Switching Off The World

Written by Cassie Lim, Be Movement issue 1 – SINGAPORE, published October 2012

SWITCHING OFF THE WORLD – SILENT RETREAT

I went to the seven day silent retreat in Dipabhavan in Koh Samui, during a time when I felt really burned-out by work and was physically and mentally exhausted. If you were to ask me whether I intentionally sought out a meditation retreat, my answer is no. I was never interested in such things and am not religious. The only purpose I went for it was because it provided a valid reason for me not to be contacted by work, since I had to take a vow of silence and surrender all forms of communication for a week.

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Having been overwhelmed by work and communication every single day, I wanted to experience what it was like to be silent. I happened to find Dipabhavan through Google and, since it is open to all faiths and their retreat dates coincided with my holidays, I decided to give it a try. Dipabhavan is located in a beautiful spot, tucked in the middle of a small mountain facing the sea. There were no sounds from cars or crowds; only from Nature’s residents. On hindsight, although I was prepared for the silence, I was unprepared for everything else …

Upon arriving at the retreat I was given a brochure, with a schedule to wake up at 4.30 a.m. and there was a whole series of meditations all the way until 9.30 p.m. I noticed there was no mention of dinner on the brochure, just tea, but I presumed it was an oversight. Of course they would serve dinner.

They brought me to the ladies’ dorm and I was taken aback to see that I had to sleep on a wooden plank, without a mattress. The volunteer smiled at me and, to add to my dismay, handed me a block of wood for a pillow. This was beginning to feel like a Shaolin Kung Fu movie. The first meditation session was pure torture for a beginner. I had absolutely no idea that it would be so difficult to just sit still and breath! Every few minutes I would feel a discomfort, or an itch somewhere. I got cramps, mosquito bites, the yawns, leg pain, head pain, thumb pain, whatever. My mind was racing like crazy and there were tonnes of things running through my head: work; family; friends; and my fellow meditators, who’s nodding off, who’s struggling like me and what’s for lunch? After the never-ending morning meditation came lunch and it was the highlight of my day! Although it was simple vegetarian fare, it tasted fantastic as the ingredients were so fresh and natural.

After lunch, I went to take a shower. Imagine my shudder when I saw this long concrete trough in the bathroom, with cold yellowish water that I’m supposed to bathe in. Basically, I took the shower as quickly as possible. After the shower, there was no mirror anywhere and I wondered how was I supposed to put on my skincare products?

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By then I was so exhausted, I struggled to my wooden box to sleep. It was very rustic, to say the least, but somehow I did fall asleep. There were no alarms and instead they rang bells to signal the start of meditation sessions, which was rather romantic. I climbed groggily up the hill to the meditation hall to endure yet another painful afternoon session of meditation, all the while looking forward to dinner.

Then came the chanting session before dinner and, in one of the passages, a precept (rule) said to abstain from eating between noon until dawn. Horrified, I realised it wasn’t an oversight on the brochure. It was true! There would be no dinner! I was devastated, as food was very important to me and I used to get very cranky without food. I almost wanted to run down the mountain and give up the retreat. Perhaps in consideration for people like me, the meditation centre was kind enough to leave out some bananas that they had cut off from trees in the jungle for tea-time.

These bananas, I’m telling you, they’re magic bananas! Whether induced by the delirium of hunger or not, I’ve never tasted such good bananas and they exploded in my mouth with the sweetness of sunshine, earth, rain and air.

Basically the first two days were painful to endure, other than mealtimes. I was flopping around in the meditation hall like a fish out of water, here, there, everywhere, restless and listless. All I was doing, was thinking about not thinking and looking out for fellow meditators who were in as much distress as I was, to make myself feel less guilty.

What’s more, we had to do yoga every morning and I hated yoga. I am not a flexible person and the first and last yoga teacher that I had actually burst out laughing when she saw me do one of the poses, so I was very unenthusiastic about the yoga sessions in Dipabhavan which put on display my stiffness for all to see. On top of that, there were these hippie yoga meditators with tattoos and braids, who were stretching to the high heavens and putting their faces between their legs. It was so depressing.

