My 3 Day Vipassana Mediation Retreat in Pattaya
So starts my path to enlightenment. Kevin and I turn down the street indicated on our Google Map directions and it’s pretty clear, immediately, that this isn’t what we’re looking for. Kevin immediately suggests we ask someone, which is super easy for him to suggest because he doesn’t speak Thai, so he never has to do the asking. I’m shy, so I decide to creep down the street on the motorbike first, seeing if maybe, somehow, this street lined with bars might suddenly turn into the kind of street that has a meditation monastery on it. It doesn’t, obviously. I roll up to a motorbike taxi driver and show him my phone, asking if he knows where the monastery is. He doesn’t read English and I’m butchering the name of the place in Thai, so I try variations on the pronunciation and eventually land close enough that he points back in the direction I came and says to go up to the red light and turn right. I look past him at the silvery-blue of the ocean, a few fishing boats visible as they rock and sway on the open waters. Kevin takes the phone and we turn around, drive away from the beach to the big road and head up to the traffic light.
I actually had to call the center, one of my worst nightmares is talking in Thai on the phone to someone from whom I need directions, because I’m never confident that I’ll understand the directions and I almost never know how to indicate where I am for their reference. The man on the phone was really patient and polite, but all he could tell me was to go to Soi 1. There are a million Soi 1s, but at least the name of this street I’m on is the same name as the monastery I’m trying to find, so we just follow the map up to this street’s Soi 1. At the tiny turn off there are yellow flags with the recognizable wheel of rebirth on them, as well as monk robes tied around the row of trees leading deeper into the side street. This is as sure a sign of a temple as any, so we turned in and a few hundred feet in we were on the monastery grounds. There’s an immediate, pacific stillness on the grounds. Huge trees, leaves all over the ground that get swept up multiple times per day, and a soft and ever-present breeze. I’d read about the meditation program online and know that walking around the grounds is a big part of it. I can picture myself strolling around this tree at the front of it, which is like a hundred narrow trees all bunched together to form a trunk – like a bouquet of flowers, almost. The branches come out wide and tall, dripping these tendrils of vines and leaves down. Almost like a Weeping Willow, but not as umbrella-like.
You can find the Boonkanjanaram Meditation Center Facebook Page here
A short walk into the grounds there’s a huge, open-air kitchen. Inside were two nuns, dressed all in white with shaved heads, both of whom look at me with flat uncertainty when I meet their eyes. They’re both in their 50s, at least, and appear to be cleaning up, slowly and totally mindfully. I ask with whom I can speak about the meditation practice and the slightly bigger nun gives me a huge smile, I think simply by being able to understand me, and disappears behind a partition for a moment before coming back to tell me I should wait at a table off to the side. The man who I spoke to on the phone appears and we chat for a few minutes about the program. It’s a minimum of 3 days, I don’t need to bring anything other than the clothes I’ll be wearing, and have I ever meditated before. Well, yes… but never Vipassana and for maybe 20 minutes at a time. But I’ve read about the practice online. The man looks at me with curiosity. “I think it will be really hard,” I say, “but I’m a fighter and I train my body every day. Training my mind is important, too.” With this he gives me a huge smile and stands up to show me to the hut I’ll be staying in. Number 16. There are multiple huts all over the grounds, separated by 100 feet or so from each other. They’re raised off the ground by maybe 5 feet and each one has a staircase up to the porch, which wraps all the way around the hut; inside there’s a single room with a fridge, a boiler for water, a bed, a fan, a table and a bathroom with “splash shower” buckets. Looks quaint. But “roughing it” isn’t the part of the meditation that scares me. It’s being alone with myself for 3 days; three days of silently sitting with myself and my brain. I’m terrified, honestly. But I tell the man I’ll be back on Saturday morning, the day after my 200th fight, in order to start the meditation retreat. Three days. What follows is my experience of the retreat and the principles of its meditation as I understand them.
here’s a video of me walking into my “kuti” (hut) just upon arrival at the meditation center the morning after my fight.
