To understand the headspace I was in for this post, please check out the prologue here.
Growing up, I had a habit of dealing with stress by taking naps. If there was something I was worried or anxious about, I would sleep on it and usually feel better afterwards. In college, I even purposely chose lofted beds in order to snuggle up high above my friends in the case of feeling overwhelmed, or like I needed to withdraw for a while. This habit was affectionately dubbed “hermiting” by my family and friends.
While I still love a good nap, I eventually developed healthier coping mechanisms, one of which was the practice of meditation. My practice was one of the foundations of my decision to move across the world to live in Nepal, and most recently led me to Suan Mokkh International Hermitage in Chiaya, Thailand. I was on my way to be an actual hermit! At the beginning of June, about 90 participants surrendered ourselves to a Thai Buddhist monastery in order to practice vipassana and explore the path to enlightenment.
The rules were established early on: wake up at 4 am, meditate for 9 hours a day, take two meals (one at 8 am and the other at 12:30), Thai style showers and baths, which meant manual flushing and bucket bathing, lights out at 9:30, sleep on a wooden bed and pillow (1). No writing, reading, singing, dancing, and above all, absolutely no speaking.
On the first morning, we were awoken by a long bell at 4. My back was a bit stiff, and I’d only been able to use the wooden pillow for half the night before foregoing it entirely, but otherwise I was excited. It felt like the first day of school, when you have absolutely no idea what to expect, only this time there was no anxiety about whether or not you’d have anyone to sit with at lunch; people were mostly avoiding eye contact, aside from maybe a quick smile, which actually felt like it put everyone on the same page.
Some of you may be familiar with the yoga mantra, “Lean into the discomfort.” Well, there was no shortage of places to lean. My knees, ankles, and pelvis were constantly on fire. The red ants were relentless. The mosquitoes were worse. During “showers” (2), I was constantly worried about skin exposure, both because we weren’t allowed to be naked and because the mosquitoes would attack me, which made bath time rather unpleasant. I slept amongst spiders and snakes, and the hunger pangs were pretty awful the first few days. I would write in my head, and it took all my self-control to keep my itchy fingers from reaching for my pen.
But this was the challenge I had set for myself, and I knew I had to figure out ways to cope. Tiger balm. Globs of mosquito lotion. More Tiger Balm. Figuring out how to just be in nature. Enjoying the tasks I was set to do, like cleaning out the foot bath every morning after breakfast. More Tiger Balm.
Things started to gel together. On day 2, I stopped wearing shoes. On day 3, I was able to visualize myself underwater, and then later walking through a beautiful field of tall grass. I hit a huge speed bump on day 5, when a morning meditation put me in an odd headspace. Instead of being able to focus on meditation, thoughts would constantly flutter through my head–regrets, things I held guilt for, people I had hurt. I was lucky that this was during the stage of personal interviews, and at breakfast that morning I signed up to speak with one of the monks.
It was oddly relieving to be able to speak, and I was somewhat surprised when I heard my own voice, sounding the same way it always had. I asked Tan Medhi, who led our daily chanting meditations, how to handle thoughts of guilt or regret from popping into my head while I was trying to focus. Especially if you thought you had done irreparable damage.
He smiled at me and pulled out his water bottle. He poured a little water into the bottle’s top and swirled it around. “If I were to put salt in this cup,” he said, “And try to drink it, it would taste like salt. If I drink it and put new water in, mmm still salt. But more water, more water, it will go away after a while.” He smiled again. “But do not pour more salt into the cup.”
Huh. I got nervous then, feeling a little more vulnerable than I had planned to in the interview, quickly thanked him and left the sala. His message was clear; we cannot change the things we have done, nor can we escape their karmic repercussions. But we can eventually move on from them, so long as we learn from our mistakes and do not repeat them.
Filled with this new sentiment, that afternoon’s meditation was a little bit easier. I listened to the speakers, who constantly reminded us that a “cool, calm body,” and “cool, calm breath” were the fastest ways to a cool, calm mind. Mr. Supon was also frequently reminding us to look for our own Middle Ways–that we had to find the space that was not too tight, and not too loose in our practice. And that this space might be different for everyone.
On the morning of day 7, I happened to spy a caterpillar acting rather oddly. As it jerked its body around, I just knew it was going to cocoon. After that, I spent all of my walking meditations in the little sala waiting for it to happen. When I woke up on Day 8, my first instinct was to run and check it out. It had finally cocooned! I wondered how long the process to hatching was, and if I was going to get to see it.
People really seemed to get restless around day 9. Chatting could be heard throughout my dorm as people grew listless, and even Sally and I had been doing small bits of conversing when we were alone together. What started as casual check-ins and thumbs up around day 5 blew up into slightly more extended conversation as the days went on. We were so close to the finish line, and yet so, so far away. A board on the wall in the office indicated that 16 people had dropped out.
I’m not proud of this, but on Day 10, my friend Ghida (the coolest lady I’ve met lately, and a mother of three who was doing the retreat with her son) and I discussed leaving early–the 16 had jumped to 22, and we still had an entire day of meditation, wooden pillows, and 4 am wake-up ahead of us. We had gotten in early on the day before the first of the month, so technically we had already completed the 10 days… so what was left would just be extra, right?
We had a little crew on board–Ghida, her son, Sally, and I would leave just after lunch time–when we learned that there was no way we would make the last bus out. Our hopes of escape were dashed, and the evening would go on as planned.
And to be honest… Thank God it did. If I had missed that evening’s sharing session–the first time we would be allowed to address the group–I think I would have walked away from my vipassana experience with a much different attitude. As I listened to my peers discuss their similar trials and tribulations, I realized that we had all managed to become a community. We were all working towards the same goal, and that made it all feel really worth it.
The next morning when the gong rang, I got up and gathered my stuff, feeling restless, and anxious, and excited all at once. I packed, and threw out my trash–I’d gone through a stunning 3 bottles of Tiger Balm, 5 more of a generic brand, one bottle of Mosquito repellant, and 6 Mosquito Lotions. I checked on the cocoon, who was still exactly where he’d been since Day 8. I wished him good luck, unable to stop feeling like the fact that I didn’t get to see him emerge was a little symbolic.
I wish I’d had more time to get to know the amazing people I had spent the last 11 days with. I am proud to have been one of the 75 still remaining at the end, and grateful and humbled that our escape plan failed. I recognize that there is still a lot of room for improvement in my practice, but was still so proud. I could now cross off a major bucket-list item, completing a 10 day vipassana, and I left with an openness to perhaps try another, one day.
But now it was time to re-enter the real world. It was going to take a few days to process this…and what a better place to do so than at the absolutely peaceful, quiet, and relaxing island of Koh Phanang! (3) But that’s a story for next week.
1. This photo was taken by my friend Alex Lona Cohen. You can see the wooden pillow, and also the candle lantern we were each given. We also had mosquito nets and blankets, not pictured here.
2. Photo also by Alex Lona Cohen. We used buckets to bathe, and were not allowed to dip any body part into the center pools.
3. This is sarcasm.