meditation retreat

Summary: my epiphanies and realizations from my 21-day silent meditation retreat in Thailand.

I just finished a 21-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat at Wat Chom Thong, a Buddhist monastery near Chiang Mai, Thailand, and my mind is blown.

I had never really meditated before, and I chose to throw myself into a strict schedule of 10 hours of meditation per day. 6 hours of sleep. No eating after 12 noon. No reading, writing, phone use, exercise, stretching, lying down, romantic or sexual activity of any kind, conversing (except with your teacher), or other distractions of any kind.

It was intense.

And painful.

But I’m so grateful I did it, and that I stuck it out for the entire program.

I wanted to share what I learned, in case this could inspire someone else to go try it (it’s completely free by the way, they provide you a private room and delicious Thai food, you just give a donation at the end of your choosing!!)

Everyone’s experience is different, but I believe everyone leaves with what they need, or at least something that they didn’t know before.

Seldom do we take the time to sit with ourselves and deeply get to know ourselves. Taking away all distractions FORCES us to investigate ourselves, and I know many people, including myself, spend so so many years running away from ourselves.

I feel very vulnerable sharing all this, but I want to convey the depth of the insight something as seemingly simple (or “useless/waste of time”) as meditation can bring us.

The temple actually contains a piece of Buddha’s skull, supposedly!!

For some background, the theory behind meditation is that it allows us to parse out our consciousness and different parts of our brains. Had you ever felt like you have 2 or more voices in your head? Or while you’re thinking one thing, you might have a thought about that thought going on at the same time??

It’s creepy and weird, but these are the parts people have described as our conscious mind and our superconscious mind (and there’s the subconscious mind as well).

And that if we practice it enough, we can create some distance from our thoughts by observing them neutrally, instead of getting caught up in them entirely, kind of like watching the movie of our life play out on a tv screen rather than being IN the movie itself.

It’s not easy, but it’s life changing once we learn to catch ourselves.

Some people have referred to our body/vessel and mind as our “Human,” and it’s even entertaining to watch our Human like a documentary, seeing what he/she naturally thinks and does, almost an out of body experience.

We can’t really control our thoughts, as much as we can try to. They automatically come up and there tend to be patterns to them. In fact on average we generate 60,000 thoughts per day!!

But we CAN choose which ones that we entertain, linger on, create feelings, drama, stories, and even more thoughts about.

A great analogy I’ve heard is that the mind/brain is like a bus station; of COURSE buses are going to come through, stop and open their doors, all the time. But we can choose which ones we get on (and if we get on a bus to a bad or unwanted destination, we can always choose to get off at anytime).

Even the people who are the happiest, most successful, or seem to have it all together STILL have negative thoughts sometimes!! But they have just learned the tools to manage them, not believe or listen to them, or let them hold them back.

Anyway, I was fascinated by the patterns of my thoughts that I discovered, because before this I had never spent more than 10 minutes paying attention to my own thoughts before. (I had tried meditating before but got really frustrated, impatient, and bored, and therefore quit. I also tried a handful of guided meditation videos/audios, but those have words and instructions to them to focus on rather than just on myself).

I did get fed up with my patterns of thought, as well. After about a week, I was barely discovering new types of thought anymore, and I told myself, “Come on, brain! Give me some new content at least!” I was so bored and restless, and nearly quit many times.

This particular temple also followed the principles of Buddhism, the 3 markers of existence being Impermanence (Annica), Suffering (Dukkha), and No Control/Non-Self (Anatta). Its goal is to “purify the mind” by cultivating Mindfulness by synchronizing Mind and Body into the present moment, allowing insight into the “true nature of reality” so that one can overcome pain, suffering and sorrow, and not be tempted by the mental defilements of greed/desire, anger/hatred, and delusion. There were monks and nuns, but also laypeople and novice meditators, and we students had to wear all white.

My Lessons/Observations:

1. I’m a huge control freak!! I spend the majority of my time thinking about the short-term future/planning what I’ll do later that day, tomorrow, next week, sometimes next month or year. It’s my specialty, apparently.

I don’t plan TOO far out into the long-term because I realize it’s quite unknown, since so much can change depending on what happens. But to be honest, anything can change to throw off short-term plans as well, and it often does happen that things don’t go according to plan, and it might be just the ILLUSION of CONTROL I am chasing.

