My experience at Suan Mokkh, or also reffered to as; the mosquito farm, Russian prison for the mind and clinic for depressed people. I’ve been thinking for about 12 days and 10 hours what’s going to be the best way to write this blog, and came to the conclusion that little chapters is probably going to be the easiest. At no point in this story I’m trying to offend anyone, any religion or any believe at all. I’m just trying to give my true and honest opinion on my experience. Not mine, not yours.
If you would like to ensure yourself of a spot in the retreat and don’t feel like rushing yourself to the middle of nowhere early morning on registration day, Suan Mokkh offers you a place to stay for free the day before registration day. This is great as it really gives you a feel what it will all be like and if you’ll be able to stay her for 12(!) nights. You can either stay at the Monastery 2 kilometres from the Wat, or stay at the Wat itself already where you have to register yourself. I chose the latter, as I’d be where I’d have to register right away. Luxury-wise it apparently didn’t make any difference.
You can register yourself for the retreat at the last day of the month, from 7am until 3pm, with the rule; first registered is in and full is full. No reservations allowed. You have to go through a short personal interview with one of the teachers to see if this is really something for you and you have to pay a 2000Baht fee. I got to the dining room at about 7:10am when there were already heaps of people reading the instruction brochure and rules, having interviews and signing up. It was getting super real for me at this point. I could hardly concentrate while reading all of the information, but luckily, as Dutch as I am, had read all the rules already once before.
The room you get given, also called kuti’s, are little single rooms with a raised cement ‘bed’ with bamboo mat, wooden pillow, mosquito net and thin blanket. No luxury, no comfort and more basic than basic can be. The first night sleeping in this bed was horrible. I woke up at least every 10 minutes and could barely sit or lay down the next day. My hipbones and bottom back bones all hurt so incredibly much. The worst thing about the wooden pillow was that my hair got stuck underneath it and when I would turn around at night, I’d be pulling my own hair which would (of course) wake me up. This was an easy fix though by putting a pillow cover over the wooden pillow. I also had to fold up my super thin sleeping bag and put this underneath my hips. It didn’t help much, but just enough so the pain only made me wake up about 5 times a night.
Also, the room has got art-like holes in the top half meter to let in air, light, animals and insects. Hiding in my little insect-free castle felt like heaven. And then there were the hot springs. Not in the rooms, but still, included in the accomodation. Right in the middle of nature. We could take a dip every morning and evening if we wanted to. The water was, I guess, about 40 degrees, really nice and warm and made all your muscles relax and the worries flow out of your mind.
The nuns, monks, laypeople, garden and kitchenstaff were all beautiful, honest, calm, peaceful and super kind people. I have not seen them grumpy, angry or annoyed once. They were always happy to help, obviously putting others before themselves, were very wise and a great support if you needed this. They would always smile back at you and were very understanding to each and everyones situation. This was one of the things I had not expected at all. When I read all the information on the website, it all sounded super strict and like you were really going to be there by yourself for 10 days. Like you could not talk to them, express your feelings and definitely not like they were going to give you some support or try to help you. Don’t get me wrong, it was way better this way. When I really wasn’t feeling well on the 7th day and sat down in the dining hall for a cup of hot tea while we actually had to practise walking meditation, Khun Ben (the lady I had my personal interview with on day 6) walked up to me and asked me if I was okay. I explained what I felt like, she asked me some questions to understand the situation better and then gave me the advice to indeed drink some hot tea and if I needed to have a rest in my dorm. Not at all trying to drill me to get back up and start my walking meditation.
The fellow retreat people were a bit different. Some of them were just that little bit odd that would make them stand out in a crowd, others were completely ‘normal’ and bubbly. We started with a group of 76 people, of which 44 girls and I think we finished off with about 65 people all together. I haven’t met many of the guys, but they seemed to be all a bit older while the girls were mostly very young. There was a huge difference between all the people, how serious everyone was and how well everyone managed. There was a group of about 5 younger girls that kinda clung together and didn’t take it all too serious. They were chatting quite often, got told off quite often, but didn’t really care much at all. A lot of the younger people were skipping sessions as well towards the end of the retreat, but most people were really serious and really kept on trying their hardest which was nice to see. There were also some selfish people that really didn’t get it, especially in taking food and sharing. And there were also people that, I think, had some kind of magical powers as I saw a guy every morning on the little bridge of the pond doing his magical yoga, as in; shaking his whole body as if there was some kind of demon about to escape, and I also saw a girl hugging a tree another time.
The schedule was super tough. This was something I had not quite expected. I knew the schedule, but I had not realised how hard (physical as well as mental) the meditating was going to be and how tired I was going to be. You can see the schedule from day 1 to 8 beneath this chapter. The extra activities were by far my highlight of the day. Yoga was definitely the best part of the day for my body, but unfortunately I was always ridiculously hungry and tired at this time. Chanting and Loving and Kindness was another great part of the day. The lyrics during chanting got explained very well to us in a funny, relaxed way with some great examples. Loving and kindness made us all forgive and love ourselves and others a bit more.
