“Put all the scorpions into the bucket during the night. Then release them into the jungle in the morning”…
The words came from the Buddhist monk introducing us to our 10-day silent retreat at the Suan Mokkh forest monastery in Southern Thailand. This was my first formal contact with Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation. I could never have guessed how much this experience would change my life.
Having been released into the jungle, the scorpions (obviously) made their way back each night, looking for the warmth of human bodies. It was a never-ending cycle, and perhaps a metaphor for life itself. It’s safe to say that having to deal with scorpions for 10 consecutive nights well and truly released me from my previous fear of spiders, like the enormous ones that I found living underneath my concrete platform bed. They even seemed friendly in comparison.
The year was 1990 and I was on an 18-month backpacking adventure with my husband Mark. A fellow backpacker in a Bangkok hostel told us about the 10-day silent retreat and we thought “why not”?! As you do.
But I had no idea what I was getting myself into! Not only that I had to face stinging wildlife such as scorpions and giant centipedes, but also not talking for 10 days, no reading or writing and a straw mat for a mattress. And obviously, this was pre-social media! Buddhist philosophy talks, sitting meditation, walking meditation, getting up at 4am, doing chores around the monastery, taichi; many things filled our days. But perhaps the most challenging of all, was what was going on inside. What I had to face. Thoughts, fears and behaviour patterns all came to the surface and the monks were there to help and guide us (we could talk to them!).
Leaving was never an option. I knew somewhere deep inside that I was meant to be there, meant to deal with things, meant to start a life-long journey.
I can remember so much beauty. I remember evening meditations under the full moon, listening to the jungle sounds as I tried to get comfortable sitting for what felt like ages. And moments of feeling like I was floating, watching from above. I remember just noticing a fly on my arm, tickling me, and trying not to react, but carefully opening one eye just a little to make sure that it wasn’t a stinging or biting insect.
I also have vivid memories walking in silence along the rice paddies at dawn to the nearby village where we sat listening to the Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikku, the founder of the monastery, as the cockerels crowed and the village slowly came to life. Every day, we had lectures from the monks on the Buddha’s teachings, the four noble truths and the eightfold path. The universal natural laws on how to live a happy and calm life. How to find stillness and calm in life’s challenges and sometimes chaos.
I have returned to the teachings often over the years and especially in the last few years, as I delve deeper into mindfulness and meditation. I’m finding that it integrates beautifully with my yoga practice, helping me to get to know myself better, balancing my imbalances, giving my mind more peace and calm and helping me to stay balanced in relationships. In addition, mindfulness and meditation give me tools to handle both inner and outer stress. The more I learn about how the physical body and fascia, emotions and mind are connected, the more powerful these practices become. I believe we have the power to heal ourselves. It’s not a quick fix but it is possible to embody our full potential.
A few months later on our adventure, a scorpion had made its night time nest underneath a pillow, as we had slept on the desert sand in Western India. When discovered in the morning, I was reassured to observe that I did not react with the same fear as I had in the monastery. Something within me had changed during those 10 days…