Suan Mokkh, a monastery in central Thailand, offers a 10 day silent meditation retreat for English speakers once a month. You can’t register in advance. You just have to show up on the last day of the month.
You spend 10 days in a beautiful strip of nature that has been created out of what was once a swamp by monks over decades and decades of work. You live very simply in silence learning about
anapanasati and practicing meditation. It was a wonderful experience, though it was far from easy, and I’m very glad I decided to do it.
The retreat focuses on a specific method of meditation called anapanasati, which is basically meditating by focusing on your breath. There are no mantras or physical objects to use for meditation like some other methods. This suited me, as all the meditation I had done previously was based on the same general concepts. You focus on noticing your breath, the length of it (short, long, or medium), following the path it takes in and out of your body, the feeling of it in your nose where it enters your body, and then eventually lessen the focus on the breath while focusing on an image in your mind. I never got to the step of creating a mental image but according to the monks that is not surprising and takes a lot more practice at clearing your mind to focus only on the present moment and your breathing.
One of the first things that went on my To-Do list for the trip was a silent retreat. I considered doing yoga retreats and started looking for someting in India. There are a ton of options but nothing that seemed to fit the bill for me. I didn’t want to spend a lot, I didn’t want anything at a luxury hotel with spa treatments and infinity pools, and I wanted silence.
To be honest, I’m not sure where the desire for silence originated but once I thought about it I felt strongly that it would make a big difference. I’ve been meditating off and on for a few years now. I find that it helps me concentrate, focuses my thinking, and helps me stay calm and grateful. Yet, I never got to a place where I was very good at it. I never got beyond 30 minutes of meditation and it was much more likely to be 5-15 minutes and it was far from regular. I’d often get a couple of minutes in and suddenly think of some task I needed to complete, email I needed to send, or realize I was hungry and quit meditating to take care of whatever that “pressing need” was.
At the retreat, they talked about taming your “monkey mind”. My mind has a very active monkey that likes to take me back through past experiences, off into the fears or hopes future (planning for the future is its favorite pasttime because it could be considered productive instead of distracting), or it just jumps around from one seemingly random thought to the next. I always felt like I had a million things going on in my head and I hoped silence would help me get enough space to slow down.
I went to the retreat hoping to clear my head and get rid of some of the attachment I have to the many distractions in life (most of which come from my phone/the internet) and have time and space to reconnect with my priorities. The retreat definitely met that criteria but it also made me extremely grateful for all the good things I have going in my life.
It became particularly clear at the end of the retreat, when we had an open mic sharing session and people were permitted to break the silence, that I came to the retreat in a really good place in my life and that was not the case for many people there.
There was a surprising number of people at the retreat fresh from a break-up (including a couple that broke up but came to the retreat separately anyway), from having a large professional failure, from a fall-out with their parents, or struggling with anxiety or generally getting their life going in the right direction. Many of the people sharing had come to find salvation from their problems. I seriously doubt that all of those that felt they had turned over a new leaf will actually make all the changes they said they would. Change is hard and one retreat is not enough to revolutionize your life. One woman who shared even said as much as it was her second time at the retreat having failed to change her life at all after the last one.
Regardless, having time to think about all the people I love during love and kindness meditation or when my monkey mind was going through all the great things I still had to plan for this trip and for getting back to life in the US after it’s over; made me deeply grateful and I hope I will maintain that perspective going forward.
The retreat also reaffirmed goals I already had and gave me a chance to practice them, like getting back to eating vegetarian or even vegan, letting go of things I cannot change, and being present so I don’t miss out on wonderful moments because my head is off planning something else.
Granted, I wasn’t supposed to be doing all that thinking but I’m glad I did. I also got to spend some long uninterrupted stretches in clear-headed meditation. Plus, if all the research on the effects of meditation is true then I definitely came away with a more active and thriving pre-frontal cortex too and who doesn’t want that?
Left: The main meditation hall where we did group sitting meditation. Right: The hall where we would do morning yoga and watch the sunrise over the small ponds.
