10 Days Of Silent Vipassana Meditation - The Experience
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
30 years ago, my mother travelled through South East Asia. During her travels, she spent 14 days meditating in silent bliss at a beautiful temple called Wat Suan Mokkh. By the end of her experience, she didn’t want to return back to the ‘real’ world. I’d heard the story from her many times before…
…and now, I’ve had the opportunity to live it.
On 31st July 2017, I arrived at Wat Suan Mokkh monastery.
On 11th August 2017, I left the temple after successfully completing 10 days of silent meditation.
It was, without a doubt, 10 of the most transformative days of my life to date.
To capture the insanity and value of this experience, I’ve written several blog posts.
This first post is a summary of my overall experience, including the highs, lows and funny moments involved in my crazy daily schedule. For any of you intending to a 10-day retreat, this will hopefully give you an idea of what it entails – though do be aware that timetables and living conditions will certainly differ between different Vipassana retreats.
Following this, I've written a 12-post series titled 'Meditating With Monks'. Each post will discuss 1 of the 12 key insights that I derived from these 10 days. These insights range from practical thoughts on dealing with attachment to spiritual insights derived from observing nature during deep meditation. I hope that they will be as valuable for you as they were for me.
Let’s get to it.
Day 0 – Induction
I arrived at Wat Suan Mokkh feeling something I can only describe as 'poetic nostalgia'. 30 years ago, my mother had spent 14 days here. And now, 30 years later, I would be following in her footsteps…
I signed the papers, handed in every electronic device that I owned (after taking a few pictures with my phone), and got mentally ready to embrace 10 days of silent meditation.
Before coming here, I was aware that we’d be doing chores during our 10 days. I was repeatedly told by every single blog post that I’d read to arrive early to avoid cleaning the toilets.
I didn’t arrive early.
I would be cleaning all 9 toilets in the men’s dormitory every single day.
Not ideal, but I still felt a sense of eagerness…
It took 45 minutes for my enthusiasm to die completely.
I’ve seen prisons in worse condition than my bedroom/torture chamber. A dark, dingy space with metal bars lining the window. A concrete slab with a thin bamboo mat for a bed, accompanied by a wooden pillow. The walls and floor covered in gecko crap.
I took a tour of my dormitory. Stone tubs filled with water and lined with buckets – not just for laundry, but also for showering. The toilets seemed fine – that is until a gigantic gecko jumped out of from behind the toilet seat and scared the living crap out of me. I turned to leave and was ambushed by a barrage of ants biting at my feet.
My mind screamed at me. This wasn’t just out of my comfort zone; this was well into my panic zone.
It was at this point that the bell rang, signifying 6pm tea time. The solitary cup of hot chocolate gave me a moment of pure heavenly bliss amidst the hell I was occupying. I never wanted the cup to end…
But it did.
And after our late-night introductory session in the main meditation hall (a lovely outdoor hall with a high ceiling and a sandy ‘floor’), I was dreading the concrete slab fate that awaited me.
I didn’t sleep that night, simply lying flat on my back with my head encased by the wooden pillow, pondering how I’d gone from a comfortable hostel bed to this sacrificial altar.
And then at 4am, the bells began to ring. It was time to wake up and begin the schedule that would be carried out from Day 1 through to Day 8.
I’m not going to write out a diary for every day. Instead, I’ll just stick to the highlights, the low points, and the funniest moments from each part of the schedule over this 8-day period.
Day 1 – 8: The Schedule!
4am – Alarm Bell Rings
Highlight: On a cloudless morning (Day 1, Day 10), the stars were absolutely stunning. I could spend hours gazing at them – except that I had to be meditating in a hall in 30 minutes time!
Low Point: Hearing that bell and thinking, “wait, this isn’t all a bad dream…” (Every Day).
Funniest Moment: There’s nothing funny about being woken up at 4am.
4:30am – Morning Reading & Group Sitting Meditation (1 hour)
This session involved a 20 – 30 minute reading from one of the teachers at the monastery (a female teacher – it’s not just male monks), followed by meditation. It was still dark at this point…
Highlight: When I didn’t fall asleep. (Day 1, Day 2)
Low Point: When I did fall asleep. (Every other day)
Funniest Moment: The snoring in the meditation hall. There’s always one…
5:30am – Yoga & Tai Chi Practice (1.5 hours)
This session involved 45 minutes of yoga practice, followed by 45 minutes of tai-chi practice and a 15-minute break. It was led by the legendary yoga & tai-chi master, Khun Supol.
Highlight: Mastering the Single Whip tai-chi movement (Day 6). Damn, it feels good to be a spiritual gangster.
