Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia
Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Arriving with High Hopes
After months of planning, research, and eager anticipation, I finally arrived at the secluded meditation center tucked away in the forests of rural Cambodia. This was to be my very first extended silent meditation retreat, and I had eagerly soaked up every blog post and account from past participants. They spoke of profound transformations, mystical experiences, and life-changing revelations. Suffice it to say, my expectations were sky-high.
Stepping off the bus into the sweltering jungle heat, I took a deep breath and reminded myself to approach this journey with beginner's mind. I knew ten days of rigorous mindfulness practice would challenge me in ways I couldn't predict. Still, I clutched my overstuffed backpack, containing what I was sure were 10 days' worth of essentials, and made my way down the dusty path.
Other participants had already arrived, sitting quietly on the rustic wooden benches outside the sleeping quarters. We exchanged silent smiles and gestures of welcome. I noted their serene expressions and folded hands, and felt my own nervous excitement rising. Would I too achieve such inner peace?
At the orientation meeting, we received our meditation instructions and strict schedule. Twelve hours a day of sitting and walking meditation, with breaks only for meals and sleep. Noble silence was to be observed at all times. No devices, reading or writing allowed. We were to turn our attention fully inward.
I swiftly realized this would be more challenging than I had envisioned during all those cozy evenings spent Googling "meditation retreat reviews". Yet, as we practiced our first sitting session, I felt profoundly grateful to begin this journey. Eyes closed, I focused on the feeling of breath moving through my body. For now, there was nowhere else to be but here.
What else is in this post?
- Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Arriving with High Hopes
- Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Moments of Mindfulness Among Chaos
- Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Learning to Let Go
- Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Finding Beauty in Simplicity
- Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Connecting with Nature
- Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Discovering a Sense of Peace
Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Moments of Mindfulness Among Chaos
The chaos began around day four of the retreat. As the rigorous schedule of meditation wore on, my ego began to push back. How much longer until lunch? Did I hear a bird or was that my imagination? I really should stretch my legs. My mind filled with distractions, craving stimulation beyond simply watching my breath come and go.
I was not alone in this struggle. In whispered conversations during walks, other participants confided they too were plagued by restlessness and boredom. One woman had even started silently singing pop songs to occupy her mind! We reassured each other this was normal, yet frustrating after the peace of the first few days.
During one breakfast, the clanging pots and murmur of strangers’ voices felt jarringly loud after days of silence. I wolfed down my bland rice porridge, hoping food would ground me. Looking up, I noticed a retreat assistant calmly scrubbing a pot, fully focused on her task. She worked with such patient presence, I was touched. Despite the bustle, she had found a moment of mindfulness.
Observing her, I recalled the instructions we received on working mindfully. Bringing full awareness to each action, no matter how mundane. I decided right then to apply this to the simple act of drying my hands. With deliberate focus, I felt the texture of the rough towel. Noticed the sensations as I methodically rubbed each finger. What a difference from my usual perfunctory drying! For those brief moments, I rediscovered the tranquility I had misplaced.
Peace also came during walking meditation, while consciously lifting and placing my bare feet on the cool, sandy path. For a few steps, the chaos of my mind would dissolve into the experience of walking. By tuning into the present, I accessed those elusive “moments of mindfulness among chaos.”
Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Learning to Let Go
The ability to let go is perhaps one of the most vital, and yet most elusive, skills we can cultivate on the spiritual path. As I discovered during my meditation retreat, learning to let go can feel next to impossible when we cling tightly to desires, judgments and expectations. Yet with practice, we can train in relaxing our grip and returning to presence.
Many who have sat multiple retreats speak of a “pain barrier” that arises around days seven to nine. The mind puts up fierce resistance before a breakthrough. On day eight, I hit this wall hard. In walking meditation, my knees throbbed and feet ached intensely. Each mindful step became torture. Thoughts of surrendering to rest taunted me.
During a sitting session, I squirmed endlessly as sharp pains seized my hips and back. Eventually, I resigned myself to discomfort and held still, observing the sensations. I noticed cravings arise to stretch, shift positions, anything to evade this momentary agony. Watching desire without acting felt excruciating.
Yet if I stopped fighting each instant, something shifted. By allowing life’s inevitable pains to exist, they lost their grip over me. I saw them for what they were – ephemeral sensations, arising and passing. My role was simply to meet them with equanimity.
Most struggles during retreat stem from resisting what already is. We suffer when we demand life meet our preferences. By loosening our grip on needs for comfort, distraction and security, we discover an immense freedom. Suffering is not inherent in situations themselves, but in the desires and judgments we project onto them. Equanimity comes when we cease grasping.
Of course, letting go remains difficult after retreat. Meditation teaches us non-reactivity – to meet experiences with balance before overreacting. Practicing equanimity amid daily life takes great courage. Road rage, crying babies, rude customers will still test us. But remembering all states are fleeting can help us respond with wisdom.
Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Finding Beauty in Simplicity
In our complex, fast-paced society, simplicity can feel elusive, even countercultural. Yet many who have immersed themselves in spiritual retreats and practices can attest to the beauty and freedom they discovered by shedding external complexity and turning within.
