I’m no stranger to the power of retreat. Since my departure from Canada last year, I’ve not only enlisted myself as a guest on numerous retreats, but I’ve also become an advocate for such an investment in personal and mental health. A quiet, relaxing space where all basic needs are met and the distractions of the crazy western world are eliminated. A safe place where one can stop doing and effortlessly start being.
It was during those incredible months I spent as a yoga instructor at Hariharalaya that I was first introduced to the immeasurable gifts a retreat setting can provide. Week after week guests would arrive from all across the world; fresh from their busy lives, wound tight and extremely resistant to separate from their phones for six whole days. Regardless how uncomfortable the digital detox made them, it rarely took more than an hour before everyone began to settle into the space and a sense of calm peacefully spread throughout the group. Without the all-encompassing worry of Facebook likes, Instagram filters, and page views, people began to do other things to occupy their time. Strangers from completely different worlds interacted, saw the awe in one another, and become inspired. The surrounding nature (that had always been there) suddenly started to look so much more beautiful. The sun shone brighter, the birds chirped louder and the number of butterflies spotted on a single afternoon almost always exceeded a hundred. Dinners became more about experiencing the smells, tastes and colours of the fresh produce than simply scarfing back food to get full. Nobody took more in the buffet line than they could actually eat. People eagerly volunteered for Karma yoga to help with the dishes after meals. And if ever something was lost (including a crisp $100 bill), it was always found and returned to it’s rightful owner. Simply put, it is the kind of environment that completely restores your faith in humanity and, without fail, in just a few short days strangers morphed into a supportive family.
For me, it was the most fulfilling thing my heart has ever experienced to be a part of something so transformative. To sit in the closing circle on the morning of day six and hear every last guest speak their truth; vulnerable and raw. To see the veils lift and the tears flow for no other reason than, for the first time in their lives, these special souls experienced what it means to truly ‘live in the moment’. My perception is that the retreat did not provide anyone with anything they didn’t already know. It simply supplied an environment that gave full permission to slow down and experience things as they really are; without label, judgement or force. The realization that all people are, in fact, this beautiful if you just choose to notice. That the night sky is always so full of shooting stars should you take the time to simply look up. And that happiness can be this easily achieved should one choose to shift their perception and be in the now.
I’ve seen the wonder first-hand. I’ve experienced all the sparkly glitter in my veins on each and every retreat. And still, the thought of a 10-day silent meditation retreat in the Himalayan mountains completely scared the shit out of me. There was nothing in my being that desired to place myself in a remote environment in which I couldn’t communicate for more than a week. Not to mention the hours of meditation practice each day in which I’d be confronted with the greatest fear of all; getting up close and personal with the voice inside my head and having nowhere to escape. I suppose that’s both the interesting and wonderful thing about life though; regardless of how terrified you are or how strongly you think yourself incapable of something, the universe has this funny way of giving you exactly what you need practice in. And whether you ask for it or not, it’s only a matter of time before your presented the opportunity to prove your own self wrong.
A great deal of my initial apprehension stemmed from the fact that I am not a ‘speechless’ type of girl. I imagine most of my family and friends in Canada would consider me quite the opposite; always with opinion, loudest at the party and never shying away from conversation. Of course, I had never chosen to notice this about myself. I just accepted the consistent chatter, exaggerated stories, and pointless gossip as a definition of Who I was in those days. Looking back, maybe I thought it necessary to be talking in order to be valued; that the drama would make me more interesting and better received by others. Or perhaps the silence just made me incredibly uneasy. Like some people are afraid of the dark, I was afraid of the quiet. And because of this, I personally took it upon myself to fill any dead air with sentences; regardless as to whether they were meaningful or improved upon the silence in any way.
I hadn’t ever been quiet with myself long enough to reflect on any of this, and therefore the real motivation for my enrolling in a Tushita Meditation course was that of sheer professional development. There had always been this part of me that felt a little bit like a fraud as I sat at the front of the yoga shala and guided meditation to hundreds of guests, many of whom had completed intensive training themselves. I’d listen to them describe their participation on silent meditation courses; all sharing similar examples of discipline, surrender, followed by life-changing moments of self-realization. After hearing their experiences, I always felt a combination of both awe and defeat; leading me to question what the heck I was doing teaching people who clearly knew better than I did. It’s only now (after completing a meditation retreat for myself) that I realize none of it has anything to do with knowing better. That the secret to having it all, is simply recognizing that you already do.
I retreated alongside 120 travellers from all over the globe, lived in a dorm with seven other girls, and was surrounded by dozens of playful baby monkeys, yet Tushita is still one of the most comfortable spaces I’ve ever resided. In fact, the environment lends itself so conducive to speechlessness, that the silence was completely effortless and sincerely welcomed. When those in your presence are not speaking to you or around you, the pressure to communicate quickly dissolves. And by not entertaining or participating in meaningless chatter, one begins to naturally think more clearly and without interruption. The more time I spent with myself, the more I became aware of all the little things which make up Who I Am; the patterns of my thoughts, the tendencies of my actions, and the depth of my emotional intelligence.
For the first time in my entire life I was able to hear the actual silence between sounds. I distinctly remember my ears taking days to adjust to the deafening quiet that had always been there, but somehow gone unnoticed. And as ‘free spirited’ as it all may sound, the lack of talking made me increasingly sensitive to the energies of the special beings around me. I spent ten days having the best conversations of my life without ever uttering a single word. Because I was unable to listen to anyone’s accents, I knew not which country they resided, their age, job or anything else that I may have previously deemed important in the definition of Who a person Is. Instead, I felt their goodness. I took the time to notice the random acts of kindness that continued to go on around me; beautiful notes left on my pillow, the sharing of cookies during tea break, and how an umbrella magically appeared over my head as soon as it started to rain in the outdoor lunch line. My most memorable moment of the whole experience came on our last night together at the retreat. We were led through an exquisitely guided candle-lit meditation; reflecting on the previous days and the bounty of gifts we had received up to this point in our life. Next, 120 strangers (who had never spoken to one another) came together in perfect harmony to repeat a mantra of peace and love. The celebration of happiness and singing went on well into the evening; one of those amazing moments in life in which there simply are no words. An unspoken inspiration that was felt instead of heard.
There will never be enough bytes on the web or words in the dictionary to articulate those life-changing days I spent at Tushita. I filled more journal pages in a week and a half than I did in all the fifty-five weeks of travel before that. And even still, as I read back the entries it’s evident that the words I wrote will only ever serve as a vague reminder to all of the intense feelings, thoughts and emotions that can’t be expressed within the confines of language. That’s the interesting thing about spending so many days in silence; one begins to realize that words will never be able to justify anything worth justifying. That language is, in fact, a barrier to living in the present; as (more times than not) by the time you’ve seen, thought, processed and then found the words to communicate … the moment has already escaped. After all, isn’t love is just a simple word until someone comes along and sets your heart alive with firestorms to give it meaning?
As I reflect on the experience, I’m both appreciative for the gift of retreat and, at the same time, unsure yet as to how greatly it has impacted my future. A seed has been planted. . . this I know. And for this I can only express endless gratitude to all the beautiful souls at Tushita that entered my world. Thankyou not just for the ten days of living, learning and love, but for all the inspiration I can feel that has welled up inside me. For everything you taught me and the positive changes I cannot yet know, though feel are somehow already contained within me.
“I think a thousand times and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in the silence and the truth comes to me”. – A. Einstein