6 Lessons I Learned While Staying at a Buddhist Monastery

SURAT THANI, THAILAND – “This will be your last day of speaking. Tomorrow morning we will enter into silence for the next ten days.”

The Buddhist nun was dressed in pristine white robes. The warm light illuminating the room reflected off of her impressively smooth and shaved skull.

She stood in front of a group of international visitors gathered in the humble covering of the dining hall as the rain poured down mercilessly on a clay roof.

I was at Wat Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage for my first Vipassana retreat.

One by one we agreed to the rules at the monastery. We committed to silence, daily chores and a strict schedule that involved waking up at 4:00 am and meeting for our first of many meditations.

The monastery was tucked away in the lush forest of Southern Thailand and the grounds were expansive, with gender-specific sleeping quarters, various meditation halls, man-made lakes, and even a natural hot spring that bubbled up and sent steam floating through the thick humid air.

There were perhaps one hundred people attending the Vipassana retreat from all corners of the world. Without speaking I had no way of knowing which accents would roll off their tongue, if they were naturally talkative or reserved, or how they felt about the experience we were soon to share.

Basic Rules

  • Keep complete silence throug­hout the retreat (ex­cep­tions: per­son­al in­ter­views from Day 3 to Day 6 and emer­gen­cies).
  • Stay within the boundaries of the retreat center.
  • Keep the Eight Precepts, which are:
    1. Intend not to take away any breath(abstain from killing).
    2. Intend not to take away what is not given (abstain from steal­ing).
    3. Intend to keep one’s mind and one’s body free from any sexual activity.
    4. Intend not to harm others by speech.
    5. Intend not to harm one’s con­scious­ness with sub­stances that in­toxi­cate and lead to care­less­ness (no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking etc).
    6. Intend not to eat between after noon and before dawn.
    7. Intend not to dance, sing, play or listen to music, watch shows, wear garlands, orna­ments and beautify oneself with perfumes and cosmetics.
    8. Intend not to sleep or sit on luxurious beds and seats.

This is the moral code for those who seek normalcy plus light­ness and sim­plici­ty in living.

The straw mat and wooden pillow sleeping quarters at Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage.

Daily Routine

(With some modifications on Day 9 and Day 10)

04.00 ***Wake up = Monastery bell

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

The main meditation hall at Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage.

6 Lessons I Learned While Staying at a Buddhist Monastery

The gong would sound at 4:00 am and I would rise from the straw mat and wooden pillow we slept on, collect a candle and strike a match to use my lantern to guide myself to the meditation hall.

We would engage in meditation, listen to dharma talks from the monks and eat our vegetables and rice in silence.

The lifestyle at Wat Suan Mokkh is about simplicity in all things. We left behind our luxuries and personalities to learn. The experiences I had, from scrubbing the foot baths and bathing with a bucket to listening to the teachings of lifelong meditators, taught me a lifetime of valuable lessons.

1. We’re addicted to distractions.

The registration process at the monastery involved handing over all of our electronic devices and books. The monastery has a strict zero-technology policy and also asks that you commit to ten days without reading, writing, intensive exercise, listening to music, dancing, singing, texting, etc.

The extensive list reminded me of how many ways we can engage in distraction on a daily basis. After being stripped of these commonplace activities we were simply left with ourselves.

On the first day my mind began searching for the smallest distractions I could latch on to. I would look forward to the two meals a day when I could focus on consuming something, anything.

Our minds are hungry for distraction. Distraction allows us to focus on something besides the act of being. We obsess over productivity and revolt against boredom and the horror of doing nothing.

The retreat made me reflect on addictions to substances like alcohol, nicotine, technology and how they are convenient ways to escape from doing the hard work of sitting with ourselves in silence.

2. Don’t believe what you think.

One of the ultimate distractions and most rampant human addictions is the attachment to our thoughts.

My time at the retreat allowed me to get up close and personal with the constant reel of thoughts that played in my head.

I would think about the past and the future to create a movie in my head that I found to be more entertaining than the meditation hall.

I explored the borderless realms of my imagination, good and bad. I imagined worst case scenarios and all the things I would do and eat and buy when I left the grounds on the final day.

What surprised me was how quick I was to believe my thoughts, especially the bad ones. Most of the things I thought about never came to fruition, especially the thoughts I conjured up about the other people at the retreat.