Low Point: Realising that 80-year old men with arthritis have more hip flexibility than I do. My flexibility improved from Day 1-6, then steadily regressed as my hips went into spasm and tightened even more.
Funniest Moment: Every time the legendary Khun Supol came out with one of his epic lines delivered in his thick Thai accent: “breath is the natural movement of the body”, “coolly, calmly, softly, gently”, “not too slow, not too rush, the Middle Way”, and “smile, not so serious!” I can still hear his voice in my head to this day…
7am – Morning Talk & Group Sitting Meditation (1 hour)
This session involved a 25 – 40 minute talk by either the head monk, Ajahn Pho (Day 1-4, Day 10), or his young understudy, Ajahn Madhi (Day 5-9). The remainder of the time would be spent meditating.
Highlight: Ajahn Madhi’s sense of humour. This often involved jokingly pausing after every topic, shaking his head, and referring to it as ‘dukkha’ (suffering) under his breath. For example, "You like dragonfruit. Then one day, you go to buy, and there is no more dragonfruit...ahh...dukkha." "You have girlfriend...then one day, she say bye-bye...ahh...big dukkha." Also making fun of his own pronunciation (mind-FOO-ness, BAW-dy and mixing up birth & bird). As he went on to say, “Pronunciation…so much dukkha.”
Low Point: Nothing of note. Ajahn Pho, the abbot of Suan Mokkh, had an accent that was difficult to understand. It took me two days to realise that "bitting in, bitting out" was actually "breathing in, breathing out". A shame, because I'm sure that he had a lot of wisdom to share...
Funniest Moment: When Ajahn Madhi gave an entire lecture on how Vipassana meditation is best practised on the toilet! For those that don't know, Vipassana means insight into the true nature of reality. In Buddhism, this means seeing the impermanence of all things (anicca), the suffering in life (dukkha), and the realisation of non-self (anatta). So if you're looking to understand the true nature of reality, head to the bathroom! Vipassana? More like Vi-POO-ssana...
8am – Breakfast!
One of our two meals of the day. The food at Suan Mokkh was so amazing that I didn’t even give a second thought to the fact that I’d been a vegetarian for 10 days. Breakfast often consisted of rice soup (the marmite of the trip – I loved it, most hated it), mixed vegetables with tofu, and bananas.
Highlight: The vegetable and tofu dish. I love vegetables, and Suan Mokkh had plenty to spare…
Low Point: Eating too much rice soup on the first and second day. Overeating. Ahh...dukkha.
Funniest Moment: People’s attitudes to rice soup changing over time. The novelty wore off very quickly for most, and this running joke was often referred to by our monks and teachers when looking for daily examples of dukkha.
8:30am – Free Time/ Chores
Most people did chores at this time. I preferred to use this time for laundry, napping, walking around the ponds and tai-chi practice.
Highlight: Day 6, 7, 8 – lovely naps in Meditation Hall 3 by the pond after some light tai-chi practice.
Low Point: Day 1 and 2 – the ‘gaps’ in between mindfulness practice were the perfect time for my mind to start being an asshole, reminding me of the crap I was putting myself through and how I should just quit.
Funniest Moment: Realising that you shared your room the night before with a gigantic gecko or spider and wanting to show it to the entire dormitory while maintaining silence. Often involves standing outside of your door with an incredulous expression on your face until someone finally walks by and you can show them your animal companion, following which you laugh and smile in silence. Giant geckos – bringing silent meditators together since Day 1.
10:00am – Dhamma Talk CD & Group sitting Meditation (1 hour)
The Dhamma Talk topics would range from mindfulness practices to Buddhist principles. Any remaining time would be used for meditation.
Highlight: Day 4 – Keeping focus on my mindful breath for the entire session! Progress!
Low Point: Listening to the Dhamma Talk guy’s voice on the CD player. It was insanely jarring, and there was incessant background noise of cockerel’s being incredibly loud.
Funniest Moment: When the Dhamma Talk guy swore and the entire room gasped as if Buddhists shouldn’t swear (Day 6). He was referring to a Thai expression of causing suffering by, “beating shit with a short stick”, and how we should use a long stick instead. Yeah. I still don’t get why shit should be beaten with a stick at all, but I assume that it’s profound…
11:00am – Walking Meditation (45 minutes)
Highlight: TAI-CHI PRACTICE! Oh man, I fell in love with tai-chi. I would stand by my favourite pond and let the movements flow. Why walk mindfully when you can flow mindfully! It was one of the highlights of my day…
Low Point: …until Day 8, when one of the female teachers informed me that I could no longer practise tai-chi. Apparently, it’s ‘exercise’, and ‘exercise should only be done in your room’. I went through a mini-crisis dealing with my old demon of despising anyone trying to control me with bullshit rules that make no sense. And then I took some deep breaths and let it go. Kind of...
