tom bh
#Digital Nomad

A Month-Long Retreat in China


Like last year I found a quiet little place all to myself for some nose-to-the-grindstone meditation. Although I’ve spent most of the intervening year in Indonesia, I ended up being near the Himalayas again, except this time on the Eastern edge, in a small city called Dali, within China’s Yunnan province.

Unlike last year, I managed not to catch a vomiting and diarrhea bug, so I was actually able to do the final 2 days, which turned out to be quite a notable difference. I think a large part of what makes a retreat possible and therefore useful, is the unthinking routine of it – whether that’s the unchanging daily schedule, or the previous knowledge of the general themes one can expect at the beginning, middle and end of a retreat. So not having experienced the culmination of a month in silence before certainly was new information to take note of.

On every retreat I’ve ever done the end very quickly becomes a frustratingly thought about object. Indeed perhaps obsessively so. I usually know exactly how many days, sleeps and, towards the end, meals and meditations, there are left to go. I meticulously and habitually fantasise about what I will do on the day the retreat ends and how I will feel to not have to sit still the whole time like an excited toddler in the back seat of a car. Even during the first week of this retreat I was already authoring concluding thoughts for my friends on how the retreat went.

During the difficult parts of the retreat (like when a nearby apartment was drilling the plaster from the their walls!) I imagined how easy those final days would be, those blissful meditations, happy in the knowledge that most of the work was done. But no. Those final days were probably the hardest. The location of my mind was offset by days into the future, but I was unfortunately still very much on retreat. The constant effort to carefully get myself back into the room so to speak, was exhausting.

However there was another more rewarding side to going through the end. On the final night, I was thinking I would turn the Internet back on as soon as I woke up the next morning. One of the unique things about a solitary retreat is that, not only do I have no concept of clock time, but I also have no set times for waking up, starting and ending meditation, eating and so on – I just have to commit to 4 sets of 3 meditations a days. Wonderfully, by luck, I’d actually come to learn the general position of the constellation Orion from my bedroom window as an indicator of when a reasonable moment to get out of bed was. But, on the final morning it was cloudy. I woke up a couple of times having no idea whether I’d slept 3 hours or 7. Eventually habit got the best of me and I went to sit in the dark, in my chair, as I had already done for the last 4 weeks. If the light comes then great, if not, then I’ll sleep again, no problems.

Psychologically I’d already ‘done’ my last sittings, so effectively the retreat was over. But there I was, metaphorically somehow cradled in the calm of a mountain’s summit, the view stretching as far as the eye could see. What an utterly strange thing to have absolutely nothing to do for a month but be still and attend to essential bodily functions. And why does it feel like it takes the organisation, support, skill, exertion and patience of a mountaineer? I don’t know, but I did my longest 3 sits of the entire retreat that morning, way past sunrise and my normal breakfast time. What a precious privilege it is to have the exuberant abundance of time to strip life down to its sheer basics – for all my longing to return to normality it crushed me to let it all go.

But I’m so glad I got to say my goodbyes this time. It’s all gone now, I’m back to living in my computer and phone, staying up too late and listening to YouTube whilst I cook because I feel too lonely otherwise. Sigh.

I don’t know if much has changed in me, my plans are still the same. I think I’m more inspired by my computer projects than I thought I’d be, after all, screen time hasn’t proven to always be the best thing for my mental wellbeing. Nevertheless I’m so excited with the ideas I’ve had over the retreat. But first I need to buckle down and get this book wrapped up – I realised I need to split a chapter and rewrite another.

So there we are, all those days dreaming of the end and now it’s just a memory.