‘Just sitting’ at the zazen weekend retreat

zazen retreat

 

For the past few years, I would spend one February weekend attending an annual zazen retreat organised by my zazen group at a farm outside of London. Our zazen group is quite small, so most of us know each other quite well. People come and go, and there is no pressure to attend the sessions regularly.

The path that brought me to my teacher and the group was windy, but it was worth it. After my teacher moved away from the UK, the annual retreat would be a good opportunity to spend quality time with him and listen to his talks. Our group’s practice is based on the teachings taught by the 13th century Japanese Zen master, Dogen Zenji, who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan. However, our group is not associated with any Soto zen organisation or institution, since my teacher (and his teacher) do not like the hiercharchy, rigidity and dogma of any organisation – even the Buddhist ones.

 

zazen retreat

 

Due to my upbringing, I have felt like an ‘outsider’ all my life, and I never felt the need to belong to a group, yet my views changed since I became a regular at my zazen group. In Buddhism, Sangha means a community of fellow practitioners, and it is the third of the Three Jewels (the other two are The Buddha and The Dharma i.e. the teachings), so it is an important part of the practice. Practising with a group of people from all walks of life is not only interesting, it also broadens my horizon. They are not friends who I hang out with, though they are more than acquaintances, and I know I can turn to some for support if I need it. I dislike clique groups, so perhaps the reason why I like this group is that we tend to maintain an adequate distance between us. Low-key and friendly, but not cliquey.

 

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There are many misconceptions regarding zazen. I want to clarify that the zazen practice taught by Dogen is neither mindfulness nor meditation. It is not about emptying the mind, finding happiness, or seeking enlightenment (this is the major difference between Soto and Rinzai Zen); the core of Dogen‘s teaching is Shikantaza, which can be translated to ‘just sitting’. This form of practice was introduced to Dogen by his Chinese teacher, Rujing, a monk of the Caodong school of Zen Buddhism in China. Unlike other kinds of meditation practice, it does not require you to focus your attention on the breathing or solve a koan or visualise, instead you just sit in a full or half lotus position (if possible) wholeheartedly and be aware of your body-mind (N.B. body and mind is not separate). This kind of practice is more difficult, but over time, you would become more aware of all the sensations in your body and the fleeting thoughts that come and go. Letting go of thoughts, stories and images does not involve conscious effort, as long as you don’t grasp or dwell on them, they would eventually fade away.

When you sit without trying, aiming or judging, you may experience what Dogen describes as shin-jin-datsu-raku, which meansbody-mind dropping off(originally translated from Chinese). Of course, he does not mean it literally, but from my experience, it feels like there is more ‘space, clarity, openness and calmness’ within. This is not a state that you can seek, it happens naturally, and without making any effort. All the effort you need in zazen is to keep your body relaxed and upright, yet this is easier said than done.

 

lower shaw farm

 

Zazen is crucial if you want to understand Zen Buddhism because it is experiential. You can learn Buddhist ethics and teachings from many books, but zazen is not an intellectual practice, it is an ‘action’ that does not involve thinking. My teacher often emphasise that zazen is not about sitting still, rather it is an action that requires constant adjusting and you can only find balance through the subtle adjustments and movements. It is like walking on a tightrope or riding a bicycle – both are balancing acts that require adjustments of the postures.

“Zazen is good for nothing” is a quote by the prominent Japanese Soto Zen teacher Kodo Sawaki (who died in 1965), which completely contradicts other goal-oriented spiritual practices. Zazen is not about self-improvement, and it does not make you a better person; to me, it is more about acceptance and awareness. After practising zazen for 6 years (and prior to it, I spent 6 years practising different forms of meditation), now I simply enjoy the act of ‘just sitting’. I don’t sit because I want to be in a different state, I sit because I want to, even when I feel down/happy/conflicted… We all have the tendency to want to escape from reality, but the truth is it never works. Although practising has not always been easy, it has become a habit to me (like brushing my teeth) and I would miss it if I don’t sit for a while.

