Sunday, 12 August 2012

"Finding Myself" aka The Longest 10 Days Of My Life

Where to begin with this post?? I have just finished the meditation retreat at Suan Mokkh monastery and I can honestly say that it has been the most difficult, most interesting, strangest ten ( well, twelve really) day experience. When I told everyone I was doing this before I left the UK people asked me WHY?? And to be perfectly honest I don't really have a great answer to that - I just thought it looked like an interesting thing to do - something to make my travelling experience a bit different to all the other hundreds of people that come to Thailand just to party and lie on the beach (which obviously is great and I have been doing a lot too!). I've always been interested in Buddhism since learning about it in school - particularly the notion of impermanence and living in the moment (which inspired my tattoo) and the fact that it is the only religion to my limited knowledge that bases itself on nature and 'science' rather than blind faith and that there is no deity or creator that they worship (Buddha is not a God he was the first 'truly enlightened' human being) . So I thought the opportunity to learn more about the whole thing would be brilliant.

I left Koh Pagnan and headed to Suan Mokkh on the 30th where I stayed the night at the main monastery before getting a lift over the road to the retreat centre on the 31st to register for the retreat. I had to have an interview with a nun before being shown my room and had to read a booklet making sure I understood what I was letting myself in for, i.e. the sleeping conditions and strict schedule and rules. Everybody I met seemed to be much more experienced than me having been to retreats before and being meditators for years. I didn't really know what to expect but signed up and headed off to my room. The girls dormitory (men and women were segregated for the entire retreat) consisted of rows of rooms around a courtyard and shared toilet block and baths. In my room/cell there was a concrete bed and wooden mat and wooden pillow, one blanket and a mosquito net and that was it! I also actually found some foam padding in the store room which I grabbed quickly so that made it a bit better (I think it was meant for people with back problems but oh well...).

My bed. I'm actually standing right in the corner of the room to take this, that's how small  it is.

This is where we had to wash!

The female dorms

The schedule every day started when we were woken up by the gong at 4am  and had to be in the meditation hall at 4:30 for the morning reading. We then did an hour and a half of yoga. The rest of the day was a mixture of sitting meditation (basically sitting cross legged on the floor not moving and listening to your breath), walking meditation (walking VERY slowly up and down thinking only of the feeling of your feet on the ground), dhamma talks given by the monks and nuns explaining the fundamentals of Buddhism to us and an hour of chanting in the evenings and loving kindness meditation (which is just what it says really - you have to imagine different people and spread goodwill to them). We also got three breaks during the day where we were given breakfast, lunch and a cup of hot chocolate. Throughout this we had to be completely silent and try to empty our minds of any thoughts whatsoever other than what was going on right in that moment. We were not allowed to communicate at all and this included reading and writing, however, I couldn't face this and started writing a diary on the evening of Day 1 which started as just notes on the lectures but ended up being pages and pages of my thoughts each day. In fact I'm really glad I did as reading it back makes me realise just how I was feeling at the time and how proud I am of getting through the whole 10 days. I'm going to type it (most anyway, I'll leave out the really personal stuff) out for you as even though its really long it's probably the best way for me to show you what it was actually like. Just want to say though that this is obviously just my take on the whole thing/ Buddhism - and I'm not an authority on the subject so don't want to offend anybody/look like I'm slagging it off at all.


Day 1
Teachings so far:
1. Impermanence
2. Attachment = Suffering
3. Loving Kindness
4. There is no 'self' (not too sure about this? How are we meant to disregard our identities?

Everyone looks like zombies. I feel bored and tired but OK. Can't resist writing this as I would go insane otherwise.

Day 2
Well I had a bad moment earlier where I burst into tears at breakfast. Nobody else seems to be down? I'm just so tired and hungry. I can't even eat what I'm given beacuse it tastes disgusting. Feel a bit more positive now. I still can't meditate but feeling like I can stick it out.

The day got better, although STILL not over. Have enjoyed the lectures, the monks are very interesting but there is a lot of contradiction and things I disagree with. I didn't think it'd be like this. I don't want to give up my sense of 'self'. Still can't meditate - have tried and tried and failed and failed. The English monk says it took him ten years to meditate properly so what's the point of me even trying? Feel like I am in a prison/mental hospital. The group walking meditation sessions looks like prisoners excercising and the individual group walking looks like something from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Nobody else seems to find it funny but I can't help laughing.

