The balancing act of Ayurveda

My daily Ayurveda treatment starts at 10 am, sharp. Acupuncture is the first order of the day. I lie down on an elevated bed, in a room with 10 beds. Soft music at low volume is piped in, at a level that enables me to mentally suppress it later during the treatment. I am wearing a dark green (on some days, dark red) loincloth. The acupuncture specialist doctor approaches, holding my chart. It details the points in need of treatment. Three needles on top of my head – I feel a slight prick, that’s it. Two on top of my shoulders, one left, one right, barely noticeable. One each in the space between my thumb and my index finger.

“Do you want to loose some weight, too?” the young lady doctor, in traditional Sri Lankan dress, with a tight top, long skirt and a sash wound artfully around her upper body, asks me.

“Sure, always!” I reply, softly.

There are patients like me on all the other beds in the room, most in treatment already, eyes closed. Some are sleeping.

The doctor takes an additional three needles and sticks them in the middle of my belly. I don’t even register the slight penetration of my skin. She switches the overhead lamp off. I get into the groove of a 30-minute breathing meditation. It’s a personal thing; I do it because I can. Meditation fits any aspect of Ayurveda perfectly, helping me regain a balance of body, mind and spirit that is so easily lost in the 21st century rapid pace urban life-style. My concentration is only broken once: a Russian patient on the other side of the acupuncture room starts to snore for a few deep breaths. Thankfully, he returns to his silent dreams in no time.

After 30 minutes, the doctor returns, barely noticeable when floating in. She removes the hair-thin acupuncture needles, one by one, and sends me off to my next treatment.

—————-

April 2012. This is my fourth visit to Barberyn Ayurveda Resorts in Sri Lanka, in a span of 9 years. I am staying at Barberyn Reef, in Beruwela, 85 km south of Colombo, smack on the shore of the Indian ocean, looking west towards the sunset, a dramatic view on most days.

It’s probably wise to make a full disclosure here – I have been consulting the Rodrigo family, owners of Barberyn resorts, for the past 10 years, in marketing and Internet matters, and we have also become good friends.

I’ve rarely seen a family so rooted in cultural and religious tradition as the Rodrigos, and I truly admire their role as pioneers of Ayurveda tourism. The current owners’ father founded the Barberyn Reef resort in 1984, in the firm belief that tourists from all over the world would be interested to seek total healing according to a 5000 year old traditional medicinal practice – Ayurveda – while enjoying a beach holiday. Most probably, this was the first dedicated Ayurveda resort in the world, even earlier than the Indian hotels in Kerala. In our research, we have not found any older mention of an Ayurveda resort anywhere.

In the nine years since my first visit, Barberyn Reef has changed a lot. Part of the change was necessary – the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 took out the whole resort, with one big, unstoppable wave. While carefully rebuilding what was left after the flood receded, the sad event that cost thousands of Sri Lankans their lives also presented an opportunity to modernize the original buildings, who were a bit aged already, and bring the accommodations to their current, cozy and warm standard.

The other changes helped to make the guests’ stay (on average two weeks) more comfortable. A huge swimming pool sits in the middle of the buildings. WiFi is available, even though an Ayurveda resort is a place where I am supposed to forget reading my email every ten minutes, updating my Facebook status or checking stock quotes. True to this belief, there still is no TV in any of the rooms. Only a few have air conditioning – Ayurveda definitely does not believe in anything that’s cold. The thermos flask in my room containing hot water to drink is a constant reminder of this. I have not seen ice cubes or a glass of cold water in a week.

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Next up in my treatment plan is the Ayurveda massage. I loose the loincloth and remain in my really old and oily Nike “butt logo” (yes, that’s the actual name) running shorts that I have worn from my first Ayurveda day on. It would be hard to use them for anything else: the dark green, deeply aromatic Ayurvedic oil caught in the fabric will never be completely washed out – these shorts are dedicated Ayurveda wear forever.

The experienced masseur starts with my head. He pours warm oil over my hair, massages it into my scalp, slowly and methodically, with his fingertips. An exquisite sensation. I close my eyes and relax while his hands make their way down towards my face. More oil goes on my neck, shoulders and back. I lean forward in my chair to enable the back treatment.

