My Thai Meditation Experience
I appreciate that quitting your job, travelling thousands of miles around the world and embarking on a year-long quest to "find yourself" in the vein of Eat, Pray, Love is a cliché of epic proportions, but I have to say that it really is the best thing I've ever done.
One of the most unique experiences I let myself in for was to reject the beaten backpacker trail in Thailand for a Buddhist meditation retreat. When I told my friends back in the UK about this everyone seemed quite interested. When I explained that this involved staying silent for 10 whole days, waking at 4am, sleeping on a stone bed with a wooden pillow and eating nothing after noon, the reaction was rather more extreme, with the general opinion being that I had gone stark raving mad.
To be honest, although I had read all about it online, I didn't really have much of a clue what I was letting myself in for. All I knew was that I wanted an experience that was unique to the other thousands of gappers that visit Thailand each year and to fit something a bit more meaningful into my itinerary of beach hopping and bucket drinking.
I've always been interested in Buddhism since learning about it in school. In particular the notion of impermanence and living in the moment, and the fact that it is the only religion to my knowledge that bases itself on nature and science rather than blind faith in a deity or creator. I thought the opportunity to learn more about the whole thing would be brilliant.
After an amazing and ever so slightly indulgent time on Koh Phangan at the Half Moon Party, I apprehensively headed off to my detox at Suan Mokkh monastery in Chaiya, near Surat Thani.
The meditation centre was founded in 1989 by revered monk Ajahn Buddhadasa and holds 10-day English courses for Westerners on the first of each month. After an interview with a nun to make sure I was in the right state of mind to complete the course I was shown to my room. The girls dormitory (men and women were segregated for the entire retreat) consisted of rows of rooms around a courtyard, a shared toilet block and stone wells to be used for bathing. In my room / cell there was a concrete bed, straw mat, wooden pillow, blanket and mosquito net. My fellow course mates were a wide mixture of people from all over the world, many having travelled from across Europe, the US and Australia especially to be there - young, old, male, female, novice and experienced meditators alike.
The daily schedule started when we were woken from our hard stone beds by a gong at 4am and walked to the meditation hall for the 4:30 morning reading. We then did an hour and a half of yoga. The rest of the day was a mixture of sitting meditation (cross legged on the floor), listening to your breath and not moving at all; walking meditation (walking very slowly up and down, thinking only of the feeling of your feet on the ground); dhamma talks given by the monks and nuns explaining the fundamentals of Buddhism to us; and an hour of chanting and loving kindness meditation in the evenings. We also got three breaks during the day where we were given breakfast, lunch and a cup of hot chocolate.
Throughout this we had to be completely silent and try to empty our minds of any thoughts whatsoever other than what was going on right in that moment. I found the whole thing incredibly challenging, not only physically feeling tired and hungry, but mentally.
We had to follow strict rules not to communicate at all and this did not stop at talking: reading, writing, and listening to music were forbidden too. I found this the most difficult part, although it's incredible how you feel like you know a group of people just by sharing an experience with them and being in close proximity. The odd shared smile of encouragement or roll of the eyes from the other meditators really helped me to complete the course, and after it was over hearing about their experiences was a real eye-opener.
Unlike some of the others I can't claim to have had any amazing spiritual awakenings or enlightening experiences. I didn't figure out the meaning of life or even really learn how to meditate properly for more than five minutes. However, I am pleased I took part in the course. I can honestly say it was the most difficult, most interesting, strangest 10 days of my life, and although I feel I did learn a lot (mostly about my resilience!), I can't imagine I'll be rushing back any time soon.
I found the talks fascinating but my failure to meditate and the punishing schedule took its toll, and after an emotional 10 days I headed back to civilization in Surat Thani. I don't think I have ever been so excited to see a bed until I checked into the hotel where I was able to recuperate for the next three days. The retreat was intriguing and definitely memorable, but my first cup of coffee and bar of chocolate once I arrived at the hotel made me appreciate just how much I love the little luxuries in life - I'm not about to run off and become a nun just yet!
About the Author: Jemma Laing
Jemma caught the travel bug embarking on a few months of post-university traveling that was quickly extended to a full on gap year. This has seen her experience some incredible things, from volunteering with tsunami orphans and silent meditation in South East Asia to meeting cowboys, koalas and kangaroos in Australia. She's now adding more countries to her to-do list every few days and looking forward to planning more adventures. All the while she updates everyone at home with photos and stories on her blog and loves to share her experiences with gapyear.com.