It was temperate in the sunshine, light fanned from the boughs of tall conifers onto a cream-coloured house, which was once home to a pair of wild cobras, skittling in and out of their hole under its porch. These days, the abbot was the only resident visited by attendants instead of poisonous snakes. The building itself was unmoving while life grew around it.
In the cool of its breezeblocked garden, Jared heard the patter of water beside him and softened his vision on some terracotta pots, where tendrils grew supported by canes. In his sepia robes, the monk who’d been watching him nodded in acknowledgement and walked away without a word, shrouded by a sense of having business to conduct.
Omnipresent silence was undeniable. He wiped tears and sweat with his palm, returning his fingers to the blonde stubble on his chin. While he was situating himself among the history of the universe, eleven days earlier occurred simultaneously and he was, once more, near enough to touch her mystery.
Eleven days earlier had been his fifth anniversary with Marianne, or it would have been if they’d stayed together. She’d always had an exceptional knack of getting what she wanted and had plotted who to befriend, who to ask for help, always trying to figure out who really mattered in her schemes, and he was gullible. They met when, one Saturday afternoon, he’d tripped over her handbag outside a café, making a clutz of himself, causing a fuss. To apologize for spilling her coffee, she’d made him take her out for dinner. That was how it started.
He’d tried all throughout the retreat not to think about her. Let her go. Zap her out. Change track. They’d split up years ago now.
Seldom he meets new people, because unfamiliar things aren’t what he does. His sister, on the other hand, is an advocate for positivity and everyone wants to share her time. For her, being upbeat is a way to solve dilemmas. She was set on attending this retreat and dropped hints that he too needed to relax until he reluctantly agreed to go with her, being easily led like that.
He wouldn’t describe himself as positive, or spiritual, or the slightest bit hippy, which only added to his anxiety about not being someone who meditated. He wasn’t sure he’d enjoy ten days of silence. He wasn’t even sure he’d be able to cope and he feared its trauma.
They did a walking meditation around three ponds on the first day, except most people weren’t walking. They were lifting one foot at a time from the ground and replacing its bones back on the grass with extraordinary focus. It wasn’t his style of self-discovery, but he too deliberated to move slower than his usual strides. The other people on the retreat were mostly happy-smiley, energetic vegans attached to optimism. His sister’s people.
It was during this amble around the ponds that he established everyone, except him, was into meditation.
They had arrived a day early by motorbike taxi from the train station, to monastic architecture that was hasty and dire, frugal – unlike the delicate spires they photographed in Bangkok. Monkeys played and chickens strutted between concrete prefabs. Dogs barked and gave chase to passers-by. They ate bowls of coconut curry away from Thai people, who were courteous but not in the least curious about them.
When other foreigners appeared – a glamorous Russian couple, a pair of Californian girls, a Swedish guy – collecting their mats and pillows, the yoga teacher was among them and she rallied the group together. They spent the evening in a hall listening to her Australian lilt spill incessant chatter about Thailand and Thai people. The next morning, she led them through the fields to the retreat center, where she spent the first ten days of every month taking charge of a new batch of meditators. She was their source of information while they could still talk freely and ask questions. She prepared them for what lay ahead by giving them unwanted details such as constipation was a common side effect of sitting for so long. Common enough to warrant slipping laxatives into the vat of hot chocolate they’d be served in the evenings.
On that first day, while they walked around the ponds trying to go inwards on themselves in order to absorb the environment, a draft trailed behind a Chinese woman as she pivoted on the balls of her feet, lifting her heels and hips in her own unique gait. Her black hair billowed behind her, waist-length and untrimmed. She’d appeared at the retreat only an hour before the clock struck silence and when he’d approached her, she’d scowled and turned away towards the woman sitting on the other side of her, whom she’d told who she was and how she’d learned English. He watched her troop out of the pond-field into the next, gone beyond the bushes. Other participants tracked her too, shaken by her haste, while they continued to move cautiously, possessed by breath-power.
In silence, they heard each other only through their actions.
In Charlestown, he told the guys about the retreat while they were fishing under a deepening sky, a stove for tea and a crate of beer between them. “Why, good for you,” said Burt, slapping his back. “Put her behind you while you’re there.” He meant Marianne, who’d just gotten engaged to a bodybuilder thug.
“You have to stop taking it personally,” said Frank. “Being nice is okay.”