Next, I lie down on another elevated bed. Organic herbal eye drops provide me with a short burning sensation. Face massage comes next. The masseur gently applies more oil. He starts to rub my forehead, temples, the areas around my eyes, my cheeks and upper lip, even my ears get a little tweak. Soothing, to say the least.

A second masseur joins the massage, the famous Ayurveda body synchronous massage can begin. The tandem of masseurs starts with my feet, they make their way up my legs. Rhythmic strokes, always in perfect synchronicity. Hands and arms are next, followed by my belly.

“Turn half left please”, the masseur asks.

I turn on my left hip, one leg over the other. They continue the massage.

“Half right” follows. Finally, I turn on my belly. They massage my feet again, slowly move up the body till they’ve treated my back up to my neck.

Finally, the masseurs take some special pads out of a hot steamer. A new, wooden, aromatic scent fills the room. The masseurs apply these steaming hot pads all over my backside, pressing them on my skin for the fracture of a second, covering all areas in just a minute or two. At the end, when I get up again, they hand me a small glass of brownish liquid, concocted from herbs that grow around here. The taste is not really good, but not bad either, just a bit strange. I wrap myself in my cloth and make my way to the next station.

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The approach to Ayurveda therapy taken by Barberyn is authentic and serious, to say the least. It’s not like a spa where you are given a menu of treatments and you make your choice. There’s no cosmetic angle in Ayurveda. Therapy aims at long term well being, treating the root of any health problems, not the symptoms.

Before I receive any treatment, I have a consultation with a doctor – an Ayurveda doctor. Sri Lanka has two parallel medicinal systems, Western medicine and the indigenous Ayurveda medicine. Sri Lankan patients are free to choose between the two – and it’s no wonder that a lot of them trust their 5000 year old local tradition more than the “new import”.

In order to become a doctor of Ayurveda, you have to study Ayurveda medicine in university, for six years. 30% of medicine students choose this, 70% graduate in Western medicine.

As the wisdom of Ayurveda has been delivered in ancient scriptures, written in Sanskrit, or Hindi (the main language spoken in India), as a prerequisite, students have to study these languages, as well as English. The structure of the curriculum in both fields is pretty similar – there is Ayurveda anatomy, pathology, pharmacology, forensic medicine. Lately, even courses in Ayurveda bio-chemistry have been added.

The approach to diagnosis and treatment, however, couldn’t be more different. Whereas western medicine nowadays revolves around tests, tests and then some more tests (in order to pump you full of drugs after that), Ayurveda diagnosis is much more subtle. It always starts with analysing the doshas (the key characteristics of patients and illnesses), then defines the opposites of these doshas and treats the causes of the illnesses, with an applied long term view. If I could explain this any better, I’d be an Ayurveda doctor myself.

Ayurveda pharmacology is again very different. Students have to understand local plants and minerals as well as their healing properties. They have to be able to combine these organic healing substances (together with stuff taken from animals like mutton or cow) in a meaningful way, following the paths of the wise healers who came up with this – a long time ago.

When I asked how the “inventors” of Ayurveda defined the properties of each plant back in the olden times, I received an interesting answer:

“They definitely did not use statistical methods (like pre-clinical or clinical studies today). They relied on something we would call a ‘sixth sense’, applied wisdom, perhaps, to find out which plant could heal which illness.”

Mind blowing, isn’t it? No wonder that native Sri Lankans mainly rely on their indigenous medicinal system when it comes to chronic illnesses, where Ayurveda offers the best long term cures available. For acute cases, there’s always the trip to the emergency room – the victims of a car crash are probably better off with Western medicine. But if you suffer from arthritis, sciatica, psoriasis or other chronic conditions, most Sri Lankans think Ayurveda and Ayurveda doctors are the way to go.

Exactly these doctors are doing the guests’ consultations at Barberyn. If you picture this as meeting an old mystic faith healer, think again. Ayurveda doctors here are young, knowledgeable, fluent in English and really, really nice. Patients provide them with a description of their problems. The physicians then look at the patients thoroughly, and find the correct therapy. An individual regimen is put together for every patient, a mix of treatments like massage and acupuncture etc., food and medicine. Most of the medicine is tailor-made, rather than just ‘mixed together’. More consultations take place during the stay to control that the treatment also works.

