Vipassana transformed my life, this is how I found it

James Thomas
5 min readOct 27, 2020
Meditating on the beach at Agonda, Goa, circa 2018

Five years ago I cycled from Hanoi to Tbilisi, a near 20,000km journey across 26 countries that took 18 months to complete. While in India I sat a ten day Vipassana meditation course at the Dhamma Ganga centre in Kolkota. Since I attending the course in 2016 I’ve maintained a daily practice. It’s transformed my life for the better in countless ways. This is the story of how I came to discover the technique during a life affirming bike ride across Eurasia.

The events that led up to Valentines Day February 2016 are significant. I’d been on the road for just about nine months, cycling solo from the UK to Turkey, then taking a flight from Istanbul to Hanoi to visit an old friend. The plan with that friend didn’t materialise, and consequently, I found myself crossing South East Asia alone, with the intention to cycle home to the UK. I made the decision in Cambodia to travel through Myanmar to spend the winter in India, electing to skip a harsh few months of fierce cold in China.

By the time I reached Thailand I’d begun to question the lifestyle I was leading off the bike; I’d arrive in a big city, check into a cheap hostel and have an almighty blow out — the lone adventurer joins the backpackers for a night of clichéd fun and frivolity; a seemingly never-ending international bar crawl. It was a continuation of the way I’d lived in London as a software salesmen; work all week, party all weekend; all I’d done was swap the selling for cycling. I arrived in Chiang Mai for Loi Krathang, the festival of lanterns that the country is famous for and fell into a familiar routine for a few days. By the end of the week, I was quite certain that I wanted more from this trip than a long chain of hangovers linking from the UK to Vietnam. That’s not to say one can’t enjoy a beer responsibly and travel long term, nor does it mean that I wasn’t making the most of every minute of the deep cultural immersion that bike travel affords the intrepid cyclist — I was right in there. I’m saying this because it illustrates the extent to which I was conditioned in the Westernised way of life. We all are so wrapped up in the stuff that modern life sends our way that, from time to time, we become so involved in material culture of consumerism that we can’t remember how things were before. We forget how simple life is, how beautiful it can be. We all have those habits, right?

Kanchenjunga reveals a cheeky peak

A fleeting glimpse

I stood at the far end of the lookout point to catch a fleeting glimpse of Kanchenjunga, the worlds third highest mountain, the snowy white peaks glistening brightly in the early morning sun, the reflected light full of hope and colour and majesty. I was in Darjeeling. I’d crossed Burma and negotiated India’s tribally diverse North East through the foothills of the Himalayas. The journey through the region had been tough, far more challenging than I had anticipated. It was winter and food was scarce. The climbs more severe and the terrain much harsher than could have been planned for. After the easy days on paved Thai roads, the rugged rock paths that carried me to Darjeeling had come as a shock. I was happy about this change. The trip had thrown a challenge my way and I’d risen to the occasion. I’d survived and loved every minute of it. All thoughts of booze fuddled antics a distant memory.

During this time I’d been in touch with my friend Ellie, best friend of my ex-girlfriend Rose. Ellie had recently married in Kolkota. We made a plan to meet up for a chai. Before I’d left England, Rose had suggested that I try Vipassana while I was away. Rose had sat a course in Australia and found the technique to be beneficial. I’d not really thought much more about it, I was too involved in the trip to have paid it much attention. That was until I met an old friend at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok. Greg was heading to Yangon to attend a Vipassana course and that conversation renewed my interest. I mentioned this to Ellie over text message and on the 14th February I got a message to say that there were places on the next course in Kolkota, starting on the 17th. I packed my things, ate a hefty egg toast sandwich and said one last farewell to the glorious peaks of the southern edge of the Himalayas. I flew with great speed down the 54km of road that wound down from Darjeeling to the flatlands below, swooping past the fragrant tea estates and the famous Himalayan toy train.

I arrived at New Jailpaigura station at 3pm. I packed my bike and bags into a neat package and handed it to the parcel office and at 10pm I boarded the Darjeeling Mail night train to Kolkota. It was a national holiday so the train was packed. I took a general class ticket and was the last man to board the already overcrowded carriage, much to the surprise and amusement of the locals. I stood in the centre of the aisle, with an excellent view of the top of many Indian heads, the sweet-sour smell of the press of a thousand human bodies wafted through as the moving train caught a breeze. I held on tightly to the loose leather straps of the overhead rail. It was a very long ten and a half hours. As dawn broke we pulled lazily into Sealdah station, a new week beginning in India’s third largest city. I spent a day resting up in a cheap hotel on Sudder Street, catching up on lost sleep. I took a light stroll around the dusty streets to find food in early evening. The next day I made my way to the Vipassana Kendra campus.

The next ten days would change my life forever.

The sign outside Dhamma Ganga in Kolkota



James Thomas

Maverick content creator obsessed with bikes, books and big ideas.