“All life is suffering,” murmured my friend Dustin through mouthfuls of ice cream, in Chiang Mai. It was a catch phrase he liked to use when enjoying something delightful (like ice cream); the irony and timing in reminding himself (and others) of this first noble truth of buddhism always drew a laugh.
If only I knew at that time the degree to which I would suffer – truly suffer, even optionally and at great expense – in Koh Phangan Thailand, just a few months later.
Phase One: The Irony
As if the irony of observing that all life is suffering while eating ice cream wasn’t poignant enough, the irony of being depressed on arrival to a place like Koh Phangan was ludicrous.
I mean, it’s a tropical island in the south of Thailand. In fact, it’s the tropical island of tropical islands in the south of Thailand; one of the more hedonistic places you can visit, as is evidenced by the full moon party culture of travelers drinking buckets (literally, buckets) full of alcohol and ingesting all kinds of other “stuff” on offer while dancing the night away on the beach.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s not why I was in Koh Phangan. There is another side to the island; literally, the opposite side of the island, in a place called Srithanu where the pace is quiet and the focus is on another kind of hedonism; that of spirituality, healing, and general well-being. Throw a stone and you’ll either hit a yoga shala, tribal clothing store, or vegan restaurant. Visit Zen Beach at sunset and you’ll find drum circles and poi dancers; walk a little further up the beach and strip down to enjoy some (illegal) nudism. Sit long enough at Cookies Cafe with a coffee and you’ll surely overhear somebody sharing their thoughts on enlightenment.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s not why I was in Koh Phangan either. Hell, I don’t really know why I was in Koh Phangan. I’d heard through the grapevine a few times that Srithanu was the place to be, and after the relatively dismal weather I experienced in Hoi An, I needed some sun and fun. Koh Phangan is also informally known as “sticky island”; it’s another one of those places that people come to visit for weeks, and end up staying for years.
So there I was, enjoying the idyllic sunsets, delicious Thai food, cheap cost of living, and even fast internet. All life is suffering. And I was. Suffering, that is. Suffering from a continued depression that inspired a total life crisis, all of which came to a head somewhere in India when butter was being poured into my eyes. (That’s another story).
Ah, the irony. To actually be suffering, in paradise. Little did I know, the suffering hadn’t even begun.
Phase Two: The Agony
A friend who (like me) had spent extensive time in countries where the water isn’t potable told me she had also been feeling depressed, along with a host of other physical symptoms we shared in common. In a series of colonic hydrotherapy sessions, she discovered she had an enormous population of parasites, bacterias, and other unwelcome hitchhikers that were wreaking havoc in her gut and causing many of her seemingly unrelated health issues.
This inspired me to research what forms of similar healing I could experience in Koh Phangan. As a mecca for just about any modality of healing you can imagine, I wasn’t disappointed to discover a few places offering intensive detox programs that promised to cure me of just about anything. These detox programs involved many days of fasting, combined with colemas twice per day. (A colema – if you are currently scratching your head, as I was – is best described as a hybrid between an enema and colonic hydrotherapy).
Now. You may recall I had a slightly traumatic enema experience in India. (It’s an amusing read). So perhaps you’re wondering why I might be prepared to do something like that again. But, desperate times call for desperate measures, and I was tired of feeling like shit. Perhaps if I cleared some of it out of me, I’d feel better.
And that’s how I found myself suffering – really suffering – for 11 days of detox hell.
Actually, the first two and last two days of the detox didn’t count towards the agony; they were my days to ease in and out of the program, while drinking liver cleansing juices and eating delicious fruit and vegetable salads. The seven days of fasting (and colemas) in between were the meat of this shit sandwich.
I’ll spare you the gory details of the minutia of my daily routine, save for a few surprising occurrences.
First of all, I wasn’t hungry. As somebody who believes wholeheartedly in eating regularly, this came as a huge surprise to me. But it was probably the constant ingestion of detox “shakes” (prior to arriving I had envisioned these being lovely fruity refreshing drinks; if water with bentonite clay and psyllium husk is fruity to you then you’ll be in heaven) five times per day, with supplements and herbal detox pills in between. Given an additional five capsules/day I also swallowed as an optional anti-parasite treatment, I had no chance to be hungry; I was full of water (and clay, and psyllium husk, and supplements). Once a day I was given coconut water, and the highlight of each day was the “detox soup”: vegetable broth.
Instead of actual hunger, I discovered (as many detox retreat participants do) another type of hunger: mental hunger. I missed chewing. I missed smelling my food. And I missed the bonds created by people, the transcendence of culture and language around the world, all facilitated by food. One of the reasons I started traveling full-time was to “break bread around dinner tables around the world”. And now, all I could do was dream about cheesy garlic bread.
