Whilst I was travelling, many friends and family asked me whether India would be part of my trip. I always answered that India required a trip by itself, and that I did not feel the calling yet.
For a while now I have been travelling with a more open schedule, in which no time-frame is set. The concept of a ‘one-year-trip’ vanished long ago. If a place resonates with me, I will stay there for one week, one month, or one lifetime. This flexibility allows plenty of room for magic to happen (no pun intended), and the journey flows more smoothly.
Following this philosophy, all I had booked was my flight from Kathmandu to Delhi, leaving the rest open. My original intention was to apply for a 3-day transit visa, so I could visit the Taj Mahal.
While having dinner, my friend Chris told me that the e-visa for India had become very easy – “you go online, fill it in, and boom! 30 days in the country”.
As Oscar Wilde said: ‘I can resist anything but temptation’, and if you know me you will know that I take very little to be convinced to do a trip! And so it happened, the following day it was decided: I would extend my trip for one month, and finish it off in India.
My mum nearly broke my legs when she heard the news, as she was keenly waiting for me after all this time, but the only thing she said was, “You better come back! Do not fall in love with anything, anywhere, anybody!”. She must be a bit of an oracle (avoiding the word ‘witch’ here!), as I did fall in love … but that story is for another day.
One of my first experiences of this trip was the meditation retreat in Thailand, and it felt natural to close the loop with another retreat, especially considering the changes that were coming into my life during the following months.
As this writing is about the meditation retreat I will skip the days in India prior to it. In general terms, readjusting to the dynamics was as challenging as expected, and I was struggling to connect to the country. My mind was full of doubts as to whether the decision of coming to India had been the right one or not. Time will prove it actually had.
After a few days contemplating the sun rising and setting over the Ganges, India’s most sacred river, I left Rishikesh hoping to look inwards, to find those sunrises and sunsets within myself.
Long travelling days are part of the ‘India Experience’. Have you ever heard stories about the Indian trains? Yes, they are all true! Although the whole situation feels mad at times, it is down to you how to react to all those –overwhelming – inputs. It certainly felt very ‘alive’.
At midnight I arrived at my first stop, Ambala Cantt. This felt like one of those places that if I was to explain to my mum on the phone where to find me I would have great difficulty – well, you take a flight to Delhi, then a train to here, then another train to there, then a bus to …. you get what I mean!
I ordered a Chai and held the warm cup with both hands. Gazed around and tried to understand where I was. Chai tea is definitely one of the best companions for reflection.
It was midnight, I was alone in what to me felt the ‘middle of nowhere’, and certainly I was the only Westerner. And… it actually felt alright. People observed me, and I observed them. I did not feel endangered at any time, and this reinforced my belief that the world is not as dangerous as they want us to believe.
After a few hours wait I jumped on my second train, which brought me to my destination, Hoshiarpur. The sun arrived at the same time, so probably He was travelling on the same train. I said good morning to Him, and thanked Him for his presence, as I had learnt to do from the Maori culture in New Zealand.
Here I was, in the Punjab, the land of the Sikhs! Hoshiarpur felt good right away. It was quieter, calmer, and somehow more “in order”. Rows of wild “Bhang”, or Marihuana as we would say in the West, waved at me from the sides of the road, how friendly!
I arrived at Dhamma Dhaja, the meditation centre, with this feeling of about to tackle a new adventure – an arduous one, one of those which equally fill you with excitement and fear. Yum!
I wandered around the gardens, and soon I noticed a large amount of Frangipanis growing in the premises. Frangipani is my favourite scent: If I close my eyes and smell it, my mind gets suddenly flooded with images of adventures, people, and remote landscapes. It is the scent of my journey around the world.
I had promised myself not to be biased from my own experience at my previous meditation retreat, but soon enough my mind was filled with comparisons, judgments and criticisms – the energy did not feel the same, some parts of the centre looked run down, it was too hot … An hour hadn’t even passed and my mind was already rejecting the experience.
I was failing the very advice that I usually give my friends who ask me about doing a meditation retreat: embrace the experience, do not fight against it.
Those were times of great inner processing for me. About to finish a twenty-month trip around the world, in what felt to be a pivotal point in my life – past, present and future collided. My mind swung like a pendulum between past and future. There was hardly any time for the pendulum to stop in the present, as the energies at both ends pulled strongly. It took a long time for those energies to recede, so the pendulum could rest in the middle.
