Dang it, why is growth so hard?

When I set out on this trip I had a few questions in mind: What do I want in life? What do I want to do next? What do I want to learn? What’s important to me, and how might I bring it into my life? Where do I want to live? And most importantly, who do I want to be? No big deal. Just small potato questions, right? 

Well, I’m six months into this eight-month trip and I have learned a fair amount about myself and some tiny fragments of the world. While I have a couple ideas about what to do next (up until April anyway), I’ve yet to answer most of my big questions. 

Frankly, I feel a heavy doubt in my chest that I’m missing the point. My wiser self knows that I’m avoiding truly confronting the core beliefs that are holding me back from being fully myself. I can see my own shaky foundation as if from a bird’s eye view, and yet it’s slippery and exhausting to address. That foundation, which I’ve neglected for as long as I can remember, is self-love. 

Here’s some honesty for you: over the year before I left on my trip I let my confidence and happiness slip and get beaten down. I think I might even be depressed, I’m not sure. Despite incredible opportunity, adventure and beauty around me, I’ve struggled throughout this trip to open myself up and enjoy it fully. I’m very quick to conclude that something going wrong means that I’m a shit person and not worth knowing. Intellectually, I’m pretty sure this isn’t true, but it’s difficult to really believe it in my gut.  

It’s time I dig into and reinforce my shaky foundation because even after these six months I sometimes wonder what I’ve actually gotten from this trip. I often feel like I’m not making the most of it, and fear that I won’t be in a fundamentally different mental place by the time I get back to Canada. 

So in an effort to acknowledge how I’ve grown over these past months, I wanted to take some time to reflect on what I’ve learned thus far. I’ve framed these skills as practices, because I think a practice better describes what it means to “learn” something, because it’s become desperately clear to me that I’ll never be done. So here they are, the six practices that are challenging me to grow during this trip.

I’m practising adapting.

This trip has taken me to four countries now, and I’m becoming more aware of the process of landing in a new city and the adaptation that follows. I know now that when I get to a new city I tend to dislike the first two or three days. I struggle to find my footing and feel uncomfortable and insecure in my new surroundings. This is worse if I don’t have my own space or a structure through which to direct my energy. But I know now that this tends to pass. It makes me wonder if I’m good or bad at change, and if I’m bad at change, why do I seek it out? I’m starting to see that my problem isn’t that I struggle to adapt to my current situation but rather that I’m trying to escape it. I’m starting to think that adapting is just being present regardless of one’s surroundings. When I let my mind settle back into my body I don’t need to do anything but enjoy where I am, and in doing so I’m suddenly at ease in whatever situation I find myself.

I’m practising patience.

I’ve become relatively comfortable getting through finite periods of time. It’s important that I qualify my patience in this way because while I’m patient in these finite situations, I can be incredibly impatient in open-ended ones. During this trip I’ve practised patience through a 10+ day silent meditation retreat, and through a 42-hour bus ride from Dharamsala to Kathmandu. My patience practice continues to be a challenge for me when it comes to my life in general. I’m impatient to know “what I’m doing with my life”, particularly as my trip enters its final two months. 

I’m practising minimalism.

I’ve traveled for six months living mostly out of a 22L daypack and an ~8L purse-backpack. Of those six months I’ve spent about three living in one place where I could temporarily settle in, but the restriction of having to pack up all my things and move to the next destination has forced me to check any gut cravings of buying new, beautiful things along the way. Of course, I would have loved to collect gorgeous items in India and Nepal, and now in Turkey where there are incredible fabrics, tea cups, lamps, artwork, jewelry, tea, specialty foods, and so much more. I would love to one day live in a home decorated with the treasures I’ve found around the world, but it’s been liberating to mostly write off the possibility of shopping and collecting trinkets. The small items I have purchased (postcards for my collection, some jewelry, and some Tibetan Buddhist flags) stand out to me as special because they were the exception. 

I’m practising slightly less vanity.

Like most people, how I think I look affects how I feel. And unfortunately, how I think other people think I look affects how I feel about myself. But travel, and particularly minimalist travel, has allowed me to release some of this preoccupation. A combination of being around people I’m unlikely to see ever again and the necessity of packing light have encouraged me to ditch mascara and basically wear the same five outfits for the last six months. It’s liberating to release the concern that someone will care that I wore this outfit yesterday, or that they always see me in the same shirt. I also enjoyed three months of not bothering to buy conditioner or hair mousse and when I chose to buy these again in Greece the silky smoothness of my hair was glorious. A pleasure I’ve largely taken for granted. 

I’m practising teaching.

For me, teaching is a practice of empathy, communication, collaboration, vulnerability and patience. Mostly my teaching practice has been in the form of leading yoga classes for refugee women and teenagers, and other volunteers on Lesvos. But it was also in the form of simple conversations in my volunteer role, helping people who came into our office with English speaking and writing, computer skills, and creative skills. Describing this as teaching doesn’t quite capture how it felt to me. It was practising self expression, listening, and applied empathy; parsing what’s important and what’s not, and giving guidance; making myself vulnerable to being wrong and foolish; and seeing myself become less self-conscious and more playful with time. 

I’m practising connection.

For most of my life I thought it was really obvious that I was an extrovert. I see myself come to life when I have a role to play in front of and with a group, and feel energized around people I trust. Over the last few years, however, I’ve noticed that I feel an uncomfortable, restless itch when I don’t have space of my own or time to myself (why do I like traveling again?), so I started to think that maybe I’m an introvert. Of course, extroversion/ introversion is a spectrum not a dichotomy, so I probably fall more in the “ambivert” middle, but the realization that I’m not strongly extroverted has challenged my assumptions about how to connect with others in a sustainable way. 

I’m not particularly good at meeting new people, or rather, I’m not very good at turning new acquaintances into more meaningful relationships. Most of my friends I’ve known for years if not decades, and making new ones is an almost intractable skill that mystifies me 95% of the time. I have done pretty well in connecting with loved ones from afar via messages, email, social media, and FaceTime hangouts, and I’m so incredibly grateful for this. But meeting new people and developing those fledgling connections is a weak skill that will change my life if I master it. Doing so will mean practising vulnerability, self-confidence, curiosity, and love for others. When I let fear and insecurity take over when I’m craving connection, I retreat from my largely extroverted nature and undermine my ability to gain energy and strength from the people around me. They say that loneliness is worse for your health than smoking so this is one of the most important practices for me to strengthen. 

I’m a firm believer that shame is the ultimate nemesis to growth, joy and connection; this belief is a fundamental reason why I want to share my thoughts with you in this blog. Sometimes it makes me nervous to be so open in a very public forum, but I know I’m not alone in struggling with self-worth, self-love and self-confidence. I’m also among the majority who struggle with vulnerability, connection and belonging. So I hope that sharing this reflection might make you feel less alone in whatever you’re struggling with, and with whatever you’re practising. 

