I think traveling has been glamorized quite a lot, and while it certainly can be glamourous, with white beaches and jungle panoramas, it can also be decidedly unglamorous. From the toilets to the famous stomach bugs. And if you follow anyone who travels on social media, I'm sure you'll hear about how life changing it is and how they've had an incredible time, but did they share about those times they were so lonely they wanted to cry? Or about how much they missed their friends and family? Or how exhausting it is to be constantly moving around, living out of a backpack with no real clue where you'll be in a week let alone a year?
Certainly it has its glamorous side but it also has another side, one that isn't quite as pleasant.
Firstly, let's talk hostels. 20 people to a room is surprisingly fine, sharing one bathroom is also not that big of a deal; if your hostel is nice. In 30% of cases the hostel is not nice. Hard matress and pillows, spiders and lizards, toilets you really don't u want to use and showers you felt cleaner going in to than getting out of; these are the hostels that remind you why your paying around £5-10 a night. But, let's face it even these are just a place to crash between exploring. My worst hostel so far is without a date Myanmar and it wasn't even a hostel, it was a hotel: a fan room, no space to move, no windows, rats in the walls, ants in the bathroom (which has no lights) and a shower that didn't even work. Despite this, it was one of my favorite places in Myanmar; Ngapoli. Gorgeous beaches I could post on Facebook and a sunset to die for. So whilst everyday I showed my friends beach pictures, at night there were rats centimeters from my head.
Okay, toilets, hmm feel free to skip this paragraph! It's a rarity that I find a nice toilet, and my standards for nice have lowered considerably, at this point I'm happy if there's toilet paper and ecstatic if I can sit down. I strongly object to being charged to use the toilets just because I'm white as well, even if it is 10p. Most of the time we are talking a hope in the ground with a bucket to u flush it with, can and yes you would normally pay for the privilege. So very not glamourous, but when nature calls there's not a lot you can do. So make sure you always carry tissue and hand sanitizer!
When you leave for a long trip, you expect that you will miss people and especially family, so in a way you're kind of prepared. I do miss my family a lot, but I'm lucky in that they have been able to visit me twice so far. I'm not sure I could have handled it otherwise. Missing friends again is part of the deal, but strangely you don't miss as many as you'd think. I've only video called 7 people, 2 were family and another 2 friends I met at work. So that's 3 friends I've video called. I honestly thought I'd stay in touch with more people, or they'd try and stay in touch with me. I was more than a little disappointed at those I thought I was close with who I didn't speak with in months. I know the phone works both ways, but even a few of those I messaged either didn't reply or didn't keep up a conversation. This was one of the harder parts in the first few months, but then I realised a few things: it shouldn't be a hassel to stay in touch with good friends and so ifb be we're not staying in contact, it's ok, we weren't as close as I had thought and I'd have to accept that. The surprise to me was how well I stayed in touch with my work friends, or as we like to say “not work friends”. I think that goes to show the strength of those relationships and how close you can become with those you work with. Sometimes they are the only thing that will get you through the day.
What I wasn't prepared for was the big things I'd miss. I've already missed a funeral (that was a tough week), the birth of my second God daughter (hopefully I'm still God parent even though I'm not there!) and in a few weeks a friend's wedding. Not to mention mine and my families birthdays, mother's day, Father's day, exam week and soon results day. It's at these times it really hits me I'm so far away, there's only so much I can do; a call, a text or send something.
Missing the big things can make you feel really lonely, being alone can make you lonely, heck, being surrounded by people can make you feel lonely. And that is the lowest of traveling. When people ask: “aren't you lonely?” It's hard. Right then I'm probably not, but at t some point, when i see a family or someone who I reminded me of someone back home or when everything's going wrong, that's when i get lonely. When I wish someone was there for a hug. It's not often and it doesn't last long but it happens and it's the only time I ever consider getting a flight home.
But it's also what makes me feel strong when I stay. When I chose to go see something rather than wallow. When I chose to go talk to a stranger rather than sit on my own. When I chose to be happy. It's these choices that make traveling worth while for me. It's how I know I made the right choice and it's how I know I'm not ready to go home yet.
If you conquered the obvious issues and you still wanting to travel, right around the 6 month mark there are some other issues. Money is a big one. Do you need a job? Are you budgeting right? How long will your money last? Even if you have enough, you'll worry and that's a good thing! Traveling isn't cheap but it can be done on a budget, in fact, it should be done on a budget, or else you don't learn half as much about the culture, the people. And I swear I'm b going to have an excellent response to the next student that asks me when they'll need maths in life!
