Have you ever sat in silence for ten days?
Have you ever voluntarily submitted to a regime that demanded by way of a 4 a.m. gong that you crawl off your straw mat, grab a flashlight, and stumble to communal showers down a jungle path frequented by king cobras?Welcome to Buddha Bootcamp, Wat Kow Tahm, Thailand.
‘Shower’ is a loose term in a forest monastery. This was a series of wooden cubicles outfitted with a concrete trough from which we scooped water over shivering bodies. Said showers housed three large lizards, and on a good day we didn’t have to clean up iguana guano before starting. No yelping in the dark, either—there was a vow of silence to uphold.
At 4.45 we reported to the meditation hall. Men sat on the left of the hall, women on the right. We started with an hour of sitting meditation, followed by yoga, then a talk by either Steve or Rosemary, the husband-and-wife teachers.
Breakfast at 7 was eaten in silence, each mouthful chewed mindfully unless we were distracted by the kittens. Afterwards, we joined a line to wash our individual cup, plate, and spoon and return them to our place in the rack. Then an hour of working meditation, which could mean mindfully cleaning toilets, sweeping, or chopping vegetables. More meditation from 9 to 11, then a vegetarian lunch followed by a break for laundry or sleep.
From 1 pm to 5.30, we sat, we stood, we walked, endlessly. For walking meditation, we each picked a short track drawn in the gravel outside, then paced with as much attention as we could manage. Rosemary and Steve instructed us to note silently each movement of our feet as we walked. Inevitably, we slowed down like malfunctioning robots. Our familiar movements were new and strange.
People frowned with concentration. Lips moved silently. Sometimes we stumbled, unable to cope with the challenge of putting one foot in front of the other. Beginner’s feet.
After a silent dinner, we sat for an hour, stood for an hour, and then the teachers gave a final talk before allowing us to crawl back to our dorms by torchlight at 8.15. The first few nights, I lay awake fretting about having to get up at four.
The only time we spoke was during three brief personal interviews with the teachers. My voice sounded as rusty and unfamiliar to me as an old answering machine tape. All other communication was by notes, which could not be passed directly to to other students, but were given to designated assistants to be passed along as necessary. We were not allowed to make eye contact, or smile at one another. Stern notices were everywhere:
‘No going to the look-out point after dark.’
‘No stretching exercises in front of the large reclining Buddha.’
A silent retreat, it turns out, is not silent at all. My mind had a lot to say about its new conditions, during meditation and even in vivid, disturbing dreams at night. Everyone else, naturally, seemed to be fine, but I sat there, lonely and fidgety, with a voluble silent commentary I couldn’t switch off. The tone of the regulations bothered me. I felt reprimanded for transgressions I hadn’t managed to commit yet. I wanted to be the best little meditator at Wat Kow Tahm, but I felt like a naughty convent girl. I started to wonder when I could gracefully leave. I couldn’t sit on the floor for sixteen hours a day, let alone in serene silence. Jesus. Buddha.
Steve and Rosemary had creepy, soothing voices. In the early, restless days, I found particular phrases maddening, and muttered at their tendency to start subject-free sentences with a gerund, Fox News-style:
‘Experiencing the to-ouch of your feet on the ground.’
Sometimes I transferred the mental energy that would have powered a wind-farm to my Vipassana Romance. A V.R., Rosemary explained on Day Two, was a documented phenomenon on these Vipassana, or Insight, retreats, where the meditator developed a crush on a fellow student. Without knowing as much as a name or nationality, they spent hours and days planning long, blissful lives together. Sometimes they planned fantasy weddings, children’s names. Sometimes they did, in fact, get married after the retreat.
It beats meditating. There was a tall, slim, brown-haired boy conveniently in my line of vision, and by following him to his labeled dishrack I worked out that his name was Eric. To learn this I had spent three mealbreaks narrowing it down between two possible shelves when he was too quick for me. I further deduced that he was American—this theory was supported by his Teva sandals—Canadian, or, worst-case, French. (British men have not been named Eric since Orwell’s time. He didn’t look German.) Once or twice I caught him glancing at me during the walking meditation, and took this as happy proof of mutual regard. I didn’t realize everybody watched me through the walking meditation, since my special task was to ring the meal bell that ended the session. My relationship with Eric kept me happy for several days, unaware that the sweet-faced girl beside me was his new wife. But he was a serviceable V.R. distraction—and we all had one.
By Day Four, I had adapted to the silence and had even experienced fleeting moments of peace. According to Vipassana Buddhist teachings, peace is not something to strive for, to get. This is very difficult for ambitious western minds to grasp. Rather, peace is there all along, if only we could understand, accept, and let go of all the emotional accessories we tote. The theory is manageable, but it’s very hard to do. Rosemary and Steve guided us through meditation practices that we repeated over and over. We meditated on our own dead and decaying bodies, in order to understand what was truly important. We listed and gave thanks for our blessings (I felt like John Boy Walton). We practised meditations of love and compassion for ourselves, for those we loved, for acquaintances, and finally, in a sort of graduation exercise, for our enemies. We thought about karma, and the causes of unsatisfactoriness in our lives. We meditated on sympathetic joy for others and ourselves. Sometimes we just followed the in and out breath to develop concentration. (I usually devoted those periods to picking a city for Eric and me, or examining my feet.)
It was hard bloody work. But the fleeting moments of peace and joy were worth gallons of iguana guano and sand-filled 4 a.m. eyes. Those states passed, of course, though we tried to cling to them. Still, simply learning how to observe and train the mind, even with the clumsiest results, made the whole retreat worthwhile. I couldn’t have absorbed these lessons from a book and every day I felt more grateful to Steve and Rosemary, who had given up pensions and health insurance to teach us for free.
