“I remember just wanting to have a break down and run out of the place. But I had to just stand there and keep putting my foot down and try to feel it and try to appreciate it. He would have wanted that.”
Michelle sitting in the pavilion she meditated in for 10 days on the last day of the silent retreat
The day before the first day of her 10-day silent retreat in Thailand, Michelle Della Giovanna had a panic attack.
“I remember freaking out, thinking I can't sit with myself and hear my own thoughts for 10 days,” she said.
3 months before, she had held her father’s hand as he passed away. She remembers hearing her voice telling him that it's going to be okay, it's going to be okay. She remembers her last words to him were “Just breathe, it’s okay, I’m right here.”
But when the ambulance arrived, they told Michelle that there was nothing they could do. Her father passed away in their living room that evening.
“I kept replaying this image of him passing away over and over in my head and it was like playing a rerun,” Michelle said. “And every time I saw it, it would get worse and worse, to the point where I just couldn't breathe. The day before the retreat, I kept thinking, “I can't sit for 10 days and just see that in my mind over and over and over again.’”
She didn’t know how, or if, the 10-day meditation would change how she felt about her father’s death.
Michelle had first become interested in doing a silent retreat while researching activities to do during her 9 month long trip to Southeast Asia in 2017. She ended up choosing a 10-day silent retreat offered by Wat Suan Mokkh, a forest monastery in Chaiya, Thailand.
“The idea of a silent retreat seemed really foreign to me. I remember it catching my attention and thinking it would be really interesting to try it, just to see if I could do it, Michelle said. “I went into it a little naive about how difficult it would really be. I thought the hard part would just be sitting silently. I didn't realize it would be dealing with all your emotions.”
The next day, she hopped on a tuk tuk, a 3 wheeled vehicle used to taxi people around, and got dropped off at Wat Suan Mokkh, the main monastery associated with the International Dharma Hermitage. She handed in all her electronics and was shown her room — a cement box with a cement bed, wooden pillow, simple straw mat, blanket, mosquito net, and a single little light. After a simple vegetarian lunch, she picked out a meditation spot in a sand-floor pavilion with room for 50-100 women and 50-100 men to sit in rows of 4 people (the men and women sat on opposite sides of the pavilion). She would sit in that spot for about 7 or 8 hours each day for the next 10 days.
Left to right: the grounds near the monastery; a small pool that the silent retreats participants could relax in during free time; Michelle's room and the cement bed that she slept on
That night, Michelle lay awake. She tossed and turned on her cement bed, constantly adjusting the mosquito net around her body and praying for the salamander and tarantula-sized spider in her room to leave her alone.
At 4 a.m., she woke up to the sound of ringing bells. After morning meditation, 45 minutes of yoga and a vegetarian breakfast, Michelle headed to the pavilion for the first meditation. Lunch at 12 o’clock was the last meal of the day. Afterward, there was more meditation, chores like sweeping the floors, tea time and a candlelit evening meditation.
In a blog post, Michelle wrote that clearing her mind was one of the hardest parts of meditating.
“My mind ran a mile a minute,” she wrote. “I’d start my internal dialogue thinking about yoga and end up dreaming about 7 Eleven toasties. And there was an actual train of thought that got me from one to the other. Trying to clear your mind and stop thinking is like trying to stop breathing.”
During the first meditation, the dharma instructor spoke about how humans tend to be slaves to their emotions. They emphasized the importance of disentangling from negative emotions — a topic that greatly resonated with Michelle. She knew that to move on, she needed to let go of the image of her dad passing away and replace it with memories of him smiling, laughing, and always suggesting they get pizza no matter the time or place.
On the second day, the silent retreat participants did walking meditations. The meditation consisted of walking extremely slowly with intention in each step, trying to feel every slight sensation, every single shift in weight.
The nun leading the meditation mentioned how important it is to appreciate being able to do simple things like walking and breathing, as some people would give anything for the chance to do such seemingly mundane actions.
Hearing the nun’s words reminded Michelle of her dad and how he was stuck in his bed, unable to get up and walk even to the kitchen. She started crying.
“I remember just wanting to have a break down and run out of the place,” Michelle said, “but I had to just stand there and keep putting my foot down and try to feel it and try to appreciate it. He would have wanted that.”
Sitting in one spot in the pavilion and meditating was easiest the first day and got progressively harder and harder. By the third day, Michelle wanted to give up
“It got harder and harder just to sit there and to think and to focus,” she said. “Around the sixth or seventh day, I was screaming in my mind. I literally wanted to run into the middle of the room and just scream.”
Sometimes, Michelle would see a meditation pillow missing in the pavilion — a sign that someone had left. Seeing that others had given up made Michelle question whether she was strong enough to last all 10 days.... or even if she should.
“What kept me there was having little things start to make sense and start to come together,” she said.
Michelle said that the retreat helped her appreciate the small wonders present in everyday life such as when a restaurant has a flower on the table. She learned to slow down and appreciate where she is in the present rather than constantly worrying about the future.
A few photos from Michelle's trip to Thailand
Top left to right: Walking across a waterfall in Khao Sok National Park; doing a Muay Thai class in Koh Samui (an island in the Gulf of Thailand). Bottom left to right: Pad Thai in Khao Sok; Riding on a boat across Cheow Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park
“As a New Yorker I rush through everything,” she said. “Everything's a race. But a mindset of thinking about what you're doing next brings so much anxiety. If you're just able to be like, ‘This is where I am, and this is pretty great,’ you feel so much happier and you haven't changed anything.”
On one of the days, Michelle was able to enter a complete zen-like state. She saw a blur of colors swirl in front of her and felt complete peace.
“My mind was empty,” she said. I felt so calm and it was the only time that I was actually able to have a visual meditation.”
Surprisingly, Michelle didn’t feel like speaking the day the silent retreat ended. She went to the main dining hall and felt like she didn’t have anything to say.
The next day at the airport, Michelle saw a man from the silent retreat who coincidentally happened to also be flying to Cambodia. They sat with each other, waiting for their delayed flight, and chatted about their experiences and what they had learned at the retreat.
Sitting with herself for 10 days, free from external distractions, allowed Michelle to learn how to not get attached to thoughts, appreciate the beauty of each day and find her inner strength. She realized that it was ok to cry in times of sorrow — that living fully comes with pain. She no longer fears getting hurt, as she accepts that in the pursuit of happiness, suffering is unavoidable. Yet, it does not have to be all-consuming.
“10 days felt like a lifetime and it was really hard, but if I had tried to learn those lessons over two years I don't think I could have in a different environment,” she said. “The day before the retreat, I couldn't even think clearly. My mind was crazy and erratic. It just took off and everything would seem 1000 times worse than it was. And afterwards I felt calm, just relaxed. If something was going wrong I felt like I could handle it.”
Read more about Michelle’s experience at the silent retreat on her blog: https://fulltimeexplorer.com/
“The Hardest Things About a Silent Meditation Retreat” https://fulltimeexplorer.com/9-hardest-things-10-day-silent-retreat/
“Finding my Truth in 10 Days of Silence at a Meditation Retreat in Thailand”https://fulltimeexplorer.com/finding-truth-10-day-silent-retreat/