Ah, cheesy garlic bread. I can’t even remember the last time I ate cheesy garlic bread, but for the duration of the detox program, it beckoned. Somewhere around day three, I was having a particularly tough time. I laid in a hammock feeling sorry for myself, outside the main hub of the retreat centre, which also served as a restaurant. I watched a guy sipping coffee (oh god, coffee), and eating fruit with yogurt and granola on top: my favourite go-to breakfast for years. I started obsessing about the granola. Knowing this would do me no good, I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the fluffy clouds of granola floating through my mind.
And then I heard it, wafting to me from a conversation at another table: “garlic with bubbling melted cheese on top”. I have no idea what they were talking about, and all further conversation faded into oblivion. The seed had been planted, and out of it grew a complete infatuation with the idea of cheesy garlic bread, which stuck with me through the rest of the agonizing detox retreat.
No, hunger wasn’t an issue. And even more surprisingly, neither were the colemas. In fact, I came to quite enjoy the feeling of clearing myself out, complete with a slightly morbid fascination with what was coming out of me.
But everything else was an issue. I was weak. Lightheaded all the time. My muscles atrophied. My flexibility stopped; it didn’t just get worse – it stopped altogether. I could barely fold forward to touch my knees, much less my toes or put my palms on the floor, as I typically can. I was irritable. Emotional. I was in agony.
I kept waiting for the tipping point. In the daily check-in meetings with other participants, it seemed that everybody eventually hit a point where everything got better. Where energy levels actually increased, and people started talking about extending their fast because they felt so fantastic and light and energetic. For some people it was after day three. For others, day five. My boyfriend, who was participating alongside me, barely had any trouble. He even said one day “if I could continue feeling this good, I wouldn’t eat food again.” For me, it never happened. It was a slugfest every single step of the way.
“Are you resisting something?” my boyfriend said one day in the gentlest sweetest voice he could manage, before backing away quickly expecting some sort of physical repercussion for his astute observation. Of course I was. But I had no idea what I was resisting. I had paid (a lot of money) to do this program, and I was committed wholeheartedly to achieving better health and wellness; I saw this detox as a way to hit “reset” on my body and eliminate any possibility that my depression and other symptoms could be related to my gut health.
So, I continued as best I could to surrender to the process. I gave myself permission to hate it. I mentally burst into flames a few times. I cried a lot. And I honoured every step of it as the release of some sort of pent-up emotional shit that needed releasing. While most of the time I like to analyze what I’m letting go of (childhood trauma? Adolescent body issues? Bad relationships?), I gave up. It was too much work. And so I just felt the agony for what it was.
All life is suffering.
The Ecstasy The Massage
I don’t even like papaya. But seconds after I put that piece of papaya into my mouth to break the fast, my world changed. The improvement was marked, sudden, and frankly unbelievable. By midday on the day I broke the fast, I was a new woman. My energy had returned, and then some. I was smiling and laughing. Other detox retreat participants, many of whom had never seen this side of me, didn’t even recognize me.
What was most shocking to me, was the immediate change in my outlook on life. I noticed it reflected in a few emails I composed. Instead of resorting to a stock phrase I’d come to rely on to describe a certain situation – a phrase with both a negative outlook and language – I wrote a different phrase. One more positive and grateful. And then I did it again. And later in the day, again. Without even consciously trying, I had changed my negative paradigm into a positive one.
Was is possible? Could I have kicked my depression by fasting for seven days and (quite literally) clearing out all my shit? I wasn’t ready to drink the evangelical koolaid of detox retreats quite yet, but as the days progressed, it seemed that indeed, the steely grip of depression had loosened.
So it was time to reward myself with a massage.
Massage parlours are everywhere in Thailand – especially anywhere tourists roam. Most of them look the same, with a signboard featuring a long garish menu of prices and services that vary minimally from place to place. But the joint that came recommended to me wasn’t one of these massage parlours. It was a relatively nondescript house at the side of the road. No prices, no billboard-style list of services. Nobody outside beckoning you in for a massage. There were always multiple pairs of shoes out front (indicating customers inside). All good signs.
Words like “divine” and “sublime” had been used to describe these massages, with the quiet caveat that you need to like deep massages. One fellow participant of the detox retreat said he went and was sore for days afterwards, but I discounted his review on account of my assessment that he was a bit “soft”.
Little did I have any idea what I was in for.
I should have known when I walked inside and saw a guy on fire.