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I’m off to the herbal garden now, right behind the special treatment rooms, to receive my next round of treatments. A row of maybe ten low beds is situated right next to the small plots where Barberyn grows a lot of the herbs and spices that go into their medicine. I lie down, again, and one of the young, healthy looking Sri Lankan nurses in her spotless blue and white uniform rushes towards me. She applies different pastes and gels to the problem zones I have defined. This time around, my main concern is my knee – I am seven weeks after a meniscus operation in which the doctor also shaved off some of my bone – to help repair the cartilage damage I have suffered over the years. Lately, I was in considerable pain. Specifically for this, the Barberyn pharmacy prepared a clumpy yellowish paste of bone marrow from mutton or goat. The paste is evenly distributed on a piece of thin paper. The nurse sticks this to my knees, and wraps it around.

Another piece of paper with a greenish, translucent gel goes on the back of my neck. Two more pieces with an orange substance are slapped on my shoulders.

For a slight cosmetic touch, the nurse also rubs Papaya paste onto my face – “for this young and fresh look on my face” that even teenagers will envy. I could do without the two slices of cucumber on my eyes, but hey, what’s the damage? Nobody can see me here, right?

A net covers my face, a blanket goes over my body. I am literally tucked in – and consequently continue with a nice 30 minute meditation while letting the Ayurveda medicine do its work.

Before I disappear toward Nirvana, I remember what other treatments I already had in my personal Ayurveda history. There was the steam chamber: I was placed under a semi-circular wooden contraption, with only my head sticking out at one end. From below, herbal steam made its way up into the device and gave me a half hour sauna/steam bath. Not really what you would ask for on your own in 30 degrees weather with 90% humidity, which you perceive as steam-bath conditions all day long, but if it’s good for my health?

Then there was inhalation – of herbal steam, of course. And I even heard of the famous hemorrhoid treatment – you sit on top of a bucket with burning coals and herbal smoke is – literally – being blown up your ass, to help you get rid of your piles. Compared to all the other smoke that gets blown up your ass every day, this is heaven.

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I spent just a week at Barberyn this time. Ideally, an Ayurveda therapy lasts for two weeks – three weeks are better. Barberyn Reef, the original resort I stayed at, is a cozy place, with a community of like-minded people who take their healing quite seriously. It’s a classic, and they offer excellent care and superb food. The ocean is at your doorstep. The high tide licks at the low wall that separates the resort from the beach – and my little beach cottage was just a few meters away from the wall. At low tide, I can go swim in a “natural swimming pool” – the space between the beach and a small reef, maybe 25 meters outside. Or I can swim in the spacious new swimming pool in the middle of the resort.

Yoga and Tai Chi classes complement the medicinal therapy – and they are essential to making the most of the cure. I felt really bad I couldn’t take advantage of this now, due to my knee problems.

From time to time, there are meditation classes, and different lectures. In between, guests can attend cooking classes, food explorations, excursions etc. – there’s always an interesting activity on the menu.

Barberyn has a second resort, too. It is called Barberyn Beach Ayurveda Resort, and it’s my favorite place in Sri Lanka. Barberyn Beach is located on the southernmost tip of the island of Sri Lanka, near the town of Weligama. The view from the rooms down the hill towards the wild ocean is nothing less than spectacular. I always enjoyed the view of the Indian ocean from here, watching the ships drive by on their journey from the Suez canal to Singapore, knowing that the next piece of solid land in the southern direction is in fact Antarctica. Barberyn Beach is one category above Reef, more luxurious, more spacious, also more expensive – however with the same high quality of Ayurveda therapy, food and anything else. When I want to have a true beach holiday, I go there.

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After my stay in the herbal garden, I’m off to the shower, scrubbing off the oil and pastes with the help of a special, homemade scrub. Then, I take a herbal bath: I lie down (again!) in a tub of warm water that has been infused with herbs, prepared right next to the shower, in huge iron pots on gas-fired ovens. Another nurse ladles warm herb juice over my body, for a good 5 – 10 minutes. After that, I feel totally refreshed and relaxed.

