On a recent business trip to Dubai, I had a few unscheduled days, so I booked a three-day personal retreat at an Ayurvedic center in the state of Kerala, on India’s tropical Malabar Coast.
The night flight landed in Trivandrum at four o’clock in the morning. A sleepy driver loyally held a sign with my name on it and off we went, driving through the relatively quiet hours of Kerala’s capital city. The city was just beginning to come alive – people on bikes, stray dogs, smoldering fires, crazy tangles of electrical wire, chai walls setting up their stalls for the day, colonial style churches, Muslim mosques, flower sellers outside of Hindu temples laying out marigolds garlands – the scene rolled by like the opening credits of a movie.
It had been a few years since I’d been to India and I had forgotten just how chaotic the place is.
Once settled into my simple cottage (I did splurge on air-conditioning – it was April and already very hot and steamy) I was grateful for the solitude. The resort provided a stunning physical setting in the Western Ghats, complete with gardens home to prehistoric-looking butterflies as big as a fist, perfect for the hours of contemplation I had planned.
The staff was kind and accommodating, and delicious south Indian food was cooked lovingly and with authority in a spotless kitchen by a local woman named Khala. But what mattered most to me wasn’t what came with my room, but what didn’t: there was no internet, no coffee and no wine. (Technically, they did have wifi and coffee available, but I pretended that they offered neither.) Cell phone service was spotty as well, so basically, I was out of reach and so were my vices, which was exactly why I came.
For three days I made a conscious decision to drop out and tune in. Drop out of facebook and email. Turn off the cell phone. No drinking, no binge watching The Good Wife or House of Cards. No almond milk latté to wake up to. No yoga classes set to alt-indie music. No deadlines. No clients. No NPR. Just me.
The thing is, it’s hard being with yourself without the accompaniment of distractions.
Day one: A blissful illusion. I sat on my porch, read my book and watched the pre-historic butterflies. Oh, isn’t this nice! I exclaimed to myself. Aren’t I enlightened? So smug.
Day two: I started to get antsy. I missed my walks. It was too bloody hot to walk in the afternoon, and my Ayurvedic treatments had to be done before the sun was high, so that left out the cool mornings. My legs were getting jiggly, I was certain.
Day three: I convinced myself that I was bored. Seriously? Bored? I was in India for Shiva’s sake. The truth is I was in detox. I was suffering withdrawal from my addiction to my busy routine, and annoyed with myself that I couldn’t simply relax. I told myself I should be writing poetry. Journaling. Blogging. Discovering some profound truth when all I wanted to do was sleep. So then I beat myself up for being lazy.
In reality, I had it made. I was receiving two loving Ayurvedic treatments a day, being cooked for and all I had to do was sit on my porch and watch the butterflies.
Finally, on the final afternoon of my stay, as I braved the thick air to scurry up the hill behind the resort to sit in silence at the Kali temple, I got it. Sitting alone atop the highest point in the area, looking down on the quiet tree-covered hills I realized that my mind was playing me.
Until that very moment, I had no idea how attached I was. Attached to my busy routine, attached to my long morning walks with my poodle Oscar, and attached to a bit of crazy.
It wasn’t India that was chaotic, it was my mind.
We know that no matter where we go, there we are. Yet sometimes it takes stepping outside of the familiar to get it. Mired in the drama of our day, it’s easy to lose track of how distracted our minds actually are.
At home amidst our routines, we believe we are doing the work. We might eat a mostly-vegetarian diet, meditate a little and move our body. Yet our minds still drag us all over the show. We train our bodies, yet we resist training our minds.
Maybe this is why the ancient sages went to the mountaintop – to escape the noise of daily life so they could tune in to what was truly happening. We don’t have to fly to India, but surely we can take a few minutes most days to let our minds settle. Take a walk in nature. Sit on the porch and watch the sunset. Unplug and enjoy the beauty of simply being alone.