I actually really like being alone. I always have. But the idea of locking myself in a room for 3 days in order to think and meditate gave me this vision of being in solitary confinement with the worst version of myself. When your mind just won’t stop and it spirals into this circling pattern of doubt or self-hatred, loneliness… whatever. The monastery gives you two books of material on how to do vipassana meditation and other than a journal that I can write it, that’s it. No phone, no music, no podcasts, no TV; no distractions. In the guidelines they say you can have a phone and keep messages and calls short, but to please not use it for entertainment purposes. I didn’t even bring mine. I assume that leniency is for people staying longer than the 3 days – some people go on these retreats for months at a time. And when I started reading the material on the meditation, I understood why that kind of investment of time would be meaningful. Vipassana isn’t a temporary tranquility practice. You’re not just breathing and easing your mind into a state of flowing or non-thought. In fact, if you get all tranquil you’ve gone too far and you need to become more conscious. The shortest version to explain what it is goes like this: we are all tormented and doomed to rebirth cycles by the delusion of the self. We falsely believe that the body is “us,” and that the mind aware of that body and all the thoughts we have is also “us.” This illusion is brought about by defilements, which cause us to divide the perceivable world into good and bad, like or dislike, pleasure or suffering. The reality is that it’s all suffering and that causes/results in impermanence, so we’re always moving or shifting or getting lost trying to avoid suffering or find pleasure/desire. The meditation, then, is to just sit and watch your body (Rupa) in 4 postures: sitting, standing, lying down and walking. All the time, every moment you’re awake, you’re watching Rupa in these postures. The thing that’s watching Rupa is your conscious mind (Nama). The body doesn’t know anything, it just is, like a passive material object. The mind knows, it perceives things, including the body. So Rupa does a lot of sitting, Nama watches it, and occasionally Nama is distracted by hearing, seeing, smelling or wandering mind. That kind of thing. You just monitor both, the purpose of which is ultimately to separate the concept of self from both body and conscious mind. You are not your body; you are not your mind.
The point is to see when the body suffers, which it always will. You can’t sit there forever without getting stiff or sore or uncomfortable, so you have to shift your position. By watching all the time, you acknowledge when the position suffers (not you, just the position) and then mindfully acknowledge why the change to another position is happening: because Rupa suffers. When you change position it is to cure the suffering, but the suffering always follows into the next position – endlessly. You don’t cure shit, you just keep moving. By doing this, you kind of come to a state of acceptance that 1) everything is impermanent; 2) everything suffers; 3) you cannot control it. This cycle of thought, watching, realization, learning and practicing put me through a few rounds of despair, zen-like acceptance, total calm, frustration, boredom, and like clockwork every night at about 8PM a thought would stick to my mind like a leech and I would just struggle to come back to present moment (by monitoring Rupa) until falling asleep. This illuminated for me in no uncertain terms that my thoughts are not caused by events; they’re habitual patterns. Eight O’clock, time to obsess over whether I’m valued or not.
On the first day and the third day I met with the monk. He was wonderful. When I’d first contacted the monastery to inquire about the retreat, I was told that the English-speaking assistants were gone until the end of November, so to wait until they came back for my retreat. Kevin, more emphatically than I, said nuts to that and proffered that my Thai is good enough that I could do it without an English-speaking middle man. Because I’m not an experienced meditator and this all seemed “high stakes” to me at the time I was considering it, I wasn’t sure and definitely feared that lack of communication clarity would make the experience overly difficult. Having actually done it and met with the monk, speaking only Thai, rather than a translator, I am immensely happy that I spoke only directly with the monk. Both meetings were wonderfully encouraging and the monk had this brightness about him that I wouldn’t call “cheery,” but if “celebratory” were a word for someone’s character and demeanor, that would be fitting. I did a vlog just after our first meeting together:
Above, after my first meeting with the monk, on my first day of the retreat.
