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An Unenlightened Perspective: My Ten Days At the Suan Mokkh Silent Meditation Retreat

Alright gentlemen, hypothetical question for you: your wife and her sister leave you in Thailand by yourself for three weeks as they have a little sisterly bonding time in Indonesia. The first thing you do is…

1) Head straight to the island of Koh Tao and enroll in a scuba-diving course
2) Take the train to Chiang Mai to do a little trekking
3) Enroll in a ten-day silent Buddhist Meditation Retreat
4) Grab your bucket of red bull & vodka and wait for the next Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan
5) Explore the seedy side of Bangkok, checking out the surreal the sex shows

The answer is obvious right? We would all be heading down to the Buddhist retreat, yes?

Wait a minute…. NO !!??

WHAT!?

(sigh)

Oh wow, where were you guys when I needed you… thanks a lot!

 



The Preamble


Well yes, believe it or not, I did indeed say goodbye to Shawna, Carly, & Marissa and head off to Suan Mokkh, a forest monastery just outside the small town of Chaiya for ten days chock full of watching your breath (i.e. meditation).

I would like to say I went into this without being aware of the full itinerary, but believe it or not I was committed even after I saw the following schedule:

04.00 Wake up
04.30 Morning Reading
04.45 Sitting meditation
05.15 Yoga / Exercise
07.00 Dhamma talk & Sitting meditation
08.00 Breakfast & Chores
10.00 Dhamma talk
11.00 Walking or standing meditation
11.45 Sitting meditation
12.30 Lunch (and a nap if I could sneak it in)
14.30 Sitting meditation
15.30 Walking or standing meditation
16.15 Sitting meditation
17.00 Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
18.00 Tea & hot springs
19.30 Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30 Sitting meditation
21.00 Bedtime
21.30 LIGHTS OUT

No wife. No talking. No coffee. No meat. No eating after lunch. No reading. No internet. No alcohol. No comfortable mattress. Up by 4:00 AM every morning.

What. Was. I. Thinking.

The Suan Mokkh Meditation Retreat is held on the first 10 days of every month. My retreat started on April 1st, but I decided to arrive two days early. Advice was given to me, that if you don’t get there early, your daily chore may be something along the lines of collecting the used toilet paper. I didn’t particularly want the job, but being there 36 hours ahead of time was a bit unnecessary. That just earned me an extra couple of nights sleeping on the cement beds.

So before I dig too deep into what my experience was like….WHY MEDITATION?

Purely from a Buddhist perspective, meditation is a tool to help cultivate an insightful mind, release your ‘self’ from the suffering that exists in life (and according to Buddhists, all life is suffering at some level or another), and ultimately reach enlightenment (or nirvana). Clearly I am skipping a step or two, but I don’t want to spoil the whole story.

One of the monks homes within the forest monestary of Suan Mokkh


Although I have always been interested in Buddhism as a subject of study, my aspirations for the retreat were not this extreme. Not all meditation has a religious or spiritual base. Meditation does have practical applications as well. I promise!

We spend so much time in our lives regretting what we did in the past, or worrying about what will almost certainly not happen in the future, that we seldom are able to simply appreciate the present moment we are existing in. Meditation can help you with this.

Related to this is the fact that there are so many distractions in life that our mind virtually never has a chance just to be still and focused. Turn off your computers people (after you are finished reading this blog of course.) Meditation can also help you here.

There are numerous other benefits to meditation. Improving your memory, slowing your heart rate, and instilling a sense of calm just to name a trio. It’s cool stuff, and although some may see it as a little hippie-dippie…. I am most definitely on board. Now the question was whether or not I could actually ‘walk the walk’ over the course of the next ten days.

Typically on this trip, I haven’t kept a journal… on a couple of occasions I have tried, but it is challenging enough to keep the blog up to date, and so the journal usually gets dropped after the third day. This time however, I thought it was important to jot down a few notes at the end of every day. I suspected my feelings were going to be quite varied day to day, and it would be interesting to look back on it afterwards. Also, for something with this rigid of a schedule, I was worried that all the days would eventually feel the same and it would be difficult for me to give you a lengthy day-by-day synopsis of my mental, spiritual and psychological journey into my own mind.

