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Volunteer Vacations

Service trips benefit others — and they leave you with a rewarding experience.

group shot of people backpacking

The first thing I notice after my first meditation session is how shaky my legs feel after sitting with them curled under me or in a cross-legged position for a half day. Or so it seems. There are no clocks at the Northwest Vipassana Center in Onalaska, Wash.

Vipassana — a Pali term that means “to see things as they really are” — is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. To help minimize distractions, there are no books, no music, no writing, no eye contact, and no conversations. But that doesn’t mean there’s no sound.

There’s a surprising amount of noise in a room filled with meditators sitting for a 10-day silent retreat. Most of it takes place in each individual’s head: I can’t do this for one more minute! My legs are falling asleep. What is that smell?! It’s hot in here!

When my inner monologue winds down, I notice coughing, the whisper of the person next to me shifting position, and the snap of a match lighting incense.

That was my first visit to a Vipassana center, now more than 20 years ago. I arrived having never attempted one minute of meditation. But I was desperate for a space to sort through the grief from the death of my mother five months earlier. While I’m still working through that process, learning to really listen by paying attention has changed how I interact with the world and myself.

This unique skill brings me deep joy, and my desire to share it with others led me to return to another session at a different retreat center a few years later as a volunteer.

All Vipassana retreats and courses are free (including meals and lodging), funded by donations from those who have experienced the practice’s benefits and wish to give others the same opportunity. Teachers, assistants, and those who choose to serve in other capacities receive no financial compensation. (To find a retreat, visit www.dhamma.org.)

Helping to create a space for calm in an ­anxiety-producing and fragmented world made for a gratifying experience as a volunteer at a three-day retreat at a Vipassana center in ­Pecatonica, Ill. Being a witness and offering support — preparing meals and washing dishes, tending the onsite garden, and handling housekeeping tasks — for people struggling to unspool their minds from fear, perfectionism, and trauma helped me experience a profound sense of empathy.

Volunteer vacations like this are personally rewarding, adding a new dimension to what it means to travel.

They can be great adventures that immerse you in a new culture in a way that sightseeing can’t. They can help you connect with animals and nature in a way that’s different from watching the sun set behind a mountain (although I find this to be one of life’s great pleasures). Learning a new skill or language forces you out of your comfort zone in a way that sitting on a beach may not.

While there are countless options, these four ­adventures may inspire you to not just observe but engage with the world around you in a new way.

is an Experience Life staff writer.

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