The hardest 30 minutes of my life – how meditation in Hariharalaya, Cambodia changed me

I believe that people can change. I myself am a pretty good example of someone who has changed a lot. I also believe that different experiences have the power to change us; whether they are long-term, like training for your first 10K run, or short, like a snapshot of a moment – there is a power in both. For me, there was magic in 30 minutes of stillness – a very long and very hard 30 minutes.

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I could name a few very important events that happened in my life and had a big impact on me. One of them was a car accident that occurred a few years ago, another was my sister getting seriously sick, and the most recent one was the yoga and meditation retreat that I went to last December in Cambodia. I don’t really know why I haven’t written about it before, but I think that telling a story about that very special place, called Hariharalaya, and my difficult 30 minutes from my present perspective can even better show how this relatively short experience has changed me.

I’ve been doing yoga and I’ve had some lame attempts at meditating on and off for a few years already. I was never persistent though; I could stick to it for a few weeks and then I’d stop for a long time. I always failed to continue. I was never good at sticking to anything, so this didn’t surprise me that much. I just thought that it was another thing that I wouldn’t be able to be dedicated to.

Everything changed when I went on the yoga and meditation retreat in Cambodia. In the beginning, it was just another attempt to try to include yoga in my daily routine in order to calm my constantly busy mind, but this time, it really worked! I’m one of those people who have a lot of problems with commitment, and it’s never easy for me to fully dedicate myself to anything (besides traveling of course). Surprisingly, the amazing experience I had in Hariharalaya had such a big impact on me that yoga and meditation finally became an integral part of my life.

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There are no words to describe how difficult it was. I’m the least flexible person you could possibly know (if you think that having long legs and arms helps, it doesn’t), and I’m hyperactive, which makes meditating one of the hardest tasks that anyone could assign me. I don’t mind waking up at 5:00 am, I don’t mind physical labor (not that I never complain, but I can manage), but oh how hard it is for me to sit still and just be! “Just being” seems like the most abstract thing someone could invent. I can’t “just be”, I have to do something. Well, at least that’s what I thought until I went to Hariharayala.

Joel, who founded Hariharalaya, and all the staff at the retreat center were constantly talking about stillness. Just be, focus on the moment. Just breathe. Sounds easy, huh? Well, not for me.

The first meditation session was a nightmare. My mind wouldn’t stop wandering, and the devil on my shoulder would constantly tell me that I’m not good enough, that I can’t make it. So many times I’ve tried and have never managed to make it my routine, so why would it work this time, I thought.

I opened my eyes after 30 seconds or so and took a quick glimpse at the people around me. They all looked so calm and peaceful, and I couldn’t help but feel that I was the only one failing. 30 minutes felt like an eternity, and I had a small panic attack because of my anxiety and my very uncomfortable sitting position, which was painfully pulling on my hamstrings.

I swear, I almost fainted thinking about how this is how I would feel for the next ten days. I didn’t know if I should run away or punish myself for not being able to “just be”. I know that it sounds pretty bad, and maybe you think that I’m exaggerating a bit, but I promise you that that’s exactly how I felt. The second, the third and the fourth meditation session didn’t go any better. I was struggling every time and I had very little hope that it would change. Extremely little hope.

I don’t know if it was my persistence, the magic of the place, or the conversations I had with such inspiring people, but after those ten days I knew that this time I wouldn’t let it go. I passed the hardest test- somehow managing to stay still for 30 minutes.

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There is no way to do it other than acknowledging that you are not perfect, and that no matter what the final outcome of those 30 minutes is, you need to thank yourself for trying. I’ve learned that meditation is not about controlling your thoughts, but about not letting your thoughts control you. You have to understand that there is no such thing as a comfortable position, and eventually you will always feel some kind of discomfort. You just have to be okay with that.

Maybe you will manage to completely calm your mind for the whole time, or maybe it will be just one glimpse of pure stillness during those 30 minutes, it doesn’t really matter. Once you accept that it is what it is and you let go of any expectations of how it should look, everything will fall into place.
Have I ever got to the famous nirvana stage? Far from it. Was I proud of stopping my self-berating when I was unable to focus on my breath? Definitely.

Although after finishing the retreat I kept traveling and it was hard to do yoga and meditation every day, I always tried my best to at least make time for some short practice in order to not break the routine that I’d built. The truth is, that no matter what you do and where you are, you can always find a spot to have a little yoga session. It can be challenging sometimes, but it’s not impossible. It’s much easier when you have guidance, when you can practice in a studio or at least with someone who shares the same passion, but it’s not a must. I also don’t believe in the “I don’t have time” excuse. Even when I was doing my Divemaster course and was busy from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm, I woke up early enough to have some sunrise yoga sessions. It was hard, but it was doable, and I’m really happy that I still stick to the routine, and after 5 months I still practice almost every day.

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The 30 minutes is still very challenging though. There are days that the meditation feels exactly like the first day in Hariharalaya– I can’t sit still and I have so much noise in my head that it drives me mad. I get very angry and sometimes I feel like screaming or crying. But instead, I just keep going.

Surrendering when meditating is not a linear process – sometimes it goes terribly, but sometimes it goes great. Regardless of the struggle, I don’t give up because thanks to those 30 minutes, I feel more connected to myself and more conscious of what I really want and feel. I make better life choices and I don’t run away from things that scare me – I learn to deal with them.

My body gets stronger and more flexible thanks to the daily yoga practice, and honestly I can’t imagine myself not doing it regularly. Breathing exercises that I learned in Hariharalaya have helped me pass some of my stamina tests when becoming a Divemaster, and they have made me a better diver in general.

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I can’t express how grateful I am to all the teachers from Hariharalaya and all the beautiful people that I met there. They truly inspired me and helped me change. But (and I’m not trying to be full of myself here) I’m also really proud for giving myself a chance to change and for making the effort of practicing integral yoga.

I started to think that maybe the label of “the-girl-that-can’t-commit-to-anything” that I gave myself a long time ago is not as valid anymore. Some people are blessed with knowing what their purpose on this earth is, while others struggle quite a lot and can’t exactly find the right path. Maybe it’s just taking me a lot of time to figure out what I want to do and who I want to be. Maybe it’s time for me to be okay with that.

After all, at the age of 28 I can say that there are two things that I’m fully committed to: traveling and yoga. True, it took me a while to figure it out, but at the same time it also give me hope that there are still things to discover, still things to fall in love with. And now I know that those sometimes challenging 30 minutes of stillness will help me find them.

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