I went to a Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Thailand at the end of my trip. I'd always wanted to experience 10 days of silence so I found one that fitted into my travels and made my way south, despite weather forecast warnings of heavy rain, cyclones and tsunamis in the surrounding areas. I had no real knowledge as to what such a retreat would entail, through the grape vine I'd heard of a girlfriend who had found herself crying for 5 days and had had a life changing experience as a result of her experience. And others I met a long the way who had previously attended simply smiled and said, 'Enjoy' without disclosing anything more.
The setting was very close to nature, the property was a 25 minute walk from the main highway and the contrast from cement and cars to trees and tranquility couldn't have been greater. The architecture was very basic, open concrete halls - sturdy and practical, no adornments such as paint and only a few pictures of the founding Monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu scattered sparingly around. The rest was nature, nature, nature! The dormitories were basic 3 by 4 square meter cubicles with a concrete slab for the bed, a straw mat for the mattress, a blanket, mosquito net and a wooden pillow to elevate your head during slumber...my room had about 10 spiders in various ceiling locations, a gecko and some centipedes when I first entered and i think when I left there may have been more. There were 8 western toilets (which I cleaned each day as a chore) and 6 large water basins where one could fill their bucket and use to cleanse the body (no showers or hot water). There was however a natural hot spring which was available for our use twice a day, the water was 40 degrees and glorious!
The daily routine was as follows:
4am Wake up to bells chiming rhythmically for 10 minutes.
4.30 Morning readings.
5:30 body meditation (Yoga, Qigong and Tai chi),
7am Meditation/Dhamma talks.
8am Breakfast, Chores, own time (and hot springs).
10am Dhamma talk/meditation.
11am Walking meditation/sitting meditation
12.30 Lunch, chores, own time
2.30 Dhamma talk
3.30 Walking meditation/sitting meditation
6pm Hot chocolate/own time (hot springs)
7.30 Sitting and group walking meditation
9.30 Lights out
All this in silence for 10 days. Some very committed people chose to also abstain from eye contact. Men and women were encouraged not to make eye contact as the opposite sex can be (are) a distraction :) Our dorms were separate and we did not share the same hot springs either.
This was a phenomenal experience for me.
I had been on the road for 4 months, I'd been through Russia, China, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia and each place had had a different vibe for me personally regarding my activities as a traveler, the latter two been quite extravagant regarding partying and indulgence, and I'd also had a resurgence of guilt regarding my ex-boyfriend as he had decided that he needed to distance himself from me for a period of time and had sent a couple of quite heavy emails raising question about my morality and choices I'd made. Upon arrival in Thailand my emotional stability was rocky and the over-touristic, hedonistic and consumer driven atmosphere of Bangkok was also affecting my better senses. I'd had 2 days of island tranquility before the retreat to try and calm my nerves before the silence and I was anxious as to whether or not I was in the right state of mind to attend such an event...the fear of falling apart nagging at me.
Upon arrival however all worries and fears dissipated and throughout the process I let go of so much baggage I had been carrying around...and all cause of breathing! Just focusing on breath! That's all the meditation was focused on, breath, breath, breath. Long breath, short breath...just being aware of breath. I was blown away. There was also a lot of information presented in the Dhamma talks about the principals of Buddhism and releasing the self, I, me and myself. As well as the cycle of suffering and how humans get tangled tangled in the web. I learnt a lot of theory and feel a lot more knowledgeable about Buddha, his journey and his legacy. The breath and practice of living now was the greatest gift I received though.