Day 3
Have resigned myself to the fact that I'm never going to be able to meditate. You can sign up for personal interviews with the monks or nuns if you are having mediation problems but I don't know if I want to. The more I hear about getting rid of the sense of 'me' the more I feel like they wnat to give me a lobotomy. Am pretty annoyed today - I'm disagreeing with pretty much everything I hear to be honest. Everyone looks like emotionless zombies - how can this be 'happiness' that they keep telling us. Fell like I'm part of some dystopian novel about a weird commune where nobody is allowed to be individual. I hate the conformity and the segregation and the SILENCE. I want to scream.

Wish I koew what everybody else was thinking. AM I THE ONLY ONE? Have noticed that the Swedish girl and another older lady have disappered, have they left? Maybe I should leave. Another thing, what kind of shop claiming to sell essential toiletries does not stock deodrant or moisturiser? I can't live like this its ridiculous!

This afternoon was a lot better. I actually managed to sort of meditate for 45 minutes. I need to realise that every day I seem to go through upset-angry-OK stages and that the afternoons are generally better. I try to think of it as a school day with each session as a lesson. Home time (bed) soon!

Day 4
Feeling a lot better today. I didn't cry at breakfast this morning - yay. Also quite enjoyed yoga. I feel less tired and more flexible. Breakfast was still a disgusting gloop. I've done something bad though - I listened to a song on my mp3 player. To be honest - I don't care! All these rules are stupid. As they say in Buddhism life is short death is long so why are they so against enjoying themselves?! It seems such a strange ideology, I didn't realise how depressing a religion Buddhism really was. I know life has its ups and downs but I'd rather experience all that emotion than none at all which is what they seem to think is enlightenment or true happiness. Surely eating, drinking, reading, writing, singing, dancing, listening to music etc etc  are the things that makes life worth living - if it's all out there for you to enjoy why voluntarily make yourself miserable?? I'm sure these 10 days will be good for me to appreciate that you can survive on the bare basics/without all the material stuff but if you don't have to live like this then why would you ever choose to?

Things got worse. I burst into tears during my morning meditation session. Was thinking about life and wanting to acheive something and not knowing what to do. Heavy stuff... I thought coming here would give me some sort of clear idea about things but its messing up my head. 

The talks still confuse me and I have loads of questions - I wish we were allowed to ask them out loud! The 'enlightened state' everyone is meant to be striving for sounds terrible to be perfectly honest - no emotions, no enjoyment, no attachment. If that it what they aspire to I'm not sure I want to meditate at all. I can't do it anyway!

It's the Full Moon party tonight, wish I was there.

Day 5:
After today I will be half way through and then it's just a straight Monday - Friday working week to go I CAN DO THIS! Also had a good morning. Enjoyed yoga and feel like I'm getting better, There were noodles at breakfast so didn't have to eat slop YAY!! I need to point out after so many depressed diary entries how its not all bad here. I'm getting an hour and a half yoga lesson each morning (10 days worth at the Spa at Beckenham would be what 50 quid?) plus a roof over my head and being fed for ten days. It's not like anything I have to do here is horrible or unpleasant. It is boring and uncomfortable but that can be dealt with. All the staff really do want to help you and are so nice. The scenery/nature should be appreciated, the sunrises are so pretty and when else have I ever got to see that at 5:30am?? At night there are so many stars, I've literally never seen so many - hundreds and hundreds. Makes you feel very insignificant and humble that each one is an entire solar system. Don't want to jinx it but I feel like today is going to be positive.

Well.. it wasn't. Need to stop guessing like that, my moods are so volatile in this place I feel like I have bipolar. They changed the schedule today so that instead of one of the talks we have an extra hour of meditation practice. Then one of the monks made a joke about how Buddhism is so depressing and that nobody has killed themselves yet at one of these retreats but theres always a first time. Then I went to a personal interview with the nun and instead of asking any useful questions I just blurted out "I can't do it" and burst into noisy sobs. That's the fourth time I've cried in public now it's so embarrassing. Want to leave. Know I shouldn't. Tomorrow will be better - 50% down.

Day 6:
Today - this morning - was the worst yet. Was so physically and mentally exhausted when I got out of bed. So tired and cold and hungry. Just couldn't do yoga so I lay on my mat and cried into my hoody for an hour and a half, probably the lowest point to date. Surely this is the worst it can get? I just can't stop crying I'm on the verge of tears constantly, I'm an emotional wreck. Skipped my chore this morning for an extra hours sleep which made me feel better but now I'm feeling guilty/paranoid that the others are annoyed at me for skipping it. Really want a cup of tea. I feel like I'm going mad.

Day got a bit better apart from being EXHAUSTED. I couldn't even summon up enough energy for chanting so I just sat slumped up against a pillar. But worst of all at tea time there was no hot chocolate! The one and only thing I have to look forward to. It was some disgusting cough mixture tasting liquid instead. It's like they enjoy playing mind games with us. Why change it after 5 days?? You can't rely on anything here. Maybe that's why they are doing it to teach us 'impermanence' haha. I dread to think what the schedule for days 9 and 10 will be as they are keeping it under wraps for now. Help me. 

