Laure Deriaz attempts to “find zen” in Sichuan, China
In February last year, idly scrolling through Facebook on my usual procrastination break I saw the UCL Buddhist Society’s post for a free, all-expenses paid, ‘Mindfulness walking’ trip to China. Being in the summer internship limbo, waiting to hear back and despairing at not having anything lined up because obviously you’re a failure if you don’t get that coveted 2-weeks of glorified document collating, I decided to apply just for the fun of it, at least that meant something was sorted for my summer. After filling in a short form on my experience with meditation – the concept of meditation wasn’t unfamiliar to me, I had done some before but I wouldn’t say I was a routine meditator – I was off to the Chinese embassy to submit my visa application. Before leaving on a 13-hour journey, the only details we were given about the trip was that it would involve meditating and hiking up Mt. Emei (峨眉山), one of China’s Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains located in Sichuan province – that’s the place where pandas are from. The whole thing sounded too good to be true, however I was assured of its legitimacy when we had a guided meditation session, focused on stress and controlling nervousness (what with exams coming up), pre-departure with the Buddhist master who would be leading the meditation on our upcoming trip.
Upon arriving at Chengdu airport, three guys with huge professional cameras started snapping wildly, obviously a Chinese celebrity had entered the arrivals hall at the same time as we did but no, the photographers were, as we found out shortly after, taking pictures of us – a group of 13 dishevelled, sleep-deprived students. They later followed what seemed like our every movement for the week to come, not exactly the zen experience I was expecting, but it does now mean that we have a Dropbox folder with about 2000 photos to look back on. Once we got to our final destination, a guesthouse in the heart of a natural conservation area incidentally where pandas were said to have been seen for the first time (pandas seem to be a recurring theme), we got right into the mindfulness. We started off with a talk on the self and how we perceive ourselves, followed by a guided meditation and later on some ice-breaking Chinese games, despite the fact all of us attended UCL, we were strangers to each other.
The next morning a rude awakening faced us, 6am, a time that I have recently only had the chance to encounter on my way back from a particularly late night out, not a time to actually start doing things at, never mind a one-hour class on Buddhist teachings followed by meditation. However, by the third day of the early rise, teaching and meditation routine, I wasn’t tired and the busy early morning made me feel somewhat productive. As soon as we had the time to settle in and recuperate from our hectic first morning, our phones and other electronics were taken away from us so we would get into the mindful mind-set with more ease.
Despite the strict restrictions on internet access in China, which meant that the only thing that could actually be accessed was iMessage, many of us, myself included, were reluctant to part with our phones. This opened my eyes to the fact that I was so dependent on my phone, even when I’m not necessarily receiving any messages I often feel the need to continually check or refresh, like I would die if I wasn’t reachable or knew what was happening in other’s lives at all times. Once I became accustomed to the relinquishment of my social crutches, without wanting to come off as cliché “found myself” à la Eat Pray Love, my constant nervous need to know what’s ‘happening’ melted away and I was able to focus on what was happening to me and those in my immediate vicinity (in more ‘zen’ phrasing: focusing on the moment) – I didn’t feel the need to know what X or Y person was doing whenever. Incidentally, preliminary exam results were conveniently going to be uploaded during the trip. If I had had access to my phone, I would have, like the previous year, been checking my email and refreshing Moodle an unhealthy amount. However, this time around as I was disconnected from the stress of UCL and university more generally I was able to focus my energy on the trip, our daily meditation and check on the day calmly – I got given special access to my phone to check – without it consuming my every waking moment and filling me with dread.
During my week away, I realised how much stress, sometimes unnecessarily so, UCL students, and university students as a whole, put on themselves. A topic that was broached during our discussions was that of expectations and identity. As students in an academically strong university, there are certain things that people expect of us; to follow the well-defined path to a socially accepted successful life is both seen as the desired thing to do as well as the easiest, most comfortable of options since such standardised frameworks are set in place for those kinds of careers. When looking at identity, it was hard to separate what others thought of us from what we thought of ourselves, or who we thought we were individually. It’s easy to base your identity on a defining thing – your degree or your career or whatever else it may be – but we often forget that there is so much more to it than that.
Being present in the moment, without any other distractions, whether positive or negative was the lesson that was imparted to me the most strongly. On our mindfulness walks, where we purposely walked slowly, odd to me given my habit of London speed-walking, and didn’t talk instead focusing on our thoughts or fully appreciating what we were doing, or what was around us, were a good way to practice the idea of actively engaging with the present instead of just letting it pass you by, as is often the case.
The culmination of our trip was the hike up Mt. Emei. At the foot of the mountain, surrounded by a throng of people, ranging from casual tourists and those on more dedicated pilgrimages, it started to rain a lot. I had never seen that much rain probably ever. Living in London this seems unfathomable, but honestly, even with our neon-orange ponchos covering us we were soaked when reaching the top. The rain and cold weather, surprising since we were in China during mid-June after all, made the already challenging task of mindfulness walking even more difficult. Several thoughts swirled through my mind during the five-hour walk. Though many understand meditation to be an exercise of completely emptying one’s mind, this isn’t always necessarily the case. It can simply be about focusing on one thought at a time as your brain is often racing from one thing to another, restlessly thinking. The whole trip was a way to disconnect from the everyday, the issues and worries that plague us seem far away when travelling and going across the world is a good way to gain some much-needed perspective on your situation whilst not being in the midst of it.
So, if an opportunity to go on a free trip arises, whether you have the full itinerary down to the hour or if rather like me, you’re going into it a little blind, go! It sounds extremely cheesy but I met some of the kindest, most considerate people ever and on top of that got to see pandas in their place of origin – I will never not be talking about the pandas, among other things.
Image credit: A Mindful Mind organisation