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Zen and the Art of Idiocy: A Humorous Journey Through a Meditation Retreat in Thailand

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  • Embark on a hilariously recounted journey through the author’s misadventures in a meditation retreat in Thailand, highlighting the clash between his skeptical, flippant nature and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.
  • Discover the author’s amusing encounters with dedicated monks, fellow participants, and the unexpected challenges of silent meditation, yoga, and lectures, leading to a series of unconventional experiences.
  • Despite initial skepticism, the author finds himself unexpectedly impacted by the retreat, reflecting on the balance between humor and self-discovery, and uncovering the unexpectedly blissful aspects of the serene Buddhist environment.

Part of the reason I like the cruising lifestyle so much is because it allows me to continue to do stupid things…to repeat my dumbest mistakes…to a new and unsuspecting audience. I mean, let’s face it—falling into the same hole repeatedly can be booorrrring—but the first few times, well, it’s a real scream watching an idiot prove he’s earned his title.

In America I used to do this merely by having failing businesses. In Boston I owed Bozo Boat Works. Our corporate motto was “…cheap but not chintzy, we don’t clown around..!” Needless to say, we received a lot of complaints for shoddy workmanship, public intoxication, etc. Regardless of how justified the complaint, we’d just smile sweetly and ask, “…and what did you expect from a company named Bozo Boat Works… Einstein with a varnish brush?”

When I was in Fort Liquordale and attempting to hustle my fellow boats at the Southport Raw Bar, my business card just read, “Fatty Goodlander, BN” (Boat Navigator, what in the hell did you think I meant?)

Many of my ex-friends who invested in my Cayman-based ‘Barnum & Baloney Floating Circus’ idea are incredibly tenacious… I can’t believe that after all these years they’re still searching for their long-gone cash!

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My friend Larry Pardey has a similar sense of humor. There is a sign on the door of his shipwright shop in New Zealand which reads A 3M Company in large letters and below that, in much smaller type, “Mickey Mouse Marine”

But I didn’t limit my business failures to just the marine sector. The moment I saw the overall literary rate of the West Indies I decided to form American Paradise Publishing—figuring I could save a tin* of money on proof readers. (*Tun? Toon? Ton?)

Basically, the story of my life is that I get bored with what I understand and am attracted to what I don’t. This makes for a laughter-filled life—because my only other option is to cry.

Alas, I live in SE Asia now—where the people aren’t nearly as money-conscious as in America. Thus, to truly screw up here—you have to do so much more cosmically than just being morally and monetarily bankrupt. Thus I was faced with perplexing problem: how to prove my idiocy in a serene Buddhist paradise like, say, Thailand?

Luckily, ‘spiritual enlightenment for the intellectually dim’ is growth industry here. Asians never seem to tire of fleecing Western airheads with fists full of cash and BDN (Big Dreams of Nirvana). I admire these budding ‘can’t-we-somehow-blister-pack-Buddha?’ budding capitalists. They have no shame. I find it refreshing to meet young smiling entrepreneurs who aren’t in denial—who openly embrace greed, gluttony and self-indulgence… even in the name of the Awakened One!

…why shouldn’t someone charging you $400 bucks an hour tell you rudely that your disgusting money is utterly worthless?

Do you have a problem with that? If so, it just proves the point: selfishness causes suffering! But let’s back up. I recently decided to make a rare foray ashore in Thailand—and become one with Buddha.

I went to a Meditation Retreat at a place we’ll call Swam Moke—in deference to any libel-lawyers they might employ.

I went there with deep misgivings. After all, I’m a jaded, rude, flippant guy who has skepticism tattooed on every strand of his DNA. And I’ve been around. I have a built-in, highly sensitive, media-tuned, globally-calibrated bulls#*t meter. So you have to have a pretty sharp pencil to out-scam this scammer!

The first thing that amazed me about SM was its efficiency—perfected by over 20,000 ‘spiritual fellows’ which have passed through. I expected that here would be no mention of money in the beginning—all the better to hit you up for the big bucks later. I paid a key deposit for my room of $50 bucks—and went to see it. It consisted over a cinder block room with a cement slab, wooden pillow and a mosquito net with more holes than a heroin addict.