The story that the monk told me, which I didn’t explain in the vlog, goes something like this: there’s a woman whose husband thinks he’s dead. She tries to work with him but the dude thinks he’s dead, so eventually she goes to a psychologist to get help. The doctor tells her to bring her husband in, which she does, and the doctor tries to figure out why the man thinks he’s dead. His descriptions of being dead show he’s pretty convinced of this fact, so the doctor tells him he wants to conduct an experiment – he’ll prick the guy’s finger and if he bleeds, we know he’s not dead because dead people don’t bleed. The man agrees and the doctor pricks his finger, out comes this spurt of blood and it just keeps bleeding. The man looks absolutely shocked, his mouth agape and all that. The doctor looks proudly at him, asking, “are you surprised?” because surely this guy is now dealing with the fact of his aliveness. “Oh my God!” the man replies, “I am indeed shocked; dead men do bleed!” It’s a joke, the point of which is that you cannot change a mind that is resolved not to change. Presenting evidence to the contrary of beliefs does not disprove beliefs, as people will find ways around it in order to keep their wrong views. The reason he told me this story, or joke, is because the whole point of vipassana meditation is to destroy this wrong view of self. You can spend 3 days in isolation, walking, lying down, sitting and standing to watch your Rupa and at the end of it still be convinced that the body and the mind are me, despite 3 days of practice and evidence to the contrary.
Above, my 3rd vlog from the first day.
On the second day I was left to myself, no meeting with the monk. Because there’s nothing to do other than read two very short books, walk, lie around, sweep your hut and watch Rupa, when it gets dark at about 6:30 PM it’s only a matter of hours before it feels like 2 AM and you’re exhausted. So, I fell asleep pretty easily on the first night at around 9:00 PM, which is before I’m even eating dinner on most regular nights. At the monastery you do what monks do, so you eat at 7 AM and again at 10 or 11 AM, but you cannot eat after noon. So the second morning I was awakened to the chiming of a mid-tone bell at the center of the monastery – it’s actually much bigger than I even knew, as they separate men and women to opposite sides of that open-air kitchen. I only was aware of how many people were at the monastery along with me by seeing how many of these stacked, tin food containers there were for delivery. Probably a dozen, all in a wheelbarrow that was pushed by a young woman who would hang a pail of food on a hook that hung from a string at the front of your hut. It’s a tin of rice, usually a soup for one of the meals, some kind of vegetable stirfry and a fruit. The food is just brought to you and you have some silverware and plates in your hut to eat with. You wash those and keep them with you, but the food containers just get reassembled and hung back out on that hook when you’re finished eating, so you don’t engage with really doing dishes or any other people at all. You just sit, stand, lie down and walk to watch these positions. It’s all you do. When you eat, you eat with the understanding that you are curing suffering (hunger). When you go to the bathroom, you understand that you are relieving suffering. When you shower, you understand that Rupa is suffering. (If that one sounds strange, try being hot and sticky in Thailand for an hour; it is suffering. It happens to be very cold (to me) in Pattaya now.) When you sweep your kuti or do other kinds of menial tasks, you’re doing it to cure suffering because it’s kind of your only “break” from the meditation.
Vlog from waking up on the 2nd day. Food brought to my hut.
