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WHAT TO EXPECT ON A SILENT RETREAT

What is A Silent Retreat

The world has become a noisy, cluttered place. Much energy and ego go into our speech. We say things that do not need to be said, are gossipy, or even harmful. Even when we are physically alone, we are often still interacting with people through social media.

Most of the time, we also rush through life without taking the time to appreciate the present. We are taught that doing nothing or thinking of nothing is akin to laziness. Just as our bodies need rest, so do our minds. This is what a silent retreat aims to give you.

Dipabhavan Meditation Center


In 2015, I first heard of a Vipassana/silent retreat when one of my friends joined one in Thailand. It really piqued my interest, so I searched online for a cheap/free silent retreat, and found one at a meditation center called Dipabhavan. It is located on a hillside slope in the southeast of Koh Samui. While most other centers only offer retreats of a minimum of 7 days, Dipabhavan has a shorter version: a 3-day introductory course–perfect for beginners.

Accommodation is provided, along with meals for the whole duration of your stay. And the best part is, payment is only by donation, which means that if you’re a cheapskate like myself, with little or no shame money, you can actually get away without paying anything.

To book a retreat, you need to fill up the form on their website. Unfortunately, starting from May 2019, they will discontinue all English language retreats until further notice. However, the retreats in Thai and Russian will continue as normal.

Dipabhavan silent retreat Samui

What to Expect

Do not expect luxuries

If the word ‘retreat’ conjures in your mind images of a luxury resort in a tropical paradise, with four-poster beds, champagne breakfasts and personal butlers, then I’m sorry but you’re going to be greatly disappointed.

You will be in a tropical paradise all right, and there will be ‘four-poster beds’, but these four vertical poles are for fixing mosquito nets on, and the beds come with no mattresses. Instead, each participant will have a thin straw mat, a blanket, a mosquito net and a wooden pillow. The bed has three walls to provide privacy for the occupant and prevent distraction.

Wooden beds in the dormitory

Wooden pillowSleeping on a hard surface was something that I had quite expected and was pretty used to. But the wooden pillow, well that was something else. I tried sleeping on it, but soon decided it was better to sleep without. Crazily enough, I slept very well throughout my stay.

The dormitory was large and since there were only 20 of us girls, we occupied only a tiny fraction of it. I had a bed near the windows for better ventilation. On one of the nights, a cat sneaked into my bed and graced me with his furry presence till afternoon.

After registration, you have to hand over all your valuables to be kept away in a locker, partly for safekeeping, and partly to avoid distraction. This includes all electronic devices, cameras, watches, alarm clocks, books, notebooks, food, cigarettes, etc. There is no wifi in the meditation center. In case of emergencies, your family can contact you by way of writing an e-mail to the center.

Oh, and there are no mirrors anywhere in the vicinity. Again, this is to keep you away from frivolous matters such as personal beauty.

What is the schedule like?

You have to wake up at 4.30 a.m. everyday, without an alarm clock. In fact, you’re not supposed to have a watch with you. This really worried me in the beginning. My usual wake-up time was 7.30, and I always had to set my alarm. Even then, sometimes I still slept through it. Luckily, the monastery bell rang loudly enough to be heard throughout the whole compound. And then we would all scuffle away in the dark with our torch lights towards the meditation hall. The bell rings every time you need to be present at the meditation hall.

Given that this place is fully run by volunteers, each participant also needs to choose a daily chore. I chose to clean the toilets. No, actually I didn’t choose that; it was the only one left because I registered quite late. But it wasn’t so bad, as everyone was really practicing mindfulness, therefore observed their cleanliness.

The daily schedule goes something like this:

 

04.30Wake up
 05.00Morning Reading
 05.15Sitting meditation
 05.45Yoga / Exercise
 07.00Sitting meditation
 07.30Breakfast & Chores
 09.30Dhamma talk
 10.30Walking or standing meditation
 11.00Sitting meditation
 11.30Lunch & chores
 14.00Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
 15.00Walking or standing meditation
 15.30Sitting meditation
 16.00Walking or standing meditation
 16.30Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
 17.30Tea
 19.30Sitting meditation
 20.00Group walking meditation
 20.30Sitting meditation
 21.00Bedtime
 21.30LIGHTS OUT

You must not skip any of the activities. There will still be plenty of free time, during which you can do your laundry, shower, relax, or if you like, do more meditation on your own.

Are you really not allowed to talk?

Yes, right after tea time on the first day, the noble silence commences. The only times you are allowed to speak are during the chanting session, before meals when you have to say grace, and at the end of meditation/sermon, if you have any question to ask the monk (but this has to be done in private).

