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August 11, 2012

Vagabonding field reports: a meditation retreat in Thailand

The 10 day silent meditation retreat I attended last July in Wat Khao Tham, a monastery in Ko Phangan, Thailand, was my 4th experience of this sort, all but one of them in the land of smiles, each of them in a different temple.

In this website there is already a guide to Meditation Retreats in Thailand, that I recommend you reading to get a good picture and “Find your own damn Buddhist meditation retreat!

Let me just state that you don’t need to convert to Buddhism to attend a retreat. Meditation is essentially about mental development and the benefits of a retreat, from the simple detox from the noises of daily life, to the permanent gains in your insight (this is the meaning of the word Vipassana, that many confuse as a technique) vision are huge.

If you are interested in reading the day by day diary of my experience you can read it on my blog. Here is an overview of my experience:

Cost/day: While most centers ask just for a free donation, in Wat Khao Tham the least contribution requested was 500 Thai Baht a day (15US$), which are a a lot of money for Thailand, to be honest.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
It’s strange to me that there are still so many misconceptions around meditation and his identification with Buddhism, like there are people that identify yoga with Hinduism or fasting with Muslims or (insert what you find more appropriate) with any Christian related religion.
In other words mix something with the context where it has developed, or maybe I should just call this things with more propter names: ignorance and superficiality.

Describe a typical day: with slight changes on day 1, 9 and 10, this was the daily schedule of the retreat.
4.00: morning bell
4.45: sitting meditation
5.15: stretching
6.15: sitting meditation
7.00: breakfast
8.15: working meditation
9.00: walking meditation
9.30: talk teachers lecture and sitting
10.15: sitting or standing meditation
10.25: teachers instructions
10.30: walking
11.00: lunch
13.00: Walking
13.45: Sitting or standing
14.45: Walking
15.30: Sitting
16.15: Sitting or Standing
16.30. walking
17.15: light dinner
18.15: sitting
18.45: standing or walking
19.15. teachers talk + meditation in the hall or rest in the room
21.00: lights out

Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
Not talking for ten days may look the hardest thing to do for some, but being silent allow you to get rid of all the noises that cover the ability to really listen, especially your inner voice. During the retreat, except the short interviews with the teachers, the only person you have conversation is the part of you that the conditioning you received during your life has been relegated on a hidden corner. This “local” has many interesting things to tell you!

What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
I disliked so many things: the obnoxious mosquitos, the scorching heat, the uncomfortable wooden floor of my bungalow that act as my bed, falling asleep during meditations, finding every excuse to be distracted especially during teacher talks, being so judgemental and unforgiving with me and others.
Indeed, I ultimately like them all as an opportunity to develop my mindfulness and compassion.

You don't attend a meditation retreat for his comfy bed


Describe a challenge you faced:
The whole retreat is a challenge. But not being a novice, this time the real challenge to me was getting to the island: three days before the retreat I caught a bad cold (may be forever damned forgiven who keep air con so low in buses and malls, with much unnecessary damage to the environment and the health of people) and spent the day in bed in Marco Ferrarese my temporary place in Penang, more than 500km away. The day after I was still feeling like a wreck, when I started the long journey to Surat Thani. The first night in the Monastery I couldn’t sleep, overwhelmed by tiredness and adapting to the hard floor. All that surely made for a rough start and after three days of the retreat, the cherry on the cake was a heat stroke, that made me really close to call it a day and quit. Luckily I didn’t and from there everything was downhill. Actually only one person, injured on his knee, left before the end of the retreat.

What new lesson did you learn?
While meditation surely boost your mental development, your ability to concentrate and being mindfulness, his primary goal is to help you develop compassion. The progresses you made if you became able to sit down in a lotus position and don’t move a muscle for an hour are very little compared to experience a real compassion for yourself and the world around you that start from understdanding who you are and how things are really are and not how we want them to be or we believe are supposed to be.

Where next?
From a Thai monastery to another: I am going to take a 21 (at least) day long course in Wat Tam Mua, nea

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Category: Asia, Languages and Culture, Vagabonding Field Reports

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