Part 1 of 2: In search of enlightenment
This is the 1st of a 2-piece blog entry of which discusses “Why I went” ,“The journey there” , and “Arriving at the Monastery”
To skip to Part 2 describing “My experiences and the teachings at the Monastery, during the retreat” click here.
Why I went
I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up for the 10 day retreat on Koh Pahngan Island. My knowledge of Buddhism was pretty limited.
I knew some basic philosophies on how Buddhists don’t believe in good or bad, but instead think a situation or person just “is”. They also don’t kill bugs and preach to appreciate life the way it currently is, rather than to constantly “desire” it to be something it currently is not. All of these tenets were principles that I often thought about and wanted to incorporate more into my life.. Naturally, I was curious to learn about some more principles that I might not have considered.
I was also very interested in going from a “sharpening my mind” perspective. I am a big believer that we don’t use our mind’s full potential and that the distractions of the western world can often deteriorate these capabilities even further. I keep myself pretty busy. There is a ton I like to pursue and want to accomplish in life. I often find it difficult to keep up with playing poker professionally, being an aspiring entrepreneur, trying to constantly increase my knowledge, traveling the world, and putting a lot of value in maintaining and growing my friendships. On top of all this, I have a HUGE imagination and a mind that wanders like a stray puppy in newfound territory.
Lastly there was of course an element of “finding myself” that drove me to attend the retreat at the monastery. I think people often go through periods where they question who they are, what they are doing, why they are doing it, and where they want to be headed in the future. Most people are stuck to their day jobs and after sometime start to realize they spent their whole life working towards something that’s left them unsatisfied. They start to feel like a slave to their job, without true freedom.
On the contrary people who have a lifestyle like mine have the freedom to do and go wherever they want but this also has its difficulties. With so many options and no obligations it can at times be hard to stay motivated and find structure in your life. Especially after being raised by western school systems, which basically train you how to follow directions and work successfully within a very structured and limited system.
I was hoping the Buddhist teachings could help me stay focused and have a clearer vision of the direction I want to be headed, at every moment in my life.
The journey there
I left Bangkok to head to Koh Phangan Island on the evening of February 11 along with my two friends, Lukas Grabowski and David Sonelin, poker players who have been living in Thailand. I left most of my luggage in Bangkok and brought only a backpack with five t-shirts, five pairs of boxers, five pairs of socks, flip flops (thongs), a pair of shoes, a journal to write in, and bug spray that was only a “repellent” as listed in the monastery rules.
We made the 15-hour journey by way of a 30-minute train, nine-hour sleep train, three-hour Catamaran (a type of boat), 20-minute taxi, and, of course, some waiting time in-between each.
During the nine-hour train, Lukas and I had a pretty meaningful discussion about life. We covered everything from human psychology, the concepts of good and evil, the fascinating world of Quantum Physics, and the possibilities of the 10th and 11th dimensions in the Universe. The conversation eventually edged toward the usual “what does all this (life) mean anyways” question.
The three of us were on a spiritual journey. You weren’t going to find us dawdling away playing Chinese poker (one of the most popular poker player pastime activities, which I refuse to learn the rules to). I believe that when you already spend so much time thinking and pursuing activities related to your profession, spending your pastime activities and conversations on the same subject only results in an unbalanced lifestyle, which leads to difficulties and lower levels of happiness.
We eventually started talking about what to expect at the retreat, which I had done very little to no research on, instead opting to throw myself in headfirst.
The retreat was at Wat Kow Tahm (Mountain Cave Monastery) and was taught by Rosemary and Steve Weissman, an Australian couple who had been teaching Buddhist Vipassana Mediation for over 18 years. Vipassana is an Indian word from the Buddhist scriptures that means “insight”. Lukas did his due diligence researching the retreat and told me it was a very highly regarded course and that was all I needed to know.
I never really understood what Meditation was. I recently talked to a few friends about it on a surface level and knew it had something to do with clearing your mind, but I didn’t really know much besides that. I have always been interested in learning more and possibly practicing it, so here I was, headed to a meditation retreat.
Lukas had just completed his fist mediation retreat not too long ago. He started telling me stories about how they meditated for 14 hours a day and described some of the living conditions they went through during it. He also mentioned how common it was for people to end up dropping out before the retreat’s end due to the tough requirements and living conditions.