I don’t dwell on the past as much since we can’t change it, except big events or really recent memories. I try to live in the present moment, but sometimes I find that my planning, debating, deciding, worrying DOES interfere with the enjoyment of the present.

And worrying about something seldom makes it go better or makes a difference, but I FEEL that it does, being overprepared seems to soothe my anxiety about it. Or if I imagine enough worst case scenarios, then I can’t be that disappointed or surprised or caught off-guard by what actually happens.

I’ve learned anticipation likely from my Chinese culture, as well as my OB/GYN surgery training days, where I had to predict the next move of the surgeon I was assisting, so it seemed natural, and just a smart idea to always look 1-2 steps ahead. It would seem irresponsible to just live day by day without say planning for future retirement, or having some sort of life plan.

2. I have really “masculine”/Doer-type energy (vs. “feminine” receiving/allowing energy). Even if it doesn’t change the outcome at all, I feel better if I TRY to do something about a problem (and fail) rather than do nothing, sit on my hands, or allow. It feels disempowering to just accept and not even try to improve a situation, and I hate feeling powerless.

(There were late night parties going on several nights that interfered with the 10 pm-4 am sleep schedule, and I got so angry just waiting, wondering and hoping for them to stop. I kept fantasizing about going to knock on the neighbors’ doors and explain that students were trying to do this meditation program, but I didn’t know Thai and wanted to stick to the silent vow. The next day my teacher told me it wasn’t the neighbors but a more distance outdoor party, and it’s crazy how I felt SO much better because it felt less “in my control”/there was nothing I could have done about it!!)

I think this comes from decades of being subject to strict rules, disempowerment as a woman, immigrant, and ethnic minority, which led to a victim mindset, blaming others, and learned helplessness. I’ve worked so hard the past 8 years to take full 100% responsibility for my life, and I like to believe that we DO have control, that we CAN change, choose, and influence our reality by our attitudes, intentions, and actions, otherwise what a depressing and apathetic world it would be… It would be all too easy to just give up if you felt you didn’t have control or nothing you did mattered anyway.

So my mindset of empowerment really clashed with the Buddhist principle of Anatta (Non-Self/No Control), that some things are just out of our control (in their theory, due to the karma of our ancestors or our past lives/incarnations). I still haven’t fully reconciled this. (If you have any thoughts on this matter, I’m happy to discuss!!)

3. I’m such a rebel, and questioner (a fun quiz if you’d like to take it here!). I HATE following rules that seem arbitrary, when I don’t understand the reasoning behind them. It drove me nuts that my teacher gave me vague answers or information, saying she would explain it all at the end of the 21 days because she didn’t want to set expectations or influence/possibly contaminate my results.

(Vipassanna insight is gained from actually doing the practice, not from being told the knowledge, because there’s a difference in understanding it intellectually/cognitively vs. somatically/experiencing it personally in your body. This has been a big weakness of mine.)

I get it, but at the same time I had a really hard time just trusting in the process and putting in all the hours. I was so worried and doubtful it would pay off, or just end up being a waste of time and energy, since I know this isn’t for everyone. I got fatigued and resistant, and many days I sabotaged myself from meeting the 10-hour meditation requirements or following all the rules all the time.

What helped me through that was reminding myself that if I weren’t at the retreat, I likely would be wasting time ANYWAY on social media or various other distractions that don’t really add much to my life. And what BETTER use of my time could there be than investing in and investigating myself???

4. My brain is insanely active!! It’s crazy how much it tries to find patterns, predict, analyze, judge, organize, evaluate, compare, brainstorm, count, research, calculate, sort, label, comment on, track every action, event, or person. Sometimes it in the name of finding efficiency, cutting through the monotony of the routine, make something more engaging or fun so I could better meet my goals, or reassuring myself that I’m not a terrible person.

I can’t turn it off; it’s a running commentary, and I envy the people who don’t judge or criticize themselves frequently and their minds are mercifully quiet in comparison. Sometimes I praise, encourage or reassure myself, but there are far more automatic negative than positive thoughts, unfortunately. At least it’s better than what it used to be, when I almost never had positive thoughts or felt fake or bad affirming myself.

It also craved stimulation, or was used to a certain level; it was so restless and bored that I started memorizing the ancient Pali words of the prayers for fun, and reading every bit of paper I could find (we were given them by our teacher, and there was also a binder about Vipassana that I read cover to cover).

