve a better world is to do our own homework and become better human beings ourselves.
As Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’. We all find easy to grasp those words, and even relate with them, but do we really take action on that direction? Do we really fully understand the meaning behind them?
Now I am fully set in my own path of self improvement. I am determined to take action and hopefully, ultimately, cause a positive impact in the little time I have been given in this beautiful world.
Do I recommend the meditation retreat at Wat Kow Tahm?
Fully. I couldn’t think of a better place! They have the best and kindest intentions, and in some way, I felt like if they were preparing us to spread mindfulness, love and kindness all over the world once we all took off in all directions of the globe. Isn’t that a beautiful task? Now it is down to us to spread the word!
Any personal suggestions? Go with no expectations, and the sooner you accept and embrace the situation and the tough schedule, the quicker you will settle in the experience. Do not hate the bell, every time it rings is an opportunity for a better you!
I wish to end this post saying thanks to everybody at WKT, including the director, monks, nuns, teachers, volunteers, retreatants and of course, animals! They all were part of one of the most life-changing experiences for me up-to-date!
For more info about the retreat, please visit http://www.kowtahm.com/