The Dipabhavan Meditation Retreat (From Striving to Thriving - Part 3)
Updated: Oct 14, 2019
This is a continuation of two previous posts: From Striving to Thriving Part 1, in which I reflected on my experience attempting a 90 minute meditation, and From Striving to Thriving Part 2, in which I returned to the foundations of mindfulness and offered advice on how one may begin or reinforce their practice.
After much contemplation following these experiences and writings, I decided it was time to seek out wise teachers and the time and space to dive deeper into the practice, both of which I found at the Dipabhavan Meditation Retreat in Koh Samui, Thailand. This post summarizes the week long retreat, what it was like to stay at Dipabhavan, and some further thoughts that may help you dive deeper into your practice as well.
The Retreat Grounds
We were picked up in the busy area of Lamai beach road at the Utopia Resort. The group I found waiting to be picked up was calm and quiet amidst the hustle of busy shops and streets around. They seemed ready to go to the center and begin their silence for the week. We exchanged names after loading our belongings onto the truck, but that was all... silence... until we arrived.
We were given a tour of the grounds (some photos of which can be seen throughout this post) before bringing our bags to our sleeping quarters: a simple wooden bed and pillow with a straw mat. We were given a blanket and bug net as the quarters were not sealed from the outdoors. I chose an area nearest a window/opening to be closer to nature, not knowing I would spend the whole week among the plants, tress, and animals that sprawled the retreat grounds anyways.
The grounds seemed small considering we would not be going anywhere outside for the week. 3 pathways leading up and down steep hills creating somewhat of a triangular boundary. At the first corner; a hall for meals and tea, the second; the meditation hall and men’s dormitory, the third; the women’s dormitory (which the men didn’t go near). These, plus some other buildings such as the monks’ rooms, a separate meal hall for Thai participants, a small building for the staff, and some others, made up the space we could roam. One pathway on the steepest hill and a small viewpoint from the meditation hall pointed towards the ocean in the distance, which became the closest thing to a distraction we would have for 7 days.
Guidelines, Chores, and Daily Schedule
Our guidelines during the retreat were as follows:
- No usage of distracting items (phones laptops, tablets etc. which were given to the hosts and locked away before beginning our noble silence).
- No speaking unless chanting, during the food reflection, or privately asking an important question to the teachers.
- Do your best to avoid eye contact and focus on your own experience, rather than observing others.
- No leaving the retreat groundsAttend each event on time.
- Wear loose clothing the covers the shoulders and knees.
- Keep a reasonable distance from participants of the opposite sex to avoid distraction and sensual thoughts.
Each retreat participant signed up for a chore for the week. I was the last to sign, and the last remaining chore was called Food Reflection. I wasn’t sure what that meant until I was handed a cue card:
Each meal I was to read it in front of the group and they would repeat each line at the pauses (/). How fitting I thought it was, as I had been struggling with my mindful eating practice prior to arriving. Since I would still have time during regular chore hours in the morning I also signed up to sweep up dead leaves and twigs around the Buddha statue in the garden area... seemed tedious, but peaceful. I ended up learning something great performing this chore.
Our schedule was more or less the same each day:
04.30 - Wake Up
05.00 - Morning Reading
05.15 - Sitting meditation
05.45 - Yoga / Exercise
07.00 - Sitting meditation
07.30 - Breakfast & Chores / Free time
09.30 - Dhamma talk & Sitting meditation
10.30 - Walking or standing meditation
11.00 - Sitting meditation
11.30 - Lunch & chores / Free time
14.00 - Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.00 - Walking or standing meditation
15.30 - Sitting meditation
16.00 - Walking or standing meditation
16.30 - Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
17.30 - Tea / Free time
19.00 - Sitting meditation
19.30 - Group walking meditation
20.00 - Sitting meditation
20.30 - Bedtime
We had all seen the schedule and guidelines prior to booking, so this was no surprise, but it certainly wasn’t easy. The first two days were the toughest, but as time went on, we began to become accustomed to the schedule and float from hour to hour in a kind of calm, content, and nullified state. I found myself giggling at one time thinking that I was like a joyous zombie.
A week of stillness brings with it many realizations, too many to share with a single blog post. However, they all come back to the 3 characteristics of nature, according to Buddhist philosophy, which I can relate to 3 subtle yet profound experiences at the retreat:
1) Everything is Impermanent.
