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"I'll find my way home while exploring the galaxy"

Day 340: Ten Days in Silence, Finally

“As long as we are wide awake and fully aware, we will learn the truth in most all situations. Our starting point is exactly where we are now…and eventually, we become what we already know. This may be the most difficult but also the most rewarding experience of all.”

I almost didn’t get on that flight. I was still in the throes of a horrible flu and hadn’t gotten out of bed for pretty much that entire week. It was Netflix and chill with breaks for vegetable soup and honey-lemon-ginger tea. The idea of getting myself together to board a flight and enter the world of 4am wakeup calls and sleeping on concrete beds with a wooden pillow seemed next to impossible in my sorry physical and mental state. Why would I leave the comforts of a cozy guesthouse-penthouse in Chiang Mai to embark on a 10 day silent meditation, whose schedule looked like this?

04.00  Wake up                 
04.30 Morning Reading
04.45 Sitting meditation
05.15 Yoga / Exercise - Mindfulness in motion
07.00  Dhamma talk & Sitting meditation
08.00 Breakfast & Chores
10.00  Dhamma talk
11.00 Walking or standing meditation
11.45  Sitting meditation
12.30 Lunch & chores
14.30  Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.30 Walking or standing meditation
16.15  Sitting meditation
17.00  Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
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

Nevertheless, it had to happen. I had applied to join a silent retreat three times before, and it became clear to me not too long ago that this was something I just had to do on this trip before returning to New York. And so I went – sore throat, face mask, cough lozenges, Ibuprofen packs and all. Still, a part of me thought that I might just make my final decision once I arrived just to be perfectly sure I wasn’t absolutely in over my head. The back and forth-ness of indecision sucked me into a dizzying spell. I boarded the flight from Chiang Mai to Surat Thani, and bused from the airport to Suan Mokkh monastery.

And that’s when things began to look up.

It's not everyday you wake up ready and excited to go into silence. Taken on the morning of registration day.

It's not everyday you wake up ready and excited to go into silence. Taken on the morning of registration day.

Immediately upon walking onto monastery grounds, the thoughts, doubts, insecurities, and fever sweats almost immediately disappeared. My lungs could finally feel again, as the gravity of serenity settled in all around me. The fog of flu brain lifted for those brief moments as I took in the slower rhythms of monastery life, watching nearby nuns rake leaves as if in a deep meditation. We were meant to stay the night and head over to the retreat center the following day for registration. I headed to my room, setting up a mosquito net and yoga mat against the concrete surface which was my bed, and called it a night.

At 6am the following morning, I knew I was ready. We boarded a small truck and headed over to the Suan Mokkh retreat grounds. Yes, the cough was still in full force, but the clarity was building momentum. I could actually feel excitement? 70% excitement, 30% fear – a very visceral emotional combination that could be felt at every step of registration from just about every person who showed up that day. It was quite hilarious looking around the dining hall to a sea of faces glued intently to their screen or two or three, a shared experience of physically and emotionally clutching and clinging. Better get in as much digital dopamine now before handing in these devices for the next ten days, you know? In between registering, setting up our rooms (same drill: set up mosquito net – check, lay down yoga mat on concrete surface – check, create the perfect pillow out of a wooden block with shirts and shorts – check, chase out giant spider with a broom – check), and exploring the beauty of the retreat grounds, we all shared the imminent countdown leading up to that moment I could now not possibly wait for: silence.

Counting down the minutes till silence...

Counting down the minutes till silence...

Entering the dorm grounds. The building on the left is the women's dorm and further along the path is the men's dorm. We each have our own hot springs and most things are kept within gender to minimize any and all distractions. 

Entering the dorm grounds. The building on the left is the women's dorm and further along the path is the men's dorm. We each have our own hot springs and most things are kept within gender to minimize any and all distractions. 

Everything in the dorm is open air, and everyone had their own laundry line. Laundry wasn't just the activity of laundry -- at Suan Mokkh, everything is seen as meditation. So laundry = laundry meditation, naturally. 