But the thing that really takes it's toll? Living out of a backpack. My life right now boils down to 2 bags weighing less than 20kg combined. If I want to buy something I have to carry it for a year, that will definitely make you think twice! I rarely get to unpack, I've been wearing the same 7 outfits for far too long and my shoe choices are very limited. It makes me wonder why we feel we need so much stuff, things. We all have a wardrobe full of clothes we don't wear, a bathroom full of toiletries we don't need, a house full of things we forgot we had. Is it necessary, I have to say, I don't think so. I'm learning to live without a lot and it's hard but I think it's better.
I've left out one thing here and that's dealing with depression thousands of miles from your support system. I've left it out not becausei don't have bad days because I do, but because traveling for me, conquering all these fears is my way of coping. I have friends I can call and it's surprisingly easy to open up to a stranger. But mostly, I don't have time to be depressed, if u can't get out of b bed i won't be able to see something amazing, I won't be able to do something incredible, long story short I have something worth getting out gu of bed for. But on those rare days when even that thought doesn't get me out of bed, I just stay in bed. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break. It's ok not to be ok. So I'm not going into depth, not now anyway.
So you see, don't believe all the beautiful pictures you see, because behind every sunset is an awful hostel, behind every selfie is a person with their life on their back and behind every group shot is a person feeling completely alone.
Before I begin to tell you about the 10 day course I participated in over last 2 weeks, I want you to do something. I want to give you just a flavour of what I undertook. I had to follow a strict code of discipline and in this nature I'd like you to do the same.
First just as I vowed to finish the whole 10 days, I want you to vow to finish reading this article in it's entirety. Just as at times I found it hard, I'm sure at times you will find my writing less than engaging t, but this is a journey not a race and I want you to reach the final destination with a good view of all the places along the way.
Secondly as an idea of how hard it is to follow dedicated practice (whereby a meditator sits perfectly still for the entire period) I want you to find a comfortable position, preferably on the floor, with a straight back and to move only the muscles necessary to continue to read this article. Don't change position, don't scratch any itches, don't react to any pains or aches and don't talk to anyone else who may be around.
And lastly as I left all my previous beliefs and religions at the door before entering the course I'd like you to read this with a mind unbiased by religion, beliefs or any previous experience with meditation. Read this with an open mind and an open heart.
I started the course on day 0, before the course started the students undertook the 5 precepts of Sila plus one more, whereby we would only take a light snack after midday. To properly observe the Sila regarding right speech, we also took a vow of Noble silence. That is, to not only remain silent but to refrain from all communication. No head nods or gestures or smiles of greeting. This was to prove one of the harder parts of the course, as it left me very much alone with my own thoughts. As well as the vow of silence, I gave up all my contraband, essentially anything that wasn't toiletries or clothing. So no phone, no tablet, no books and no writing materials. All intoxicants are also not allowed: smoking, alcohol and any drugs not prescribed. Fortunately I am not a smoker, and I'm not entirely sure a smoker could do this, it would take an incredible amount of dedication and willpower, not that it didn't already require a lot of these.
After checking in and handing over these items we were assigned our individual rooms, or cells as they were called. And, yes, it did feel like a cell. With a bed, a meditation stool and a mini bathroom, it wasn't luxury but it was everything you needed in 3m by 2m space. The mattress was hard and the pillow thin, following another rule of not sleeping on a luxurious bed.
It was after this around 6pm, after hearing what would become an all too familiar gong, that we all headed, silently, the dhamma hall. We were given an assigned mat and cushion and sat waiting for our first taste of Vipassana.
The first meditation session started with chanting in a language I didn't understand, the person sounded like they were just grunting and groaning and I could not distinguish one word from the next. I struggled not to laugh as I began wondering what on Earth I had let myself into. This was probably a lot like how others picture meditation, but I had never meditated to chanting before only a soft calming voice on an app.
Nevertheless I waited and eventually the grunts turned to English and an Indian man told us to just witness our breathing. A job not as easy as it sounds when you're not supposed to change the breathing or count or even repeat in, out. Just watch and breathe. Feel free to try it for a few minutes and if your mind wanders gently bring it back to the breath with no feelings of wrongdoing or negativity.
That one hour felt like 5. My legs ached no matter what position I moved to, my back felt like it was on fire and I'd be in pain for the rest of my life and my mind did not stay on the breath for very long before it wandered to anything and everything. Eventually the grunting began again, only this time I was grateful!
