Good evening everyone!
My boyfriend (Ed) and I went on a 24 hour mediation retreat this week in a Buddhist Training Centre. We are currently living in Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand) so figured the old ‘when in Rome’ adage meant we should give meditation a try. We’ve been meaning to get it into our daily routine for ages, and I have a bit of prior experience with it, but it felt like this was the perfect way to kick start the process.
This post is going to be a bit different to normal as there’s zero outfit excitement (just everyone in matching white robes – snooooore) but I thought you’d be interested to hear my experiences. In the post I promise to be totally honest with you and take off the instagram ‘I’m so enlightened and perfect’ filter. So, here goes!
We booked the Monk Chat programme which is specifically designed for Westerners wanting to learn about meditation. It runs once a week and costs about £15 including buying the outfit so is crazy cheap. Everyone meets at a nice easy location in town (Wat Suan Dok) where you get your new clothes and a quick talk about the principles behind Buddism, then there’s a half hour taxi ride to the mediation centre. In the bus we had a great time chatting to other people in the group and learning more about them. Glad we made the most of this time, as after that it was a fully silent retreat (eeek!).
My expectations were pretty much to be in a constantly joyful and serene state. I knew meditation was supposed to make you happy as well as calm, and so I figured it was going to be an enjoyable ‘retreat’. How wrong I was! However, this doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend it, but you should come with the proper expectations. Here’s what will happen…
(5am wake up gong followed by many hours of mediation)
1. A whole lot of silence
You’ll spend 24 hours in total silence, awkwardly staring at the floor and avoiding sitting next to people in meals for fear of cringey contact. It was very isolating and actually very sad. I didn’t realise how much joy I derived from talking, but I think I (mistakenly) associate being quiet with being sad so I found it very hard to brush off those ingrained feelings. I did try smiling at people but they looked a bit taken aback so that didn’t really work out either. Perhaps on a longer retreat we’d all end up gracefully in tune and smiley but not on this one. I certainly think I’ll try and incorporate a bit more silence into my life now (I’m never far from an iPod or Snapchat video so have pretty much zero peace currently) and try and realign the negative associations I’ve formed with it.
2. A whole lot more meditation
Secondly, you’ll meditate in various different forms for pretty much the entire 24 hours. We only did 10-15 minute chunks, with teachings in between, but it was pretty exhausting. We learnt sitting down mediation (the one you’re used to seeing), as well as standing up, and even walking. Plus of course you’re also practically meditating when you eat/wander round/go to bed because you’re all in silence so it’s almost non stop. We had times when we all did it together, and then quite a lot of ‘freestyle’ time where we’d be left for an hour to go try it on our own around the grounds. I think if you were the kind of person who liked to sit by a beach and chill then you’d love this down time as the grounds were beautiful and peaceful (duh!) but for me it got quite boring. Ed really struggled with the boredom as he’s the kind of guy who needs constant entertainment and is always inventing challenges and competitions, so isn’t used to such a lack of stimulation.
3. Unprecedented ‘behind the scenes’ access
My favourite part of all was the ‘discussion’ time with the monks. We got a chance to ask a monk anything we wanted, and they were totally honest. Ours talked all being orphaned as a child and how it led to him becoming a monk, the rules he struggles with keeping to, and his views on the future. It is precious to have Buddhism explained in simple and honest terms by such humble experts. It really is straight from the horses mouth! The main thing I learnt is that Buddhism is not really a religion – the bowing down is just showing respect to teachers (the same as in Thailand we do a teeny bow as a thank you to staff in a restaurant), and they don’t believe there is any point in asking Buddha to do something for you (i.e. pray) – you just have to do it yourself. They likened this to asking someone else to eat for you when you’re hungry which I thought was fab! They are also really big on the impermanence of life and using detachment to counteract it. People will die, things will get lost/broken, you’ll age, and you’ll die too. They told us our bodies were just borrowed from nature and they aren’t our identity, so when we get old that’s fine and when we die that’s fine too. You should respect it and treat it well as a gift, but you shouldn’t be sad when things change because that’s a fact of life. If you can accept change (big and small) then you can eradicate a massive amount of your sadness.