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Traveling: feeling that door shut behind you as you wander down the unlit hallway of your life

Traveling is great and it’s also hard. It can feel shitty to talk about what’s hard about it because as someone who’s able to travel like this, I’m in a huge position of privilege and opportunity, and I’m grateful for it. But the reality is, nothing’s as perfect as Instagram makes it seem, including “the trip of a lifetime”. 

Traveling alone sometimes feels like this.
Traveling by yourself is an incredible feeling. You can go where the wind blows, learn what you’re capable of, face your fears, learn to navigate (or at least improve a little bit), and meet people you never would’ve met if you already had a friend or partner with you. But sometimes you don’t meet those new people, and sometimes you just get tired of having the same introductory conversations with new people over and over. Sometimes all you want is to go to dinner with friends who feel like that perfectly worn-in sweater, and have a laugh-filled conversation where you don’t have to try at all. 

The reality is, if you travel like this, you’re leaving a lot behind. You’re choosing one door over another. Even if the door in front of you is exactly what you wanted, it’s painful to close a door you’ve cared about for a long time. 

Years ago, I spent two months of the summer in the south of France with my then-boyfriend. When I got back to university that fall I was chatting with some friends about our summers. One person talked about how she worked in a trailer park running programming for kids, and shrugged off her experience as boring compared to France. But to me, it didn’t matter that I was in France and she was in Ontario. Our lives weren’t that different. Mine looked glamorous on paper and on social media, but my day-to-day was pretty boring too. I wasn’t doing anything particularly special, I’d just bought a plane ticket. I reassured her that what I did wasn’t any more interesting than what she did. 

Of course, I’m personally drawn to traveling, and I do love a lot about it. But sometimes I wonder why on earth I do it. Traveling has its moments–the views that blow you away, the people you never would’ve met back home, the conversations you have, and the skills, knowledge and empathy you gain. But you also have desperately lonely days, important events that you miss back home, friends and family you can’t be there for, and relationships that end. Is the trade-off really worth it? 

Most people don’t travel indefinitely. Eventually, after some amount of “getting it out of their systems”, most people settle down somewhere, put down roots, hang out with their friends, maybe have a family, and build a life. Now, I do believe that building a life can mean a lot of different things, and it doesn’t have to be one where you have deep roots in one place. But for me, after traveling for a while I start to crave the normalcy, routine, and old favourites that I left behind. I miss being able to see the people I love in person, our favourite dive bar, my yoga studio, the coffee shops I felt comfortable in, and the bagel shop that I would sometimes start my day with. 

As I’m settling into a new city, where I’ll be for three months, I feel itchy. I’m desperately craving places where I feel like I belong. After three months of traveling, unpacking my backpack feels great, but I’ve been here for three weeks and I don’t feel grounded. I know there’s potential here, and I know it takes time to meet people and get to know a place, but it’s this feeling that makes me want to just pick a place and root down deep. 

The trouble is, I don’t know which lifestyle I’m built for. When I lived in a place where I could’ve rooted down, I felt restless. And now that I’m completely free from ties, I feel aimless and alone. Maybe I’m not built for either. But then, what do I do? 

This feeling of restlessness and searching for purpose and belonging is in no way limited to traveling. I know that many people my age are struggling with these feelings too, and I’m pretty sure these feelings don’t magically go away when you reach some milestone either. So I’d love to hear from anyone with advice in resolving their conflicting desires for adventure and belonging, or about making friends as an adult, or whatever other advice you want to share. This happiness thing isn’t easy. 

Fitting feelings of YOLO into a long-term life strategy

A few years ago I excitedly got on a trampoline for the first time since high school. Upon my first very normal rebound off the trampoline a wave of impact rippled through my joints, reverberating in my knees, hips, and up my back and neck. I stopped dead. Holy shit, I said out loud, that’s not at all how it used to feel. That’s when I realized, I’m getting older.

Graffiti quoting one of my favourite Grey’s Anatomy lines on a wall in my Kathmandu hostel.
That was three years ago. I’m 26 now and my own fragility has only become more apparent. Now, I recognize that 26 is not old, and if you’re much older than me you may be scoffing at my wimpiness. To clarify, it’s more the transition that I’m observing; compared to the carefree, resilient years of my childhood and teens, being in your 20s is the beginning of a confronting reality check—you are not invincible.

This new reality shows itself in big and small ways. Last year on a bike trip in Québec I had a small wipe out on a gravel path and scraped my knee. No big deal; it didn’t need much first aid, and didn’t inhibit the rest of my trip. But I was astounded when it took more than a month for it to heal, and a year later I can still see the white-ish mark where it had been. It’s possible that it always took that long to heal from simple injuries and I just never noticed, but it seems to me like my body’s ability to bounce back is a little bit less impressive than it used to be.

I also feel myself being more cautious than I was even just a few years ago. On my first trip to India, I was pretty well convinced that I could get through most things that might occur on my trip. As a passenger on the chaotic and dangerous roads of India, I acknowledged that I may very well die during that ride, but was able to mostly let it go. In planning for this trip, however, I found myself considering the odds of being in a car accident or train accident pretty seriously. It didn’t keep me from traveling, but it was a lot more apparent and disconcerting than it had been last time.

Paragliding in Nepal
Although it had been on my bucket list for a few years, I hesitated for about a week before I committed to going paragliding. I worried that I’d injure myself, particularly on take-off and landing. But I’m so glad I went for it! And it turns out that you land by just standing up on two feet, easy peasy.
More confronting has been seeing some of my friends and loved ones affected by serious illnesses, accidents, and the realities of aging. Every time something terrible happens I find myself thinking about what I want in life, and whether I’d do anything differently if I knew I was going to die sometime soon.

Since I’m on what looks like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, it may or may not surprise you that I would change what I’m doing entirely if I knew I was going to die in a month or two; I’d go home to be with family and friends. If I knew I was going to die in a year, I might keep traveling, but I’d want to do it with loved ones if at all possible. Clearly, if my priorities were set in order by a life-threatening event, I would lean way more toward relationships and connection, and away from seemingly frivolous adventuring. 

Meanwhile, with the optimistic assumption that I’ll get to live another several decades, I see obvious inherent value in the trip that I’m on. In the long-term this kind of open-ended exploration is an adventure, a challenge, and an investment in my future self. 

I’m left with a bit of a riddle then: How might I balance the liberating YOLO (You Only Live Once) mentality that often goes along with youthfulness and traveling with my desire to live a long, thoughtful and fulfilling life?

Let’s think this through then. Along with going home, what would I do if I knew I only had two months to live? 

