This winter, I was travelling around Asia with my brother and friends. We chose Thailand as our last stop. When we arrived we realised that Thailand is one big party. At first I was excited, naturally, but after 10 crazy nights and a lot of alcohol I had had enough. I got a feeling that I needed to stop, that I needed change.
I listened to my gut and after 15 hours of travelling found what I was searching for. I ended up in a Buddhist monastery near a small town called Chayia. It was here that I stayed for 11 days and began a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Wake up every day at 4am, sleep on a wooden pillow and a rock-hard bed, practice Tai-Chi and yoga, eat two vegetarian meals per day, shower with a bucket and cold water, live without any technology and, of course, meditate for 8-10 hours a day.
Difficult isn’t the word. While it wasn’t easy, a large part of me did not want it to be. I remembered the great Tom Hanks in an interview, "it's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” So, I committed to the challenge.
The 10 Day Itinerary
The first days were the most difficult. My body and mind were not used to the lifestyle. I even started to doubt what I was doing, asking questions: is this really what I was searching for? How will this even change my life? Why am I not at a Full Moon Party right now?
The first four days, I basically suffered - I was thinking about leaving all the time. The meditation was painful, especially for my knees, ankles and back. I was simply not used to a 6-8 hour sitting meditation per day.
On Day 4, I decided to break the rule of silence and talk with my older brother who was doing the retreat with me. I told him about all my problems and the questions I was facing. After a short conversation I found out that I was not alone in struggling. I immediately felt much better and decided that I would not leave.
Day 5 was a breaking point. I started appreciating the opportunity that was given to me and seeing the value of it. I also started to adapt to all of the changes and the new environment. My body got used to sitting and it became less and less painful. I even had moments that I really enjoyed that day. The following four days were much the same.
Day 9 was special. We tried to live like real monks and to survive with just one meal - breakfast. We also did not have any group meditations and were able to practice on our own. I spent the whole day meditating and relaxing in nature and it felt great. I can’t explain it, but I just loved it - complete immersion.
Day 10, I knew that I was almost done. It was on this day that they called ‘sharing season’. In the evening, we had two hours to talk about our experience and I found it really powerful, helpful and motivating. I connected well with a lot of the other people who I wanted to get to know better and spend time with. I went to bed happy that night, perhaps though knowing that this was my last night on my wooden pillow!
Day 11 started at 4am, like the others. We had a morning reading and a morning meditation. After that, our 10-day silent retreat ended and we were finally allowed to talk. We packed, ate breakfast and left the monastery.
Lessons Learned in Silence
The retreat changed my life. A time of contemplation, space from the madness of the western lifestyle and coming to know myself better. For me there were some valuable take away lessons.
I realised that comfort is subjective! Yes, I also mean that wooden pillow. After this experience I also started to appreciate things that I did not before: hot water, a pillow and mattress. The simplicity of re-appreciating what we take for granted is beautiful.
The second thing worth mentioning is how meditation allowed me to get to know my body and mind - getting to know myself. I was observing my thoughts all the time, my mind starting to tell me to quit when it was outside of the normal comfort zone. When you observe your thoughts you also start to understand how your mind works and, consequently, learn how to subvert it. Like Tai Lopez’s cognitive biases - our animal brain needs simply to be understood to be mastered.
I learned how to be present, how not to think about the past or the future and to just enjoy the moment. You can learn this by observing monks, their way of life and thinking. They said to us many times, “life is so pleasant, when you are present”. I found it funny in the beginning, but now I understand.
By observing them, I realised that you do not need much to be happy. Now I actually understand the pattern that Peter Sage calls ‘The Curse of the White Rabbit’ where people are searching for happiness and fulfilment in the wrong things.
Another fascinating thing, I took much comfort in, is how fast my body adapted to changes. The only thing needed is to be patient and to not quit. What is more, you must know yourself, how your body works and what you need to do to improve it. Just like the mind, understanding the body leads to mastery. In my case, it was Yoga that had helped me open up my hips and become more flexible. As a result, meditation became less painful and much more immersive.
I think this practice is important for business students, managers and entrepreneurs. The future belongs not to the biggest and the most powerful business, but the most adaptable. So, if you learn this skill of observing and getting to know yourself, it may help you and your firm identify weaknesses and strengths. Think evolution, where it is not necessarily the strongest and the fastest that survives, but the most adaptable.
Peter Drucker said something similar in the book Managing Oneself. He believes that the biggest reason why people fail unexpectedly in life is because they try to build their career on weaknesses. “Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. More often people know what they are not good at - and even then more people are wrong than right. And yet, a person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weakness, let alone something one cannot do at all.”
I began to identify that illusory superiority we suffer from in the West, where everyone believes they are above the average. A good example is a study that showed that 88% of Americans consider themselves to be above-average drivers. How can one improve if they are not humble and have an egotistical approach to their character or ability?
When alone for 10 days, you start to see how your mind and body work. Meditation is not just the decluttering of the mind but the improvement of the mind. The monks talk about focus, meditation is not daydreaming. Focus will make the 10 days work for you, daydreaming will make them a waste of time. A rule for even those that practice at home.
Finally, food. After 11 days of unprocessed organic food, I realised that my energy levels were higher. I also started to feel much healthier and not hungry all the time (although we had just 2 meals per day). We are not all the same, so I will not say that you should stop eating meat and start eating vegetarian or vegan, but we should definitely try to move toward an unprocessed organic diet.
My mind, my body and my diet all transitioned through restlessness and difficulty to renewal - reaping the benefits of the monastic lifestyle. The take-home lessons are human lessons, relevant to us all, which is why everyone should at some point test themselves on the monastic path.
To sign off, I will use the Anthony Anaxagorou quote that was in my mind throughout the entire experience, “we are made up of all the things that broke us, just to keep us alive’’.