Allow me to fast-forward momentarily to the second day of my Chosen experience in Bali. There are just eight others besides myself, all of whom, like me, have been required to submit an application to participate in this unusual programme – part experiential travel, part wellness retreat, part mental-emotional challenge. All are now seated at a rough-hewn wooden dining table on a balmy terrace, surrounded by a vast vista of staggered rice paddies. The two founder-owners of Chosen are relaxing with us; like us, they’ve dined on a feast of locally sourced fish and produce that has been tailored – as it is every day – to provide the nutrients and calories we need to undertake the physically and mentally demanding tasks that will define our week.
The conversation, which is flowing comfortably, is suddenly interrupted by one of the founders, who asks the kind of question that I normally dread: what’s been your favourite part of the experience so far, and why? I wrack my brain but, as is typical of me in put-on-the-spot scenarios like this, I draw a complete blank. I scramble for something significant I have achieved in the 36 hours since I arrived with which to impress my peers, but absolutely nothing comes to mind.
I hear my name. I look up; it can’t possibly be my turn already – they started at the other end of this giant table. But it turns out to be one of the other members of the group talking about me, and what she had seen as a huge achievement for me on the previous day’s inaugural outing: canyoning down a mountain situated a two-hour drive from our sprawling villa. The day had started at 5am – normal for Chosen’s various adventure-based excursions. Dressed in a wetsuit, crash helmet and climbing apparatus, I abseiled, slid and scrambled down multiple crevices and gorges while being battered by rapids and waterfalls. I had never tried canyoning before but I loved it; the mixture of adrenaline and fear that conspired to catapult my body and brain through the six-hour mountainside descent.
What my fellow participant appears to be referring to, however, is the fact that I had conquered one of my lifelong fears by leaping off a ledge into a pool of water 9m below – its depths unknown but looking, to my terrified eyes, far too shallow, and distant, for such a leap ever to end well.
One of the questions on the Chosen application form is this: what is your greatest fear? My response had been: jumping from heights, leaping into the unknown. And yet there I was, on day one, facing my demon in front of a group of complete strangers. After two failed attempts, which left me with bruises on the palms of my hands from clinging so tightly to the rock face, and cheered on by the cohort of eager faces chanting my name from below, I took a great, big, truly terrifying leap of faith. That leap represents a moment in time that I don’t believe I’ll ever forget, when a tremendous weight was lifted from my shoulders and everything in life seemed possible again.
Now, back to dinner on night two: what we had actually been asked to do was nominate our favourite moment of the week so far among the other participants’ experiences. We were asked to consider whether another person’s achievement could be a highlight for ourselves; asked to think about a stranger in a meaningful way, to look beyond our own perspective – our own stressed, overwrought and absorbing world – and to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This, for me, was significant moment number two. It meant learning to listen till the end of someone’s question (which I hadn’t), rather than impatiently anticipating it (which I had) and rushing to provide an answer. More importantly, it proposed an alternative way to view things; to open up my overcrowded life to what was significant in other people’s worlds and what, as a result of that new opening, they could bring into it.
This philosophy springs from Cho¯sen founders John Stanton’s and Robin Connelley’s desire to return some balance to their own hectic adrenaline-fuelled lives (the friends and longtime professional collaborators run a Hong Kong-based private-equity company specialising in clean tech and energy). Each week-long experience is built around a schedule of activities that is formulated to challenge and nurture mind and body in equal measure. (The name Chosen is an aural interpretation of the Japanese word sho-zen, meaning “to challenge”.) By immersing you in the company of strangers, asking you to participate in physical activities that you might never have previously considered, and forcing you to question the way you see everyday things through unusual and unexpected social, intellectual and emotional interactions, this is exactly what Chosen does.
Cliff jumping, canyoning, yoga, parkour, surfing, swimming, weight lifting, interval training, mindfulness coaching, cooking lessons, Rolfing, massages and holistic healing sessions feature in the various programmes tailormade for each group. Olympic athletes, motivational life coaches, celebrated yogis, world-class mindfulness and meditation teachers and nutritional therapists are the experts that form Chosen’s extensive international network of practitioners. One of the most interesting, and ultimately effective, strategies Chosen uses is the element of surprise. While you are provided on arrival with a brief synopsis of what your week will comprise, the full details of each day’s activities are not shared with you until bedtime the night before, when an envelope is laid on your pillow holding a letter, written personally to you, that describes what will face you the next day.
It turns out that this letter is one of the aspects of the programme with which participants struggle most. Pretty much everyone who signs up for one of the Chosen experiences comes from a high-pressure working environment, and is used to micromanaging every single minute of their lives. (Among my fellow participants are a corporate lawyer who averages 14-16 hours a day in the office; the head of communications for a multinational based in the Middle East; a geologist retraining to be a nutritionist; and the owner-director of an international digital marketing agency, who climbs the world’s highest mountains in her spare time.) To suddenly have no knowledge, let alone control, over what their day will hold is – by design – often deeply unsettling. In this disrupted state of mind, we found ourselves more open to new possibilities, and to experiencing things in a way that was more mindful. Our sustenance involved a similarly unpredictable approach: at Chosen, you don’t know what you will be eating until it appears on the table in front of you. And, unless you have specific food allergies or other medical dietary requirements, you eat what is prepared by the programme’s chef on that day. So, yet another decision-making process is removed from your day, further liberating the overcrowded mind.
That said, the food is absolutely delicious – and one of the highlights of the programme. The menu has been created by global executive chef and operations manager Josh Davies (who last year became a junior partner in the company). Working with holistic nutrition consultant Elisa Haggarty of Culinary Farmacy, Davies has developed a menu that places equal emphasis on giving our bodies what they need for that particular day of activities and on superb presentation and flavours. Thus, when we’re faced with a three-hour surfing session on day four of the programme, we kickstart with a generously portioned breakfast of scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, toast made from pumpkin, spinach and potato starch-based bread, homemade peanut butter and mountains of fresh tropical fruit. An hour later, the need for such a sizeable breakfast is immediately clear: surfing turns out to be one of the most energy-consuming and exhausting activities I’ve ever attempted.
Dinner each evening is preceded by an hour-long “yin” yoga class, offering us a welcome period to recalibrate after the day’s mostly “yang”-based activities. Practice takes place in the wall-less upper floor of the villa’s main building, where a soft breeze gently fans us to the accompaniment of a chorus of frogs hidden in the surrounding rice paddies. It is a magical hour – not least because the delicious smell of cooking wafts upwards from the kitchens below, offering the promise of a meal that you know, mind and body, you have genuinely earned. On the last evening I fell asleep during savasana, those few minutes of relaxation at the end of yoga practice. Sleep is sacrosanct at Chosen, as most people who take part in its programmes struggle to some degree with insomnia related to their fast-paced lifestyles. And so I was simply left there until the moment that dinner was being served. As I made my way downstairs to the table, a virtual wall of laughter rose up to greet me. It sounded exactly like the animated dinners I have with my family and closest friends. Six days ago this was a group of stressed-out strangers. What I heard around the table was the essence of camaraderie and friendship, brought about by an extraordinary week of physical and emotional discovery.