The first three days of therapy are mainly for purification of the body. It’s a tough job, chasing all the bad stuff (Heinekens, Marlboro Lights, Bangkok smog etc.) out of my body, and I am ready for surprises. The last time I did this, the bad stuff took an exit near my thigh, resulting in a lot of blisters on my leg, but they went away after a few days. Another time, I tried the real tough purification therapy, a two day regimen. I was not able to leave my room – for fear of being to far away from a toilet. But, dude, was I purified after that! Following the initial purification period, specific procedures are then being administered to the cleaned body.

My favorite Ayurveda therapy is Shirodhara. It must be the most popular Ayurveda treatment, as people are already asking for it.

When doing Shirodhara, other treatments are cut for two days. I get a little head and face massage first. Then, I stretch out on a bed (everything seems to be done lying down around here). Ears and eyes are covered. A pot of hot aromatic oil is placed directly over my head. Needless to say that the oil is mixed especially for my needs. The stream of oil from the pot is aimed straight onto the spot where my “third eye” is supposed to be, i.e. on my forehead, right between my eyes. The pour goes on for about 20 minutes. Shirodhara is supposed to help me cope with stress, cure my frozen shoulder, and improve the condition of my eyes. It does it, again.

My first experience with Shirodhara was so special, out-of-this-world, I will never forget it. I had to convince the doctors first, to let me do it: normally, it can not be administered during the three days around full moon. We did it, anyway. On the second day, I did a little meditation during the oil-pour. After maybe 15 minutes, I started to see something – in my mind. It first looked gray, a bit like a gel covering something pinkish underneath. Slowly, the grey mass seemed to be pulled away, like a curtain or a bed sheet. When it was gone, I could see what lay beneath it: my own brain. It was all pink and delicate and pure – or looked like that. This was not a dream. I was not asleep, just meditating, and had an apparition of my own brain. Nice. Surprising.

The results of this first Shirodhara dumbfounded me even more: on return to my room, I was able to read without my glasses – a quite unbelievable achievement, as it had been a few years that I could not read a line in a book without them. It lasted for a while, but on return home, it soon went back to where it was before. The experience, however, was truly unforgettable, and worth the two days of restrictions.

During Shirodhara, all patients look a bit funny: a white cloth is tied and knotted to the head, to protect from cold and drafts and whatever. This produces a unique look, like a cleaning woman in the 70s might have lloked like. Also, one is not allowed to shower, nor go in the rain, or expose oneself to the wind – this would be detrimental to the cure.

The first shower after two days of Shirodhara becomes an important milestone in the quest to regain social olfactory acceptability. There are a always lot of fellow “towelheads” around the resort at any given time, so I couldn’t care less about my looks.

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After my treatments, I go for lunch. Food is a really important ingredient in the whole Ayurveda experience. It’s what you take in to your body all day long, so why not make it count? Food is so important that there is a doctor on watch in the dining room during mealtimes, trying to help guests choose the right food – and making sure that they don’t eat what they’re not supposed to. Certain foods should not be eaten when on a controlled diet (weight loss), others not during Shirodhara.

Whatever diet you’re on, there’s always enough food to choose from: delicious vegetarian food from Sri Lanka, curries, exotic vegetable stews and mixes, fresh salads with fruit, even some western dishes. I am also being served special fruit juices and soups in green and yellow for each meal, further enhancing my treatment. If food is the most important medicine in Ayurveda, I will become a lifelong follower.

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A week has passed, and I feel superb. My body is rested, my shoulder healed. My knee hurts less, I even get a pot of bone-marrow paste to take home for further treatment. My eyes are clear, my mind feels a bit like after the meditation course. I am fresh, I sleep well, dream nicely.

I say my good-byes to all the doctors and nurses and the owners of Barberyn – and I promise to come back soon. Another week or two in October, wouldn’t that be great? Until then, there’s always the thought of synchronous massage, hot oil on my forehead and a nice rest in the herbal garden, followed by an interesting mix of genuinely healthy curries and veggies. Ayurveda is bliss, no less. And I regained my balance, in a week.