Some cognitive distortions our brains can do to us

5. I apparently still have all-or-nothing thinking sometimes, feeling that if I broke one rule and fell off the wagon, then the day was ruined and I might as well break more. I started being kinder and more forgiving towards myself and reassured myself that quantity matters, and that some phone use was better than massive amounts of phone use.

The guilt and anger and beating myself up about my mistakes only led me to making more mistakes. But if I was kind and let it go and reset the blank slate, I would feel better and be more motivated to follow the rules. This is supported by research into habits, that people do better when they feel better, not when they feel worse (so a compassionate approach is more effective than a slave-driving one).

I also had a lot of judgment and worry that I was doing the meditation exercises “wrong” because my mind was racing, how on earth could I be effective?? And worrying if I’d get something out of it at the end/the “insight” I was supposed to get that had changed so many other people’s lives. I felt discouraged and quit some sessions early when I felt I couldn’t focus.

Later on, I felt better when my teacher told me that this is ok, it doesn’t mean I’m doing it wrong, and to keep going and acknowledging my thoughts, feelings and sensations as best as I can. And I was able to relax and indeed over time my brain’s focus and quiet improved with more practice.

6. I thought I had let go of my ego in many ways, but apparently I still do care somewhat what others think of me, how they would perceive me and my meditation technique and discipline, and I would compare myself to their meditation skills too and worry if I was keeping up well enough.

I also found myself withholding some details about my “failures” from my teacher because I was afraid she would lose faith in me or be disappointed. (She probably would’ve been quite understanding of my slip-ups since no one is perfect). The people-pleaser tendencies are still there, unfortunately…

7. My trauma response is fawning or freezing/shutting down. I am extra sensitive and so afraid of even risking disappointing, inconveniencing or angering someone, and I realize this is from a history of people reacting so poorly and explosively to my mistakes. I’ve been locked out of the house, kicked out from living situations, fired from jobs. It’s so foreign to me that someone can be angry or disappointed with me AND still love me or want me around/not abandon me.

ALL close relationships will inevitably have conflict, and in the past when conflicts broke several relationships, I’m not used to the process of genuine repair. (Thankfully I now have relationships in my life who have shown me the reality of this dichotomy, in all its beautiful complexity, and I feel they are the healthiest ones I have ever had.)

8. I still suppress/repress my emotions, because I don’t feel safe to express them, or at least the full extent of them. Especially anger, I have ingrained as an “unacceptable” emotion, or that there are “acceptable” targets and “unacceptable” ones. I bet my anger at the late night partyers included some displacement of my anger at others as well, such as my family.

Grief, shame, and despair came up a lot too. About how my family doesn’t and might not ever understand the true me, and how I continue to feel invisible, misunderstood, unseen, unheard, unappreciated for my gifts or strengths, only constantly pressured or shamed about what I’m still “lacking” in life (especially a partner and children at this point). And how I’ve tried so hard but haven’t been able to make them proud because I don’t fit the box they want me to.

9. Community always makes things better for me. Communal suffering, sharing the same experience or goal makes SUCH a difference. I found I would get a burst of energy and motivation when my friend also entered the common area meditation hall to practice, and my best meditation sessions were with other people around me.

I also felt so much better when I learned that my teacher also heard and was frustrated by the loud parties–it was so validating. It reassured me that I’m not alone, crazy, or too sensitive!! Especially after so many years of feeling that way, and continuing to be called crazy for my unconventional life choices.

10. I’m morbidly curious about everything!! Especially people, how they work, what makes them tick, even if I barely know them. I found myself with thoughts about how people are doing.

I do deeply care for others’ well-being, as I feel their pain and joy profoundly. Even before exploring Buddhism I believed everyone is interconnected, and everyone deserves loving kindness and respect. But I wondered if there were other reasons, if I was brutally honest in analyzing myself.

I found I’m often in some kind of sleuthing mode, and am not ok just giving up and allowing and sitting in uncertainty. I’m always making deductions and guesses; I’m not tied to being right about them at all, I try my best to keep an open mind, but I can’t stop myself from making them by default!!

Maybe it comes from trying to control or create more predictability in my life, if I get to know someone’s values for example, then I can better predict or run a scenario in my head imagining how they would react or a conversation would go (they often react better than I think they would).

