Every month, as well as the world famous Full Moon Party, there’s a ten-day silent retreat taking place on Koh Phangan, Thailand. When I first visited Southeast Asia in 2011, I’d planned to attend one of these retreats in Surat Thani, at Suan Mokkh Monastery, but unseasonal flooding ended that idea and instead I had to work with the national army to get myself free. Returning to the country two and a half years later over the Christmas period, I finally fulfilled my wordless ambition at Wat Kow Tahm.
Many people asked me why on Earth I’d be interested in such a thing. For me, like many others, it was simply a case of curiosity. The idea of living without words, basic human interaction, for more than a week intrigued me. It’s something so different to everyday life, and isn’t finding new experiences partly what travelling is all about?
The other people at my retreat had many different reasons for their attendance. Most had some sort of problem in their life and they were looking for a coping mechanism or a way to help them become stronger. Whether they were looking to overcome substance abuse, family problems or troubles in business or finance, they’d all come to the conclusion that meditation could help.
If anything, my weakness was a compulsion to always be doing something – opening an extra tab in my browser if a page took more than a second to load, having two, three or four things on the go at all times, taking a book or my phone to the toilet with me so I had something to do in there. The idea of sitting or walking and just doing nothing was one that made me uneasy, fidgety, and I’d always be looking for something to distract me.
Taking away all these sources of entertainment and ways to simply waste time was something I looked forward to. When I worked full-time and had a short break away I’d always enjoy switching off from the internet and the outside world, just to relax and find peace for a week or so. I would still have books to focus on, so the retreat was taking things to an extreme.
Koh Phangan may seem like a strange place for a silent retreat. The island, better known for its all-night debaucherous parties, neon body paints and alcohol buckets, isn’t exactly synonymous with peace and quiet. With Wat Kow Tahm situated on a hill overlooking Baan Tai, it picks up the music from the various parties each night and morning, meaning that participants of the silent retreat getting up just after 4am will cross over, sometimes for a few hours, with the waking patterns of the revellers on the island.
These distractions, though, are good practise for a meek meditator. The idea behind Vipassana meditation isn’t to block everything out, but rather to let sounds, thoughts, sometimes sights into your consciousness before letting them go and refinding your breath, your sense of self. As it was my first real foray into the practise, it served me well.
That being said, although I signed up for a ten-day silent retreat hoping to spend the time speaking to no one and exploring my mind, that’s not how the programme was set out. Rather it’s a meditation retreat with large aspects of silence, broken by the morning chanting that you’re encouraged to take part in, giving thanks before meals (similar to saying grace), daily Q&A sessions and two interviews with the retreat leader that you’re urged to attend in order to talk about progress and problems. With silence the biggest draw card for me, I avoided all these tasks in order to maintain my muteness.
The majority of the retreat though is spent in silence, looking in at yourself. You’re not meant to be examining your life, working out what to do next or deciding anything dramatic, just finding peace with yourself. Around seven hours of the day are spent in meditation, slightly more sitting than walking, and there are times when thoughts do stray. With that much time focusing your mind it does get tired and occasionally bored, but with a group of other people in the same mindset as you it just takes a quick glance at someone else to feel the unspoken support that’s everywhere around you.
That’s not to say that there weren’t complications. Eighteen people signed up for my retreat but only 13 made it to the end. Two left by lunch on the second day because it wasn’t what they expected, two more by the end of day three because it wasn’t for them and they didn’t want to spend Christmas in isolation, and another on day six because it was getting too much for him.
I think most people there had times when they wondered if it was worth it; it was around day seven that I had my major wobble. Thankfully the end was almost in sight so I stuck to it; if it had been a 14-day retreat I may well have crumbled.
I encountered a number of different difficulties. The first was with my muscles. My back wasn’t used to sitting upright for so long each day, or perhaps the hard bed, and soon started to complain. My legs started to ache, unaccustomed to the bizarre new walking style I’d adopted – exaggerating each movement involved in each step, four stages in my method but more in others. This was exacerbated by my knees’ complaints at sitting cross-legged for so much of the day. By the end of the retreat my body moaned less, whether it was getting used to the activities or I was getting better at ignoring them I’m not sure.
My physical complaints were nothing compared to what was happening in my mind. Starved of conversation – although I’ll admit slipping up and speaking to a dog at one point – my brain was buzzing. All these things I was noticing, experiencing as part of the retreat and no one to talk to about them, to share notes with or for guidance when things weren’t going quite as they should be.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time, each nugget that I had to keep to myself added the tiniest bit of weight pressing down on me; when the silence was lifted it was like something was physically taken off my body and I suddenly felt a new sense of freedom.
There was also an overriding feeling of boredom to deal with. Others complained of it during the daily Q&A and there were definitely some afternoons when my mind was crying out for some sort of stimulation, for anything to do, but the sessions that went well, for me in the mornings and evenings, seemed to just fly by. Despite most days having a sense at one point that things were dragging on for ever, by the end of the retreat I was amazed at how quickly the whole thing had passed by.
As well as the standard sitting and walking meditations, there were two other practices undertaken. Both involved aspects of positive thinking, learning either to appreciate what’s around you, how you got there and how fleeting it may be; or how to deal with things that make you uncomfortable.
Much of the discomfort we experience is due to the way we perceive things, we’re told, and with this in mind I succeeded in changing someone else’s annoying habit – a small noise that would break the silence and niggle away at me – into something that I found amusing and smiled at every time I heard it. It’s only a small step, but if it’s on the path to be as happy as the retreat leader then it’s definitely in the right direction.
If there’s anything I continue outside the temple, I hope it’s the practise of examining problems and emotions to find the best way to deal with them, not necessarily the most passionate or the first response to them.
Out in the real world, it’s easy to fall back into bad habits, but much of what I learned has stayed with me and I hope will continue to do so. It’s a lot harder to meditate for eight hours a day when you have things like work or travel to fit into your schedule, but really that’s a bit over the top. We were encouraged to continue the practice when we could – better 15 minutes every day than an hour every now and then.
The more important aspect for me was to shift my thinking away from negative thoughts, to let other people have their fun without letting it disturb me, being more grateful for a green light than angry for a red, to find the good in every situation. It may sound a lot like common sense, but it’s something rarely practised. And if you’d seen the perma-smile and the radiant happiness of the retreat leader, you may better understand my willingness to focus on this way of thinking.