It’s not yet 5AM, and the morning is quiet. My feet crunch on brown pebbles on the way to the meditation hall, my path illuminated by the fading moonlight. I shiver, and wind my jacket tighter around me. The air is crisp, dewy, the way it only ever gets in the forest.

I love it here. I hate it here. I enjoy the training. I want to run out the gate, screaming as I go.

It was my fourth visit to the wooded temple grounds of Wat Pa Don Hai Soke, in northern Thailand, and I was there for my third meditation retreat last week.

But what was I doing there?

Why had I taken 9 days away from home, work, family and friends, to seclude myself in these rustic halls, hushed by a vow of silence, with no phone, internet, writing materials or books?

The word ‘retreat’ has two meanings. The first is to withdraw as a result of defeat, criticism or difficulty. The second is to go to a secluded refuge, where one can pray and meditate.

Which one was I going to, as I boarded the plane to Thailand? I wasn’t so sure.

My friend, the monk
My friend, the monk. Photo by Alvin Soon.

I’d previously visited the temple and my friend, Phra Paiboon, driven by curiosity about Buddhism, and a wish to see him since he’d become a monk. And Phra Paiboon had patiently answered my questions, with his talent for making obscure texts learnable, relatable, and applicable.

The seed had been planted, but the shoots hadn’t sprouted. I went home, satiated with a little more knowledge. I practiced, tried to practice, broke my practice, and limped along in my practice. But the seed remained. And in time, it begged for more nourishment.

My reason for visiting was different this time. My bones had grown wearier since last I saw Phra Paiboon. The spaces of life felt tight and constricted around my joints. I was older, and it seemed to me that the world’s tears dwarfed the harbours of life.

I wanted to know: Is it possible to find happiness among the unstoppable sadness of our lives? Is there any concrete refuge to be found on the uncertain winds of life? Where can we find confidence, courage and hope in the face of inevitable sickness, old age and death?

One man had promised there was a way.

The Buddha
The Buddha. Photo by Alvin Soon.

2,500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama declared that he had found unshakeable peace and happiness, while not denying life’s sufferings. He affirmed that there was a method, which anyone could follow and attain the same rewards. For his achievements, he was called ‘the Buddha,’ or ‘the awakened one.’

I was flying to Thailand to see his disciples, and take him up on his word. This visit wasn’t philosophical. I needed real-world tactics, and I would test the Buddha’s method to see if it held any use in my life.

The training is hard. I wake up at 4:30 AM every morning, and the last session ends at 9 PM. For 12 hours a day, I am either sitting or walking in meditation.

The living is basic. I sleep on a thin mat on the floor. I get one meal in the morning, with a light lunch and a late afternoon snack. By the fifth day, I wean myself to just one morning meal, after the monks’ daily practice. There is no talking, except during the optional one-hour question and answer sessions at noon.

I do it. I hate it. I accept it. I want to howl. My body hurts everywhere from the non-stop sitting. My hips bruise from sleeping on my side. I accidentally tear my left shoulder, and it becomes a constant pain. My mind rebels with a million protests, dreaming of easier vacations. My stomach hungers for rich meats and sweet desserts.

I ride these waves of anger, disappointment, regret and riot. Having done meditation retreats twice before, I expect it. The first few days are always the worst. The mind does not want to be told to do this. It is a monkey that has been allowed to run free for most of its life, it does not want to sit on a cushion and be told to quiet down.

In the meditation hall
In the meditation hall. Photo by Alvin Soon.

But. By staying with the practice, by sweating in the halls, by pushing through mental and physical pains, something breaks. Something turns.

On the third night, my mind becomes silent. The storm subsides, unexpected, and I feel relief wash over me. The hour-long meditation session passes with the ease of an evening breeze, and as I sit outside afterwards, a melody of bird song rings through my mind with more transparency than I have heard in years.

As the days go by, I find my inner voice becoming as quiet as my muted outer voice. There is something there. I don’t know what to call it, but something is no longer the same.

And Phra Paiboon continues to guide me with generosity, patience and humour. The more he illuminates to me about Buddhism, the more it appears to me not as something arcane and otherworldly, but altogether superordinary.

On the last full day of the retreat, I take another vow of ‘strong determination;’ to stay still for the entire hour of sitting meditation. But as the minutes roll on, my composure splits. Impatience and fear roil the cramps starting in my legs, shoulders and back.

I know this feeling. I’m dashed upon the rocks, as I claw to hold onto my raft, trying to find a steady balance on the mind’s stormy waves.

The turmoil rises and becomes more and more intolerable, and I feel my resolve bending. The peace is not coming. The ropes binding my raft are coming apart, and my small ship is about to sink.

I break. I give everything up — almost. I give up trying to get through this in one piece. I give up the desire for the damn bell to ring and signal the end of the session. I give up hope that the excruciating cramp in my left calf would go away. But I will not give up the sitting.

Let my body and mind break until the end of time, I think to myself. But I’m going to sit here anyway. There is no escaping this pain, and I accept it.

With that last letting go, I witness in wonder as my mind collapses into a single point of minute concentration. There is no desire to get to the end of the hour, there is no aversion to get away from my pain. There is only the breath, and a bright burst of happiness.

After an infinity of moments, the bell finally rings. I laugh to myself: I did it! I glance at my watch — I had sat for an hour and fifteen minutes.

Wat Pa Don Hai Soke
Wat Pa Don Hai Soke. Photo by Alvin Soon.

The next day, I feel hesitant when it comes time to break our vow of silence. I had come to appreciate the calm and quiet from the week of solitude.

But I knew that I hadn’t come to the temple just for myself. I had also come here for my family and friends back home. My despondency had dragged them down along with me, and I had needed to be stronger, for them and for me. This is why I had come to train my heart.

The word ‘retreat’ has two meanings. The first is to withdraw as a result of defeat, criticism or difficulty. The second is to go to a secluded refuge, where one can pray and meditate.

Which one had I gone for?

Both. I had withdrawn to a secluded refuge, as a result of defeat, criticism and difficulty. I shook off the attachments of the world, and went naked into my mind, alone. I reduced my life to nourish it, and return, enheartened.

The future will always be uncertain, the world always fraught with suffering. Nobody can stop the shifting of the spheres. But there is a practice, and there is a path, that seems to lead to a fortitude of peace and happiness when applied. And I will do my best to walk this path for the remainder of my life.

Walking monk
Walking monk. Photo by Alvin Soon.

My everlasting thanks to Venerable Ajahn Sa-ard, Phra Paiboon, the monks of Wat Pa Don Hai Soke, the volunteers, and my fellow seekers for all the help and hospitality they gave me during my visit.

8 replies on “Awakening”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, you’ve earned a subscriber to your newsletter.
    One question – did you ever feel like you broke the noble truth of right diligence in your first few days?

    1. Welcome to the newsletter, Drew!

      If you mean Right Effort, I don’t feel I did. But I’ll temper that by saying I was very kind to myself at the beginning.

      I knew that the first few days would be the most difficult, so I took the training slowly, and if I couldn’t last through the session, I’d give myself little encouragements, like, “It’s fine, do better in the next one!”

      It was during the middle of the retreat that I started pushing myself harder. I measured it by the number of times I changed my posture during an hour of meditation.

      At first, it averaged three times an hour. I reduced it to once. Then in the last three days, I challenged myself to not move at all.

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