Don’t worry…. I’ll let you off easy… but I will warn you in advance, this post is a little longer than normal. Feel free to break it in two, or at least have a short coffee break.

Cheers to our last meal!

The Retreat

Registration day (aka, last day of speaking) was easy enough. I walked a kilometer and a half from the actual monastery to arrive at the retreat setting, and it was beautiful! This was a place where magic was going to happen…you could feel it in the air. Around 110 other eager meditators were also handing in their cell phones and vocal chords, so at the very least misery would have company (silent company, but company all the same)! What an awesome surprise it was for me, when Michael, a Swiss friend whom I had met in Kuala Lumpur also walked through the gates… he wasn’t quite ready to begin the monastic life, so we left the grounds and ate our last piece of meat and drank our last Singha beer for the next 10 days. It was also the last time I saw him smile.

I giggled when I initially saw a list of the Basic Rules of the retreat. The first one asked us to ‘abstain from taking away any breath’ (i.e. do not kill). I figured this would be pretty easy, even for those with the hottest of tempers…. until I realized that this Peace Accord also included ‘opening my heart to the mosquitos’. This was getting ridiculous.

(Skott bites his bottom lip and holds back tears, wondering if it is too late to turn back.)

Next was a trip to my accommodation for the foreseeable future… the good news was, I had my own room…. but that’s about it! Let’s just say this: even in jail, the prisoners have mattresses.

The gecko and my wooden pillow


Shawna had given me a tiny toy stuffed gecko as a good luck charm to help get me through the tougher moments, and it was at this point that the two of us had our first serious conversation. The gecko told me to be strong and push forward.

The silence began later that night at 9PM, as we all sat in the sand on our meditation cushions under the roof of our open-air meditation hall. As the bell rang, our signal to stop speaking, a thunderstorm opened up above us, and we all walked slowly and mindfully back to our dorms in the pouring rain. It was a very powerful way to begin the retreat. Almost as though it was planned. And in spite of my initial apprehensions, I knew what was about to take place was going to be an unforgettable experience… I went to bed that first night full of hope… I can do this!

Day 1

The hope which I had gone to bed with the night before was crushed by lunch. The irony of the fact that this retreat had began on April Fool’s Day was not lost on me…. my mind wanted to quit already.

You see, in theory, meditation is the easiest thing in the world:

1) Sit down
2) Find a comfy-ish position
3) Breath, slowly but naturally
4) Focus on your breath and do not let any other thoughts distract you.
5) Inhale
6) Exhale
7) Repeat

My meditation practice started out as follows:

Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
Hmmm, I wonder what Shawna is doing…
SHIT! Okay let’s try again…
Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
The Hunger Games was a great book…
Arrrrgh!
Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
What if Shawna got kidnapped in Bali. They would have no way of getting a hold of me here…okay, seriously, Skott…she’s not going to get kidnapped. Bali is paradise. Your wife is fine…she is having way more fun than you.
Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
This retreat site would make a great arena for the Hunger Games.
Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
Hmmm, what if they did actually make all 100 of us fight to the death. Who would I try to kill first?
Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
My nose is soooo itchy right now.
Inhale-1,2,3
Exhale-1,2,3
I should have gone with the girls to bali…I am so stupid.

Get the picture? That was the first 100 or so seconds of meditating on Day 1. Clearly, I had my work cut out for me.

When you have trouble focusing on your breath like this, the Buddhists refer to it as having a Monkey Mind. At least it is more polite than the name that I was thinking of. I was very frustrated with my inability to focus. In fact, I was even a little bit scared at exactly how horrible I was at meditating…oh well, nine days to go right?

Day 2

The bell which signified the end of our meditation sessions


I have already realized that it will be the 5:15AM yoga class which will get me through each day. At this point, it is the one thing I can look forward to. I am yearning for an opportunity to get all the kinks out of my body after spending most of the day sitting, and the entire night sleeping on my slab. Seriously, after the first night of trying to get comfortable I woke up with two bruised hips, and a couple bruised ribs… it was like someone had spent the entire night kicking me with a frozen rubber boot.