When it came to the third day, I was on the verge of giving up. “Maybe this is not for me?” I was feeling even more frustrated than when I had arrived. Some people did leave, and perhaps because of that I thought, “I signed up for this and I am not going to give up.” There were interview sessions that day with the head monk, Ahjan Po, for people who were having problems with meditation. Well, that would be me, so I put my name down and that led to the first glimpse of hope for my meditation practice.

Speaking to Ahjan Po helped a lot. He seemed far away and hard to understand when he was giving talks in the meditation hall. However, sitting across from me, he seemed more human and real. He told me to just keep focusing on my breathing, with deep long breaths, and the thoughts would go away. At one point, he laughed at a question that I asked and I felt enveloped by the serene joy emanating from this monk.

That evening, I finally managed to sit still for half-an-hour without moving. -hurray! -although after that my legs cramped up and throbbed intensely for ten minutes before I could stand up.

The subsequent days kept getting better. I found myself winding down to the natural rhythm of things in nature. The silence was becoming normal and I felt like I could finally breathe properly, without all the noise and distractions. Also, I realised how much the eyes convey, without the need for words, and how little words we actually require. Surprisingly, I started to enjoy the morning yoga sessions and was able to almost touch my toes. I recall one instance in particular, as we lay down at the end of our yoga sessions and watched the dawn drip like perspiration on our bodies:

Breathing in, breathing out, deeply, slowly.

All of a sudden, a smile burst from within me and rippled gently on my lips.

Everything was so clear, so lucid.
Everything at that moment, whole and complete.

It seemed as if the rhythm of the earth, the wind and the sky, mingled with the deafening sound of insects, creatures, leaves and trees, welcomed me and in that moment, I felt at peace and truly at home. There was no longer “I”.

There was just nature.

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As I was getting very comfortable and settled, suddenly the seven days were up and it was time to leave the silent retreat. Coming to the outside world again was a shock to the senses. After being isolated for seven days, what I’d gone through felt much longer. I was suddenly unaccustomed to the amount of noise, pollution and people around me. It was hard to breathe properly and thoughts started crowding my mind quickly. Everywhere I looked were all these egos, shouting “Me, me, ME!” It was distracting, yet I was exactly like that. How funny!

Big dogs used to scare me and there were many big stray dogs in Thailand.

As I was walking back to a resort where I stayed after the retreat, this big milk chocolate coloured dog came up to me and wagged its tail. Tentatively I reached out and stroked its head, then its entire body and it was such a joy. I could not believe that I had been missing out on such a simple joy, stroking a large, warm furry body. When it turned to stare deeply at me, I noticed its eyes were green and felt a deep connection with it. We played for a while and, as I was leaving the resort the next day, the dog came and yelped and wanted to follow me. It’s strange, this connection that I now feel with animals and nature. We do indeed all share the same air and swim in the same consciousness.

I stuck to the yoga and meditation routine and found immense peace and calm with it. The next resort that I went to, I remembered walking in and getting disturbed at seeing so many images of myself. Why were there so many mirrors in a room? Do we really need one on the dressing table, one in the wardrobe and one in the toilet? It’s amusing, this effort to stabilise something so impermanent, fleeting as fallen snowflakes on your hands.

It felt much more honest at the retreat when I didn’t have to face this face and body every day, everywhere. At least then I could really see through these eyes and not care about how I or others looked. Strangely, even my appetite has decreased and food seems less important. I suppose the fasting precept really worked and now my mind is allowed to suckle, not just my stomach.

After the retreat I felt a lot lighter, as if I have shed my burdens. Also, meditation and yoga, two such foreign things less than ten days ago, have become a part of my life. I no longer feel a need to fill up life with endless activities, or plans. Just as a leaf falls without knowing where it will land, I might as well enjoy the ride rather than worry about the inevitable.

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