The four-seater Suzuki hatchback jostled me and my two companions as we made our way into the mountains that constitute the southern edge of the Kathmandu Valley. The roads here could adequately be described as a series of potholes, cutting a line though the hills. Almost as if someone had tried to carve a path into the mountainside using only jackhammers, the roads were an assortment of craters and stream beds whose width is sufficient for two vehicles to make their way past each other--sometimes.
The irony, I found, was that while our driver was braving these treacherous conditions, citizens of my own home were commuting on flat, paved roads in their 4x4 F150s, Silverados, and Rams. I couldn’t help but feel that the abilities of our American trucks were going to waste amid the USs relatively modern infrastructure. It seemed to me that this was the place where those vehicles were truly meant to shine, and yet here I was, in a local taxi, with its tiny tires and front wheel drive, audaciously weaving its way through the mountains.
In many ways the mountain hatchback is a model of the spirit of the developing world. Does it work? Kind of. Good enough!
As we made our way farther into the foothills of the Himalayas, I watched the buildings of the valley grow smaller with my ever increasing altitude. I was on my way to a meditation retreat, high in the hills outside of Pharping, Nepal. For the next 7 days, I would not be allowed to speak, to read, to write, or use my cell phone.
At this point I should mentioned that I never intended to do a meditation retreat while I was there. In fact, while traveling, any time that I heard a western traveler talk about their “life-changing experience meditating in a Buddhist temple,” or say “Let me tell you about my meditation retreat!” I inwardly scoffed at their pretentiousness. In some ways I felt that someone who would embrace such a retreat was running from something, they were filling a hole in their life or doing it for the social media attention. I didn’t want to pursue it myself out of a fear that I would be appropriating a culture, a fear that I didn’t have enough context to really get anything out of it.
No, two months ago when I first made my plans to go to Nepal for two and a half weeks. My ambitions centered on Trekking as they do for most who make their way to the tiny land-locked country sandwiched between China and India. But of course, the vicissitudes of life are inescapable, and trekking isn’t what happened. On my very first day in the country I managed to mildly sprain my ankle in a bouldering incident at a climbing park. That, coupled with the three day fiasco of obtaining an Indian transit visa so that I could actually come home though New Delhi, took up five of my precious days in Nepal, and with it any chance I had of doing a Trek.
It wasn’t until maybe my fourth day in the city that I had really had any semblance of a plan. At the time, a friend of mine who had worked with me at the butterfly park in Laos also happened to be in Kathmandu. She invited me out for drinks with some of her friends, and I happily obliged, limping my way through the night time streets of the city. It was at this get-together at a rooftop bar, among Americans, Australians, Italians, Dutch, and Germans that the ideas behind these meditation retreats was properly introduced to me, when someone started talking about their experience with Vipassana meditation.
Vipassana is a ancient meditation technique that most often takes place in the form of ten-day retreats wherein participants meditate in 10 hours per day in complete silence and isolation. Ten days: no talking, no eye contact, no cell phone, no reading, no writing, no sex, no music, no intoxicants, no tobacco no religious ceremony, separation of men and women, no physical contact, no religious objects; just you and your thoughts or lack thereof. You can read more about it here.
Crazy proposition, right? But to be honest, the intensity is what what drew me to it. It sounded challenging, nearly impossible. While she was talking, I looked down at my swollen ankle and realized that while the physical limitations of my injury would stop me from challenging myself on the mountain treks, there was nothing keeping me from challenging my mind. I decided that maybe I would give one of these retreats a try. I spent the latter part of that night investigating retreats nearby, but was unsuccessful in finding one that worked with my schedule.
The next day over breakfast my phone buzzed on the table. There was a Facebook message from the same person that I had spoken to the night before. It was a photo of a flyer, not for a true Vipassana, but a seven-day meditation retreat with similar but less intense specifications. Looking back, these modifications saved my ass, literally. My hip flexibility has suffered greatly since my kindergarten days. And I truly don’t know if I could have handled a Vipassana’s worth of “criss-cross applesauce”. The flyer would begin the next day and it fit my timeline perfectly. I emailed the organizer, and the next thing I knew, I found myself in the back of that hatchback.
The building itself was high in the hills above the main road where the taxi let us off. We left our vehicles near the base of a concrete staircase bordered by a small forest of seemingly wild cannabis plants. After collecting our bags from the roofs of the cars, we trudged our way to the top. We climbed first on the stairs and then on muddy paths feeling the altitude in our lungs the whole way. We passed a tiny soccer field, a family of goats, and terraced farms with mud-walled houses carved into the verdant base of the mountainside.
The trek though tiring proved to be worth it. From the patio of the building you could see the whole of Pharping. The town’s clear-cut borders were delineated bright green array of rice paddies. Next to it lay a riverbed, a temple under construction, and a road that lead through a pass in the hills to the world beyond the valley.