I complained to the first monk I saw. “This isn’t modern accommodations… it’s a torture chamber!”

“Yes,” he said. “We want you to suffer! We hope you are very uncomfortable—and believe that you will be! In fact, each day we’ll make you suffer a little bit more—don’t worry, my verrrry good friend, you’ll be miserable by the end!”

This took the wind out of my sails.

I dashed back to find the complaint department—only to see a notice on the wall with the rules—and Rule #1 was Absolutely No Talking for 12 days. I started to open my mouth, but 146 of my fellow ‘spiritual seekers’ frowned. I then whipped out my reporter’s notebook and scribbled, “Can I write notes?” and a passing monk threw my notebook into the trash with a negative shake of his head. I then whipped open my tiny Vaio laptop and managed to type “…are you frig’n kidding?” before another monk slammed it shut and Frisbeed in onto a high shelf.


I’d had no time to ask them what we were retreating from during the retreat. Nor did I know what we were supposed to be meditating on… when we emptied our self-centered and (in my case) lustful minds… to get Mindfulness! Why is nothing spiritual ever straightforward? Why is the answer to every simple question, some mumbo-jumbo like, “It’s the sound of one hand clapping!”?

The next thing I knew, people were being nice to me. I mean, I’d had a guy be nice to me back in the 1960s…but he was a hippie and high on drugs—at least, that’s what I assumed. But now people were being nice to me again and again for no reason. And I didn’t even know who they were and they didn’t know who I was!

So, since nobody was watching and I figured that it would never get back to my friends in the Caribbean, I was nice to a person.

It felt VERY strange, sort of like coughing up a golf ball… hell, a bowling ball! I said to myself, internally, “Wow, so that’s what goodness feels like, for goodness sakes!”

Just about that time, a mosquito landed on my nose—and I started to swat it… when my arm was caught by a Kung Fu monk who just materialized beside me. “…intentionally take no breath,” he whispered and disappeared in a puff of dust.

I looked around for the smoke and mirrors but couldn’t spot them.

I then decided they weren’t allowing me speak so that, during meditation, I couldn’t leap upon the stage and make a fool of them all by saying, “…any monk who believes in telekinetics, raise my arm!”

All of us were herded into a gorgeous open air meditation center—and told to do nothing. Now this is exactly what I’ve been accused of all my life—doing nothing. Every boss, lover, friend, family member and wife that I’ve ever had has repeatedly screamed at me, “…BUT YOU JUST DO NOTHING!”

…now I was to discover I was doing ‘nothing’ wrong. This came as a rude shock. Not only wasn’t I really doing nothing, I wasn’t even capable of truly doing nothing—which made me, even in my own book, a complete & worthless screw-up. This struck me as incredibly sad. My eyes started to leak. Tears ran down my face. Suddenly a monk was beaming at me, “…good suffering, good suffering!” he said in praise.

I smiled back—one of those creepy beatific smiles you see on religious zombies in churches and other areas of codified insanity.

Damn! The bastards were starting to get to me.

At 9 p.m., they allowed us to return to our rooms. I was careful getting into my mosquito netting and managed to do so without disturbing the milling crowd of hungry centipedes, millipedes, spiders, tarantulas, and scorpions which surrounded it.

There were only two horrible screams that first night—both from terrified people-with-their-pants-around-their-ankles frantically fleeing cobras. I kid you not, cobras abound! They come out of the rain and hide in the darkened, damp toilet stalls. (The toilet doors sadistically open inward… so often the escapee brutally slams himself in the face—another clever way to ‘increase the suffering,’ I guess.)

At 4 a.m. a gong rang so loud that it levitated me out of my bunk. A few minutes later I was in the lotus position, doing my ‘silent meditation’ which consisted mostly of me forcing myself not to scream aloud from back pain. After about an hour of this—when I could not move my frozen muscles at all—they sadistically announced it was time for yoga. For the next 90 minutes, they literally attempted to twist my spinal cord out of my body. They taught me the fish posture and the cat…and the cow…and the lion—while I taught myself the crying-in-a-fetal-position posture.

