Monday, March 10, 2008

An Emotional Post About An Emotional Week

It was four in the morning. The fat, middle-aged woman sitting next to me was snoring loud enough that the sound hissed over the screeching of the train wheels. She broke wind again and turned over in her chair. The air-con was pouring buckets of freezing, stale air, directly onto me. Everyone around me seemed satisfied with the thin white blankets the train's conductor had provided at the beginning of the journey. I had played every single song I had ever taken solace in on my iPod before the batteries had died a few moments back.

I was exhausted but glad to be traveling North.

Even if I had been in my own bed, I would not have slept that night.

The silent retreat was not due to end for another four days, but I had escaped, and breathing in the outside world felt like the biggest gift I had ever received. The irony lacked humour at four o'clock in the morning. It was repulsive, sticky, like dirt on my skin that I desired, more than anything, to wash off: that a meditation retreat, ostensibly all about how to work with the breath to obtain a certain level of calm had done the opposite. For the past six days, I had felt my heart and lungs gradually shutting down, shriveling up like my fingers when I spend too long in the bath. Sitting on that train, surrounded by sleeping travelers, I reached my head for the ceiling, held my mouth wide open and gasped for the breath I hadn't been able to inhale for six days.

On the second night of the retreat, lying in my cement cell on my cement bed, in the few minutes I had managed to sleep, I had dreamt of a beautiful Thai woman, a stranger whom I recognized as an employee of the retreat. In my dream, the woman kept offering me a trip back to Surat Thani, the town where my boat from Koh Pan Ngan had docked, for two hundred Baht.
"Take it," she kept saying, "is good, only two hundred Baht."
I had already purchased my ticket and I told her so. Still, she would not let up. She repeated with her beautiful smile that I should take it, that the trip was cheap. My insistence that I didn't need it made no difference to her. She said the same thing over and over, as if she couldn't hear what I was saying, or it didn't matter.

I woke up understanding the meaning of my dream perfectly: this was not my place, it was not my trip, not the route I would be taking. They were trying to sell me a ticket for a journey that I didn't want. I was going somewhere else.

A couple of days before, I had shared a ride to the retreat with a Spanish woman and her Irish flatmate. The woman had already been complaining about having to give up smoking for ten days and how much she hated Thai food. More than a little smugly, I had commented to myself that there was no way she would last all ten days. She was weak, dependant on her nicotine and -- I mean, really, how can anyone hate Thai food???

As with everything else that has happened to me in the past month of traveling, my expectations were aboslutely shattered. In fact I was right; that woman did leave after day one. But so did I. On day six.

What is ten days in the space of a lifetime? With a bit of luck, not very much. And yet every day at Suan Mokh felt like seven years. I thought of the Biblical figure of Isaac, working seven years for his beloved Rachel and then ending up with Lea. That was how I felt at the end of every day.

On the second day, as I was tending to my daily assigned chore -- sweeping the leaves around the dining hall (Karate Kid anyone?) -- I watched as a man, his pack on his back, departed the retreat with conviction. I thought about how I would have felt ashamed to be walking out, to fail. I would probably have been staring at the ground, walking as quietly as possible, not starting straight ahead, my gait obvious and loud. But rather than judge him as I had the Spanish woman, my thought was "how courageous." I was surprised. After all, wasn't I here to gain important insight into my self and my meditation practice? Wasn't I searching for perfect health through this breathing practice and perseverance? Was I really that weak?

The first gong sounded at four in the morning every day. Four-thirty meditation was followed by yoga and then more mediation and a lecture by the abbott who spoke little discernable English. The rest of the day was a mixture of sitting meditation, walking meditation, standing meditation and lectures on breathing techniques as well as the philosophies behind them. Lights out was at 9:30, each of us locked in our individual cells, under our mosquito nets, trying to get comfortable on our wooden pillows.

I didn't mind the phyisical hardships -- the "showering" which consisted of dumping freezing cold water over my sarong-wrapped body, the fasting between one in the afternoon and eight in the morning, or even the silence. In fact, I was most thankful for the silence as it had brought with it a peace of mind in a way I had never experienced before -- I didn't need to be speaking or entertaining others. Instead I was free to focus on wherever it was that my thoughts and feelings led me. My inspiration flowed.

Though they request that participants not bring notebooks or journals with them, that people refrain from reading and writing, I had kept my journal which I wrote in constantly -- at first in secret, but pretty soon whenever a new "epiphany" appeared. And there were many. With no spoken words to distract me, the thoughts popped up with a frequency and clarity that would convince anyone interested in self-exploration to shut the hell up for a long, long while.

Truthfully, I loved the silence. I also loved the food -- mostly grown on the premises, the vegetarian curries and fresh salad leaves were some of the freshest, most delicious meals ever. I loved the people I would occasionally smile at, some of whom would smile back, provided they were having a good moment. Even the roller-coaster aspect of the days didn't bother me. Mostly, I loved what I was experiencing in my head, how much I was falling in love with my life, how real the characters of my novel seemed, how much insight and understanding I was gaining.