I had no soap in my bathroom, so I walked to the front of the monastery to ask permission to leave for a quick walk to the 7-11 to buy soap. The nun who I’d met on my first visit to the grounds gave me that same look of flat confusion when I asked for the guy who manages the place. He’d gone for a run, she said, so I asked her if I could walk to buy some soap. She laughed this awesome laugh, kind of between the ridiculousness of the request and the granting of it she had this joyous relief that was carried in that laugh. I walked back up through that path of trees with monk cloth on them, and those yellow flags, to the main road and just picked a direction that seemed more likely to have a 7-11 on it. It was a good long walk, maybe 15 minutes each way, and I practiced as I went. It was different to see other people going about their business as I walked. You’re meant to do it at a regular pace, it’s not right to walk slowly or to try to meditate like you’re doing some mystical thing. The position of Walking Rupa is the entire position, it’s how you walk, not this deliberate and mystically-mindful thing. And I walk kinda fast, so pacing around the grounds I was a bit like an agitated rat in a too-small cage, but walking out on this street with all the bustle of a regular street buzzing all around me, it felt a bit more natural to observe the walking like this. And I considered to myself how much harder it is to do this practice in English than it is in Thai. In Thai you drop pronouns all the time. They’re just implied, like you say, “walk to 7-11,” not “I walk to 7-11.” The subject is implied, but even then I don’t know how much a native Thai speaker even fills that part in or if it doesn’t even matter. You don’t generally say, “I think blah blah,” you just get into it at “think blah blah.” So leaving out the “I” is much easier in Thai. Writing in my journal or thinking in English or writing this blog post now, there’s all this “I” and “me” and “my” that muddies up the process of detaching from the self. Even in Thai, if you do use a personal pronoun it might in many informal instances just be your own name: “Sylvie fights at Thapae tomorrow.” I don’t think I’m totally odd in my stance that using your own name as a stand-in for “I” has a kind of distancing affect as well, as your name is something others call you and you respond to; you don’t really think of yourself as your name. So for Thai-language patterns and thinking, adjusting to Nama hearing instead of “I am hearing,” is much more natural. So, I stopped thinking in English when I was naming Rupa’s positions or identifying what Nama was experiencing.
The length of the second day gave me a whole spectrum of experiences. I was relaxed, kind of zoned out at times, bored, and a little despondent and depressed for a good portion of it. Turns out detaching from the self isn’t a real tranquil experience, it’s kinda sad. But being left to myself with just the books as guidance and the practice as proof, it’s actually incredible what kinds of connections I made with my Muay, or how I currently practice versus how I know I need to practice. It’s all about finding the evidence through your belief in the theory. An example that’s given in the book is that you cannot describe to someone who has never tasted sweetness what sweet tastes like. You just give them sugar and then they know sweet, experientially… and then they don’t need the teacher anymore. This is a very hard thing for teachers to swallow, as the authority of “teacher” is a power many desire; the more profoundly valuable teachers in the world know that their true purpose is to become obsolete, that their students should grow beyond them. So, this vipassana practice being all about practice really means a lot to me. I found myself enjoying the reading and studying aspects a great deal. Too much, actually, as I spent a lot of time reading that I know would have been well-spent practicing. I understand the theory and I like understanding the theory. But then you have to experience, which you can only do through practice. This connects to my Muay. I have so much theory, but I struggle to bring it to practice. I believe the theory, but I do not yet believe through experience; I don’t know, which is only through the experience. That’s what drew me to fighting in the first place; I didn’t come to Muay Thai wanting to fight at all, I just wanted my body to do the things I saw in the forms. I wanted to see Muay Thai Rupa, the positions and forms. But after training with Master K for a year, I knew that I didn’t really know anything if I couldn’t do it under pressure. And that’s fighting. Now I’m 200 fights in and what’s my assessment? I don’t know as much as I can know… I don’t know as much as I perceive. But the way to get there is the same as this method of observing Rupa and Nama, and not – as it were – the way I go about it 99% of the time, which is in this overly stressed state of judging myself and my capacities. It’s like those leaves in the vlog from my second day. Instead of thinking, “I suck at sweeping,” which is what I’d do in Muay practice if I struggled with a technique or kept succumbing to the same position in clinch that my partner is putting me in, instead of that I should just note that some of those leaves take more passes with the broom than others. Some techniques just require more repetition; more passes with the broom. Neutral, absolutely no “I” involved. That’s really liberating. That realization felt like it opened up an entire new filed of possibility for training and experiences as a fighter.
