November 29. The morning after my 38th birthday. I’m in midtown Manhattan in a van that’s heading to a meditation center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. I have meditated before, but not like this. When I arrive, I will take a vow to be silent in body, speech, and mind for 10 days. I am immersing myself in an ancient meditation technique whose ultimate goal is embodied in its name: Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are. I like to take big leaps, and, well, this is a big leap.
It is 6:35 p.m. on day 4. For the third time today, I’m spending an hour sitting cross-legged on a cushion, eyes closed, without moving. Before the retreat, I’d never done this for more than 10 minutes, let alone 60. Our meditation leader tells us to observe the physical sensations within our bodies. As I sit, at times I feel subtle tingling. At others, strong ecstatic vibrations. At still others, pain, bubbling up like hot lava in my knees, ankles, and back. My mind yells at me for the pain. It distracts me with a fire hose of random thoughts. I think about what people will say when I tell them about this experience. And then my focus on my body returns. The thoughts rush in over and over again at unpredictable intervals, until they don’t. And then they do again.
9:15 a.m., day 10. I just finished the last of the 110 hours I’ve spent sitting. Noble silence is officially over. No more 4 a.m. wake-up calls. I stroll across campus with the guy I’ve been sitting next to for the past 10 days. Finding words is a struggle, but we feel joy and a sense that the experience we shared has given us a new perspective.
The next morning I’m in a car, and the skyline of Manhattan comes into view. Driving through the city, I sense a calm beneath the city’s superficial chaos. Horns aren’t as piercing. I’m sure the taxi drivers aren’t honking any differently. Perhaps I’m the one who has changed?
Now I’m walking toward my apartment. I notice the leaves on the trees. I feel the energy of people as they pass me on the sidewalk. I don’t remember whatever it was that was bugging me when I left a week and a half ago.
As you spend time with the March/April 2018 issue of AFAR and our #TravelUnplugged challenge, ask yourself why you might need to unplug and how you might do it: a hike in the woods, a book on a beach, or maybe even 10 days of silent, intense self-observation. I can say from experience that the right path isn’t always the easy one. However you do it, I hope you find a way to feel liberated from the status quo and to connect more deeply with yourself and the world we share. And I hope that when you come home, you find your life changed for the better.