Burt shook his head in the twilight. “You’ll be real proud of yourself to get through them whole ten days. Damned if I could.”
What exactly Sophie had talked him into began to wriggle into his awareness. Eleven nights of sleeping on concrete, only a blanket for cover and a block of wood to support his head? Bravery and courage weren’t his usual traits. She’d read that harsh conditions can lead to rapture, which had convinced her it would force some changes and her enthusiasm had him brainwashed, he was well aware of it. Yet he needed a rest and being less gloomy wouldn’t hurt. She thought the retreat would influence the nervous way he got around outgoing, confident people – but he wasn’t so sure.
On the sand of the meditation hall, surrounded by a hundred people, Jared tried to fix his thoughts on his breath and ignore his own inner dialogue, but it wouldn’t go away so instead he scanned possibilities through his head. The power in his flat was off. Food in the freezer? Nope, he’d eaten it all last week to get rid of it. The water was still on, was that it? Something resonated. Was the plug still in the kitchen sink? There was nothing he could do anyway while contact with the outside world was forbidden.
Exhaling all the way, far turned, drawing back again. Aeons. Chinese hands rustling her skirts on purpose. Those piquant little steps she took to rebel against the obedient. Her T-shirts washed bare enough to see the outline of her bra, bird-like, weightless, lucid inside his closed eyes. Shifting puce to copper, medallion, shaded oblong, wavy lines glowing – a koi breaking the surface with its taut lips, leathery scales, whiskers trailing. No news from the outside. What if his building had burned down? Warmth. Sun through clouds. Tropical scented lotion. Freckles. Thoughts to one side. Don’t allow that woman’s sleight to lure or distract. Command. Forbid. Rules of the retreat. Don’t think about her sweating, panting, or pressing up against her. Don’t think about her. Stay pure. Sit taller. Focus.
Another rule was not to take anything unless it was offered – not even the beam of a flashlight. It made him want to help by simply giving. He could open a door, walk alongside someone with his lantern, fill other people’s bottles at the faucet when he went to do his own. He kept a check on his sister and the goddess, both of whom were sitting on the other side of the sandy arena, a plantation of strangers between them.
Within minutes of sitting in the hall to meditate, his back muscles ached with exhaustion. He could only hold a pose for five minutes before squirming into the next, on a cushion placed on a low stool, with another two – one on top of the other – supporting his shins. Sand was not a comfortable foundation. Concentration on the breath would have to wait. First, he had to focus on sitting.
“The lotus position is the correct position,” said Kuhn Apinya, a monk in plain clothes. “Try it,” he said. “Try it even for a minute.”
“The lotus position may hurt,” said the elderly abbot of the monastery, “but it has a solid base we won’t fall over from.”
Another monk – the one he’d just seen in the walled garden – had painstakingly demonstrated how to do it. “Lift the right foot and place it on the stomach.”
Aussie Yoga Woman consoled the group the next morning by telling them that Thai monks are so agile they find the fact that foreigners struggle to do it peculiar. She said it took her eight years to master. She seemed more enlightened than anyone because her eyes shone supernaturally, weirdly luminescent. In fact, her spirit crossed the predawn darkness like a set of headlights. Those morning yoga classes (in a wooden-floored hall by a big tree whose trunk had increased layer-by-layer over centuries) were designed to ease bodily pains caused by sitting unsupported. Exercise became the fulcrum of the stay. While meditation prized them awake on the inside, their muscles had stiffened and tensed. Yoga reset them and softened the aching.
Marianne told her friend, who told her sister-in-law, who told all of Avondale, which led to him staying indoors, growing a beard and wearing a hat when he went to the store. “So now everyone knows,” Marianne said when she took her things out of their flat. He’d avoided romance ever since and preferred an uncomplicated life with uncluttered bathroom shelves.
Also, Marianne’s intelligence made him feel pathetic and numb. She was in the ninety-ninth percentile for her GMAT, but in the end decided not to do an MBA to avoid the debt. She was clever and loved reminding him. “You majored in history,” she would snigger. She worked in a bank, whereas he sold souvenirs at a museum. She exacerbated his fears of inadequacy and here he was reliving it as part of the process of letting her go, releasing her hold.
