At the beginning of May, I embarked on my first silent meditation retreat in Surrathani, Thailand. It was something I had wanted to do since my first trip to Thailand in 2008. Although I was a little scared of the whole idea (mostly the silent part) I thought it would be a great experience, and since I had the time and was traveling through Thailand anyways, why not add it to the itinerary. The whole experience was very enlightening to me, but I am not going to share my personal journey during my 10 days. For me to tell you how I perceived the experience would take away from your own. Since I went into the retreat with only the logistical information available on the website, it allowed me to have my own experience and not be waiting or wanting one that someone else had.
So, what then am I writing about if not my personal experience? Well, I thought many people would benefit from a practical guide concerning the day-to-day living, along with things that would make the experience more enjoyable. Like the title suggests, this is more of a survivor guide to the retreat.
The course starts on the last day of the month and ends on the 11th. Silence doesn’t start until around 8pm on the first day, which is registration day, and falls on the last day of the month. The silence continues until the morning of the 11th. The only way to register for this retreat is by showing up at the hermitage on the last day of the month. Registration starts at 7am. It is possible to stay the night before at the main monastery down the road, or there is a small guesthouse about a 30 minute walk from the hermitage. This comes in handy for those people who need to get their wifi needs out of the way. You can also just get up early and grab a cab from Surathani.
Registration is first come first served. There is a cap on the amount of people they can house, so during the busier travel months in SE Asia coming early is better. It is also good to come early so you can choose what kind of chore you will be doing the whole retreat. Chores range from sweeping meditation halls to mopping, raking, cleaning toilets and several others. Getting there early also allows you to set up your room, make sure you your mosquito net doesn’t have too many holes, and roam around the facilities. Breakfast, lunch, and tea are served on registration day for those that are there early.
Day to Day
You can find the daily schedule on the website, which will give you a good idea of what you will be doing all day during the retreat.
It’s going to be hot. Especially if you find yourself there in May, June, or July. But it’s Thailand, so of course it’s mostly going to be on the hot side with a good amount of humidity. So I highly suggest bringing loose-fitting clothes. I didn’t have any modest loose-fitting tunics, but I dreamed of having one often.
Make sure and be mindful of the clothes you do decide to bring and wear. The retreat has a dress code they ask people to adhere to. Mainly they ask people not to wear see-through clothing, tight revealing clothing, and they ask for ladies and men to cover their shoulders and knees. So, all that fun SE Asian backpacker attire they sell everywhere from fisherman and harem pants to flowing thin tunics are great to have.
Don’t worry if you don’t have enough clothes for 10 days. There is lots of downtime after breakfast, lunch and teatime when you can wash your clothes. In fact, almost all the ladies around me washed their clothes daily. Either come with your own washing detergent or you can buy a small bag at the store in the dining area.
The daily schedule has you pretty busy the whole day, but the downtime is really important too. This is your time to do whatever you want, from showering, sitting in the hot spring, washing your clothes, yoga, or just taking a nap.
If you decide last minute to come to the meditation retreat and you aren’t totally prepared, the store has a wide range of things to make you feel comfortable. It is only open on registration day and days 1, 3, 4, and 6 (I think). Remember to keep a bit of money with you in case you need something. So what exactly is available at the store? T-shirts, basic button-up tunics, Thai fishermen pants in about four different colors, sarongs, toothbrushes, toothpaste, feminine products, candles, matches, mosquito repellent, laundry detergent, toilet paper, soap, etc. But if there is a specific kind of product you like to have, bring it with you.
Woman are required to take a shower with a sarong on, something that takes some getting used to, but isn’t difficult. Women cannot wear bathing suits while showering because they must be covered. Thai women are very modest, and while on the retreat you must shower in a modest way. It sounds a little strange maybe, but again, it’s not difficult and just takes some getting used to.
When I say shower, I’m not talking about the traditional shower. To shower here, you stand around a large shallow pool or large sink. Then you use small buckets to scoop water on yourself. The water is not heated but it is so hot that it doesn’t matter. It is the same system for men, but men have the advantage of wearing swim trunks or even boxers, or if they wish a sarong around their waste. If you don’t have a sarong, don’t worry, they loan them out when you register.