And yet on day six, I ran. I ran as if there were murderous crowds following me; as if wolves were nipping at my ankles. I ran. Because I didn't want to hear them anymore -- the people who could speak, the ones who did speak, constantly at us, telling me that the self is an illusion, that thoughts are futile, that art is a waste of time, that passion and joy only lead to unhappiness, that the ultimate goal is complete dissociation from everything I consider the best part of being human.

I think the final straw came when one of the laywomen explained to me about karma and how people who are abused have obviously done something to deserve it. I had come to her with questions about the lecture she had given on Loving Kindness and had admitted that it had been difficult for me to send any to my father because of how he had treated me and my brother as children. Without a trace of emotion or compassion, the woman had explained that nothing comes for no reason, that we always deserve what happens in our lives, that I had obviously done something to merit abuse.
"But I was a baby!" I said.
"Still, if your father do bad thing to you, you do bad thing first." she said.
I thought of what I lived through as a child, much of which I have been working to overcome for years, moments that had come rushing back to me often throughout the previous few days of silence. With a huge amount of self-restraint, I moved my chair back as calmly and quietly as I could and thanked her for her explanation.

One of the draws of Suan Mokh is the "British Monk". Everyone I have met who has experienced the retreat has told me that his lectures are unmissable. They've called him fascinating and hilarious. The monk is originally from the UK and the fact that his English is understandable differentiates him from almost everyone else who addressed us while I was there.

A self-professed reformed aesthete, he gave up both his Western name and way of life to become a monk. Every afternoon, carrying a closed black umbrella, he would trudge over to our meditation area in his orange robes and lecture about their philosophy of Buddhism as well as giving instructions on the proper techniques of breath manipulation. In addition to preaching abstention from worldly pleasures, he talked about his love of ale, how much coffee friends from around the world bring him, and how the notion of work never really appealed to him. He also enjoyed denigrating anything connected to thought, art or passion as regularly as possible, and with as much passion as his dispassion would allow him.

I had much the same reaction to these people as I did to the Rabbis who tried to make me into a better Jew: I needed to get as far away from them as possible. Not wanting to make any rash decisions, however, I let the idea of leaving settle for a couple of days. Throughout that time, every few minutes brought a new decision with it: I should stay and skip the lectures, focus on the meditation; I should go, my trip is only three months long; I should stay and finish what I started; I should go, make my way to Laos, take a cooking class. I watched the people around me with new interest. How were they feeling? What was going through their minds? Who was enjoying? Was anyone else looking like they were going to crack?

For the first part of the retreat, I had focused on my own thoughts. The emotional highs and lows I had been experiencing had been too much of a distraction to allow me to pay much attention to anyone else. But looking around me, I realized that by depriving us of sleep, food and stimulation, we were all slowly being turned into zombies. Many kept their gazes firmly on the floor; the smiles exchanged were diminishing by the minute, and the only sounds we heard other than those of the nature around us were the words of people who had probably taken refuge in their practice because they had not been able to find their place in regular society.

The world in Suan Mokh appeared to drain of color. It started to look more and more black and white to me, a charcoal sketch in shades of grey, a place where color is associated with pleasure, that dirty word. Though the grounds are stunning, it had started to feel as if I had stepped into the world that lies between life and death, where silence pervades so as not to disturb the balance. The shift was dramatic. Was I the only one experiencing it?

Outside of the compound, I heard trucks drive by and children scream from the back of their parents' cars; women laughed as they walked by -- I was hearing life and I craved it. It wasn't that I wanted anything fancy or luxurious to offset the basic living conditions at the retreat. What I wanted could not be bought. I wanted to feel alive, to smell great food, to taste it, to see the sites and listen to the chatter of people whom I couldn't understand. I wanted to see colors, for my senses to be awakened by all sorts of unexpected stimuli -- the stimuli I was being told were the origin of human misery.

Maybe the self is an illusion, maybe we are all addicted to external stimulation, maybe our desire for pleasure is what causes our unhappiness. I don't care. If I'm an illusion, I'll take it -- lock me up, make me certifiable. If pleasure and joy and love are my downfall, I'll hurl myself off that bridge without hesitation. If external stimulation, including the creation of art, are an addiction, then I'm guilty.

So I left. Day six brought with it a tailwind and energy that I had been missing until then. I had gotten what I needed and it was time to move on. My eyes opened wider than they had in six years. I smiled my first real, happy smile, packed my belongings and made my way to the road from which I was going to catch a ride to town with my head up and my steps firm.

Twelve hours later, I turned to wash my hands in the train's bathroom and caught sight of myself in the mirror. It was the first time I had seen myself in a week. I had lost weight and my shabby tank top was hanging off my shoulders. But my eyes were bright and I smiled. I felt like I had been given a choice and I had chosen: LIFE.

