Having ventured to a remote part of the Himalayan Foothills within the north of India for fulfillment of a university module I can once again emphasise the buzz of studying and being part of Karlshochschule! But let’s take it back a few steps and start from the beginning.
I am currently a Master student now in my fourth and final semester at the Karls undertaking the first preparations for my Master Thesis. There is no doubt in my mind that such a task will be the biggest academic hurdle of my life to date which for me at first seemed somewhat daunting but currently I feel ready to take it on and I’ll elaborate into why this journey aided towards thinking this way!
But let’s take it from the top: Alongside the thesis we are required to undertake a module in our fourth semester called Personal Renewal. The final out of our four modules categorized as “Personal Skills”. These modules are specifically designed to look from an outside the box perspective in focusing around our soft skills, our social skills and self-confidence which in the business world can be the difference between you and 50 other candidates that applied for the same job position. Personal Renewal is about self-reflection instead of knowledge- its aim unlike any other module I’ve ever undertaken is getting the opportunity to know yourself better as, and I quote from our lovely coach Barbara Vossel, “before you can help others you must first help yourself”. If you can reflect and become aware of the self then it may benefit several aspects of your life. Career aspirations, the purpose of your life, what you want to achieve and importantly if you understand yourself better then arguably it enables a better understanding of those around you. So I can summarise- Personal Renewal is a module tailored to us individually and we can do within reason anything as long as there is a solid justification behind the process.
So, why India, why Tushita Meditation Centre?
This is a very good question, one which I needed to think about long before writing an answer. I would say that just like the majority around me, I live a heavily materialistic and extremely fast-paced lifestyle. This of course applies to some more than others and to an extent it is no fault of our own as it is inherently intertwined within our society. I think it got to a point where this style of life really became a burden. Worries about finances, how I looked and dressed in accordance to others, being attached to items- all in all things which became heavy in my mind but in reality lacked real value. This was something I became more aware and conscious of when reading a book called “The Art of Happiness” written by His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama, recommended to me by a dear friend and fellow Master student who thought would help me in my situation. It was more or less the starting point of my journey. It introduced me to the philosophy of Buddhism and how it can potentially alter one’s priorities to steer away from the things which our current society thinks are important; money, status, material possessions, brands, power, success. Aspects regarding these topics from the right perspective can be a nice breath of fresh air! As they say: the study of Buddhist philosophy is to study about yourself (It’s a great read. You should check it out!).
So fast forward six months and we get to September 2016 and we start our Personal Renewal module- I decided that I wanted to experience life in an opposite reality. A completely minimalistic environment, away from technology and the commitments I would endure (and became so reliant on) in my day-to-day. I felt like I needed the time on my own, to reflect on myself and establish what I needed to do to become a more satisfied person. I specifically remember on my justification statement to Karlshochschule using the term “escape” several times, but reflecting on that now I think the word “retreat” is much more fitting. Retreating to an environment where there are absolutely no distractions or influences from technology and mass media in our age of digitalization is extremely exclusive to secluded locations. This is when I started researching into monastery retreats specifically in Buddhism and had the idea in mind that doing something like this would be the perfect match to what I wanted to try and experience. This was when I came across the Tushita Meditation Centre in Mcleod Ganj and their 10-day introduction to Buddhism courses which they offer. As soon as I came across this I knew it was what I wanted to do. A 10-day silent retreat in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery and at the time it was truly affordable so I decided to book it.
The trip all in all lasted a potentially life-altering 15 days, from mid-November to early December. I admit to being taken aback by some of those breath-taking landscapes, the vibrant and diverse cultures, the monastery experience but also left sad and shocked by some of the harsh realities of aspects such as poverty and extreme gaps in wealth. I experienced and gained memories which I will keep with me for the rest of my life (when you are maintaining silence for ten days you tend to reflect and realize things you’ve never even considered before.)
I started in New Delhi, spending three days there exploring, touring and discovering the wonders this city had to offer. I specifically remember looking from the plane as we landed into Delhi trying to comprehend the sheer scale of this city, seeing the thousands of gridlocked streets and millions of people going on their day to day is really something unique to anything I’ve ever witnessed; its sheer chaos! Something which at first I found challenging especially being alone but over the short time I was there it soon grew on me and became easy enough to navigate providing I kept my wits about me. Roaming through the spice markets of Old Delhi and climbing up to the roof to see the view was truly spectacular.
