Seven years ago I attended a Vipasanna meditation retreat at Wat Rampoeng in Chiang Mai. I briefly mentioned my experiences of this temple in my book Dead Drunk, but I just thought I’d go into a bit more detail here. A lot can change in seven years and maybe the routine at the temple differs now – here is what I experienced at that time.
This retreat at Wat Rampoeng lasted 26 days. My experience of meditation up until this time was sporadic. I’d meditated a lot during my teens but hadn’t meditated regularly since that time. I had a secret reason for wanting to do this retreat – I was sort of expecting a miracle. For years my life had become unbearable because of an alcohol addiction. It was my goal to beat my alcoholism at this Thai temple.
I had read that Rampoeng temple practiced Vipasanna meditation, but I had no real idea as to what this actually entailed. Twenty years previously I’d studied the subject quite intensively, but now had forgotten almost everything. I had spent most of the years since my teens drunk and worried that my mind was too destroyed to be able to do much other than think about the booze.
Wat Rampoeng was challenging from the first day. I had managed to wean myself off the booze a few days previously so the worst of my withdrawal symptoms had disappeared; my head was still a bit fuzzy though. The first morning was devoted to learning the basics of Vipasanna meditation. We were taught a sitting technique and a form of walking meditation. The instructions were simple enough for even my muddled brain to handle. We spent the rest of the afternoon just practicing what we had learnt.
Life at Wat Rampoeng
Over the next few days at Wat Rampoeng I was able to build up the hours spent meditating; by the end of the first week I was practicing twelve hours a day. The temple day started early at five o’clock, and almost the whole time was devoted to just doing the practice. Even though we weren’t ordained as monks we were still expected to follow many of the rules that the monks follow. We weren’t allowed to eat after midday, there was no entertainment, no books were allowed – not even meditation books, and talking was discouraged. Almost all the rules made sense including the one about food; one of the reasons that Buddhist monks don’t eat after midday is that a full stomach makes meditation difficult.
Each of us lay guests were provided with a kuti – a small room where we could sleep. These rooms were very basic, but this was obviously to discourage distraction. The food was provided for free by the local people who donated it to the temple as a way to make merit. In fact everything in the temple was free as Wat Rampoeng doesn’t charge and only accepts donations.
Each day we were expected to go visit the head monk; this was an experienced meditation master who always gave advice in a friendly and encouraging way. I would always approach him with the fear that the crazy things that would happen to my thinking during my hours in meditation would shock or amaze him; it never did either and he would always just smile and say, “this is normal”.
By the last week of the Vipissana meditation retreat in Chiang Mai I was meditating for fourteen hours a day, and couldn’t imagine how I could do even a second more than this amount. It was then that the head monk explained to me about the ‘determination’. For the next three days I would be expected to meditate constantly without sleep. I was to stay in my room and the only time that I could leave would be for ten minutes for a daily interview with the meditation master. My meals would be left outside my kuti, and I wasn’t to speak to anyone. I was told to not even bother washing; just meditate. They removed the bed from my room.
The next 72 hours was the strangest period in my life. I just kept on going walking meditation for an hour and then sitting for an hour. All sorts of things happened in my mind; some pleasurable and some upsetting. I had the most vivid memories of my early childhood, that is was hard not to get absorbed in them; the monk warned me though, to not allow anything to distract me. The nights were long and the days were fast. During the last few hours my mind felt a wonderful lightness. Then the determination was over, and I would be leaving the temple the next day.
For the next few days my mind felt wonderful and free; the world appeared so much simpler. Unfortunately it didn’t last. I was so proud of my progress that I decided to celebrate with beer. I didn’t manage to quit alcohol for good until two years later at another temple in Thailand; still I really give the meditation retreat in Chiang Mai a lot of credit. It created a taste in me for mental freedom that once tried could never be forgotten. If you are thinking of doing a meditation retreat in Thailand then make sure you check this one out. You can found out more details by visiting their website here. They also have ten day if you can’t manage the 26 day retreat – or at least they did have.