When we did the Monk Chat, we found out that they provide a Meditation Retreat Workshop. It sounded interesting, so it was decided that Lars and I would the ones who would be learning to meditate.
I will be the first to admit that what I knew about meditation could fill a teaspoon. And I will also admit that I was a bit worried about the whole process of attending a Meditation Retreat! Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain the program.
Meditation Retreat Process
Attendees can sign-up in person or online, and the workshop consists of two days at a meditation center. Students arrive, fill out some paperwork, purchase the required white garments, and then are taken by songthaew to the “remote” campus which is about 45 minutes outside of the city. Once there, students are housed two to a room. Dinner is provided, as well as breakfast and lunch the following day. The meditation studies stop in the afternoon, and students are transported back to the university.
I was nervous about the whole thing, so Heidi decided to send me with the best Meditation Wing Man a guy could have: Swami Lars. I was concerned about a number of things:
- Food – Is it possible for a person to starve in 24 hours?
- Sleep – Will the sleeping arrangements require us to sleep on the ground?
- Power – Will they have a power outlet so I can plug in my CPAP (anti-snoring device)?
- Mental – Will they turn me into a Hare Krishna? I don’t have the sort of face that people give donations to; even if I am giving away flowers. Lars on the other hand would be an awesome HK.
So on the appropriate day, at the appropriate time, all of us walked to the university. Heidi wanted to get some pictures of us before we left. The name of the university? It’s a mouthful:
Mahachulalongkornrajvidalaya Buddhist University
Or MCU for short. (I like the short version much better!). Lars and I signed the forms, paid the money, and obtained our white clothes. In case you couldn’t guess, the shirt sizes here are not on the large side. The largest size shirt they have is an XL. I haven’t worn an U.S. sized XL since high school, so the Thailand sized XL was, let’s say, a tad small.OK, it wasn’t that small, but luckily, I was prepared, and had a mostly white shirt. Lars and I did not get a chance to try on the clothing, so Heidi was not able to take our picture.
We said a quick goodbye to the girls, and we went into a room with a bunch of other people. When it was time, a monk appeared, and gave us a presentation about Buddhism, the MCU Meditation programme, and asked each of us to state our names, country, and experience with meditation. Our group had Germans, Australians, a Canadian, someone from the Czech Republic, a French person, a Brit, and three Americans. The mix was about 50/50 male to female. Most of us had little to no meditation experience, but there was one guy with over 20 years.
With the introductions done, and the presentation completed, it was time for us to jump into the taxis and head to the Meditation Center. During the trip, we talked a bit amongst ourselves. It is so interesting to meet other travelers! Being cramped in the back of the songthaew made for a long 45-minute ride.
Time for the Meditation Retreat!
Once we arrived, the “campus” was very nice. There was the obligatory Buddha statue which dominated the open square in front of the buildings. The main housing building was huge with two floors. I would guess that they had 60-80 rooms.
As we were collecting our room keys, we were told that it had to be “men room with men, and women room with women”. There was only one couple, but the guy seemed a bit bummed.
Lars and I got to our room, and I was pleasantly surprised. It was spacious, had a western toilet (Whew!) and a shower. There were two beds, and even a power outlet. Woo hoo! There was no AC, but we did have a fan with a turbo button on it, so that was good. We had 30 minutes or so to unwind before the bell would be rung, so we relaxed a bit. I tried on the pants, and the way they are made, they can fit a BIG person. I am not quite that big yet, so that’s good. For grins, I tried on the t-shirt, and gave Lars a good laugh.
Lars was trying on his pants, and it was kind of funny because the pants are so baggy that he couldn’t hold his shirt up and tie them at the same time. I helped out, and we’re both ready for an MC Hammer video (Can’t Touch This!). The bell rang, and all of the attendees looked identical in their white garments. Except for me and my mostly white shirt with a collar. Oh well.
There were pads laid out on the floor, and Lars and I grabbed a couple of spots next to each other. I was in the back row, and he was in the front row. Our monk was very engaging. I am a product of the media stereotypes that have been fed to me over the years, so whenever I think of monks, I think of strict, sword-wielding monks with no sense of humor. Our monk was low-key, and he was quick to smile. While his English was very good, sometimes it was hard to understand, but he was very good to clarify if we weren’t understanding him.
We were about to do our first session, and he had us sitting cross-legged, and after about two minutes, my legs and butt are starting to hurt. “This is going to be a long day,” I was thinking. Seeing the discomfort on our faces, our Monk suggested that we get another pad, and that it was OK to stretch our legs out a bit. Whew!
