Two Pre-Post Notes: For a variety of reasons, I didn’t take any pictures during or after the retreat, so this is a wordy post without much visual distraction. Also, I’m breaking this post into two parts, one today on the retreat adventures and the other to come soon that will actually be about meditation. Stay tuned!
I deliberately had very few expectations heading into our ten day meditation retreat. After signing up and skimming a few blog posts so I would have a rough idea of what to expect and what to pack, I tried not to worry too much about the day to day and instead to focus on a smushy, high-level idea of what I hoped to achieve. That may seem noble at first glance, but the truth is I was worried, or maybe even terrified, about the retreat itself and about examining the contents of my own psyche.
Here’s the story of the retreat itself. It’s clear the aftermath of Noble Silence has me talking too much… here’s some links to the parts of the post on the center, living conditions, the good and the bad, the crazy critters, and the days I almost quit.
When we showed up at the Vipassana Meditation Center, just outside Battambang, Cambodia, it felt a little like showing up at summer camp. Except, of course, that we were all grown ups and that men and women were already being separated.
I walked in through the women’s entrance (to the same room!) and checked in on the women’s side, while Adam checked in on the men’s side. There were more people there than I expected, later I counted about 100 participants. It was mostly older Cambodian locals, but there were also a small staff, a number of young monks dressed in bright orange, a few old nuns dressed in white, and maybe twenty scrubby looking backpacking westerners.
We did not get a lot in the way of welcome, instruction, or guidance. The female manager gave me a 5-page pamphlet about Vipassana that was largely dedicated to the rules and the schedule. The big five rules are no killing, no stealing, no sexual activity, no lies, and no intoxicants. Additionally, all meditators would maintain Noble Silence and not communicate via words, eye contact, gesture, or writing, except with the appropriate gender teacher or retreat manager.
Lockers were available to secure any valuables and all electronics, books, and other distractions. Everyone received a room number and a small bag containing our stainless steel eating utensils for the week.
And that was it. After one last hug from Adam, I headed off to the women’s side of the compound and to my cell, #36, to begin my ten days. The surrealness of the setup really hit home that this would be unlike anything I had ever done before.
Once the preliminaries were complete, we had our first vegetarian dinner and headed to the Dhamma Hall, where we spent most of our time. Here, both men and women sat on our assigned cushions in neat rows, facing the teachers who sat on stands in the front. During this first session, we all listened the initial instructions, formally asked to be taught meditation, and committed to Noble Silence and the other rules.
Most of the meditation instructions were passed along via recording in English and in Khmer, and were repeated at multiple sessions so you could be sure to understand. The technique was very simple to understand. For instance, the first day’s task was simply to follow your breath. Each day’s instructions built on the previous days.
So, after our initial short meditation session, the foreigners moved to a different room and both groups listened to the first recorded discourse from the teacher S. N. Goenka. Goenka was a really interesting character, who founded the Dhamma school of Vipassana and built meditation centers all over the world. He was born in Myanmar to an Indian family. He found meditation as part of a search to cure his migraines, and then left his successful family business to begin teaching Vipassana in India in 1969. Now, there are over 200 centers in 94 countries and 120,000 students attend retreats every year.
Goenka is a funny, personable and humble guy so I really enjoyed listening to the video lectures, which happened every night. He always congratulated us on completing the day and then re-explained important parts of the technique and the theory and told funny stories and allegories. He also sang, translated, and interpreted the words of Buddha that explain the Vipassana technique. I didn’t realize until after the retreat that there are lots of different Buddhist sects and traditions, with different meditation techniques, depending on the various translations and interpretations.
Not to get too far into the details, but another aspect of the discourses I really appreciated was that Goenka repeatedly emphasized that the theoretical aspects are not important. Instead, each person must commit to the ten days of learning the technique, and then determine if the practice provides them with benefit. It was great to hear this because some of the talks were quite heavy on the theoretical mumbo jumbo.
One of the other surreal aspects of the retreat were our living conditions:
My 6 by 10 feet room seemed a little like a prison cell, especially since the doors could be locked from the inside and the outside. I had a bed with a mosquito net, a meditation seat, a few hooks and a small shelf. While it had walls and a roof, the building had lots of open air circulation and let in the birds and bugs. Sleeping was generally fine, except I could sometimes hear late night and early morning disco beats or monastery chanting. I was also excited to find that a mouse had come through one night, nibbled on my soap, and chewed a hole in my toothpaste.
While rustic, the setting made the rules very easy to follow. There was no booze and no meat on the premises and we weren’t supposed to leave. I did break the no killing rule a handful of times on some frisky mosquitos, but otherwise kept to the moral code. Silence was also easier than I expected because I knew I couldn’t talk to most of the Cambodian women. That made it somehow easier not to talk to the foreign women either. And although I generally try to avoid lying, it’s especially easy when you can’t open your mouth.
I was pleasantly surprised by the food. It was very tasty, especially for mass-produced vegetarian food, though it was light on protein. We ate lots of curries and veggies over rice, with large sides of peanuts in my case. Most days, there was also a hot, sweet bean soup. You’d think it wouldn’t get any better than that, but then on day six the hot, sweet dish pot was full of sugared rice and potatoes. My prior Paleo self could never have imagined enjoying starch on carbs with sugars.