By eliminating distractions and comforts, retreat participants enter a space of radical simplicity. Some arrive expecting lavish, Instagrammable accommodations only to find rustic conditions - sleeping on thin mats in shared dorms, walking barefoot on dusty paths. Silence replaces constant chatter and stimulation from devices. The food is plain and strictly utilitarian.
Initially, many crave their familiar comforts and resent this austerity. However, adjusting to simplicity can reveal its unexpected gifts. Without the barrage of noise and activity we often fill our days with, something profound emerges - space.
Space to hear your own thoughts. Space to tune into your body's signals. Space to open your senses and take in your surroundings. A luminous quality of presence arises from attending to the moment without elaboration.
In this clarity, details once overlooked gain new poignancy. The crunch of feet on a gravel path. Steam rising from a bowl of rice porridge. The first birdsong at dawn. A lizard skittering up a wooden wall.
When the external clutter fades, interior clutter becomes more apparent. Racing thoughts, emotional uproar, endless mental commentary. Yet the simplicity we cultivate begins to work on our inner world as well. By repeatedly returning to the breath, we develop focus. In observing thoughts without following them down endless rabbit holes, we gain detachment and perspective.
This allows our reactive mind to settle, just as sediment settles when agitated water grows still. What remains is a luminous presence - our essential nature beneath all the dust.
In this open, simplified space, we connect to life and beauty in a direct way. No longer always anticipating the next experience, we wake up to the aliveness here and now. We shed the mental filters telling us a moment is boring, painful or lacking.
Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Connecting with Nature
Immersing ourselves in nature can profoundly deepen our meditation practice and spiritual awakening. The natural world holds an expansive wisdom, if we learn to quiet our busy minds and tap into its rhythms. Retreats nested in remote natural settings offer fertile ground to connect with our innate belonging to the web of life.
Removed from sterile offices and hectic cities, we rediscover our primal birthright - this living Earth that sustains us. The elements - sun, soil, water, air - begin to work a subtle alchemy on our senses. Birdsong and rustling leaves tune our ears to exquisite subtleties we overlook amid urban bustle. The musky scent of damp soil after a rainstorm grounds us in our animal senses, too often numbed. Star-strewn night skies awaken awe at forces greater than our narrow worries.
With bare feet on the earth, legs crossed in meditation, we feel our fundamental interconnectedness. The notion we are separate beings, to conquer or extract from nature, starts dissolving. We recognize ourselves as temporary custodians of this planet, as much a part of its flowering and decay as worms in the soil or clouds scudding across the sky.
This expanded sense of belonging and empathy for all beings is deeply healing. Studies show time in nature lowering stress hormones, blood pressure, anger and anxiety. Japanese researchers demonstrated 20 minutes in a forest lowered subjects' levels of the stress hormone cortisol more than usual relaxation activities.
Beyond physical respite, forests can awaken our slumbering intuition. Naturalist John Muir wrote of the “restless energy” of towering trees that entered into him, imparting vigor. Contemporary Japanese zen masters speak of merging one’s meditation with the alert stillness of ancient cedars. Sages across traditions have sought wisdom by communing with rivers, mountains and deserts.
So in our urban-centric era, retreats nested in remote natural settings offer modern truth-seekers a precious doorway back to this lost kinship. We taste once more this ancient, forgotten belonging. Our small personal dramas loosen their grip as we awaken to forces grander and more enduring than our brief lives. We nurture ecological empathy by living lightly upon the Earth, if only for some days.
Finding Focus or Losing My Mind? The Highs and Lows of My 10-Day Meditation Retreat in Cambodia - Discovering a Sense of Peace
At first, I doubted whether I would discover any lasting sense of peace on this retreat. My mind was so agitated those initial days, continuously jumping to the future or past. Rotating through impatience for sitting to end, regret over leaving daily comforts, analyzing what experience should come next. I oscillated between craving something more stimulating and resenting the strict discipline.
But as I settled into the steady rhythm of sitting, walking, eating, I noticed peace arising in subtle moments. Walking along the forest path, my senses came alive to the play of light through the leaves. The sweet floral scent after rain. I could feel my body relaxing, breath deepening. No longer anticipating what might happen next, I sank into experiencing what was here now.
During meals, focusing wholly on each bite dissolved my tendency to wolf down food while planning the day. Without distractions, I tasted flavors more vividly. The joy of community arose, breaking bread in silence with fellow retreatants. Slowing down opened me to small graces easy to overlook in daily life.
In sitting, just watching thoughts without following them opened psychic space. Like choppy seas growing calm as winds quiet, my mind started untangling knots. I glimpsed negative thought patterns more objectively, without being lost in their stories. Observing how quickly moods shift grounded me in detachment.
As mental static subsided, I connected more fully with senses, with life unfolding inside and around me. Tuning into breath's perpetual rhythm or a bird's trilling call can center anyone, anytime. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Our true home is in the present moment.” By training in returning to now, we find refuge from regrets and worries.
This heightened attentiveness revealed inner realms forgotten amid everyday busyness. Wordless spaces of tranquility behind incessant mental chatter. Nature's silent wisdom,if we slow down to listen. The joy of being alive, liberated from trudging through responsibilities.
I understood viscerally how activities like cooking, walking, working can all be meditation. Doing anything with full presence cultivates calm. By continually reconnecting to here and now, we awaken from tunnel vision. Each sense impression becomes our teacher.