Before meditation, the monk explained that we need to “pray” to Buddha to show respect. We actually chanted these Pali phrases, and then would bow our heads to the ground. We did this three times, praying to the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings of Buddha), and the Sangha (which is roughly the purification of the body/mind). Each of us had a sheet of paper in front of us that we could “read” when repeating after the monk. It wasn’t “Omm”, they were actually phrases we would sort of sing. I wish I would have gotten a picture of the sheet.
Our first meditation session was difficult. Before this, I had thought that meditation was just sitting there, thinking of nothingness and everythingness. It turns out that trying to empty your mind is much more difficult than I first assumed. Plus, ten minutes with your eyes closed when you’re not trying to go to sleep is a long time.
- “Are we done yet?”
- “Did he forget to set his timer?”
- “This must be more than 10 minutes!”
Those are some of the things I was thinking during that first session. Over the next day, our monk would give us tips to help us focus on the right now, instead of the future or the past:
- Focusing on the breathing (In…Out…In…Out)
- Count your breaths to five and count back down (In…Out…One…In…Out…Two…)
- If there are distractions or sensations (like leg pain), focus on it by thinking, “With my ears, I am hearing…” or “With my legs I am feeling…”.
We also learned about other mediation poses, such as standing, laying down, and even walking. Lars liked the laying down pose, but I got the most benefit out of the sitting pose. The walking meditation was my least favorite. I naturally have a long stride, so when I walk with very small steps, it tends to bother my back. That night we had a total of four sessions. I’m glad to say that the last sitting session was very good.
Our dinner was very simple vegetarian Pad Thai dish, and slices of watermelon. Prior to eating, we recited sentences to help us reflect on the food that we were about to eat. I guess you could call them prayers, but that doesn’t seem like the right word. In the food hall, there was no talking, other than the aforementioned prayers, so we all ate in silence. The food was pretty good, and it was a buffet style, so I went back for seconds on the Pad Thai, and thirds on the watermelon.
After our last meditation session of the evening, our monk explained that we go to sleep early (~9PM) as we would be getting up very early (5AM). He also explained that if we didn’t turn on our light when he started banging the bell, he would stand directly outside our door banging the bell louder and louder. 5AM! I haven’t seen 5AM on purpose for a long time. Once we were in our room getting ready for bed, I could tell Lars was a bit on the bored side. I only had my phone, but didn’t bring my charger. Cell connectivity was very limited, so I couldn’t even browse the internet.
At 9:30, I asked Lars if we should just turn out the lights. He agreed, and I fell asleep a lot faster than I anticipated. When I heard the noise, it felt like I had only been asleep a few hours. I checked my watch, and it was 12:00…and I had only been asleep a few hours. The noise the awoke me was one of those stupid lizards, so I went back to sleep. It was harder the second time around, but eventually I fell asleep, and my alarm woke me at 5AM. All things considered, I felt OK. The bed was a bit harder than I would have liked, but nothing too extreme. I had just sat up when the bell started ringing.
I turned on the light, and got ready. I came out, and tickled Lars’ face until he woke up. He was actually pretty agreeable. With both of us dressed and ready, we talked quietly about yesterday’s activities, and what we would be doing today. Eventually, the bell rang again, and we all convened in the Meditation Hall. Everyone looked in good spirits, and the monk talked to us a bit about what we would be doing.
We got down to our first sitting meditation, and it was great. I felt like I could have gone on much longer. It turns out that he had lengthened the session to 15 minutes from ten. Who knew monks could be so sneaky? We did another session, this one standing, and then the monk told us we could go outside, and do whatever kind of session we wanted, wherever we wanted. It was still pretty dark out, and I sat in the open square in front of the large Buddha. I have no idea how long I was “under”, but when I opened my eyes, the morning sun was coming up, and Lars was working on his walking meditation. It was a good session, but I’ll admit that I was distracted a bit by all of the bird calls, but it was very relaxing.
Once the free meditation sessions were done, it was time for the almsgiving. Monks do not make money. They rely on the public for donations of food, items, or even money. The people take care of the monks’ physical needs, and the monks take care of the people’s spiritual needs. We were going to pay respect to our monk by participating in the almsgiving. As a group, we went to the food hall, and picked up a small bowl of rice with a spoon. We all made our way to the square, and lined up. The monk came by with his almsbowl, and we each scooped our rice into his bowl. Once that was done, we made our way back to the food hall, and had breakfast.