After the first session we went to watch a video discourse that would be played daily discussing what we had learnt that day and how it relates to the technique or life. The video starts with an Indian man and woman sitting cross legged in front of what I can only describe as the backdrop to a school photo, you know the one with the clouds? Again, I stifled laughter and looked around me as if they couldn't be serious. The video proceeds with a shaky camera as the man begins speaking, the woman doesn't say anything, nor will she during the entire course. Eventually after 5 mins or so the video zooms in on just the man's face and it becomes a lot more bearable! In fact the man - S. N. Goenka - turned out to be the late head of Vipassana in India, a talented, engaging and humorous speaker. He explained the course, the timetable and the technique we were to use, he also explained that this would not be easy and that we would want to leave, but that we should persevere and the reward would be worth it. And what was the reward - knowledge, dhamma. I shrugged it off thinking at the very least it would be a peaceful relaxing 10 days and how difficult could that really be, how wrong I was.
You've seen the timetable, now let me do some math for you. There is over 10 hours of meditation scheduled a day, free time including food times amounts to 5.5 hours and sleep just 6 hours (if you can sleep on the hard mattress and flimsy pillow). I realise this does not add up to 24, because there is the discourse and final meditation, usually only 30 mins.
The first 3 days we just watched out breathing, in and out, feeling the air coming and going and any other sensations. My mind wandered, I brought it back, again it wandered, again I brought it back. For over 33 hours of meditation. In the off time I had nothing to do but think, of everything. I had imaginary conversations with people, wrote imaginary letters and planned things I would do when I left. My brain remembered things from the past and played games
of - remember that embarrassing thing you did? Or how about this, this was way worse? Like a silent competition in my mind. I went back over what brought me to mediation and relived a lot of my darker days, it was a tough few days to say the least. 2 girls in cells nearby left, and you begin to think, you could leave to you know, if you want? And I did want to, I was struggling with the thoughts that were arising and if I wasn't so determined, so strong willed and most importantly really didn't want to have to tell everyone I'd left early, I would have.
But, I stayed, and on day 4 in the discourse, Goenka reassured me that everyone was going through the same thing, crazy thoughts and wanting to go. On day 4 we began to practice the true technique of Vipassana, it seemed all that breathing was a training exercise for our minds. Vipassana is a body scan technique, but it is so much more than that. On the 5th day I began to feel my body, feel the Vibrations on the skin and it was a euphoric sensation.
However, Vipassana teaches that we should reject craving and aversions in all forms and so whilst it is ok to know the feeling was a good one I also had to not crave the feeling. Yes, it feels good, but it will pass and that is ok. Easier said than done.
By day 6 again I was ready to leave, I was tired, I wasn't sleeping well, I was continually stuck in the games of my own mind and I was missing people. Not the people you would expect either, in fact my mind kept wandering back to someone I'd not seen in nearly a year. The mind, as I said, is a strange place. If you have the time sit somewhere quite for an hour or so and just let your mind go free, follow it wherever it takes you, but don't act on a single thought, you can't write it down to remember it later and you shouldn't search for a thought that has already gone, see where your mind takes you.
I was also craving pizza. Since I was practicing a technique that taught craving was bad, I kept trying to stop but kept coming back to it and it was so tempting to leave early just so I could eat it (even though I'm vegan and gluten free, so can't even eat pizza!!). This may make you think the food was bad there, but the opposite is actually true. Breakfast is usually rice noodles and asian porridge with fruit, there's even bread with peanut butter and jam. Lunch was a delicacy of vegetarian cuisine and a array of incredible tofu. I actually loved the food and most of it was even vegan and gluten free. But come dinner time, you were a little hungry and the fruit rarely satisfied that, by bedtime you were usually hungrier still. The food for me, however, was in the plus column, I could deal with a little hunger.
Even though I wanted to go, I just kept not going, it wasn't that I had determined to stay, more I just hadn't left. But thankfully so because on day 7, thanks to yet another great discourse I had the mental break through I needed. This technique was about seeing what is inside you and letting out all the negativity, and I've been harboring a lot of negativity over my life, even when I think I'm through it I look at things positively now, I always look back on the past and hold on to it even if it's harmful. Then and there I decided I was going to let it go, let it all go. That night when negative thoughts arose I let them pass, without judgment or aversion and moved on to other happier thoughts, gradually these thoughts began to override the negative ones. Then on day 7 we took the technique to it's last level, feeling sensations not just on the skin but inside. Sitting there in the hall I began to feel my heart beating inside my chest, feel my entire being vibrate and flow. If I thought the last experience was euphoric, this was like a drug; a pure, harmless, mind expanding drug. And unlike before I didn't crave more, I appreciated it when it came and let it go when it left.