Everything in the dorm is open air, and everyone had their own laundry line. Laundry wasn't just the activity of laundry -- at Suan Mokkh, everything is seen as meditation. So laundry = laundry meditation, naturally. 

Grassy courtyard in the dorms

Grassy courtyard in the dorms

Laundry hanging out on the line

Laundry hanging out on the line

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Welcome to my room! The idea behind a hard concrete bed and wooden pillow is to minimize any over indulgence in sleeping. This was rather easy to adapt to, much to my surprise. 

Welcome to my room! The idea behind a hard concrete bed and wooden pillow is to minimize any over indulgence in sleeping. This was rather easy to adapt to, much to my surprise. 

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Water scoops and communal water pool for all your basic needs - brushing your teeth, doing laundry, etc. Also makes for a nice old school water cooler area for silent gathering. 

Water scoops and communal water pool for all your basic needs - brushing your teeth, doing laundry, etc. Also makes for a nice old school water cooler area for silent gathering. 

I'd like to take this moment to let you know that I did NOT follow this, though I came to appreciate the thoughtfulness!

I'd like to take this moment to let you know that I did NOT follow this, though I came to appreciate the thoughtfulness!

I learned to knock on the buckets before turning them, lest I wake a giant spider from its slumber (a hard lesson I learned one morning when I set a giant spider sprinting for the hills)

I learned to knock on the buckets before turning them, lest I wake a giant spider from its slumber (a hard lesson I learned one morning when I set a giant spider sprinting for the hills)

Here at Suan Mokkh, girls bathe together using water scoops of COLD water wearing uniform floral sarongs. There's an art to all this, let me tell you.

Here at Suan Mokkh, girls bathe together using water scoops of COLD water wearing uniform floral sarongs. There's an art to all this, let me tell you.

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After meals, men and women enter their separate washing spaces where we do our individual dishes. 

After meals, men and women enter their separate washing spaces where we do our individual dishes. 

You'll find yourself bare foot most moments at Suan Mokkh, so best to keep indoor areas sand free.

You'll find yourself bare foot most moments at Suan Mokkh, so best to keep indoor areas sand free.

That evening, we all gathered in the group meditation hall nestled in between lush palm trees and jungle sounds of all textures and timbres. The teacher spoke, and the bell rang. Silence had commenced.

The Beginning

The days that followed gained a familiar rhythm and flow, beginning with that 4am ring emanating from the distant bell tower. A deep and vibrational sound that could be felt at the very core of deep sleep. The sun had not yet risen, and my body would fight gravity to put one foot in front of the other, fumbling about to light the torch to help me see. The day was starting in darkness, that very hour when most flowers are busy blooming. As I would begin to sleep walk through the forest en route to the meditation hall, I would notice silhouettes of bodies around me moving in the slowest of motions. On the occasional morning, I might even look up and catch the bright illumination of the stars above.

As soon as we found ourselves on a mat in some semblance of lotus, the bell would sound – the signal for Dhamma talk to begin. Whatever Buddhist topic was to be covered that morning, the experience of taking in wisdom at such a surreal hour of day took quite the adjustment. The mind was soft, malleable and very much sensitive to everything. Words, pauses, crickets, mosquitos, silences and all. I wouldn’t quite describe the mind as one in thought, but rather one in deep absorption, theta brain wave style. Whatever wisdom was meant to stick, was meant to be. Acceptance.

"Buddhism doesn't tell you what is false and what is true, but it encourages you to find out for yourself"

The famous bell tower, which basically keeps time at all times :) 

The famous bell tower, which basically keeps time at all times :) 

Coming into this experience with the flu may have been the best teacher of them all. My body and mind were already very much in the flow of healing, and despite spontaneous bouts of intense coughing, the very stillness of being in nature and patiently allowing things to take their course gave me the reminder I needed: sickness comes and goes, just like everything else. Going into silence felt completely natural. Being in the presence of seekers and teachers from the world over felt just as natural. 