  • I’d say yes more, just to see what would happen.
  • I’d probably go get those tattoos I’ve been thinking about for a while. 
  • I’d stop giving a single shit whether people like my true, vulnerable self. 
  • I’d start expressing myself fully, talk to more strangers, laugh more loudly, and cry more openly. 
  • I’d spend every single day with people that I loved and be present for every minute of it.
  • I’d sing and dance to my music as I walked down the street. 
  • I’d tell people I loved them a whole lot more freely. 
  • I’d enjoy every sip of gorgeous coffee and eat my favourite foods as often as possible.
  • I’d stop worrying about what job I’d have next and whether I’d make a good living. I’d just go find something interesting to do, maybe something that helps other people. 
  • I’d let go of my ego and apologize for things I’ve done, and forgive others for whatever pain they’ve caused me.
  • I’d knock down these walls I keep up to protect myself from the people around me. 
  • I’d stop caring about how I thought I looked to other people. I wouldn’t care if I gained any weight and I’d wear whatever the hell I wanted. Maybe I’d dye my hair a lilac purple. 
  • I’d be terribly sad that I’d never be a mother, and that I wouldn’t grow old with someone. I’d be sad not to see my sister and friends do the same. 

Sounds pretty great, minus the last point (and other obvious downsides of having only two months to live). In fact, sounds like a number of cliché-sounding pop songs from the last several years. There’s also a great (in my opinion) show on Netflix called No Tomorrow that plays out the scenario of having eight months to live and checking off everything on your bucket list in true YOLO style. It’s clearly pretty easy to buy into the idea of living like today was your last day.

Yet it seems to me that we rarely live like this for very long. Why? Because most of us have longer-term visions for our lives than the next few days or months. And that’s a good thing. I personally think saving for retirement is a pretty good idea, never mind the regret that might come along with those tattoos you got when you told yourself to live in the moment. A character on that No Tomorrow show runs up his credit card care-free so that he can live life to its fullest. That’s not exactly sustainable. 
It can also be pretty exhausting to maintain the belief that you might die at any moment. Adrenaline isn’t meant to hang around that long in your body, and emotionally it can be pretty draining. So should we do something about the insights we have when we’re reminded of our own mortality? How might we balance living like we actually appreciate each moment with looking ahead and investing our time and energy in the futures we want? I don’t have answers for this, but I think a big part of living within this balance is realizing that we (likely) have a lot more choice in how we live our lives than we think.

Over the last several months it’s really started to sink in that there are so many ways to live our lives. While I’ve worked within the assumption that my life generally plays out in an office, there are people out there who make their livings on YouTube, or by writing for magazines, farming, making movies, running a restaurant, teaching Pilates, or helping others settle in a new country. Some spend their whole lives traveling and working online, and others spend their lives raising kids and volunteering in their communities. Some dedicate themselves to public service, and others to storytelling, artistic expression, or pushing themselves to the edge of their physical abilities. While most of us won’t have a career on YouTube, thinking about these options makes it clear: the rules and expectations we live within most of the time are pretty much made up, by ourselves, our families, and our societies. The more we can step out of our bubbles and see our assumptions about life for what they are the more we can build our lives more freely and intentionally toward the things that really matter to us.

For example, professional success and earning a decent living are pretty important to me. But when I reflect on how much they drive my life, I realize that I’ve got pretty shaky definitions of success in these two arenas: I don’t actually know how much money is enough; and I have a fairly limited definition of professional success. More importantly, these two things aren’t ultimately what I’m after. What I’m really interested in is what they offer me: freedom to choose; safety and security security; the ability to provide for a family; the ability to enjoy my leisure time and relationships; interesting things to work on; the ability to change course and u-turn if I want to; and the ability to explore my passions and curiosity. With this clarity, it’s starting to sound like an office job and linear professional accomplishments aren’t necessarily the only way to achieve these things. As a prof of mine used to say, what’s the next right answer?

Sure, one of my possible futures has me working in an office, continuing the professional trajectory that I’ve allowed to be a driving force in my life. But in other futures my next step looks a lot more fluid than that. Maybe I’ll find a job online that allows me to travel and volunteer in interesting places. Or maybe I’ll explore my own country, teaching yoga and serving tables from coast to coast. Maybe I’ll find an inspiring organization to work with for a year or two and then take a sabbatical, much like right now. Maybe I’ll finally become fluent in French and bike across France. Maybe I’ll find myself having a baby in the next couple years, or maybe I’ll find myself in grad school. 

For me, it’s taken some time and space from the life I used to lead to start seeing these options, and honestly, they’re still pretty tame. But I hope that I can maintain and develop this mindset, and have faith in myself that I can find and create the life I want to lead regardless of which path I take.

Doing my best to stay safe while living dangerously.
Fortunately, finding a fulfilling balance in life doesn’t have to be expensive or dangerous. Many of the items on my two-months-to-live list above are, in fact, danger free. For example, I don’t have to run up a credit card or risk my life to express myself more openly and lovingly to those around me. While a lack of deadline makes some of these items a whole lot more scary (for me anyway), I know that challenging myself to be more vulnerable and courageous will pay off both today and decades from now, even if it sometimes makes me uncomfortable.

Sometimes when I’m having a rough time, feeling full of doubt, or completely lost or uninspired, I imagine 80-year-old me looking back on this time of her life with fondness, gratitude and wisdom. I hear her tell stories to her friends and grandkids about that time she took a risk that was probably stupid but led to an incredible adventure. Or that time she fucked up at work and thought the world was crashing down only to discover that life is so much bigger than that. Or that time she swallowed her pride and told someone she loved them even though it made her cry. I’m inspired by 80-year-old me, because she knows from experience that there are far fewer rules than she thought there were at 26.

Why being a woman is my biggest barrier to exploring the world

Trigger warning: This post acknowledges the existence of sexual assault.

Traveling is an incredible privilege and adventure, but it’s not always easy. Especially as a woman. 

When I was preparing for my first trip to India, many people expressed concern for my safety, and some even urged me to reconsider. At the time, there were a number of high-profile, terrible cases of sexual assault in the news, and I’ll admit that they did make me feel a bit uneasy. Fortunately, I was also aware of a psychological phenomenon called accessibility bias—the fact that recent events are easier to recall and therefore seem more common (and more scary) than they actually are—so I tried to put these horrible events into perspective. I also knew (and know) that, unfortunately, sexual assault happens everywhere, and in a country with over a billion people there are going to be more assaults, and likely more high-profile assaults. 

While this logic helped me reason my way into greater confidence, I knew very well that the risk was real. I wasn’t naive to the fact that India in general has different views on women than I’m used to in Canada, and that a number of cultural practices continue to objectify women and define the boundaries of their lives very narrowly. 

Fortunately, the vast majority of this trip and my last were great, without major incidents. However, I’ve experienced ogling, despite my conservative dress (though, unfortunately, that happens everywhere), and had a few incidents of being grabbed or touched in busy crowds or traffic. There were only two times on my last trip when I was properly scared about what might happen, both in Mumbai. 

In 2013, on one of my last days in India, I was eating lunch in a small restaurant and having a conversation with the guy who was serving me. It was an awkward time of day (around 2 or 3pm), and I was the only one in the restaurant. After having what I would call a normal conversation, he randomly leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. I was very, very freaked out. I was suddenly extremely aware of the fact that he and I were alone in this restaurant and I had to get out immediately. In exactly the way I was socialized to do, I tried to act like a stranger kissing me uninvited wasn’t a big deal. With my body language I tried to communicate a balance of “that wasn’t ok” with “don’t get mad that I don’t want you”, and asked for the bill. He seemed to suddenly realize that what he’d done wasn’t ok and apologized. “No, no, it’s ok,” I said, hoping not to anger or offend him in any way. I paid, didn’t wait for my change, and quickly exited. 

