I've just returned from 10 days in silence in a Buddhist monastery in the south of Thailand. Why? Good question!
I blame my friend Katriina. We used to work together in London and had previously discussed going on some sort of yoga retreat somewhere in the Med, but somehow never got round to it. Katriina has been in China teaching for the past year and now its the summer holidays, her husband was off on a lads holiday in New Zealand, so she asked me if I fancied meeting her in Thailand at a retreat she was interested in. I always felt like I had unfinished business with Thailand after spending some time backpacking there a few years ago, so I was in! So, she he sent me the link, and it was definitely not the luxury yoga / spa scenario I had in mind!
The International Dharma Hermitage of Wat Suan Mokkh is a specially built centre opposite the main monastery in Surat Thani, South East Thailand. They run a 10 day programme every month teaching Anapanasati - or mindfulness with breathing. There are pretty strict rules and not a huge amount of information on the website, but I was intrigued and up for the challenge! I was also keen to catch up with Katriina, plus a trip to Thailand, so we made arrangements and started researching!
We met in Bangkok on Thursday afternoon, and after a night in a hotel, catch ups and dinner, we flew to Surat Thani early on Friday morning (day zero!). The monastery is about 20 minutes from the airport, and the Dhamma Centre is a long hot walk down a sandy track - this was in July, in the hot, humid rainy season, carrying heavy backpacks!
We reached the centre and were met in the Dining Hall (the halls are all large open buildings), where we were given a copy of the conditions of the retreat to read before registering. These included -
Intend not to take away any breath (abstain from killing).
Intend not to take away what is not given (abstain from stealing).
Intend to keep one's mind and one's body free from any sexual activity.
Intend not to harm others by speech.
Intend not to harm one's consciousness with substances that intoxicate and lead to carelessness (no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking etc).
Intend not to eat between after noon and before dawn.
Intend not to dance, sing, play or listen to music, watch shows, wear garlands, ornaments and beautify oneself with perfumes and cosmetics.
Intend not to sleep or sit on luxurious beds and seats.
We'd read all of this on the website, so we signed up and paid our 2000BHT - about £50. We were given a key to our rooms, which were sparsely decorated with a concrete bed and a wooden pillow, mosquito net and lantern, unpacked, and then decided to check out the natural hot springs. There are two on the grounds, one for the men and one for the ladies. We were given sarongs to wear in the hot springs and to wash with. It was nice to have a chat with some of the other girls and find out the different reasons that people were there. It was nice to feel like we knew each other a little bit before starting the silence, and felt like we weren't such strangers.
Lunch was at 12.30. We all served ourselves - yummy veg curry. Most of the food served was vegan, and everything was vegetarian. In the afternoon we were given a tour of the boundaries and had the schedule explained.
At 6pm we were served tea (herbal tea for the vegans and hot chocolate for everyone else) and the silence officially started on day zero at 7pm. At 7.30 we had our first meditation session in Hall 5, where we got ourselves a mat, cushions and a stool, and a stool and found a place. This was to be our place for the next 10 days. We had a 30 minute seated meditation, a 30 minute walking meditation (where one of the monks led the group, and we all had to follow, 1 person at a time, 1.5 metres behind the person in front. The monk would change pace and stop occasionally. The idea is to practice mindfulness and to pay attention whilst walking). This was 8pm, and it was pitch black, and we were barefoot - you are encouraged to be barefoot as much as possible, which I did constantly from about d