But I'd be lying if I said the struggles weren't real, and quite intense. 

If nature is where we come from and where we return, then why doesn't everyone move into a forest monastery and live the life of ultimate truth? This, I soon learned, was the question that brought out all the other questions that Buddhists have been asking and looking to answer for the last 2500 years. Sitting with and in nature for 10 days allowed for a quiet and powerful shift in understanding. Getting intimate with the inner nature of breath and stillness, which we all share, allowed for a deeper knowing than any kind of knowing you could know with simply the thinking mind alone. Wisdom. Bodily knowing. The real stuff of nature.

"When we know the truth, we become people who don't have to think much, we become people of wisdom. If we don't know, we have more thinking than wisdom or not wisdom at all. A lot of thinking without wisdom is extreme suffering"

- Ajan Chah

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Imagine meeting your thoughts, ones you know quite well, but it feels as it you are meeting for the first time. For the first time, in the sense that the interaction is different. Instead of jumping into the rabbit hole of any one thought, you're asked to suspend all analysis, attention and response - read: no journaling, sharing, talking, distraction of any kind. Let go of the mind's attachment to anything. You're asked to simply observe the thoughts and bring the mind back to the breath. Easy enough, right? 

Not so much. While you're sitting there, with abnormally large wasps buzzing around your mat, while mosquitos dance around your body looking to feast, the thoughts are compounded by the irritability that comes with having absolutely nowhere to go. The mind wants to break free from the discomfort, maybe takes a mental walk into the past to that time in Chiang Mai when you were comfortably lying on a bed binge watching Netflix, or into the future imagining the deliciousness they'll be serving for lunch that day. Anything to distract from the growing unpleasantness that is the present moment of right now. Maybe the back pains start to creep even deeper into the neck and shoulder region giving you zero reason to believe that there could be anything good coming from the practice of meditation, for you. Everyone else seems to get it. They're sitting upright in a comfortable seated position and all seems to be peaceful from the outside looking in.

Little friend here has the biggest monkey mind of us all. It was a nice reminder of the shared animalistic impulsive mind, which can always be trained, if we so choose...

Little friend here has the biggest monkey mind of us all. It was a nice reminder of the shared animalistic impulsive mind, which can always be trained, if we so choose...

Follow your in-breath, follow your out breath. Observe the body during the long breath vs. the short breath. Keep your gaze towards the tip of your nose without looking at anything directly. Once you find steady concentration in the breath, look to contemplate the feeling of impermanence.

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The instruction was always clear, yet the early days passed and my mind continued to do its own thing. It wandered into darkness and light, meandering through the random and familiar, happy, sad, confused. Bored. Yet, the quality of coming to the finality of so much thinking always had a similar ring: impermanence. Grasping the thoughts as they came in and out always had a similar path -- strong at first and then slowly slowly, the attachments would fade away. The mind can and will choose to hold on, as part of the identity's mechanism of birthing and sustaining itself. But what happens when you're sitting with all the thoughts, and finally feel that shift? The shift of the impermanent mind, paralleling the impermanence of nature herself. It's all part of the same force, energy, law - whatever word feels right - isn't it?

The moment the mind touches the quality of its own impermanence, everything else begins to open up. Everything starts to feel and look quite different. The feeling of bodily back pain feels less defined, as that too shifts. The wasp that flies into your room (as all rooms have open holes and slits) comes and goes. The hairy spider that crawls next to your bed, triggering an intense surge of adrenaline, also gives way to feelings of peace once the dust settles. The colony of ants that you try to sweep off the floor during morning chores seem to always re-form itself. The attachment to control and clean subsides as nature follows its own course of being just as it is. What do these teachers of nature show us? Letting go of the me, mine, I - letting go of the cravings to be, to have and not have. The desire to be anywhere but exactly where and as we are in this very moment. Letting go with both the mind and body. 

