Finally an update! The last leg of my trip has taken me to Asia. After a cultural immersion in Iran and a close encounter with nature in the Himalayas it was time for some sprituality and personal growth.
Randomly enough, it was on the white sand beaches of Kenya that I first heard about Kopan Monastery. Yet another example of how travelling flexibly without an itinerary or a timetable leads only to good things.
Kopan is a buddhist temple tucked away in the hills outside Kathmandu, Nepal. I visited them to participate in a 10-day course entitled Discovering Buddhism, which the monastery has been offering since the mid-1970s when the first hippies descending onto Nepal.
When I applied, the course was still called “Introduction to buddhism and meditation” and so I expected to learn some basic meditation tricks and listen to some light, new age talk on reaching my full potential. Nothing like that! The course was a full-blown overview of the main buddhist teachings. The topics varied from more familiar stuff such as karma or importance of compassion to more fundamental and harder-to-grasp ideas of equanimity, non-duality, death and rebirth.
The Buddhists do not believe in god, rules or ready-made paths to spiritual growth. Rather, they teach that if any spiritual realisation is to be beneficial to an individual, it must spring from her or his own analysis and experience. This is why, after each lecture, the monks and nuns lead us in guided analitical meditations during which we focussed on the presented ideas and investigated how they resonate with us. We meditated on the value of our life, its purpose, how to increase compassion towards others, how to see all the people as equal and on other topics, including on the death process and how it can occur any minute now. Powerful stuff!
The impact of the meditations was strenghtened by the silence that we had to keep each day from dinner to after lunch the following day. By pinning a yellow ribbon on your chest you communicated to the other participants that you wanted to remain silent 24/7. To disconnect the brain from the outside world, all electronic devices had to be checked-in with the monks at the beginning of the course.
Before starting the course, the complete seclusion worried me a bit. In a world where endless chats (not to mention the ever-so-urgent work emails) have to be responded immediately, Facebook likes appreciated a dozen times a day to keep one’s self-image strong and news refreshed hourly to make sure we didn’t miss an impeachment, the idea of disconnecting is scary. What will become of me if one day Whatsapp does not buzz at least 20 times?? The same goes for in-person conversations. How often we speak and speak with not much to say just to keep our egos tamed and so that we do not have to face the silence or listen to the other person.
To my surprise, however, the experience of silence was soothing and very enjoyable. The first day I decided to stay completely quiet and stayed so for the whole 10 days. It was probably the most revealing experience of my whole trip. After a couple of days of nothing polluting your brain, the mind slows down and becomes calm. It feels like inhaling a lungful of fresh mountain air only that you are doing it with your mind. The ego stops its eternal grind. The comparison of everything with everything else ceases. The constant planning for the next step makes no more sense as there is nothing to plan. In this empty space, your head is fresh, your mind reset. Thoughts become clearer and conclusions sometimes painfully simple. Most of all, with only three to four ideas worth focussing on every day, the process of thinking regains its sharpness and pleasantness. The difference is huge.
The long silence revealed something else. Leaving the monastery after 10 days of silence I was very aware of every word I said. This strong awareness only lasted for a couple of days but that was enough to realise that each word, each sentence, each idea takes energy to be expressed and understood by the other person. Being aware of this, I repeatedly stopped myself from speaking because the words I was about to say were either not necessary, not kind, did not contribute meaningfully to the conversation or did not engage the person I was speaking to. During these few days I experienced very palpably that most of the words we say are redundant. This was a powerful insight that I am now working on strengthening and keeping with me as I slowly prepare to return home to a world where keeping words rare and kind will be more challenging.
But challenges are what keeps us going. And if I ever feel like I’m losing the battle, I can always return to the Himalayas to search for more silence.