I realized I wasn’t being very easy on myself the first day, and decided (after conferring with my gecko) to be a little easier on Mr.Monkey Mind. We were told upon entering the retreat that we would need to be extremely patient with ourselves. There would be plenty of ups and downs, and we needed to take everything in stride. And so I will try.

Walking meditation actually proves to be somewhat enjoyable (ok, enjoyable might be a bit strong, but…). It allowed me to subtly pay attention to my steps while I was breathing, which helped to prevent as many other distractions from jumping into my head. It was a better day.

Day 3

Today I am working on my ability to keep my body still (as well as my mind). If a fly lands on your leg, the ideal situation is to recognize it, but then push it out of your mind, and continue to mindfully follow your breath. After five or so breaths, the irritation should vanish…or in my case, it WILL drive you within inches of becoming clinically insane. An interesting experiment in self-torture.

In order to make this retreat as successful as possible for each of us, they asked us to try to remain mindful, paying close attention to everything you do even when not in meditation. When you walk, feel the grass or sand on your feet. When you eat, chew slowly…take in every sensation that is involved in the eating process. It is a pretty foreign concept for most of us in the ‘real world’ isn’t it? It would be much more common to find yourself eating Cheerios in the morning while putting on your shirt and talking on your cell, no? I was determined to try to be as mindful as possible for the rest of the week.

The main meditation hall


We were also told that if you were experiencing the Monkey Mind, that there are a few things you can do, which may help: first, try stretching out each breath a little. Count to 5 for each inhale and exhale. Second, focus on the feeling that takes place in your body the second your breath turns from an inhale to an exhale and the other way around.

I would like to say these new recommendations succeeded in improving my meditation practice immediately. However over the next 45 minutes session, I had planned the itinerary for our next 60 days of travel, written a mental letter to CBS asking why Canadians weren’t allowed on The Amazing Race, and debated on whether or not I would ever make a good mayor.

The silent aspect of this retreat is more than bearable – at least for me. It is actually something that I was grateful for. How often does a person have an entire 10-days to just be with themselves. I think that mentally this must provide an individual with an amazing opportunity just to recharge your batteries. It isn’t realistic for most of us to have this much time in solitude, but I can see many benefits if we could all even take a weekend a year to ourselves in silence.

Of course non-verbal communication can be just as strong as verbal communication. When I first arrived I would always try to make eye contact with the other people and give them a big smile. But in order to truly immerse yourself in the experience, this probably isn’t the best thing to do as it is also a distraction.

Despite this, I still really don’t feel lonely at all. You can feel everyone’s energies, all working together, trying to focus on mindfulness. I like it.

ok, this is just going too far


I gave up on my wooden pillow last night. I tried to tough it out, but this is crazy. I can live with sleeping on cement, in spite of the internal bruising, but wooden pillows?? Nope, I’m out. I’ll sleep on my bunched up T-shirts and underwear thanks.

My two favourite times of day are actually early in the morning, rising before the sun and late at night under the moonlight. Every evening around 8PM we had a walking meditation session around the lakes. Girls around one lake, boys around the other (we were kept separate for many activities as to remove as many distractions as possible). Walking around, no noise except the geckos, the moon reflecting off the lake, it was beautiful. Some of the more peaceful moments I have had in a long, long while.

For anyone hovering above us however, I can imagine that watching us silently slow-walking around these lakes, divided by gender looked like some sort of satanic ritual. I can definitely appreciate that.

Day 4

I awoke to find something quite frightful had grown on the back of my neck. As I was waking up, I reached around to massage some of the knots out from the previous nights’ sleep, I felt a lumpy blister-type substance had formed on the back of my neck overnight. Over course we don’t have mirrors (which is depressing enough for a vain fella like myself), so I have to settle for trying to take a photo of this new and mysterious protrusion on the back of my head. (of course weren’t supposed to have cameras either, so I tried to be discrete.)

Um...gross

Upon seeing it, I fled to the nurse, as I realized I had a small yellowing lump sitting on the back of my neck. What the hell was going on? I was already in a mentally fragile state, and now this!!!