He tried to shift his consciousness back onto his breath, but it was soon invaded by images of his recent existence. Walking there. Past long-haired cattle chewing cud. It hadn’t rained again since. Was it raining back home? Were the tomato plants still alive? Was the plug in the kitchen sink? Was the tap leaking?
Let it all go.
Alone with thoughts, yet intimately among each other. Banished to wordlessness. Restricted. Limited. The sound of rain pouring off the roof onto the sand. Wild Lady propped on her elbows with her legs stretched out in front of her. Sophie sat next to Aussie Yoga Woman at the front of the women’s half of the hall.
Splashing koi. Froth, refreshment, churning in the unknown. Dozing. Worms tunneling in the sand. Kuhn Apinya, middle-aged, sitting on the dais and pointing wisdom to the ceiling. His voice unrelenting, pausing only to allow his words to have an effect on understanding. Readjusting legs again and again. Breathe. Follow the breath.
Queuing to register when they got there. Sophie wiping the table after meals. Humble and taking pride in it. Sweeping the bell tower: an excellent chore because there was no need to wait for anyone. Some worker hit the brass bell with the end of a branch and it left splinters for him to brush away along with the leaves.
The first thing he did when he got in his room, before unpacking, was sweep it. Insects dead on the concrete. Lizards under the bed making pellets with a stench. He harangued them out of the door with the brush. It was his territory now. He arranged the mosquito net, hung T-shirts on hangers along the indoor washing line, and tried to make it homely.
He checked that Wild Lady was still flaunting herself on her cushion. She hadn’t gone yet. Buddha Tattoo Guy was the first to quit and had looked pretty miserable. The Russians were the next empty spaces and crept away after breakfast to avoid causing disturbance. It was sad to do the rest of the stint without them. Day four or five. Clouds and days merged. Time with his own self was the not joyous occasion his sister had sold him, but that was no surprise.
He’d been bitten, even though he wore repellent. As the mosquito sucked his arm, he watched its belly expand and a small window appear, filled with his blood. It urinated and struggled to fly, weighed down with his type AB.
Plus, ants found him delicious during the evening meditation, which was around the pond lit by lanterns. When the group stood on the grass to listen to starlight, the insects feasted on his ankles.
Rubbing balm on the wounds eased their heat, but he was disturbed it had happened to him. Monks chant a loving kindness meditation and their problems leave, ant infestations miraculously go, creatures are tamed, obstacles disappear. Other people weren’t being devoured by the wildlife. He was convinced it was divine retribution for drowning the ants he found in his room, which was the only other rule he’d broken.
He scratched himself all throughout the lecture on dukka, a word translated from Pali into English Buddhism to mean ‘suffering,’ but really it means ‘things we don’t want.’ Monks in Thailand study ancient Pali scrolls and there were no lectures during the retreat on karma or reincarnation because none of Buddha’s doctrines encompassed those topics. Kuhn Apinya said, in one of the question sessions, those ideas had been added later to increase Buddhism’s social control. Buddha taught how to keep shadows from changing, not karma.
Jared was content that his dukka originated from his mind and told himself to out-think his fear, forget about the dripping tap, and stop thinking about her – the Chinese woman, his Wild Lady. Try to emanate love for all beings. Visualize the sun or the moon. Simple things.
He shifted from the habits of mosquitoes when they weren’t looking for food, to DNA, to early symptoms of malaria, to the dripping tap in his kitchen, from there to Avondale and the way seclusion here meant not hearing about a terrorist attack should there be one. The Wild Lady was looking at him and looking away when he couldn’t resist wrapping his eyelashes around her. In the front row, his sister’s hair was on top of her head, knotty, golden like the air around her, in a state of inner bliss and calm. Breathe, he told himself. Where its direction changes, find it, keep it.
Dukka and things people don’t want. Dukka: the meditation topic.
The Wild Lady did what she pleased. They weren’t allowed to bring their own reading. She was engrossed in a novel. They weren’t allowed to write. She added to notes about her meditations. When it was chore time, she walked to the hot springs in a sarong that looked like it could slip to the ground, unexpectedly, at any instant. In the dining hall, she took the same seat at every meal. She ate like someone ravenous, hunched over, not needing to move the spoon, tearing leaves onto the curry with an animalism, a ferocity. Everybody else strived to eat as slowly as they could.
Dukka: he lingered on obedience.
