Experiences from Natha’s Inner Silence Meditation Retreat, 2013-2014, in Paradise, Denmark
By Kieran Dowling, student in Tara Yoga Centre, Natha’s sister-school in London
This year I decided for the first time ever to go on a silent retreat – The self revelation camp run by Natha Yoga Centre (sister of Tara Yoga Centre) in Denmark.
I was really sure what to expect but the one thing I wasn’t expecting was to reveal myself in 7 days. I had heard good things about the camp from friends that had been there previously. But the one indelible detail was 3 hour long meditations. I am not the best of meditators and I don’t actually like mediating so this was going to be a challenge. Combine that with the fact that the camp ran after Christmas and into the new year (normally a very socially active period in my calendar) and I was really wondering why I had signed up for this retreat at all.
I arrived a few hours after the camp started due to travel restrictions. I just made the last meditation of the day – a short , half an hour. Phew!! Break in easy. As it was late night and I needed to sort out sleeping arrangements, payments etc I decided I would begin my Mauna (being silent) in the morning.
I chose to stay in a more private room as opposed to the big dormitory. I felt it would give added silence to my silent retreat and it proved the case. The next morning was an early start and silence began in earnest. Sim card out of phone to remove temptation, mp3 player stowed away, no books, no laptop, no reading material (apart from the course programme). This year Mauna was optional in the camp for the first time. I was happy to find that most people had chosen to remain in Mauna, including everyone in my room.
Getting a routine
The first day a routine was established that remained pretty much throughout the week. Get up at 6.30am to beat the queue for the showers. Start my yoga practise and tapas at 7am. I had 30 minutes laya yoga to do and I always found the morning easiest to concentrate. At 8am break for breakfast. Mostly simple, vegetarian foods but very nutritious, natural and healthy. Group yoga began at 8.30 each morning and it was always a concern going straight from the dining hall to the yoga hall so portions were moderate. I did get a little braver (and greedier) as the week went on.
After group yoga for an hour there was usually a lecture on meditation/revealing the self. This was followed by a 2 hour meditation. Then it was lunch time for 3 hours. Half an hour to eat, then some time to take a walk, contemplate, do more yoga practise, read the notes from the morning, sleep… whatever you wish. In the afternoon there was another lecture followed by the “big one” - a 3 hour meditation.
Then we had a break for an hour before dinner. Time to catch up on the rest of my tapas. Dinner for 2 hours. At night was usually a lecture followed by an hour long meditation and/or exemplifications plus a technique we were taught, based on a clock of all things.
It sounds a bit mundane but the routine actually helped a lot because you didn’t have to think or plan so much. You knew what was happening when after the first few days and this allowed for more inner silence.
Dealing with silence
Being someone who likes to talk quite a bit I was expecting to struggle with this. To my surprise it came relatively easy. After a day you get used to it and when everyone and everywhere is silent (apart from the lectures) it quickly becomes the norm. it was made a bit more tricky by having friends and close ones in the retreat also. Its quite easy to not talk to strangers but when its someone you know and would ordinarily discuss spiritual matters or experiences with it is much harder. Sometimes you want to speak about something that happened in the meditation, share an experience or even ask a question. While it was on the whole not a problem there were a few occasions where I thought I would burst if I didn’t speak to someone – luckily I refrained.
The first thing I realised by the Mauna was how hyper active my brain is. It does not (normally) get a seconds rest: “Remembering that, projecting this, analysing important thoughts, associating that to the other, admiring that girls bum, what should I eat, how much tapas do I have left, what would happen if…, is that the same bum I was admiring before in new pants or is it a new bum, I don’t want to finish my tapas, should I eat first or after, where did that bum go….”
On and on and on it goes. From the second I get up to… well it actually continues through the night and is already going when I wake up.
As the week wore on the silence got easier and it became easier to slow the mind down. I won’t say stop completely because I didn’t quite manage that. But I made substantial progress. Even becoming aware of your auto pilot thinking was a revelation. Then “catching” yourself more often you begin to see it working – the mind being brought under control.
The second thing I noticed was how dependent we are on others to validate ourselves. When you have a state or experience in a meditation we immediately want to “share” with others. Sometimes its for the benefit of others indeed but may times its for ourselves – to validate our experience, make it real, show it off. I noticed this tendency in myself and I was also able to observe it in others through the questions being asked to the presenter. Many were “I felt this state, is that correct?” while for some the whole purpose of the question seemed to be to create an opportunity to tell what was experienced. And I was the same. Not sure if what I felt was “right” or so excited about my revelation that I felt the whole world should know.
And normally I would share this. But being unable to speak had a surprising effect. It makes you go deeper into the thing – to validate it for yourself. Yes, maybe someone with 25 years experience can tell much quicker what you felt and why. But their answer will not be as valuable as you going deep within and finding it yourself. And with 3 hours for lunch and complete Mauna what else have you got to do? I found it also helps build your faith in yourself. Nobody to share with, nobody to answer you so you need to answer yourself and have faith you are right. This is a valuable process in itself, wherever answer you find.