3. We look at others to avoid looking at ourselves.

My favourite obsession I used to distract myself during the retreat was a fixation on other people. I had never spoken to most of the people at the centre (I did meet one attendant at the airport beforehand) and yet I became convinced based on their mannerisms and behaviours that I knew exactly who they were.

One woman especially captured my attention because to my agitated mind she wasn’t conforming to the retreat the way I wanted her to. She was often late for our meditations and she would fail to show up for the evening sittings that were especially gruelling.

She went for second helpings when others hadn’t yet eaten and failed to do all of her designated chores. I started watching her and stewing over all her behaviours.

I later realized that my fixation on this person I couldn’t control protected me from turning inward and having to face my own flaws. I then realized how often I did this in my own life.

Meaningless gossip allowed me to take the attention off of myself and distract my busy mind with other people’s lives. Turning that attention inward not only gave me more peace, but it gave me control over the only person I’m in charge of – myself.

4. Nature is our greatest teacher.

The most transformational meditation I had during the retreat was on one of the final days. This day was unlike the others.

The monks usually led daily dharma talks and had structured group meditations. On this day, even the monks refrained from talking and we were encouraged to explore the grounds and meditate alone.

I found a secluded spot in a grassy expansive field. The birds were singing and circling above and trees draped around me, blanketing me in a soothing patch of shade.

I entered into a trance-like meditative state and lost track of time. I listened intently to the symphony of nature around me and became enveloped in the unity of it all.

The meditation in the field could have been hours long and yet it felt timeless. The connection I felt with nature allowed me to burst out of the confines of my egoic mind or “small self” and reunite with Mother Earth.

5. When you accept pain, it dissipates.

A typical day at the centre involved ten hours of meditation a day. I was 26 when I participated and have never suffered from crippling back or knee pain.

The first day tested my physical abilities. After 20 minutes of sitting my knees were crying out for me to stand up and move. I felt visceral pain snaking its way up my spine and muscle spasms quaking in my body.

I looked around and noted that some people at this retreat were over 60 or 70 years old. One woman walked with difficulty, cane in hand, and continued to join every single meditation.

The monks told us to stop resisting physical pain and feel it, examine it, and finally allow it. I felt anger at this instruction but after investigating my pain with love I realized it began to dissipate.

Although this particular instance referred to my physical pain I realized that it applied to challenging or painful emotions in my life. The more I ran away from them, the more intense they would be as they screamed to be heard.

Accepting pain allows you to transmute it into healing.

6. The judging mind is loud and unreliable.

On the final day they informed us that there would be a microphone placed on stage and we would take turns speaking about our experience to our peers.

The people I had watched and eaten with, judged or smiled at, went up to reveal their accents and place of origin, their personalities and their hardships.

I was astounded to discover that all of my assumptions were wrong.

People I pinned to be reserved were actually animated and talkative. They shared their heartfelt experiences. One man who consistently fell asleep during meditations shared that he was only 18 years old and came to the retreat after a suicide attempt.

An older gentleman shared that he had been to the retreat nearly 10 times and was recovering from a tumultuous divorce and in immense pain. Another woman confessed that she had left everything she knew in New York City to pursue a non-profit position in Nairobi and was grappling with the uncertainty of change.

Before we slipped into our taxis to various destinations we gathered in the dining hall to do the thing we hadn’t done in nearly two weeks, talk.

I met a group of people, shared a taxi and stayed at a hostel in town in their company. As I wandered the city of Surat Thani, Thailand exploring the night market with a group of new friends we ran into the woman that I had obsessed over with anger and annoyance throughout the retreat.

We met eyes and her face was overcome with a brilliant smile. She embraced me and engaged in friendly conversation about all our travel plans.

When we parted, I smiled thinking about how the universe placed her back in my life so I could admit how wrong I was in judging her character.

The judging mind is loud but it’s a way that we block love from emanating. I left the retreat feeling reconnected with this natural emanation of love and a token of wisdom, that our mind might just be crazy and we shouldn’t be so quick to believe it.

Interested in Attending a Vipassana Retreat?

I will admit that Vipassana Retreats are not a walk in the park. They require intense concentration, patience and surrender.

However, I would also mention that many people at the retreat shared they were first time meditators. I believe that we are all capable of doing the self-work required to sit with ourselves in silence.

Fortunately, almost every country in the world offers Vipassana Retreats. You don’t need to jet off to rural Thailand to participate.

Search for Vipassana retreats in your area and open your mind to the lessons waiting to be learned within yourself.