Also, you must always be covered, so when you are done with your shower you have to transfer from your wet sarong to either a dry sarong or a towel. Doing this without exposing your body happened to be a lot easier than showering without exposing myself.
The Hot Spring
The same rules apply for use of the hot springs as for showering- women must be covered in a sarong, and men must wear shorts. And I’m sure you must be thinking what I thought before I came to the retreat, “It’s going to be too hot for a hot spring.” However, the hot spring serves as a calming meditative time. It also soothes your muscles and joints that will inevitably be sore from sitting in half lotus, lotus, or just crossed legs for most of the day. I really looked forward to my time in the hot spring everyday.
As a side note to the hot spring, and I think this comes from my time in Japan, make sure you rinse off before you get in the hot spring, especially if you have been sweating all day. It will keep the water a bit cleaner for everyone’s enjoyment.
Don’t worry, most of the toilets are Western style, with the exception of a few squat toilets near some of the meditation halls. However, you have to manually flush the toilets using a scoop to poor water from a bucket. The bathrooms in the dorms and around the hermitage do not have toilet paper in them. So you should have some on you at all times, or you can try the traditional Thai style of cleaning yourself after going to the bathroom. There are actually signs encouraging people to try the Thai way of using water and your hand to clean yourself instead of using toilet paper. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, either bring your own toilet paper, or you can buy toilet paper at the store.
Keep in mind that you will be waking up before sunrise every morning. Also, you will be sleeping on a very hard surface. The bed is a slab of concrete with a thin piece of plywood, and a very thin straw mat. That’s it. Does that sound comfortable? Well, it is and it isn’t. The pillow is wooden. One of the monks commonly refers to the pillow as a ‘Buddha pillow,’ although I’m pretty sure the Buddha didn’t use one, and I think most people either didn’t use it, or used it as a doorstop. I tried it a few nights with no problems, but other nights preferred using the blanket they give you. If the pillow sounds terrible, bring your own. If the bed sounds uncomfortable, bring a sleeping pad, or a yoga mat, which can double as a sleeping pad.
First thing to know is that every meal will be vegetarian. So be prepared for lots of veggies, rice, tofu products, and lots of mushrooms. Also, you will only be served two meals, one in the morning around 830am, and the other at 1230pm. After that, at around 4 or 5 there is tea. Every teatime has two choices- with or without sugar. Most days the sugar choice was hot chocolate, and even though is was blazing hot, it was always the most satisfying. The only other tea I could distinguish was a ginger tea.
I personally enjoyed all the food that was prepared, especially the interesting coconut deserts served at lunch. At the end of the retreat people mentioned that they did not care for the breakfast. It was a porridge made of rice, a few different beans, possibly barley, carrots, pumpkin, ginger and green onions. I thought it was perfect, along with being tasty it really did fill you up. Along with the porridge came cucumbers, cabbage, some other leafy green, and bananas. I actually might try and recreate it once I am back in my own kitchen.
Lunch was always a little different, but consisted of rice and two main dishes, one usually being a curry. Again, most dishes had tofu, mushrooms or both. I really enjoyed every dish, aside from a few of the tofu and mushroom-heavy dishes. For dessert they served either watermelon or different grains in a sweet coconut milk. I really looked forward to these desserts.
I left wanting there to be a cookbook so that I could replicate some of the tasty dishes. I also would have loved to be able to ask how to makes those delightful coconut milk deserts.
Honestly, I didn’t crave anything during the retreat, and I only had a few moments that I felt really hungry and that was usually right before breakfast time, never at night. It really is amazing how little food your body needs to get by. I also used each meal to really enjoy every bite, slowly eating everything, and was surprised how quickly I felt full.
Dealing with the Heat
The heat was a major factor for me while I was on the retreat. Of course, I was there in one of the hottest months in Thailand, but I think the heat can be hard to manage, especially since there isn’t a cold place to retreat to. It got better for me after the first day as I was beginning to adjust to life without a fan or air-conditioning. It helps that during meditation you are under cover and out of the direct sunlight so it never feels really hot when meditating. I also found that I was drinking lots more water while there. They give you a water bottle that you can fill up with filtered water, and I found staying hydrated also helped with the heat. Having a hat can be helpful to keep the sun off you when walking around the retreat.