 

zazen retreat

 

Many people think of retreats as some kind of spa holiday where you would relax for days – nothing could be further from the truth! It is actually exhausting to sit in a upright position for 4-5 hours a day. We would start each day at 7am and end after 9pm, and the day is filled with different work duties (samu in Japanese), hence a retreat is hardly a holiday. However, after just a weekend of sitting and time away from my digital devices, I usually would feel quite uplifted despite the aches and pains in my body.

Like my teacher would say, “After a weekend of sitting, all the stiffness in our bodies would ‘drop off’ and this would be revealed in our postures”. Surprisingly, our sitting postures reveal a lot about the states of our body-mind. According to some cognitive and neuroscience research, the balance state of the autonomic nervous system is one of the benefits of the practice. Besides the health benefit, Kodo Sawaki Roshi said that “Zazen is to tune into the universe”. I believe that zazen is just one of the many methods that enable us to let go of our self-centredness and be more connected to the universe. If all of us can find a method to feel this connectedness, then perhaps our world would one day become integrated and harmonious.

 

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Silent walking weekend

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As a keen hiker/walker, I have joined various walking groups and did many day hikes/walks out of London in recent years. Walking aside, these groups are sociable and provide opportunities to meet and mingle with other walkers who live in London.

Lately, however, I find some group leaders overly keen to get to the destinations (i.e pubs), so it is hard to absorb the scenery except during the picnic break. Other times, we are all just too busy chatting or taking photographs that we completely miss what is in front of us.

Hence this summer I did fewer walks than the previous years and instead booked myself onto a Silent walking weekend retreat at Gayles retreat near Eastbourne. The retreat also includes yoga and meditation sessions, so it is an ideal holistic weekend for a stressed Londoner!

The location of the retreat is situated within the Seven Sisters country park near the Birling gap coastline. The retreat serves delicious vegetarian and vegan meals with most of the ingredients grown and picked from their garden. I loved seeing their chickens wandering around the garden, very free range indeed!

 

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Some of my friends do not understand what ‘retreats’ mean (they think it’s some kind of luxury spa holidays) nor do they understand why I would go so regularly. As a business owner, it is hard to switch off especially if you are doing four people’s jobs at the same time, and I often need the time and space for myself. In this day and age, not only we are bombarded by information, overwhelmed by endless choices, we are also surrounded by noises all the time (outside and inside). Simplicity and tranquility is something that I long for, but I would have to consciously make time and effort for it as city and work life is always hectic. I also like to get out of my comfort zone sometimes, because it allows me to see the bigger picture and observe own my neurotic mindset or behaviour!

 

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Silent retreats can be hard for people who have never done it before, because in silence, we have no choice but to face our inner conflicts and cluttered mind. And at this retreat, we spent most of the time in silence, photography was also forbidden during the walks (these photos were taken after the silence ended).

Silent walking/hiking is a meditative activity. It allows your senses to open up and be as close to nature as you possible can. The only distraction is your own mind. On the first day, I was aware of my wandering mind during the walk, but on the second day, I noticed that it was much calmer and thanks to the yoga sessions, my body felt less tense too.

On the first walk, we saw skeins of wild geese from all directions gathering at a pond, it was a spectacular sight that took all of our breaths away! On the second day, we walked along the stunning coastline and spent some time on a deserted beach listening to the sound of waves and enjoying the warmth of the sun on our skin. These moments were very special and not something that I could experience often living in the city.

 

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Although I fully appreciated the silent walks without the use of photography, I have also been wondering about the relationship between mindfulness and photography lately. Does photography really interfere with the present moment? Even though I am an amateur photographer who lacks advanced skills and techniques, I enjoy the process and often find it immensely meditative as I am so aware of what I am seeing that I would forget about everything else. Then I found an article called photography and mediation by the Buddhist teacher/author/photographer Stephen Batchelor and he addresses the query that has been bothering me for a while. In the article, he explains the parallels between photography and meditation, and I especially resonate with the last sentence, “For both paths (photography and mediation) have served to deepen my understanding of the fleeting, poignant and utterly contingent nature of things.”