Day 7
Today was much better again. I manged to do the whole yoga routine for the first time. Avoided the slop for breakfast and just had biscuits. Still hungry.

Still going well so far (I'm measuring this on the fact that I haven't cried yet). Actually meditated for about 20 minutes. Apart from this I am seriously bored. Remember when Vanessa Feltz went mad in the Celebrity Big Brother house? I know how she felt. Have been writing phrases in the sand next to my meditation cushion each day. Today's was "bored". Yesterday's was "Help me". The day before was "I am me". I'm actually going mad aren't I? I'm so bored I've actually been reciting times tables in my head which is completely ridiculous as I hate maths. Also planning trips in my head, have decided I want to visit China, Japan, Brazil, Peru, Mexico and the US and also maybe inter-rail around Europe. Yeah I know, I will have to win the lottery first right? Off to do laundry now, about the most exciting thing that has happened all week.

Wow I've made it through the day without crying! Done a lot of thinking today (precisely what you're NOT meant to do in this place haha). Everybody here goes on about being selfless but I've realised that that is completely impossible. Even becoming a monk/nun surely that's ultimately selfish - you are stepping out of society to pursue your own spiritual development. Some people say they find purpose and selflessness in life when they have children and I obviously can't comment from experience but if you are planning on having a child it's something you want for yourself - the child didn't ask to be born. I'm not saying this is a bad thing at all. I'm saying there's no way you can get away from being selfish and the point is you shouldn't try. After all it's your own life so as long as you are not hurting anybody else there is no reason why you shouldn't pursue what you believe will make you happy. The problem is I don't know what I want, and we all have to earn a living we can't just swan off into the sunset to have a good time. But then that's a different story. Anyway, enough of my philosophical ramblings for tonight.

Day 8
This morning was OK. I enjoyed yoga. Still feeling exhausted and also VERY hungry. There were slabs of cake at breakfast so I excitedly took 3 only to realise they were actually slabs of congealed jelly with bits in and a salty taste. Managed to force one down but threw away the rest. Have been fantasising about pizza during meditation. Apparently we only get one meal tomorrow but they still haven't posted the full schedule.

Oh my God I want to go home. They've posted the whole schedule for day 9. Basically everything that I used to look forward to to get me through the day has been cancelled. No talks, no chanting, no loving kindness meditation, not even any group walk in the evening. Its pretty much back-to-back meditation practice. One session goes on for 3 HOURS! I'm going to be so bored. Thank God they haven't taken away yoga, at least thats something. Oh, and yes we only get one meal (at 8:30am) I hope its not just the normal slop. I'm just going to have to force myself to eat it. I'm dreading this. Everyone seemed to be struggling today and I was the most tired and hungry I've been so far. How are we going to cope tomorrow? They didn't advertise this! I honestly don't know if I can do it. The end was in sight and now they have sprung this on us like they want to make things as difficult as possible. I can't leave on the 9th day though can I that would be silly. I'm just going to have to do it.

Day 9
Breakfast (or whatever you call your ONE meal of the day) was a joke. Piled my plate high with what looked like vegetable noodles. Turned out they were crunchy things that were so spicy I couldn't eat them. Also had a dish of some warm sweet stuff with the consistency of frogspawn. I really really tried to eat lots but I physically couldn't. This was the worst meal yet. Typical that its on the day where its all we get. There weren't even any fruit or biscuits to stock up on. Going to be so hungry later. And so bored. The retreat co-ordinator said this morning that they "weren't trying to torture us", well they are doing a pretty good job of it so far. Really don't want to cry today. Going to have a nap.

Was pleasantly surprised - we did actually get some sort of soup thing at lunch. Wasn't nice but I had a cup. This morning hasn't been TOO bad. I've now walked around the entire boundary of the centre, right up until the barbed wire fencing (it really is a prison!). I've been thinking a lot of home. Weirdly, images of random places keep popping into my head like Loughborough Sainsburys or Elmers End roundabout or a road in Camborne. Also keep thinking of London and the Olympics. I don't think I'm homesick and I'm sure I'll be fine when I get out it's just my mind clinging to memories of anywhere but this place! Also done a lot more thinking about my life plan/career and basically come to the conclusion that I shouldn't be thinking about it at all haha. Nobody really knows what will happen in their life do they, so all you can do is wait to see what happens and try to enjoy things while they last. If I'm going to be taking anything from Buddhism its this living in the moment idea, which is lucky as its tattooed on me!

