In a post-Eat Pray Love world, self-discovery is as integral to travel as having cocktails on exotic beaches and taking selfies. Accordingly, when I was in Cambodia, I got on the bandwagon and went to a yoga and meditation retreat in a village outside of Siem Reap. I’d done yoga sporadically over the previous five years and liked the feeling of activating obscure parts of my body in defiance of my desk job. As for meditation, it was one of those things I’d always intended to make a habit of, but the only habit I’d actually acquired was regularly feeling guilty about not meditating.
I had few expectations. I wasn’t looking for an epiphany, at least not anymore. At the beginning of the year I’d seen my travels as a chance to work out what I wanted to do with my life. By this point I’d already realised that life probably doesn’t work like that – answers don’t often magically drop into your lap, irrespective of positioning yourself in far-flung locations. All I wanted was time out to sit with myself, and see what happened. It was an experiment.
But in my typical fashion, I was somewhat cynical. I didn’t want to be sold any fool’s gold. I was wary of being lectured on one true path to meaning. To me, attempts to unlock life’s secret are destined to end in disappointment or self-delusion. Joel, the American owner of the retreat was a linguist, book-lover and ecstatic dance enthusiast (it’s a thing). He had lived in the country for eight years and had a Cambodian wife and daughter. Luckily, despite his guru-like appearance he seemed pretty cool and not too preachy about spirituality.
In comparison to hardcore Virpassana retreats – ten days of silent mediation –this retreat was a walk in the park. Apart from 4 hours of practice each day we had lots of free time and were allowed to read books and laze in hammocks in the garden. It wasn’t a complete free ride. We were not allowed mobile phones – not even to take photos. And three times a day we had to stand in a circle and listen to a reading before doing a group ‘Om’ and eating a wholesome vegan meal. Meanwhile, the locals next door were keeping it real, partying and blaring Cambodian dance music across the village fields into the early hours of the morning. An authentic Cambodian cultural experience probably wouldn’t have been quite so clean-living.
Given my doubts, it surprised me how much insight I gained from the meditation. I quickly came face-to-face with my restless and distractible mind. I realised that my brain had a ‘searching’ mode that I couldn’t seem to switch off. I was always thinking about where ‘else’ I could be. I was daydreaming about going on the next exotic holiday ideas even before I’d finished this one. I was coming up with yet another new and random idea for study when I was already on my third degree.
Over the course of the retreat, I started to realise how much mental energy I spent obsessing about creating a perfect future. I knew it had gotten to the point where it was a form of escapism and procrastination. I had a ‘grass is always greener’ mentality masquerading as dynamism, openness to new ideas and vigour for life. But underneath, it was actually a fear of committing to the life I already had. It was a failure to fully appreciate my life as it was.
I also became more aware of my inner quest to create a perfect version of myself. Self-improvement had become an excuse for fixating on my imperfections and failings. I was constantly berating myself for not achieving enough. Not doing enough exercise. Not doing the right exercise. Not having enough hobbies. Not being sociable enough. Not eating healthily enough. Not taking up a language. Not vacuuming as often as I should. Not maintaining my eyebrows properly. Are there more effective, successful, physically perfect people in the world? Of course. But was it so wrong to appreciate myself as I was? Plus all this self-criticism was incredibly self-focused. Weren’t there more interesting things to spend my time thinking about?
Another benefit of the retreat was connecting with a group of really lovely people, each on different journeys. Our group of 19 people was diverse in age and origins, with conscripts from Europe, Australia and North America. There were people dealing with mental illness and body image issues. There were people going through major life changes, people who were burnt out from their busy jobs. Overwhelmingly women, I met a lot of funny, impressive, fascinating and independent ladies with some serious self-knowledge and beautiful ‘auras’ to use the language of the retreat. I sensed that many of us were grappling with similar things – trying to overcome destructive and exhausting self-judgement and self-criticism and be kinder to ourselves.
Throughout the retreat, I struggled with the meditation a bit. Weird though it might sound, I sometimes get obsessed with breathing properly during relaxation exercises and meditation and find myself over-breathing and then under-breathing to correct and feeling like I’ll never be able to just breath effortlessly again. Not exactly the tranquil state being aspired towards. During our last meditation session, I got into this state again, and was really beating myself up about it – e.g. ‘you can’t even breath normally. What can you do?’
But this time, inexplicably tears started streaming out of my eyes. I hate crying in public more than anything in the world and luckily it was dark and I don’t think anyone noticed. But if there’s one good thing about a yoga camp, it’s a safe space to have an ‘emotional release’. And that’s what it felt like. I don’t know to what extent it was brought on by mild hyperventilation, but it felt like I was forgiving myself a little bit. Stop being so relentless. Stop being such a perfectionist control freak. You are ok. Just be gentle.
These self-realisations didn’t come to me because of this one-week yoga retreat, exactly. Maybe they’d been swirling around in my head, but I’d been avoiding them – denying them. Not wanting to think too hard about them. Being at this retreat just stopped the distractions. The news articles, the opinion pieces, the googling, the company of friends and family, the entertainment. It all stopped and in the absence of more pleasurable, entertaining things to do, bigger arcs of thought, deeper or higher – had the chance to mull and swirl and crystallise.
Whilst I didn’t accept everything taught at the retreat as the gospel, when I boiled down’s Joel’s message, it was basically that yoga and meditation are tools that can help you to live a more focused, calm and happy life. They are particularly important tools in our crazy, uber-connected modern world that can make us feel like mere brains suspended above electronic screens. Whilst simultaneously reducing us to the appearance of our physical bodies. There are no magic bullets and you won’t necessarily achieve some kind of incredible transcendent state through meditation. But for me, it brought a refreshingly different perspective on things. Do I meditate every day now? No. Some days but not everyday. But that’s good enough right now. And for me, that’s a revolution.