Afew weeks after I graduated high school, my dad told me to pack my bags with some comfortable clothes because he was going to drop me off in the middle of nowhere — also known as Egbert, Ontario. He forgot to mention that he had signed me up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat a few months prior so that I could start my university career with a “calm and settled mind.” This was his way of telling me I had to finally address the severe anger and depression issues we both suspected I had but refused to vocalize.
As a child constantly inundated with Hindu and Buddhist aphorisms and morality-infused folktales, I grew up having common anti-western solutions to my health and wellbeing concerns preached to me. So my reaction to my situation in Egbert was one of frustration, thinking that my parents’ obsession with meditation and yoga had reached the extent of forcing me to go on a retreat without my consent and without addressing why they were sending me off in the first place.
Still, I was surprised they had willingly agreed to send me away from home, considering I had never been allowed to go on overnight trips before — if you are the eldest daughter of a Desi immigrant family, you know exactly what I mean. There was no way I could pass up this opportunity, even if it was to satisfy their need to keep me ‘cultured’ in a western country.
Out of spite, I agreed to go — no technology, no social media, and no talking for 10 days. At the very least, I would get away from my parents and enjoy a short vacation, I thought; at the very most, I would prove the baby boomer generation wrong in their thinking that millennials couldn’t possibly survive without technology.
What I actually experienced, however, was neither relaxing nor rebellious. Rather, it was rigorous and refreshing.
In the beginning
I hadn’t been able to do any research on the retreat facility beforehand, so my vague assumption of what was to come consisted of some stereotypical, probably white-washed instruction of how to reflect on happy, sad, emotional, powerful, life-altering, mind-blowing events of my life until I finally reached eternal peace or something.
Instead, I realized that meditation had much more to do with focusing on the physical sensations of my body than the fleeting thoughts of my mind. The meditation centre I attended is for the specific teaching of Vipassanā meditation — the basic premise of this technique being to eliminate instinctive reactions through training and bring more intention and awareness to everyday actions.
I was skeptical of the whole process to begin with, but I was stuck there for 10 days, so I decided to follow through as instructed. It was difficult. First of all, I’d worry about the thousand things I’d left at home, all the people who might be texting me, and all the fun my friends were having without me. Then I would focus on the 100 people I was at this retreat with but couldn’t talk to. I would think about their lives and make assumptions about their character simply by the type of yoga pants they wore to the meditation hall, not knowing their names but identifying them by their shoes.
Eventually I realized that, despite all this happening in my head, it was only day two and I should really try to focus on my breath above my mouth and below my nose like the instructor had repeated about 20 times. Then I would start thinking about my email inbox, inevitably beginning the cycle of thoughts once again.
When we disconnected from the world to come to this retreat, beyond the technology, we also couldn’t bring any other source of literature or entertainment. Gena Zheng, a fourth-year undergraduate at Western University who went on the retreat after I told her about it, described this experience: “I was so bored that I started reading my shampoo bottle for some mental stimulation.”
Mitra Alizadeh, a friend and aspiring tree hugger, fell asleep the first time she did the retreat. “On my 4th day I struggled pretty hard and started to freak out and wanted to leave,” she wrote to me — a reaction I assure you most people have more than once and that some people follow through on.
The learning process
Both Gena and Mitra eventually overcame their difficulties. Mitra told me that she began to realize her instinct to run was a habit and defensive mechanism, and she resolved to work through it. Gradually, with practice, her struggle minimized each time she sat for meditation. She later came back to do another retreat.
Over the course of her physical experience with discipline and meditation, Mitra understood that she had to apply a similar approach and work through her own struggles in life as well. “I had to work through my attachment issues, my people skills, the strong attachment between my ego and feeling ‘useful’ via work,” she said.
For Gena, the experience was eye-opening and helped her find willpower within. “At the end of the retreat, I felt like a better version of myself,” she told me. She now categorizes it under her self-care habits. “It makes me more patient, compassionate, and I am able to better deal with adversity in life, knowing the impermanent nature of everything.”
As the 10 days of my first retreat came to an end, I started to be more aware of my physical and mental instinct to react to everything without processing it. As a result, I would try to slow down and process each moment while I meditated. This realization gradually made me feel physically lighter and more alert; I was better able to track my thoughts, feel the presence of my body, and start to understand the world in a connected way.