That is when I finally started to acknowledge, “man this is going to be a damn tough 10 days”. LOL. I think I had known this in the back of my mind the whole time but just ignored it because I didn’t want to talk myself out of going. I figured if other people were doing it all the time there was no reason why I couldn’t. At the very least, I thought it would lead to a greater appreciation for the things I have in life, once I get back to “ the real world”
I didn’t only feel worry, though. I was excited as hell!
Lukas told me some stories about people he met at the monastery who had reached very high levels of concentration; He shared some of their experiences with me. One guy was always annoyed and uncomfortable with bugs and bug bites. At one point he forced himself to mediate outside near a flurry of mosquitoes. They bit him left and right but he reached a level of mediation where he did not lose focus or show any reaction toward the once-irritable mosquitoes. At one point the man even opened his eyes, saw a mosquito sitting on his arm preparing to draw blood. He just sat there and watched……. the mosquito drew its blood and flew off. The man acknowledged what had happened, closed his eyes again and continued with his meditation.
Another story was about a girl that had become so aware of her body that she was able to feel her blood flowing through parts of her frame! Wow! How is that even possible?!?! I suppose our brain is aware of everything that is happening in our body and has plenty of different ways to alert us the second something is wrong. Maybe it is possible, I thought. Maybe I could get to that point of awareness, stop focusing on everything in the world all at once and learn to truly be one with my mind and body. I was fascinated and intrigued.
Arriving at Wat Kow Tahm Monastery on Registration Day
We Arrived at Wat Kow Tahm Monastery at 12:30pm on February 12 for registration day. Over 75 people showed up for the retreat, which was A TON! They said it was going to be one of the largest retreats they have ever hosted and that there would not be room for everyone who showed up. I had registered for the retreat well in advance and had my spot reserved, as long as they accepted me. We had to fill out a pretty extensive questionnaire and also explain why were interested in doing the retreat. It’s rare that anyone with a reservation gets denied but occasionally they do reject people if they feel like they are not mentally prepared for the 10-day experience.
The retreat cost was 5000 Thai Baht ($170 USD) which included the cost of our room and 3 meals a day for 10 days. The teachers were running this retreat free of charge and the fee was only to cover the expenses and upkeep for the monastery. There are certainly for profit retreats and ones that are tourist traps so it is important to research the reputation of a retreat before attending.
Once we were registered we had a chance to explore the monastery on our own and get our rooms set up for the first day of the retreat, which started the following day at 12pm.
The wat (Monastery) was small and cozy located at the top of a hill with some spectacular views of the Island. It was peaceful and quiet at the wat. The monks and local Thai people who lived on the wat were very calm and spoke at a very modest sound levels. It only felt natural to do the same and be a bit more aware of how we were affecting the peaceful atmosphere around us.
There seemed to be an endless variety of bird species living in the forests intertwined in the wat. I heard earsplitting bird sounds that I had never heard before, yowling across the monastery. We were also living amongst some of the largest and most unique insects and spiders I had ever seen. Some of the spiders were as big as my hands, and I have damn big hands, I can borderline palm a basketball. Some of the spiders had some pretty bright red coloration. I was trying to think back to my high school science classes to remember, “ does that mean they might be poisonous or just a defense mechanism to look poisonous….. or maybe that was only relevant in frogs haha? “ We were also told to bring flashlights because there were snakes, scorpions, and centipedes crawling around at night. The paranoia began once they explained that one of the species of snake that lived around the wat was the poisonous King Cobra. I started to ask myself “what the hell am I doing here lol”
I got to the showers, which was basically a big tub full of cold water and a scooper to rinse your body off. Some of the bathrooms and showers had frogs jumping around in them and some had spiders hanging around the ceiling. Half the toilets were western toilets and half were squat toilets, which were essentially just a hole in the floor. None of them had a handle to flush you had to throw water from the scoopers into the toilet to force them down the drain. You also weren’t allowed to flush toilet paper down the toilets.
My dorm room had 2 wooden bunk beds (4 beds). The only form of padding on the bed was a thin straw mat. We were also allowed to use our sitting mat from the meditation to sleep on. The mat only covered about half of my body. While I was getting situated in my room two of the largest lizards I had ever seen in my life popped into the room, as the rooms weren’t sealed off from the outside. Luckily we had mosquito nets for our beds that I was able to tuck under the straw mats to keep mosquitoes from torturing me, scorpions from killing me, and lizards and snakes from trying to cuddle with me in the middle of the night.
