It’s been exactly one month since I hit the road and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. I’m travelling in a relaxed, slow pace: I’m going to spend two months just in southern Thailand and around Bangkok. As I’m not in a hurry, I don’t need to cram-pack the day with activities which allows me plenty of time for the morning yoga and meditation. Most of the accommodation here have a verandah or a balcony- an ideal spot for the morning practice. Doing yoga on the beach might look good on the photos but it simply isn’t practical.
One of the things I was really looking forward to do was a meditation retreat. After all, Thailand is predominantly a Theravada Buddhist country where the Vipassana meditation tradition (which is the meditation style I practice) was preserved in its pure form. So far, I have participated in a couple of very tough and intense Vipassana meditation retreats taught in Goenka-ji method. When I was searching for meditation retreats ran by Buddhist monasteries, I was surprised to discover that their itineraries are much more relaxed. I enrolled for a 7-day Anapanasati meditation retreat on Koh Samui, an island on Thailand’s east coast. The Dipabhavan centre was located far up in the mountains, deep in the jungle, far away from the hustle and bustle of this very touristy island. The centre was an offshoot of the Suan Mokh monastery and was representing the tradition of Buddhadasa Bhikku -an innovative re-interpreter of Buddhist doctrine and Thai beliefs. A nun Benjawan Wongshookaew- or simply Ben -was our amazing teacher. This retreat was very special for me because for the first time my husband enrolled as well.
There were 45 people in our group, predominantly women. The participants’ age ranged between 17 and 77 but the vast majority was in their early 20s (which is unsurprising, considering this is an average backpacker’s age). To my utter amazement, most of the people have never even meditated before. Luckily for them, the retreat was designed specifically for foreigners and meditation newbies. I liked the fact it was taught in a non-sectarian way. There wasn’t even a slightest hint about embracing Buddhism at any point. We were only taught the basic meditation technique: anapanasati, or breath awareness.
The Dipabhavan meditation centre was a huge area covered with lush tropical forest. The girls were sleeping in a 2-storeyed dorm which could accommodate around 100 people. Each bed had a mosquito net (mine with 3 holes in it), a thin straw mat, a blanket and a wooden headrest (I wouldn’t call it a pillow). This level of simplicity stemmed from one of the 8 precepts that all meditators had to follow, namely: ‘I will not sleep on luxurious beds’. I must say sleeping directly on the plywood was the hardest part of the course for me. I kept on waking up with my arms getting numb. Apparently snoring was a big issue in a male dorm, (along with a visiting snake). As I mentioned before we really were in a jungle and there were plenty of creatures which could scare faint-hearted, including giant lizards, snakes, big spiders, centipedes, bats and more. Personally, I found it fascinating rather than scary and freaked out slightly only when a gecko started climbing my leg during my individual yoga practice. By far the most troublesome creatures were the mosquitos. As a the first precept forbids to take away ANY life and insect repellents didn’t seem to be 100% effective, I had to endure the bites with equanimity.
My favourite building was the meditation hall with its Asian style bell, hammered continuously a couple of times a day to summon us. The bell was made of the recycled, undetonated bomb from the Vietnam war. Very symbolic. The hall was the only building at the premises equipped with fans which made it all the more attractive in the 32-degrees hot, humid weather. The view from the meditation hall at the forest-clad mountains and at the beach and sea far below was spectacular.
I just loved the program which seemed like holidays compared to Vipassana by Goenka-ji. Yes, we still had to wake up at 4.30am but the meditation sessions were just 30 minutes long and there were only 6 seated sessions a day. The rest of the program was divided between walking meditation, chanting and dharma talks. There was also plenty of free time after each meal and a bit of karma yoga (selfless service in the form of cleaning common areas). This versatile program eliminated the anticipated physical pain involved with hours of sitting in a meditation pose. Of course, it was quite challenging for the newbies – in fact 5 people dropped out- but for me the whole retreat was simply delightful.
Ben was giving us much freedom of where, how long and how (sitting, walking or standing) would we like to meditate and I highly appreciated her flexibility. I enjoyed formal walking meditation which I’ve never done before. I believe one cannot truly meditate when moving, though, even in a snail pace and with gaze fixed in one point. I treated walking meditation as a welcome and mindful break between seated sessions. We were also allowed to meditate longer than half an hour at a stretch which meant on good days I could still go deep into meditation.
Before the start of the course I anticipated that one of the highlights would be 1 hour long morning yoga. I was very excited about the opportunity to finally take some classes. Alas, it wasn’t my fate. Ben asked us on the first day if one of many yoga teachers enrolled for the course would like to volunteer to teach. As I haven’t seen any hands raised, I took a challenge. I had to teach silent yoga to a group consisting in 80% of young, flexible and seasoned yoga practitioners and in 20% of mostly middle aged men who have never done yoga. I was glad for my previous experience with teaching silent yin yoga- it helped me a lot and gave me confidence that teaching with no verbal instructions (just a bit of sign language) was possible. As I was teaching using demonstration, I didn’t miss out on my own practice either.
The atmosphere during the whole retreat was quite light and friendly. Yes, we had to take vows of silence and follow 8 moral precepts but people were not afraid to smile and look at each others faces which was not what I was used to. The teacher smiled and joked a lot, too, entertaining us with her real life stories. The separation of men and women wasn’t complete either. Although we had separate dorms and seats at the dining and meditation hall we could still mingle during tea time and in the meditation hall during breaks as well as at the compound during our free time. That actually was a bit problematic for me, since I kept on bumping into my husband who was inevitably distracting me.
We spent the last evening sharing the experiences and explaining what brought us to this place. It was actually very interesting and touching to hear and proved that meditation is for everyone. That night, we heard a story of a drug dealer who wanted to break with his criminal past and start his life anew, a middle aged men who spent his entire life in aggressive and competitive finance sector and was craving for a spiritual experience, a girl who was hoping to gain some mental strength to care for her ailing father and another young girl who was only recovering from depression.
I was really proud of my husband who actually did very well and seemed to enjoy the retreat. In the immediate after-effect of the retreat, we meditated side by side 30 minutes a day but his enthusiasm lasted only for a week. Not bad for a starter.
As you can imagine, I did much more than yoga in the past month. I learned diving and was extremely lucky to snorkel with a whale shark and green turtles on Ko Tao. I also did some hiking on Ko Tao, swam through a cave to get to a hidden lagoon on Ko Mook, did some kayaking in the mangrove forests of Ko Lanta and plenty of other exciting and new things which I can’t recall right now. Fortunately, South East Asia is vegan-friendly, in a sense that almost all of the dishes can be ‘veganised’ on request and tofu is widely available. In a word, I’m in a paradise. I’ll be staying in Thailand till mid- June and then moving to Cambodia where new yoga challenges await me.