In Tabanan, central Bali, there’s a silent meditation retreat set in emerald rice paddies with a view of Mount Batukaru. For a neurotic native New Yorker, it wasn’t a natural fit. Being in the moment takes a great deal of effort, and being told to “relax” provokes precisely the opposite response. When I downloaded the Calm app on my phone, I became impatient that it wasn’t loading fast enough. I usually begin my day playing out the worst-case scenario of various situations until I reach a point of such intense anxiety that the only way to cope with it all is to completely detach. I think of this as mindful worrying.
Yet here I was, tucked away in a sanctuary of structured calm, hoping to emerge with a recalibrated nervous system. I’d found myself living in Bali, the epicentre of healing and mindfulness and a retreat-seekers haven, and had decided it was time I experience some of the wellbeing people were drawn to. The holy trinity – mindfulness, yoga and meditation – have made wellness the fastest-growing sector in the tourist industry. Living in the moment is the place to be. If you’re not living in the present and going with the flow, you’re missing out.
Patricia, the friendly American owner of Bali Silent Retreat, suggested I stayed for a few days because, it seems, learning to be in the moment takes time. I suggested a few hours. We agreed I would stay overnight. I was encouraged to attend a guided meditation walk in a sacred labyrinth. But guided anything has never appealed to me. I’ve been on one guided tour of a museum and wandered off on my own.
So, soon after arriving, I was alone on the periphery of the labyrinth at dusk – the only sound was an orchestra of croaking frogs, reminding me of car alarms. I slipped off my flip-flops, stood barefoot on the wet grass, and exhaled. I’d been told the average time to get to the centre was 20 minutes. But three minutes into my solo meditative walk, I was nearly there and forced myself to slow down. I was turning left, turning right, but my mind was racing. Was I healed yet? What lesson was I learning? Can you be in the moment if you’re telling yourself to be in the moment? So many questions.
When I reached the centre, I stood for a moment of reflection before being attacked by a brigade of mosquitoes, which accelerated my hasty departure. Lesson number one: use insect repellant when walking a labyrinth at dusk after a rainfall.
The ashram accommodation was simple, clean and lovely, but best of all was the food. There was a large vegetarian buffet (fresh salads at lunch and assorted rice dishes at dinner) where everything came from the garden, and the meals were announced with the gentle bang of a gong. At mealtimes, everyone sat on their own, mindfully chewing and reading – and it was a relief not to have to make small talk with strangers. The people there were a mix of men and women, all ages, appropriately attired in flowing clothes and yoga gear.
As I looked around, everyone seemed so … calm. Unlike me, none of them seemed to be questioning if they were in the moment. They were just in it. But one person’s peace is another person’s punishment – and being surrounded by calm, happy, chilled-out people can be stressful. Unfortunately, being in the moment is not something that’s contagious.
Determined not to give up, I decided to join the next guided meditation walk. Breathing in, breathing out, I followed the blissed-out woman in front of me, examining her elaborate ankle tattoo. Meditation is a practice and even though no magical healing took place, there was something oddly beneficial to being healing-adjacent. Alas, Patricia was right: my time there was too short, because I didn’t have a chance to try out the other yoga and meditation classes on offer. But this gives me a chance to return, something to have in the future, to look forward to.
Despite being the resident doubter on an island of believers, I have discovered that I’m not averse to exploring the wellbeing craze. Generally speaking, wellness is a good thing. And generally speaking, good things are desirable. Finding ways to look after body and mind is a very good thing. There are indeed positive effects from getting out of one’s head – even briefly – because even if you can’t be in the moment today, there’s always tomorrow to give it a shot.
• Bali Silent Retreat offers day passes (£26) and range of accommodation from £20 a night for a bed in a dormitory to a private bungalow for £68, balisilentretreat.com