At the ripening age of 22, feeling like it was about time to mature and possibly awaken, I headed to India with my battered backpack and spent several months traveling, meditating in ashrams, doing yoga, and spending the afternoons drinking chai and playing the guitar with other millennial hippies.
It was 2004 and most of the OG hippies had gone into baby-boomhood, and the era of savvy digital travellers had not yet dawned. So there was a bunch of us with the lovely opportunity of exploring the land without selfies or excessive maps to prevent us from getting lost and hence landing in unexpectedly magical situations.
Of the many lessons learned:
- Lesson 0.5: Probiotics are your secret weapon when navigating India (trust me, you don’t need a stomach fiasco to validate this).
- Lesson 0.8: Trying to rock a sari with a backpack and travel shoes? Not a comfortable fashion statement.
I spent the first couple of weeks doing a silent retreat near Mumbai (that’s a lie — I first spent a couple of days immersed in a shopping spree in the bazaars of Mumbai — irresistible).
I can certainly recommend this (mostly the silent retreats, though the shopping was also great). At the retreat, we were up at 4:00 am. The memory of walking in those early hours to a meditation hall full of other meditators still moves my heart.
Photo by author
Yes, memory is indeed truly selective. I seem to have forgotten the awful groggyness and my tracking of the minutes left for the breakfast gong. But still, I now see that something much deeper was going on that stayed in my heart for many years to come.
Here I am, exactly 20 years later, watching the pine trees covered in snow outside my window, trying to put into words the things I learned from this time.
Here are 3 things I learned from my spiritual awakening in India:
1. Silence is a true offering to your best self
It’s not easy to be silent. Unplugging from one’s phone (I thankfully didn’t have that challenge back then as those were pre-smartphone times, but now it takes bravery), abstaining from the distraction of media and even verbal communication with others can be rather intimidating. It certainly was for me.
But entering a supportive retreat, where one can dwell in silence for some days is a way of saying: I want to listen and give space to my wisest, most loving parts — the parts that whisper about what is best for me and about the sacredness of being part of this human tribe.
Photo by author
2. Support, support, support — that’s the key
Steve Hoskinson, the founder of Organic Intelligence, has a beautiful quote: “People grow and heal through support.”
I arrived in India on my own and toughed it out with food, language, and logistics. That was somehow OK. One meets co-travelers and the path unfolds in India’s lively land. Then I joined the very strict disciplines of various retreats, faced mosquitoes and lots of “unsupported silence.”
For me, there is a key difference between silences: a silence that has deep loving support built into it, or a silence that comes from a sense of penury and of having to prove we don’t need anyone or anything to be well.
I was young and that felt like the right thing. But, I have seen there are easier ways to go about it. Looking back, I felt quite lonely and was at times unstable without a community of people to share my inner world with. Over the years, working with others and with myself, it has been my treasured lesson that having the support of a loving environment and as much gentleness as possible accelerates the journey to one’s spiritual inner wisdom.
In our hyper-individualist patriarchist worldview, the belief that self-sufficiency is the badge of well-put-together human signals how disconnected we have become from our tribal nature — from being a species that thrives and needs others to survive, let alone to be well.
3. The journey to inner peace does not have to be a battle
“You are discovering yourself, not getting rid of yourself” — Mingyur Rinpoche
Meditation, my enduring love, also brought serious struggles. Confusing messages in the world of New Age spirituality and the self-improvement movement intertwined with my ingrained patterns — the belief that overcoming my “defects” was the gateway to freedom — I pushed myself way past my limits. The idea that to be free I needed to fight a great painful battle against my “negativities,” was not one to leave me easily.
The dichotomy among spiritual practitioners fascinated me. Some emerged rigid and overly uptight from long retreats, while others, returned from caves and silent months exuding a loving, soft, open heart. The journey does seem to involve some struggle, reconciliation with one’s humanity, and letting go of over-efforting, but an enduring inner war does not seem like the way to peace to me anymore.
In a Post-it to Self moment, I have concluded that if it feels too strenuous, demanding a strength I don’t possess, it’s not a good long-term strategy.
Photo by author
I have come in contact with enough spiritual seekers to be convinced that for those of us who have grown up where social bonds are fickle and developmental trauma prevails, going off into hardcore practices without the care of a loving community and space for vulnerability can end up doing more harm than good. We can be thrown into contact with our most painful parts thinking the path is all about “us” overcoming our pain only to end up overwhelmed and dysregulated.
I think we don’t get rid of the things that we dislike about ourselves; we come to love them and integrate them. Then slowly those things in us that we no longer need start to fade away effortlessly.
As for the cliché: Was India the land of spirituality that I was hoping for?
The short answer: Yes.
The reality: India is like a complicated relationship status on Facebook. Rooted in ancient spiritual traditions and the allure of distant yogis in the Himalayas, it is also a place of great poverty and injustice.
Yet, beyond the clichés, my journey through India unfolded with magical moments. There were many moments when things seemed to effortlessly fall into place. When a bus full of pilgrims going to where I needed to go drove by and offered me a ride when I was unable to take another step due to stomach issues (don’t forget probiotics people!). When, after learning about a meditation I wanted to try, I realized that there was a little ashram just a couple of minutes away. And when I met the right people at the right time for the discussions I truly needed.
Yes, I do still plan to be back and ditch the smartphone — and let the Indian adventure unfold again.
Cristina Bonnet is an integral coach offering trauma-informed sessions for emotional and physical well-being. She has over 23 years of experience guiding individuals on their transformative journey toward self-realization and holistic well-being.