Links:

Barberyn Ayurveda Resorts

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My left knee and other updates

After the meditation retreat, it took me a while to get my different acts together. Going back to Europe for Christmas and New Year, seeing my wife and my family after a few months’ absence was a great thing, as always. Took a few days off in Kitzbuehel, actually went skiing over New Year’s, beautiful and inspiring. It’s the only sport I really care about, and the one I am best at. But somehow, these few days of intensive skiing must have disturbed the relative peace of my left knee.

A few days after our return to Bangkok in mid January, I twisted my left knee when entering a taxi. If this was facilitated by the skiing, I can only presume. Maybe it just happened. Anyway, for the next four weeks, I experienced an ordeal of pain, with splashes of improvement when my brother (a qualified doctor on visit to Thailand) extracted the fluid out of my knee (ouch!) and gave me a preliminary diagnosis of a ruptured meniscus. I finally got an MRI done in Bangkok, at Bumrungrad, and it confirmed my brother’s suspicion. I needed to get an operation asap.

During the last four weeks, not only did my knee hurt, but in order to control the inflammation of the bone, I had to take Voltaren, and this drug clearly alters my mind – I become queasy and unfriendly and overreacting to just about anything. I hate it.

So I arrived in Vienna a week ago, spent most of the weekend waiting for my insurance to clear the operation, suffering from pain and the side-effects of the drugs and the cold weather generally. Finally, Tuesday morning, my friend Peter Valentin made the arthroscopic surgery necessary to clean up the mess inside my knee. He took the opportunity to apply a special chiseling technique to my gristle and bone so the relatively thin gristle would get the chance to grow back. Great job, I must say. Two days after the OP, and I barely feel any pain. I am walking with crutches, sure, for a few days, trying not to put any weight onto my left leg – but I am free of pain, already better than before.

Events like this always help do/undo situations in my mind – and I figured that keeping this blog as my English language mouthpiece is be the best idea – the open question being what I should do with my German language entries and texts. The answer to that was that my idling http://www.koestler.com blog will now become my German language “outlet”. First thing, I will re-publish the blog I have written 10 years ago, during my trip around the world, in an era where you had to set up your own web-pages to be able to do a blog. So if you can read German and don’t know these stories from 2001/2002, go to http://www.koestler.com and check it out. There are a few pics as well, for all those who can’t read German or just like pics…

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Can you overdose on egoism?

10 days at the meditation retreat.

The bell rings at 4 am. It’s pitch dark outside. I remove the mosquito net, switch on the light and check if any unwelcome visitors like scorpions or centipedes have invaded my little cell over night. It happens, and you have to be careful.

I have 20 minutes to get ready, so I go splash some water over face and body. Next to one of the wells, I brush my teeth. I get into my knee-length sports pants and t-shirt, lock my cell door and walk through the darkness towards Meditation Hall 2.

At 4.30 am, the small bell on the speaker’s table rings three times. The day begins. One of the retreat’s participants does the morning reading, mostly nice and interesting texts. After that, there is a 30-minute sitting meditation, concentrating on my breathing. It’s all about utilizing the best time of the day for meditation, “when your cup is still empty.” At least that’s what I am taught here.

The bell rings again, after 30 minutes. Everyone wanders off to Meditation Hall 3. I put my yoga mat on the floor and get ready to do 90 minutes of yoga, basic stuff, nothing fancy. Warm up, 6 sun salutations and a score of exercises on the ground. It’s my number 2 favorite part of the day, always loved yoga. During the second half of the class, daylight arrives at the monastery, and with it scores of mosquitoes that torture me while doing yoga on the floor.