I climbed the internal stairs of the house and found my bedroll on the ground in a empty yellow room with hardwood floors and a window facing the mountain’s slope. I deposited my bag in a cabinet and made my way downstairs to begin.
After a few words with two girls around my age from Israel and a cup of tea, our instructor, a Frenchman with 25 years of Buddhism under his belt introduced us to the building, and soon enough we had entered our silence and begun the retreat.
The seven days I spent there in silence weren’t easy, even considering our western handicaps: occasional yoga sessions, reduced hours, a 30 minute interval to discuss how we were feeling each day, and walking meditation to break up the time that we spent sitting still. My hips and back ached and creaked every time we sat to practice, and what was supposed to be an exercise in relaxation over the course of six hours each day quickly turned to an exercise in the tolerance of suffering.
At times we would be invited to meditate individually and I welcomed these as an escape. We could practice Yoga, or walking meditation, or continue as we had been. I took these moments as opportunities to get a little higher in the mountains, and rather quickly I developed a routine.
Each day during our individual time, I would fill a mug with warm water and hike to the top of the mountain, each time a third of the mug would spill out before I got to the top. I would sit under a tree a sip half of the remaining water. Then I would close my eyes and practice for 10-20 minutes. Afterwards, lying on my back, I would complete a body scan, a technique of meditation often used in introductory courses where you spend time focusing all your mental power on each part of your body. Then I would sit back up and finish my water that had become cold with time. Just before the glass was empty, I would pour the last little bit of water on a rock that marked my spot and observe as the liquid spread on its surface, soaking into the rock almost like a sponge. With that I would gently tap the rock, stand up, and mindfully walk my way back to the lodge.
Strolling down the hill, I did my best to stay present in the mountain scenery. I would listen for the soft call of the birds and the abrasive cuckoos that called the mountain their home. Car horns, like some freak hybrid of elephant and bird screamed their presence on the mountain roads as they tore around switchbacks. I would inspect the flowers, and count the leaves on their stems as I walked among them, while scrutinizing the trail for trash. In these ways I kept my mind steady.
And then I would find myself at the base of the house’s wooden staircase. Staring up at my living quarters usually with thirty minutes to spare. I used that time to take a cold shower, trying my best to stay present for it. Letting the liquid run over one part of my body at a time. And then using my soap and rinsing and drying in the same way.
And so in the absence of my phone or people or even a clock to keep me on track. I developed a sort of routine that kept me disciplined, clean, happy.
And to be honest, as austere as my conditions may sound it was nice. I found that the absence of these distractions put me in closer touch with myself. I was transported back to my childhood in some ways. I paid closer attention to details, like the grain of a wooden door, or the pattern of tiles on a wall, the feeling of hot tea in my mouth, and the warmth of the sun on my face. I began to approach the world with the novice’s mind, a perspective that I had long forgotten. In that state, simpler things excited me, and I found a deeper sense of contentment in just being.
Of course, I’m not expert and I couldn’t always remain in a state of mindfulness. In my silent hours, when I wasn’t meditating, focused on presence, or eating, I was thinking. And after a few days, I realized that there were a lot of things in my life that I had been distracting myself from, inconvenient thoughts that were unhappy truths. These thoughts were torturous, ravaging, unrelenting, and all-consuming. So many times I wanted to pick up my phone and call someone, read an article, or even write about it. I needed to distract myself in some way. But through discipline and a force of will, I avoided the temptation and my phone stayed quiet.
When it was over, of course there was relief and when I finally picked up my phone is was nice to have a friend to talk to. But I was surprised to find that at the end, when I finally could, I didn’t have a pounding urge to turn on my phone. I actually reviled a bit in the silence even after I didn’t have to anymore, because it was nice to stand on my own, to not be afraid of my own thoughts, to be okay with silence, with simply being.
Coming out of this, I’m not obsessed with mindfulness. I don’t think I found exactly what was missing in my life, or that I have all the answers to the big questions. I don’t need to join a temple or convert to Buddhism, and I don’t need the people around me to try it. But I do see a new side of myself. I overcame a challenge and feel good about that. A challenge is what I wanted out of Nepal, and even though I didn’t get exactly what I planned for when I first made the decision to go there, I still pushed myself, and I feel like I’ve grown because of it.
Moving forward, I hope that I can have the discipline to incorporate meditation into my life at home, where a combination of medical school applications, loan payments, job hunting, research positions, and family challenges are sure to push my brain to its limit. No doubt in the chaos of my return to normalcy, the simplicity of that house in the hills will beckon to me, and I will long to be there. It will be up to me to recall that the state of mind that I learned in that place is portable, because simplicity and a refreshed perspective can be found anywhere if you know how to look.