On Tuesday we packed our bag for the night and walked down to the temple. It was a searingly hot day and I have managed to strain a muscle in my leg, so after a while we copped out and hailed a tuk-tuk to take us the rest of the way because we didn't want to walk it
. At the temple we saw a little office tucked away in the back: on the door was a sign called 'Monk Chat’. This is the name of the monk’s website (which we thought was hilarious), so went in and got all our paperwork sorted. We were the only people there and we were starting to think that it was just going to be the 2 of us on the retreat, but slowly other people turned up and there ended up being about 18 of us. The group of people was really mixed: there were people from Russia, Canada, China, France as well as quite a few from the UK. We all had to wear white clothing during the retreat which unfortunately we didn’t have with us but luckily we were able to buy a set of white clothes from the monestry for a few pounds. Once we were all settled we were given an introductory talk from the head monk at the temple. He had been a monk for over 37 years and he had some really great stories to tell us about the work he had done during his travels. Later we all piled into a couple of tuk-tuks and headed out of the city to the meditiation center. But first of all I had to find my shoes! When you enter a building in Asia you have to remove your shoes, so I had left mine outside along with everyone else’s but when I came back they had disappeared. I searched high and low but couldn’t find them anywhere… until I realized that one of the monks was actually wearing my flip-flops. I was so embarrassed when I had to go over and tell him that he had taken my shoes and he looked absolutely mortified
. But embarrassment aside it was pretty funny seeing a monk wandering around in his orange robes and my flip-flops….I should have taken a photo of him!
It took about half an hour to get to the meditation center which is in the outskirts of the city in a lovely peaceful area away from all the traffic and noise. Tom and I weren’t allowed to share a room because it is single-sex dorms so we paired up with two other people and got settled into our rooms. The meditation center is the life’s work of the head monk at the temple and has been funded completely by donations from locals and foreigners alike: the retreat is run on a donation basis as they believe that meditation should be available to everyone no matter what how much or little money you may have. Once we were settled into our rooms we needed to get changed into our white clothes- none of the people on the retreat had any white clothes of their own so we had all ended up buying a set off the monks. By this time it was almost 6pm and dinner was about to be served. The monk who would be leading our retreat was the head monk’s student: he was only young (I’d guess about 25) but he spoke really good English and was already more accomplished in mediation than many of his elders. As we all left our rooms and headed to the dining hall it was very surreal seeing everyone in their white clothes: the last time we had all seen each other we had been walking around as normal and now we were all dressed head to toe in white and looking very serene
. As we queued up to enter the dining hall we were asked by our monk to begin observing silence during the retreat. We had all been warned before we arrived that the retreat was a silent one, but some people found it practically impossible to stay silent for even a few minutes: for myself and Tom it was a really nice experience to know that you had to stay quiet for the remainder of our time at the center. We were asked not to speak to our room-mates (even when alone together) although it was okay to ask the monk any questions you might have. The reason they do this is to help focus your mind and remove unnecessary distractions such as chatting about your holiday or food. The silence turned out to be one of the best parts of the retreat just because it was such an unusual and soothing experience.
Before we sat down to eat our dinner we had to reflect on the food which we were about to eat- this meant taking part in our first ever experience of Buddhist chanting. We had no idea if we were doing it properly but it certainly got us into the right frame of mind before we ate our meal. While we were eating everyone sat in silence- all I was trying to think about was calming my mind and forgetting about all the things that make me stressed, anxious or upset. We both really wanted to make the most of this opportunity so we gave it our all. After eating our tea we headed to the meditation hall for our first round of meditation practice
. Over the 2 day retreat the plan was to meditate in 15 minute blocks for about an hour or so, then have a little break, have a drink or some food, go for a walk or do something to help clear your mind, then go back to the hall and go for another hour of meditation. We settled down to our first round at about 7pm and finished for bed at about 9:30pm. It was a very surreal and difficult night. We learnt 4 different techniques to help us meditate but in all honesty I just couldn’t calm my mind because I was constantly so aware of where I was and what I was doing. Plus everyone was having difficulty sitting cross-legged on the mats for 15 minutes without moving: by the end of the 15 minute block we were all in so much pain in our legs and backs. It is really hard to explain the process of mediation: in essence it is about trying to train your mind to be more focused, stronger and calmer. During our mediation practice we would try our hardest to focus on the sensation of breathing by feeling the movement of your tummy rising and falling with each breath and everytime a thought pops into your head you have to be able to bring your concentration back to your breathing and not get caught up in your thoughts and imagination. As soon as we started I realized how hard it was going to be: once you sit down in a quiet place it isn’t long before you find yourself daydreaming or thinking about something or another. When you meditate the idea isn’t to empty your mind but just to try and increase your awareness of your own thought patterns. I have practiced meditation before but this retreat was so different to everything I had experienced in the past: it was a lot harder. At the end of the night we did some lying down meditation and it wasn’t long before everyone fell asleep and some people started snoring: I think the monk must have been a bit miffed at us because he didn’t let us do the lying position again in case we all drifted off.
Once we had finished in the hall we all headed outside for some fresh air and to have a cup of tea before we went to bed. Seeing everyone walking around the lawns and trees in their white clothes in the darkness was an amazing sight: it looked like ghosts wandering though the gardens. The following morning we had a very early wake-up call: the monk came to wake us all up by hitting a gong outside our bedroom windows at 4:50am! We were due to be back on our meditation mats by 5:30am, however we were missing about 10 people. Slowly but surely everyone turned up apart from 4 young girls from London. I don’t think the monk was too taken with them anyway; they had been talking to each other during the previous evening and hadn’t been taking the retreat very seriously. Despite being a monk I think he was starting to get a bit pissed off so he sent one of the other monks to stand outside their windows banging the hell out of the gong until they final joined us over an hour later. It turned out to be an absolutely incredible morning. At about 6am we were all sitting on our mats meditating and when I opened my eyes all I could see was the sun rising over the shoulder of the meditating monks: their orange robes lit up the whole room and I had that feeling of overwhelming gratitude and happiness which I have only ever felt when I’ve been traveling. Sitting in silence surrounded by everyone in their white clothes I knew that I had come a million miles away from my old life and all the things that used to bring me down: traveling has changed me so much, I feel like a new person now. Experiences like this bring home to me how much my life has developed and progressed. Although I had really struggled with the meditation practice the previous night I took to it a lot easier today and I really enjoyed my time at the retreat. We spent the morning in meditation and then finished the retreat about lunchtime. After lunch we all got changed back into our normal clothes and headed back to the city in a fleet of tuk-tuks. We are both so incredibly glad that we took the chance to come away to the retreat: it was a once in a lifetime experience that neither of us will ever forget. Thailand is fast becoming one of my favorite places of the trip so far and with experiences like this who can blame me!
During our little break in Chiang Mai we have decided to try some new activities that we have never done before: you can go canoeing or shopping anywhere but we wanted to try something that is truly once in a lifetime. So when we found the chance for us to attend a 2 day Buddhist meditation retreat we thought "why not"! As we have been going through Asia we have loved learning about Buddhism and visiting all the temples, so we figured that going away on a retreat would be a great way to learn some more and experience something completely new and unforgettable. We had seen in our guidebook that one of the local temples offers mini-retreats for foreigners to give them an insight in Buddhism, so we got in touch with the temple and booked ourselves onto the retreat.