By the ninth day, I felt deep affection for people I’d never spoken to, whose faces I’d only ever seen in the mask-like composure of meditation (and I don’t mean Eric, whom by now I had long since spared the burden of my lasting happiness). We knew only the barest details about the other meditators, guessed from how they looked or perhaps gleaned from a quick chat the night before the retreat. Our imaginations took over. I found myself wondering what people would look like if they laughed. I was touched by the bravery of these mute friends, who had sat day after day and tried.
There was Bill, immensely tall, who rang the wake-up and meal bells with fizzy energy, and made us smile by skipping down the steep hill to our last silent lunch, six feet six and dressed in canary yellow. There was Sarah, whose back clearly hurt, but who propped herself up against the wall and never missed a session. There was Dave, who wore t-shirts with messages on them and gave me the print fix I craved during our walking meditations. There was Ciara, my age and my unlikely compatriot. Since when do Irish women spend their vacations cross-legged on Thai hilltops? She told me afterwards that when she’d first done this retreat, five years before, one guy had worn a Coca-Cola t-shirt on the walking meditations, and when silence was finally lifted there was a unanimous decision to go into town for a Coke. The root of suffering is desire.
At lunchtime on the last day of the retreat, Steve and Rosemary announced a two-hour reprieve from the silence, so we could meet one another before catching planes and moving on. It would start that evening, at 5 pm. We looked around, unsure, and peace evaporated as we started planning who to talk to and what to say. My mind whizzed all afternoon. Finally Rosemary smiled and told us we would start by each saying our name and nationality. I sniffled during this recitation as if I were a cast member in the last performance of Up With People.
´Dominic. Sheffield, England.’
‘Jill. New York, United States.’
‘Eric. Quebec, Canada.’
Afterwards, the burden of silence hung in the air for a few moments. We shyly turned to our neighbors. Then my German roommate bounded across the hall and hugged me.
‘Derv, thank you, thank you, thank you for being such a good roommate! You are a very quiet person. Some of those people are so loud! Thank you for being my roommate! And for leaving the candies on my pillow when I was so so hungry!’
We all laughed, too loudly, and I was giddy, an extrovert again and hot-faced with excitement. Jill from New York joined our group.
‘Oh my God, I made up a story for every one of you. You,’ she said, pointing to me, ‘were a ballet dancer from the West Coast. But then you said Ireland, and that’s all wrong.’
We were weepy and giggly. We queued up for a dinner we didn’t eat. We thanked each other for small things—for ringing bells nicely, for always wearing cheerful clothes, for sweeping the paths so well. We stared, amazed, at each other’s faces, statues come to life with brand-new smiles and expressions. We swapped stories of discouragement:
‘But you looked so serene! I thought I was the only one…’
‘Oh my God, Day Four was torture…’
‘Who was the woman who kept pounding the floorboards at 4 am?’
‘What happened to Lola? Did she leave? Is it true she was claustrophobic and couldn’t stand the dorms?’
Going back into the silence that evening was difficult. It was hard not to smile and make eye-contact; I felt rude and abrupt. My mind buzzed with questions I’d forgotten to ask and people I still wanted to meet. But we settled quickly, with ten days of training behind us to help us note each passing state. Distracted, distracted…twitchy, twitchy…desiring, desiring…planning, planning….
The retreat ended next morning. Our final lunch together had a kind of Buddhist desperation, a fervent wish to cram as much warmth into these final hours as possible. We junked all our non-grasping and clung to each other, planning to meet up in beach bungalows and finally share a beer.
Creakily, we pampered tourists figured out what work needed to be done to break camp—no cheap Southeast Asian labor here. We hand-washed 60 rough blankets at the well, took down all the signs that had smoothed our silent path, scrubbed the toilets, swept the meditation halls, rolled the mats. The work was humbling. Over the months so many people had cooked, cleaned, and washed for me, and I had accepted without question that this was how it should be. I had the dollars, they had the time.
The Wat´s finances are rickety. One meditator paid Steve and Rosemary’s medical bills; another had paid to build a new block of toilets. We were asked to donate for laundry buckets, for vitamins tablets, for printing costs, living expenses, whatever we could spare. Again, this was an adjustment. We are used to being told the price of a service, not figuring out what is needed and giving voluntarily.
After the retreat, the world seemed freshly washed and every face had some beauty and a story I wanted to hear. I left aside my books and notebooks. On the street, people indulged my permanent smile with their own. A group of ten of us staked out a small beach resort on the other end of the island and practiced being kind and thoughtful towards each other as if it were a new language. We stopped and thought about the grammar of generosity. Often I slipped into my careless native tongue. We got up at dawn to sit in meditation on the beach, a solemn line of cross-legged falangs that made the locals smirk. We didn’t mind. We had just had a sneak preview of the news Warren Zevon delivered from his deathbed a few weeks back: it’s all about realizing just how good each sandwich is supposed to taste.
The retreat bliss persisted for a few weeks, even through Bangkok (lifting…moving…placing). Then I got back to New York, which is in the running (with many contenders) for World Dukkha Capital these days. Orange terror alert. War protests. Taxes. Two feet of snow. Divorce lawyers. New York storage. A decimated brokerage account. My equanimity crumbled, my permasmile subsided. Still, I managed to get through a month of it on the downhill coast from the hilltop monastery. And as I looked at the other worn, tight faces on the subway, I wondered, in a religiously confused sort of way: can a Buddhist be excommunicated for being evangelical?