He was lying on a bed in the informal waiting room where I was seated, surrounded by three Thai therapists, casually talking as if there wasn’t a guy on fire in front of them. They – patient included – were all chatting away in Thai, while a washcloth doused in some sort of fuel was in flames on the patient’s leg. I watched with wide eyes.
“It’s great for inflammation,” said a Dutch fellow sitting beside me, waiting for his massage. “I got it last week for my foot. Amazing results! But the swelling was back the next day.”
While a quiet inner voice whispered that perhaps the guy on a fire was an omen that I should find another place to get a massage, I was encouraged to stay by the idea that the fellow next to me was a repeat customer (they must be doing something right), and that the guy on fire was Thai (if the locals go, it’s gotta be a good place).
So I peered past the waiting room into the main massage room, from where I could hear various exclamations of pain or pleasure – I couldn’t discern which. It was a long, dark room with one wall lined with Thai massage pads, about ten in all, each a foot apart. Every bed had somebody in some kind of contortion with a look of agony on their face. Though this concerned me, I watched two people as their massages finished, bow with such overwhelming gratitude to their therapists, that I was taken aback. Looking past the agony, I noticed that a large percentage of the patients were also Thai – another great sign I’d come somewhere for “the real deal”.
As a minuscule smiling Thai woman in a pink shirt beckoned to me to come in for my massage, I stepped through the threshold and past the point of no return.
When her opening move was to press on the backs of my legs with the sort of pressure that I thought could only come with the assistance of heavy machinery, I asked her to lighten up the pressure a bit. She laughed. This was not that kind of place.
And so commenced an hour of a kind of agony I’d not before experienced. She walked on me; this woman who couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds soaking wet, exhibited the force of an elephant. She poked and pressed and prodded all the “right” spots with hands, fists, elbows, knees, and feet while flattening, stretching, and twisting me. When she wasn’t crushing the air out of me completely, I breathed deeply into the discomfort, while she held the pressure long enough for me to “relax” into it.
Once she and I got into some sort of rhythm, I expanded my awareness into the room. It was chaos. People on either side of me were moaning, some even screaming; mostly in agony, but with just a hint pleasure mixed in there so I couldn’t be sure.
“It sounds like a torture chamber in here, except everybody seems to be enjoying it,” exclaimed a guy a few beds down who was as surprised as I was at what was happening, to his own body and the bodies around him. At this, everybody laughed. Pain or not, the mood in the room was lighthearted on the whole, and we often collectively chuckled at the ridiculousness of others’ (and our own) cries of misery. The therapists had their own schticks too; it seemed like a running joke to them that people would come in such droves to be manipulated so violently, and would even keep coming back for more.
“Why do I do this to myself?” exclaimed one particularly vocal woman who was getting an oil massage next to me and sounded in inordinate amounts of pain. “Over and over again?”
Coming out the other side of the massage experience, I felt like I’d escaped with my life. Although I experienced moments of excruciating pain, I’d had worse in certain shiatsu sessions. In fact, a part of me kept waiting for it to worsen; to feel the sort of pain the screaming girl next to me apparently was. Instead it didn’t happen, and I felt grateful for my “elephant weakling” of a therapist. So grateful, that I too, like many before me, bowed deeply in gratitude for having survived. I even felt better for having gone. All life is suffering.
All Life is Suffering: The Final Chapter
My last week in Koh Phangan was spent slowly and sweetly introducing my digestive system to different foods again; at the same time a sort of crash course to prepare my body for the onslaught of travel ahead, where I couldn’t guarantee what kind of food I’d be eating, nor when, nor where. Travel can be tough on the body, and I felt like the detox retreat was like hitting “reset” on everything. I hoped not to lose the benefits of all I’d achieved in those agonizing seven days.
But I also had to have another green curry before leaving Thailand, and Asia. I’d been bouncing around Asia for ten months, and almost as many countries of agony and ecstasy:
- I learned why I could never live in Japan.
- I visited Kuta in Bali to see a Balinese healer (an oxymoron in action).
- I regretted not bringing my hiking shoes to Hong Kong.
- I later evacuated Bali, and learned why people cry on television in Jakarta.
- I went to heaven – and hell – and hit rock bottom in India.
- I suffered through a luxurious life in Chiang Mai.
- I lost the sun – along with my will to live – in Hoi An.
And I embraced, even embodied, the irony of my own suffering on the idyllic palm-tree lined hedonistic island of Koh Phangan. Perhaps I even let go of my suffering, just a little.
But you’d better believe, every time I have a mouthful of delicious ice cream, the first words out of my mouth will always be “all life is suffering.”