Surprisingly, there are many books on the topic of photography and mediation or mindful photography, and John Suler‘s Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche is one of them. His article, Mindfulness and photography also explores the relationship between the two activities with great insights. Photography can be a mindful exercise if we understand the essence of the two activities and adopt an attitude that is open, non-judgemental and not ego-driven. And the more you are aware of your environment, the more likely you will capture THE moment for some great photography.

 

A week of silence in Devon

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Main: The 13th century Grade I listed West Ogwell Church; bottom right: Gaia house

 

Not long after I returned from Asia, I went to Devon for my first week-long silent meditation retreat at Gaia House, a well-known Buddhist meditation retreat centre which was a former convent. Although I have been meditating regularly for the a number of years and have been to various group meditation retreats including weekend silent ones, I still found the idea of not communicating, reading nor writing for a week rather daunting.

The reason why I wanted to do this particular retreat was because of the retreat teachers, Martine & Stephen Batchelor. I have read some of Stephen‘s books and articles, and I found his agnostic and secular approach towards Buddhism stimulating and appealing. As someone who has issues with hierarchies and institutions, for years I struggled to fit into one particular Buddhist institution/organisation even though I found the Buddhist teachings, ethics and meditation immensely beneficial. I was particular bothered by some Buddhists who apply the dogmatic attitude from other religions to Buddhism. Personally, I don’t regard Buddhism as a religion nor merely a philosophy. From what I understand, Buddhism is essentially a practice and training, it is about our direct experiences rather than a theory or a dogma.

Martine and Stephen‘s teachings are scientific (In fact, Buddhism has many parallels with science), rational, practical and most of all, contemporary. They emphasise the importance of Buddhist ethics/values while using meditation as a practical tool. Instead of treating the four Noble truths as a set of doctrine or rules, Stephen suggests that they can be viewed as ‘tasks’ to be performed in our daily lives. His thought-provoking insights may not be accepted by many traditional Buddhists, but they resonate well with me.

Judging from the popularity of their retreats (they have been leading this since the 80s), talks and books, I know I am not the only person who has difficulties with the traditional approaches and institutions. Their retreats are free from religious rituals and chanting which suit me well too. While some people like to call themselves secular Buddhists, I don’t think a label is necessary as it ends up segregating and confining people into boxes, which I think is pointless. Our constant need to identify ourselves with certain groups is an act that confines and limits us, and ultimately leads to unnecessary conflicts and discrimination.

 

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The first two days at the retreat were extremely difficult as I was not familiar with the surrounding and sharing a room with four strangers without direct communication was an awkward experience. Yet the most challenging part was the long sitting meditation sessions (about 6 hours per day excluding the walking meditation), which caused much aches and pain for all of us.

Nevertheless, things started to change on the third day, and instead of counting the days/hours (and wondering why I was torturing myself), I started to lose track of time and began to ‘enjoy’ my experience while accepting the aches and other uncomfortable feelings. During one listening meditation session, I was able to detect sounds from five different birds outside, which I found quite exhilarating as it seldom happens in the city.

 

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When friends asked me what I did for a week without talking, reading nor writing, I said, “Aside from meditation and walking… NOTHING!” I did not even take photographs until the last day as I did not want to be occupied by the act either. The best thing about these retreats is that they allow us to just ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ as we are so preoccupied with doing and thinking these days that most of us have forgotten how to ‘be’ anymore. Our culture today does not celebrate idleness, so the idea of not doing anything sounds completely absurd to many. Yet with my work, I always have to be ‘connected’ and so it was a liberation for me to enjoy the silence, idleness and nature without distraction from the outside world.

 

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Martine and Stephen‘s teaching styles are distinctively different, Stephen is rational, articulate, philosophical and thought-provoking with a sense of irony; whereas Martine is light-hearted, engaging and practical, yet they complement each other very well. Their emphasis on how to creatively engage ourselves in different situations is perhaps one of the reasons why many of the retreatants (I later learned) are from the creative industry. At the end of the retreat, they reminded us that the most important aspect of the retreat was to apply what we learned and incorporate it into our daily lives. Having been to many meditation retreats before, this was by far the most challenging yet fulfilling and much clarity was gained during and after the retreat.

