Back in 2000, when I first went travelling in Southeast Asia, I remember meeting these spaced-out people who had just finished a silent meditation retreat. At that time, the idea didn’t appeal to me at all, but as I got older and became more interested in practices such as meditation, I found I was curious about what such a retreat would entail. While travelling in Flores in 2011 I met a fellow traveller who had attended a ten-day retreat in Thailand, although she only made it through to day eight. Then curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give it a try.
Through an internet search I found the Dipabhavan Hermitage on Koh Samui island which is run by the same people as run the larger retreats at Suan Mokkh monastery on Thailand’s mainland. At Dipabhavan there is a monthly three-day retreat, running from the 7th to the 10th of the month, which seemed perfect for someone like me who had never done meditation before, let alone been silent for even a day! I booked a place, and a few weeks later found myself in a pick-up being driven to the Dipabhavan or “Development of Light” Hermitage which is up in the mountains of Samui island. As we left civilisation behind, the scenery became more and more beautiful. The tropical forest plants, massive hills and spectacular views out to sea made it worthwhile to visit this peaceful place.
We were allowed to talk to one another at first, as we registered and deposited our valuables. We also signed up for our daily chores – I was to sweep the meditation hall every morning after breakfast. I got to know some of the other participants as we chatted over our first meal of noodles. There were thirteen of us, from a range of nationalities including Canadian, German, Dutch, British and Australian, but the hermitage could hold at least twice as many people, and I heard it gets full during peak season.
We were shown to our dormitories, separate buildings for women and men. The women’s dormitory is a self-contained block with showers and toilets on the ground floor. There is only cold water and the concrete showers were very basic. The “beds” were wooden boards, with boards on three sides to offer some privacy, and a wooden pillow. Luxury it was not, but adequate and bearable for a few days.
Then we processed up a steep hill to the meditation hall, where a British guy called Nigel gave an introductory talk about the retreat. I have to admit I was surprised to be in Thailand doing meditation and the retreat being run by a British man – I had expected it to be run by Thai people, or even by monks. But it turned out not to matter once we got started. This introduction turned out to be our only opportunity to ask questions before the silence began. We were not to speak at all, to anyone, until the end of the silence on Monday morning.
I found the silence by far the most difficult aspect of the retreat. Never before have I been so aware of two things: firstly, most of what we say to others is insignificant and can remain unspoken without any consequence, but secondly, all those little gestures we make with insignificant words do help to keep us social, to oil the wheels of our relationships with others, not only our friends and family but the neutral people we meet in our daily lives. To not be able to speak meant to not communicate with others, but at a group retreat, we still had to sit, walk and eat together, in limited space, while not communicating. This was the weirdest aspect for me – put me alone and I’ll happily be silent, but put me close to other people and the social animal in me wants to communicate.
Every day we were woken at 4.30am by the bell in the meditation hall. We would quickly get up, get dressed and walk up the hill in the dark to the meditation hall. Then there would be a morning reading, teaching us something about meditation, before half an hour of meditation. Then there was yoga before breakfast. Every meditation session lasted for thirty minutes, and we learnt sitting meditation, walking meditation and loving kindness meditation. There were also sessions with damma speakers, monks based at the retreat, where we were taught some of the skills and practices of meditation. We each had a space on the floor of the meditation hall, and a cushion to sit on during sitting meditation. For walking meditation we were encouraged to find a space outside in the large grounds of the hermitage to walk in meditation.
We were taught sitting meditation using breathing, where you focus on your breathing in different ways: long breathing, short breathing and normal breathing, focusing closely on the way the air hits your nose and enters your body. If any thoughts or feelings enter your mind, you are supposed to observe them without manipulating them. It was surprisingly difficult to keep this up for thirty minutes, but at least I tried. Since then I heard that thirty minutes is indeed considered long for a beginner to try to meditate.
Walking meditation was more my thing and I enjoyed and looked forward to practising it. We were taught to focus on our steps and the movements we make with our feet, using one of two rhythms: lift-go-place, or raise-lift-go-lower-place. In the natural surroundings of the hermitage it was wonderful to just be able to be there, walking slowly. On two evenings we did group walking meditation, which was a particularly powerful experience with us all processing slowly in a large circle around this Buddha statue.
We were also taught loving kindness meditation, where we were encouraged to imagine we were a warm afternoon sun, spreading loving kindness to a range of people, starting from oneself and ending with all people and nature. Although we couldn’t say it out loud, we were encouraged to think this verse:
May you be happy and well,
May your mind be peaceful and calm,
May you be free from all suffering,
May you be protected from all danger,
May you be free from hatred, anger, greed and fear,
May you find peace of mind.
The retreats at Dipabhavan are not aimed at Buddhists, but some Buddhist philosophy was imparted to us, in particular the three principles common to humans and all nature: (1) The impermanence of everything, (2) All creatures suffer, (3) The non-self, that we do not own ourselves, we belong to nature. Although I am not Buddhist, I did find it interesting to consider these points.
Every day we rose at 4.30am, did sessions of meditation, yoga, teachings, had breakfast, lunch and small afternoon snack, and slept at 9.30pm. The breakfast and lunch breaks were plenty long enough to shower and even have a rest, and I also spent time wandering around the grounds of the hermitage, enjoying nature. The food was cooked for us by the nuns who live there, and it was designed to be healthy, with plenty of vegetables. Mealtimes were the only time we spoke and only to read a short prayer giving thanks for the food. The meal was then eaten together in silence.
So, would I go to this retreat again? I’m not sure. I enjoyed learning about meditation and Dipabhavan is the perfect place to practise it, and I have heard that if you go on a longer retreat, after the first few days, the silence is no longer burdensome. But I wished I had the opportunity to ask questions, such as about the meditation practice, and I found it difficult to be around others without communicating with them. The wooden board beds were adequate, but I couldn’t help wondering if my meditation would have been more effective after a decent sleep!
Overall, I am pleased I took the opportunity to experience a silent meditation retreat. Although I’m not rushing to attend another one, I have become more interested in meditation since then, and learnt techniques which I have practised elsewhere.