The first thing I did was call my mother to tell her I love her. And D. My wonderful, magical, bless-him-for-putting-up-with-my-madness future husband.

It's now been two days and I am finally starting to come down off the week that was. Yesterday, I was unable to do much of anything. But I did, for the first time since leaving London, have a glass of wine. I have cried a lot. Like today when I encountered D's first novel in a bookshop. I have laughed out loud walking down the street, and on the train to Bangkok, I spent a good hour singing as people slept around me. I wonder why it takes trips to the other end of the world and silent retreats for me to be grateful. But grateful I am. I am also on the other end of the world.

As I mentioned before, the food at Suan Mokh is outstanding. It is simple, but the ingredients are fresh, which makes all the difference. The day before I left, they served us these exquisite little veggie cakes. When I asked for the recipe, they told me I was too attached to food, that my attachment would bring me misery, that I should let it go. In the end, I think because they realized I was a lost cause as far as theirs was concerned, I managed to get it out of them:

Use fresh soy beans. Make milk out of them as you would any nut or bean*
Steam the soybean pulp leftover from the milk
Once the pulp is steamed, add finely chopped vegetables such as corn, carrots, green beans
Optionally, seaweed can also be added (I love it)
Mix together with salt, pepper, chilli paste and a pinch sugar if desired
Make into balls that you then fry (they use palm or soybean oil)
(Blot off the extra oil by placing the cooked balls between paper towels)

* soak the beans overnight. In the morning, throw away the soak water and then mix 1 part beans to one part water. Strain. In this case, don't throw away the leftover pulp as it is integral to the patties.


Andréa N. said...

I am so happy for you! I am traveling with you, my friend, in my heart and my mind. R and I have been going nuts researching and cooking vegan recipes and we always think of you and D and how much you would both love them as well. After this post, I'm even more sure of that. :)
Much much love, smiles, happiness and, please, no guilt for being human. We can't be anything else just yet.
Beijos e bom dia, comunidade!

Dilek said...

Dearest Gabriela,

I've been thinking of you so much these past few weeks, missing you, wondering what you are going through, if you are happy...but the beauty and incredible craft of your words take me along with you on the amazing journey that you are on and I feel so happy for you that you get to be just 'you' for a while.
You had the courage to step up into that mirror deep within to see who stares back at you - something that most of us are too frightened to ever do! I can't wait to see you again, though I am conscious that I may need to get re-acquainted with the new aspects of you...and I'm looking forward to discovering you all over again!
You are in our thoughts and hearts: Ed sends all his love!
xxxx Dilek

PS: All those people at the retreat trying to make you feel bad about everything that's good - why don't they just pick up one of those shovels that must be lying around in their gardens and dig themselves a nice little uncomfortable hole, lie in it and stuff their stupid gobs with goat shit??? :)

Marine said...


Quelle intensite ! Ton ecriture est un delice a lire.

J'ai bien pense a toi ces jours ci. Je te suis, et te lis avec beaucoup de plaisir et d'admiration.

Je dois te dire que je suis aussi effaree a ta lecture de cette retraite et de ces gens "detaches" et detacheurs.

Comme dit Andrea, tu es humaine, et tant mieux!!!!

Des bises de la grosse pomme,

samantha said...


Im hope im not intruding, but I had to say this. I think it is very interesting your opinion of this retreat. I myself have been there, and I didnt last 6 days, I left on day 4. I totally recognise the feeling you describe when you left the place. I wonder how you feel now. Did your views change a bit? I was there a year ago. I do regret a littly leaving early because I thinks what they teach there is very precious gift. Their vision of happiness is sureal and I dont think you should stick on that to judge this place. They are shearing their beliefs, for free and to help oneself feel better. I think your judgment is a bit harsh and I just hope people thinking of living the experience wont not go because of your thread. It is a unique experience and they is a lot to learn from it. Good and bad like everything in life, but again, I dont think critisizing it is a good attitude. But that s opinions are interesting I just want to say that people wanting to go there shouldnt hesitate. It s a great experience, and the only bad about it comes from oneself believe me!
All the best to you

GG said...

Hi Samantha --

To each their own.

I was and still am very interested in doing another silent retreat, but that specific one was, in my opinion, biased and ignorant and completely counter-productive for many people there.

I think the most important is to research the specific retreat because not all are the same, as I found out once there.

What an amazing experience -- to live in complete silence for such an amount of time -- but that shouldn't be an excuse to pump me full of misinformation and prejudice (especially since we can not respond).

As I said, I loved the silence, it was the words of others, those who used the captive audience, that I couldn't quite stomach. Those feelings haven't changed.

What about you? Have you returned? Have you checked out any other retreats?

If it was a year ago, we might have been there at the same time.