After spending so much time in nature, I almost did not want to leave… I loved walking in the countryside (even though I did get lost one day and ended up in the nearby village asking for directions), and spending time observing nature and sheep (they are quite adorable). And after I got back to London, I noticed that my senses were stronger than ever, not only I could detect odour from my surroundings (not recommended on tubes and other public transport), but I could even differentiate layers of different sounds! Though it was a challenging retreat, it was also extremely rewarding and I would most definitely do it again in the future.

 

A very special Christmas retreat

Recently a few people have asked me this question: “Why do you continue to go to these meditation retreats?” My answer is simple: I need to get away from the city, work, stress and reconnect with nature and myself. Retreats help me to detox my body and mind, when you are cut off from the outside world and external distractions, you naturally become more in tune with what is going on internally.

I nor my family have ever been bothered about Christmas and New Year, but since the business started 2 years ago, the month of December has turned into the busiest and most stressful time for me. Hence this year I decided to go on my first Christmas meditation retreat ( though I have previously been on New Year ones) to get away from the excess consumption during this period, and the location is Devon at the Sharpham estate run by the Sharpham Trust.

 

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Like many other retreaters, I originally wanted to go to the Barn retreat, which is also within the estate; but due to the limited numbers, it was already fully booked when I looked in September. And so I turned to the Sharpham house, a new location that is used for the first time to host Christmas and New Year retreats.

This retreat was special largely due to the stunning house and spectacular location overlooking river Dart. Designed in 1770 by the famous architect, Sir Robert Taylor ( who designed the Bank of England), the Palladian-style house is not only rich in history, it is also full of wonderful art works including 2 sculptures by Barbara Hepworth in the entrance hall and sculptures by Jacob Lane.

 

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Top left: the front door; top middle: the back door; top right: a ‘secret’ safe in the bathroom wall’; second row left: entrance hall with a compass on the floor; second row right: Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture in the entrance hall; third and last row: the magnificent staircase; Fourth row left: The Octagonal room; fourth row right: The music room; Fifth row left: my bedroom (!); fifth row right: books about the trust/ house.

 

I was slightly gobsmacked when the taxi drove into the estate as I had no idea of the how much land ( 550 acres) the estate occupies! And this includes a farm used for educational outdoors project and a diary farm and vineyard that produce a range of award-winning cheeses and wine!

Upon arrival, I was asked to pick a folder on the table and in it contained the name of my bedroom… so by some fortunate luck, I was assigned to one of the best rooms in the house. Walking up one of the most beautiful staircase that I have ever come across, I was rather astonished when I saw my very high four poster bed ( which reminded me of the Princess and the pea story) and the river view from the bedroom window. It felt so surreal to be doing a retreat in this grand/ Downton Abbey-style setting, but then again, why not? To be honest, I can’t think of a better location to spend Christmas than this place!

 

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Top middle: a brronze sculpture in the garden; Top right: the bathing house; Main: A view of the house and Jacob Lane’s Seven stones/ Temple to pan sculptures; Third row middle and right: the Quarry; Fourth row right: the boat house

 

I have been to more intensive mediation retreats before, but being completely exhausted mentally and physically before I even arrived, a more relaxing and flexible meditation retreat was what I needed. Apart from three short meditation and a sharing sessions each day, we were also offered optional qi gong, yoga and walks. The timetable was flexible with plenty of free time, and so I took the opportunity to go for walks, read or just take naps ( which turned out to be what my body needed)! With the stunning view from my room, I was able to watch the storm ( we were lucky to be safe inside this villa during the storm), the rain, dawn and sunrise. Living in the city, it is hard to see the sun rising from the horizon, so I will always cherish the moments sitting by the window and observing the beauty of nature.

 

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At retreats, you are put into a confined space with a group of strangers from all walks of life for a short period of time, so you will meet people you are likely to bond with and people who you don’t get along or have difficulties with. In situations like this (which we often encounter in real life as well), we have nowhere to run but to confront our feelings and deal with the situation. This is also part of the challenge of a retreat, but I think it is a small test for us to try and cope with the situation in a positive manner, which subsequently will help us to deal with similar situations in real life.