Generally, I think western women (usually thought of as white women in India) are viewed as loose and available. Early on in my first trip to India, I was sitting in a tuk tuk (a small taxi) with the guy I was seeing at the time. The driver asked if we were married, and we said no. He then made some inappropriate remark about me being a loose woman.

Just two days ago in Kathmandu I was sitting in my hostel’s rooftop lounge where a bunch of fellow travelers were hanging out. Two Indian guys (not to pick on India), walked across the room and asked if they could sit with me. Glancing around I noticed that there were a couple other tables they could’ve chosen. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, and I wanted to be a somewhat friendly fellow traveler. Since I was busy working on something anyway, I said that they could join me at my table but that I didn’t want to talk. They sat down and didn’t bother me for a few minutes. Then one of them looked over and offered me some of his beer, to which I said, no thanks. He asked again, and I repeated my answer. He reluctantly turned and started talking to the group of western guys sitting in the corner, and quickly directed the conversation to his current perdicament: he needed a girlfriend. More specifically, he wanted to lose his virginity to a white girl. Presumably out of amusement, curiosity and insensitivity, the western guys played along. The Indian guy insisted that the western guys could get him a girlfriend, and started asking for tips on how to get a white girl. Soon, two white girls from England sat down nearby. He noticed them, and as he called to them across the room I tried to give a signal that they might want to avoid him. But it was dark, and they were nice, and so they started talking. 

I wondered to myself if I was overreacting—what’s the big deal if he wants to talk to them? But after a few minutes it was clear they wanted out of the conversation. Again, in a way that was typical to the way women are socialized to behave, they said they were going to bed, opting to remove themselves from a situation that could’ve otherwise been enjoyable in an attempt to protect this guy’s ego. He, rather unbelievably, suggested that he go with them. To bed. They responded with nervous laughter, acting like what he’d said had been a joke, and left. 

He immediately turned to the western guys in the corner and started complaining that the white girls had left. They suggested he be more subtle. So he turned, again, to me and asked where I was from. I told him Canada, and he asked another question. At this, I looked at him directly and said, “you should probably give up on me. I’ve heard your whole conversation. I know you just want to sleep with someone, and I’m not interested. Also, I have a boyfriend.” (Having a boyfriend is not a necessary excuse for not being interested, but often helps to give weight to my “no”). He asked me if I could find him a girlfriend, and I said I didn’t have any extras. He insisted that if I wanted to give him one I could, making it clear that my earlier “no” had been rejected. At this point I just stopped responding to his questions, choosing to potentially come off as rude in front of this room full of travelers rather than let this guy think that this conversation was acceptable.

He eventually gave up on me, and started a conversation with the western guys about how much a woman would “cost”. Again, they humoured him, talking about the challenges of finding women in Nepal as compared to a place like Thailand. I found myself hoping that this guy was not in my mixed gender dorm room. Thankfully, he wasn’t.

Obviously, there are a lot of problems with this scenario. Of course, most guys aren’t like this. And it might be easy to dismiss what he was doing as part of a harmless pursuit of sex. There’s nothing wrong with trying to hook up with someone, but the approach he took clearly demonstrated that he saw (white) women as interchangeable objects of desire, rather than humans with lives and preferences, worthy of being treating with dignity. Worse than that, his aggressiveness and inability or unwillingness to pick up on social cues and listen to an outright “no” was scary. And I bet you any money that he had no idea he was scaring anyone. 

The second problem with this scenario is that the western guys, a group of five or six, decided to humour him in his actions. This is not ok. In an age where “locker room talk” by Donald Trump had no obvious effect on his eligibility for president, it’s more important than ever to stand up to inappropriate behaviour, especially if you’re the guy the creepy dude turns to for validation (ya, Billy Bush, that’s why you got fired). The parts of our culture that make sexual assault possible and permissible are more often subtle than they are overt. You may think you’d never take part in a sexual assault, but we’d all do better (as men and women) to consider how we might be enabling rape culture through our permissive bystander behaviour. 

The above examples are exactly why I’ve said that being a woman is my biggest barrier to really experiencing the world. But while safety is a major concern, cultural differences between myself and well-intentioned, nice guys can also be a challenge. This is where I struggle to balance my feminism (and self-worth) with my desire to experience and enjoy other cultures.

For example, I just got back from an eight-day trek. It was supposed to be me, three others and our trekking guide. Instead, it was just two of us and our guide when we set out, and the the other trekker went back to Kathmandu on the morning of day four because he was sick. Spending more than a week straight with another person can be really frustrating if you’re not well-matched, and indeed, by a few days in, I was starting to feel irritated. The thing is, my guide was objectively incredibly nice. He offered to do things for me like get me water or carry my bag. Like most Nepali people, he prided himself on “treating his guests like gods”. Sounds nice, right? 

Problem is, I’ve never wanted to be treated like a princess. If you know me, you know that I insist on carrying my own bag, opening my own door, and generally being treated with the assumption that I can do whatever a man can do. More importantly, I expect you to listen to me when I tell you that I can do something myself. In fact, listen to me in general. Yes, I’m sure. I’ve said no three times. No means no, every time. Here are some things I said and thought over the course of eight days:

  • No, I don’t want to stop for a break. No, really. Really. 
  • Yes, I want my own room rather than sharing a private room with a man I barely know. Don’t look disappointed.  
  • If you wouldn’t mind, stop coddling and micromanaging me. 
  • Oh, I get it, you’re manipulating me.
  • Look at me with respect, goddammit. 
  • I’d like to understand what’s going on rather than just being told what to do. 
  • Stop looking at me like you’re waiting for me to just give in and make this easy for you. 
  • No, I don’t want you to tell me I’m beautiful. 

Now, I’m used to shit like men taking up more space, and making myself small on public transit, and, let’s face it, in general. But the small aggressions that make me feel less valuable, capable and respected because I’m a woman can be crazy-making. Especially because most of these feel invisible, particularly to men, and it gets even more complicated when the intention is very likely hospitality and respect.

Typical. This happened on the bus ride to and from the trek with two different men.
To be clear, I don’t want to discourage any woman from taking on the world like the badass and/or debutante she is. You can absolutely do it, and you deserve that adventure just as much as any man. But unfortunately, it can be difficult out there, so my intention with this post is to tell you that, more than likely, you’re not crazy. If you feel unsure about a situation, there’s probably good reason. The morning after the incident with the creepy Indian dude and the western guys in my hostel, one of those western guys commended my spidey senses on responding to the Indian guy when he first asked to sit with me. “Thanks,” I said, “It’s a skill I’ve been working on my entire life.” 

