One of the things that makes for an excellent travel buddy is shared interests and the ability to compromise- which is why my friend Lauren and I had a great itinerary in southeast Asia. Lauren wanted to try a yoga or meditation course. While I am no fan of either- I have a hard time with the relaxation part- I was open to them both for the cultural experience. When we found an overnight meditation retreat in Chiang Mai, offered through Monk Chat, we were both keen.
The cost was only 500 Baht and that included transportation, food, accommodation, and meditation. We also were required to wear all white, so we bought our outfits at the Monk Chat center. We took a tuk-tuk from our guesthouse to the Buddhist temple Wat Suandok where the Monk Chat office is located. After dropping our bags down and signing in we took a survey of the crowd. A Canadian girl who wouldn’t stop talking, an Australian business guy who quit his job to travel for a year, an American-British couple, and some other odds and ends. We were herded in to the classroom where we were greeted by two men: the monk that would lead the meditation part of our retreat and another guy who was the organizer/chaperon. After an overview of the basics of meditation and its goals, we piled into the back of a covered pickup truck and headed to the meditation center.
Once there, we were given the ‘rules’. No talking. Yeah, right, you shouldn’t talk when you meditate. Wait, no talking, period? That’s right, it’s a silent retreat, so we are not allowed to talk until lunch the following day. Luckily, Lauren and I were roommates. Since we’re friends and had spent a couple of months together it was fine, but I can imagine it would be awkward to share a room with someone you didn’t know and have to determine when to turn the lights off, etc. Plus, you’d be inclined to have a get-to-know-you chat but couldn’t. We got changed, and donning our all-white fashionable getup, we headed to lunch. Here, we had an introduction to chanting. We chanted in foreign words, but roughly translated, it said that we eat only for sustenance and not to enjoy it. Then, we chanted in English “Spreading Loving Kindness to All Living Beings.”
After lunch we started meditation. During the course of two days we did sitting, walking, and lying down meditation. I didn’t find sitting terribly uncomfortable but found it extremely difficult to stop thinking. The walking was the worst because the monk would chant “Left. Right. Left Right,” but the guy in front of me couldn’t follow these basic instructions so it was terribly distracting. Lying down was relaxing but I fell asleep both times I tried. One of the techniques I did find useful was how to push past pain. If we started to get uncomfortable, rather than moving to get rid of the pain, we were to chant “Pain, pain pain…” as a way to acknowledge the pain and move beyond it. I used the technique to fight the urge to itch several mosquito bites after the retreat. Overall, I found that focusing and turning off my thoughts was much more difficult than I thought it would be.
On the second day, after morning meditation and breakfast, we had a discussion session where we were finally allowed to talk. Our monk had been a monk for 9 years. That’s commitment! As a monk, he’s not allowed to eat after 12pm. I can’t believe he’s been able to do that for 9 years. Everyone asked lots of questions. I asked two: 1.) How long did he plan to be a monk for? and 2.) Why aren’t more Buddhists vegetarian if they don’t believe in killing any living thing? It was an interesting discussion. As for Lauren and I, we had differing views on the retreat but both enjoyed it. I didn’t mind not talking, yet Lauren found it really difficult. However, I found it difficult to meditate and focus my thoughts, while I believe she found it pretty easy. She liked the meditation part, and I just felt it wasn’t for me. While I do think I should focus my thoughts and let my mind rest more, essentially thinking about nothing was hard. She didn’t feel like the Buddhist aspect was for her, while that was right up my alley. I took a religious studies class a few years back in Hawaii and really came to identify with many Buddhist teachings.
All in all, we both found it to be a great experience and were glad we tried it (and glad that we only had to stay silent overnight as opposed to longer had we signed up for a week-long course). Meditation is a part of Thai and southeast Asian culture, and I think we would have been missing out if we had passed up on this great learning opportunity.
To view pictures from our Monk Chat Meditation Retreat click here. Lauren and I are on both ends of the second row. Monk Chat also offers free weekly discussions with monks to learn more about Buddhism.