I’ve been learning about meditation and Buddhist philosophies for the past few years, but I’ve been struggling to really commit to a meditation practice. I decided to attend a couple of vipassana retreats to learn more and really eliminate all excuses I was making not to do it. While I can’t say that my life is completely changed from the experiences, I did learn a lot about my limits and I have renewed motivation to make meditation a part of my daily life.
I did some research on the temples in and around Chiang Mai and decided that Wat Umong would be the perfect starting point for me. Located just outside Chiang Mai’s old city, it’s not a very strict retreat: not completely silent, not vegetarian, a mostly self-structured meditation schedule, and private rooms. The only really strict rule was that everybody must wear modest white clothing. In retrospect, staying at Wat Umong was almost like staying at a Buddhism- and meditation-focused B&B. I did learn a lot, however, about the role that meditation plays in Buddhism and also about the daily lives of monks. The central focus of the retreat is twice-daily q&a sessions with monks – one older Korean monk and a younger Thai monk. We could ask virtually any question that came to mind, from “What’s the best method to eliminate thoughts while meditating?” to “How long are you allowed to let your hair grow before you must shave it?” The best part of staying at Wat Umong was the amazing forest they have behind the monastery where you can walk around and meditate in nature.
Down south on Koh Samui is the gorgeous Dipabhavan center, where I did a 7-day meditation retreat. They run sessions in English every month from the 20th to the 27th, and they are pretty strict. There is no speaking for the duration of the retreat, there are two vegetarian-only meals a day, there is a strict 4:30am wake up, dorm-style sleeping arrangements, no real showers, no mirrors… it was a challenge, for sure. The retreat is run mostly by a French volunteer named Pierre, who is a very gentle soul with a reassuring soul. He made the challenges a bit more bearable. Ultimately, at the end of the week I felt like I had made real strides toward developing a meditation style that works for me (although I haven’t been sticking to it daily) and I was proud of myself for sticking it out. Now, if I can just get the voices in my head to calm down, I’ll be on the road to nirvana.