This is not what I expected to write months ago when I signed up for a 10-day meditation retreat in Nepal.
I was expecting to write a beautiful reflection on a life changing experience that marked a transitional life moment for me as I switched jobs, turned 31, and returned to the country that first ignited my curiosity and drive to explore Asia 8 years before.
I was expecting to be transformed.
While I may be a dropout -- I learned a ton on this trip, even if it wasn't scheduled on the syllabus.
What is Vipassana and why did I want to do it?
Vipassana meditation is a rigorous meditation technique that originated in Burma with Theravada Buddhists and was popularized in the West in the 1950s. Today, the technique is taught over a 10-day period with a specific course schedule requiring 10 hours of meditation a day accompanied by discourse teachings in an official residential retreat center or community. All students are required to follow a strict code of conduct that incudes a vow of Noble Silence.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. -- dhamma.org
So why did I want to use my precious time off to spent 10 days in monastic life, waking up at 4AM and observing exactly how it feels to breathe out of my nostrils?
The short answer is that I love a challenge; the real answer is that I feel I'm at a pivot point in my life and I want all the tools of self-regulation and knowing that I can manage going into this next chapter. I'm making plans to have kids and build a life with my beloved over the next few years and at this point in my life I've had enough relationship experience to know that that chapter won't be easy. I think it'll be fun, and exhausting, and meaningful, and magical, and worth it -- but it won't be easy.
I was looking for an intense experience of learning how to listen and think of myself not just as a brain foisted 5 feet nine inches off the ground -- but as an embodied creature with knowledge in my mind and my matter.
So what happened?
I made it two meaningful but mentally testing days when I came down with terrible stomach cramps that broke my noble silence and asked to go home.
But if I'm being SUPER honest with myself (and with you...) I wasn't sad about leaving. I was a bit relieved. I had been giving it my all but I was fighting boredom and physical discomfort and I kept having dreams about being taken hostage (my subconscious wields metaphor like a bludgeon).
I want to add a disclaimer here that my mediation center and teacher were great and I think the technique has a lot of value. I may even try the course again.
But at this moment, for what I needed, this experience was not working for me. Ironically, I came into this course wanting to learn to listen to my body and myself and that's exactly what I got.
What I learned
#1 I love my wandering mind -- even when she's a troll
The root of all meditation is being aware of your attention and calling back the wandering mind without judgement. This is very good practice. I also LOVE letting my mind wander and following it -- this is often my access point into creative flow and where I get to play in the sandbox of ideas.
During the meditation sessions, I redirected my mind from the fun sandbox to the experience of breathing and girl got creative for my attention. Honestly impressed with some of the attention-grabbing memes she generated (heckling root vegetables and dolls made out of hotdogs, anyone?) -- this is the definition of a troll.
But she's my troll and I love her still
#2 The future is my comfort zone -- and I'm feeling really good about the future right now
I've always called myself a futurist and thinking and planning for the future energizes me and makes me feel safe. The past 5 years of my life has felt very unpredictable and the future has been a place with lots of wishes and possibility -- but not exactly comfort.
When I was sitting in a seated position for hours on end, actively trying to keep my attention in the uncomfortable present, my mind would wander to visions of a secure future with my beloved for comfort. I was actively pushing away thoughts of cooking dinner in our home together, unwinding on the couch and doing the crossword, reading bedtime stories to our kids.
These are things I want to run toward and I feel really lucky to know that.
#3 My attention is the greatest skill I have -- and training it is worth the effort
I didn't get the whole lesson from the course, but I did learn and experience this in my short time on retreat. Being completely unreachable and removed from attention-exploiting technology really affected how I showed up and what I could focus on.
I have always sought routine and rigor and disciple and struggled with consistency. This use to be a source of shame and frustration for me and I've carried this tension with me in every new habit and hobby I've tried to adopt. But over the years, I've learned how to train my attention and set better expectations and conditions for reaching my goals.
The conditions of this retreat were rigorous and disciplined and I meditated with more attention and efficacy in the past 2 days than I have in the past 2 years. The food tasted better and the views were even more breathtaking when I could focus all my attention on that one moment.
The only time I saw the glorious Annapurna peaks in my weeks in Nepal was during these two days when I couldn't take a picture. That's the kind of metaphor my subconscious can get behind.
I'm making an effort to build on this attention-training sampler and find my most consistent method of strength training my attention.
What does a dropout do with an extra week in the foothills of the Himalaya?
Long walks with my phone off; a cushy hotel bed with room service and massages; dates with myself, a pen, and a lakeside gin and tonic; and paragliding.
But also reflecting on the ways in which I did get to mark a life transition moment with an experience of listening to my body and connecting with myself. The form is different and involves much more sound, food, and sleep than planned for -- and that's exactly what I needed.