From 9/2020 to 9/2021, I took a gap year before my freshman year at college. It made a big impact on me so I’d like to share my journey.
Since high school I had been wanting to get out of the educational system. In the high school that I went to, it felt like everything was about grades, getting into a good college, and making friends or something. I was frustrated because I did not want to play the game of money and success and reputation. And I was not getting any new insights about why I’m here in this world and where to find the truth. This prompted me to take a gap year, to seek answers through Buddhism and a different lifestyle. Some other motivations for taking a gap year were: finally getting to spend more time with my family (the four years prior to my gap year I was studying abroad at a US boarding school), and making more art.
︎︎WHAT I DID
Although I would have liked to travel a lot during my gap year, I had to do a “local” gap year in China due to COVID. I stayed in Beijing, my home city, for the majority of the year, during which I:
- Completed a 200h RYT flow vinyasa yoga instructor training
- Completed a 100h RYT hatha yoga instructor training
- Lived in 2 co-living programs in Beijing courtyards
- Read 52 books
- Learned Chinese gong-bi paintings under artist Zhang Qing and produced a series of paintings, one of which was sold for 5000rmb
- Did 50,000 long kowtows (300 a day for 6 months)
- Became a yoga teacher and taught 60+ students, specializing in kids yoga
- Did a 2-month creative therapy project (maitri)
- Attempted to earn money for the first time and paid for my rent at the courtyard (much thanks to ShaoBo for helping me)
- Attended a 3-week art and drama therapy workshop
- Spent a lot of time with family
- Lots of meditation and praying
- Took classes on western art history and tibetan art history
- Went on self-planned individual trips to Chengdu and Shanghai.
Constraints give birth to freedom
Taking a gap year meant that, for the first time, I had the complete freedom to do anything. I was so excited that I finally got complete control over what I am going to do with my life and was not trapped or limited by any societal standards or communities or systems.
However, things didn’t turn out as I imagined.
My original plan was to spend my time doing Buddhist meditations, making art, and being with my family. However, during the first month of my gap year, I visited Shifu, who told me that I should not be making art or practicing Buddhism, but rather going to school and learning skills. In addition, my grandparents were extremely unhappy with my not going to school. When I expressed that I can now spend more time with them, they criticized me for wasting my time away.
Another aspect that gap year was not as freeing as I thought was how I ended up creating systems and traps for myself without realizing. I compared myself endlessly to others and beat myself up for my inadequacy and lack of productivity; I was constantly worried that I wasn’t being a good enough sister and granddaughter and doing enough for them, and I was struck with an endless stream of existential crises which led to anxiety throughout the entire year. In the end, the struggle to decide how I should spend my gap year became the heaviest burden, one that perhaps constrained me more than the school system had. I did not feel free at all.
I realized through my gap year that breaking completely free from responsibilities does not earn me the freedom that I so badly wanted. Freedom is achieved not by escaping constraints, but by embracing constraints.
How to love my grandparents
I grew up with my maternal grandparents (my lao lao and lao ye), so I feel an immense feeling of connection, love, and gratitude for them. Because I love them so much, I also feel a strong sense of responsibility to be there for them. With this intention, I did 3 stupid acts this past year:
1 - Preparing an entire PPT presentation about the connections between Buddhism and physics in trying to persuade them (atheist communists) into Buddhism. Failing to see that they are perfectly happy with their own framework of life.
2 - The very decision to take a gap year and feeling the need to spend more time with them. Failing to recognize that they are capable of leading a fulfilling lifestyle by themselves.
3 - Being too sensitive and reacting too dramatically when my grandma’s father passed away this summer. Failing, due to my spoiled upbringing, to understand that my grandma has been through many hardships (such as her own mother’s death, the Cultural Revolution, the Tang Shan earthquake, and growing up in extreme poverty) to get her through this.
I thought that it was my duty to be there for my grandparents and better their lives because they are lonely, have outdated conservative opinions, and haven’t seen as much of the world as me. However, I was completely wrong. It is I who need to learn from them how to be more tough mentally. I realized that blindly projecting my affection towards her is egotistical and not loving them. The true way to love my grandparents is by letting go of my selfish need to “be there for them” and instead, try to understand their perspectives. This is probably the most important discovery of my gap year, and it has helped to transcend my relationship with my grandparents.
Gap year was a fail-safe life simulation
Towards the end of my gap year, I realized that I was not going to complete all the things on my gap year to-do list. When I realized that I only had a few weeks left at home, I was forced to make decisions and let go of a lot of things. This made me realize that nothing was more important to me than spending time with my family and taking care of my mental and physical health.
In a sense, my gap year was a simulation of my life, and how I was feeling at the end of my gap year offered me a peek into how I may feel towards the end of my life. Perhaps at the end of my life I will confront failure at accomplishing the things I wanted to do. But perhaps I will also realize that at the end of the day no accomplishments are more important than the people in my life. Gap year may have unintentionally acted as a fail-safe simulation of my life, and hopefully I will have learned from my gap year failures, and from now on made decisions with more clarity.
Lastly, when I think about how, if not for my gap year, I would’ve never met or developed closer relationships with certain people that are currently very important to me, I know that my gap year was worth it despite the many ways that I failed it. I am extremely thankful for everyone I met and all the experiences that I had.