On the first morning, after our first round of meditation, yoga, more meditation, and breakfast, it was time for chores. I headed up the hill toward the Buddha statue and garden, where I found a bamboo broom and basket to brush up the dead leaves. There was a beautiful lotus flower that sat in a small man-made pond in front of the Buddha statue, which watched over the pond and garden with a subtle smile.
The lotus continued to catch my eye. At times I stopped and simply admired it before continuing on with sweeping. I put the leaves I collected that day in a basket and dumped them in the forest just before the bell rang for our next round of meditations.
I returned to sweeping the morning of day 2. As I swept, my mind eventually drifted to the lotus again. I glanced up to admire its beauty, to realize it was gone. I approached the small pond to see the the flower had closed. “Strange...” I thought. It saddened me as I clung to thoughts of the flower for the rest of my sweeping that morning.
On day 3, the flower had not re-bloomed. After dhamma discussions of non-self I was able to let go of my attachment to it, but still found myself confused... “Why had the flower closed?”. In fact, it now looked as though it was dying, slowly sinking beneath the surface of the pond and absorbing the murky waters, leaving a yellow-brown tone in the normally pristine white petals.
On day 4, I came to the garden to sweep but immediately went to the pond to check the lotus, which was now completely submerged in the murky waters. Feeling melancholy but detached from the flower, I was about to turn and begin sweeping up my first pile of leaves, when something small in the water caught my eye. It quivered nervously in the petals of the lotus. I squatted down to get a closer look. A tadpole? No... 2, maybe 3 tadpoles swam in and around the submerged lotus. My first thought... “You killed the flower. What will the Buddha statue have to look at now...”. I went about my sweeping with a feeling of mild discontent.
On day 5, I noticed more tadpoles. Some were larger than others, with small legs and starting to look like that of an adolescent frog. On the side of the pond was a foaming mound. A frogs nest I guessed, possibly full of eggs that would hatch into more tadpoles. I sat and watched them for a little longer this time, finding their nervous quivering somewhat amusing. After 5 days of introversion and only nature to entertain, these things tend spark joy in the mind.
On day 6, as I approached the pond during my morning sweeping to observe, as small creature jumped away from the edge of the pond. A tiny frog! As I stared into the pond, which was now teeming with little tadpoles; some large, some small, my mind was blank, focused on the quivering motions of the tiny creatures. Just before returning to sweeping, I glanced up at the Buddha statue directly in front of me, still subtly smiling, content and still as ever. It finally hit me...
My attachment to the beautiful flower had been causing my mild discontent all this time. There was nothing good or bad about the flower, nothing good or bad about it’s death, and nothing good or bad about the quivering tadpoles. Everything is impermanent, everything comes and goes, everything is born to die and make way for something new. My attachment to the flower was much like our attachment to grander things in life that sometimes seem permanent, or more permanent, but truly are not. Our health, our families, our partners, our finances, our materials, our mind, the lotus flower, everything material and mental that brings us sensual pleasure is impermanent. To become attached to them is to open space for future suffering. Realizing this, suddenly the tadpoles, didn’t seem to quiver. Their movement seemed to slow, becoming graceful and delicate. It was all a simple change in perspective, subtle, yet powerful.
If the Buddha could observe all things, ever-changing and impermanent, without attachment and a smile on his face, than so could I.
2) Suffering is part of life.
The schedule was a bit lighter on day 5. Much of the time we able to choose our own method of practice: seated or standing, walking or observing, concentrated or insightful. Mid-day we sat for a group meditation before being given time for this self-directed practice. I arose from my seat and chose a square path around the men’s side of the meditation hall for walking meditation. At this point in the week, my knees ached after a 30min seated session, having been stretched, session after session, day after day, in a crossed legged posture. Normally I can sit for up to an hour comfortably, but the stretching and pain in the knees seemed to be compounded with each session, so now even 30 minutes was a challenge.
As I mindfully walked my path, I noticed a fellow participant still sitting. He had not moved after finishing the 30 minute group session. After another 30 minutes, I moved to sit for more practice outside in the garden. Another 30 min or so passed and my mindfulness wavered so I returned to the hall for more walking meditation. This fellow visitor had not moved, still sitting in the exact same position on the floor as he had been for the past 90 minutes.
