When I told my Jewish, slightly over-protective, hyper-logical mother that I had decided to spend my college semester abroad learning to meditate at a Buddhist monastery in India, her concerns, comments and questions were as follows ― numerically ordered to indicate her level of worry:
What if you decide to convert to Buddhism and stop being a Jew?
What if my grandchildren aren’t Jewish because you’re now a Buddhist and no longer a Jew?
How are you going to manage your anxiety?
Why wouldn’t you just go to France, where you speak the language?
Why can’t you meditate in America?
What will you do if you get sick?
Is it like Eat Pray Love?
Is this really necessary?
How often can you call home?
And most importantly, do they have toilet paper?
My reasoning behind the choice to spend my semester abroad this way had been less linear ― more driven by gut and curiosity than by the constant ping-pong of “what ifs” that lives inside my brain during most waking hours.
As I sat in the dean’s office finishing my final registration papers and second-guessing myself into going to Paris or Dublin instead, something in me signed on the dotted line faster than my brain could tell my pen to halt. When else am I going to get a chance to live in a Buddhist monastery in the northeast of India with 36 other college kids trying to figure out what life is all about?
I wish I could tell you that it proved the most magical three months of my life. That I came back glowing, lighter, relieved of my neuroses and a fan of curry. That I ate and that I prayed and that I loved. That meditation stilled me and cleared the gunk. But that isn’t the truth.
Instead, I found myself face-to-face with my own anxiety ― with my fear of uncertainty, with my attachment to material comfort, with my shaky sense of self, with my inability to sit still, and with the ways I didn’t like myself.
The months I spent in India left me unhinged and dismantled. So much so that I had to come back to the U.S. three weeks earlier than the rest of the group, my insomnia and panic attacks making it impossible for me to continue to the independent study part of the program.
It turns out, as many have said, this is exactly what’s supposed to happen on a spiritual pilgrimage to India.
Your states of mind are reflected back to you more loudly than you can bear to see them. And you can’t look away. It makes you raw, pulls off a layer of your skin. The impulse to let the layer grow back is almost a compulsive urge. But they tell you not to let it grow back. They tell you to let yourself stay exposed and vulnerable. They say this is how you learn to tolerate yourself. And then eventually, love yourself.
“Clearly,” I thought, “these people have never suffered from an anxiety disorder.”
At the monastery, we lived like monks ― no phone, no computer, no TV. We were each given one plate, one spoon, one fork and one knife, which we had to wash after every meal and bring with us to the next one. We followed the five Buddhist precepts, which I am certain were not created with angsty college kids in mind ― no alcohol, no sex, no gossip, no stealing and no killing (this one was the least difficult to abide by, though the mosquitos were incessant).
In Buddhism, the five precepts are considered the basis of morality ― like the Ten Commandments in Judaism or the Five Pillars in Islam. But for us, they were there to disarm; to remove the buffers between us and the feelings we deemed too itchy to feel. With nothing or no one to take the edge off, we were asked to confront our emotional allergies to loneliness, growth, change, lack of resolution, uncertainty and loss of control.
Each day, a bell woke us at 4:30 a.m., and we groggily walked to the Buddha Hall for morning meditation, followed by silent breakfast. After breakfast, we had two academic classes, followed by lunch, yoga, teatime and evening meditation. On most days, we were in bed by 8 PM, exhausted from the day’s heat and our emotional scavenging.
Despite the early bedtime, the days felt endless. Aside from the basic tasks of daily living, there was nothing to really do at the monastery. Nothing to plan or schedule or scroll through ― the concept of productivity rendered almost entirely obsolete. The days seemed tranquil and cozy and pleasant. My brain, on the other hand? Not so much.
I can’t help but see parallels between my time in the monastery and the quarantine we find ourselves in now ― the toilet paper is scarce, it’s unclear when one day ends and another begins, and my anxiety is once again by my side, begging for attention.
This time is not voluntary, but in many ways, it is an opening. For those of us who are being forced to spend more time alone, this is an opportunity to go inward, to get quiet, to get intimate with our own, often unruly, minds.
Although I am living at home with my mom, being with my own thoughts this closely, for this many days, can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. In some moments of antsiness and boredom and low self-esteem, I would rather do anything other than sit here. I want to grab for things I am convinced can make the loneliness better ― productivity which leads to validation from others, busyness which keeps me moving just fast enough so I don’t have to acknowledge that I feel sad, scheduling back-to-back virtual hangouts so I can quell the small voice inside that tells me that people don’t like me.
When I left India, I had a sense that it was a gift that my crutches and coping mechanisms were not available to me. Even in these difficult moments, I feel the same gratitude for this quarantine. I have no choice but to self-soothe instead of relying on external fixes. I am infusing my heart with courage as I practice tolerating my uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions without numbing them, escaping from them or distracting myself.
I am remembering that people, places and things cannot fill a void of low self-esteem or reverse my tendency for self-criticism. I am getting to know the types of thoughts that go through my head and the feelings that pulse through my body like I would get to know a new friend. I am trying so hard not to judge myself for what I notice.
I am reminded that my anxiety, whether it’s caused by a chemical imbalance or a flurry of “what if,” worst-case-scenario thoughts, is simply a messenger. When I slow down, and my distractions are at a distance, anxiety wells up to tell me that there is some grief to be felt and some loss to be weathered.
Every morning, I’ve been rereading something one of the monks told me after evening meditation ― “Hardship is the greater of the two blessings. The purifying rather than the blissful, insightful ones that we all like. The ones that make it so hard you want to run away are perhaps the blessings we are all waiting for ― the ones we don’t want, but really need.”
At the monastery, the idea that there was nowhere to go completely terrified me. In quarantine, I am working to see it as a gentle reminder that I am good enough as I am, that this moment is good enough as it is, and that I am right where I am supposed to be. “There’s no rush, sweetheart. You’re OK and safe right here,” I whisper to myself when the restlessness overtakes me.
Amid all the uncertainty, one thing I know for sure. In the middle of the night, when my heart pounds and my thoughts are racing, I am the person I am with. That’s the person who is keeping me company and the one I am getting another opportunity to befriend.
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