Funniest Moment: When one of the older guys decided to practise tai-chi as well. I watched him for a moment…and then noticed a gigantic monitor lizard (think of a lizard on steroids) crawling up to his left side. I watched in awe, wondering if he’d noticed it. Surely, he must have…and then he stopped and moved right next to it! I’m still watching in awe. He does a few moves, and then the monitor lizard sits up, and the old man had a heart attack! I’d have warned him if there had been no silence…instead I just laughed silently and wondered how he didn’t notice the metre-long behemoth beside him. Guess he thought that I was just in awe of his mad tai-chi skills…
11:45am – Sitting Meditation (45 minutes)
Highlight: On Days 1-3, we were given Guided Meditation sessions by Khun Supol. These were amazing for me, and actually led me to feel like I had never breathed so clearly or deeply in my life. It seems that the ‘coolly, calmly, softly, gently’ mantra worked well!
Low Point: Mindfulness burnout on Days 5 and 6. I spent 45 minutes watching trees and waiting for lunch. It happens.
Funniest Moment: I spent 45 minutes on Day 4 visualising a tennis ball (I didn’t understand the concept of a mental image at this point!). When I opened my eyes, I could have sworn it was there. I reached out to grab it and fell off my cushion. Smooth.
12:30pm – Lunch
Not only was the food better at lunch time, but the desserts were AMAZING!
Highlights: Where to start?! Delicious main courses like egg noodle dishes, vegetable bhajis and tofu curries. And delectable desserts like banana in coconut milk, rice in coconut milk, barley in coconut milk…
Low Point: Every day we had to recite a chant that ended with, “when this food mingles with my decaying body, it becomes rather revolting also”. This is because Buddhist’s don’t eat food for pleasure, only sustenance, and so train themselves not look at it with desire. I’m not really a fan of this idea.
Funniest Moment: When the lady who began our chant decided to tell us how we can eat less food and lose weight. She said we should mix every meal with plenty of water to ‘dilute the deliciousness’. She then suggested that we can also mix up all our food together in one bowl – and then add water to it. Yeah. I think I’ll pass…
1pm – Free Time/ Chores
For me, this was toilet cleaning time! I would put on my ‘special’ toilet cleaning trousers and attack those toilets with dignity. I’d then treat myself to a well-deserved nap or tai-chi practice to burn off the copious amounts of food I’d consumed.
Highlight: Napping in the sunshine. Nothing better after a big lunch and clean toilets.
Low Point: Getting bitten to death by ants when cleaning toilets. What the hell are ants doing in toilets anyway?
Funniest Moment: Confronting a bigass spider in one of the toilet cubicles and realising that I was mentally commentating on the incident in a Snoop Dogg accent. (If you haven’t seen his ‘nature documentaries’, you need to see them!). Actually worked very well. I highly recommend commentating on distressing events in a Snoop Dogg accent to diffuse the tension – just maybe not aloud…
2:30pm: Dhamma Talk CD & Group Sitting Meditation (1 hour)
More Dhamma Talks. More meditation.
Highlight: When a monsoon storm hit on Day 4 after the talk had finished. The sound of the rain made for a very peaceful meditation and gave me some time to contemplate on my rocky relationship with rain. I then had to leave and walk/swim barefoot for my meeting with one of the monks. And I enjoyed every minute of it! Rain making me joyful instead of depressed – that’s progress!
Low Point: Falling asleep during the talk after a big meal (most times).
Funniest Moment: When the guy on the tape said ‘duty’ non-stop for 30 minutes (Day 8). His accent made it sound like ‘doodie’. I had a Chandler Bing moment and couldn’t control myself.
3:30pm: Walking Meditation (45 minutes)
Highlight: Any sunny day. The trees and grass glistened with life, especially after a storm. Mindful walking is immensely enjoyable. You don’t get anywhere because it takes so long to take a step, but that’s absolutely fine, because you have nowhere to be. Apart from the present moment, of course.
Low Point: Any stormy day when walking meditation would have to be done indoors. I prefer walking on grass, not stone or concrete.
Funniest Moment: Seeing people walking mindfully. We all look like we’re walking around in slow-motion as if we’re in a Matrix movie.
4:15pm: Group Sitting Meditation (45 minutes)
Highlight: Day 6 – I was tired of sitting with the group in the hall. I took my cushion and went to the pond, and sat on a small cylindrical slab in the middle of it. I meditated. It was one of the most profound experiences I’ve had. I repeated this on day 7, sitting instead beside the biggest tree at the centre of the monastery during a storm. An incredible experience which yielded more valuable insights.
