Few things cause me greater discomfort than group meditation and cold, and yet in a few days I will willingly, gratefully spend 10 days fully immersed in both. My mother was invited as a guest of the central monastic body of Bhutan to travel to the small Himalayan country, and she kindly secured an invitation for me to accompany her. What I lack in heartiness and spiritual fortitude I hope I can make up for as the group’s chief photographer and scribe, the pragmatic optimist in a gathering of mystical heavyweights.
On the purely mundane level, I have never liked cold and since I was old enough to make my own decisions, have done my best to avoid it. My college search revolved around temperature. I picked Virginia because it was warmer than my home state of Pennsylvania and applied to schools exclusively in that state. After college I moved to sub-Saharan Africa and then Los Angeles and except for two years in frigid Boston for grad school and a year in damp London, have lived in places where it doesn’t snow ever since. My fingers go numb if it drops below 70 degrees.
My two coldest memories involve my mother, and I fear Bhutan may be the third. I couldn’t have been more than seven when mom took me to the Poconos for a day of skiing where my loose knit mittens immediately absorbed the wet snow from my numerous falls, threatening frostbite to my little digits. I can still recall the deep ache and tingling burn as they slowly thawed by the radiator in the nursery as she skied the rest of the day. It took me a decade to attempt the sport again.
Years later, mom and I traveled in the dead of winter to Matinicus Island off the coast of Maine to interview year round residents for an article she was writing for the Island Institute’s periodical. Exiting the prop plane onto the dirt airstrip on a gray, sunless January day, my lungs ached as I shallowly breathed in the biting cold air. Our overnight hosts had a small home that was long hospitality, but short insulation. I felt a little panicked at the idea of possibly freezing to death on that island and instinctively consumed the entire plate of hummus someone had made for the voyage, probably intuitively trying to store up some fat.
As I check the weather, Bhutan’s temperatures are scheduled to be just above freezing next week. While East Coasters in the US are currently experiencing similar temperatures, the difference is that in New York while outside is cold, inside is heated and lovely. From what I read, this is not the case in most places outside the fancy Aman resorts in Bhutan. Our itinerary involves outdoor trekking to see magical, majestic sites and time spent in meditation and conversation with monks in monasteries throughout the western part of the country. I’m taking everything warm I own and was pleased to read in the NY Times today that shivering is the body’s way of converting bad white fat into good brown fat which might help counteract my inevitable overconsumption of emadatse, the fiery hot chili cheese sauce that’s a daily staple of the Bhutanese diet.
As for group meditation, I am equally ill prepared, but well intentioned. A birthright Quaker, 15 year practitioner of yoga, daughter of a Christian mystic, novice participant in Buddhist conferences at Hong Kong University and voracious consumer of neuroscience research, I sit at the intersection of faiths and science, a dismal practitioner of meditation, but with a deep sense of its individual and collective transformational power. We will learn about the Mahamudra practices in Bhutan, and witness chanting and ritual as we talk with monks who have completed the 3-year/3-day/3-hour meditations at Cheri among other traditions. If I return home with one thing from Bhutan, I hope it will be a greater patience with my own practice. I expect to be uncomfortable most of the time I’m in Bhutan and I have to say at this point, I am totally comfortable with that.
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