Why do Westerners fly to Southeast Asia just to sit for a week in silence?
I wanted to know.
Eleven people and I climbed into an open red minibus at the Lamai Beach on Koh Samui, Thailand. The bus drove us up the hills to the jungle, home to the Diaphabavan Meditation Centre where Buddhist monks practised Vipassana.
It dropped us in front of an open space dining room with ocean view, away from tourist noise. No stinky canals, no “taxi!” or “massage!” No roaring music from Sexy sex bars where Thai girls shook their derrière around polls.
Just birds chirping.
A couple of Buddhist monks silently eyed our group as they passed us, and disappeared behind thick greenery into little white houses.
Another 30–40 of us, all Westerners, wordlessly gathered in an open-space dining room to register. We handed our books, laptops, phones, and all gadgets to Werner, an elderly German, and Ben, a former Thai nun.
I saw our schedule hanging on the board. I won’t lie that the wake-up bell at 4:30 am did feel controversial. Hours of sitting and walking.
I passionately hate alarm clocks, but I was determined it was worth the experiment.
- 4:30 am Wake up bell
- 5:00 am Morning reading
- 5:30 am Yoga
- 6:30 am Meditation
- 7:30 am Breakfast
- 9:30 am Dhamma talk
- 10:30 am Walking meditation
- 11:00 am Sitting meditation
- 11:30 am Lunch
- 2:00 pm Dhamma talk
- 3:00 pm Walking meditation
- 3:30 pm Sitting meditation
- 4:00 pm Walking meditation
- 4:30 pm Chanting
- 5:00 pm Tea
- 7:00 pm Sitting meditation
- 7:30 pm Walking meditation
- 8:00 pm Sitting meditation
- 8:30 pm Walking meditation
- 9:00 pm Return to the dormitory
- 9:30 pm Lights go out
In an emergency or if you were about to get verbal diarrhoea, people could write questions on paper and hand it to staff.
„You can smile at people when you pass them by, but don’t get depressed if they don’t smile back,” instructed us Ben in her cute broken English. „At times people may walk like zombies. They may be deep in their thoughts, so please respect that.”
We watched Werner walk away with our means of communication packed in a basket. He left us standing there with white cotton bags looking puzzled.
Each bag they gave us contained a blanket and a mosquito net. There were rules: no perfume, no makeup, and no mirrors around. No tight clothes or revealed shoulders, even the legs were to be covered up to the knees. The dormitories for men and women were on separate hills.
Our dorm was hidden between palms and banana trees, like a fairytale palace. It was basic with bare floors and wooden cubicles to sleep in. They included one rattan matt and one wooden block that, with a big dollop of fantasy, should have served as a “pillow”. The monks believed ignoring physical needs aided concentration on the inside.
With the windows and doors open, jungle creatures were always waiting in ambush. They would hide at toilets or around our cubicles in the dark: spiders, ants, scorpions, lizards, mosquitos — even centipedes were all keen to pop in.
„Just don’t step on them. Be mindful when you walk,” said Werner and rolled his huge eyes, „and even if you do step on them, don’t worry — you shall not die. They’re not poisonous.”
„The centipedes are carnivorous bitches,” whispered a guy with dreadlocks to me. „They move viciously fast and they can bite you.”
I felt sheer horror.
My mosquito net was so tight there was no such insect that could pass.
However, as the days went by, the critters became part of the deal and gradually, I wasn’t scared anymore, which made me somewhat proud.
I strolled through the jungle like a boss.
FAREWELL TO YOUR SMARTPHONE
„Some of you will never make it,” said the Buddhist monk, Dhammavidu Bhikkhu easily, „but there is a benefit in trying.”
He was an Englishman, and he came twice a day to give us a Dhamma talk.
We waited in the hall at 9:30 am and then again at 2 pm to hear what he had to say. For obvious reasons, his talk became the highlight of the day.
He streamed out vital energy despite being seventy and when he spoke, he merely looked at us. Instead, laid-back, from his full lotus position, he observed the wooden floors.
„Once I read a sci-fi book — I always loved sci-fi — for the whole afternoon and after I finished it, I re-read it again,” said the monk. „It took me the whole night. That’s how good it was. That’s how absorbed I got into it.
„As life goes on and technology advances, we get stimulated more and more, in a very sophisticated way. It is a Wonderland we live in. Everything stimulates us to distract us from the „natural”, from the „now”. Continuously, we chase more distraction because it feels good. Relentless, we need to fill a „void”, unable to lull the mind. Of course, how could we, coming from a Wonderland?” the monk smiled, as if to himself with his eyes fixed on the ground.
„I know it must be a bore to concentrate on your breath compared to this,” said the monk and paused. „But keep trying, you may get there,” he smiled disarmingly.It was one of those smiles that made one want to get there.