Mindfulness literally translates to "being aware of one's breath" to enable freedom from the past and future. Strengthening the quality of one's present mind can actually bring a shift in the body's ability to come into the present moment. In that window of presence, we can see so clearly the beauty and possibility of letting go of what no longer serves us -- patterned fears and past stories that have given the self an identity. The process is inherently human, yet somehow we've been living as prisoner to our thoughts and feelings, without fully understanding how we, and things of nature, really are. 

The unfolding of this realization was beyond what I could have imagined. I felt such an intensity of bliss and release, I can't even tell you. Yet, the mind will be the mind, and continue to generate thoughts as long as it's still a mind. One of the nuns said it best with her very practical observation "mindfulness is remembering that you forgot (to be mindful of breathing) and to bring the awareness back to the present." For someone just starting out on in this path, I couldn't have been more grateful for the practical perspective.

Simply grasping the forgetfulness of the mind became a wonder and joy. Something simple to chew on as I continued to break through old patterns of the stubborn wandering mind.

It wasn't until Day 5 and one nun chat later, that I realized I had been breathing incorrectly. Without too much self judgment or hesitation, I got myself back on track.

The Middle:

Surely this happened to me. Or for me, as I was soon to discover.

My room :)

My room :)

One evening after a quick dip in the hot springs, I went through my nightly routine before evening meditation began. A sarong shower, followed by some pampering with lotion and mosquito repellant, and my little ritual of lighting the torch to go brush my teeth outside while the sun went down. A peaceful and joyful ritual in all its simplicity. The bell rang as it always did at 7:15p and I gathered my things to head over for evening meditation. As I walked, I realized I left something behind in my room and decided to turn around.

As I approached my room, I heard the girl in front of me shriek "SHIT!" From silence to "SHIT!" I knew it wasn't good.

"What....?"

A long pause ensued as she pondered whether this was the appropriate time to break silence. She proceeded.

"SNAKE."

My WORST nightmare. Funnily enough, earlier during chanting, Khun Chae had shared some wisdom about the power and depth of loving kindness meditation. The meditation that allows just about anyone to dissolve their most guarded feelings of fear, anger, greed, name it...it applies here. She went so far as to say that such a meditation could be - and should be - used for things that feel beyond our control, like for example, a snake that decides to crawl up into your (their/our?) space. 

"Send that snake loving kindness and wish they be free from suffering and any feelings of ill will, as any other creature or being of this world." 

MUCH easier said than done, I can't even tell you.

So, the snake. This rather skinny black thing that seemed to be relaxing if anything, as it thunderstormed just minutes earlier, was slithering slowly about. Any ability to summon the love and kindness for this creature of nature was squashed by immediate panic. My heart was pounding in a fiery rage as I found myself snowballing down a dark hole of hell. Could this be a baby cobra? Was mama snake coming after us too?? It was dark and we were now late for evening meditation. If we didn't do something about this snake, lord knows which room or bed it would crawl into. And here it was, one door away from my room! Remember, noble silence doesn't make exceptions, even for snakes. So here we were - three girls holding old school torches, using the most primal primitive sounds we could to communicate as best we could, and find a solution quick. 

One of the girls grabbed a small bowl for scooping water to cover the snake's body. Nope, too small. The snake pushed out of that one real easy.

In that moment of deflation, I remembered that I forgot to breathe. And so I breathed. In-breath long, out-breath long. Oh right! I have a broom in my room for safekeeping; now would be a GREAT time to bust it out. I threw up my index finger and made an optimistic shriek to signal that I had an idea. I fumbled to open the lock of my room and present the only solution we seemed to have before the snake could slither any closer up the wall into the nearby window. 

I handed the broom over to the girl who was clearly going to save the day. She brushed the snake lightly at first as to not cause a stir, and then made some larger more abrupt motions as it became clear the snake did not want to cooperate. We made some pretty memorable sounds in unison, as if we were 5 year olds seeing spiders for the first time. It seemed to help. The snake disappeared into the darkness of our grassy courtyard and we all took a deep breath out. Crisis aborted. 