But as many before me have argued, this is not just a women’s issue. (And of course, safety is a huge issue for transgender women and men, POCs, and other minorities, which I haven’t written about here specifically but definitely want to acknowledge.) This is also a call to action to those western dudes in my hostel and all other men to be more attentive to, and put an end to, conversations that belittle and objectify women. This is your problem too.

What do you think? Do you agree, or does this come off to you as being overly sensitive? Do you think it’s a traveler’s job to adapt to the culture they’re in, absorbing what feels like disrespect in an effort to be easygoing? 

Privilege and poverty in Kathmandu

When locals spot me, looking all foreign, and ask how long I’ve been in Nepal I say two days. Sometimes they ask me what I think of the chaos and I tell them that I’ve been in India for the last almost-two months and they say, “oh, so this is easy for you then.” Kathmandu is busy, but it’s nothing like Delhi or Mumbai. Don’t get me wrong, there are many lovely, friendly people in India, but in general, India is very confronting. People are hustling to make the money they need to survive, and tourism is a major industry. We foreigners are an opportunity waiting to be leveraged, and you can often feel this, especially walking through cities like Delhi, Mumbai or Varanasi. 

I know it’s a similar reality in Kathmandu. But so far I haven’t really felt like people are desperate to sell things to me, and conversations with strangers have been plentiful and easygoing. When I arrived in Kathmandu after 42 hours on two buses, a local man who was collecting his son from the same bus offered to drive me to my hostel. He even called them to get directions and then gave me his card in case I needed any support or wanted to meet up while I’m here. 

Speaking of that 42-hour bus ride, I had a massage today. It was at a place called Seeing Hands, which employs (and trains?) people who are blind as masseurs. Walking back out into the tourist district of Thamel, I met a guy named Suresh. It turns out he’s 27, about my age, and originally from Dharamsala, where I just came from in India. He’s been living in Kathmandu for 4.5 years with his wife and three kids. He has twin nine-year-olds, a boy and a girl, and a two-year-old boy. We walked around for a little while, toward a festival that was supposedly happening. He showed me a hidden-away temple and the art school where he studies mandala painting, a discipline that takes ten years to master, of which he’s completed two years. He told me about how he helped dig out students who were trapped in his collapsed school building in the earthquake that happened last year. Nine of his fellow students and friends died. 

It was after lunch time so I dug out the half-eaten bag of almonds I had stowed in my backpack. I offered some to Suresh, and he gratefully accepted a small handful. We kept walking and he cautiously invited me to his home for tea. He worried that I would be angry or put-off by this invitation. Of course, as a solo woman traveller, I was careful to note that he was married with three kids, and that the details he gave about his family were well-rounded and consistent. So I decided I could trust him. 

We took a local minibus to his “village”, as he called it. These minibuses cost maybe 10 – 30 Nepali rupees (NPR) depending on how far you’re going. This can turn a 500 NPR trip into a 20 NPR trip if you’re willing to cram yourself into a tiny van with 10 or 12 other people. 

While we waited for the bus, I offered him another small handful of almonds. Suresh told me that he really appreciated and enjoyed them, revealing that he hadn’t had almonds for a long time because they were just too expensive to buy. I insisted that he take the remaining two almonds left in the bag. His hesitant acceptance turned into excitement when it occurred to him that he could give them to his kids. 

It might be fair to say that Suresh and his family live in a slum. It feels strange to compare living conditions amongst the impoverished, but I’d say that this slum was probably a little more upscale than what you’re picturing. Their one-room apartment vaguely matched the others in the neighbourhood, with relatively clean, concrete walls and floors. Clear water poured out fron the communal tap maybe 15m from their doorway where a small boy and someone who might’ve been his father soaped up, working around the shorts they’d left on. Suresh’s apartment had electricity, mainly used for an overhead light. He apologized repeatedly about the heat, explaining that they couldn’t afford a fan. 

Upon our arrival, Kallo, Suresh’s wife, welcomed my unannounced visit by making milky ginger tea for the three of us to enjoy while sitting on their only real furniture, a double bed made of plank wood and thin cushions. I assumed that this is where the family of five sleeps at night, but during the day it serves as the living room, dining room and play room. I soon met Binnie, their two-year-old son, who quickly demonstrated the versatility of this piece of furniture by bouncing off the walls. Suresh took the two almonds out that he’d saved and gave them to the toddler, who quickly devoured them with a big smile. 

Suresh just radiates happiness. While we enjoyed our tea, he told me that most days, along with his studies, he works as a shoe-shiner. I later asked him what job he would do if he could do anything and he said he’d be a shoe-shiner. It’s a pretty good job usually, he said. But it’s been hard for him lately because he lost his “shoebox” in the earthquake and hasn’t been able to replace it since. This shoebox is the mark of a proper shoe-shiner, and without it people don’t trust him. Right now he works out of his backpack and business isn’t good. He makes around 100 – 150 NPR a day, which is about $1.30 – 2 CAD. With the shoebox that his father had given him he used to make 300 to even 800 NPR a day (about $4 – 10.50 CAD). 

As the afternoon petered along, I met his two older kids, nine-year-old twins: Badda, the boy, and Komel, the girl. I’m guessing at the spelling of all of these names, by the way, because while Suresh’s spoken English is conversational, he can’t read or write it. In fact, he speaks Nepali, Hindi and English but is illiterate in all three. His wife, Kallo, is in a similar situation, though speaks no English, and their children are destined for a similar fate. School is just too expensive, Suresh explained. It costs around 30 – 40,000 NRP per year, per child if you include the school uniform, food, books and tuition, a cost of about $400 – 600 CAD. When you have three kids and an income of maybe $1.30 – 2 CAD per day, it’s just not possible to send your kids to school. I found it hard to imagine how he managed to pay his rent of 5,500 NRP/mo (about $75 CAD).

He told me that he can’t afford to buy much food. He usually doesn’t eat breakfast or lunch, just dinner if there’s enough to go around after his kids and wife eat. But he told me that money isn’t what matters. He told me, “I’m poor. We’re all poor here. But I’m rich in my heart. So I’m very happy.” I was astounded when he asked me to stay for dinner, and hesitant to accept an invitation to eat their precious food. But he insisted, and without telling me ahead of time, he went to his neighbour to borrow money so that Kallo could buy ingredients for our meal. 

While there was still plenty of daylight, I asked if it was alright for me to take some pictures of his village and his family. He excitedly said yes, and even thanked me for wanting to do so. We wandered just outside his small home and turned down the narrow alleyway that connected the many one-bedroom homes of his neighbourhood. I quickly came across some adorable kids and wondered if it was okay to take their picture. (Taking a picture of a stranger’s kids in Canada is super creepy, but it felt like etiquette might be a bit different here). Suresh assured me that it was fine. I took a couple photos of two children, squatting together on the ground, who might’ve been two years old, but looked wise beyond their years. 