I can't say the last few days were easy, but the world was opening up in front of me, the stars were brighter, the flowers prettier, there was nature all around me. It hasn't just appeared over night, it had always been there but I hadn't really seen it, now a 2 minute walk took 5, so I could stop and see things along the way. I found a peace in that meditation hall that I've never known before. My mind still went to crazy places but they were better, instead of dwelling on a bad thing in the past it created happy things that could happen in the future and reminded me of some of the beautiful things I've seen, and I have seen a lot of beauty. My insecurities, and there are a lot of them, didn't disappear, I'll always have hang ups about myself, my body, but they took on less importance and didn't generate as much negativity. Ok so you don't like this part about yourself, it's ok there's nothing you can do, embrace it and move on, what is a body anyway, it's just a vessel. My thought patterns were changing. Something I tried to do years ago when I saw a cognitive behaviour therapist but couldn't break past the barrier, suddenly there was no barrier, a small wall maybe, something I could just step over.
On day 10 the rules of the course change, the schedule is different, you can talk and thoughts begin to turn to leaving the next day. How you can implement what you have learnt in everyday life. Hours of meditation gives way to more discourses and time reflecting with others. It turns out everyone thought of leaving at least once, and I'm not the only person with a crazy mind. Students from all walks of life, all ages, religions, countries had arrived as one, with a common goal of mediation. And we learnt the final part of the technique, my favorite part - metta. Sharing love and kindness with the world, projecting love, compassion and good will out to all beings, human or non-human. You fill yourself with so much peace, so much harmony and so much happiness, then you let it go into the world. Share it with everyone, you can't be selective you just have to put it out there.
At the end of every meditation and every discourse, the leader chants in the old language and he says this,:
“May you all know real peace, real Harmony, real happiness”
By the end of the course I found myself thinking these words along with him and sending out so much love into the world. I felt I had found my peace, my Harmony, my happiness. But Vipassana isn't about the I or mine and so whilst I know that I am those things, I was sending it out into the world so even just a little bit, others might feel it to.
Of Course, you may be thinking this is all well and good in the confines of a meditation complex like the one I visited - Dhamma Malay - but what about the real world?
Well it wasn't long before I was tested, negativity was leaving my life but it had reigned at a place I had just left and as I spoke to people after leaving, it became clear that others wanted to rant or unload on me and that's ok, sometimes people need to do that, but before I might have internalised some of their negativity, making it my own. I'd worked too hard these last 10 days to fall at the first hurdle, so I listened and I gave the only advice I could, let it go, let the negativity go and focus on what you do have, remove all the negative thoughts and actions and leave only the good. I'm very aware I sound like a make love not war kind of hippy right now, and I don't care, that was how I felt, how I still feel. I'm letting negativity run off me, as Goenka said, I'm rejecting their present, they can bring it to me, but they will be leaving with it, what others do with it is then up to them.
My second trial came in making time to meditate, it's easy in a cell with nothing else to do, no films to watch, series to catch up on and a bed that's not that appealing. When you're in a lovely hotel room, using the WiFi and catching up on 10 days of life, it's slightly harder. Add in the fact I and a fellow mediator went on a trip to see fireflies and crocodiles on the river and arrived home rather late. Making the time that first evening to do an hours meditation seemed monumental, I bounced back and forth between I will, I won't, I will, I won't and eventually at 11:05 I closed my eyes sat still and meditated. You see when something is important to you, you make time for it. Well I think this is important to me, I think it is going to become very important to me and so I've decided to make time for it. It might not be the recommended 2 hours everyday, but it will be something everyday.
If you've done as I asked at the beginning then I think by now you may be aching, you've probably slouched and you may even be wishing I had written a shorter article, bare with me I'm nearly done.
I wanted to leave you on a happy note, I feel so much lighter since I left the course and even though things have happened, I've lost a charger, nearly missed buses and been brought into other people's negative situations; I've kept putting out love and compassion into the world, helping those I can in whatever peaceful way I can. And I've got it back in buckets, our trip to see the fireflies was cheaper than expected, I was given a charger by a friend, the bus left late and I've had conversations with some of those people that kept coming into my thoughts while I was away. Even today when the dorm I was supposed to stay in was full, I was taken to another place and directed to a bar with a live band where I proceeded to dance the night away.
There was only one thing I shouldn't have done - order that pizza! (I don't feel good lol)
If you're interested in a course then I would encourage you to pursue it, but with the full knowledge that it was the hardest thing I have ever done, it is not a retreat it is a course. They are free and you just donate what you can afterwards towards the cost of a future student. There are centres all over the world including the UK, near whales somewhere I believe.
And teachers, parents…. They do children's courses for 9 to 18 year olds.
And the final thing before you can scratch that itch and stretch out….
May you all experience real peace, real harmony, real happiness.