4. A six pack mind
What I’ve finally come to realise is that meditation is exercise for your mind. It’s exactly the same as going to the gym or doing a run… but to train your brain. Once I made this link it all became a lot more obvious – you don’t ENJOY working out, or being shouted at by a personal trainer, but you do it for the long term results and the power it gives you. You feel better afterwards, you feel proud of your body, and you’re able to do more with your life. At best you’ll enjoy the gym burn in a sort of sadistic way, but you’ll never truly love the pain. This was essentially what happened on this retreat – if it were me I’d rebrand it as a ‘Brain Bootcamp’. You’ll get beaten into shape and be bored/sad/frustrated at your own inability – but that’s the point! It gives you the power to control your thoughts and the tools to start your own training regime at home, and you shouldn’t expect dramatic progress any more than you’d expect to run 1 mile one day and 5 miles the next. People are strangely evasive about the benefits of meditation, and obviously I’m no expert, but here’s my take on it from what we learnt.
- Mindfulness is the ‘breaks’ on your life – when you’re presented with an opportunity or decision you have the presence of mind to stop and decide whether it is going to be good or bad for you, and then you can either follow it or not. For example, when someone says something insensitive, you can decide whether to get angry and offended, or whether to just let them live in their own small minded world and keep yourself happy.
- The ability to step outside your mind – way less creepy than it sounds… I essentially mean you can look at your own thoughts and reactions and decide if you like them. For example, if you’re holding a grudge you’ll firstly notice you’re doing it, then decide if you want to continue, and then be able to let it go. Without meditation you’d hardly ever notice these things about yourself, let alone be empowered to fix them.
- Increased focus – if you can direct your mind onto repeating one word for 10 minutes without straying (which by the way I am no where NEAR achieving yet) think how well you could concentrate on tasks and work. I want that!
- Uber wisdom – when you take a second to think before you speak or act, you’re bound to say more profound things and stop putting your foot in it (i.e. me). There’s also the fact that your mind is essentially more ‘tidy’ so can recall information better. There’s a theory about one part of your mind being the collector and another part being the interpreter (don’t ask me for the proper terminology). You know that moment when you learn a new word and you see if everywhere? That’s your collector putting it all together. And when you suddenly have a light bulb moment and remember something at the perfect time? That’s your interpreter bringing something to the surface for you. The problem is that your inner monologue/waffle normally blocks all of this and just cycles round. So mediation is basically like defragging and getting your monologue to slow down so your interpreter and collector can work beautifully together and bring you the perfect answer at the perfect time. Sounds pretty sweet!
- Happiness – meditation teaches you to focus on the present. Buddhism is very big on how the past is gone and the future never comes. The only way to affect the future is by acting now (in the present), and the only way to let go of the past is also to be in the present. When you’ve trained your mind through mediation to spend more of your day to day life in the present, you’ll notice more beauty, make less mistakes, be more attentive to other people, stop stressing, and above all be happier.
- ‘Good man, good mind’ – if you can make these choices on a daily basis you’ll slowly self perpetuate into a happier and all round better person. You’ll be slower to judge/complain/make mistakes. You’ll be able to let go of anger and stop finding people’s breathing annoying on the tube (you know you do!). Your mind is the master of everything else so if it’s being trained to choose good then it’ll become natural. You can choose happiness, but first you have to notice when you’re not doing it, and be equipped to change.
(Here’s us taking things super seriously…)
We are converts! I am now going to be meditating twice a day for ten minutes, and then taking things from there. You’re also recommended to do more ‘informal’ meditation such as paying attention to your surroundings, or walking, or eating, which I’ll also try to do. I think if you go into this retreat expecting a bootcamp instead of a holiday you’ll get a lot from it, and it might just change your life if you decide to carry on the teachings. But don’t expect to just smile peacefully all day (and if you’re very inflexible you might want to practise sitting cross legged in advance. Ed will attest to this!!).
If you want a behind the scenes peek of what to expect they upload weekly pictures of the retreats on their facebook page.
(Simple food and accommodation)
(Our post retreat re-tox… Sorry monks!)
Comment below if you’ve ever tried meditation, or a retreat, and what you thought of it! I’d love to hear your experiences.