For the past ten years I have tried to make an annual meditation retreat. The first few were difficult, challenging, but also deeply transformative and profound. After learning the practical aspects of meditation, the basic techniques and underlying rationale, going on retreat became a less daunting experience and something that feels very natural and regenerative. Not only has it become a way of decompressing from urban life, a kind of ‘reset’ button which brings a freshness, power, and liveliness to body and mind, but it also has a re-orientating effect, like a fine-tuning of my internal compass, helping see where I’m at in my life and state of mind, and setting a clear vision for the right path ahead. I find it essential for the healing work that I give.
My principle teacher along the way has been Guy Burgs, a non-religious teacher who has a great skill in synthesizing the great meditation traditions and being able to convey them in their essence to a modern audience. Over the last few years I’ve struck out to undertake solo-meditation retreats, so as to go deeper into the practices in my own pace, which has led me to a unique centre for meditation in a very remote part of the world. There isn’t any particular need to seek remoteness for a retreat, but knowing that you can’t escape easily is a good incentive to stick at it!
Wat Pa Tam Wua is a traditional Thai forest monastery nestled in the mountains of Thailand’s most northern province, Maehongsong. The journey to the monastery is somewhat of a pilgrimage, as it takes around 8 hours of travel from Chiang Mai, and the road through the mountains is both notoriously curvy and spectacularly beautiful. The journey is worth it, though, as Wat Tam Wua is a natural paradise, with streams and rivers, waterfalls, groves of mango trees, a beautiful lake, and many caves in the surrounding mountains. The natural beauty, peacefulness and remoteness of the place make it ideal for meditation.
The daily schedule is simple and follows the basic routine of the monks- rise at 5am for meditation alone, meet at 6.30am to offer food to the monks and share breakfast, 8-10am is walking, then sitting and lying down meditation, meet at 11am for lunch, 1- 3pm again walking, sitting, and lying down meditation, 4-5pm cleaning, 6.30pm chanting the Sutrus and a finishing meditation at 7pm. One can choose to remain silent through one’s stay, or you can talk with others if you like too. The abbot, Phra Luang Ta, is probably the happiest person you’ll ever meet. His ease of laughter and genuine care and love is an ever-encouraging presence. He gives general guidance for meditation, but the more in-depth discourses are given by other English-speaking monks. The place is very spacious and clean, with individual huts (called kutis) given to each guest, and larger dormitories for men when there are many guests. Usually there are about a few dozen foreigners from all over the world and a few dozen Thai people.
The two main techniques used in the Thai and Burmese traditions are called Vippassanna and Samatha. They are like two wings on a bird, mutually complimenting and necessary for each other. Samatha means ‘concentration & serenity’ and is all about relaxing and stilling the mind so that it becomes very stable and tranquil. Once you have this base, the technique can change to Vippassanna (insight meditation), which is all about investigating the mind, learning to directly understand it’s mechanisms and releasing unhelpful patterns of thinking and emotions. Together these techniques can have a remarkable and transformative effect on one’s mind and life. Finding the right entry point and balance between them is the trick, as everyone has slightly different temperaments, which makes certain meditation styles easier or more difficult concordantly. In some circumstances formal sitting meditation is not ideal for people- walking, qigong, yoga, or mindful activities like tea drinking and creative work can have a more settling effect on the mind.
This is actually one of the things that makes the approach at Wat Pa Tam Wua slightly unique- there is an emphasis on walking meditation, a practice which is designed to strengthen the energy of the mind not only for sitting meditation sessions, but throughout one’s normal daily activity. The monastery is part of the Thai Forest Tradition, a movement started around 100 years ago by the famous Isan monk Acariya Mun, of which the Abbot is a direct student. Acariya Mun’s vision for the tradition was to practice in the ways of old, and became known for living and walking through the jungle forest of Northern Thailand as his main practice ground. The mortal risk of tigers was a very real threat back then, particularly when sleeping in the wild forests. One of the reasons for Acariya Mun’s renown was his ability to lay a mantle of protection over the monks who would live with him in the forest, none of whom were ever attacked by tigers, even though they could be heard. The Abbot would joke about these tales, having to contend with tigers and huge snakes back in the day. Thankfully none were to be seen whilst I was there.
However, on the eighth evening of my stay at Wat Tam Wua we experienced a monumental deluge- a true tropical monsoon. The next morning it became apparent that all the power and water supply had been flooded out, and so instead of the usual afternoon routine, everyone went upriver to build a damn and repair the pipes. Coming together to carry heavy sacks of sand and big water pipes was actually a welcome break by this point. Strong physical work feels very good after putting in so many hours of strong mental work. It was also heart-warming to join our efforts with the monks, who were working just as hard and directing the operations. After some hours it seemed that we had achieved enough for the day, so I chose to go up to one of the meditation caves to settle the mind and continue the practice.
About an hour in the rain started again, so I decided to continue in meditation until it passed. But it only got stronger and stronger, until I realized the sun had set, darkness had set it in and I would have to venture back through the storm. When I arrived down from the mountain, thoroughly soaked, I came to the main bridge, which I would have to cross to return for the night. As I approached I could hear what sounded like gunshots being fired, but then realized was the sound was of huge boulders being swept down the river, along with fully-grown trees. A river in full-flood is an awesome sight, but crossing one is another thing altogether! The waters had swelled at least three times, right up to the steps of the bridge, and were so rapid and powerful that they commanded you to take stock. A test like this at the end of the retreat proved to be a real boon- I was presented with something truly fearful, and through my practice was able to keep a composure that I doubt have would have had ten days past. This gives you courage.
The next morning we awoke to a real flood, with the only road in flooded, and much damage to the monastery along the river. Apparently monsoons like this happen every 5-10 years. The Thai army was sent in to help with the repairs, which distinctly changed the atmosphere of the place. The abbot seemed to be as peaceful as ever though, and gave me a bottle of wild mountain honey for the journey home. With some help I managed to get my motorbike across the flood, and started back through the mountains.
Some might see the whole idea of meditation retreats as running away from life’s problems, as a form of escapism. In a sense, there is an element of this- by cutting ourselves off from our daily world we do gain a certain escape from the immediate pressure of modern life- breathing space. For many- the initial desire to go on a retreat comes from a recognition that life is becoming overwhelming and even untenable. But it is a mistake to think meditation is a quick solution or release from life’s difficulties, for we carry all our emotional baggage wherever we go. Even in the paradise surroundings of Wat Tam Wua you can’t escape life’s storms. Rather, meditation offers a holding space to safely bear witness and release our internal stormy weather. After the storm, we not only find a delicious freshness in the air, but also a calmness and a clarity. We then can then re-enter our lives renewed and resilient.
For more information on learning meditation or qigong feel free to contact me.