In return, I showed them the photo I’d taken, and they were instantly fascinated and overjoyed to see their likeness, perhaps for the first time ever, on the magical device in my hand. Other kids very quickly caught onto the opportunity and jumped in front of me for a photo. The same excitement and joy overflowed every time I revealed the resulting photos. At one point, I probably had 10 children crowded around and on top of me as I squatted on the ground trying to show off a group photo I’d just taken. (This is where my history of getting lice five times in my life started to bring up lice-related anxiety. Fortunately, I’d tied my hair back tight as soon as I’d arrived, but I’ve been scratching my head with psychosomatic symptoms ever since). 

With my phone full of beautiful photos of enthusiastic kids and adults alike, I returned to Suresh’s apartment to try to learn as much as I could from Kallo’s cooking. She was a good sport to invite me into her small cooking space, on the floor between their bed and the small shelving unit that held their cooking utensils and ingredients. As far as I could tell, their kitchen was composed of a gas-fired double hotplate, a large mortar and pestle, a small wooden cutting board, a couple large metal plates with big rims, one sharp knife, and a few metal plates, cups and spoons. 

I was invited to clean the okra, destined to be the main ingredient in the curry we would have, by wiping each vegetable down with a cloth. As I dropped the clean-ish okra into one of the metal bowls, Kallo sliced it up into small pieces in another bowl. She pealed about 10 cloves of garlic (my kind of cooking), and put them into the mortar with about 1/4 cup of salt(!!). I got to mash the garlic to smitherines. Meanwhile, she cut a red onion into fine slices. When I finished, she gave the garlic another good mash (I was learning after all), and then sliced up two tomatoes and a handful of cilantro into the mortar. She added generous spoonfuls of chilly powder, masala spice (curry powder?), what looked like turmeric, and one or two other spices that we couldn’t figure out the names of in English. 

Starting up the gas hotplate, she placed a metal bowl/jug/pot onto the flame and poured in a very generous helping of canola oil (more than a cup). Giving this a moment to heat up, she added the onions, which quickly started to give off the delicious signal that we were going to eat something wonderful. After a couple minutes she added the garlic, salt, tomato, cilantro and spices from the mortar and stirred them around until the smell was unmistakably Indian.

The okra was added maybe five minutes later, but by this time Suresh and I had started playing cards on the bed. I’d been interested to know what Suresh and his family did with their down time, and had asked if he plays cards with friends. He did, along with the occasional pick-up cricket game, so he pulled out a deck he had stored on an upper shelf. He showed me a magic trick that I was thoroughly impressed by, and I taught him the most basic card game of my childhood, Go Fish. 

Throughout our game I tried to get more information about this shoebox he’d told me about–the one that he’d lost in the earthquake, which had helped him bring in at least twice his current income. I wanted to know how much it cost to buy a new one. It seemed to me that helping him buy a small item that would double his income for the foreseeable future would be one of the wisest investments I’d make all year. He was resistant to my questions, saying that he just enjoyed having me in his home and as a friend. Eventually he relented and went to check with a neighbour who sells these shoeboxes if there were any for sale. Unfortunately, the neighbour was away and would be for a few days, so he also didn’t know how much it would cost. I promised that I’d come back in a few days and we’d look into it. 

With a mix of hesitation, concealed desperation and hope he told me that there was just one more thing. Kallo, his wife, had a mysterious lump on her leg, somewhere between a golf ball and tennis ball in size, protruding from her inner left shin. Together they told me about it, with her reminding him of the details in either Hindi or Nepali and him translating it into English. She’s had the painful growth for about a year, but until the last couple months it’s been quite small. It’s since become prohibitively painful and is cutting off some feeling in her leg. She’s not able to walk very far anymore, just to the supermarket around the corner. 

They saw a doctor last week about it; a visit that I’m sure was hard to afford on its own. She told them that she would need an operation to remove it, an operation that would cost about 45,000 NPR or $590 CAD. With the helpless realization that this was expensive even with my foreign dollar, I tried to express my empathy for their situation. They weren’t outright asking me to pay for her operation, but the suggestion hovered in the air, implied. 

I held my tongue as I did mental math, considering whether it might be possible or reasonable for me to raise the funds to help them. I didn’t say anything because more uncomfortable than being the white saviour is being the white saviour who doesn’t come through on a promise.

It was getting late, around 8:00pm, and I wanted to get back before it was too dark out. I asked if I could please give some money to at least buy the ingredients for dinner so he wouldn’t owe his neighbour anything for having hosted me so kindly. Suresh was fast to hush me and explain that accepting money makes him feel like a begger. While I understood that accepting money can be complicated, I was reluctant to just receive his family’s overwhelming hospitality and give nothing in return. He suggested that I could buy the family some rice and other staples instead and I jumped at the opening to return their generosity. 

We walked to the small grocery shop around the corner and Suresh started picking out food. He piled up a 20kg bag of rice, a couple packs of powdered milk, a box of tea, a 3L jug of cooking oil, 2kg of lentils, and a couple other things I couldn’t quite make out. I felt a bit overwhelmed by how much this must cost and tried to tell him that I only had about 1,380 NPR on me and I still had to make it home. Not having purchased proper groceries in India or Nepal, I naively hoped that I might be able to afford all of the items that the family needed. The shop owner tallied up the items and displayed a total of 10,300 NPR on her calculator. I did a doubletake–that’s $135 CAD, an amount that, even if I’d had it on me, I wasn’t comfortable handing over. 

I was starting to feel a bit unsure about Suresh’s intentions. And this is what I hate about travelling in developing countries; being in an unavoidable position of power and, to many, relatively unimaginable wealth. I suddenly wasn’t sure whether Suresh had planned on making this substantial request ever since we met in the tourist neighbourhood of Thamel. I wondered if what he’d told me about his life was true; whether the kindness, hospitality and playfulness his family shared with me was genuine or a show. It seemed like a lot of effort for a long-game hope that I’d buy this food, help fund a needed operation, or replace a lost means for income. 

Similar situations have arisen during my last trip to India, situations where opening myself up to connection with locals for a lovely afternoon twisted into a subtle or not-so-subtle request for money (or assumed romance). I hate the doubt that sets in as I try to make sense of these requests. By the end of my last trip I was disillusioned by the sense that foreigners are sometimes viewed as walking ATMs, while all I wanted was to get to know the local people in the hopes of genuine, untethered connection. 

By the end of this quiet debate in my head I decided that Suresh was likely trying to be both genuine and kind, and also leverage an opportunity to take care of his family. With this conclusion in mind, I happily bought what I could with 1,350 NPR; surprisingly not much–just two packs of powdered milk, which doubles as baby food. 

He asked if I’d come back the next day with more cash, and I explained that I wasn’t comfortable doing that, but that I’d be in touch soon and we’d look into the shoebox together. He walked me to the unmarked bus stop where a minibus to my neighbourhood waited. I gave him a hug and thanked him for giving me such a lovely afternoon, and wiggled myself halfway into the crowded minibus and it drove off. 