Jealousy clouded my mind. As I walked my square path around the men’s meditation space, I continually found myself distracted by my friend’s deep state of meditation, realizing he had achieved what I had strived for so intently around 6 weeks prior (See From Striving to Thriving - Part 1). “That could be me, that should be me... how has he managed to sit there for so long?”, round and round these thoughts went in my head, as I rounded my path in the hall, becoming increasingly jealous and frustrated each time.
I sought for reasons why I was so jealous, for ways I might be able to let go of this jealousy. I tried thinking of my friend as an inspiring teacher, still I was jealous. I tried thinking of the path he may have taken or how long it might have been for him to get here, still I was jealous. Eventually a teaching from earlier that day entered my mind: Some suffering is inevitable (physical suffering) but mental suffering is created by mental formation. To simply observe, without forming thoughts about things we come into contact with, is to release mental suffering and see things as they truly are.
At the point of sense contact, no suffering occurs. At the moment of seeing my friend, I am not jealous, it is when I begin to THINK about my friend that jealousy, mental suffering, occurs. It's as if we wear glasses, the lenses of which are made of memories, likes and dislikes, preferences, and impressions. This thinking or mental formation is the root of all mental agitation.
After putting this teaching to work by focusing on the simple observation of my friend: the colour of his clothes, the shape of his posture, the expression on his face; my mind cleared, my jealousy vanished, and mindfulness returned. I finished the walking meditation with contentment and went about the rest of the afternoon with a clear mind.
Suffering may be part of life, but it is a great teacher and not purely a negative experience. In light of wisdom, suffering brings growth, but in the dark of ignorance, suffering brings stress and eventually, death.
3) There is no self.
Before the retreat ended, we were prepared for re-entry to normal society. We were told our senses would feel heightened and we may feel over-stimulated for a time, that mindfulness would be very hard to maintain after leaving the retreat grounds, and taught ways we could keep our practice going on our own. It was true that normal life felt over stimulating and that deep mindfulness slipped fast, but the teachings that were shared with us remained.
When meditation is deep and prolonged, thoughts disappear for a time, and self vanishes. It is not something that can be fully explained, only experienced. A thoughtless mind reveals selflessness. It’s really that simple, but certainly not easy. Buddhists refer to this selflessness, the thoughtless mind, as Nibanna (or Nirvana in other sects). In yoga philosophy it is understood as experiencing the universal Self (note the capitalization, which should not be confused for the lower case self - you can refer to my previous post Self and Non-self for more on this topic). This state: Nirvana, universal Self, can only be reached through the selfless mind, and the selfless mind can only be realized through meditation.
Once returning to normal society after the retreat I constantly noticed all the ways our modern world is designed to reinforce our personal sense of self and distract us from making selfless choices. Advertising, mass marketing, social media platforms, shopping malls, high tech devices, and consumerism as a whole reinforces our sense of materiality and our deeply rooted sense of self. We become distracted by loud and shiny things, our thoughts cloud the mind, we go round and round in our head with desires and fantasies, and create needles mental suffering. At the end of it all, our time, money, and most importantly our contentment is lost to the groups that steal it away from us with analytics and clever tactics.
Though, even the modern world and consumerism is as much a part of nature as anything else. The people and groups behind it all are not to blame, nor are we, for to blame at all is to deepen our sense of self even further. What we can do, is search for the truth, and practice. For the only thing we can really control is our awareness. That is all we are to begin with.
Eventually, if truth and practice are spread far enough, we will awaken as a collective society, our ways will change, and self will be uprooted from the source: the thinking mind.
The recent months have deepened my understanding of mindfulness more than years of previous practice. If it was not for the self-induced suffering created by my 90 minute meditation attempt, then returning to the foundations of the practice, and finally visiting and learning from the teachers at Dipabhavan, this sense of non-striving and restful contentment would not have been instilled in me. I know it is not mine to have, for there is no self, and thus no me to have it, just the experience of contentment in this mind. Though, while it is present I will certainly enjoy it.
I highly recommend a stay at Dipabhavan if you are visiting or living in Koh Samui. It has been one of the most worthwhile experiences I have had in years. I hope you have been able to take something away from this post. Perhaps something for your own practice, or the encouragement to begin one. You can trust that if you visit Dipabhavan, there is much, much more to learn.
This concludes the 3 part blog post From Striving to Thriving and a significant chapter of life for this body, mind, and spirit. Let this one go, and another begin.
Thanks for reading. Wishing you well,