While traveling, I always try to do activities for which a region is known, even if I don’t think I’ll enjoy them. Take trekking as an example. I am not a big trekker. I like leisurely walks, but climbing a mountain and trekking for hours doesn’t appeal to me much. It is actually quite the opposite : I loathe it! I would much rather just look at the mountain from a distance while sipping on some cocoa. However, when at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, I couldn’t NOT do it. Up the mountain I went, huffing and puffing during the entire ascent thinking, “I really need to get in better shape!” or “When is break time?”
A particularly trying activity was when I was in McLeod Ganj, which is the exiled seat of the Dalai Lama and a place that has become synonymous with yoga and meditation. I was staying in a room with an American I had met on the bus and neither of us had ever tried mediation. We decided to go to a morning session together which was offered at a nearby nunnery.
Upon entering the mediation room we found a cushioned seat and sat down. I thought that I would be really good at the sitting part because I always sit cross-legged. Nobody knows about my amazing cross legged sitting ability but they will soon find out! Turned out that my sitting skills would really be put to the test in this meditation session!
The nun explained how to sit and breathe while doing meditation. Then she started the class. Everyone closed their eyes and started focusing on their breathing. This is much easier said than done. We were instructed to be in the present and just focus on the air going in and out of your nostrils. I was able to do this for approximately five seconds and then began wondering how the others in the session were doing. I opened my eyes only to find that everyone else had their eyes closed. I thought that maybe I was the only one not getting this. I gave it another go. I tried to really focus on my breathing and convince myself that I could do it. Another five seconds later, a slew of thoughts popped into my head. “I wish I could take a cool picture of this. I want to get some lunch after this. I wonder what my mom is doing now. Should I call her later? The girl staying with me is a bit annoying. Who takes 20 minute showers? Doesn’t she know that water is limited here?”
A couple of minutes later, one of my legs started to fall asleep. The lotus position was killing me. I slowly took my legs out of lotus position and sat cross-legged. Well, that didn’t help much because my leg was still tingly, so I decided that I would just stretch out my legs since nobody was watching. I stretched both legs out in front of me and my back was hunched over because it was hurting from the lotus position. I told myself that I would just stay like that for about five minutes and then try again. As I was relaxing and trying to sooth my aching back and tingly leg, the nun rang the bell, which meant that everyone had to open their eyes. I panicked and frantically tried to get back to lotus position.
For the next 30 minutes of meditation, our meditation guide gave us a topic upon which to meditate. This is another one of those things that is much easier said than done. If I remember correctly, the topic had something to do with loved ones. Sadly, I don’t remember the exact topic, but amazingly I remember all of my other random thoughts during the meditation session. Once more, I closed my eyes and started pseudo-mediating. I tried to reassure myself that I only had to last 30 more minutes. I focused on my breathing and tried to start meditating, but then there was a bird chirping like crazy, a drilling sound, and so many other noises! Some more thoughts came to me. This time I was thinking about the nun. “I wonder if she was ever married? Is that allowed? She is really pretty. I wonder how old she is? I wonder if she can read my thoughts.” I had no idea how much time had gone by because I was so lost in my thoughts. Ten minutes must have passed because the nun rang the bell right after realizing I had drifted with my thoughts. The nun explained some more about trying to focus your thoughts and we then began meditating again. I really began to wish that they had a clock somewhere, so I could know how much time was left. Back to meditation. A couple of seconds in, I started to wonder again (you don’t even know you are doing it!) about the other participants in the meditation session. “How did they end up in a nunnery in India? Where are they from? What are they doing here? I wonder if they are also faking meditating like I am?”
Finally, the bell rang, signaling that the session was over. I gave my 100 rupees donation and got the hell out of there. Leaving the nunnery, I reflected on my meditation experience. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t able to meditate. It sounded so easy. During the mediation the nun talked about “monkey brain”, which is a term used to describe your wild mind and how you need to learn to tame it. I asked my American friend if she enjoyed it and she said that she would never do it again and she had encountered the same problems that I did. Even though I really disliked meditating and was counting down the seconds until I could leave, it made me realize that I can’t control my thoughts. I can’t stop my mind from thinking. It was the first time I had ever tried to actually exercise control over my mind and I couldn’t do it. I was really disgruntled by this realization. I later learned that this is the first step in meditation : realizing that you have “monkey brain.” I felt like I had a pretty severe case of it. Maybe even chronic. I wondered what I could do about this new found infliction. It just so happened that one of the last meditation retreats for the season was starting in two days. Although they usually fill up fast, there was an open spot. Was this fate? I wasn’t sure, but I hesitantly signed up for the 10-day silent retreat in the North of India in November (no in-door heating here!). To say the least the retreat for me was life altering and if you are looking for an amazing retreat that costs $10 a day then check out Tushita Meditation Center.