Day 9 was absolutely crazy. I’m not surprised they don’t put the schedule for day 9 or 10 on the website. On day 9 we tried to live as monks for a day. Which meant, only one meal at 8.30am and no activities all day. After every break we were free to do any kind of meditation on any spot within the boundaries for 2 to 3,5 hours, according to the schedule. This was actually a lot better then I thought it would be, but to motivate yourself for 3 hours to meditate by yourself is very hard. Day 10 was a lot more relaxed and didn’t really feel like a retreat day for me anymore. We had to do working meditation in the afternoon, which meant fieldwork. Scooping sand from a pile and spreading it over the grass to protect it from floods. In the evening we had ‘Sharing’, where everyone could get on stage and share their experience for a maximum of 3 minutes which was very eye-opening. It made us all realise that everyone had been struggling and didn’t do as well as they looked like they did. It turned out everyone had been feeling pretty much the same. A lot of people didn’t get the meditating quite well (especially the beginners) and all the talks were super inspiring. This was definitely a good way to end this retreat.
04.00 *** Wake up *** = Monastery bell
04.30 Morning Reading & Sitting meditation
05.15 Yoga / Exercise – Mindfulness in motion
07.00 *** Sitting meditation
08.00 Breakfast & Chores & Hot springs
10.00 *** Dhamma talk (CD) & Sitting Meditation
11.00 Walking or standing meditation
11.45 *** Sitting meditation
12.30 Lunch & Chores
14.30 *** Dhamma talk (CD) & Sitting meditation
15.30 Walking or standing meditation
16.15 *** Sitting meditation
17.00 *** Chanting & Loving Kindness
18.00 Tea & Hot springs
19.30 *** Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30 *** Sitting meditation
21.00 Bedtime (the gates will be closed at 21.15)
21.30 LIGHTS OUT
From day 3 until day 6 you could sign up for a 15 minute personal interview with one of the five teachers. You could ask questions about meditating in this interview and tell them where you got stuck. On day 4 I had my interview with the monk that also did the chanting sessions. He always seemed to be super relaxed and funny, not too serious about it all. I was totally wrong here. I came to him with serious doubts and did not get the understanding, support or explanation I was looking for at all. He didn’t even look at me while talking to me, which might have been a monk-women thing and the interview only made me more confused in the end. On day 6 I had another interview with the lady that did the loving and kindness sessions. I prepared myself a bit better for this interview, wrote all my questions and doubts down and this interview was exactly what I needed. She understood me very well and answered my questions in a way that made me realise a lot about Buddhism and meditating.
The man and woman were separated as much as possible during the whole retreat, basically everywhere the man sat on the left and the women on the right side of the hall. The man slept in a dorm about 300 metres further and had a different hot spring then the girls. I found this a very weird and different way of living. One of the rules of the training was that there was no sexual contact allowed, which is fine and understandable, but to seperate us this much made it all feel weird. Like it was ‘forbidden’ to even look at them.
Meditation and Mindfulness
We had to be mindful every second of the day and had to practise Anapanasati in the meditation sessions. Anapanasati is mindfulness with breathing. You have to concentrate on your breath, what this does to your body and nothing else. Every thought that comes up in your mind you have to push away. You can probably understand how hard this is, especially as a beginner, if your whole body hurts and you’re super tired and hungry most of the day. In the beginning I concentrating on my breathing even made me feel sick and dizzy. When I explained my problem to one of the teachers, she told me I was probably trying way to hard, do it perfect straight away and should try to relax a bit more. That does not sound like me at all!
I have to admit, I fell asleep a lot of times during meditation, especially in the mornings and just gave up on fighting my sleep a couple of times as well. It’s also crazy sometimes what kind of thoughts come up in your mind during meditation. It’s like your mind really doesn’t want you to meditate and tries everything to keep you from doing it. I started dreaming at some point, but wasn’t asleep and those dreams felt more like horrible memories, super real, that have never happened before. So I end up sitting there convincing myself this all isn’t true, which is not meditating anymore and exactly what I’m not supoosed to do. I also found it very hard to be mindful all the time. I realised that travelling, seeing new places, experiencing something new every day and not knowing what is yet to come makes me very mindful all day, but being in one place knowing what I’ll be doing makes me do everything like a machine with my mind wandering of at least 10 times a minute. I really want to work on this, as I think this has a lot to do with why travelling makes me so happy and settling down somewhere makes me feel super bored and not enjoy the little things.
