Meditation

Do NOT go to a Meditation Retreat, Believe Me

Meditation Series: Part 2 of 3

Meditate. Breathe consciously. Listen. Pay attention. Treasure every moment. Make the connection.

Oprah winfrey

So did you all “find out for yourself what is true and virtuous” from my last blog post? Have you started a meditation practice of your own?

Yes?

No?

Maybe?

Good.

Maybe if I tell you about my experience at the Pa Pae Meditation Retreat you will start meditating, feel more motivated to continue your practice, or, maybe not. What I do invite you to do is to be open and as Buddha said, “Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others” but try it out for yourself. By the end of this blog post I hope you find something virtuous to give meditation and/or a meditation retreat a try because there are so many benefits that come from calming the mind (stay tuned for Meditation Series Part 3 of 3 coming to the blog next Monday!).

I have gotten so many DMs on my Instagram page about my experience at the 3 Day “Middle Way” Meditation Retreat in Pa Pae that I knew I had to make the second post of this series all about my experience.

WHY I DECIDED TO GO ON MEDITATION RETREAT

While we were in Chiang Mai beginning to re-establish some type of routine after more than a month of travel, Stefano and I wanted to venture out of the touristy towns we kept finding ourselves in. Don’t get me wrong, going to all of the tourist attractions has been such a dream, but travelling in crowded areas and seeing the same souvenir shops can get overwhelming, and well annoying. Also, packing up all of our belongings every 2-4 days was getting very tiresome. We felt like we had no down time (I hate to say this because we are essentially on an extended vacation) and we were losing sight of our health, wellness, and fitness progress as well as our goals that we worked so hard to establish. We soon realized we needed to change something or else we would burn out fast.

I started to think about my meditation practice and how it was essentially non-existent since I left for my journey on October 1, except for a little 4 day stint at another Yoga and Meditation Retreat on the Island of Koh Phagnan in November (let me know in the comments below if you want to know more about it!). After that retreat, I tried to re-establish a better morning routine (deep breathing and stretching/yoga) but I was failing because I could not seem to commit to my morning routine (see this blog post for more information). I began to think that if we do not feel happy, healthy, and strong right now, then the rest of our journey would not get any better. Something needed to change. So we decided to look at our original teacher, Mother Nature and made a commitment to venture off into the country to reconnect with ourselves.

why GO ON a meditation retreat in nature?

Being outdoors has always been something Stefano and I have connected upon. Some of our best memories have been spent in nature: winter hikes around Ontario, apple picking with our family, doing Yoga in a lavender field, and picking pumpkins at the pumpkin patch. Nature is what makes spending time together so special. As I mentioned in my first post of this series, nature holds so much wisdom because she truly is medicine. Nature is always finding ways to communicate with us and to heal us through her sights, sounds, and smells. All we need to do is open our eyes, listen attentively, and breathe deeply, to heal through nature. So we opened up Google Maps and started to look for small towns and rural villages in between Pai and Chiang Rai (other cities we planned to visit on our travels through Thailand). On Google Maps we then saw a marker that read “Pa Pae Meditation Retreat” and decided to look it up.

ALL ABOUT THE PA PAE MEDITATION RETREAT

tHE RETREAT: AN OVERVIEW

The Pa Pae Meditation Retreat is a 3 Day retreat that actually lasted 4 days because you are invited to arrive the day before the retreat actually starts. I stayed at the centre from from November 19 to November 22, 2019. Each day consisted of 4, one-hour Middle Way Meditation sessions at various locations on the property, 3 meals, personal time, and chores/volunteering. On the first full day of the retreat, everyone is encouraged to take a 24-hour vow of silence. I decided to participate and wore a necklace around my neck with a card that read “silent” in order to remind others about my vow. Even if you don’t participate in being silent for at least 1 day, everyone is invited to reduce communication and spend more quiet time with oneself during the entire retreat. If we do talk with one another, topics of conversation should only support the meditation practice (ex. techniques, meeting with monks/teachers, dhamma or universal laws/Buddhist doctrine). Similarly, the practice of mindfulness is encouraged; to keep observing the centre of the body in order to develop our inner experience, to relax the mind, and develop stillness in order to avoid reacting to things that occur.

“THE MIDDLE WAY MEDITATION”

The Pa Pae Meditation Retreat is centred around “Middle Way Meditation”, which is a meditation technique that focuses the mind to the centre of the body. This type of focus trains the mind to be still by concentrating on a still point in the middle of the body (two fingers width above the navel). Rather than focusing on breath or something else that moves (the basis of other meditation techniques), the Middle Way focuses on stillness. The rationale for this practice is that if we want to feel calm and be really still then we must concentrate on a part of the body that is also still, so the movement of the body does not disturb us.