What do you think? Would you buy the expensive groceries? Do you think I should leverage my network to try to fund Kallo’s surgery? Would you react with suspicion or trust if you were in a similar situation? I know these aren’t simple questions to answer, and it’ll probably be hard for you to say. But why do I/we get to luxuriate in the privilege I was born into while others, by cruel chance, were born into a life of poverty and almost no socioeconomic mobility? Do I/we have a responsibility to do something? 







That vipassana course was a breeze, said no one ever

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to do a ten-day vipassana course. At its most concise, I think I can say that a vipassana course is like a self-imposed minimum security prison with mental solitary confinement. It’s a test of mental discipline; a roller coaster of emotional baggage repeatedly kicking you in the face; it’s experiential proof that meditation can be a really powerful tool; and maybe, just maybe, it’s the first step on your path to enlightenment.

Surprise! You’re here to meditate.

Going into this course, I thought that the hard parts would be not talking, writing, or using technology. These were hard, though not talking was actually the easiest of all of the rules to follow. No, the hardest part was contending with the TEN AND A HALF HOURS of meditation scheduled every single day. That is a long effing time my friends. A long effing time.

I must have read the schedule at some point months ago and thought something like, “I’ll get used to it. It’ll be hard, but I’m tough, and it’ll just kind of work out because that’s what everyone will be doing.” NO. It does not work that way. To give you the full picture, here’s the daily schedule for ten full days:

  • 4:00 Wake up
  • 4:30 Meditate in the Dhamma (meditation) hall or in your room
  • 6:30 Breakfast
  • 7:00 Rest
  • 8:00 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 9:00 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room (according to the teacher’s instructions)
  • 11:00 Lunch
  • 11:30 Rest
  • 13:00 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room
  • 14:30 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 15:30 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room (according to the teacher’s instructions)
  • 17:00 Tea break (you get tea, a bit of fruit, and puffed rice instead of dinner)
  • 17:30 Rest
  • 18:00 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 19:00 Discourse (watching a recorded Dhamma talk by S. N. Goenka)
  • 20:30 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 21:00 Bed

I’ll say again, that’s 10.5 hours of scheduled meditation either in the Dhamma/meditation hall, or in your room. Oh, and every meditation period is opened and closed by 5 – 20 minutes of god-awful recorded chanting blared at volume over speakers in the Dhamma hall. The first moment I heard this chanting I had to actively stifle my laughter. You see, while the teacher who’d recorded this chanting (this guy named Goenka) could definitely sing well if he wanted to, he, for some unfathomable reason, chose to gurgle his chanting instead. Have you ever seen the movie The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Early in the movie an alien species called Vogon captures the main characters. These aliens are all bureaucrats by nature and love paperwork and boring policies and regulations. They also use their unique Vogon poetry to torture humans and individuals of other species. Although it’s not quite the same, this is what I pictured every time the chanting was played. Later on, some new chanting was added, which sounded very similar to Dori when she’s speaking whale.

I was not a very good vipassana student. 

Despite the, ahem, unique chanting, I really did try for the first 4.5 days or so. I even thought I was getting the hang of it on the fourth day when we started doing actual vipassana meditation rather than the preparatory annapanna meditation. Unfortunately, this feeling did not last, and I soon was finding ways to reduce the number of hours of meditation I was doing each day. 

One way to do this was by escaping to my room at every opportunity (leaving anywhere from 4 – 6 hours of unavoidable daily meditation). Fortunately, no one’s monitoring whether you’re actually meditating when you’re in your room, but you pretty much have to stay in there (in a 5 x 8 ft room in my case, which I was lucky enough to have all to myself). And, of course, you’re not allowed to write, read, use technology, or even do yoga while you’re in there. So, essentially, either meditate or have a timeout. To be clear, here are all the rules:

  • Don’t kill (not people, bugs, or animals for food)
  • Don’t steal
  • Don’t lie
  • Avoid “sexual misconduct” (abstain from sexual desires)
  • Don’t take intoxicants
  • Keep “noble silence”, meaning don’t talk, gesture, pass notes, make eye contact, or even walk with another meditator (though you can talk to the teacher during specific times to ask practical meditation questions) 
  • Don’t read or write
  • Don’t use technology
  • Don’t jog, do yoga, or do any exercise other than walking
  • Don’t meditate outside (apparently, nature is distracting. WHAT?)
  • Don’t mix with the opposite gender (basically impossible to do anyway because men and women are kept almost entirely separate)

The first thing to go was the 4:30 – 6:30 am meditation. Not because I didn’t want to wake up early–I actually don’t mind as I’ve gotten quite used to waking up at 5:30 during my yoga teacher training course. This was the first to go for two reasons: 1) because it was the time slot that was most in my control to cut out; and 2) I could try to sleep instead of being stuck having a timeout in my room. The day could just get a little bit shorter.

Escaping to my room at greater and greater frequency helped, but I had a lot of time on my hands and very little to do with it. Very quickly, the simplest tasks became focal points of any breaks or timeouts in my room. 

Napping became a genuine passtime. There was a day (when I was still attending 4:30 – 6:30 meditation) when I napped three times before 1pm. THREE TIMES. And it’s not like I was doing lots of physical activity to tucker myself out. That morning looked like this: I woke up, sat in a room for two hours, ate breakfast, napped; woke up, sat in a room for 1.5 hours, napped; woke up, ate lunch, napped. How is that even possible?? 

Other very, very simple activities became centrepoints of any free time I had. For example, needing to use the bathroom could be stretched into a solid 10-minute break if you walk slowly to your room, get your toilet paper, walk slowly to the bathroom, take your time, wash your hands slowly, and walk back to your room to return your toilet paper.

There were two exciting incidents in which I got to handwash my undergarments. I genuinely looked forward to this because I could take 30 – 45 minutes to do this if I tried. 

One time when I was “meditating” in the Dhamma hall I instead counted the number of bricks I could see in the section of wall in front of me (working around the curtains and the girl blocking my view, of course). There were 314. I remember because Pi. I later found out that I was not the only person to count bricks in the Dhamma hall.

Here are the rest of my key pastimes (that didn’t break any rules…):

  • Stitching up holes in everything I owned. (I managed to stitch up 8 small holes in some very worn-in pants, one hole in the crotch of another, and reinforce some stitching coming apart in my backpack. Thank god for my little sewing kit.)
  • Watching monkey parents teach their monkey children to climb things
  • Flossing and brushing my teeth
  • Plucking my eyebrows
  • Staring into the forest
  • Staring out my bedroom window
  • Staring at the ceiling
  • Organizing my tampon stash in its ziploc bag. Yep, did that.

Alas, even with all of these new pastimes, I still had a lot of time on my hands. So I broke a rule. Two rules actually. Or maybe I broke one and bent the other, you be the judge. The first, I started doing yoga in my room. After shifting my night table around, I managed to just barely fit my yoga mat in the space immediately adjacent to my bed, the door, the wall, and my night table. I even had to duck my head under my bed to do a wide-legged forward fold, but it was so, so worth it. I ended up doing yoga every other day or so and it made me feel normal again for a few hours.