Low Point: Day 5 – Meditation burnout. It’s not fun. Your brain hurts anytime you try to focus. You feel restless and fidgety. It turns out the cure is to just accept it and enjoy observing what's around you - which is itself a form of mindful meditation!
Funniest Moment: Getting really bored and spending 45 minutes playing with my facial hair on Day 8. I realised that I hadn’t seen myself in a mirror for 8 days, which was quite liberating. Despite that, I could still feel that I was incapable of growing a full beard. WHERE ARE MY IRANIAN GENES?!
5pm: Chanting & Loving Kindness Meditation (1 hour)
We would repeat chants in Pali and English for 45 minutes, and then finish with 15 minutes of radiating ‘loving kindness’ to the world. Chanting is not considered to be breaking silence, for those interested. Silence is enforced to stop us from speaking with others, as when we speak and listen, we too often do so in terms of how something relates to ‘me, mine, I’. By not speaking to others, we therefore silence our ego. More on this in my 'Meditating With Monks' blog series...
Highlight: Some of the chants were pretty cool. Lines like, “One ought not to long for what has passed away, nor be anxious over things that are yet to come. The past has left us, the future has not arrived.”
Low Point: Some of the chants were very depressing. Lines like, “Life lasts not long, death is long-lasting. That we die is inevitable, our lives have death as their completion. Our lives are uncertain. Our deaths are most certain.”
Funniest Moment: When the lady leading the chants told us that she sings these chants to babies in hopes that they become good people. I couldn’t help but imagine holding a baby in my hand and chanting, “our lives are uncertain, our deaths are most certain.” What are you trying to raise?! A Nihilist?
6pm: Tea-Time & Free-Time
After enjoying hot chocolate (or a delicious tea), I’d do a quick exercise circuit in my room consisting of push-ups, ab exercises and pull-ups using the little ridges in the upper wall of my bedroom. I’d then brush my teeth, shower and get ready for the good stuff…
Highlight: HOT CHOCOLATE!!!!
Low Point: Anytime there wasn’t hot chocolate. Oh, and mosquitoes. I’m all for loving kindness, but I’m not donating any blood to you bastards.
Funniest Moment: Bucket showers. There’s something exhilarating about pouring a bucket of cold water over your head and body, then reacting in shock as if you weren’t expecting it to be cold…
7:30pm: Group Sitting Meditation (30 mins)
By this point, it’d be completely dark. The only light in the meditation hall came from a few flickering candles. We’d all use lanterns or torches to navigate our way there without stepping on ferocious critters.
Highlight: Most days – this was an awesome meditation session. The dark made the mind more relaxed and receptive to mindfulness training.
Low Point: None of note.
Funniest Moment: The belching frog orchestra that produced the soundtrack to our meditation after any evening rainfall.
8:00pm: Group Walking Meditation (30 mins)
The highlight of the evening. We’d be led on a walk around the lake by one of the monks, completely barefoot and exposed to the elements (and damn ants!). But pain is impermanent…
Highlight: Day 7 – Walking under a full moon. This was the same night as the famous Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. I preferred our version. Also Day 1 – doing the walk by the lake for the first time. It gave me hope that I’d be able to last 10 days.
Low Point: Day 5 and 6. It was raining intensely. We had to sit in the hall. No walking.
Funniest Moment: On Day 1, I was apprehensive about going for a walk barefoot, afraid of all the nasty animals that could attack my feet. Ajahn Madhi made a comment about how there are ‘only ants’, and that it’s okay if they bite you because, ‘pain is impermanent’ and ‘it’s good training’. Sums up Buddhism pretty aptly! Funnily enough, this was the moment that I knew I would complete all 10 days of the retreat, regardless of how challenging it would get – simply because he used the word ‘training’! This triggered the part of my mind that’s obsessed with bettering myself through physical and mental training, and simply refuses to give up no matter the circumstances - all because of a change in perception from ‘retreat’ to ‘training’! Know the language that your brain responds to best!
8:30pm: Group Sitting Meditation (30 mins)
After the walk, I was normally too relaxed/tired to care about meditation. Instead I would squint my eyes at the candles and watch how my perception of the rays of light changed. Or I would just sleep.
Highlight: Being engrossed by the rays of light from the candles. Realising that we’re all like candle flames – either we’ll reach our end naturally and extinguish, or the wind will blow and end our light prematurely. Either way, we owe it to ourselves to shine as brightly as possible while we’re here.