 

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After almost a week of no contact with the outside world, no calendars nor clocks to check the time and dates, I completely lost track of time and date when I left. It actually felt good to be slightly disorientated because I am so used to checking my schedules and planning my timetable most of the time. Suddenly, all the so-called ‘important matters’ didn’t seem so important anymore, and I didn’t feel like I needed to get things done asap. Instead, I felt calm, content, healthy ( thanks to all the delicious organic food and no alcohol) and best of all, I slowed down and I started to change my old habits.

 

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The retreat was a wonderful way to end the year for me, and now I am feeling positive about the coming year. If you can’t afford the time or money to do a retreat, then a walk in the countryside or even in a park may help you to wind down, but most importantly, we need to ‘unplug’ from technology now and again to stop ourselves being constantly distracted from the external world. The older I get, the more I believe that “Mother nature has all the answers”, and all we have to do is to protect and observe it.

I wish everyone will have a stress-free and healthy year ahead. Happy New Year to you all!

 

Retreat aftermath

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Stunning scenery from the train journey between Edinburgh and Newcastle

 

It has been about 5 days since I returned from Scotland, and I am still feeling slightly disorientated ( which seems to always happen after a week-long retreat).

I remember on the day of departure, some retreat friends and I had some spare time and decided to grab a quick lunch in Edinburgh city centre before taking the train/ plane back home. This turned out to be a discomforting experience because it was the opening day of the Edinburgh festival and the city was completely packed! Not only did we have to fight our way through the crowds with our baggages, I was also highly sensitive to the noise level, people’s facial expressions and even the colours of passerby’s clothing ( I found it hard to adjust to the sharp bright colours after seeing mostly ‘green’ all week)!

The train ride back was not much better either, the air-conditioning unit broke down in many of the coaches ( including mine), so it was like sitting in a sauna… but for 4 1/2 hours! The toilets were blocked and the staff were grumpy, the only consolation was the beautiful scenery outside of the window esp. the from Edinburgh to Newcastle. I felt like I was being ‘tested’ after a mindful retreat… I had to tell myself: Welcome back to reality!

 

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Back at my desk, I am aware of the emails that I need to reply to, the office supplies I need to order, and the large amount of preparation that I need to work on for the upcoming new collection and Christmas season. Despite feeling positive and energised after the retreat, I was feeling slightly overwhelmed as well. Images of the retreat, people, the loch and its surroundings kept popping into my head, and eventually I had to leave my desk to meditate for a while.

From my past experiences, I knew I would be feeling more emotional and sensitive after the retreat, but perhaps it is not so negative in my case. Since I decided to start this business, it has been an extremely ‘lonely’ experience, even with the support from people around me ( and sometimes from strangers), often I am unable to express my frustration and anxieties to others. I love what I do and am grateful that I am able to pursue my dream, but I cannot say that it has been an easy journey. The most difficult part is to find a balance, whether it is between commercial and conceptual options or work and life, there are so many decisions that have to be made and most of time, it’s about taking risks. Even as I am writing this, I find myself feeling ‘exposed’ as I have no idea who will read this and I am not used to being so ‘public’. Often I am wondering how much of ‘me’ should be exposed and how much should be kept private? Where do I draw the line?

I think the retreat has allowed me to reflect, feel vulnerable… and perhaps slow down a little. In life, often we are so focused on the destination that we forget to enjoy the journey, and even if the journey is not always pleasant, it is best to sit through it with awareness rather than trying to run away from it. I know that there is nowhere for me to run to, work still needs to be done and decisions still need to be made, but the best thing that I can do is to take it one step at a time… slowly and mindfully.

Like a miracle, once I became aware of this, I woke up this morning with many positive news relating to work ( and more support from strangers and new friends) all within a day! Is this the result of all the positive energy generated during the retreat? I would like to think so.