Once I arrived, the schedule was similar each day.
At 4am a large bell would ring and echo through the darkness to wake us up. Everyone slept on beds that are basically wooden tables with a straw mat and blanket over them, which actually makes it surprisingly easy to get up. There is no temptation to snuggle back into bed when there is nothing soft or cozy about it.
I’d pull myself together, grab bug spray and a flashlight, and head to hear a morning reading and do the first seated meditation of the day. Then there was yoga, which lasted into the beginning of sunrise, a Dharma talk by a monk from the monastery, more seated meditation, breakfast, chores, Dharma talk from a recorded CD, seated meditation, lunch, free time (i.e. NAP TIME), seated meditation, walking meditation, chanting, loving kindness meditation, tea time, free time (shower time), seated meditation, group walking meditation, seated meditation, bed time.
I got lucky and was able to sign up for the very last chore that was not cleaning toilets. Getting to the retreat early has its advantages because you get to sign up before all the “good” chores are gone. I was there very early but completely forgot about signing up until it was almost too late.
My chore was to mop what became my favorite meditation hall, a little wooden one floating in a small pond tucked behind my dorm, each morning. While it was a chore, I found it really peaceful with the repetitive motion and the quiet of the meditation hall except for an occasional splash from one of the fish in the pond around it.
Day 9 The 9th day of the retreat was very different than the other days. For one day, we actually lived like the monks do every day. This included eating only one meal in the morning (though there was tea/hot chocolate at lunch and dinner time) and spending the entire day in silent meditation. There were a few group meditations but we were largely left to our own devices to sit, stand, or walk to meditate wherever we pleased.
Day 9 was my favorite day. Fasting was not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be and I actually don’t remember feeling hungry despite fasting for 24 hours. I was able to do more walking meditation, which was more effective in clearing my mind for longer periods of time, and I was able to do sitting meditation in my favorite meditation hall.
Dharma Talks I hadn’t fully internalized (though it is clear on the website) how much time was dedicated to these talks by monks and from recordings of monks talking about the Dharma, Buddhism, and the 8-fold noble path. Having taken a class on religions in college, I was familiar with the concepts but learned a lot from these talks. It is clear that the desire is for more people to become Buddhist. The retreat is run by monks who believe that is the way to salvation. However, I never felt pressured or that it was evangelical in any way. Their attitude is very much that they give you information, let you think about it, and accept that you will take as much as ou find useful away with you.
My only complaint about these were that the recorded talks seemed to focus a lot on the importance of the translation of the original Pali scriptures into English and that understanding the correct translation would unlock understanding but seriously lacked practical implications for the complex religious philosophy they were discussing. They also had lots of loud squawking roosters running around wherever they were recorded and they were noisy to the point of making some people laugh through the talk.
I found the talks by the monks that spoke to us in person to be interesting and engaging though.
I was able to really improve my mediation skills.
The silence, which it turned out I really enjoyed.
The food was amazing. The curries that were served for lunch everyday are possibly the best I’ve ever had. There were delicious noodle salads, fresh fruit, and even the sweetened black beans and lentils we were given for dessert sometimes were much better than I expected. We were supposed to be focusing on removing our attachment to food and developing a healthier relationship with eating, including eating healthier amounts of healthier foods, but I become pretty attached to the food there and miss it already.
Taking cold showers in small buckets. I really don’t like cold water and the only shower option at the retreat is to use a small bowl/scoop to get water from large troughs and douse yourself with it. The water was cold, and trying to make sure I kept my sarong up (you have to remain covered the whole time and swimsuits are not considered sufficient) while dousing myself with cold water was never fun. I made it through but I was excited for my first hot shower after the retreat was over.
It wasn’t a problem for me but there are a lot of critters at Suan Mokkh. While I was there I saw: a scorpion (luckily just on a path and not in my room), multiple large monitor lizards, geckos, frogs, lots of spiders, even more ants, cats, dogs, monkeys, and more mosquitos than I’ve seen in my life. If you wear bug spray, watch where you are walking, and don’t freak out if a spider makes its way onto your meditation mat; it won’t be a problem. I was never actually bothered in any way by the animals and managed to only get 2 bug bites, both on my hands, because I’d washed them and removed the protective bug spray.