Melancholy flowed like a river inside me when I looked back at past experiences, but this river was not refreshing and purifying like the Ganges. Instead, it drenched the garments worn by my mind, and the weight crippled me at times. I eventually would break free and undress my mind, and put those garments to dry in the scorching sun of India.
The uncertainty of the future also presented a rugged scenery. I knew I had peaks to summit, but the fog did not allow me to see them. What would the future bring? I wondered how hard the ‘comedown’ of returning to ‘normal life’ would hit me, as many of my friends reported it to be a tough one to go through.
With all these topics in my mind the ‘big moment’ came: the silence. This time it happened almost unnoticed, nothing to do with that majestic call of the bell that shook every atom of my body back in Thailand. Now you can speak, now you can’t, good luck!
The schedule was different this time. This was a Vipassana retreat as taught by S.N. Goenka, and that meant over ten hours of sitting meditation a day!
- 4:00 am – Morning wake-up bell
- 4:30-6:30 am – Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 6:30-8:00 am – Breakfast break
- 8:00-9:00 am – Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00-11:00 am – Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 11:00-12:00 noon – Lunch break
- 12noon-1:00 pm – Rest and interviews with the teacher
- 1:00-2:30 pm – Meditate in the hall or in your room
- 2:30-3:30 pm – Group meditation in the hall
- 3:30-5:00 pm – Meditate in the hall or in your own room
- 5:00-6:00 pm – Tea break
- 6:00-7:00 pm – Group meditation in the hall
- 7:00-8:15 pm – Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
- 8:15-9:00 pm – Group meditation in the hall
- 9:00-9:30 pm – Question time in the hall
- 9:30 pm – Retire to your own room, Lights out
I clearly see now how my experience in this retreat could be split into two stages:
On the first week, I battled against the experience – I call this stage ‘Rejection‘.
On the seventh day there was a major inner breakthrough, and I finally embraced the experience. I have named this stage ‘Acceptance‘.
I spent the first week complaining and moaning about mostly everything my mind could pick on. I was unhappy about the place, about the temperature, about the other meditators, about my apparent ‘lack of success’, about the physical pain…
Temperatures were constantly above 30ºC in the meditation hall. We started to meditate at 4:30 am in 32ºC, to continue for the whole day at a solid and non-enjoyable 38ºC. This was a great challenge.
I missed the prompt and invitation to Mindfulness of the retreat in Thailand. Here the first time I heard the word ‘mindfulness’ was almost one week down the line. An entire week of people banging on the door at lunchtime, of shamelessly emitting all sorts of gassy sounds during the meditations, and of queue-jumping to wash up their dishes first as if my name was Casper (SPOILER: If you like queuing -I am looking at you in particular my beloved English friends– you will have a hard time in India being jumped in front of by everybody). But for me the most disturbing thing was catching other retreatants talking several times.
The place clearly lacked the magic of Wat Kow Tahm, and in general terms it felt more ‘aseptic’. Although I know I should have been focusing on my inner forum, I struggled not to acknowledge it.
The first week was also one of great physical pain – my knees were really complaining from so many hours sitting, and my back would have booked a flight to Hawaii if it had had my card details.
All these things may sound little now, but an experience like this makes you very sensitive to all those little inputs.
Although some of these complaints were somehow legitimate, I eventually ended up seeing them as extra layers of complexity to this challenge, and therefore an opportunity to grow further.
So how did I survive during this rough week? Finding comfort in the little things.
The gardens soothed my soul, and I spent a long time meticulously observing the flora and fauna. I tried to understand whatever was there to be understood. Shapes, colours, textures and scents fascinated me.
Sunrises and sunsets were ibuprofen to my swollen soul. I noticed a clear change within myself – prior to the trip, I hardly paid any attention to sunrises and sunsets, and Nature’s beauty was acknowledged, but not ‘revered’. Nature and its wonders are now a fundamental part of my life, and what’s more important, I have started to comprehend that ultimately Nature and I are not separate entities. Understanding this helps me to respect Nature much more deeply, and the world would do better if we all were to reflect on this.
I secretly embarked on a ‘Frangipani mission’, plucking a few flowers a day and bringing them to my room, using a little bucket of water to preserve them. This wasn’t technically allowed, but I had a feeling that my oncoming life would lack this scent, and I clung onto it desperately.
One of the best experiences of the whole week was a very glamorous one … I took great pleasure in cutting my toenails in a very mindful and slow way, trying to round the nails spotlessly. It may sound as if I was about to lose my marbles (and maybe I was), but this was a great lesson for me: I acknowledged the importance of finding pleasure in the simple things of life.