At 7 am, after yoga, we all return to Hall 2. The abbot of the monastery gives his lecture of the day, followed by a 30-minute sitting meditation. The morning air smells nice and clean, the sun shines, all birds are up calling each other. I am not supposed to notice this while meditating, but it’s hard not to. Afterwards, breakfast is waiting.
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Wat Suan Mokkh is a monastery in Southern Thailand, just 20 minutes away from Surat Thani airport, situated near the little town of Chaiya. It is very well known in Thailand: its founder, the Buddhist monk Buddhadasa Bikkhu, was one of the best known Thai monks of the 20th century. He tried to bring Buddhism back to its roots, the writings of the Buddha, its simplicity and originality – away from money donations for merit to achieve rebirth in a higher form. He founded the Suan Mokkhabalarama (The Grove of the Power of Liberation – short Suan Mokkh) monastery in 1932. He stayed there to teach and pray until his death in 1993.

His last project was the establishment of an international Dhamma hermitage – a place for retreats to study meditation and Buddhism, for Thai people, but also for foreigners. Since 1989, these courses are taking place, all year round, with up to 150 people attending the monthly 10 day silent retreats – foreigners and Thais separate from each other.
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Breakfast is served at 8 am. It consists of a thick rice soup with brown rice. I can add some greens, tasty leaves and cucumber, but nothing else. Two or three little bananas and a cup of nearly tasteless tea complete the breakfast, which I consume – in silence, as everything else – in a sort of mess hall. Men and women sit at opposite ends of the hall. We even receive our food from separate containers, so that the genders don’t mix.

After breakfast, it’s time for everyone’s chores. I have to clean two foot wash basins outside a meditation hall. The job takes me no more than 10 minutes. I then go back to my room and sleep for another hour – there’s not a lot else to do in the morning.

At 10 am, I am back in the Meditation Hall, for the morning Dhamma talk, a one hour affair, followed by a sitting meditation and an individual walking meditation. By 12.30, lunch is ready, and everyone silently wanders off to the mess hall.

Lunch is the last meal of the day, no more solid food until next day’s breakfast. Usually, lunch consists of boiled rice and a nice vegetarian curry, with a third dish like glass noodles or veggies to be added on top, all in one bowl, eaten with an Asian spoon. There’s also dessert, Thai style, bean-based stuff in coconut milk, quite nice – especially as there is no chance to get anything else to eat. Keeping food in the room is a no-no, not allowed on one hand, and a sure thing to trigger an ant-invasion on the other hand.

After lunch break, more free time, until 2.30 pm. Sleep, or do the laundry, or finish chores. No reading, no talking, no writing – for the whole 10 days.
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Attending a ten-day silent meditation retreat is not for the faint of heart. Some of the participants at first do not realize what they got themselves into, in Suan Mokkh. The retreat is supposed to make one experience life as a monk – well, at least in its basics, as I am still being fed twice a day, very un-monk-like. There’s just one day when I am actually in “full monk mode”, with one solid meal, no lectures and a total of 8 ½ hours of meditation.

I stay in a room that makes a prison cell look comfortable: it has an elevated platform made out of cement, a clothes line to hang up stuff and a bare light bulb. I sleep on the cement bed, which has a wooden slate for cover, and a mat made from coco fiber, about 0.5mm thick. The pillow is made of wood, a rounded, rectangular solid piece of tropical wood, with soft edges. You stick this under your neck to sleep – I am happy to have brought my pillow. I have a single blanket for cover. The mosquito net completes the room’s furnishing; it is the most important part of the room, not only for keeping the mosquitoes out, but also any other visitors that might want to crawl into my simple bed. Some, like the scorpions and the centipedes, are viciously poisonous; others, like the big spiders, just look scary.

Water for personal use comes from large wells. I use little plastic bowls to splash it over my face and body – a very basic shower method. The toilets are flushed by means of little bowls, too. Signs are propagating the paper-less method of using a toilet, stressing the environmental issue. I have never ever experienced anything that basic – military service felt like a luxury hotel in comparison. But there’s a reason for all this: after a few days, I stop thinking about the hardship of the stay. I stop complaining about my bed of cement, because (a) I sleep just OK on it, especially after a day full of meditation, and (b) there is nobody I could complain to.
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The lunch break ends at 2.30 pm. Time for another lecture, this time on meditation itself, and meditation technique. An English cynic Buddhist is the star lecturer here – it’s also easier to understand a native English speaker. But it’s the entertainment he provides that makes him and his lecture unique – a British sense of humor, nicely applied cynicism and some very good insights on the breathing meditation we practice all day. The Lord Buddha himself practiced Anapanasati (or “mindfulness of breathing”), and the founders of Suan Mokkh followed this tradition, and are now teaching it to the retreat guests.