The two meals we got every day were very basic Thai-style meals. Let’s say the cook knew about 10 different recipes. We always got rice soup with breakfast and rice with lunch as our main part of the meal, with 2 other dishes with lots of tofu and some vegetables and always some fruit as well. It really makes a lot of sense when you realise they’ve got to cook for 80 people. Despite the taste and variety of the meals, I have to say that everyone still ate like it was all you can eat sushi (except for Eva, she doesn’t like sushi), as we only got 2 meals a day and had to wait for 19 hours after lunch until our next meal. The tea we got every evening was also very Thai Style, with lots of milk and sugar. There was usually a second option without sugar and without milk, but this was usually cold and had very distinct tastes.
In the beginning it felt like everyone was doing everything by himself. I usually love walking around smiling to people, getting smiles back and make myself feel a bit better this way. But this was not really possible for the first 5 days. Most people were looking down, didn’t even notice you or just didn’t smile back. It’s understandable, as everyone is having a hard time and not everyone feels like smiling, no hard feelings at all, it just felt a bit depressing. Towards the last few days we all became more of a team. Especially the last day during the ‘working meditation’, we all worked together quiet in peace, trying to finish the job as good and quick as possible.
Insects and Animals`
Yep, there were a lot of insects. And animals. It was right in the nature, with the Buddhism idea that every living being has the right to live and mosquitos are great ‘teachers’. My 80% deet cream worked quite well, but I still got bitten heaps, it is ridiculous how many mosquitos there were. There’s also a lot of ants, frogs, flies, grasshoppers and heaps of little things I’ve never seen before. I think I’ve got a new favourite animal though, the flashing fly. It’s a little bit bigger than a normal fly and flashes light for some reason. I don’t think it bites and they are just magical to watch, especially when they’re in a group together. The other really cool animal over there is the ‘Doo-kah’. This is a komotodragon-like animal that is called Doo-kah in Thai, as that’s the sound it makes constantly. They’re massive, and super cool to watch. On day 9, I’ve watched one swimming in the pond, catching a fish and eating it, including bones and head for about 1,5 hour. It was like watching a real life Doo-kah documentary. Some Dhamma entertainment for me.
We had Dhamma talks twice a day. Dhamma can be translated as the law of nature or duty and is the main ‘believe’ of Buddhism. Everything is about Dhamma. These talks could get quite technical and as I was trying to understand everything, they mainly made me super confused. A lot of my doubts came from these talks as it sounded like I had to run away from my feelings instead of deal with them.
It was not complete silent. We were allowed to sing with chanting and had to read out a food reflection before every meal. We also could go to the staff to ask them questions or talk about problems if we needed to. I really thought we had to be silent for the whole 10 days and were not allowed to say a word. The main thing was that we weren’t chitchatting, especially with neighbours. All the talking had to be about the retreat and the problems with meditating.
The Thai Way
We basically had to do everything the Thai way. We showered using a sarong, which is a round towel that you have to try to tie around your body, scooping water out of a big basin onto ourselves, covering ourself with soap and washing it off with scoops of water again. Very different way to shower, especially while fighting with a sarong the whole time. We got encouraged to go to the toilet the Thai way as well and not use any toilet paper. Thai toilets don’t have a flush system, so there’s alway a big bucket with water and a scoop to flush the toilet. Apparently you use this same scoop, some water and your left hand to clean yourself after going to the toilet. Yep, even after number twos. It always made me think about the saying ‘More than 3 shakes is a wank’, but let’s blame that on the meditation.
It’s very hard to decide if I would recommend a retreat at Suan Mokkh to others. I would definitely recommend it if people have experience meditating and know the basics of Buddhism, or have done a retreat before, but as a beginner it was insanely difficult. So much information to take in and so many meditation sessions to sit through, it really started to work against me. I have to say though, I’m really glad I did it, I think it’s worked out really well for me, even though it was hard. I actually feel like I’m able to do some yoga and meditation by myself now and learnt a hell of a lot about myself and Buddhism. So probably, if someone is really interested and feel like they really ant to do something like this, I would not tell them not to go. But if you’re just curious and want to experience something like that and are not very interested in meditating or Buddhism, I’d probably recommend a 3 or 5 day retreat somewhere else.
Eva has been my knight in shining armour during this retreat. She’s a super cool Dutch chick that I met on registration day and we’ve been good buddies all the way through. She helped me a lot, made me laugh, excited and motivated again. On day 4, when I was ready to leave and absolutely done with it all, we broke all the rules, had a little chat which helped me so much and made me decide to stay after all. We also signed up for the same chore, so we were an awesome team every morning sweeping and mopping the dorm entrance as you can see below.
I borrowed her lighter for my lantern, she borrowed my raincoat, I borrowed her mirror and we got both so excited and had the greatest fun when she tried my natural black toothpaste. I’m not sure if I would have made it all the way to the end without her being there. Eva, if you read this, you’re awesome. Thanks a lot for everything.