The meditation was generally enjoyable, though some sittings more than others depending on where my concentration was at that moment. There were many points when sitting on the floor cushion got really uncomfortable on the knees, hips, and lower back. Fortunately, we were sometimes allowed to meditate in our rooms, where I could sit on my little table and relieve my knees and hips, or lean against the wall and relieve my back. No matter where I was sitting, I spent most of my meditation time also sweating profusely.
The one surprising thing I found nearly intolerable was our “lunch break”. (Yes, I realize the point of the retreat is to become more tolerant. Still working on it.) After eating lunch at 11 am, we were free until we meditated again at 1. During this two hour period, it was too hot to sleep. It was too hot to do anything. I usually ended up just sprawled on my bed, sweating, occasionally doing some stretches to get feeling back in my lower extremities, and trying to maintain a meditative state of mind while waiting for the next session. My entertainment highlights from this period include doing laundry unnecessarily and shaving my legs.
On the other hand, I loved watching the creepy crawly critters that were all over the place. I did say the entertainment bar was low. I saw huge black beetles, giant spiders, stick bugs, butterflies, praying mantis and ants. I also watched a medium sized snake climb a tree. I didn’t think that snake looked dangerous or poisonous since it had a round head, so I was surprised when the manager came around and tucked little branches into our door saying, “Snake is afraid of this.” It was only post-silence that I learned someone had spotted a cobra in the area.
I did have one exciting night. I was walking quietly through a relatively dark area, in a relaxed post meditative state. Imagine my panic when I felt something stuck in my flip flop, that wouldn’t dislodge and that was frantically moving. After a quick one-footed kicking dance, this golf ball sized black ball of terror was now clinging to my pants, hissing. I had no idea what it was and couldn’t shake it off. It was still dark, and though I was still silent, it was getting questionable. Another woman must have heard the hissing or correctly interpreted my frantically outstretched arm, and was nice enough to give me her umbrella so I could remove the offending creature with a hearty thwak. “Thank you!” I whispered as quietly as I could. From then on, I not only carried my flashlight with me as soon as it got dark, I very carefully checked the floor of my room and bathrooms before entering. Another woman was not so careful and broke her noble silence when she realized she was showering with a toad.
Don’t get me wrong, bugs aside, there were a lot of things that were really hard about completing the full ten days. There were two times, specifically on day 5 and on day 7, when I had really low moments and strongly considered leaving. I felt like I wasn’t continuing to progress and I was having trouble getting into the right mindset. In those moments, continuing for 3 to 5 more days seemed unbearable. I found myself slipping into a mindset of, “I’m not getting anything out of this right now and therefore I won’t get anything out of it for the rest of the retreat.” Intellectually that makes no sense, but practically and emotionally it’s a tough mindset to beat.
Fortunately, having committed to myself, to Adam, and to anyone who saw the blog that I was participating in a ten day retreat, I convinced myself both times to stay 24 more hours. I kept telling myself that I would likely never be 5-7 days into a meditation retreat again, especially if I left this one. No surprise here, I did stick it out, and mostly got back in the game. I had my best days early on in the retreat, and by the middle to the end my concentration was starting to flag. I can’t tell if a 6 or 7 day retreat would’ve been better for me, or if the later days of any time period would’ve been more distracted as I started plotting my return to civilization.
Once you get to Day 8, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel because Day 9 is the last real meditative day. On Day 10, noble silence is broken so that everyone can be, and I paraphrase Goenka here, “soothed with the balm of chatter.” Within their gender, of course. It is incredibly weird to introduce yourself to someone you’ve been so close to for over a week. I found out some of my predictions about people were wrong. On the other hand, some were not far off. You can tell quite a bit about someone’s personality by their body language and behavior, especially when you have lots of time. No one should be surprised to hear that I felt Adam and I were among the most normal people on the retreat. We were also the only westerners without crazy pants.
In the amazing crazy person category, I met a women who is headed to Thailand to support herself by hooping (hula hoop dancing) on the beach and giving people glitter tattoos. She is traveling with a $500+ light-up hula hoop and running a festival for the arts of hooping, fire dancing, and others in Thailand in January. In the sad crazy category, I heard a long story from a woman from Sudan who seriously believed Mormons were attacking her with sorcery. She came to me because I am an American and therefore must know all about this. I told her that Mormons and not sorcerers and they do not have magic, but I don’t think I convinced her. If I had left early, I would’ve missed out on all the fantastic post-retreat stories.
Overall, while completely surreal, the retreat environment massively simplified my daily life and removed the vast majority of distractions. This was exactly what Goenka had in mind when he designed these centers. It was extremely helpful in getting me in the right mindset, even with the crazy heat and bugs. While ten days occasionally felt intolerably and unnecessarily long, I do appreciate that my meditation improved significantly, especially now that I am practicing surrounded more by all the distractions of the modern world. More to come soon in Part 2 of the retreat post as soon as I figure out how to talk about the actual meditation portion without putting on my crazy pants.