Low Point: Nothing really.
Funniest Moment: Falling off my stool when I fell asleep on Day 3. Loud thump. It was dark, but I could hear the other meditators turn around in a rapid, alarmed motion at the sudden sound. I would have apologised, but it was silent meditation...
On Days 1-4, as an act of defiance, I would take my bucket showers at this time. On Day 5, I gave up and realised that the extra 20 minutes of sleep was worth showering earlier.
Highlight: Day 3. I said ‘fuck it’ and got a yoga mat to put on top of my concrete slab and a meditation cushion to use as a pillow. Don’t create suffering for the sake of it (more on that here). My tailbone thanked me for it. My neck thanked me for it. And I slept blissfully.
Low Point: Day 0, 1, 2: Waking up unable to breathe properly because I wasn’t used to sleeping on my back with my neck being imprisoned by the wooden pillow.
Funniest Moment: I had no way of keeping time this entire trip. Bells and chimes would tell me when I had to be somewhere. Not knowing the time was quite liberating…except if I woke up some time in the night needing to pee. I’d go through the arduous process of lifting out the mosquito net carefully, checking the floor for unpleasant creatures, and so on – and then return to bed, apply hand sanitiser, replace the mosquito net, rest my head on the pillow ready to sleep again…AND THEN THE DAMN BELL WOULD START RINGING! Never during this 10-day trip did I miss being able to check the time on my phone so much…
Day 9 & 10
Day 9 and 10 were different to the others.
Day 9 was a ‘monk’s day’, where we had no formal meditation sessions. We’d have all our time to ourselves to practice meditation as we saw fit. We’d also only have one meal for the entire day, just as monks do. While many people would fret about getting bored without the structure of a normal day, I was panicking about eating only one meal!
But I had nothing to be worried about – as well as a big meal, the drinks they gave us during our 1pm and 6pm tea breaks were more like broths, hearty and filling.
I thoroughly enjoyed Day 9. Lots of mindful walking and meditating by the pond. The highlight came at night, when I was the first one willing to go for a walk around the lake and ended up leading our group on a night walk! I then found a small spot by the pond to gaze at the stars and watch the moon rise. A truly beautiful evening that I’ll remember for many years to come.
Day 10 was our final full day. We had normal group sitting meditation sessions until the afternoon, when we were asked as a group to perform a service to the monks. We would be helping the monks living in the nearby Don Kiem monastery by picking up large rocks and taking them to a site where the monks would later build a dam.
It was great fun, and a strong exercise in teamwork given that we were still confined to silence! After the exercise, we were given a tour of Don Kiem as well as some delicious herbal tea (and the not-so-delicious starchy bananas that they tricked us with! - our facial expressions spoke volumes as we complained/laughed in silence).
The evening finished with a ‘Sharing’ session, where each person was invited to come to the front of the hall and speak for a few minutes about their experience.
I was grateful to have a chance to speak – I mentioned my mother’s journey, my difficulties adapting at the start, my insight about the pond, and my gratitude to the teachers who had made this journey possible.
It was incredibly interesting to hear other people’s background and experiences having had a chance to 'know' them in silence over the past 10 days. Some had come to learn, others to deal with loss and grief. Many were first-timers, some were third-timers! Couples had come as well – some had been strengthened by the experience, others actually broke up mid-way through as a result of it (not in silence, it should be added – that would be quite an interesting feat!).
It really highlighted how challenging the 10-days had been – no one had an easy path, but each of our paths had been different.
We learned that of the 44 men starting the journey, only 25 had finished (though a good 10 of them had left earlier on Day 9 or 10 due to other commitments). And of the 38 women, 34 had finished. Much better than the men, but again, it shows that the full 10-days isn’t for everyone!
A quick note to finish - on Day 11, we were allowed to communicate with the people we'd spent 10 days in silence with. And it was incredible. So many like-minded people, all with stories to tell and experiences to share. When you spend 10 days surrounded by other people, walking around with no mirrors, no make-up, no way of 'defining' your individuality or being concerned with what others think...it's liberating. I felt no self-consciousness when I was communicating with them, and the conversation flowed so effortlessly. It was as if we'd seen something deeper within ourselves and each other, and were no longer constrained by surface appearances...
I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to experience these 10 days of silent meditation. I wanted to leave mid-way through day 1, but I’m immensely glad to have stuck through with it. I would love to hear from any of you who are considering doing a 10-day Vipassana retreat, or would like to share your own experiences of them.
I hope that you found this summary of my Vipassana experience useful. I look forward to sharing 12 of the most valuable insights that I gained from the experience in my 'Meditating With Monks' blog series.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.