Fortunately, the nurse was able to console me, warmly assuring me that it was not life-threatening. In fact what had happened is that overnight a local insect had urinated on the back of my neck, and this was my body’s reaction to it. I’m serious – I got peed on!! And it left a mark. How humiliating! It’s official – golden showers are NOT for me….

Anyways, once I was finished with my mini- panic attack, the blister was popped drained, and disinfected using traditional Thai herbs, lime, onions, and olive oil. Yummy!

Speaking of food…most people thought this would be another major challenge of the retreat. I am here to tell you that I ate two vegetarian meals a day: one at 8:30AM and the other at 12:30PM, and nothing more with the exception of hot chocolate, tea, or water, and I am still alive and well! I was never starving. Maybe sometimes a little hungry, but this really didn’t prove to be much of a discomfort at all.

Our meals consisted of rice porridge for breakfast (rice with beans and a few peppers), and perhaps a green curry or pad thai type dish for lunch. Bananas and taro balls or corn in coconut milk were usually dessert. Whenever possible the ingredients used were grown right on the property. I really enjoyed the food. It maybe lacked a little variety, but it was good. Healthy and good.

The food we were served was designed to be food that kept our bodies nourished and alive. Nothing more, nothing less. The idea is to keep us away from foods which get a persons’ mouth watering…this is why we weren’t served pizza or hamburgers. Releasing ourselves from as many desires as possible.

Day 5

Buddhist Wheel of Life


I seriously started thinking about leaving early today. In truth the thought has likely been under the surface for a few days now, but I really started considering whether or not this made sense.

I have figured I will not likely ever be a world-class meditator, nor is it really my goal. I could be doing so much more with this three weeks of Skott-only time (see the options I provided at the beginning of the post). But the reality is that you seldom write a good story about a quitter, and so I figured I better stick it out.

Despite the fact that I was resolved to putting my time in, day 5 was a hideous day for trying to focus or quiet my mind. I was also getting a little grumpy…. something which I blamed on the lack of calories I was taking in. I am sitting in the dining hall, and I can see one of the girls taking her time around the dessert table – making sure she finds the bowl with the most corn niblets.

“Greedy cow”, I think to myself.

As I am shoveling rice into my mouth, I look over and notice the guy next to me is mindfully focused on his meal…so mindful in fact that he even has his eyes closed. I immediately feel like I am the lead character on a Mr. Bean episode and I try to develop a plan as to how I can dump his dessert into my bowl without getting caught. :)

I need to stop with all these devious plans. Too much bad karma! Besides, I have great news: we are halfway there!

Day 6

We are told that only 3 of the 110 of us who signed up have dropped out, which is phenomenal…. we are congratulated and I think it is a real boost to everybody’s confidence that we can really do this!

This was my favourite meditation hall, built to hover over top of a small pond. So peaceful!


I am trying my best to keep out all distractions, but of course it is tough. One thing that has worked is to pretend that this entire retreat is just for me. There is no one else who signed up. I am the only one here. As weird as it sounds, this actually works and I no longer have my feelings hurt when others walk by without returning my awkward half-smiles.

Waking up at 4:00 AM to the sound of the bell has proven to be pretty easy so far. I have grown to love getting up before the sun, and actually walking towards our first meditation session needing a flashlight. Without fail though, my energy, interest, and patience wear away quickly as the sun rises and the heat of the day starts to cook us.

Day 7

Despite what I just said about being an early riser, this is the first morning I actually had trouble getting up. If there was a snooze button on that gong, I would have hit it several times. I don’t think I am alone though, as you can really see the exhaustion on peoples’ faces.

As I look around I see more and more people reading or taking notes while they are supposed to meditating. I am not the only one who feels distracted, but seeing these people taking a break seems to strengthen my resolve to work even harder on my focus. And it seemed to work. Today was a good one. Nothing mind-blowing but it was generally a really fantastic experience. I felt like I was able to develop my strongest level of concentration yet. I was really mindful and in the moment for most of the day.

