Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In this, the fourth installment of The Daily Gazette series “Faith and Spirituality at Swarthmore,” Amie Chou ’15 discusses her introduction to meditation at a Buddhist monastery and the way mindfulness now shapes her worldview.
Raised in Canada, Chou is Canadian and Taiwanese. She had originally hoped to travel before going to college but was met with resistance from her mother, who was concerned for her safety. She was dissuaded from traveling, although she regretted her decision.
“I was pretty disappointed in myself,” Chou said.
During her first semester at Swarthmore, Chou felt that although she made friends and seemed to adjust smoothly, below the surface she was unsettled.
“I felt like I should be happy here like everyone else. What’s wrong with me? Why am I not enjoying this space that I’m so lucky and blessed to be in?” Chou asked herself.
Chou attributes her initial discomfort at Swarthmore to a childhood incident of sexual assault and resulting unresolved family issues, the reverberations of which were impacting her daily life and interactions without her conscious knowledge. Over time, Chou felt that these fears had been aggravated and reinforced by the media, which perpetuates a fear of random violence against women.
While at Swarthmore, Chou didn’t acknowledge the sources of her distress. “I didn’t want to face the roots of my unhappiness, so I told myself I was happy,” Chou said.
Chou was interested in the month-long program at the Buddhist monastery primarily as an opportunity for her to connect with her Taiwanese roots rather than as a spiritual experience. She still had a desire to travel and asked a nun at the monastery for advice. The nun was skeptical.
“She just kind of looked at me, shook her head and said, ‘What you need is not an outer journey: what you need is an inner journey,’” Chou recalled.
Although Chou didn’t understand the advice at the time, it made sense to her after the retreat. “It was the best piece of advice anybody has ever given to me in my life,” Chou said.
At the retreat, Chou was introduced to Chan meditation, which informs what is called “mindfulness” in the West. “I just peeled off layers and layers and went so deep,” Chou said. Chou brought up the Buddhist image of “dust,” describing it as accumulated social influences and pressures. Meditation helped Chou move beyond this dust.
Chou was relieved to experience freedom from many of the anxieties that she had previously experienced. Although she described herself as “fearless” as a child, Chou said that over time, she lost confidence.
“I felt I was really insecure, super insecure about a lot of things,” she said.
These insecurities had stayed with her through high school and her first year of college, and it wasn’t until after a week-long meditation practice at Buddhist monastery that she finally uncovered their source.
Chou realized that these anxieties were not intrinsic aspects of her. “These were things that I developed because of my reactions and suppressions and denials, my struggles with experiences I’ve had,” Chou said. “It was so liberating to be free from all of that, for the first time in many years.”
“The truly liberating factor [was] not that I was free from the anxiety, but that I discovered I could be, that these anxieties that I had carried with me for so long were not an intrinsic part of me,” Chou said. “I discovered that me as a fearless child was still here, and always had been, and always will be.”
Chou learned the importance of relying on oneself, rather than others, for her well-being. “Freedom and peace are there inside me, and I just have to remember to tap back into that mindset,” Chou said.
After the retreat, Chou knew that she had to go on her journey. “It was the difference between being alive and living,” she said. She prepared and began delivering a lengthy speech to her parents, but her mother interrupted her, giving her permission to go.
Her mother remarked that Chou seemed much more confident since returning from the monastery. “She said that she saw such a profound change in me that she just knew that it was OK,” Chou said.
Chou’s yearlong travels took her to Portugal, Morocco, Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Mongolia, China, and finally Taiwan. She made a deliberate choice to avoid traveling by plane. “You miss all the geography and the people in between, and I wanted to travel slowly,” Chou said.
One of Chou’s goals during her travels was to “break out” of stereotypes perpetuated by the media, specifically those relating to gender.
“I think [these stereotypes] are personally damaging to people, women especially, and particularly women who have experienced assault and are consequently compelled to live in a state of fear with media reinforcement,” Chou said.
Chou challenged these assumptions through hitchhiking, deliberately choosing rides based on intuition rather than factors such as gender, age, or race. While in Russia, Chou hitchhiked at night and was offered a ride from four young Russian men.
“I just got a really good vibe from them,” Chou said. She accepted the offer, and the ride not only passed without incident, but was enjoyable.
“I didn’t want to be controlled by the fears I had, especially concerning fears of men,” Chou said. “I wanted to prove that I was capable of thinking for myself, that I have always had accurate intuitions of people that do not need to be dictated [or] mediated by others.”
“I didn’t want to live in fear anymore, like I had for the past 10 [or more] years. I wanted to believe in myself and others. But I am not naive,” she said. Having “experienced serious harm at the hands of men,” Chou did carry a knife for self-protection, although she never had to use it.
This past fall, Chou tried therapy as a means of coping with her anxieties, which had resurfaced in response to various triggers. She stopped meditation for a time.
“I thought that by devoting myself to dealing with this, I would once and for all conquer it,” Chou said. “But that’s not how it works. For me, the more I went into it, the deeper down I got dragged.”
Although Chou found it difficult to compartmentalize this grief and pain while still working as a student at Swarthmore, she still found therapy to be “tremendously useful” and would consider it in an environment where she had “the time and space to devote [herself] completely to healing.”
Eventually, Chou returned to meditation as a means of coping. “Meditation allows me to be aware of everything, even the bad things,” Chou said.
Chou is wary of telling her friends about her experiences: she believes that her transformative experience in the Buddhist monastery was greatly due to her lack of expectations going into the program.
Despite her qualms, Chou has ultimately decided that she would rather share her story with others.
“I want to be an inspiration to people who want that, who need that in life,” Chou said.
Featured image courtesy of http://www.emersonkent.com/