I had a really hard time sleeping on that second night and it was a difficult stretch. However, in that time I definitely found a degree of acceptance in the “there is no escape from suffering in the realm of consciousness,” in the sense that the only way to escape suffering is to escape the rebirth cycle. That sounds really gloomy, but there is a kindness or self-compassion that comes out of the acceptance that you cannot change or control things. I’ve found this in my fights, in that when I go out to the middle of nowhere and I’m alone without a gym or a corner and the chaos is the only thing I can be sure of as I try to find a corner, my opponent is changed at the last minute, etc. – there’s this kind of “fuck it” acceptance to the unpredictability or uncertainty of it all that I really enjoy. Because it’s very freeing. You can’t expect anything when nothing is certain. And a lot of my frustration on a daily basis is really just disappointment from unmet expectations; if I accept that nothing is certain, then I’m freed from those expectations. It’s a far more preferable way of experiencing my life, I’ll tell you.
On the third day I met with the monk again. We sat down across from each other at the table to the side of the kitchen and the monk put down this folded cloth that he’s always carrying. It’s part of his attire, but I think it can also be used if I need to pass him anything – as a woman I can’t directly hand anything to or take anything from the monk, so this cloth could be the fabric upon which we exchange any objects. But he just uses it to periodically pick it up and clench it in his fists to represent “clinging,” which is a problem I introduced on our first meeting. I like how he does this, picking up the cloth and kind of wringing it between his fists and then just dropping it to the side. Today he just smiled at me, this big smile that stretched across the width of his round face. “How is your practice?” is all he asked. I smiled back, the kind of smile that comes from fatigue, like after a long day of work or travel, when you’ve just let go of wanting to be home already and just give in to the fact that you’re going to be wherever you are for a while. “I notice that I’m doing the practice wrong a lot,” I start, “but it’s okay. It’s wrong, but wrong is okay, especially because I know. So it will come right, eventually.” The monk made celebratory fists with both his hands and kind of shook them in the air on either side of himself, smiling and nodding. He was very excited that I understood this part of the practice. I imagine a lot of people take much longer to get to the “fuck it” stage of acceptance, that doing it wrong is okay and knowing it’s wrong is actually good. Kevin and I have talked about this, how being wrong in how you train or the technique or in fights – in the long run – is actually incredibly valuable and instructive. If you only dabble in Muay Thai or only do it for a short time, mistakes aren’t valuable. But the longer you do it, the more valuable doing it wrong becomes. You learn so much more. It comes around with so much more detail. While talking to the monk, he kept picking up this pen and putting it on his open palm to show when things are right, then taking it off and putting it on the table to show when things are wrong. Both are okay, both are true reality, but the point is not to always stay on the palm of the hand, the point is to be able to keep getting back on and knowing when you’re off. The vipassana meditation is like tight-rope walking. Your first few years you’re mostly practicing getting back up on the rope, rather than having sustained balance on the rope for any significant length of time. You watch an acrobat, they’ve spent a lot of time falling before you ever get to see them look as if they’re escaping gravity. The meditation is like this. Fall a lot, get back up a lot. Know the difference, but don’t judge the difference.
Morning of my 3rd day, before meeting with the monk.