One of the foot baths, to wash your feet before entering the meditation hall


As much as I miss Shawna (and coffee), there is no way that we could ever do this together. That is assuming she would ever be interested in something like this in the first place, which I am pretty sure we don’t have to worry about… this might be a little low-key for her. :)

There are however, at least two couples who are here together…crazy. Of course you sneak in a little smile, or maybe a little whisper here or there (then again maybe not), but you do not sleep together. You have separate eating areas, meditating areas, hot springs, yoga classes…it would be the hardest aspect of the retreat for me. I commend any of the couples who can do this sort of thing…amazing!

Day 8

Sadly, as good as yesterday might have been, today was… well….boring. I am clearly too far in to quit, but it remains tougher to focus as I am starting to really look forward to the morning of Day 11. I managed to finally pull it together at night for awhile, but most the rest of the day can be considered a write-off.

And oh yeah, another bug pissed on me…this time on my hand. Second golden shower. Just great. Why isn’t this happening to anyone else?

Day 9

Today was our “extreme” day. No talks on Buddhism. No chanting to break up the day. It was literally a full day of meditation. Additionally, today our first meal would also be our last. No eating after 8:30AM. Today’s schedule was kept from us until the last minute, and for good reason. There would have been an uprising unlike anything you have ever seen!

However, in spite of my initial worries, I was proud of myself for making it through the day quite successfully. I did spend a little time after lunch simply allowing my mind to roam free and to go wherever it wanted to go. After eight and a half days of trying to contain your thoughts, this is not always recommended. By 2:00 PM I had filled my own head with a lot of things that left me quite unsettled, and it took me awhile to shake everything out again.

Regardless, I went to bed satisfied with the day. This experiment is almost complete!

Day 10


The final full day of the retreat!!!! You can feel the ‘we almost made it’ energy seeping out of the pores of every one of us! The coordinators recognized this, and had to remind us to please keep with the spirit of the retreat and remain silent for the rest of the day.

Today we even did a little bit of ‘working dharma’. Basically we helped to spread out several hills of sand, so that everything was level and the monks could build up a few pathways which had been washed away by the rain. It felt incredible to actually be doing a little bit of physical labour again.

At night, the silence was briefly lifted for an open mic night. We were asked to give feedback to the coordinators and our peers. People’s experiences were quite varied, but for the most part, after a week and a half of giving up all the evils (i.e. fun stuff) of society, and committing to a life of silent monastic wonder, we were all very happy we made the effort.

And that is about it… the next morning we awoke, took photos, introduced ourselves to the people we had been sitting next to for this whole time, and then Mike and I left the retreat, jumped on a train and headed towards the island of Koh Tao.

The Summary

So, am I glad I went? Absolutely. Not because it was fun. Because often it wasn’t. It was however a great character check for me. There are a ton of things I suppose people could take away from something like this: awareness, mindfulness, loving kindness, patience, focus, and of course the ability to meditate (sort of).

Would I do it again? Strangely enough….yes. Just maybe not right away.

I left the retreat feeling recharged, and more at peace than I have in a long while. I was in a way dreading the thought of jumping back into the noise of the ‘real world’. Oh don’t get me wrong. I am sure that after my first Chang beer my mind will be flooded with bikinis, pillow fights, and hamburgers…but for now maybe it is best to just focus on my breath.

 

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23 Responses to “An Unenlightened Perspective: My Ten Days At the Suan Mokkh Silent Meditation Retreat”

  1. TaraLee Houston April 27, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    Wow, good for you Skott! Thanks for sharing your meditation retreat experience for 10 days. I hope you and Shawna are well and enjoying your travels, I truly enjoy reading about them. Namaste!

    • Skott April 30, 2012 at 4:04 am #

      We are indeed do extremely well – as always thanks so much for taking the time to read our posts Tara Lee!!!

  2. Warren Talbot April 29, 2012 at 3:38 am #

    Skott, you are an inspiration to me. For years I’ve talked about meditation, but never have had the discipline to sit down and focus on it. In fact, I actually stopped writing an article to finishing reading this post (see I cannot even read a post without distractions). However, after following your experience I feel that it is time to dive in again.

    Though I must admit you are a far stronger man that me as I am not ready to dive in to a 10 day, silent, golden shower filled experience. I think I’ll just start with 5 minutes focusing on my breathing. And beer. Then bikinis. Maybe pillow fights.

