Words fail. I've been a writer all my life, and words don't describe what I've experienced this past week when I lived without them.
I arrived more than a week ago at Wat Pa Don Hai Soke (WPDHS), a wooded temple in the Thai forest tradition, about 30 minutes' drive from Udon Thani airport, in the north-east of Thailand. I was there for a nine-day solitary meditation retreat, and to visit my friend the monk Phra Paiboon (Phra is a term of respect, Paiboon is his name), who is now running the course.
Hello to Friends of Phra Paiboon
For friends of Phra Paiboon's, he is doing well. It's been eight years now since he ordained, and he looks happier than he did when I last visited him in 2011.
Abiding in Silence
For seven days I meditated, sitting and walking, for an average of 11 hours a day, with the first session starting at 5 in the morning and the last ending at 8:30 in the evening. I had two meals a day, and light refreshments in the late afternoon.
I was also practicing Noble Silence, which meant no speaking, writing or reading. No eye contact or body language with others, except with the staff for administrative purposes, or during the optional Q&A sessions. It also meant no mobile phone, so there was no contact with the outside world (my family had the temple's number if they needed to call me).
Why did I do it? I just had a feeling to go – it was as simple as that. This wasn't something I just dived into however, it was my third visit to WPDHS and my second solitary meditation retreat.
It might sound unnerving to be without a connection to the outside, and without any reading or writing material. But you might be surprised at how much background noise there is in your life that you won't hear until it's gone, as well as how much better you can see yourself once you free yourself from the constant chatter of the world.
It took me a while to let go, but soon I felt the cares, concerns, and worries of the world melt away, leaving my mind clearer than it had felt for a long time. With nothing to say, write or speak, the mind has no choice but to turn inward and begin the process of reflection, with a stillness unlike anything I've experienced before. Noble Silence, complemented with daily meditation, opened up my mind, made me see with new eyes, and before long, even this identity called 'I' began to fall away.
Walking Through the Door
I've been reading about Buddhism for half my life, but it was during this retreat that I truly experienced the practice for myself.
What read like obtuse metaphors became literal observations, as I could see what the Buddha had described in his journey through the mind. I began to understand that what may sound like an esoteric teaching from the outside is actually a pragmatic handbook from the inside.
The wonderful thing about Buddhism is that anybody can practice it and experience the Buddha's words for him or herself. You just have to be willing to put in the effort and test it out for yourself.
While there were moments of insight and effortlessness, there's also no doubt that the training can be arduous on both mind and body. It may look like I was doing nothing but sitting on a cushion for an hour, but there is actually an intense amount of work being done mentally and physically.
Now, there is nothing mystical about this mindfulness meditation practice. It's nothing more than a practice of focusing your awareness. My experience of it is like a gym for the mind, just as going to the gym regularly makes my body stronger, meditating regularly makes my awareness brighter. Similarly, if I stop exercising, my muscles become weaker, and if I stop meditating, my awareness becomes duller.
If you have never meditated before and are curious about attending such a course, I'd recommend that you start a regular sitting practice first. It'll help your mind get used to the meditation process, and your body to the meditation posture.
Focusing your mind takes concentration and it can be strengthened. Sitting still for long periods will tax your body, just like any physical activity. Starting with regular practice first can help you go through a retreat more readily and gain more out of it.
A Heart Full of Gratitude
Words fail, and I've rewritten this post many times as a result. In the end, I realised that to precisely describe my experience and what I gained would be unfaithful to it. No two persons will have the same experience going through such a retreat, this second time was distinctly different from my first, and should I go again I'm sure the experience will be different yet again.
I am glad I went, even though I wasn't entirely sure why I went at the beginning. This experience has given me a direct experience of Buddhism which cannot be had from reading, thinking or hearing about it, and I didn't realise that so much could be gained from simply abiding in silence.
At the end of this journey my heart is filled with an immense sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the monks for sharing their space with us during this time. Gratitude for the many Thai people who helped to make a visitor feel at home. Gratitude for the tireless volunteers who did the work behind the scenes to make the course run. I am immensely grateful for their warm spirits and kind generosity.
Mostly, I own a great debt of gratitude to my friend the monk. I couldn't have come this far without him. To Phra Paiboon: may you be free from suffering, may you be free from harm, may you be well, may you be happy, may you achieve success.