Valley’s meditation retreat centres are seeing a surge in youth participationThe majority of participants of meditation courses at retreat centres used to be the elderly and foreigners. But now these centres are seeing an increasing number of young Nepalis.
Riju Manandhar was only 13 years old when she first heard about a place that offered residential courses on vipassana, a meditation technique. The idea of spending days focusing just on meditation fascinated her.
But she didn’t know at the time that she would one day go on to enrol in a retreat centre to attend a 10-day vipassana course.
“I have always been a very impatient person, and in my first year of college, a teacher suggested that I join a vipassana centre to improve my concentration and enhance my academic performance. That was when I decided to enrol at Dhamma Shringa Vipassana Meditation Centre at Budhanilkantha. I was 19 at the time,” says Manandhar, who is now 23.
This year, Manandhar attended her second vipassana course.
There was a time when elderly Newa Buddhists and foreigners made up the majority of participants of meditation courses offered by retreat centres in and around Kathmandu Valley. But in the last few years, an increasing number of young people like Manandhar are signing up for such courses.
From the handful of centres that offer meditation courses in the Valley, the most popular ones are Dhamma Shringa’s two vipassana meditation centres in Budhanilkantha and Kirtipur, the Art of Living in Sankhamul Yoga Park, and Osho Tapoban in the hills of Nagarjun forest.
Osho Tapoban’s Swami Aatmo Neerav, who has been serving at the centre as a secretary and teacher for over 17 years, has seen firsthand the shift in age demographic of those visiting the centre for meditation courses.
Until five years ago, most of the Nepalis joining meditation and retreat courses were middle-aged people, says Neerav.
“But in the last few years, we have been seeing an increase in young professionals and people in their 20s enrolling at the centre,” says Neerav. “This trend has a lot to do with the way the world is these days. People are more ambitious than ever and there is immense competition in every profession. People are leading very stressful lives.”
Many like Neerav who have closely observed the Valley’s meditation culture also believe that the growing awareness about the importance of mental health and well-being among the youth is one of the reasons many youngsters are signing up for meditation and retreat courses. Multiple studies have shown that meditation improves mental health.
“As our actions are driven by our thoughts, in cognitive behavioural therapy, we recommend meditation to control our thoughts, which could lead to better responsiveness to the problems we face,” says Bharat Gautam, a clinical psychologist at Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO) Nepal.
Roop Jyoti, a meditation teacher at Dhamma Shringa, says people are finally understanding the role of meditation in improving mental well-being.
“As modern life has gotten more hectic and stressful, meditation can help a person to centre his or her attention, to stay calm and focussed. I think this is why a lot of Nepali participants from diverse age brackets are taking up vipassana and other meditation courses,” says Jyoti.
The pandemic, which has caused a lot of mental stress among the general public, also seems to have played an important role in popularising meditation.
“The different levels of stress that so many people felt during the early days of the pandemic made people realise the importance of mental health and the need to have the tools required to cope with stress,” says Neerav. “Since the country was in a lockdown for most of last year, people who wanted to go for meditation courses couldn’t. But now with the restrictions loosened, we have started seeing many youngsters enrolling for courses at our retreat centre.”
Manisha Chand was one of the many youngsters who decided to join a course at Dhamma Shringa Vipassana Meditation Centre in Budhanilkantha this June. She had returned to Nepal in January after completing her studies in the US.
“The months of lockdown that followed as soon as I arrived in Nepal really gave me the time to focus on my mental and emotional state,” says Chand. “I thought enrolling in a vipassana course would be perfect for me to further explore my inner state.”
Two weeks ago, 30-year-old Sajjan Tamrakar enrolled in a 10-day vipassana course. His hectic lifestyle as well as work- and pandemic-related stress was what led him to explore meditation.
“I have a very demanding 9 to 5 job that often requires me to work overtime. I was spending whatever little free time I had using social media. All of these things were impacting my mental health. After spending a considerable time researching different meditation techniques, I decided to enrol in a vipassana course,” says Tamrakar. “I have always been a spiritual person and have also attended a few yoga/meditation courses. But this time, I knew that I needed something more intensive.”
Tamrakar finished his 10-day vipassana course a few days ago and he says he’s noticing some differences in his lifestyle.
“Perhaps it is too early to come to a conclusion, but ever since I returned, I feel that I am able to concentrate and stay focused for much longer than I used to. I have become more productive as well,” says Tamrakar.
Among the many youngsters who enrol in meditation courses, it's common for many to come without being prepared or having done any research on what the course entails.
Before Chand enrolled in a vipassana course, she admits she knew very little about the meditation technique or the course.
“All I knew was that the course was for 10 days and that students would be fed vegetarian food,” says Chand, who is 26 years old.
According to Jyoti, participants of Dhamma Shringa’s 10-day vipassana courses spend hours meditating every day.
“They start with an hour-long meditation followed by 3-4 hour-long meditation divided into three sessions, each separated by a break,” says Jyoti. “Although our centres offer a peaceful environment, participants have to deal with their internal chaos during the first few days. Some of them cannot keep up with their chaotic thoughts,” says Jyoti.
Many, says Tamrakar, seem to take meditation courses as a break from their normal lives.
“But that is not the case. The course is mentally rigorous and demanding and one has to be mentally and physically prepared before enrolling,” says Tamrakar. “The vipassana centre I attended required me to sit cross-legged on a floor for hours every day. This causes a lot of physical discomfort. Many of us who are used to constantly being mentally engaged in activities will not find it easy to stay still and observe thoughts for hours daily.”
Chand, who also attended vipassana course at the same centre Tamrakar did, agrees on the rigorousness of the course.
“Vipassana is not an escape; it’s rather an intensive course where one has to stay physically still and meditate for a minimum of 12 hours a day,” says Chand.
In the many years that Jyoti has been associated with Dhamma Shringa, he says he has seen many quit the course midway.
“That’s how tough it is,” says Jyoti.
Rehan Maharjan was only 18 when he attended his first 10-day residential meditation course in 2019. Since meditation wasn’t a new concept to him as he had been meditating since he was only 10, Maharjan thought he wouldn’t find completing the course difficult.
“But just a few days into the course, I wanted to run away from the centre. It was extremely challenging. However, I didn’t end up running and finished the course. Looking back, I am glad I saw it through. Whenever I am stressed out, I meditate and it helps me calm down,” says Maharjan.
Many who have attended retreat meditation courses who spoke to the Post, say that attending courses alone doesn't bring a lasting positive impact.
“The key is to regularly practise meditation even after leaving the retreat centre. But doing this is not easy. After I finished my first meditation retreat in 2017, I couldn’t meditate regularly. It requires discipline and dedication and we get so occupied with our lives that we often forget to meditate,” says Manandhar. “This is why I think it's important to go on a meditation retreat at least once a year, and that’s what I plan to do.”