This morning’s breakfast was a chicken/rice/vegetable soup, but since it was a vegetarian dish, it wasn’t chicken. It really did look like chicken though, so I ate it. I didn’t chew it, but since it was so convincing, I didn’t let it bother me. I guess there have been huge scientific advances in making tofu look like meat. Once again, before eating we said our “prayers”. There was also bread, butter, and jam available, so I helped myself.
The rest of the morning was self-directed, and then lunch came. There was plain rice, a vegetarian curry soup, and a vegetable dish. I wasn’t overly hungry, but the curry dish was very good. After lunch we were back in the Meditation Hall, but we were sitting in a semicircle around the monk. We went around and he asked us our thoughts, and if we had any questions. It’s funny how most of us were having problems during the first session, but the morning session was the most productive for all of us.
The monk then described how in Thailand, the most common form of Buddhism practiced wasn’t technically pure Buddhism, but a mix of Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Part of his duties as a monk are to teach the Thai people about the proper application of Buddhist principles. It was very interesting to hear this, and it made me wonder how other religions such as Christianity or Islam may have changed or morphed into something not originally intended. He was very frank about his experiences growing up. He started down his path as a monk when he was nine, and at thirty-two had been a monk for quite some time. I thought he was in his early twenties, so I was a bit shocked.
He described the 3-day celebration his parents had for him when he decided to become a monk. One of the students asked him if his parents were disappointed or sad that he became a monk, and he explained that it is a very honorable thing to have a monk as a son. During my personal readings, I have discovered, that it’s quite common for a Thai male to become a novice monk for a season or even a short time as part of becoming adult. And in fact, those males that do become novices, even if for only a short time, are considered to be better potential husbands.
Our monk was originally from Burma, so he pointed out the differences between what monks can or cannot do between Thailand and other countries. For example, here in Thailand, monks are not allowed to drive, but driving or riding a scooter is considered OK in other countries. In addition, women becoming monks (nuns) here is more rare than in other countries. Again, it’s interesting to see how different countries/regions interpret Buddhist teachings.
I really enjoyed discussing the various topics with the monk. It was very informative. Once that session was done, we had one last sitting session. For me, it was a bust. I didn’t find the proper frame of mind, and I had “monkey mind”; thoughts jumping around. I opened my eyes, and everyone else had their eyes closed. I tried again, and then Lars sneezed. I opened one eye, and he turned around to see if I was looking at him. I wanted to yell “Cheater!”, but I had cheated myself. We smiled at each other, and both tried to get back to the meditation. A little bit later he turned around, and my eyes were open, and we were both on the verge of chuckling. The session ended shortly after that, and it turns out a lot of people had problems in the session.
With the session over, I said thanks to the monk, and Lars and went to our room to pack. We filled out a review and handed our key back in. I asked the organizer if it was necessary to go all the way back to the university. He said no, and I asked if it would be OK if the taxi dropped us off at our intersection. It was extremely hot, and I was not looking forward to walking back to the condo in that heat. The organizer was a bit confused, but when I told him the street where we wanted to stop, it was on the way to the university, so he told the driver, and it was set.
During our trip back to the university, we almost got into an accident. Our driver stopped abruptly and swerved, throwing all of us forward. Luckily I was hanging on to the grab bar, so I didn’t crush the girl next to me. The funny thing, we didn’t hear one horn. That definitely would have played out differently in the U.S. or Europe!
We arrived at the intersection in front of the condo, and the taxi driver pulled over. Lars and I wished everyone well, and we made our way home to a couple of girls who were very happy to see us. Since we’ve moved from Spain, this is the first time we have not been around each other. It’s always good to get home!
It was a very interesting experience, and I came away with a greater appreciation of Buddhism and Thai culture. I’ll be interested to see what Heidi thinks of the experience when she does it.
Have you ever done any sort of meditation? Would you go on a Meditation Retreat?
Where to find the Meditation Retreat Office in Chiang Mai
It is the same location as the Monk Chat, at Wat Suan Dok.
- Wat Suan Dok – MCU Buddhist University Chiang Mai Campus, Suthep Road (opposite Chiang Mai Neurological Hospital)
- Tel: 053-278-967, ext. 210; 084-609-1357
- Website: Meditation Retreat So you can look up costs and supplies.
- Facebook Page: Monk Chat MCU.Chiangmai
- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Feel free to also check out our Family Friendly Guide to Chiang Mai