This predicting gives me a (probably false) sense of security and safety. In my book, there is no such thing as being TOO INFORMED. (Heck I even considered seeing a psychic about whether a long-term partner and children would be in the cards for me or not…I just felt it would give me peace of mind to just know either way, so I can direct my energy or make a plan. I hate ambiguity apparently!!)

Or maybe it comes from trying to distract myself from giving this same focus, nurturance, and attention to ME. Focusing on others means I can feel “productive” and “helpful” even though I’m completely neglecting myself!! I try to remind myself that it’s not my place or business; we each are responsible for ourselves, and can help others only once we are taking good adequate care of ourselves, AND if they have asked or given us consent to help! Unsolicited help is very very arrogant!!

Put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others with theirs (if granted permission)!!

11. I love predictability when it comes to time as well. A pet peeve of mine is when people are very late or unpredictable in timing, because it seems to show a disrespect for my time and energy. And I would be on edge waiting and often not able to focus on doing anything else or plan my day since I don’t know how long I would have or when I would be interrupted. Planning an event in advance and making that commitment shows thoughtfulness and caring to me.

But what if that’s just a story? Why am I so inflexible or attached to things going on a certain schedule or order? Why can’t I rearrange my schedule or do something else if I have to wait for someone?

Nowadays I am much better about knowing that life happens, unexpected stuff comes up all the time, and time can be hard to manage for some people, so I am way more understanding about unpredictability. I’m better able to entertain myself as well and sometimes even appreciate a breather/ more alone time while waiting than I thought I would have initially.

12. Trying to maximize “efficiency” comes from the days I had to work 80 hours week and strive really hard to maintain balance in other areas of my life as well by streamlining chores and everything else I did. But now life is different, and to be time crunched all the time is a stressful way to live. I now allow buffer time between events, and don’t try to cram too much into one day, especially since unexpected things can come up and cause delays.

Chasing efficiency also implies there is a “right” and “wrong” way to do things, and it seems unhealthy to be too attached to doing things without “wasting time.”

I clearly appreciate structure a lot, and lists/charts/other forms of organization. I did better when I counted how many meditation sessions I did and had to fill out a sheet one day as instructed by my teacher (so excited I was allowed to write a little bit!!).

13. I really love variety; it keeps me motivated, engaged, and focused. I couldn’t help myself from creatively thinking of ways to cut through the monotony of the meditation routine, by changing up the location, cushions/props I used, my clothing, even wetting my hair so that it wouldn’t feel so excruciating to keep repeating the same thing.

14. My fear of being single forever (and forever a loser in my family’s eyes) came up randomly one late night, and I was really proud of myself that I fought my urges to eat or use my phone or read or write to distract myself/make me feel better. I just sat with it, and it went away with some time, maybe an hour or two.

And the next time I felt it, it seemed to have less power, and I thought it was really amazing how much acknowledgment and looking something in the eye/face can affect it. Though I knew this in theory, experiencing it gave me more confidence in it, in a way theory couldn’t.

These things are hard to do, always uncomfortable and unpleasant, but they definitely help us grow. They’re simple in theory, so hard in practice, but absolutely worth it.

It was also an active lesson/demonstration of the Buddhist principle of Impermanence (Annica). Truly the only certainty/guarantee is Death, everything else is impermanent, will pass, and 99.9% of all mistakes are not fatal, permanent or irreversible, so there isn’t as much pressure to each decision as we think there is.

Well, this is probably too optimistic. In reality you will always still feel the fear, but courage is doing the thing you wanted to do anyway despite having the fear, not an absence of fear.

What also helped was understanding this fear better, and the roots underneath it. I imagined if my family suddenly changed and said to me “We love you no matter what and are so proud of you. You don’t need to do anything to earn or deserve our love. We think you’re a winner. We’re actually really amazed that you’ve created this life for yourself and that you don’t need to depend on finding a partner or children for your happiness.” It felt like such a weight was lifted, to uncouple that.

I want my desire to partner up to be for the right reasons, not contaminated with extra baggage. I have chosen to distance myself from them until they can accept me for who I am, exactly as I am right now. I also don’t want external pressure and energy to affect my dating life; I don’t think that would be fair to me or my potential partner.

I also learned about fear and panic when I met my first scorpion in the living room of the house I was staying at – it was huge, the size of my hand!! And I was barefoot and didn’t have access to my shoes outside. I felt so confused and unsafe how something that size could’ve gotten into the house!

