After doing workshops in the UK to promote my book launch, I flew from Edinburgh to Granada, Spain for a meditation retreat. I wasn’t going to a monastery or a temple for this retreat. I rented a cave on Airbnb. The hills around Granada are full of cave homes. And I organized my own retreat in my meditation cave, focused on a very particular topic: loving kindness to others.
Maybe you're not introverted, just anxious.
When I struggled with mental illness, I believed I was an introvert. I told people I liked to do things alone. I always traveled alone. But my journey of recovery (definitely a trip to add on your bucket list) helped me see I wasn’t actually an introvert at all. I really wanted to be with and around people. I was just struggling with a lot of social anxiety. I was so desperate to be with people that it made me anxious. I couldn’t be certain about what others were thinking, I couldn’t control situations with other people, so I just avoided them all together.
At the time, I lacked the insight to see how miserable that was making me. But with working on my mental health, cutting out all of the self-sabotaging behaviors I practiced in my life (like avoiding people), I came to realize that nourishing myself with social relationships was important. On this solo trip in Granada, I wanted to explore traveling solo in a healthier way, packing love and kindness instead of judgment and fear.
Meditation retreats are often isolated affairs, especially if they’re self-guided. But that’s why this was focused on loving kindness. I specifically wanted to work on mindfulness skills around my interactions with other people, incorporating a lot of mindful communication, meeting new people, and mindful walking. And what better place to practice mindful walking than Granada! It is a stunning city, once capital of the Emirate of Granada, which controlled the south of the Iberian peninsula from the 13th to 15th century. The old town hugs a foothill of the Sierra Nevada, gazing up at the fortresses and palaces of the Alhambra complex. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.
Also, there was a lot of eating and sharing gratitude for the incredible food. Granada is the home of tapas culture, and the restaurants take it very seriously (as did I).
How to Structure a Self-Guided Meditation Retreat
Here’s the practice schedule I followed:
30 minutes of Silent Meditation – I set my alarm for 6am each day.
30 minutes of Loving Kindness Meditation – This was a very basic practice of bringing up that loving kindness feeling and getting those batteries charged for the day. I approach the morning meditation as an opportunity to show my brain what we’re going to give today.
30 minutes Gratitude Walk – This is a form of mindful walking where you give gratitude to the people and things you pass. It can be a useful practice for new meditators because it gives you something to do. If the brain wanders off, you bring it back to thank that tree for doing such an excellent job of being a tree, or you hear a car horn and you give that person compassion and wish them an easier day.
Two or three espressos and Non-Judgment Practice Time – I would grab a seat at an outdoor café and practice seeing people without judging them, instead giving kindness and wishing them ease. This was a big departure from what I would’ve done in the past, which is sit there and judge each person, check if they were looking at me, wish somebody would come and talk to me, but also hate everybody and feel lonely because I didn’t like anybody. Unpleasant stuff. Much more enjoyable to wish people an easy day.
Tourist Stuff – Loving Kindness work is challenging. Holding onto anxiety and judgments for hours on end comes easy after years of practice. So I made sure I took a break each afternoon for fun and exploration. One day I spent the afternoon at Alhambra, floating through its magical gardens.
30 minutes of Loving Kindness Meditation – Back at my cave, after a day out in the city, I practiced giving gratitude and kindness to the people and experiences from the day, as well as myself for going on this journey.
Dinner and Mindful Talking/Listening – Each night, I committed to interacting with people over dinner. This was part of the practice. In the past, I would’ve been hung up on needing to go to the right place and meet the right people or find somebody that would be interested in me. It was all about getting, but also very passive. On this adventure, I committed to go to a place for the food, and wherever it was, I had to instigate a social interaction. One night it was a local couple sitting at the table next to me, another night a group of friends on holiday, the last night was the owner of a local brewery that made chirimoya beer. It was delicious!
Sleep – I made sure I was in bed around 10pm. That was to help me work on having a great social experience, enjoying that, and teaching my brain that was enough. I didn’t need to stay up chasing a feeling.
What intention do you want to set on your next trip?
It’s a special experience to go on an excursion with the intention to explore what you want to give to others. We don’t need to be constantly up in our heads wondering what we can get from others, judging others, thinking about what they’re thinking about what we’re doing, and all of that. Trips don’t need to be anxious control-fests.
Even if it’s not an entire trip, try taking a day or even part of a day, and just making it about giving gratitude and exploring mindfully.
This Guide attended a seven-day intensive, silent meditation retreat led by Zarko Andricevic, in the tradition of Chan master Sheng Yen, at Dharma Drum Mountain