Last week, I had the week off because there were midterms as school and I didn't have to proctor any! Wat Suan Dok (the temple near my house) offers a 3-day Vipassana meditation retreat at the end of each month, which takes place at their retreat center north of town so I decided to do it.
It was a really interesting, hard, rewarding, boring, relaxing few days.
We went to the Wat on Tuesday afternoon and started with a talk introducing Buddhism. The participants were all foreigners (Thais go on different days) and mostly tourists, so the retreat was geared towards beginners. Then we donned our white clothes, and drove about 45 minutes outside of town to their beautiful meditation center.
The daily schedule started at 5am and ended at 9pm (by which time you were surprisingly tired for having sat in one place most of the day!), meditating for most of the time in between. Each meditation session was about an hour long with a 5-10 minute break in between to get some water and/or stretch.
We had longer breaks for meals. We did walking, sitting, and lying down meditation in various different styles. There was one we did in the morning that involved counting and moving your hands in which the counting got faster and faster - this was to "banish the sleepy." We also started the morning with Yoga. The monks asked who did yoga and about 30 people put their hands up, and he said "okay, so who wants to lead the yoga class? monks can't really do good yoga because of the robes" After about 5 minutes (he just stood there waiting) I volunteered,
Other than chanting and a 1-hour daily discussion, it was a silent retreat for the participants. The chanting was in Pali (language used during the Buddha's time) and it was not really translated for us, but we would begin each meditation session with paying respect to the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma & Sangha - group of people who meditate together and do good things in the community) by chanting and end each session by sending Loving Kindness to all living beings. We would also chant before eating so as to be mindful of our food and eating. In the morning we offered food to the monks, they came with their pots to each of us and then we received a blessing.
The retreat was led by several monks, who would instruct us on different meditation techniques and the senior monk would sometimes tell stories about the Buddha, or give Dharma (the Buddha's teachings) talks. I liked a lot of the things he said:
the most important thing is to learn to forgive and to forget, start with yourself
"do things with no expectations and with pure heart and pure mind"
"meditation is to purify the mind, if you don't clean your mind, have very dirty mind, dirty mind (he would repeat this several times smiling and shaking his head). In the morning, clean your body, then clean your mind, and send loving kindness to all beings. Think to yourself, today will be a good day"
His apprentice was my discussion leader and he said several times, "we all same, same body, same human family, you want to happy, I want to happy, you want the love, I want the love, different religion, different god, all saying same thing"
It was really nice to just be still and be with myself for such a long time. It was also hard though because my mind is not used to meditating for so long and my body is not used to sitting for so long. The general technique was to focus one-pointed concentration on your breath and to use the breath as an anchor to come back to when your mind drifts to other thoughts - because that's what minds do, they think (the monks were fond of saying "the mind jumps around, naughty monkey mind"). Though you are trying to focus on the breath, you should be open to whatever comes up in your mind and receive it non-judgmentally. It was really interesting to see where my mind went when given so much time.
I can honestly say it was a life-changing experience for me (a phrase I think is often over-used and misused) because it inspired me to start a morning and evening meditation practice that I think will change my life.