The monk asked me what I was struggling with and I told him that, as a fighter, it’s really easy for me to dissociate from my body. I do it all the time. So watching Rupa as like a doll that has various poses (although they’re all different dolls, not one pose-able figure) is something I can do without a lot of theoretical difficulty. I actually had this really cool vision of the rapid arising and falling away of Rupa, as we are meant to understand, like how if you watch a movie it appears to be all one continuous thing but actually it’s thousands of single frames arising and falling away at such speed as to appear continuous. So I pictured Rupa in the different positions illustrated like a flip-book, with the pages falling away to allow Rupa to appear as a continuous representation, changing position. And then Nama was like this screaming, banshee entity moving through the flipping pages as consciousness. It would make an awesome animation. So, I’m telling the monk about this and how I can dissociate from Rupa with relative certainty, but most of my pain is in Nama and I can’t rend my “self” from that consciousness as me. The monk just smiled, like as if to say, “yeah, it’s a real bitch that part.” He started telling me about burn marks on the grounds of the monastery, where you’ll see unswept leaves, then leaves swept into a pile, then a pile set alight, then the ashes in a circle at the end of it. These are different states, but we kind of tell a story to make them all one thing, even though you’d never confuse them for all one thing. As he was talking to me, at a really fast pace – I’m not fluent in Thai, so there were “scenes missing” in what I comprehended out of his explanation – I realized that all the suffering I experience from Nama is time travel. I’m either bummed about something that already happened and I’m entertaining the ghost of, or I’m worrying about something in the future that hasn’t actually happened. The only pain Nama experiences in present tense is always warranted. In fact, there’s a description of sins in one of the books and it’s all out-of-present-tense problems. You can be angry, right now, that’s fine because it’s caused by something. But being angry about something in the future or past is a defilement. That makes sense. So, as it turns out, the solution to my problem that I was trying to ask the monk about – this “how do I deal with my emotional suffering?” was answered by the exact practice I’d already been doing. When you observe Rupa, which isn’t emotional suffering, it cures emotional suffering by bringing you to the present moment. You can’t watch Rupa in time travel, you can only observe Rupa as presently positioned. So when I’m all time traveling to feel sad and upset, all I have to do is think, “hey, what’s Rupa doing? Ah, sitting rupa,” and I’m back to present moment. This was a huge revelation for me, and one that I kind of arrived at myself, which is really valuable. When I’m beating myself up in practice or in the ring, I’m not in the present moment. Is Rupa currently being punched in the face? Yes? Then that’s fine to be focused on that. If no, then what the fuck is rupa currently doing and get on that.
My last vlog on the 3rd day.
These were a difficult 3 ways, but not in the way I thought they would be. While I found the time I spent there incredibly valuable and my work very much worthwhile for how I will proceed in Muay and my life in general, I also know that this is not even a scratch on the surface. There’s a tension between knowing and not-knowing, because once you know you then have to decide whether you carry on in the way you were or you change your life in the light of what you’ve discovered. The defilements of the mind that allow us to perceive concepts of “like” or “dislike,” or desires that drive us, these are called kilesa. Kilesa allows you to experience pleasures, so happiness hides the truth of kilesa’s suffering and can make one not want to escape the rebirth cycle. Without suffering, there isn’t pleasure, so escaping the one means also escaping the other. If the firmament and the ocean collapse together, there’s no middle earth, right? Everything you know is gone. So, believing what I do about what I discovered and read in my 3 days at this retreat, I’m making choices to stay ignorant and weak. That’s a hard thing to acknowledge. But again, just knowing is a profound thing in itself. I think I’ll go back for more 3 day retreats, maybe 2x per year if I can.
above, the full playlist of my vlogs on the 3 day retreat
How to Go and Do It
Below is a Google Map of where the monastery is (the Google Map link below is correct, but the Facebook map although showing the correct location malfunctions if you click on it and it transfers over to Google on mobile, changing it’s location). You can find their Facebook Page here. There is also a world wide Vipassana Meditation organization with listings of meditations retreats everywhere. Around the different locations the technique for the meditation may not be the same techniques I was taught here, but this is where you can find all sorts of vipassana resources. If you go to the Boonkanjanaram center where I went, you don’t need to bring anything other than the clothes you will wear (polite, suitable for temple clothing – long pants and sleeves, even if it’s hot) and your own hygiene sundries. It’s 300 Baht per day with a minimum of 3 days at Boonkanjanaram, but you can stay as long as you want beyond that. There are often English-speaking assistants at the center, none of whom were around during the time I went, so if you’re worried about the language barrier you can contact them on FB in advance (and they have someone in English to correspond there). But the books are in English and you don’t talk to anyone, so going without the English-speaking assistants is totally fine for you if you don’t speak Thai anyway. The monk stuck in some English here and there in a casual manner that I will go back, for sure.
If you enjoyed this article you might like this post I wrote on the connection I felt between this meditation retreat and my Muay Thai journey.