Daily Schedule

Day 0
14:00
17:00
18:30
20:00
21:30

Arrival, greeting, and general Information
Dinner
Information for the following day, meditation, and lecture from the teaching monk
Personal time
Bed time
Day 1
5:30
6:00
6:30
7:00
7:30
8:30
9:30
11:00
12:30
14:30
16:15
17:15
18:15
19:15
21:30

Wake up call
Morning chanting
Meditation and lecture from the teaching monk
Cleaning of the common areas
Breakfast
Silent time (encouraged to meditate anywhere on the property)
Meditation and lecture from the teaching monk
Lunch
Silent time (encouraged to meditate anywhere on the property)
Meditation and lecture from the teaching monk
Gardening
Personal time
Snack
Meditation and lecture from the teaching monk
Bed time
Day 2
5:30
6:00
6:30
7:00
7:30
8:30
9:30
11:00
12:30
13:30
15:00
16:30
17:15
18:15
19:15
21:30

Wake up call
Walking Meditation
Meditation and lecture from the teaching monk
Cleaning of common areas
Breakfast
Silent time (encouraged to meditate anywhere on the property)
Meditation and lecture from the teaching monk
Lunch
Silent time (encouraged to meditate anywhere on the property)
School visit and village tour
Meditation and lecture from the teaching monk
Gardening
Personal time
Snack
Meditation and lecture from the teaching monk
Bed time
Day 3
5:30
6:00
6:30
7:30
8:30
9:30
11:00
13:00

Wake up call
Morning Chanting
Meditation
Breakfast
Silent time (encouraged to meditate anywhere on the property)
Meditation and final lecture from the teaching monk, offering, receive blessing, & gift
Lunch
Departure
Some of the bungalows on the property.

ACCOMMODATION

As meditation requires a peaceful and quiet atmosphere where each participant can focus on his/her own inner calmness, women and men are separated. There is a traditional Thai house for women, which houses up to 6 guests and 6 traditional Thai bungalows can each house 2 women. In addition there are 3 tents and another house with 8 rooms that can each accommodate 2 men.

What I liked most about this retreat centre was that they did not overcrowd the sleeping quarters. Those of us who stayed in the bungalows had the whole bungalow to ourselves (YAY!) and those that stayed in shared spaces were not maxed out. Stefano for example, got his own despite his room having an extra bed, and one friend I made was in a shared room that could house 6 women, but there were only 3 of them in there. This was particularly nice in order to get a good night’s rest and to be able to journal and have a quiet space to reflect once the busy meditating day was done.

Pa Pae bungalow tour!

DAILY MEALS

All meals are included during the retreat and there is also locally-produced tea and water available throughout the day.

All meals are traditional thai vegetarian meals (pad thai, pad see ew, ccoconut curry, papaya salad, etc.), fruits, and refreshments such as water, milk, hot chocolate, tea, and juice are provided with every meal.

Dinner in the evening is more like a snack, Panna, and usually includes a vegetable soup/broth, vegetables, fruits, and sweetened rice cakes. The reason why dinner is “lighter” than breakfast and lunch is because Buddhist monks don’t eat dinner or have snacks. They live a very minimalist lifestyle without many “temptations” and as such, only eat two meals a day that are prepared by the community (they are not allowed to cook). It is also known that eating less, especially at night, aids in digestion, helps with getting into deep sleep, and allows one to focus better, which are all helpful for meditation, especially morning meditation when the mind is still sleepy.

In the event that you have specific dietary restrictions or allergies you need to let Mali, the coordinator, know when you register for the program so she can modify your menu. It’s also possible to bring your own food for healthy reasons. In the event that you have a severe allergy or dietary restriction, I suggest reminding the staff before every meal. There was a woman on our retreat who was allergic to eggs (eggs are in every dish here) and they kept forgetting to tell the cooks across the street to leave some food aside without eggs (a local family cooks the meals and delivers them on a motorcycle, on an uncovered tray, may I add, from their house down the road; this was a site to see!).

The food here was so flavourful and delicious. On the last day we were given one of these awesome Malay peanut candies at lunch. They were so good that once we got to Pai we bought a whole pack of them for 50 baht ($2 CAD)… I mean we had to indulge somewhat after living like monks for 4 days!

These Malay peanut candies were a delicious surprise on the last day. They taste just like the crunchy part of a Crispy Crunch.