On the 10th day, we finally got to break the silence and talk to the neighbours we had been living with for the past week and a half. During this time, I heard stories about everyone’s experiences, their lives, their breakdowns, and their desires to find a way to understand themselves — which ultimately led them to this retreat.
Unlike me, Mitra’s reason to try the retreat stemmed from a research project she completed in her final year of university on the role of meditation in neuroplasticity and its effectiveness in rehabilitation of sex offenders. The topic wasn’t one she was too thrilled about, but after discovering the research was quite interesting, her professor recommended a meditation centre north of the city — the very same one my dad dropped me off to four years ago.
Since then, I have been going back — willingly! — every summer to disconnect from the world and get further along in my meditation practice.
I haven’t been able to consistently continue the suggested two hours of meditation practice per day with school, part-time jobs, and life in general. While I know I could practice if I put more effort into making time for it, I find it much more difficult to disconnect myself in Toronto spaces than when in Egbert, surrounded by the campground, tall trees, and natural silence.
Perhaps this inability to disconnect ourselves in everyday life is responsible for the recent popularity of technology-based meditation applications. I talked to people who use a variety of meditation applications like Headspace, Pzizz, and Insight Timer to discover what they got out of the technology.
Anecdotally, I found that the quality of experience with these applications was more varied than experience with an intensive, retreat-based course. After the retreat, every person I talked to had a different but positive experience. Meditation applications, however, use different techniques and lack the physical presence of a teacher who can provide one-on-one direction.
Pri Pai, an undergraduate student at U of T, told me that she “tried to use a meditation app once and it made [her] more anxious.” She prefers to practice Hatha yoga through classes that focus on meditation, breathing, and becoming physically stronger.
Shalaka Jadhav, an undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo, has tried meditation classes as well as Headspace and Insight Timer. She describes how it is “a pretty strange experience when it’s facilitated by an app,” partially due to the data tracking associated with applications, something that doesn’t accompany meditating without technology.
Arjun Kaul, a fourth-year undergraduate student U of T, has tried a variety of techniques, including transcendental meditation, app-based mindfulness meditation, and a few less specific varieties of meditation practiced under the Hindu tradition. Overall, Arjun has been disappointed by his experiences. “I found it increasingly hard to get into; once I started, it was nice, but it had diminishing returns once meditation started coinciding with increasing periods of stress/work/etc.”
While I haven’t tried meditation applications myself, I feel as if the tracker could be an incentive to keep up practice — to establish a Snapchat-like streak and encourage yourself to keep up practice. However, from my learning of Vipassanā, I worry that this surface-level incentive defeats the point of meditating in the moment for the sake of meditation itself.
Unlike me, Gena is diligent in keeping up her practice. “I was told that meditation is like taking a shower. You probably shower every day to clean your body so you should also meditate every day to clean your mind. That really stuck with me so I definitely make the effort to meditate as much as I can,” she said.
Clara Thaysen, a fifth-year undergraduate student at U of T, has found her own method of making application-based meditation work for her. She uses Pzizz, which is designed to help the user with sleeping or napping by playing binaural beats through headphones. While going through some emotional stress and inability to sleep, Clara decided to try the app and now finds that she uses it more for meditation than napping.
While the meditation techniques of others are different than mine, I find that there are some underlying commonalities in our experience that make meditation a valuable potential resource for our everyday lives. The benefits include but are not limited to a deep awareness of body and environment.
Meditation and mental health
Before I went on the retreat, I was constantly annoyed by the common ‘have you tried meditation’ line from parents, therapists, and peers in response to my mental health inquiries. Arjun felt the same way. “Meditation is increasingly offered as a cure-all for mental health problems, in a society that doesn’t know how to effectively treat them.” He believes coming from a position of immense privilege is essential in order for meditation to be effective because not everyone has the “time and energy” to practice it.
He stressed that a lot needs to change in society for meditation to work more effectively, among them our “productivity-based existence.” I immediately thought of my struggles to meditate successfully within the productivity-based cycle of school and work. Meditation principles, Arjun said, were formed in contexts when society was not as “centred around systems-based productivity.” He also suggested we admit meditation’s “limited reach” and update it accordingly.
I won’t say that meditation cured my mental health, but it certainly makes handling life a little easier. While we definitely have a long way to go in addressing the mental health crises in our society, my response to meditation itself is now more positive.
“Don’t be intimidated by it,” suggested Clara. “I know more traditional or proper methods of meditation may intimidate people, but you don’t have to reach Nirvana on your first try.”