Part of the reason the living conditions were so simple was to keep costs down, but more importantly it was to learn to let go of our attachments to physical things. Our comfy bed, our hot shower, our loaded fridge, and of course our televisions and whatever other forms of entertainment we have to keep us distracted from the “real world”
I felt a little more prepared for the retreat when I heard people freaking out about the bathrooms, showers and beds. I have spent time in third world countries visiting family where I had to use squat toilets and had to heat up water on the stove to take a hot shower. I have also been homeless for the last two years without access to a full wardrobe and television set. I have spent nights sleeping in the backseat of a car or on the floor of a friend’s apartment. Most people find themselves miserable when they have to deal with any of those situations, but I always prefer to embrace them. Now I saw an example of how having those experiences had actually benefited me over those who had not. Consider the following:
Apply a value of $2300 to owning a $2,000 comfy bed and a high quality $300 showerhead (with hot water) . Using your comfy bed and “baller” shower help you to achieve a happiness level of X.
Price of happiness level X = $2300
Now try to apply a mathematical value to being able to let go of attachments to physical things and still being able to achieve a happiness level of X (in very simple living conditions such as a floor to sleep on and a tub of water to take a shower with)
Of course you can’t quantify this value but if you can truly achieve it then you have just earned something, which has a value greater than or equal to X. In other words you’ve earned something > $2300
The point I am trying to make is that everyone is always focused on earning money and physical things to achieve new levels of happiness. Instead you can achieve an equal and greater level of happiness by having less money and less “things” and instead focusing your energy on strengthening your mind.
This mindset can particularly come in handy when going through tough times or downswings in life whether they are career, money, or relationship related.
Everything in life truly is relative. In general, It takes more money or material things to excite someone who “has it all” as apposed to someone who has “very little” in terms of material possessions. Who has the better deal here? The person that needs to strike a multi million dollar business deal to have some joy in their life or the person who can experience the same amount of joy from receiving a $10,000 pay bonus one month? Of course you can be successful and “have it all” and still experience joy from the simple things in life but it takes a certain level of awareness and understanding to achieve this level of appreciation.
It was time to head back down the hill to the hotel we booked for the night and enjoy our last day before we started out 10 days of silence at the retreat.
Before I left I took a quick look at the daily retreat schedule posted up on the wall and thought to myself, “damn that’s a lot of meditation” I hadn’t done too much research on what to expect and had figured we would get a lot of time to ourselves to think. From the looks of it, it seemed to be quite the contrary, as we would be on a pretty intense and specific schedule!
As I was getting ready for bed that night I received a message that someone close to me was not doing to0 well and wanted to know how I could be contacted in case of an emergency. I wasn’t sure how to respond considering I was supposed to hand in my cell phone and laptop for the next 10 days. Of course if I wanted to secretly keep my phone I certainly could, and no one would find out but it would defeat the purpose of the retreat. Getting rid of attachments wasn’t just about attachments to material possessions. It was also about getting rid of your attachments to people in your life and accepting that people come and they go and this is part of life. If I flew back to the states to see someone close to me on what might have been their last few days, what would this really accomplish? It may help them die a little more peacefully but once they pass what difference does it make? Maybe I would live on with some regret but is regret actually meaningful or is it just a human weakness that serves little to no purpose? Lastly, if I still chose to hand in my communication devices how could I explain this to others who didn’t think like me and manage to not sound like a selfish A**hole?
With 13 hours until the retreat began, I went to bed. My mind had found something to wander and worry about as it typically did.
RETREAT DAILY SCHEDULE
4:00 am Wake up
4:45 Sitting meditation
5:30 Exercises with Mindfulness
6:35 Sitting meditation
8:15 Working Meditation
9:00 Walking meditation
9:30 A talk given by the teachers and Sitting meditation
10:15 Sitting or Standing meditation
10:25 A talk
10:30 Walking meditation
1:00 pm Walking meditation
1:45 Standing or Sitting meditation
2:45 Walking meditation
3:30 Sitting meditation
4:15 Sitting or Standing meditation
4:30 Walking meditation
5:15 Light Dinner
6:15 Sitting meditation
6.45 Standing or Walking meditation
7:15 A talk
afterwards Optional Meditation or Sleep
In Part 2 of my 2-part blog entry, I will discuss my experiences and the teachings at Wat Kow Tahm Monastery in Koh Phangan, Thailand.