    See, you did inspire my mind to start working. Thank you!

    • Skott April 30, 2012 at 4:16 am #

      Inspiration, huh? Well, although I do truly appreciate it, you might want to consider setting your bar a little higher? Seriously, if you were interested, it is all about starting with 5 minutes (or even 1 minute!) at a time. Like everything in life…. practice practice practice!!! Good luck with your attempts! But be easy on yourself!

      Anyway, on with those bikini pillow fights!

  3. Chrystal McKay April 29, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a meditation retreat. This…..puts it a little more into perspective. I think I could handle 10 days but not much longer! ONLY if like you, I switch from a wooden pillow to some soft clothes stuffed one. Thats why I ALWAYS pack my pillowcase!
    Chrystal McKay recently posted..Travel Route: Lithuania

    • Skott April 30, 2012 at 4:06 am #

      The wooden pillow was a tough one…I think I would have needed physiotherapy for 2-3 weeks after the retreat if I would have continued with it… it’s crazy!

  4. rick enns April 29, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    I would think that all the in depth meditation time was all for not after you thought ” GREEDY COW” of that poor starving woman

    • Skott April 30, 2012 at 4:11 am #

      You might be right Dad…. there were definitely moments when I wasn’t exactly cultivating the most positive karma!! :)

  5. Gillian @OneGiantStep April 29, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

    Wow, I wanted to try something like this but was not brave enough. If the opportunity came up again though I think I would. It doesn’t sound like a ton of fun but it does sound like an interesting experience.
    Gillian @OneGiantStep recently posted..I’m So Proud Of You

    • Skott April 30, 2012 at 4:12 am #

      No, I do not know if I would ever call it ‘fun’, but I was so so SO glad that I took this on… I would recommend this to anyone…makes for a good character test I think!! But perhaps your character needs no testing, Gillian?? :)

  6. Candice May 2, 2012 at 3:58 am #

    Hi Skotty and Shawna!

    First of all, I miss you guys but love following along on here. Secondly, what chore did you end up getting??

    • Skott May 2, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

      Hey Candice – so happy to hear you are following along….but last time I heard weren’t you coming to visit?? :) And yes, as far as chores went, I was quite fortunate…there was no burning of soiled toilet paper…instead I was wiping tables after breakfast…. I think I came out on top there, eh?

    • Shawna May 5, 2012 at 11:43 pm #

      Hey Candice!!! Thanks for stopping by the blog!! We sure do miss you too!

  7. Sovi May 26, 2012 at 10:53 am #

    Hi,

    Just googled about Suan Mokkh and found your post that you wrote.

    I wanted to go there on August this year. After read your experience just make me feel more sure about my plan.

    I do hope I can through the retreat just like you and everyone else who passed it.

    Do you have any advice for me as a newbie who want to go to meditation retreat? ( I’ve been practicing meditation since last yr )

    Many Thanks,

    Sovi

    • Skott May 27, 2012 at 3:16 am #

      Hey Sovi – I was a newbie to meditation myself before heading to Suan Mokh…. if you have been meditating for the past year, you are actually light years ahead of me. Not terribly sure what sort of beginner tips to pass on other than just be sure to be really patient with yourself. Don’t expect some sort of incredible mind blowing experience. Keep your expectations level and I think things will be more than fine for you. It really was a very unique experience a wonderful test for a person. I hope you find it extremely rewarding- I am sure you well!

  8. Rod June 9, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    ………. but you are missing out on the hockey draft.

    • Skott June 16, 2012 at 8:39 am #

      You bring up a great point Rod… I will never do this again… :)

  9. Rob Cubbon January 17, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

    Very interesting. I was drawn to a meditation retreat in Thailand when I was there but I bottled it! Interesting to hear about your experiences.
    Rob Cubbon recently posted..Why Falling In Love Sucks

    • Skott January 23, 2013 at 5:25 am #

      If you ever get the chance to attend any type of meditation retreat/workshop I would do so in an instant if you are interested in the idea of it. Don’t bottle it in!! It is actually one of the things I have ‘brought home’ with me. I usually am able to do a short meditation 4-5 days a week first thing in the morning. Thanks for reading, Rob!

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