 

Summer retreat in Scotland

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Top left and right: Dhanakosa; Main: Loch voil

 

What is your ideal summer holiday? Sun and beach? Doing eurorail across Europe? Or adventures in South America? After spending three months traveling and working in Asia earlier in the year, I felt the need to give myself some ‘me’ time and space, and to get away from the city, work and responsibilities.

I realised that it has been almost 1 1/2 year since I have been on a meditation retreat, and I felt that it was time to do one again. I didn’t want to travel out of U.K. and wanted to combine it with some hiking, so this easily limited my options to only a few places…

Finally, I opted for Dhanakosa, a remote Buddhist meditation retreat centre located in an idyllic setting by Loch Voil in Scotland. I was slightly concerned about the indirect travel routes at the beginning, but then I decided to leave a day early to get to the ‘biggest’ nearby town, Stirling to do some sightseeing before the retreat. Actually Stirling is hardly a big town, it was easy to walk around and I ended up spending hours exploring the historical Stirling castle and nearby sites on the day of arrival.

 

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Top left: The Erskine monument in Stirling; top right: Stirling castle; bottom left: Kings knot garden; bottom right: Wallace monument

 

Getting to Dhanakosa was slightly easier than I thought ( even though I had to take 2 buses and a taxi ride from Stirling), and I was completely taken by the scenery as I was traveling towards the retreat centre. Upon arrival, I felt so joyful because of the stunning surroundings and location of the retreat. Instinctively, I just knew this retreat would be a special one. And I was right.

 

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For many people, a media-free week might sound like a daunting idea, but for me, it was exactly what I needed. No tweets, posts, texts, emails, phone calls, TV, radio, newspaper and music… just nature and a group of strangers.

Now back home in front of my computer, words fail to describe my feelings… contentment, joyful, grateful, peaceful, relaxed, reflective, energised… is it possible to feel all of the above at the same time?

 

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In the last few years, I have been to various types of retreats (mostly gardening ones) and I have learned not to compare my experiences because each one was unique, largely due to my state of mind at the time. However, I would say that this was probably the most fun and relaxing retreat that I have ever been to. Even though I noticed my mind constantly being distracted during the meditation sessions, it would immediately calm down when I was out in nature. Observing nature allowed my mind to rest, and standing by the loch alone, I could feel the sun, hear the wind, birds, insects, which all made me feel immensely peaceful.

 

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On this retreat, we experienced the typical Scottish weather while we were out hiking, showers, sun and heavy rain… we were completely drenched one afternoon, and even my 5000 mm waterproof jacket and leather hiking boots could not save me from being completely soaked from head to toe!

 

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Aside from the beauty of nature, what touched me most was the group of strangers whom I spent the week with. There was so much laughter, joy and harmony, and because we knew it was an experience that could never be repeated, we all cherished the time spent together.

For those of you who were at this retreat ( if you ever get to read this), I want to thank you all ( especially the retreat leaders and team members) for giving me one of the best summer ‘holidays’ that I could ever wish for!

 

Silent meditation retreat

 

Not so many years ago, I used to enjoy the ‘cool’ lifestyle. Then one day, this lifestyle became superficial and meaningless to me, and my life took a very drastic change.

I never would have imagined myself becoming a nature-loving person who would regularly hike, meditate and go on retreats in the most basic accommodations with strangers from all ages and backgrounds (this surprised most of my friends too). In the past, my ideal out-of-London weekend would revolve around consumption: Being taken to swanky country hotels, enjoying multi-courses dinners that fulfill my senses and then shopping at outlets for hours before returning back to London! I don’t regret those hedonistic days, but getting older (and perhaps slightly wiser) means my priorities in life have changed completely.

 

 

These days, walking boots and fleece are items that I cannot live without; blissful moments occur when I meander in the countryside and be in touch with nature. Spending a weekend meditating with almost 40 people in silence made me become more aware of the noise in my head and sounds that I would normally miss when I am in the city.

Watching sunrise, clear night sky with countless of stars and hearing sounds of birds and wind made me realise that abandoning the ‘cool’ lifestyle turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.