TECHNICALITIES

  • How to get there:
    • The GPS location of the Pa Pae Meditation Retreat is 19.1153843 98.7107283
    • By motorcycle:
      • Most travellers usually rent a motorcycle in northern Thailand to get from one city to the next. Motorcycles have cheap daily rates (250 baht /day, $11 CAD) and discounts apply when you rent a bike for extended periods.
      • The motorcycle routes are picturesque with well-paved but dangerously winding roads that are surrounded by lush forests. If you are a thrill seeker, I encourage you to rent a motorcycle but follow all necessary precautions; wear a helmet and protective gear, ensure your bags are securely attached to your bike, take breaks every hour, drink lots of water, and when unsure about directions, ask a local, they will steer you in the right direction, literally.
      • There are a lot of “confident” drivers on these one lane, snake-like, jungle roads to Pa Pae, so let tailgaters pass you and follow the rules of the road in order to arrive alive. Believe me, seriously this time, I’m not joking. Read this article.
      • You are also “required” to have an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) in Thailand, however it’s more of a money grab from police. If you need to cross any police checkpoints on your motorcycle journey in norther Thailand get an IDP or cross checkpoints during the early morning when the police are not around.
    • By bus:
      • An easier means of transportation, without all the risk and with some motion sickness, is taking the public bus up those winding, mountain roads from Chiang Mai or from Pai.
      • The public bus, also called “The Green Bus” is more like a mini van, seating anywhere from 9-12 people depending on its size.
      • You have to pay for the full ticket from Chiang Mai to Pai and tell the driver to stop in Pa Pae. Ensure you remind the driver to stop in Pa Pae or else they won’t.
      • The bus departs hourly starting at 06:30 with the last bus leaving at 17:30. A one-way ticket to Pa Pae from Chiang Mai or Pai costs around 150 baht ($6.50 CAD) and usually lasts anywhere between 2 to 3 hours with one or two 15-30 minute breaks in between.
    • Don’t worry about booking transportation from the retreat to your next destination (Chiang Mai or Pai only). Mali, the co-ordinator and all-knowing volunteer, booked buses for all participants at the retreat. You just pay her directly in Thai baht. She was so helpful and obviously speaks Thai so she could also arrange special requests (i.e. different departure times, stops, etc.).
      • This was extremely helpful as we did not want to leave at 13:00, right when the retreat finished as we wanted to take pictures of the grounds and explore the meditation retreat centre (it is on a property of 300 beautiful acres).
  • what to bring:
    • When you arrive you will be given a set of traditional, white Thai fisherman clothes (shirt and pants). You are even given a new set of these clothes on the 2nd day and are given additional clothes to do the gardening. Cleanliness is a big deal in Thai culture.
      • As the weather in Pa Pae usually goes down to 10°C or even 5°C in the evening/early morning (there is no heating or AC in the accommodation), you are encouraged to layer clothing under or on top of these white garments. Mali will also offer blankets that you are invited to wear as a shawl and scarves to keep your neck/head warm. You are also provided with a mat (not a mattress) for sleeping, a pillow, and a thick duvet for your bed. Additional blankets can be provided, just ask Mali.
      • Items that are not provided and that I recommend you bring include:
        • Towel
        • Toiletries
        • Bug repellent
        • Jacket or base layer
        • Sweat pants or base layer
        • Thick socks
        • Closed toe shoes (running shoes or boots)
        • Sleeping bag (not necessary but was a nice treat to stay warm; I used two blankets in addition to my sleeping bag).
  • COST:
    • The Pa Pe Meditation Retreat is run completely off of donations. They want to offer this meditation experience to learn about “The Middle Way” to anyone who is interested.
    • Participants are invited to pay 400 baht per day, per person ($17.50 CAD/day). If you are able to donate more, it is recommended, if not, donate what you can.
    • You can even ask if you can work for your stay and become a volunteer or “Energy Exchanger” (do additional gardening, cleaning, or house keeping to participate in the retreat).
    • The rationale behind the retreat being “by donation” is because they want to connect people from all over the world through meditation and want to promote mindfulness. Due to the fact that we are living in a time in history when peacefulness is strongly needed, the Pa Pae Meditation Retreat Centre wants to make sure it can reach anyone who is interested in participating, no matter what they can afford to pay.

MY EXPERIENCE: WHAT I LEARNED

Living like a monk for almost 4 days was the hardest thing I have ever done.

Monks, and Buddhists in general, live off of 5 precepts which are prohibited:

  1. No killing (not even a bug)
  2. No stealing (not even a shower cap from a hotel room)
  3. No sexual misconduct (not even thoughts)
  4. No lying (not even a little white lie)
  5. No alcohol (not even a drop) or drugs

After learning about these principles and The Middle Way I began to think of my daily behaviour and began to see where I could make some changes… especially with killing…

… bugs!

I used to kill bugs so easily, especially pesky mosquitos, but during this retreat (especially during 2 run-ins with flying beetles in my bungalow) I began to think: Why can’t I spare a little bit of my blood to help out these mosquitoes? I also began to question these precepts: Do I really need another shower cap? Do I need to steal this one too? I don’t even use them! Will I benefit from this glass of sangria tonight? Or will it make me feel tired during my workout tomorrow? Will drinking this beer allow me to focus on my meditation tomorrow, or will it disrupt my night’s sleep? Is it worth it?

