I love spiritual retreats and travel.
I am not chasing answers, but I’m passionate about self-awareness—plus, it adds a dimension of travel that makes it so much more of an experience than just sightseeing. There are depths to be found after cumulative days of intense processes that I just don’t have the discipline to hit in regular life. Also, the energy of other people’s big processes seems to slingshot me into new layers of connection.
I have been on a few different journeys, trips, and adventures, so I thought I would dissect some of the lessons I learned on these trips in case anyone out there is looking to learn from someone else’s mistakes.
Now, just to be clear: each of these experiences had amazing highs and lows. I am writing about the lessons here, but that does not mean the journeys were at all negative or that I didn’t have a ball (at least in some moments).
Volunteered on a refugee camp in West Africa
Okay, so this was not a spiritual journey as such, but I challenge you to spend any time truly embedded in the lives of impoverished and displaced peoples and not question your position on this planet and the issues we collectively face.
The biggest lesson I learned from this is that voluntourism=colonialism at its finest. Even if we go with the best of intentions, not only will it be one of the most challenging and exhausting times of our lives, but we are really only serving to reinforce the white-man saviour “West is best” messaging that is already implicit in many struggling countries.
On a more immediate level, we form bonds with people whom we will leave behind sooner or later and this is problematic in places like orphanages where the kids are encouraged to “bond” with a series of rolling volunteers.
Don’t do it. Send your money. Or better yet, give your time and money to your local communities, where you understand the needs and issues and are actually responsible for helping local problems.
Spent a month at a Buddhist monastery
I grew up in an atheistic home and gradually became curious about spirituality in my 30s. Like many “broad strokes understanding only” folks, I had a fairly idealised view of Buddhism and thought they seemed to have some cool philosophies for life. Well, a month at what was the Buddhist equivalent of Bible camp soon cured that delusion.
The course was actually taught by born-again Westerners (is that a thing in Buddhism?). The monk was fairly open with his backstory and it was clear that for him, it was rigid Buddhism or nothing. He did not tolerate questions or even real discussion of the teachings—the teachings were sacrosanct and were to be taken on board because that is what they said. Full stop.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, Buddhism has not one, but seven hells. So, um, yeah. I pretty much decided that Buddhism is not for me.
Having said that, if you ever get the chance to do a well-guided Tibetan Death Meditation—wow—do it.
Also, living in a monastery in Nepal for a month was cool.
Multiple retreats in Bali
I loved my first retreat in Bali so much, I actually, kind of accidentally, ended up living there a year later after doing my second retreat. I have done multiple retreats of different types across Bali and other Indonesian islands. Each time, I had the most amazing spiritual experiences.
What I will say about spirituality, meditation, and personal development retreats is: choose your teachers carefully and maintain awareness that they are just humans.
They do not have the answers for your life—but they should help you to find those answers for yourself. You don’t have to form a deep bond with your teachers or take them on as a guru of all things. They might say some awesome stuff you connect with, but they also might say some stuff you don’t connect with—that is okay. Don’t throw the good out just because you heard something you didn’t like.
But, if you hear or see lots of things that are not in integrity or seem to be railroading you or other participants tread carefully with giving your trust to this person. It can be a fine line between watching someone get pushed and watching them be coerced and I’m not sure we can truly define the difference except in retrospect. It’s better to waste your money than get your life messed up by someone who is not in alignment with what you need.
Grand Canyon kirtan
This was possibly the most magical journey of all—certainly for the scenery. We spent two weeks rafting, camping, and singing in the Grand Canyon. As usual, being a huge introvert, I struggled with being in a group for so long, but the trip, scenery, music, and general incredibleness of this trip will always make it stand out in my mind.
Peru meditation and plant medicine tour
This was one of those times when I should have done more homework. The tour was primarily advertised as a spiritual tour of Peru, but it turned out most people were really just there for the plant medicine. There really wasn’t much to the rest of our time apart from being schlepped on and off the tour bus.
I kept an open mind and did try the plant medicines, but actually left after the first night of ayahuasca, instead of staying for the full three sessions. The learning was: stand up for your own needs. Be open-minded and discerning.
I was lucky. A couple of other people wanted to leave after the first aya ceremony, so I had some backup in our push to the tour leader to let us out.
Speaking of tour buses: really loud music with earplugs will drown out the endless droning of a tour guide, so keep your devices charged.
Egypt Goddess meditation tour
This was another time I signed up for a tour without really knowing anything about the people running it. Turns out, pretty much everyone else on the tour was connected to at least one of the leaders, so it was kind of weird coming in as an outsider, but I say dive in regardless.
Again, I ended up with some vibes and activities that were quite unexpected. Instead of a Goddess tour—with an accompanying archaeological tour for partners—I found myself deep in meditations about alien histories and interdimensional beings.
Not totally my thing, but I can’t deny that some odd and inexplicable things happened on that trip and I actually had my first (and so far, only) proven precognitive dream where I dreamt about a temple and then the next day we visited a temple that I completely recognised from my dream. And no, I did not see it in a brochure or anything, as I deliberately avoid doing research about where we are going on these tours—I always want to experience each tour with no preconceptions.
So, those are some of the big spiritual journeys I have been on. Some I would never do again, some I would sign up for—and pay double—in a heartbeat. I have to remind myself over and over that each peak experience and peak challenge has been my choice to learn from, and that being open to one experience gives me greater experiences in the future.
I have probably grown just as much from people I did not like on these tours, as the friends I made.
Although, the biggest lesson I learned is that none of it means anything if you just go back to your regular life and continue to be your regular you.
Almost always, in the post-tour group chats, this question comes up: how do I bring whatever change I gained back into my “normal” life when everyone else is their same old self?
And every teacher says some version of the same thing: the decision is yours. Only you get to choose.