My journey to Dharamsala was then on the third day. An hour and a half flight and 45-minute taxi up the mountain later I arrived in Mcleod Ganj at 7000 feet. A place I would say being the complete opposite to Delhi- somewhat tranquil, extremely picturesque and much slower than the capital.
I sat on my balcony that evening, the day before my retreat was to begin not having any idea what to expect; would I enjoy this time? Will I actually take something useful from this experience? Regardless of all these thoughts, I was in India! I was excited to take this opportunity head on and knew to make sure I maximised the experience! I stepped into the monastery grounds after a 35 minute walk up an extremely steep mountain path and a case of stairs I thought would never end, “Welcome to Tushita” and “Please maintain silence!” were the first two signs I read as I walked up to the main area. The premises were beautiful. You could see the love and genuine care that had gone into the creation of this place. I checked in alongside my soon to be fellow retreat-goers, I handed in my mobile and electronics. Then, after the first evening meal, our silence began.
I’ll take you through a basic day. We’d wake up by the noise of a gong at 06:00am and I’d generally be asleep at around 08:00pm. But don’t be fooled, this retreat wasn’t just me sitting in silence trying to “find myself” for 10 days, far from it; the course was split into two main activities- guided meditation and Buddhism classes (which structure-wise were very similar to lectures) within the main Gompa. There were also other various activities we’d do- we had a 1 hour discussion period each day, in which we could talk about what we were learning, what we have realised and generally gave us a chance to reflect in groups of 8 people. We talked about anything from politics and current events all the way to relationships, people, love, with a constant relation to the philosophies we were discovering.
The classes were run by a nun who went by the name Venerable Drolma, she was a lovely woman; originally from America she was raised under strict Christian values and spent her life as a mental health psychologist and it wasn’t until she turned into her forties that she decided to practice, and then devote her life to Buddhism. The great thing about this course is it wasn’t designed to convert you to a Buddhist, it wasn’t in any way preachy or pressured; sometimes full-on yes but that comes with some aspects of the philosophy. We could question anything and our teacher would try to explain what it meant. We didn’t have to agree and in a lot of cases I found scepticism with certain notions but that was 100% okay. It seemed that their goal at Tushita is to just expose you to Buddhism, to make you aware of how it works and to do it in such a relaxing way. At some points in time this place seemed like paradise, the weather was perfect, the view was breathtakingly beautiful and the food was awesome (when the monkeys wouldn’t steal it!). Most importantly I learnt a hell of a lot about myself during the process, putting important aspects of my life back into perspective and making me realise what I’ve achieved to date but also what I currently take for granted. It wasn’t always easy, though; in fact far from it- remembering it was the longest time I had not spoken to the ones I loved, friends, family, even just doing things which were so normal to do on a daily basis were taken away for that entire 10 days. Maintaining complete silence might be harder than you think! That being said, it’s so interesting how significant non-verbal communication is without us even realising- furthermore, how it’s totally possible to build relationships and connections to people without using verbal communication. I spent those 10 days getting to know people without ever hearing their voice.
Personal Renewal facilitated the opportunity for me to do something for myself. When you look at what you do in life ask yourself that question, when was the last time you actually did something to benefit you and you only? I asked myself before, I still ask myself now and I would guarantee it isn’t often. I would argue that we as people are instinctively kind-hearted, good-willed but too busy with our day-to-day lives and those around us to take a moment and reflect- what do we need in life? What is missing and more importantly what do we already have? If you are reading this blog it means several things and already you are privileged; you have access to the internet, you have that resource which less than half of our global population has. India taught me a lot of things, most importantly it made me realise how I took some things I had for granted. It showed me that I should appreciate the position I am in now, having access to education, the opportunities to travel, to have a high-quality standard of life; things which to others are a rarity or just non-existent. It made me realise that value is defined by the self and not by the things I have or external aspects around me. It also showed me how to deal with affliction, pain and suffering- that we must confront these problems and emotions head on, not clouding such notions with wishful thinking and hedonic, short-term satisfactions like Netflix and chill, shit food and alcohol! Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to enjoy these joys of life. -Who doesn’t love a good series on Netflix with a pizza and a beer? I know I definitely do- my point is you mustn’t become so reliant on these things to the extent they become your main sources of happiness and satisfaction.
So let’s wrap this up; I can honestly say that Karlshochschule and the Master’s programme has opened many doors for me; many which will remain open for now and many more which I will take with me throughout life. This journey through India changed my mind-set and changed my perspective on life. Relating back to what I said at the start: I am ready for my thesis now, but not only that, I’m ready to take on whatever comes at me in life with the intention to make the most out of it.