My henna was starting to fade from my hand. A mix of sweat, washing and sun had started to steal away the intricate design that once began at my right pinky finger and made its way up my wrist. I couldn’t help but admire the symbolism of it all. As my time in Bali came to a close, the henna from my first day started to fade. Sheila would call it “woo-woo,” her very own Sheila-branded term for the inexplicable magic that unfolds in Ubud.
I met Sheila for the first time during an evening meditation class. Sheila is an ex-pat from Seattle who bought herself a sweet piece of land, built an enviable home and wakes up to uninterrupted views of the rice paddies every morning. At first glance Sheila appears to be in her early 60s. Her body is taut, her skin sun-kissed, her face worry-free. Despite her age, ample yoga and Bali living has served her well. She has aged in the way most of us only hope to: with grace, beauty and a sense of inner peace.
I had just returned from a day trip in the Central Mountains where I was visiting the iconic Pura Ulun Danu temple overlooking Lake Bratan. It being my last day in Bali, I decided to end it with a sunset meditation class overlooking the rice paddies I love so much. My previous attempts at meditation have often involved a cellphone app called Calm, soundtracks of nature noises (a rarity in New York’s urban jungle) and falling asleep after five minutes of mind wrestling.
Against the chaotic backdrop of Manhattan, meditation makes about as much sense as a giraffe in Antartica; but then again perhaps that’s exactly why I crave it so much.
The idea of meditation appeals to me. What a thrill to think that—with practice—I could learn to not only control my emotions but also my thoughts. The promise of meditation is like a second dessert course. Simply too decadent, beautiful and delicious to resist. I want that inner peace, need that sense of calm. I don’t want to be rattled by crowded subways, mental New Yorkers or trivial scuffles with friends. As my grandmother once told me, “be careful how you live today because one day your body will turn around and hand you the bill and you better be able to pay the check.” Well, at 28 I am starting to take notice of what I’m ordering so that I’ll be ready when that metaphorical check arrives.
Forty-five minutes before meditation class, I threw my wallet, phone and keys into my worn, leather bag and rushed out to the busy streets of Ubud. One look at the road and I knew that traffic would make it virtually impossible to drive across town and arrive at class by 6pm. Having roamed the entirety of Ubud by foot, I knew walking would get me to meditation at least 15 minutes after it started. My only option was to catch a ride on the back of a motorbike. Riding a motorbike to meditation is a lot like walking through a haunted house before a massage; the two activities could not be more opposite. Whereas meditation is calm, safe and serene; riding a motorbike in Bali is like having a death wish. No helmets. Narrow streets. Ample traffic. Unpaved roads. By the time I was dropped off at the Ubud Yoga House, I felt as though I had thrown back a shot of pure adrenaline. I walked the narrow pathway to the Ubud Yoga House, not sure of what I expected to gain from a single meditation class. If I am to be honest with myself, perhaps I went because I’m a sucker for doing the things you’re supposed to do in each destination.
When I travel, I’m a cliche at best. Spaghetti in Rome. Croissants in Paris. Camel rides in Morocco. Meditation in Bali.
Sheila’s Yoga House is open air and welcoming. Candles flicker from the banisters, a ginger tabby cat lurks in the shadows, a warm light lights up the wood floors of the gazebo-like yoga studio facing the rice paddies. It’s quiet there—albeit the sounds of running water, birds, frogs and the distant rev of a passing motorbike. I was sitting in a circle with about six other people from around the world. A pair of Austrian brothers, a couple of German girls curious about this Bali-branded form of meditation, a quiet American and then me—the outspoken, New Yorker who couldn’t stop fidgeting to save her life. My God, have I always fidgeted this much?
Sheila paced the room with a Tibetan song bowl. The bowl is an ancient method of meditation. Something about the echoing gong-like sound brings people into a trance; allows their thoughts to flutter to the wind. With each haunting ring of the bowl, Sheila’s guided voice encouraged us to focus on the moment at hand, to let our thoughts pass us like clouds in the sky. I relaxed my face, focused on my breathing and let my inner dialogue takeover.
Me: Okay, mindful meditation here we go. Focus on the moment. The moment at hand.
Thoughts: OH! I’m focusing on the moment alright. Do you FEEL these mosquitos?!They’re eating us ALIVE! Whose brilliant idea was it to have a meditation class after sunset? And this organic mosquito spray—don’t even get me started! It’s like they LOVE this stuff.
Me: I think one bit my foot just now. My God, I can’t stop wanting to itch it. Al least we’re not in Komodo with a risk of Malaria. Can you imagine taking this class there? Hah! No way. Okay, okay let’s focus. What are we supposed to be doing now? Is it focusing on breathing, nature noises or the Tibetan bowl?
Thoughts: I think we’re on the mantra now? Okay choose some positive words. Let’s give this a try. Breathe in and say LOVE, exhale and say PEACE.
Me: Brilliant. Here we go. LOVE…PEACE…LOVE…PEACE…
Thoughts: Too bad Elizabeth Gilbert already wrote that Eat Pray Love book, maybe you should pitch an article about your failed attempts at Eat Pray Loving in Bali. Although you’ve definitely done your fair share of Eating…
Me: LOVE…PEACE…Wait, what? Are you saying I ate too much? I feel like all I’ve has is rice and fish for a month! Okay, never mind…LOVE…PEACE…LOVE…PEACE…
Thoughts: Do we have enough Indonesia Rupiah left? Should we buy that blue Japamala by the entrance? It was pretty stunning. Did you see it was symbolic of Communicaiton—that’s PERFECT for us! A writer in Bali, wearing a communication Japamala.
Me: What would I even do with a Japamala? It’s for praying. I guess I can try praying with it but that seems a bit forced, no? Oh! I could wear it around New York as this zen-yogi-type person who just got back from Bali. Maybe I’ll even wear it each time I write as this exotic talisman of inspiration.
Thoughts: Excellent idea. Who needs meditation anyway? Why would you ever want to tune these thoughts out? They’re GOLDEN.
Me: This was so not the point of coming to meditation class this evening. I have learn to FOCUS. Today the thoughts are Golden but what about that time I had an anxiety attack for no reason whatsoever? How about the times I drown in stress back in New York?
Thoughts: Oh, right…those times.
Me: Okay, okay let me at least TRY to get five good minutes of meditation in…LOVE…PEACE….LOVE….PEACE…LOVE…PEA—-ah! Goddamn, these mosquitos!
While I didn’t leave meditation with some sort of higher power of mental control, I did leave it with a few tricks to concentrate the brain and the $60 handcrafted Japamala I’m convinced is my jewelry soulmate. As I said, I’m a sucker for doing the things you’re supposed to do abroad.
Back in New York City, meditation stays with me. I’m surprised to see it here in the city as though it’s a stoaway in my luggage.
I feel a desire to meditate, to continue what Sheila planted in my mind and find ways to practice balance against the backdrop of the concrete jungle. I begin taking a weekly meditation class at a yoga studio in Queens, where stressed out New Yorkers gather to say “om” in unison and sit in silence. At first, I feel silly; but as time goes on I feel a sort of light heartedness fill me after my meditation classes. It’s not easy and I’m hardly the image of serenity. I roll my eyes, I swear, I tap my foot when a subway is late, I get flustered over nothing. Yet, with meditation – I think I’m on to something. On to some sort of secret of cultivating gratitude, patience and calm with myself.
Do you meditate? Have you tried? Share your thoughts below!