FREE FROM SUFFERING
„Our attachments start very early,” said the monk. “From the very first moment our mother takes us in her arms and we feel the warmth. Then we drink our mother’s milk. She looks at us and makes us giggle. I did the same with my little brother Timothy. I watched him lying there — a little baby — and I made him smile back at me. I guess it’s hard to resist doing that. It makes us very happy to see them like that. They are so tiny and cute… It is selfishly rewarding. There, it all begins with those first smiles.”
According to Buddhadasa, all our suffering in life is born out of attachment and clinging to other people, that makes us dependent on them, and eventually, makes us suffer. Buddhists try their whole lives to unlearn attachment to free them from suffering.
Everybody wants to be loved. It felt great to be valued as it gave one meaning and often motivation. Love wrote songs and powered books. It was a mighty drug. I couldn’t imagine my life without it, without attachments.
And yet, I felt it made sense, to detach oneself from clinging on people, to let go of the never-ending attention seeking, and consequently feel let down by the lack of it, time and again.
If we loved ourselves more, then everyone else who appeared by our side would be just a nice bonus. If they disappeared, we would be less likely to slit our veins open.
Or, that was the idea.
There was a promise in meditation: quiet the racing mind, stop fidgeting, and you will be able to rediscover — you are your own best medicine.
BE IN THE MOMENT
Most of us persevered in the face of Buddhist adversity for the whole week. On days two and three, when we walked into the meditation hall, we noticed empty spaces left after a couple of quitters.
My brain provided me full-time entertainment twenty-four-seven. Even at night, the show continued in my dreams. There was no such thing as inner silence, albeit in a complete outer silence.
I caught myself analysing future and past. I lead real and fictional dialogues in my head, replaying whole movie scenes.
However, on the second day, somewhere in the afternoon between sitting and walking, something happened.
I strolled into the big hall.
There, I noticed where I was, and what I was doing.
Silly as it sounds, this observation arrived after full two days of already being there. I breathed in and looked around to see the epic green jungle, where the hall was nested — with me inside of it. I sensed the heath of the humid day; I saw the sunrays softly soaking from between the leaves through the side windows. I observed the hard red wooden boards and sponged up the vibe of the whole place…the peace.
At that moment, I was exactly where I wanted to be.
How rarely moments like this arrived, fully aware of everything.
I considered myself a content person, and yet, it hit me: I was one of those, drinking water, nervously pondering about work.
Honest tears of joy started to roll down my cheeks.
I walked into the sunny dorm floor after lunch and watched other people beam and laze around their cubicles. That afternoon, I felt calm and…. yeah, palpably happy.
On day five, I saw one of the girls from the group with a smiling face, dabbing her eyes too. She wept. It was like a big happy crying party… or let’s just call it cleansing.
It was everyone’s private adventure, all in our heads. No outside disturbance, we ran the show.
We had long minutes and hours to observe bugs and butterflies, to watch the rain after the sun, and the sun after the rain. Time slowed down, and that was the sweetest reward: there was no rush.
As my thoughts decelerated, the garden walks became more enjoyable. I wouldn’t rush through them, taking shots of flowers with the phone only to realise later how pretty they looked.
Instead, I would stop and see the flowers, stare at the flowers, remember the flowers. I had all the time to myself, minute after minute — I stopped the clock.
SWITCH OFF TO SWITCH ON
“It was hard to do the course, as learning anything in life, but it was 100% worth it,” claimed Felipe, who got the idea for his business during his first retreat. He crossed the world again just to meditate.
‘The course taught me a technique I can use daily. So far, I feel more inner tranquility,” he told me. “I am more connected to the present moment and my emotions. I am not that stressed, and I think positively.”
“My mind calmed down,” said Rastislav, a Slovak translator who travelled to Thailand for the second time, “and it showed me how simple and pleasant life can be without Facebook, without the Internet and so on. We don’t realise how unnecessarily loud and crazy the ‘real’ world is.”
However, one doesn’t need to fly to Thailand to hush. There are Buddhist centres all over Europe. Several retreats take place all around the world, so there is no need to fly all the way to Asia to do this.
Nope, I’m not enlightened yet.
But I’ve learned something I can re-apply. Meditation is an exercise, like building a muscle.
Here is how it works: the emotions and turbulence will always come and go. The outside circumstances will simply never be in our hands. Though we can learn how to react to them wiser, with calm.
We can observe them, recognize them, accept them, surrender to them, let them go and set free. We are the best remedy for us; we only fail to recall it sometimes.
So, if you ever wished for a secluded place, far from the fretting crowd — this may be your chance for a self-prescribed dose.
I’m still high on mine.