The worst part of the retreat for me was missing Nate. We probably haven’t gone a single day without speaking to each other in at least 5 years and after spending 5 months with each other 24/7 it was really hard to have all contact cut off. I worried about not knowing about if something bad happened to him and my mind played out a lot of really unhelpful and horrific accidents, injuries, and ways he could die between the time he left and the time I finished the retreat. (As a side note, I should probably stop watching so many crime shows because my imagination had way too much material for crazy scenarios.)
The few times I seriously considered leaving early it was spurred by being really lonely and missing him, never the fasting, bed, or cold bucket showers.
Getting there and Back: Getting to Suan Mokkh from the Chaiya train station is quite easy but only if you know what you’re doing. I didn’t but was lucky enough to get off the train with a woman who had been to the retreat before and spoke a little bit of Thai as well.
There are small blue pick-up trucks, songthaews, that will take you to the monastery for 40 Baht per person. When you exit the train station, you are unlikely to see them though. All you’ll see if motorbikes that will offer to take you but it will be more expensive and more difficult to manage your bags. Instead, turn right out of the station and walk about 2 blocks until you see the trucks lined up on your left down one of the alleys. They will likely want to wait until there are 4-5 people before they leave so if you can find others going to the retreat when you get off the train, then be sure to bring them along.
The songthaew will likely try to drop you off across the highway from the entrance to the main monastery but you should have it take you up the road to the left if you’ve pulled over across from the monastery gate. The walk from the highway is about 20 minutes and while doable it is not easy if you have heavy luggage.
Leaving Suan Mokkh, you can either take a songthaew back to Chaiya, take a (very pricey) transfer service that will connect you with popular islands off the east coast, or you can do what I did and take public transportation to Surat Thani.
If you want to take public transportation, walk down to the highway (about 20 minutes) and just to the left you will see a white roofed hut at the side of the road. That is where you can wait for the songthaew to the train station in Surat Thani. You may have to wait awhile but once you get one it takes about 30 minutes and cost me 40 Baht.
As soon as you get off the songthaew, there will most likely be someone there asking you where you are going that will help you get on the right bus. If not, there are orange buses lined up outside the train station. Get on the one that says Surat Thani on the front. Once onboard, someone will come to collect the 20 Baht fare. This bus goes slowly and stops a lot, so even though you are quite close to Surat Thani at this point, it will take awhile to get there. I had a disadvantage at this point because no one on the bus spoke English and I hadn’t been able to get on the internet to get better directions before I left Suan Mokkh. Plus, Google Maps doesn’t have the offline maps capability for Thailand. So, I saw that the Fresh Market was one of the landmarks that still came up on Google Maps and got off the bus there. I could probably have walked to the hotel where Nate was staying from there but instead I got another songthaew to take me for 50 Baht. Once you find yourself in Surat Thani, even if you’re not sure where the bus will stop, it is pretty easy to get a songthaew to take you wherever you need to go.
Things to Bring
The retreat costs 2000 Baht (about 62 USD) to cover food for 10 days and salaries for the staff in the kitchen, as well as I’m sure some for water/electricity etc. Beyond that, I only spent 10 Baht (about 30 cents) on laundry detergent at the small store they run on site three days out of the 10.
Many people spent more at the store on candles for the lanterns that were provided (I just used a flashlight), toilet paper (I brought my own from the previous hotel we stayed at), and lots of bug spray (I bought a can in Bangkok that was stronger than what they were selling at the store).
Overall, I’m really glad I went to the retreat. I’m pretty proud of myself for making it all the way to the end, even if that may not seem like such a significant accomplishment. I will definitely do another retreat like this, though probably not anytime soon, and in the future, I probably will probably go for fewer days (a booster shot of sorts). If you’ve been thinking about doing something like this, I highly recommend it.