Three days after my arrival in Chiang Mai it was finally time for the part of my trip I was most nervous about. I would be spending seven days in silent meditation at the temple on Doi Suthep.
I was initially introduced to the concept of these meditation retreats six years earlier during my first visit to Thailand. I was Couchsurfing at a house in Bangkok with about twelve other guests and many of them had either completed or intended to complete a Vipassana meditation course in Thailand. At the time it hadn’t sounded appealing but the possibility stuck in the back of my mind.
Over the years my mother had gifted me with several books from a famous Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. I got rid of the paper copies but bought them on Kindle with the intention of reading them eventually. When my life went topsy-turvy it seemed like a good time to pick up When Things Fall Apart, and that in turn inspired me to start researching meditation retreats.
Vipassana meditation courses are available all over the world for free, and payment is strictly by donation. The ideal length of a meditation training course is 21 days, but 10 day courses seem to be most common. This is considered the minimum amount of time needed to grasp the concepts. There are also many temples across Thailand that will offer you a clean bed and a place to meditate at your own leisure. Some of them require you to help out with chores for a few hours a day.
I consulted with my friend Mathias who I met in Bangkok all those years ago, and had found his experience to be life-changing. His opinion was that 10 days was required to start getting the greater rewards. I think he was correct that 10 days is preferable, but I was worried that it would be too much for someone who could hardly sit still for five minutes. I saw that the meditation center at Doi Suthep offered a 7 day option and decided it was a good enough compromise.
When I arrived at the meditation center I wasn’t expecting very much from the lodgings, but it had actually been build recently and was quite nice. There were two women’s dorms and two men’s dorms, each with 10 private rooms and a generous 6 toilets and 4 showers. Each room was bare but clean, and included meditation cushions and a power outlet. This was a relief since I was dependent on using my phone for a meditation timer.
All meditators are asked to wear white garments which you can purchase at the center for $10 a set. These consist of massive white cotton shirts and fisherman pants. They are incredibly unflattering and make it difficult to use the toilet, but probably useful in keeping sexual urges at bay.
After changing in to my garments and settling in to my new room, it was just about time to go to the meditation demonstration. It took me awhile to figure out where I was supposed to be, up by the temple where I had not been before. I arrived to find a poor Chinese woman who had been waiting there for two hours. I promised to take her to the center if our instructor didn’t show, but fortunately he appeared about 10 minutes later.
The demonstration was a bit confusing, but he showed us the first level of walking and sitting meditation and explained that we wouldn’t be doing standing meditation at this time. He listed out the rules for us:
- No talking (except with instructors and teacher)
- No makeup
- No eating past noon
- No reading or writing
- No music, dancing, or singing
- No sex, drugs, or alcohol
- No using electronics (using phones in airplane mode for timers was ok)
- No stealing, and definitely no killing. This includes mosquitos.
And we received our schedule:
- 05:00 – Wake
- 05:30 – Dhamma talk
- 07:00 – Breakfast
- 08:00 – Individual meditation practice
- 11:00 – Lunch
- 12:00 – Individual meditation practice
- 14:00 – Report to teacher
- 18:00 – Evening chanting
- 17:00 – Individual meditation practice
- 21:00 – Sleep
He recommended that we shoot for 5-6 hours a day of individual meditation practice. The day was half over so we could aim for a lower time to start, but now that the demonstration had finished it was time to meditate.