Seven Days of Mindfulness | Phuket
Life changing. That’s what the pamphlet for the yoga/meditation retreat said in big blue letters. After seven days (six really) of 6:00am meditation sessions, followed by 9:00am breakfast, 10:00am meditation, 12:00pm lunch, 1:00pm meditation, yoga at 4:00pm, dinner at 6:00pm and finally quiet contemplation (aka, more meditation) before bed at 10:00pm… my life would apparently be changed. Needless to say, I was sceptical; however, I made a commitment to remain open minded and not rush to any conclusions, at least until the retreat was over.
When we left Vancouver back in June, I started reading books about Buddhism and by association meditation [Insert shameless plug for 10% Happier, it’s a good book]. Since then, a new article appears in my Facebook news feed every other week, touting the latest and greatest scientific benefits of meditation. Jenna and I had talked about wanting to explore meditation further and both agreed we’d be interested in trying a retreat. As luck would have it, the incredibly busy Dharana Phuket Meditation Center had space available right around the time we were planning to be in Phuket. Seven days of yoga, meditation, and vegetarian cuisine.
The day we arrived we didn’t know what to expect. We wondered whether it was going to be hardcore meditators, dressed in white linens, mindfully walking around the retreat with two hands clasped around burning incense sticks. Or, would it be newbies like ourselves, curious and apprehensive. Turns out, it was a little bit of both.
The leader of the retreat was a man named Tobi. He was a 6’4” German with a shaved head, a small goatee, and a very slight accent. He wasn’t your typical spiritual leader, but then again, I’ve never met a spiritual leader before so I’m in no position to judge. Speaking of judgement, he wore white linens, which only fuelled my opinion that he was a granola eating nut case. On the bright side, he seemed to listen intently and never rushed to speak. Every time there was a question, he would take a moment and contemplate the answer before giving his response. To be honest though, when I first saw him I immediately passed judgement, as if a little devil sat on my shoulder and whispered, “psh, this guy looks like a stereotypical new age guru wannabe. I bet you anything he starts chanting any second now… three, two, one… oh my god, he’s chanting. Get out now Sam, he’s a cult leader!!”
The day after we arrived he had our first 6:00am meditation session. It went something like this in my head:
Holy shit I’m tired. I haven’t been up at 6:00am in I don’t know how long, I wish I could go back to bed, I really hope we don’t have to chant or anything stupid like that, how long are we going to have to sit here, I should really stretch more often, my flexibility sucks, I should probably shift my legs (shift my legs), oh god that felt good, am I meditating right now, why are we on a beach, I bet we look weird, there’s a dog barking, is it barking at us, it sounds like he’s coming closer, is anyone keeping an eye on him, I should open my eyes and check, god my knees hurt, maybe I should move my butt a bit (wiggle my butt), shit, that didn’t really help, oh crap he just said something, focus on my breathing, right, back to my breath, we don’t have to do this the whole hour do we, my feet are falling asleep (shift my whole body), damn it, he just said something else and I missed it, does everyone else know what they’re doing right now… and on and on it went for fifteen minutes.
I’d never meditated for fifteen minutes, if you can even call what I did meditating. I was a little disappointed I didn’t achieve enlightenment on my first try. Instead, I was hungry and tired and all I wanted to do was crawl back into bed. In fact, I wanted to do anything other than sit one more minute on a beach listening to this tall, lanky German man talk about the four noble truths of the Buddha. For thirty minutes he talked about stress, causes of stress, the end of stress and the path, whatever that was. Then, just before wrapping up, he turned directly to me and said, “do your best to stay still during the sessions, resist the urge to move every time you feel uncomfortable.” He was speaking to the whole class but it felt directed squarely at me. I felt reprimanded and I didn’t like it. So much for being a star student.
The next day I woke up determined not to move during meditation. No matter how much my body screamed at me to change position, I was going to fight through it. Fifteen minutes into the meditation, my legs were completely numb, my back was killing me, and I felt like a prisoner counting down the last few minutes prison time. On a positive note, I managed to stay still. Unfortunately, once the session was over it was a freight train of pain bombarding my legs to the point where I couldn’t walk for a few minutes. Pins and needles made it excruciating to wiggle my toes so I did my best not to move anything until feeling had returned. I did my best to focus on Tobi without looking like I was in panic mode.
But a funny thing happened during that session. Once I stopped moving, I found very brief moments of relaxation. Not the type of relaxation you feel when you’re reading a book on a tropical beach, the type of relaxation where everything around you slows down and your whole body surrenders to the moment. I have to say, it was beautiful but also incredibly short lived. That night I went to bed and had one of the worst sleeps of the trip.
The next day I woke up and spent the entire day hating life. During the morning meditation I mentally cursed the stupidity of meditation and the fact that I wasn’t any good at it. I kept repeating over and over in my head that this sitting crap was ridiculous and I should march back to the hotel and demand a refund. Midway through the afternoon yoga class, I nearly gave up and walked out. The whole day was a struggle and I was too frustrated to work my way through any of it.
And then it happened. Day five, my mind exploded.
I’ve always been one to ask a lot of questions and I’m sure by the fifth day I was starting to annoy the other students with my verbal diarrhea. I was doing everything I could to intellectualize meditation. When I had asked too many questions in the day’s group session, I went and talked with Tobi one on one. We talked for a few minutes and then he asked me what it meant to be right. In his guru fashion, he went on to ask whether we could ever be sure if we were truly “right.” Sure we could parrot responses we’d read in books or heard from other people, but could we ever be totally sure? What happened next can only be expressed as a truly jarring moment in my life.
Before setting out on this trip I set three goals. Have a big adventure, give back along the way, and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
Mid conversation, as if reading my mind, Tobi said, “Many people come here trying to figure out what they should do with their lives, but the reality is, we can never be totally sure. Of course we can say with great determination, I should be a doctor, but do we really know whether that will make us happy? Do we really think that once we achieve that goal, then we will be happy?” Now take that statement and replace it with anything. When I get that car, when I buy that house, when I get that girl, when I get that promotion, when I have kids, when I have money… then I will be happy?
This was a slap in the face. Here I was, on a round the world trip, seeking the answers to my purpose in life and he was telling me there was no answer. There was only now. There is no such thing as future happiness. There is only happiness now, in this moment. In fact, as you read these words, that is all there is. Nothing else.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Was this a life changing moment? Maybe. I’m not sure yet. But for the first time in my life I feel like I’m living in the moment (at least a portion of the time) and it feels really good. The stress of what I’m going to do when I get back seems trivial. That’s not to say that I’ve given up, it just means that there’s a lot less pressure to get it “right.” And for now, that’s enough.
Originally published at lostwithmaps.com on February 8, 2015.