Time for another walking meditation, somewhere on the vast grounds of the monastery. I had studied the very special technique of walking meditation 10 years ago, so it was not that hard getting back into it. I was able to practice at a rather regular walking speed, meditating around the pond for about half an hour. Walking meditation is not as intensive as sitting and breathing. It is, however, a very refreshing meditation alternative that also helps focus my mind very well.

At 4.15 pm, another sitting meditation follows, and then an hour of chanting old Pali chants, while fighting against the mosquitoes who make their second appearance of the day. At 6 pm, for the tea break, hot chocolate is served in the mess hall, a welcome refreshment at dusk, accompanied by a bunch of bats who give an aerobatics show in the hall. The time after the tea break is the best opportunity to visit the hot springs of the monastery, located on the perimeter of the grounds. There are pools with hot water, bathtub-hot, and I spend a few minutes in there, soaking my outside in addition to all the internal mind cleaning happening all day. The water in pool number 1 is already very hot, the second basin is even hotter – I just dipped my toe in there and knew I couldn’t stand it. On most days, I use the rest of the break to shower and wash and get ready for the evening program.
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What can you realistically expect from a ten-day silent meditation retreat? When you enter the program, the organizers tell you not to expect anything – which is the correct approach.

I had some expectations, though, but they were rather atmospheric as opposed to a firm set of objectives – I expected some insights to help me think through my particular situation, some guidance to return to a steady meditation discipline. I wanted it to be a ten-day psychoanalysis session with myself – the guy who knows me best. I also thought it would be a good idea to stop smoking (because I can’t for ten days), and get some control of my electronic gadgets use – which seems to have gotten out of hand.

And it happened exactly how I expected it to. In the first few days, I – like many others – was a little bit fixated on the exterior circumstances. I had to make friends with the meditation routines and techniques, all quite hard on you. But after 3-4 days, everything clears up, in an amazing fashion – towards a clarity of mind rarely achieved.

In meditation breaks, I was looking at topics that I thought I needed to deal with. My mind, eager to do something other than meditating, jumped at every single issue, solving them in no time, with crisp decision making never experienced before. A natural order of issues emerged. Sometimes I had to revert to walking meditation just to take my mind off all these real life topics and go back to relaxing.
The ten-day retreat is the ultimate egoist experience. I only spoke to and dealt with myself. There was no communication with any of the other participants. The rest of the world becomes utterly unimportant; I myself am the only one who counts. Once I returned to the world, I found that my egoist approach had actually given me a much better view of the world, and changed my approach to other people – in a much less egoistical way than before. Even though I didn’t need to subscribe to Buddhism, its values somehow permeated my mind and mixed nicely with the values I hold and cherish. My relation to the world became more harmonic and balanced. My mind is sharp like a dagger of Damascene steel. My addictions have gone, unnoticed, without any withdrawal symptoms, including gadget lust. A work plan emerged, issues that need to be taken care of, after the retreat, all very logical and intuitive at the same time. Amazing.
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7.30 pm brings the last round of meditation sessions, my favorite part of the day. It’s like a 1-2-3 punch, before going to bed. 30 minutes of sitting and breathing. A group walking meditation, around the pond: under the amazing starlight of the tropical night, 45 men walk, one behind the other, deep in meditation, for 30 minutes. Finally, back to the hall for the final 30 minutes of breathing meditation. This got me personally the best meditation results – including rapture experiences I don’t want to miss. At the end of this session, at 9 pm, I felt as if I were a bit drugged. I walked back to the dormitories very slowly, in a group of people that all moved like a bunch of zombies searching for food. Meditation so strong you have to walk slow.

Each night, after this session, I crawled onto my cement bed immediately after returning to my cell. I tucked the mosquito net under the mat, turned off the light – and within a few minutes, went into a wonderful sleep, with 3D Technicolor dreams, for nearly 7 hours, as the bell will ring again at 4 am, for sure.

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