Next, we attended a lecture by a Thai who obviously thought that he could speak English. I think the main purpose of this guy was to show us that, if you followed their system, you could be blissful AND delightfully delusional. (The Thai guy, I must admit, seemed to really get off while not communicating with us.)

At 8 a.m. we broke for breakfast. This consisted of…what appeared to be…yesterday’s regurgitated rice soup. Actually, it wasn’t too bad if you clothes-pinned your nose and managed to keep it down.

We all had chores—sort of forced slave-labor. Mine considered of lighting five candles—which sounds easy…but I had to remember to bring matches, walk to the candles, remember not to burn myself, etc. It wasn’t so easy. I’d have gladly bribed a monk to do it for me…but not being able to speak cut down on my attempts at moral corruption.

Then we had our main DHARMA lesson. An unwashed monk, who started off by confessing (who could make such a thing up?) that he lusted after Olive Oil, Poppy’s girlfriend… anyway, this monk who lived in a hole in the ground and supported himself by begging from poor Thai fishermen… told us the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. That’s right. He just laid it out. Simple as pie. Every question I ever had, this dude answered it… nonchalantly!

I was stunned. I’ve been in the presence of a ‘towering intellect’ before—but this Tan Dhamnavidu guy was over-the-top in cosmic-cool!  He knew everything about everything—and how it all related to why…to why…to why I was just a complete idiot!

At this point, I began to worry. I’d come (okay, I admit it) to ridicule the place! And now I was weeping tears of joy, more orgasmicly blissed-out than I’d thought possible.

…were they mixing LSD with the morning gruel?

Then we had lunch. I’ve racked my brain for something positive to say—and the only thing I can come up with is, “It was better than breakfast!”

After lunch, I took a dip in the hot springs—and noticed there were fewer people around than at breakfast…as if an invisible Buddha was eating them. “But that’s impossible,” I thought to myself, “the Awakened One is a vegetarian!”

…obviously, I was coming adrift from reality.

I really got into the mindfulness (being totally in the moment) and had great fun moving around the garden-like meditation area while pretending to be a slo-mo zombie.

…with some fake blood, we could have been an out-take from “The Night of the Living Dead.”

At first, the retreat organizers gave us two meals and demanded we meditate for five hours and then ratcheted that up to one meal, almost no sleep and eleven hours of oh-my-god-my-back-hurts meditation a day. People started going, well, crazy! They’d laugh, cry, keel over—and occasionally be taken to the hospital. (Of the 140 plus who started, only around 70 finished.)

But I’m an offshore sailor—suffering is nothing to me. I’ve based my life/marriage upon it.

By the eighth Day, we’d been reduced to blithering idiots and they were hoping we were softened up enough to start hallucinating. (The only thing I started to hallucinate was the Golden Arches—I was that hungry!)

By the end of my experience I’d reluctantly come to the conclusion that the people who appeared to be blessed out Buddhists with hearts of gold…really were. This was driven home when I discovered I didn’t have to pay—my key deposit covered the entire cost! (About five dollars US a day, all inclusive.) They didn’t even ask for a donation, and when I mentioned it, they said something like, “…yeah, maybe on the website is an address where you could send a check if you wanted.”

All the staff members were volunteers. They were the finest group of people I’ve never spoken with.

I was calm, utterly calm…calmer than I’ve been since…well, being a child. My potbelly had disappeared. The yoga had made me supple as a cat. I was filled with goodness-to-bursting.

The first person I met asked me, “How was it?”

“…awful,” I said. “…no, it was WONDERFUL…awfully wonderful, I guess!”

“I’m confused,” said the person.

“Me too,” I said. And smiled—just like a blissed-out zombie!

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of “Chasing the Horizon” by American Paradise Publishing, “Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies” and “The Collected Fat.”  For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com.

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Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap'n Fatty Goodlanderhttp://fattygoodlander.com/
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

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