DURING THE LAST FEW WEEKS OF MY YEAR of traveling, I decided to go on a meditation retreat at Kopan Monastery, just outside Kathmandu, Nepal. My stay was part of a larger program offered to foreigners who wanted to learn the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism and devote time to learning many forms of meditation. Buddhism and meditation had never been a part of my life before, and this was my first time attempting to learn about both.
After my stay, I realized that my 10 days at the monastery made me a better traveler than I had been all year. I left somewhat regretting that now, nearing the end of my travels, I didn’t have more time to put my learning into practice.
Of course, I haven’t become the perfect traveler since then, and I still make plenty of mistakes. But ultimately, my experience at the monastery made me view travel differently, and made my travel experiences afterwards far more meaningful. Here’s how:
1. I see and do less…but enjoy more.
Before the monastery, I was often in need of constant stimulation. In fact, that constant urge was a large reason why I traveled so much in the first place. While other backpackers seemed to tire after a few months on the road, I couldn’t get enough. The more “newness” in my life, the more it seemed exciting and “real.”
But at the monastery, I learned that I don’t necessarily need external stimulants to satisfy this feeling. Instead, I needed to focus on making the internal be enough. And I could do that by slowing down, and fully engaging in the present moment. At the monastery, for the first time, I noticed the millions of things actually happening in every moment of each day. There was less of a need to create so much stimulation when I recognized how much was already happening around me all the time.
2. I think twice before snapping a photo.
Whenever I’d see something beautiful while traveling, my first instinct was to capture it. In some ways, that instinct was symbolic of a fear: I was afraid of happy moments disappearing into nothing, I needed reassurance that great things would last.
At the monastery, I was taught that this “attachment” to anything that made us feel good ultimately made us less happy in the long run. If we only worried about holding on to what was beautiful or pleasurable in our life, we’d miss out on the opportunity to fully experience it as it happened. Before the monastery, I believed moments were meant to be caught. But the inadvertent result is that then they were rarely fully enjoyed.
After, I realized that if something is breathtaking, then I should actually let it take my breath away. It’s far better to sit and enjoy that feeling of awe for a while, to allow it to soak in as it happens, rather than quickly trying to “save” it for the future.
3. Meals are a way bigger deal than they used to be.
At the monastery, we practiced a valuable meditation on food. Before eating, we were asked to think about the long line of people that were needed to bring this meal to where it stood in front of you today: the farmer who grew the vegetables, the truck driver who shipped them to the store, the grocery clerk who stocked them on the shelf, the kitchen staff who prepared and served it for us each day. By taking one minute to reflect on this, meals became a reflection of community: no meal was possible alone. What we ate required connection with so many people around us. Taking the time to remember that made dinner seem less like an obvious routine (“of course, it’s dinner time…”), and more like a cause for celebration (“my dinner made it all the way here!”).
4. Just as many things go wrong, but I’m far more grateful.
Objectively, travel never got easier. Flights were still cancelled. Bus trips got unexpectedly overbooked. Road trips came with flat tires. Hiking trips came with sprained ankles. Dinners ended up in the flu.
But at the monastery, I was taught that suffering was not a concrete thing: I can’t quantify it, or measure it with a value. The amount of suffering I experience instead relies on how I react and respond.
So instead of focusing on the negative, I learned how to make the positive a larger presence in my life. I took time out of each day to recognize when something good happened, so that when something bad happened, it didn’t take over the day. Travel mishaps became the exception to my mood, instead of what dominated it.
5. I spend less time needing to hang out in the hostel bar, and instead appreciate my days alone.
I’ve always enjoyed being alone, but my time at the monastery made me realize how healthy it actually made me feel. Only when being forced to stay silent for most of the day did I notice how much anxiety in my life was created by being around others. I noticed so much of my energy and concentration each day shifts to analyzing what others were saying, deciding whether I agree, how I’m going to respond, how I’m being perceived, what will happen next. In contrast, by being alone and being required to not speak with anyone, I felt instantly relaxed.
Noticing this, I began to look at time alone not as something I only enjoyed if I came across it, but something I actually acknowledged as a vital part of my health.
6. I am more empowered by the idea of doing things myself.
Coming from a Christian background where I was taught that God provided me with my destiny, Buddhism in many ways was a refreshingly different take. In my teachings at the monastery, there was no superior presence taking care of you. Instead, we focused on how we had the power to discipline our thinking in a way that would make our lives better.
After spending a year traveling, many times alone, this felt far more comforting. Here was a philosophy that, much like traveling, put me in control of the course of my life, and me in control of shaping how it would be.
7. I realized the sad truth about pleasure…and stopped always seeking it.
Our teacher, Ani Karen, had once been a backpacker herself. In fact, she originally came to the monastery just like I had: towards the end of her year spent abroad moving from one hostel and country to the next. During that time, she even admitted to us (refreshingly) that she had spent a lot of time smoking cigarettes and chasing parties, before realizing that constant pleasure alone won’t make you happy. While traveling, no matter how great it felt at first, every pleasure ultimately become tiring, unless it had a more meaningful foundation to back it up.
After nearly a year of hanging out on beaches, seeing beautiful mountains, eating dinner with romantic views in Rome and Madrid, I felt the same. Even pleasure and beauty can get old, unless there’s something more.