But was it aborted? I spent the next two hours outwardly meditating, yet my mind could not stop for a second. Would the snake come back? Do snakes take revenge? Why was this happening to me? Why my room? Why me? ME.

Two hours of feeling the ego do its thing and watching the mind's thoughts come and go made me tired. And as the breath always teaches, the thoughts never last anyways. They come, they go. They feel one way, then they feel another way. By the end, you can barely keep up with any of them. They're impermanent. You are impermanent. Life is impermanent. I was ready to go to bed, and allow the trauma of the snake go to bed too.

The following day, I signed up to have a nun chat with Khun Thai. I wanted to tell someone about this experience, as it still had lingering traces in the mind. I felt quite silly recounting the whole thing, thinking that by day six, I should have been much father along along the spiritual path and known better. And to my surprise, she confirmed the wisdom that was already quite alive and present.

"The snake was your teacher last night, coming to teach you about selfishness and the ego. I'm sure the snake has been living in the forest much longer than 6 days and as humans, we attach to things as 'me, mine, I.' Observe what that feels like, and see how that too fades with time." 

And just like that, I bow to the snake for teaching me about the nature of selfishness and ego birth. Contemplating how things really are in nature puts everything else into perspective. This happened for me, after all, not to me. 

The End

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Day nine came. Unlike the other days, this one was stripped down to its bare bones - no dharma talks, no reading, no instruction, and only one meal at 8:30a. The true test of being with oneself with nothing but silence as the guiding force. Seated and walking meditations were double the time (whatever time means in a monastery - I just follow the bell). Like everything else, this too was impermanent.

Going in with this mindset shifted everything -- if it's painful, it will pass. If it's beautiful, it won't last.

By mid afternoon, the wisdom levels were quickly fading. My shoulder was screaming for a break, and my entire body felt deflated. I wanted nothing more than a savasana on a luxurious bed with a giant mosquito net covering every inch of my skin. I wanted flavor. Any kind of stimulation to mix things up. The sun was out, the trees were dancing with the breeze, there was no reason to fret. What was everyone else thinking? 

After what felt like ages leaning against a pillar, an indescribable force pushed me off my pillow and onto my two feet. I moved my way towards the wooden platform without a back. I propped myself up on a meditation pillow and faced the lake. She was shimmering. 

Finding a comfortable seated position, lengthening the spine and relaxing the neck and shoulders. Taking one deep breath in, and letting it all go. Allowing the muscles from head to toe relax one by one with a round of body-breath scanning. Feeling the surface underneath and following the breath as it ebbs and flows. Observing everything as it is. Allowing fully. Reaching stillness as it comes.

And out of the blue, something clicked. The muscles around the temples found a quiet stillness. The back pain disappeared. The body felt light. This is what it felt like. Presence. Complete presence. No attachments, no suffering. Just being. A bodily knowing of what impermanence really is, a part of our individual and collective nature. The micro and macro law of the universe, totally aligned. 

It lasted for a while too. I couldn't believe anyone could feel such a thing. I certainly had never felt this before.

And then the bell rang. The thoughts came back in. But I knew. Once you know, you can never un-know. We all have the choice to practice and receive our highest nature. Amazing.

"Everything is in its natural state. When we understand nature, then we can change it, we can detach from it, we can let go. Then we won't suffer anymore"

So much gratitude for Suan Mokkh and the many teachers, human and animal, for allowing me to see my wisdom more clearly than before. The higher intelligence that is wisdom, unlike knowledge, is abundant and we all have it in mind and body. The lesson wasn't to gain; rather, to let go.

Exhale.

And like everything else, it's time to move on. Onwards to Koh Phangan <3

On the ferry, headed to the KP:&nbsp;home away from home &lt;3

On the ferry, headed to the KP: home away from home <3

Tiffany Wen