There I was, sitting in one of the sessions, savouring the thoughts that flew through my mind. I was not even trying anymore. Little motivation was left, and even though by now I was able to watch my mind and acknowledge these patterns, ‘to think’ felt way more pleasant than the hard-work of focusing on my breathing implied.
This was one of the three meditations a day where for one hour we were not allowed to open our eyes or move our hands or legs. These certainly were the most challenging ones. By now my body was more able to sit still, and I just spent the hour thinking about travelling, adventures, or whatever felt pleasant at the time.
The session finished, and I opened my eyes. In front of me there was a guy who had been having a tough time with his body for the last week. He tried to stand up, and his knees locked. He tried again, and once again fell back on the mat. He tried a third time, and this time he could stand, but his legs were shaking. He walked off as best as he could, in great pain. This guy was trying so hard that he could hardly walk.
I looked at another retreatant, he stood up, went for a three-minutes stroll, came back, sat down, and carried on meditating – even though it was meant to be break time.
I came back to my room. I felt ashamed of my lack of commitment after having seen those people trying so hard. What was stopping me to succeed at this experience? And the answer came crystal-clear to me:
“The only obstacle between success and me is myself.“
Many people navigate through the meditation retreats with a feeling of being imprisoned, of having lost their freedom, yet they actively chose to come. Wouldn’t it be better if we could see these experiences as an enormous gift to ourselves? When, in our normal lives, do we have ten days just for ourselves? To listen, feel, reconnect, and grow?
We seem to forget that we are co-creators of our realities and that we have an active role on how our lives play out.
And then I decided to fully embrace the situation, and try as hard as I could. This marked a clear shift in how I approached the experience, and what I got from it.
I felt like I was sinking in between two oceans. In between past and future, I finally went down into the deep waters of the present. The technique started to work!
My mind sharpened, and I started to see more clearly. I stopped reacting to everything around and inside me, and chose to observe in an equanimous way. One of the key teachings of Vipassana is about the impermanence of things (this also includes thoughts, sensations, etc), explaining that everything shares two key states – arising and passing away.
Reflect carefully on what that means. If everything arises and passes away, what is the point of suffering for unnecessary things? Does it sound familiar to you, getting upset over something that was not really worth it?
We create attachments and aversions to both material and intellectual things, and these are a source of great pain for us. These are what Buddhism calls ‘saṅkhāras’:
‘And the next cause of suffering is saṅkhāra, the mental habit of reaction. Blinded by ignorance, we generate reactions of craving and aversion, which develop into attachment, leading to all types of unhappiness. The habit of reacting is the kamma, the shaper of our future. And the reaction arises only because of ignorance about our real nature. Ignorance, craving, and aversion are the three roots from which grow all our sufferings in life.’
Saṅkhāras are a big topic during the retreat. The idea is that if we stop creating them by choosing not to react, and to observe in an equanimous way, we stop creating new Saṅkhāras. Once we stop creating new ones, eventually old deeply-rooted ones will start coming up to the surface.
For some people this becomes the most challenging stage of the retreat, as long un-faced personal topics may come up, sometimes by surprise. The moment when things become harder is when you can benefit the most from the technique. If you choose not to react against those deeply-rooted, Saṅkhāras, if you choose to observe them in an equanimous way, some of them may finally dissipate. Certainly easier said than done!
The Buddha said,
All saṅkhāras are impermanent.
When you perceive this with true insight,
then you become detached from suffering;
this is the path of purification.
Some of those started to come up for me, and they became tangible entities. In truth, ten days are not enough time to deal with such topics, but I certainly learnt more about myself in those last days of the retreat than in years!
And eventually, when I was starting to greatly enjoy the experience (and by the way creating a new ‘attachment to the experience’, which goes against the practice itself), the silence came to an end!
I did not feel much like talking, and it took me a while to put together my first words, it felt so strange! It was time to share our experiences, to get to know each other and to become friends.
The next day a group of us headed together to Dharamshala, where the Dalai Lama lives. I was not sure what to expect of this place, but believe me – going there was one of the best decisions I could have ever made!
Dharamshala ended up being the place where I put to practice in a real-life situation everything that I learnt at the retreat. Things started to click together and I began to see clearly the potential benefits of this practice.
And not only that, I also met some of the most inspiring people I have ever come across! But that chapter is for another day, stay tuned!