Roughly four years ago, I was lying on a bed in a small air conditioned hotel room in Mumbai. The Food Network was playing on television, and I refused to go anywhere or leave the room. I was off work, thousands of kilometers away from home, in one of the coolest cities in the world, and all I wanted to do was watch TV. India can have that effect. Mumbai was the last stop of a three month trip that reached from the northern tea fields of Darjeeling all the way down to the palm treed, sandy beached paradise of Southern Kerala. The woman who would not venture out of that Mumbai hotel room had had enough. Enough of the noise, pollution, staring men and personal energy it took to explore the city, even for a few hours. She was tired of traveling and tired of India. She swore she would never return.
Yet here I am today, flight booked, bags almost packed. In three days I will be returning to the very same country I had never, ever wanted to go back to. It's almost as if India is daring me to return, and I can't help but go and get even deeper. It's the kind of place that no matter how many pictures you see or how many articles you read, nothing can truly prepare you for the culture shock that lies in store. My husband and I generally pride ourselves on not returning and repeating destinations in our travels. This is just a personal preference, with so many amazing places in the world, why go back to the same one more than once? Well, that's just what India does. It makes you question yourself and everything you think you know. Going back I will have an open mind and an open heart, ready to learn any lessons that are meant to be. There is a certain charm of India, it can be infuriating one moment and incredibly beautiful and captivating the next. I've heard it described as a roller coaster ride, where you scream and go crazy during the ups and downs, but once it's over look back and think "hey that was fun, let's do it again!"
This trip was planned around an eight day trek into the Himalayan hillsides with a wonderful Rishikesh native we met in 2013. Mukesh Joshi loves his hometown dearly and is the most professional, kind and talented business owner we came into contact with throughout all of India. He runs Paddle India and Nanda Outdoor Retreats, two adventure outfitters that offer exceptional experiences with well trained, passionate and amazing staff. His companies are locally run and ensure adventures are safe and professionally managed. This will be a cool new experience, meeting up with someone from a past trip. It will be incredibly fun to return and see him after a few years! Being on a trek for that long will also be a much needed escape from technology (there's no WiFi on trails in the Himalayas is there?!) At home my phone stays on 24/7 for emergency calls from work, unplugging completely will be a recharge on my system on many levels.
This return trip is exactly four years after the first, and I am excited to delve into the country as the woman I am today. I wonder if having experienced the initial culture shock last time around, I will be more present and able to retain more. World travel has opened my eyes to be more empathetic, compassionate and interested in the world outside of what I have known growing up in Canada. I want to see more deeply into Indian culture, and I am excited to have another go at meditating and practicing yoga in its birthplace. I will use my daily practice as support, to stay in the present moment and not get overwhelmed in, well, the numerous overwhelming moments surely to come. I would like to think this trip holds the promise of being a spiritual journey. Even writing this I don't know exactly what that means, but I am leaving some space between myself and my expectations to just let it unfold and see what the country has in store this time around. India, are you ready for me again?
Ten years ago, I had never meditated. I had recently moved to Ottawa and was in search of some new, healthy habits. I dreamed of practicing yoga more, learning how to meditate, becoming a vegetarian and many other things that compared to my youth, were way outside of my way of living. I remember the first free meditation workshop I attended, the sheer thrill of even following through and showing up for it on my own. During the workshop I mingled with a lovely woman, she was so calm and spoke so thoughtfully. After trying out a few simple guided meditations in the class, I mentioned to her that I really loved being in nature and that I would have these brief moments of just feeling really good and so calm, and that being in a busy city I couldn't seem to replicate that feeling. She replied that the feeling I was describing was always available and within us, and that my journey would be to find that feeling I had in nature no matter where I physically was. Mind = Blown.
After that course, I dabbled with sitting meditation, counting my breath 1-2-3 and coming back to the count anytime I noticed my mind wandered. I read books on meditation and at a certain point was learning more about it than practicing it. It just was not sticking as a daily habit. It became one of those items on my life list that remained just out of reach for many years. In 2013 during a three week stay in a small ashram in the Indian Himalayas, we would wake and begin each morning with 20 minutes of mantra meditation, and end each day with the same. I traveled so far for that experience, and it turned out to feel like a mild form of torture. In those three weeks, I sat through exactly one meditation session without fidgeting, opening my eyes, becoming irritable, restless and insanely jealous of the other students who looked so blissful. I knew it was going to be challenging, but come on! I was not a happy woman facing myself in those moments. I did not return home with a daily meditation practice. I had traveled to India for traditional yoga philosophy, but a mantra given by a guru in the mountains just wasn't for me, it didn't bring me back to that peaceful place I always seemed to find while in nature.
About a year after my ashram stay, I was given a book called 10% Happier by a ABC news anchor Dan Harris. If you haven't heard, he's the guy who had a panic attack on national television and now practices non-secular Buddhist meditation on the regular. He is out to prove that even "fidgety skeptics" and a-holes can be better versions of themselves through developing a sitting practice. He likens meditation to exercise for your brain, just as we should work out our muscles, our brains also need to be trained. It was sometime after reading that book that I realized even if I sat for 5 or 10 minutes a day (even 1 minute!), I could do it. I always thought that to meditate, I needed to sit and clear my mind of all my thoughts. Whoa! Not even close. Turns out it can be as simple as sitting and noticing the thoughts as they come and go, floating in and out with no effect on me. With my practice, my daily reactions have become more skillful. I am developing that split second pause between how I've always reacted and how I choose to best react in that moment. I still have my moments (goodness don't we all?) but I truly love my practice and all the good it has brought me.
I suppose I share this story in the hopes that even one person may read it and decide to try meditation for the first time or return to a practice they have strayed from. It's important to remember that it doesn't have to be, look or feel perfect. If your schedule is thrown off or something comes up, you can still make time (seriously, even one timed minute of silence and listening to the breath can do wonders) Just accept and acknowledge that your practice might look a little bit different depending on the day, week and year, and that's okay. There are also so many different varieties of meditation and it may take a few tries for what works best for you. The greatest lesson out of all of this is that mediation, like yoga, is not a goal to strive and achieve for, but rather a practice to support coming back to the truth of oneself, to the goodness that always has been and always will be tucked down deep inside each and every one of us.