I was going to skip the next session but have decided just to go for it. I signed up for this, better take my own advice and 'appreciate' it while it lasts. I know its difficult but thats probably more of a reason to do it. Doing difficult things is good for you.

So today hasn't been that bad at all. Much much much better than expected and on the scale of the past 9 days in fact it was a good day. I'm so proud of myself for doing this. Last day tomorrow! And the schedule looks OK, we get 2 meals at least. Feeling very positive now. I am glad I did this (well I'm glad I stuck it through) as its such an extreme thing to do and although its not been enjoyable its made me learn a lot. Very excited for a hot shower though when this is done ... ONE MORE DAY!

Day 10
Yes! I have made it to the last day. I feel a bit weird about this. I'm releived of course but I've spent so much time here. It's a bit like leaving school - excited but feeling nervous to go out into the big wide world. It's like I've become institutionalised here - it's stability, it's safety. It really is calm and peaceful here. This morning all the stars were out and the moon was so bright. And the sunrise was amazing - red then orange then yellow then blue. I stopped yoga for ages just to stare at it. Spending your mornings doing yoga at 5:30am while the sun rises over the pond and bats fly over your head is certainly an incerdible experience I won't forget. There are so many butterflies and exotic birds and flowers around too. This has actually made me appreciate nature a lot. I'm not soo completely against the idea of camping and the great outdoors any more haha.

Tonight is a 2 hour 'insight sharing' session and I really don't want to go. Everyone will be talking about their "spiritual awakenings" etc won't they and what am I going to do? I can't exactly stand up and say "Well this has been the worst 10 days of my life and I don't believe in anything you've taught us" ?? I've decided to go though as apparently sharing is optional and I guess it'll be good to see what other people think of it all. Bad news however. This afternoon is a 2 hour session called 'working is dhamma' which we've just been told consists of us shovelling sand around. Are they having a laugh?! I'm completely exhausted and they've created manual labour for us to do in the boiling hot sun. It's an effort for me just to stand upright!. Scrap what I said earlier I can't wait to leave this place now.

So that was hard work!! They made us use these metal hoe things to break up rock and sand and spread it over the grass in the sweltering heat for an hour. I think we bonded as a group though and the silence rule practically went out the window. It's strange how without speaking for the whole time we've been here you can make friends with people. Was also really funny as the woman who sort of looks after our dorm, Pam, was like "try not to get dirty, do it slowly, remember we are still ladies". HAHA is she serious?

So tonight is the last night in my cell. I've become quite attached to it in a way (yes, I know I'm a terrible Buddhist) it's the longest place I've spent sleeping in since I've been in Thailand. But onwards and upwards!. This was a very intersting experience to say the least and I suppose it has been worthwhile in that it has taught me a lot.
1. I appreciate nature a lot more
2. I can be patient and has taught me endurance
3. Suffering is not permanent and to just get on with things
4. The most difficult things are the most rewarding
5. I've learned to like myself a lot more and be proud of my acheivements
6. Material things are not really neccessary in life (although obviously they can make it a lot better! Don't worry I havn't had a personality transplant, still going to go shopping).
More philosophically/spiritually I've learned that Buddhism is not for me. At least I've tried it and rejected it from an educated standpoint. To be honest I don't think any religion is for me. All this time being here and I've had no amazing spiritual awakenings or enlightening experiences. I havn't figured out the meaning of life. But I'm OK with that. My main conclusion after all this - life is uncertain, just don't worry about things and enjoy yourself. I guess it's not particularly profound but there you go.


And that's it really. Not much more to add apart from the fact that I am now in a really nice hotel for 2 nights and don't think I've ever been so excited to see a bed. Jumped up and down on it for ages then had a bubble bath and sang out loud to my mp3 player, hope I didn't disturb anyone. Then I ate chocolate and crisps and watched the Olympics on ESPN - feel like I'm in heaven. Forget Nibbana - this is true happiness!!!

Luxury at last!

Lots of love xxxx



  1. WOW - what an experience, and one that I certainly could not have coped with. Well done for sticking it out, as I know that lots of people that joined with you gave up . Glad I spoke to you before reading it though, knowing that you are now enjoying the luxury of the hotel before moving on to your 2 weeks voluntary work in the orphanage.Lots of love, looking forward to our next Skype chat. Mum xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  2. Jemma!! Well done you for sticking it out and taking some really good lessons from it :) i didn't think i'd ever see you saying that you got up at 4am or whatever crazy time AND you like nature now!! I'm taking you camping in lovely yorkshire sometime ;) hope you're having an amazing time in the luxury of a hotel now :) miss you x

  3. Sounds like Business Wire...