As I began to answer my questions regarding these precepts, I realized that this way of Buddhist life had an important lesson to teach about distractions; killing, stealing, lying, etc. are all diversions that lead us from feeling, thinking, and acting like our true selves, which lead us away from being calm. As all these actions have an equal and opposite reaction (thank you Newton!), which is being distracted, which is counterproductive to meditation = the practice of not reacting to thoughts or circumstances.

I’m not saying I’ll never kill a spider (I’m afraid of these pests!) or that I won’t have a glass of sangria or a beer every now and then, but what I am saying is that I’m more conscious of my behaviour after this Meditation Retreat, I have become more in-tune with my actions and their consequences. I have noticed myself reflecting more regularly and asking myself, if certain behaviours serve me. I know this doesn’t sound like Newton’s apple falling from the tree “ah-ha” moment, but for me it truly is!

I learned that taking time to be with myself with no distractions from my phone, from the outside world, or from people around me during silent time is truly valuable for my self-development and mental health.

I’m not going to lie, being alone with your thoughts is scary AF! However, through these intense days of meditating for 4 hours each day I learned techniques to let these thoughts just pass through, like an unwelcomed party guest, that will eventually leave and never be seen again. I learned to be more patient with myself. I learned that it’s ok to move when you meditate. I learned that it’s ok to open my eyes when I meditate. I learned that simple works. I learned that meditating for even 5 minutes is beneficial. I learned that less is more. Like literally doing less (not moving, being still, meditating… duh) gives you more than you could ever imagine.

Doing less gave me peace. Doing less gave me energy. Doing less gave me clarity. But most of all, doing less gave me time to get to know myself and realizing that I have a long way to go with my meditation practice.

A representation of my experience at the Pa Pae Meditation Retreat.

MEMORABLE MOMENTS

  • Venerable Michael (Michael the Monk)
    • One night after our meditation session a group of us stayed up way past our bedtime to ask Venerable Michael questions about meditation. I asked him how he came to be here, ordained as a monk in Pa Pae (I was curious because of his age and his American accent).
    • Venerable Michael shared his story about how meditation literally saved his life.
    • What I learned from Venerable Michael:
      • Mindfulness is looking on the inside – it is getting to know yourself better and seeing what you need to do and to change before helping/putting your views on others.
      • Giving is better than receiving – when you give you get back spiritually; that’s why the giving hand is always higher than the receiving one.
      • Karma – think of a glass of water; karma means action driven by intention; the more the intentions are bad, means the more salt is added to our water. No matter what we do we cannot remove the salt, but we can always add more water (have good intentions) to dilute the solution.
  • village tour and school visit
    • We had a couple of hours one day to accompany Mali on a tour of Pa Pae. She showed us the homes where the locals live (they were so nice to let us in their living spaces).
    • We learned about the agricultural products the people of Pa Pae make to export/sell at markets all over Thailand for a living (tea, coffee, herbs, etc.).
    • We also visited a school where we spoke English with the kids to help them practice. They sang traditional Thai songs for us and we, in exchange, sang some classic school songs like the “ABCs” and “You are my Sunshine”.
  • Teaching Monk
    • The teaching monk was funny and insightful and used analogies and examples from our every day modern life to explain meditation techniques and Buddhist principles.
    • He reminded me of patience by means of life’s natural algorithm. He stated that “no matter how much we try to change or influence nature, our bodies, or any living thing, they will work on their own time. Naturally developing what they need.”
  • ALMSGIVING
    • On the morning of our last stay after our morning meditation, we participated in “alms rounds” where we gave food to some of the monks living on the property.
    • Offering food is one of the oldest and most common rituals of Buddhism.
    • As I mentioned before, monks live a very simple life and are not allowed to cook, nor store food. They rely on the community for their 2 meals a day.
    • It was such a fulfilling experience giving back to the monks after 4 days of learning from them.
  • BLESSING
    • After our final meditation before lunch the monks gave us a blessing and a little token to remember our time at Pa Pae.
    • I felt as if I was graduating; all the mixed emotions of long days, mental and emotional stress were now behind us as we deepened our practice and developed the tools to live a more still, calm, and enriched life.

SHOULD YOU GO ON A MEDITATION RETREAT?

Should you go on a meditation retreat? You have to “find out for yourself what is true and virtuous” in this regard. Please let me know in the comments below if you have been on or will consider going on a meditation retreat.

As always, I look forward to feedback. What did you want more or less of? Do you want to know more about the other Yoga and Meditation retreat I did in Koh Phagan? You can see more about my meditation practice and more of the techniques I use in my Self-Care Highlights and Stories on my Instagram page. Let me know what techniques work for you in your practice using the hashtag #intheNO

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