Until recently, I thought that meditation was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and didn’t want anything to do with the oh-so-trendy Eastern philosophies. I knew about people who had “found themselves” after visiting temples in Asia but this seemed like an even bigger bunch of bullshit. Especially after I went to many temples in Indonesia and was never struck by enlightenment. However, my last journey in Asia suddenly changed my mind and I felt compelled to experiment with meditation.

This spring, I embarked on my first adventure as a solo female traveler – 5 weeks in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Setting off, I had few expectations but was tuned up to parties and fun in the sun, not spiritual growth. This was not going to be my journey to Mecca.

is meditation bullshit
Photo: Ishan @seefromthesky

Stumbling Upon Meditation

Thailand is a famous spot for elderly westerners to find young company. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. And you’ll definitely see it. Still, when I arrived in Chiang Mai, I was surprised to find that the focus was more on startups and spirituality than love by the hour. During my first days in Chiang Mai, I had plenty of free time on my hands and decided to trust the Lonely Planet travel guide, which boasted about the city’s many temples. I channeled the cliché-tourist we all love to hate, camera swinging from my shoulder, map blowing in the wind.

It would be hard (and to be honest – probably kind of boring) to see all the temples in Chiang Mai. But Wat Chedi Luang quickly caught my eye. Groups of pilgrims seemed drawn to the temple, by the Buddhist music coming from within. Inside, I found myself sticking out in a sea of people who were neatly seated on their pillows. Embarrassment forced my hand and I too grabbed a pillow.

Buddhist temples can be visually overwhelming – gilded statues, shiny stupas, colorful flags, scarlet rugs, and brightly depicted stories on the walls. It made my head spin and, complemented by the chant of the monks, left me sitting quietly, in awe. After the prayer began some sort of a meditation ritual, which completely confused me and yet I felt a bit lighter, walking out of the temple. I wondered if meditation, a practice I always dismissed, might have some merit after all.

Photo: Austin Neill

Walking Meditation at the Silver Temple, Thailand

The second time I tried meditation was accidental as well. A friend and I had set off to attend the monk chats, held solely in Chiang Mai. My natural tendency to do everything at the last minute, combined with Asian time (which is never on time) made us late for talking to the monks. After the chats, a walking meditation practice had begun. It’s a process where you pace as slowly as possible, while acknowledging every movement of your body. The idea is to stay focused on the present, rather than get carried off into the past or future. It all just seemed too weird, and I elbowed my friend, wanting to leave. On the way back to the wonderful Hostel by Bed (one of the best places to stay and meet cool people in Chiang Mai!), he shared that meditation had helped him learn a lot about himself, but you should never force yourself into it.

Photo: Sabine Schulte

Meditation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

My friend’s words stuck with me and over the next few weeks my interest in meditation, though shaky, grew exponentially. Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, my guidebook sent me to Wat Langka, where free Vipassana meditation sessions are held 4 times a week.

Photo: Peter Hershey

If you think you have a friend of few words, you should try talking to a Buddhist monk. The elderly man in saffron robes, who guided us through the method of Vipassana, glared softly behind his glasses. His “explanation” barely contained any speech. Buddhist monks believe that one should always be in balance – never exhilarated or somber. In a calm, monotonous voice, he explained that the key is to focus on your breath. You have to imagine the airstream, gliding over the base of your nostrils. Other thoughts, which would inevitably appear, should be acknowledged and allowed to leave. It sounds much simpler than it actually is. Even though I struggled for a good portion of the time, this hour of Vipassana seemed to fly by.

meditation
Photo: Lola Guti

How I Brought Meditation Home with Me

Going back to Sofia, I was determined to bring some of the lessons I had learned in Asia with me. I wanted to keep the serenity of these cultures, and to lead a more conscious life, with fewer fruitless worries about the past or future. One of the ways to do that was through meditation.

meditation experiment
Photo: Lina Trochez

A friend and I challenged ourselves to 30 consecutive days of meditation, 20 minutes per day. We used this video for guidance and motivation – if you’re looking for an easy intro to meditation, this is a great place to start.

My Meditation

Years ago, one of the first people who ever talked to me about meditation, told me that there are no strict rules. You just do what feels right. There are many techniques for meditation but I see their guidelines as recommendations, not requirements.

What I did was to sit cross-legged, my hands resting on my knees, in a mudra. I would then close my eyes and try to focus on my breath.

It might sound simple, even boring. However, observing your thoughts, without attaching yourself to them, requires effort. For the first time, I realized how many thoughts and emotions are constantly dancing around my mind. I knew that few thoughts are in verbal form, but had never understood and experienced it before.

What Does It Mean to Let Go of Your Thoughts?

Have you ever been doing something, only to realize that you are physically present, but your mind is somewhere far-far away? Perhaps while reading a boring text (hopefully not this one