Thailand – “thin,” “bulky,” “lumpy,” “soft,” “hard,” “overstuffed”: these are all words to describe the pillows you have to endure when backpacking in Southeast Asia on a strict budget.
But “wooden” was not a word I expected to add to these adjectives. Having just registered at a forest monastery meditation retreat in southern Thailand, I gape at my small, bare dorm room with its raised-platform concrete bed.
Lying simply on top of the concrete is a straw mat, a mosquito net and… a wooden pillow.
This small block of lacquered dark wood has a half-moon cut out on the top, presumably for my head. I’ve mentally prepared myself for the prolonged silence of a retreat setting, but I haven’t anticipated this. It’s going to be an interesting 10 days at Wat Suan Mokkh.
I wake groggily at 4 am to the clanging crescendo of a gong that sounds like it’s right outside my door. I join the other staggering women in a dark walk to the toilets. A quick brush of the teeth and a splash of cold water from the cistern onto my face and we’re off to the meditation hall for 4:30 am sitting meditation.
In a fit of restlessness after almost an hour, I peek at the other meditators to see what they’re doing. All sitting like little Buddhas, so still and concentrated, they make me feel like a failure. Do they not feel agitation or pain in the knees as I do? Oops, I’m thinking. Back to the breath.
The 75-year-old abbot teaches us to be mindful of every movement we make. Multi-tasking, which the Western world so reveres, is not hailed as a great skill here. The queen of multi-tasking, I’m resisting the idea of living in each moment. Breathe in… breathe out.
After an extraordinary morning yoga session doing sun salutations while actually watching the sun rise, it’s time to eat. “With wise reflection, I eat this food, not for fattening, not for beautification,” we chant in a ritual reflection before beginning our meal each morning and noon. “Only to maintain this body, to stay alive and healthy to support the spiritual way of life.”
Two meals a day are more than enough, and the food is delicious, vegetarian and plentiful. I train my mind to stay with raising my fork to my mouth, placing the food on my tongue, tasting it, chewing each mouthful and “watching” the swallowing.
The dining hall is surreal, with over 120 men and women separated on each side of the hall, none of us talking. The only noises are the occasional scraping of a chair or a bowl by a not-so-mindful participant or the background chirp of geckos. These noises grab my mind and I’m off thinking again, not focusing on the details of eating. I bring my mind back again and again.
On the third day, during a full-moon night, we have a special ceremony of carrying candles during a walking meditation around the pond. I’m supposed to focus on walking step by step, following the form in front of me and just breathing. But my eyes want to drink in the beauty – the stars, the glowing moon, palm trees reflected in the pond, long lines of flickering flames in the blackness. The men walk around the rectangular pond and women circle the round pond. Breathe in… breathe out.
Day after day of meditation is mentally and physically exhausting, so I look forward to soaking in the hot springs in the dusk of early evening. Barefoot, sarong-clad women walk softly along the sandy path to the pool.
We ease our sore bodies inch by inch into the steaming water, allowing our skin to adjust. I can’t take more than five minutes, but the serenity, the silence and the bats swooping overhead give me moments of wonder. Finally, silence is helping to quiet my mind, ever so slowly.
As for the wooden pillow, I actually begin to enjoy sleeping on it, although I admit I’ve padded it with a couple of layers of my soft jacket. The pillow, in fact, turns out to be the least of my challenges. I discover that the mind is much more unyielding than wood, a strong force with ingrained habits that requires the gentle, loving and sustained training of breathing meditation to let go of past conditioning.
Breathe in… breathe out.