The Wild Lady was her own authority and that made her easy to respect, although other dharma friends frowned at her. He wanted to put himself against her and ingest her power, absorb her and dissolve himself into her body. Her sorcery commanded nature and he was subjected to her will along with the pattern of the leaves and pebbles on the tracks. She could move cloud formations and even the weather with her mind, he was certain.
“Have you seen its reviews?” he’d asked Sophie over the phone before they left.
“It’ll be fine,” she said. “They’ll assume we know nothing so they’ll explain it. That’s not something to complain about. People are bizarre.”
“I do know nothing.”
“Cool,” she said. “Ignore what you read.”
Burt and Frank had never meditated either, or so they told him. Sophie wanted meditation virgins to practice upon and so a class was arranged with the guys in the park one Saturday afternoon. Meditation with her guidance was easy and, in the park, it seemed natural. Frank and Burt loved it. Serenity found them and settled in their jowls. None of them exerted themselves to obey her, for with Sophie as their teacher, there weren’t any rules to follow. Her meditation technique was as beautiful as close the eyes and breathe. Treasured peace. At the end, when she counted them out, they coordinated with branches rustling in the breeze. Bliss, with mild spring touching their faces.
On Day Six, when the gong in the bell tower rambled on, they forced themselves to baptise their faces and go to the meditation hall, illuminated by candles. Kuhn Apinya told of a man who had been bitten by a snake and was in hospital receiving serum. It was no parable. Twelve people quit after breakfast.
All the snakes in the jungle congregated around the retreat and Jared made a telepathic connection with the culprit. He invited it to meditate with them and with each passing breath, he felt it grow nearer. He opened his eyes and saw it skirting the meditation hall. It slithered towards him and he stretched open his palm. “Of course, we all think we are special and the snakes would want to bite us,” said Kuhn Apinya at that very moment. The jungle was as brutal and verdant in its diminishment of the ego as ever before.
Day Six was hardest: the snakebite incident; colder weather; a week since they’d used the Internet or spoken to their loved ones. Six mornings of gruel for breakfast. Six evenings spent lying awake listening to rustling outside the mosquito net. Day Seven was abysmal. Day Eight was when the guy with arachnophobia quit because clusters of spiders were draped around his cell.
On a walking meditation, Jared found a stainless-steel tray and swooned at his own sunburned cheeks and caramel hair, abstractly mottled in its silver. His jaw was rough with the beginnings of a beard and his upper lip made him gnarly. He went to the bell tower, a place he’d grown an affinity towards, to observe the others like a sniper. Many people, his sister among them, could move slowly and carefully, but he still found it challenging. Those same people took twice as long as he did to eat their curry. Eyes closed, they chewed and swallowed with orgasmic intensity all through their meal, but mindfulness only happened for him in the first and final mouthfuls. A second helping aided his concentration. He watched the others, intent on how and why they did it so slowly.
The point in the retreat was to lose that part of themselves which craved everyday comforts and surpass all discomfort by connecting to nature, which was why the bricks had holes and insects were welcomed. The laws of existence, ever-present dharma, nature in action barely veiled.
Nature was invasive. Nature was all around them. He’d sipped a mug of hot chocolate with Sophie, totally silent, as a troop of monkeys swung and screeched in the outermost branches of the jungle. Monitor lizards were diving into the pond behind Kuhn Apinya as he answered questions written on slips of paper. At dawn, a bird with a fluttering call introduced the tequila golds of sunrise, serenading them as they moved to the rhythm of their own breathing, loosening their limbs. It fell quiet once morning prospered and they returned to sitting motionless. The retreat buildings belonged to the animals and plants; it was their home and the humans were their guests.
When they were kids, Burt was the strong one. Jared followed his leadership and liked it that way. In all the time they’d had together, they hadn’t ever quarreled. Not even once. He could tell him anything without fear of retribution. He told him about Marianne and his embarrassment at what she’d said. He confided the despair of his lowest moments of depression. But he knew he’d never be able to tell Burt or anyone else about his failure with the Chinese lady. His love for her would remain forever a secret or else it would cease.
Perceiving each other bonded them to the environment with intrigue. They were dharma friends and what they did really mattered. One man didn’t shake his mat and it lay among dead foliage that had blown around it and stayed. Another man kept his cushion immaculate, not a single grain of sand defacing it, dusting his toes before placing them in front of himself.