The second rule I broke/bent/whatever was that I started doodling. I say bent because technically it wasn’t a rule that you couldn’t draw. Though I was supposed to lock up my notebook and pens along with my tech, valuables and book, so I admit that it was kind of implied. But this doodling was marvellous! Never have I truly appreciated the magic of how time passes when one draws. 

You start to lose it a little.

Despite this rule breaking, you start to go a little crazy. Once when I was trying to jailbreak from my timeout, I did my best to look meditative as I paced thoughtfully back and forth down a 100m path at the back of the property. (I tried to stand back here once staring into the forest and a teaching assistant kindly told me that it was meditation time and I should be in the Dhamma hall or in my room. So I learned to make myself look busy and meditative). I paced that path 20 times. It took me about 40 minutes. I wondered to myself whether it would take the same number of steps walking one direction as it did the other. Turns out it took 137 steps in one direction but 145 going the other. Fascinating. I theorized that it takes more steps to go downhill than it takes to go uphill. Around lap 8 I was thinking about how grateful I was for this little path, how it was keeping me sane. I started calling it the Path of Salvation, because it saved me. My neighbour entered onto the path and I welcomed her with open arms–come child, you are welcome on the Path of Salvation. I had to stifle the huge smile that burst out when I thought this to myself until she passed me so as not to look like a total weirdo. Around lap 12 I found that same neighbour next to the Path of Salvation picking something out of a pile of dirt. By lap 14 she was arranging small white pebbles into the symbol for Pi on a small concrete slab. The second time Pi had come up. Curious. I again stifled a hysterical smile and kept walking. 

Another time, I saw a woman sitting very close to a tree, meticulously examining the ivy growing on it. Someone else told me that she started counting the number of shades of green she could see, because she had literally. Nothing. Else. To. Do. 

So what? 

Going into this course I’d heard mixed reviews, though mostly positive. Many people say that vipassana has changed their lives. They start to break down their ego and experience the reality of the law of impermanence. Fantastic. I’d also heard of an experience in which someone desperately wanted to leave every single day. My experience was more like the latter, though I think many people experience both. 

But I think I’m glad I did it. Ya. Yep, I’m glad I did it. For one, because it was on my bucket list. If I hadn’t done it, I would’ve always wondered about it. Second, doing this has helped me discover other options for learning about and practising meditation and Bhuddism that aren’t so intense, which maybe I’ll try another time. And third, although I didn’t practise vipassana “properly” as Goenka would say, I did try to apply vipassana’s key elements: awareness and equanimity (neutral observation). Yes, I let my mind wander pretty freely during meditation, but when I ran into painful baggage that I’m carrying around, I tried to catch myself and observe my reactions with equanimity. Despite this not being quite the intent of vipassana, I found it very useful. I started to chip away at some of the negative stories I’m carrying around. It’s certainly going to take a lot more work, and I’m nowhere close to enlightened, but it’s a start, and that’s good too.

I do have one clear takeaway: with a kind of Bhuddist foundation, vipassana teaches that we should observe the law of nature that is impermanence. This law of constant change is called anicca (pronounced a-NEE-cha). When something happens, remember that it is impermanent. Instead of reacting, just observe the sensations that arise in your body. See how long they last. Watch them as they pass away. If there were a motto for vipassana it might be, this too shall pass. In day-to-day life and while traveling, I’ve learned that whether this moment is the absolute best or absolute worst you’ve ever had, remember, this too shall pass. So don’t get attached to this moment. Don’t crave it or avoid it. Just enjoy it while it’s here or take solace in the fact that the storm won’t last forever. 

Anicca. Anicca. Anicca.

Learning to enjoy my own company with 10 days of silence

Starting tomorrow I won’t talk, read, write, use technology, do yoga, or be in touch with my friends or family for ten days. Sounds a little crazy, but that’s how you learn vipassana meditation, apparently. 

Vipassana is a style of meditation that I actually know very little about. And yet I’ve signed up to learn it for ten days at a centre in Dharamkot, in upper Dharamsala, India. I’m a bit terrified about how this will go. I’m pretty new and unpracticed at meditation in general, and I don’t think I’ve ever gone a whole day without at least talking to myself. But it’s the extremeness of this course that I hope will give me new perspective on things. 

Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism. For this reason, it can be freely practiced by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion, and will prove equally beneficial to one and all. 

– from dhamma.org 

Many people find it unthinkable to spend ten days in silence without any form of distraction. I also find it a bit insane. But should this be so unimaginable? Why does the idea of ten days with nothing but my own thoughts scare me and others in this way? Shouldn’t we be able to sit with ourselves and enjoy our own company? Not in this modern world, where spending 20 minutes alone in a cafe is nearly impossible to do without turning to one’s phone or book. 

A couple years ago a friend reminded me that the only person you’ll spend your whole life with is yourself–what a scary thought. Another wise friend of mine occasionally points out that in general, we’re terribly mean to ourselves; if we were our own best friend, we wouldn’t say 90% of the things we tell ourselves every day. You may not think this is the case for you, but it’s certainly true of my own self-talk. I’m much more supportive and understanding of my friends and family than I am of myself. Judging by my behaviour and addiction to distractions of every kind, it seems like I don’t enjoy my own company much at all. 

This is why I’ve opted into these terrifying ten days. Perhaps with some externally enforced discipline I might just get to know myself a bit, and hopefully learn to like what I find. I’ve talked with and heard about a number of people who’ve done a vipassana retreat like this, and most of them say that these ten days break you down completely and then, just in time, build you back up again. I hear that the breaking down part isn’t too comfortable–in fact, it’s very likely that most days I’ll desperately want to leave. But for those who stick it out the experience is often life changing. And I could use some of that. 

If this torturous experience sounds attractive to you, you can likely find a vipassana centre near you (or you can build it into your next adventure). There are hundreds of centres around the world, which you can find at www.dhamma.org. Generally, you have to do a ten-day retreat if you’re a beginner in order to learn vipassana, and then you can do three day retreats (if you ever want to do it again). Incredibly, retreats are residential, providing accommodations and food, and students just give a donation at the end of their stay. This way, students only ever pay for future students rather than themselves. I hear that you usually have to register two or three months in advance to get a spot so plan ahead! 

If vipassana sounds a little bit too intense for your liking (fair enough), then you can also do a tushita meditation retreat. My understanding is that tushita retreats are ten days and introduce you to Buddhism and meditation. These courses are still a serious commitment, but you’re allowed to read, write and talk (not sure about using technology), and silence is observed only some of the time. Sounds pretty luxurious to me right about now. There’s a tushita mediation centre right next to the vipassana centre in Dharamkot, and tushita centres can also be found around the world. I’ve gone to one drop-in meditation class there and it was lovely. Perhaps I’ll try one of their retreats later on. If you’re interested you can find information and register for a course at www.tushita.info (it’s a good idea to register a couple months in advance). 

Wish me luck! I’ll be off the grid until May 26. Hopefully I’ll be just a little more enlightened the next time we chat.