Honestly the heat bothered me the most around bedtime. Evening meditation was always nice because the sun had set, there was often a light breeze, and the temperature dropped a little. But the dorms were always a bit stuffy, even if I kept my window open. As a way to cool down, many women would shower right before bed. I wet my hair, and placed a wet washcloth on my head, and that helped cool me down enough that I could get to sleep. Again, after the first few days, your body adjusts to dealing with the constant heat, so it doesn’t seem as bad.
Obviously meditation is what comprises most of the day. Mornings also involve yoga for the women, and yoga and taichi for the men. The men’s taichi/yoga instructor is quite famous, something I learned at the airport talking to one of the girls who had also done the retreat. And after talking about him, he ended up being on our flight, so he told us about his crazy life as a private taichi instructor for the three weeks out of each month that he is not on retreat.
There are different types of meditation that you practice, and there are lectures via a tape recording (that is difficult to follow at times as there is a lot of background noise wherever the teaching was recorded, making it very distracting, but I guess also part of the meditation?). I have to say there were days I just tuned the recorded teaching out because the noises, such as chickens and airplanes, were too distracting, or I would really try to listen, and all I could focus on was the chickens. You would think they could get someone to re-record the teaching making it less distracting.
Along with the recordings, there are different teachers that will give small talks in between meditation sessions. Again, these could be distracting, or they could actually be helpful. One of the older monks talked about the teachings for the first few days. I can’t say I got much out of it because he had a very thick accent, and all I really could understand is when he said “breath in, breath out”. That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy any of the talks, because some were very helpful. The men’s yoga/taichi instructor was easy to understand and he would say very helpful things from time to time. I also really liked one of the other younger monks, who would often bring some humor into the talks. Keep in mind that all the people working the retreat are volunteers.
Your body will probably go through an adjustment period getting used to sitting in lotus or half lotus, or whatever way makes you most comfortable. This is something that can be really hard to deal with. Along with your body adjusting to sitting in this position all day, you are also sleeping on a cement slab. I had many aches and pains throughout the 10 days. The daily yoga along with the hot springs really helped to alleviate that. And again, some days might be better or worse than others, but it is something to be aware of.
I will say one thing about my experience. I had never really done any sort of meditation practice aside from a one-unit meditation class in college. The hardest challenge, aside from my body adjusting to sitting in a certain way all day, is keeping a positive attitude about your practice. You might be feeling frustrated that your mind keeps wandering, something that happened to me a lot as I was often thinking, “man, am I a terrible meditator.” But that is part of the meditation. Noticing you are thinking, making a note of it, and then getting back to breathing. Just remember to come back to following your breath in and out. Be kind to yourself, and try not to get too frustrated. And if you find yourself being frustrated, open your eyes and look around, because the retreat center is absolutely beautiful.
This experience can really be the hardest thing you have ever done mentally. The first night I almost had a panic attack. I have never had one before, but my heart was beating fast and I was covered in sweat. I felt suffocated in my mosquito net, and I was about ready to jump out of bed and walk out. But somehow I convinced myself that I couldn’t leave the first night. I told myself if I was feeling the same way on the second night I would leave, because there is nobody forcing you to be there. Well, the first full day aside from the initial pains (that would get worse over the next few days) I was feeling so much better. So don’t worry if you have panic moments. I think it is natural for most people, so just keep at it. Each day will present new challenges, but that is part of the journey.
I cannot say that this will be the easiest or most luxurious retreat out there. I really enjoyed myself and was able to really get a lot out of it. Hopefully, knowing a little more about the day-to-day of the retreat and knowing what to expect and feeling prepared can help you to just focus on your breath and meditation. Again, it will be challenging at times, enjoyable other times, and even amazing sometimes. I just suggest you try and pull through, because each day, including the last days, makes the whole retreat worth it. And who knows, maybe you will find a new traveling partner to take on your next destination with.
For more information you can check out the Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage website. There you will find all the details offered to each participant, and photos of the facilites. My camera was in a safe the whole time, so all the photos above were taken near the retreat center, but not inside.
Have you done a 10 day silent meditation retreat? Was there something you wish you had to make your time more comfortable? Did you enjoy your experience? I would love to hear about it in the comments below