Another interesting thing was just how much of our talking is out of habit. 30/40 of us sat in the dining hall 3 times a day in complete silence. Not one word from one to another. And the world still turned. The camp still ran. People still lived. It made me wonder actually what % of our communication is really necessary? I didn’t have the opportunity to carry out a surveybut I would say 1% or less at a guess.
Learning to really meditate
As I mentioned, the meditation was the part I was least looking forward to. An ominous sign given I was essentially at a meditation camp. But I must say the course itself (I will call it a course because it was) was fantastic – in content and in structure. There were lectures before each meditation. Before attending the only thing I could think of more boring than a meditation was a lecture about meditation. To my utter surprise I found the lectures riveting. They were not just lectures on meditation – they were lectures on living. The information was engaging, entertaining and succinct. It flowed into my brain with ease and the analogies made sure I remembered the details. After each lecture we had a chance to practise what had been presented – to test it out. And everything worked as described. You could see patterns, trends, where you were going wrong, how to go right and much more. You had a road map to keep you focused and a homing signal when you got lost. I began to understand how meditation works and why I was so bad at it. And most importantly how to fix it.
A large part of not liking meditations was because other people always had profound states or experiences in the same meditation where I spent 80% of the time asleep or thinking about tomorrow, or yesterday. In the camp meditation was reframed; “its not about states or state hunting – its about building consciousness”. This for me was a revelation and something that helped remove a lot of inner resistance. I was no longer concerned that God didn’t come down and whisper the meaning of life in my ear – if I increase my ability to focus from 5% to 8% then it was a good meditation. If I managed to become aware when I was “in the bushes” 10% faster than it was a good meditation. I learnt to compare myself with myself and not with others.
Ontop of all that the information came in such a way that each piece fitted nicely on top of the last. We built on it every day. And this was extremely effective. I noticed my focus getting better and better each day. I went from 5% concentration to 60 or 70% over the week. My consciousness grew. I had techniques to elongate my concentration but more than that – I was conscious of the techniques and when to use them also. After a few days I ended up in the most surprising and paradoxical situation: I didn’t want the meditation lectures to end because the information was so engaging and yet I did want them to end so I could practise what was being thought. For an anti-meditator this was hard to accept.
I think the most wonderful thing about this retreat was that it wasn’t a beginners course. It wasn’t an intermediate course. It wasn’t an advanced course. What was very obvious afterwards having listened to the testimonies and spoken with people was that it was an “anyone, anywhere” course. People with 15 years’ experience had personal revelations. People with 5 years’ experience had personal revelations. People like me who had never meditated for more than 30 minutes before had personal revelations. No matter who you were and where you were with meditation the camp took you from there and moved you along – significantly.
My revelations were suitable for me, at the level I am at. Some came in the meditations but most actually came afterwards. It was the Mauna that afforded the time and space for these things to appear. I was able to see how life actually is very similar to meditation and some of the principles I was practising in meditation what I also needed to apply in life. I became conscious of some negative behavioural patterns, mistakes I made in relationships, my dependency on others for validation. I was forced to face and address some things I knew already but was able to hide from. Now there was nowhere to hide and I had to face some issues head on. It became very challenging but in a good way. I went deeper and deeper inside as the week went on (thanks to an impulse I got) and as I did things became more challenging. The last few days were probably the most challenging. I had managed to create some space in my thinking and my mind attacked that space with ferocity, trying to fill it with as much thoughts as possible, anything but empty space. On top of that most of the thoughts were negative. And my mind almost won the battle until I had remembered some of the teaching and saw exactly what was happening. This allowed me to strengthen my consciousness and regain control of my mind and my thoughts.
Still for the first twelve hours after the retreat things were still very foggy/muddy in my mind. It was not instant gratification the second Mauna was lifted. I needed to let things settle, not panic, not overthink – just relax.
And when things did settle they settled in an amazing inner peace. I have never felt such calmness, inner peace and centring in myself as I felt in the following 2 days. I was blissfully happy, content, fulfilled. I was content in the company of others and in my own company. The lessons from the camp were clear and all the “huge challenges” I faced in the last days dissolved into nothing. I had a clear understanding of my life and the areas I need to work on. I understood how things were all interconnected. It may well have been the happiest 2 days of my life, fulfilled on all levels.
Fast forward 15 days and I can still feel the effects of the camp in my being. I knew the energy of being in the camp would diminish and the impulse would dry up. But using what I learnt and my “revelations” I have been able to retain the essence of the camp. I still have a strong motivation to continuously improve my meditation and consciousness. I re-invoke the energy of the camp regularly to give fresh impulses to my practice (something we were thought to do). It’s tougher outside the camp but understanding how this works helps and spurs me on to just work harder. Not a day goes by I don’t remember something I learned or experienced and use it in my daily life. It’s an ongoing process and the journey continues.