Laughing buddha © Caroline Sylger Jones
I haven't spoken a word in eight days. From my agonizing half-lotus position in the meditation hall, I watch William the English monk draw finger-circles on the table in front of him. 'Life is an uncomfortable business, but we suffer because we turn it into a 'me' experience,' he says. I realize with delight that he sounds like Ralph Fiennes from 'The English Patient'. An intense wiry mesh of intelligence, he is determined to demolish our egos and follows his hour-long talk on how ludicrous we are by wishing we 'have a nice day'.
I am nearing the end of a ten-day meditation retreat at Suan Mokkh. To take away distractions and free the mind to learn to meditate, we're not allowed to read, write, draw, smoke, listen to music or drink anything other than herbal tea. Men and women are segregated. We sleep on straw mats with wooden pillows. We are woken at four a.m., wash by communal pools underneath sarongs, eat only two meals a day and do daily domestic chores. On top of a vow of silence.
There are 65 of us, mostly Europeans, with a few Thai students and some earnest-looking Americans. Over a hot chocolate before 'going into silence' I discover we're a pretty mixed bunch - there's a jubilant singleton on the path of self-exploration, a stressed-out marketing director, a woman recovering from ME, a sprinkling of year-out backpackers and a painter in his 60s who reminds me of my dad.
Every day we meditate in 30 to 45 minute sessions, for a total of five hours. During my first session, I develop an intense ache in the centre of my spine, an irritating itch at the side of my neck, and a numb left foot. As I try to concentrate on my in and out breath it feels like someone is pushing their thumbs very hard into every stiff inch of my body.
My mind jumps about like a monkey. I reorganise the furniture in my house, chuck out half the contents of my wardrobe, and worry about the obscene amount of money I've just spent in Bangkok. Once I have shifted, itched, rubbed, twisted and rotated my body to get comfortable again, the bell chimes and we can stop. Lovely, I think. Time for a cup of tea.
When we're not sitting to meditate, we're walking. As I tred six feet, turn around and walk back across the same six feet, I am painfully aware of everybody around me doing the same thing. I hallucinate that I am in a home for the mentally unsound aimlessly wandering about coconut groves in floaty clothing. Except that I am aimlessly wandering about coconut groves in floaty clothing.
I learn that 'desire, aversion, sleepiness, restlessness and doubt' will all collude to stop me from meditating. I want to see a stand-up comedy show and down a bottle of champagne. I make wildly unrealistic plans to build my own house on return to the UK. People I haven't thought about in years pop unwelcome into my head. During yoga I lie down while everyone else does sun salutations. I drink a lot of tea - the peak experience on offer.
During this time my daily chore saves me, by giving me the opportunity to swear aloud. I choose the rather tranquil-sounding task of 'offering water to the young plants by the third pond'. What this actually involves is me carrying heavy buckets of water under the pelting sun to plants that are buried in thigh-high grass, which is full of red ants that climb inside my clothing and bite.
On day four I develop a bout of hiccups, much to the amusement of my neighbour and myself, which is just as well, for at that stage I am in dire need of a good laugh - and I am not the only one. That afternoon after a particularly gloomy talk from William one of the women swiftly crosses the sand towards a lone tree. Is she crying, we all think in horror? No, she is laughing! The rest of us stare after her, rather affronted that she has dared to express a personality.
That evening, however, I sit through a whole 45 minute session without fidgeting. The next morning, I find myself mesmerised by the movement of my leg dangling over a concrete slab. I notice the bananas growing ten feet away from the dining room - while I'm eating a banana. Keeping silent is, I find, actually quite refreshing. No need to bother with small talk - and it feels great to be smiled at by someone when you haven't exchanged a word for days.
I test our progress in the dining hall, where at first it's unnerving to eat opposite a person without being allowed to speak. By day five we have spread ourselves out, careful not to sit opposite anyone or offend them by sitting too far away. And rather than spooning great globules of vegetable rice into our bowls and gobbling it up too quickly, our appetites have dwindled and we need smaller helpings to fill us up. Our embarrassed silence turns into a peaceful one. I start to feel kind of good.
Wandering a meditation hall on day six, I come across a sketch of a seated Buddha inscribed with the words, 'Oh boundless joy, to find at last there is no happiness in this world'. It sounds like a line from an Eddie Izard comedy sketch, but when I recall William's words I rethink. According to him we exist as perfect beings regardless of our families and personal hang ups, and are much more than the 'me' that feels happy and sad. We're ok, whatever we experience. Buddhism starts to make real sense.
Three people leave early. I feel strangely uplifted that someone has had the guts to walk out. But every time my craving for release hits desperation point, a nun or monk changes my mind. Their talks are soothing, witty, highly intelligent and especially candid when it comes to their own life stories. William used to be a psychotherapist, the monk who teaches Pali chanting entered the monastery after discovering his girlfriend was pregnant by another man, the nun who teaches yoga turned to meditation at 27 after a successful career in advertising and stomach cancer.
Tonight, as every night, we have a group walking meditation around two of the ponds. We walk one behind the other, lit by candlelight and the moon, accompanied by the sound of soft pad of bare feet on sand. I think what a miracle it is that all of us can co-habit quietly together for so long, and take a long deep drag of what the monks call 'Buddha's cigarette'. It may just be the sweltering heat that has stunned us all into silence, but that's ok by me.
© Caroline Sylger Jones / Queen of Retreats
Caroline meditating in a garden in Europe before she heads to the heat (and red ants) of Thailand