Thankfully my housemate kept a cool head and trapped it with a cooler, and someone came by to take it away later on. That fear stayed with me for about a week, but eventually it did pass, as well. Impermanence.

15. Some content of my life itself did pop up, about my life’s mission (helping make the world a safer place for women and other abuse survivors such as Asian-Americans and healthcare workers, and ideas for new comics or artwork that relate to healing or justice.

I had a lovely vision about creating shelters and communities for abuse survivors and physical or emotional orphans all over the world so we can support each other, share resources, and be the family we always yearned for, and even help raise each other’s children if needed. So that we don’t let ourselves fall into or stay in toxic relationships, romantic, platonic or familial, out of desperation, loneliness, emotional, physical or financial dependency of any kind, or betray our integrity just to survive.

Another vision of myself working with other creatives collaborating and making meaningful art and projects together that would open eyes, inspire change, and shift perspectives.

And another one of (alarmingly) 4 children?! 2 biological, 2 adopted, as we traveled the world together, worldschooling. The temple’s leader had 22 children, 17 adopted, which I really admired how much he gave to the world.

It was interesting how out of the blue these thoughts were. Each meditation session was different; some felt long and some surprisingly short. (I never thought I’d have the attention span to do a 45-minute session and I pleasantly surprised myself. Hopefully I got into a Flow state sometimes to lose track of the time. I left some sessions with a “sleepy peacefulness” and feeling of bliss.)

I tried to get myself excited about doing the next one by asking “Hm I wonder what will come up in this session? What will my Human do this time?”

Other thoughts when I wanted to quit (which was too many times to count) that helped me get through it:

-“What are you trying to hide, Toni? My ego wants me to quit because I’m TOO close for its comfort. It’s coming up with excuses, like how unhealthy sleep deprivation is, to try to steer me away from discovering something really important about myself. What secrets does my subconscious hold? What am I running away from??”

-“So what if it doesn’t benefit me in any way and was a total waste of time? I’ll never know unless I give this an earnest try! Also wouldn’t I feel better trying and knowing for sure, than always wondering?”

-“It’s not supposed to be easy, and there isn’t really a “right” way to meditate. AS long as you are trying your best to acknowledge and note your thoughts and feelings and sensations, even if your mind is racing or wandering and you’re getting distracted all the time, it STILL helps if you put in the time. It’s like going to the gym; we are exercising our minds and training ourselves, and we have to put in the reps and keep about it and it WILL get better. Put in the time and reps.”

-“If I weren’t at this retreat, I likely would be wasting time ANYWAY on social media or various other distractions that don’t really add much to my life.”

-“What BETTER use of my time could there be than investing in and investigating myself??!”

Phew! That was a ton, and wasn’t very organized. Apparently I’m a mess of a human, but that’s ok, we are complex and imperfect, and what matters is that we are trying our best and trying to grow.

I’m sure more insights will come as I’m still processing everything, and continuing to practice. Definitely can’t carve out hours per day, but I plan to keep meditation in my life for at least 15 minutes a day.

A lot of these revelations were from the first week as well, so if you don’t have 21 days off to spare, you can just do the 5-day minimum introductory course and I bet you will still gain something from it! (at the very least, better posture and stronger sitting muscles :P)

There are 10-day donations-based retreats all over the world, whether in this particular temple’s style (Mahasi which incorporates mindful movement and walking) or the Goenka style (strictly sitting only). And if not, doing a local retreat, even for 1 or half a day, near you, can make a massive difference in your life, shift your perspective, teach you something new, or just shake up your routine!

Honestly, I had a love-hate relationship with it. I was so skeptical about it, and thought it felt like a cult brainwashing to make everyone wear white like a prison or mental institution, and push the Dharma (Buddhist Bible) which also made sex (and all sensual pleasures) into a sin, something I highly disagree with, especially since, if everyone gave up all their desires and reached enlightenment/Nirvana, the human race could not continue…

But overall, I’m glad I did it, and yes, I would do it again. Anyone is welcome to go back for a 10-12 day advanced course, and I’m highly considering this.

Have you done meditation or a retreat before? What are your experience like, and any insights/realizations? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, a message, or a virtual chat!

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Who am I?
Hi! I'm Dr. Toni, a carTOONIst. I empower, educate and advocate for women and minorities through my art and coaching, while traveling nomadically. I help others also follow our hearts and live true to themselves, no matter what others say!
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