Apart from that, you are to quieten your minds and maintain silence. Not only are you refrained from talking, but in everything that you do, you have to try to make as little noise as possible. However, participants are encouraged to smile at each other, although most people prefer avoiding eye contact.

Do you have to practice Buddhism?

No, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to participate, nor will they try to convert you. The retreat is open for people from all walks of life, races, sexes, faiths and beliefs, without any prejudice or discrimination.

But as the Vipassana meditation has a strong root in the Buddhist culture, you will be introduced to the basic teachings of Buddha, and the Five Precepts of meditation, which are:

  1. To refrain from killing living beings
  2. To refrain from taking what is not given
  3. To refrain from improper sexual behavior
  4. To refrain from false speech
  5. To refrain from the use of intoxicants or mind-clouding drugs

As you can see, it has more to do with the Buddhist way of life, rather than worshiping any deity. It’s important to keep an open mind so that you may be more receptive to lessons that you might benefit from. You do not have to believe in everything you hear. But you do have to listen and consider. Then you can experiment and practice only what works for you.

There will be some chanting at the end of a meditation session. Chanting is meant to be beneficial for relaxation. The chants are short passages of Buddhist scriptures dealing with important topics related to meditation and Dhamma talks. You’d be expected to participate, but if it really makes you feel uncomfortable, or if it goes against your religious belief, you can choose not to. However, they recommend you to stay in the hall and listen quietly.

How fit do you have to be?

Meditation is not physically demanding, but it is not to be underestimated. Try sitting in the lotus position for an hour without moving. And then there’s the climbing up and down the hill to get to and from the meditation hall. Unfortunately, this program is not suitable for mobility-impaired persons.

Pathway to the meditation hall

There won't be much yoga involved

Those who balk at the idea of twisting their limbs into pretzels are going to be relieved to know that there won’t be much yoga involved. At least, not the back-breaking, limb-twisting kind. If there is any yoga at all, it will be the kind that focuses more on the spirituality aspect. During my retreat, the facilitator asked if there was any yoga practitioner in our group who could volunteer to conduct the yoga session every morning. So, if there happens to be none in your group, I suppose it might be excluded from the schedule altogether.

However, it should be noted that the retreat will involve a lot of sitting meditation, during which you’re expected to sit up straight and be as still as possible for up to an hour. This is when prior yoga experience might come in handy, as you would have been accustomed to sitting in the lotus position for long periods of time. Sure, there are cushions that you can sit on, but no amount of cushion is going to stop your legs from getting pins and needles if you’re not used to it.

Dipabhavan meditation hall

The vegan food will make you want to turn vegan

Yes, it really is that good. We were served with vegan food everyday, complete with desserts and fruits after each meal. To be honest, I was a little apprehensive when I first heard that they would only be serving vegan food. My experience with plant-based food thus far hadn’t been very encouraging, and only resulted in flatulence. But now I can assure you that the Thais can make anything taste superb. I was amazed that there could be that much variety and that it didn’t have to be bland.

There were two meals per day: breakfast and lunch. After 12 noon, we were not allowed to take any solid food. Knowing me, you would be surprised that I was able to survive that, but I did. Every time I felt hungry, I drank more water, which by the way, was excellent for cleansing and detoxing.

What to bring

  • Loose clothing that covers from below the knees to upper arms. No see-through fabric. It’s recommended to wear white.
  • Slippers
  • Towel and personal toiletries
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Umbrella or raincoat (during rainy season)
  • Torch and batteries

Conclusion

​The noble silence might feel like a jail sentence to some, but definitely not to me. It was paradise. For the first time in my life, I could sit at a dining table with other people and not be expected to make conversation.

Refraining from writing or reading a book was more of a challenge to me. So was quietening my mind. As an introvert, I have most of my daily conversations in my mind. There’s a whole jungle in there. I could jump from one thought to another, from the past, present and future. So to have to think of nothing but focus only on my breathing was very intense. I actually found the retreat to be more tiring than my daily life.

Having completed it, I can’t say that I have become more enlightened than I was before. I’m still struggling to be mindful of the present. But I had always been intrigued by the Buddhist perspective on life, and the retreat was a perfect introduction to that. I would love to do it again if I have the opportunity.

Here is a picture of me with two other Malaysian participants I met there. We were the only three Asians in the group.

Me and two other Malaysian ladies

Have you tried silent meditation before? Did you enjoy it? Share your experience in the comments below.

Meditation not your thing? Check out the other activities you can try on Koh Samui:

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