Meditation Retreats: What’s the fuss?

From Clueless, The Big Lebowski, White Men Can’t Jump, The Godfather, to Rounders Hollywood has routinely been the launching ground for injecting new movements, ideas, or a particular ethos into the DNA of our culture.

For those wondering where the origins of the basic bae movement stem from, one should look no further than Julia Robert’s widely unacclaimed movie “Eat, Pray, Love”. In this Brad Pitt produced film, a middle-aged female embarks on a three-nation tour in attempt to discover spiritual salvation through palate pleasing cuisine, ashram infused self-awareness, and an organically developed cross-cultural kinship. In this flick, Miss Roberts develops a complete understanding of a five thousand-year-old polytheistic society in four days, forever ruins your experience of eating Italian food without Instagram, and makes an old Indonesian monk retract any doubt regarding his commitment to celibacy.

But J-Rob isn’t alone in attempting to utilize South East Asia as a backdrop to positively recalibrate one’s soul and clarify their sense of purpose. Since 2000, the number of meditation retreats in Bali has increased by 126%, roughly a quarter of their tourists state attending some kind of spiritual event as a reason for their visit, and the home of Indonesia’s karma headquarters has been rated a top spiritual destination by numerous travel sites. Ironically, when I attended a meditational retreat earlier this month, the wellness coach I met told me that she’s so busy she works more hours than the bankers, engineers, and programmer’s she is helping.

That wasn’t a typo, I did spend two weeks at a variety of meditation retreats in Bali. As my journey began with a “random search” at the airport, a number of questions came to mind. What other global patrons participate in these types of functions? Can we all cathartically temporarily escape from the perils of life as so many of these meditational attendees do? What will I ultimately get out my time at this spiritual sanctuary?

In short, what’s the fuss about a meditation retreat?

No matter where we go and what we do, the memories of any experiences are largely dependent on the company. And a retreat is no different. Based upon this variable, the activity of spiritual cleansing was not my cup of tea. Over my two-week jaunt in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to take part in three distinct types of retreats. All ranging in price, location, and activities of the day. Every retreat’s core group was unsurprisingly and disturbingly homogeneous.

In my brief experience, meditation retreats seemed to be the adult playground for the 1%, the spiritual cleansing for the kids of high ranking capitalists from Europe, those overwhelmed by the burden of their 15-hour work weeks at their friend’s dad’s coffee shop in Portland (this is not a joke), and a breeding ground for every blonde basic from the Commonwealth.

The daily discussions about life resembled a slam poetry event without the slam or the poetry. Maybe it was my aging Bay Area sardonic soul, but I had this sense that my fellow retreat mates thought they had courageously and intelligently rounded the bases of life when they were either too ignorant or too proud to realize they were born on third.

The major problem with escapist engagements isn’t necessarily the intention or itinerary of the function, but the mere fact that many of these people have never really to dealt with soul crushing sadness and the journey to overcome this struggle that makes life genuinely beautiful. You cannot escape society if you are in a perpetual state of escapism nor have you really engaged in it. If Facebook COO Sherly Sandberg had attended these retreats I can only imagine her thoughtfully discussing the sudden death of her husband, describing how to publicly deal with a tragedy with such grace, and then encouraging every one of these retreat attendants to lean the fuck in.

Further, throughout all these criticisms of the system and status quo stated in our group discussions, there was this blindness to how the “system” made this remarkable beachside Bali sanctuary possible.

The computer program who developed the algorithm and website for retreat attendants to purchase tickets and accommodation, the engineers who created the outdoor cooling system for one to meditate in the sun for two hours straight, the accountant who managed the books so retreat employees can be paid on time, the architect who built the amazing bamboo fortress, and the wellness and yoga teacher who spent countless hours studying the complexities of these ancient practices.

These people, their work, and their grit were all part of the “system” that meditation attendants wanted to escape from without realizing these people were the actual ones building life promoting values, discovering self-awareness techniques, and ultimately taking the arduous (but ultimately rewarding) steps of find their sense of purpose.

But the main purpose for this trip was to find the sins in my soul and what I could do to move forward on a better path. With those two metrics in mind, I found the trek to be worth every penny and frustrating moment. For starters, Bali deserves to be on everyone’s bucket list and earns every travel reward bestowed on this holy land. It’s lush scenery, well maintained beaches, exquisite temples, expansive rice fields, and wonderfully kind inhabitants can deliver even the darkest souls some light.

Someone once said we don’t change in life, we simply unfold. And those who allow themselves to unfold find the beauty and joy in their day-to-day. Maybe there are other avenues to peel back life’s layers, but a meditational retreat is a highly-recommended option. Sitting with one’s thoughts, with limited distraction, accompanied by people who are there to let you be without judgement is a productive way to re-center the moral compass and quiet the mind.

For the first time in many years, I felt a sense of calm and peace. As I learned alternative ways to sit with my thoughts, take the time to realize the root of my beliefs (and frustrations), and discover sound ways to avoid over-analyzing past events in my life this retreat cynic became a believer. Additionally, despite a difference in lifestyle with my retreat-mates, there was something cathartic and noble about 20 random strangers earnestly discussing life’s challenges.

It would be silly to say I’d develop a permanent state of zen, because that’s impossible. But I do have a greater appreciation for all my thoughts. The dark ones, the happy ones, the one’s I realized aren’t that clever or intelligent (which are many). I have a little more appreciation for others and the realization that we all will move through life at our own pace.

So maybe next time when you’re trying to book a ticket via agent, realize that the other person on the phone is trying to do their best, and you will eventually reach your destination. If an Amazon box is delayed, understand will get your package and what’s in it isn’t really that important, and the five days you spend with your family over the holidays will end soon enough.

To find some mental bliss in life, all you must do is attempt to let the things in life you can’t control unfold in their own right… and avoid watching any Julia Robert’s movies.

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