By this time we'd spent three days in Cairo, and I was NOT letting go of my agenda to get out of Cairo as soon as humanly possible. All attempts to travel in Egypt were blocked. So, I started researching other countries; we were right there near Europe...so many places to go! But some were too far, some were wet and rainy, some were not that interesting. (I know, bourgeois suffering, but still...) Finally, I found some info on Malta, a small group of islands in the Mediterranean Sea, 90 miles south of Sicily.
We landed on Gozo, one of the Maltese Islands, where Europeans flock from their stressful lives in search of sun and ease, swimming and great food. I carried a BIG agenda with me to Gozo: I needed to rest and relax, I'd been working hard, I needed to renew on this trip. Our first night in Gozo we stayed in a village called Marsalforn, which was exactly as noisy as Fremont on a Friday night in the summer. Buses right outside our window, people partying all night long. Even though they were yelling in German, or French, or Italian, I did not find it charming. I needed to sleep. Waaaah!
Okay, we moved across the island to a lovely smaller village called Xlendi and finally found a place to stay where we could hear the ocean at night (especially the night it stormed so hard the chairs around the pool ended up on the roof), and there was only the somewhat charming noise of the French family's children running up and down the halls at all hours. "Maman! Papa! Pourquoi?"
And as I began to work on my agenda to relax and release some of my stress here on this beautiful island, here is what I found: the people who live here, even here, are rife with stress, with the sense that there is not enough time for everything, with the pressure to make money, and get everything done. Anna, the older woman who owned the guesthouse we stayed in, told me she was going to the doctor that day to get some tests done. "I have very much stress," she said. We asked a taxi driver whether he'd ever been over to Camino, a beautiful island which is a 20 minute boat ride away. "No, I'm working too hard," he said. "No time."
I felt a great yearning to share some of the things I've learned that have helped me deal with the feelings of squeeze and anxiety over time, tasks, and money. There is no yoga or meditation on Gozo. There is very little yoga in Cairo, if any.
The entire planet, it seems, is whipping itself into a greater and greater frenzy of work. Even those whose careers are built around providing escape valves from this ever tightening vise of stress, like those who run guest houses on remote islands, or those who run yoga studios, are themselves overburdened.
I did get to renew on Gozo; we took all day walks along the ocean cliffs in sight of some of the most mind-boggling views I've ever seen. We swam in the warm Mediterranean Sea. We ate gourmet meals every night, as Gozo's cuisine is informed by the French and Italians who have moved there. And yet, the "relaxing" I did on Gozo was not the same as the deep soul rest that happens to me when I go on a meditation retreat.
On this trip, I really got the difference between travel and retreat. Travel is full of external experiences, of changing sights and sounds, of lots of moving around, of seeking. Retreat is a sacred environment dedicated to open space, to freeing the mind from its automatic nature, so that it can roam in an expanded realm, not be a data and information downloading and sorting machine.
Retreats themselves are not always (hardly ever) easy, especially at the beginning, because they involve de-toxing from the things with which I habitually distract and occupy myself; the emergencies that aren't really emergencies, the ever accelerating pressure of time, the self-imposed deadlines.
On retreat, what has been suppressed from consciousness by the frenetic activity of doing rises to the surface. The de-tox can go all the way from slight discomfort to sheer terror, as the process begins its good work of re-making your innate humanity, healing your immune system, slowing down your heart rate, sharpening your inner attention so that you can actually hear and know what is true for you, so that you begin to inhabit the more subtle aspects of your aliveness. Just as nature knows how to create a flower from a seed, she also knows how to renew your systems, if you give her a chance.
So with great compassion for this overburdened world and all its struggling inhabitants, I share a vision that, all over the world, there will someday be as many meditation centers as there are coffee houses, scattered throughout cities and towns as quiet, serene places where people of any faith and practice can stop in for a half hour, close their eyes, go deep within, or at least shake off the most external veneer of intensity, and then go on about their day, refreshed. Just like your so-called smart phone; if you don't charge it every day, it is useless, not so very smart after all. Meditation, silence and yoga are the charging practices that bring us back to a nourished state, ready to work efficiently, but aware at the same time of a vast and important life beyond work, one from which all human creativity and meaning arises.