Some years ago, I did a 7-day silent meditation retreat in rural Massachusetts, and it changed my life: it made me more aware of how thought and emotion manifest in the body, of how emotional states are transient and don’t control me… and, it was one of the only times I’ve ever been free from anxiety. It was incredibly difficult, but I left with an eagerness to explore myself and the world with this gentle tool.
This made that other retreat look like a Carnival Cruise.
We knew exactly what we were getting into: 10 hours a day, give or take, of walking or sitting meditation; upholding the “noble silence” by not talking, reading or writing; eating only before noon and sleeping 6 hours a night. I’d done it before, I’d do it again.
The monk in charge of foreign students was a short little man who walked quickly, said everything twice, and wore a surgical mask. (Asians LOVE surgical masks. Are you sick? Is someone else? Wear a mask! Dusty air? Mask!) He gave us white clothes, instructions on appropriate behavior, and schedules. Whenever I timidly asked a question— “Excuse me? What time do we return for reporting?”— he would wave his hand impatiently, saying, “Not now. Not now. In the moment. Right now, sweeping. Sweeping.” (Hands me a broom). ”Knowing, knowing,” he would tap his forehead. This meant that I was not being mindful, that I should already know not only what time I was supposed to be where, but that I was also supposed to be sweeping, too. This was difficult to understand because of the surgical mask.
So: Up at 4, breakfast at 6:30 lunch at 10:30, reporting to The Man at 5:30 or so. All other times: meditating.
Food: watery, cold. This is because, after everyone has stood in line to be served rice and vegetables, the monks and nuns lead prayers and chant. By the time you take your first bite, everything is about room temperature. To compound this problem, the meals are remarkably low in protein, which is the only way a borderline hypoglycemic like me could ever fast all afternoon.
On the second day, I resignedly defected from the vegetarian line to the meat line. (Back home, I rarely eat meat, and when I do I like it raised on a local organic farm, frolicking happily until slaughtered.) A serving woman, wearing a surgical mask and showercap, plunks a scoop of what looks like ground beef and wavy white things onto my metal plate. I test the meat: chewy. OK. I poke the wavy white thing with my fork. Animal or vegetable… oh God, is that an EAR??
Two Germans leave on the first night. They couldn’t take it.
My window was in the back of the compound and through it I could hear sounds of a family living nearby: I heard a woman scraping rice from a wok, the clatter of spoons in a bowl, the faint sound of boys playing video games. I ached for those fragments of daily life. I craved everything: The Sunday New York Times and real coffee; everything that comprises the city of New York; happy children; thick, brown bread with peanut butter; intimate conversations; my family gathered in Pennsylvania; beautiful old books; bicycles and the novelty of being able to go where you please; street food; going for walks by myself. I craved the world.
Meditating for 10 hours, to someone like me who has a hard time doing 20 minutes in the morning, is accomplished through force of will. It was brutal: you take the thing that is so boring, so maddeningly difficult, the one thing you really, really don’t want to be doing, and you force yourself to do it, breath by breath, one hour at a time. You sit, you acknowledge that you’d rather not be sitting, you say to yourself, “frustration, frustration” when you are frustrated, and “thinking, thinking,” when your thoughts drift away from the breath.
Every evening, we reported to The Man, Pra Ajahn Suphan, in his office where he held court from his Dais next to his Buddha collection. Because his English was fuzzy, we spoke to him through a very cute and somewhat distracting interpreter. The routine was this: after waiting silently for 1-2 hours, we entered the office on our knees. We prostrated three times before the Buddhas, and then, still crawling awkwardly, another three times before the man himself while he thumbed through our paperwork. Then we were supposed to remain kneeling, hands together, say “Nammascan, Pra Ajahn Suphan,” and bow to the cute interpreter.
From this position, we told him the status of our practice, how many hours we’d done, and ask questions, which he answered in long, unintelligible mumbles that were sometimes in English and sometimes in Thai. Sometimes he’d say a couple words, which I took to mean, “Tell her the sports one,” and the interpreter would give me a much longer explanation about how meditation is like a sport, and we must work the muscles of the mind each day, and so on.
Whereas I have always valued meditation as a tool that brings me peace and greater self-awareness, meditating at Wat Rampoeng was, for me, a test of endurance. I discovered that I can withstand the pain of hunger, the muscle pain of sitting, the frustration and anger that inevitably arise, and I can discipline myself through any task. There were moments of joy, too, where I was happy for no particular reason, but mostly I was just… resigned.
Was this satisfying? I’m not sure.
On the last day, Ethan and I found ourselves next to each other in the lunch line. After not having spoken for 9 days, it felt a little funny. I whispered, “What time do you want to leave tomorrow?” He paused. ”Want to leave tonight?”
After our closing ceremony that night (and after receiving our parting gifts, large autographed photos of The Man meditating), we took off our white clothes for the last time, and walked out with our backpacks, through the gate and out again into the world. I can’t describe how exhilarating it was. The world was there the whole time.
Wisdom comes slowly.