Jared soaked his feet in the hot spring because he thought he’d seen the bright colors of a sarong going in that direction and when she wasn’t there, he went to the yoga hall to move microscopically for once. He was determined to go at the same unmoving pace as the others. Round the perimeters he passed in a figure eight loop, round to when he wasn’t in control of himself, round to making his own meticulous choices, back to when he had less awareness of some executive presence governing and designing his life. Illusions of liberty shackled him more tightly to obedience. What could bring all mankind closer to empowerment than submitting to the will of the divine?
He had one hand on a hip and the other caressing her hair, moving it back from her brow, swaying with her. She’d shown him her notebook and he’d invited her to the islands, slurring his words, rushing over to her when the concluding gong sounded. It was so near to them now; their future was swaddling them.
The last morning had almost materialised.
During the final lunch break, they both ate three bowls of chickpea curry and squeezed apart mangosteens in unison. Her hands would soon be tearing him open too, he was sure because she’d started to make it obvious, she reciprocated his interest and no longer glanced away. He could feel her hot breath on his fingertips as she gazed at him. Still, he tried not to fantasize about her, though he could bite her nipples by simply closing his eyes.
On the way to the penultimate meditation, he saw her skipping back from the hot spring and going to her room to dress. Then while Kuhn Apinya was talking to the congregation in the meditation hall, he saw her casting spells by the big tree, showing gratitude, bowing to its roots. She snuck back onto her cushion with damp hair tucked under a bluebell of a hat and her bag in her hands, a plume of red thread hanging from it, her talisman.
All there was left to do that day was sweep leaves. Next morning they would be emancipated after one final meditation at dawn. Then it was over. Then he would ask her for her email address and if she had any plans. Ask her if perhaps she’d like to stay with them and do things with him.
He hunted under his cushion for his room key and heard the disruption at the other side of the hall. He saw the others face the afternoon as it faded, turning towards her. She looked poised, trembling in defiance. Nobody tried to persuade her to stay, nor did they follow her into the jungle, into the control of the wild. The others continued to leave the hall and alone he watched her skulk along the sandy track, away from them and their movement, until she’d gone out of sight.
While he’d kept his vow of silence, he’d broken his own jubilance.
Rain fell onto the roof of the hall and poured through the candlelight. Each step led to a destination. A shower instead of washing from a bucket. Shaving in a mirror. Pillows as soft as thighs. In the dark with nowhere to go, trees dripping with poisonous creatures, he rocked to the sound of his own breathing all throughout the night.
Morning gong. Swollen eyes. A hey and a hug from his little sister. When the time came to talk, they had no urgency, no demands – although now there was barely anything he wanted to say. They drank coffee and giggled. They wrapped arms around strangers, who paid her compliments and asked them both about being related. People who hadn’t met them beforehand suspected they were family and were curious about them. The Swedish man with the spotless cushion gave him his number and offered a floor in Koh Phangan.
The hour to leave had arrived and his sister returned to her room to take pictures and say goodbye to the experience. While he waited, the yoga instructor gave him her insight into his heart. “It was in your eyes,” she said, rubbing his shoulder. “It was so spiritual, wasn’t it? Happened to me a couple of times, too.”
Before they could discuss it anymore, his sister came back and they joined a small group of new friends departing for the monastery. As he moved, he charted that woman’s steps away from him on the previous evening, in the twilight, walking into another silence, leaving theirs to congeal into a solidified mass. He lengthened his neck and held his head higher as a minor act of resistance. It was getting dark then and she could’ve slept at the monastery. When they crossed the motorway footbridge to it, a culture shock occurred. The roar of engines and the freedom to be without self-imposed restraints was unsettling.
They reached another group chatting about how tough it had been to sit upright unsupported every day and wash in cold water at four o’clock and while they were having breakfast among the chickens, he excused himself to find a mirror but there wasn’t one in the bathroom. On the way back, he took a wrong turn. Curiosity drew him to the house painted cream with a fish trough against its wall. Inside it – in a circular pool deeper than the surrounding basin – a large, mature fish chased its own tail, cruelly unable to transit into shallower water where some smaller koi swam freely. He looked at it and looked at it, while he tried not to cry. It was then he raised his head and saw the monk, the one who’d taught them the lotus position, staring back at him wryly.