Going on a Buddhist prayer and meditation retreat sounded pretty glamorous to my Experiment group at the start of the program. We could clearly picture ourselves sitting under a curved temple roof, gazing at mists rolling down the mountainside, forefingers and thumbs pressed together while breathing deeply. In reality, our attempt to seek serenity was anything but simple.
We enjoyed the beautiful temple setting, the quiet mountain air, and plenty of meditation, to be sure … but we had a hard time getting accustomed to pre-dawn ceremonies, a strict vegan diet, hard floors to sleep on, and the local news crew that was very excited to film some Americans experiencing a temple retreat for the first time. Lesson learned: it’s hard to empty your mind when there’s a camera in your face.
The comedy of errors that was our temple stay in Korea is also an apt metaphor for traveling in general. It’s never how you expect it to go. The best thing to do is to let your experiences destroy your preconceptions and emerge on the other side more confident, open-minded, and ready for the next challenge. The discomfort zone, as Experiment group leaders learn during a week of leadership training, is where you discover how strong you actually are. As a first-time group leader, I found that challenges like these only confirmed for me that I was in the right place.
As the glue of The Experiment’s programs, group leaders make many things happen at the same time — we are teachers, mentors, friends, and coaches. We scaffold the learning process from language to culture, from personal to group development. From our own experiences abroad, group leaders know what happens when we dig deeper into ourselves and our surroundings, and we teach others to do just that. As I watched my kids struggle to overcome their difficulties during the temple stay, I recalled my own headfirst introduction to Buddhist austerity. When I was around their age, I went on a gap year program to India to learn about the country’s myriad religions. My temple stay was ten days instead of three and was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Throughout the trip, my group leader kept urging me on, knowing I had more to discover. She was right, and I planned to be as well, when it came to leading my own group.
Since my gap year, experiential education has played a big role in my personal and academic growth, leading to two semesters abroad in Indonesia and Brazil, and opening opportunities for study, play, and work. Seeds of thought planted during India germinated over the course of college and later trips abroad, and even now, I am still learning from that first big adventure. Leading a program for The Experiment was my chance to give back, as well as to experience vicariously the newness of travel through the fresh eyes of my students.
My Experiment group and I made it through our Korean temple stay. As we turned in our orange temple clothes, I saw a very quiet, very subtle change steal over the students as it dawned on them that they had toughed it out through a truly unique experience. Maybe when they look back on it, they will remember the sound of gongs before sunrise and a sense of peace and calm, rather than the challenges that they once thought were impassable. I am proud to teach my Experimenters as much as I have learned from them, and to grow alongside them as the next generation of global leaders.