It is Day One of my five day silent retreat and I am starting to lose my voice. We are sitting around the ceremonial fire for the second time today, dripping with sweat in the afternoon heat, count our japa malas
(a necklace of 108 beads which is used to count mantras: one bead for each mantra), feed the fire with copious amounts of ghee and herbs, and chant the Sanskrit Miritunjay
mantra over and over again - 432 times (four japa malas
) per ceremony, which takes roughly two hours. What I failed to realize when I signed up for this retreat was that the chanting of twenty japa malas
a day would take me eleven and a half hours. In fact, I don’t think I have ever used my vocals chords as much as I am about to over the next five days.
The day begins blissfully enough. Full of energy and motivation, I get up at 4 am and walk down to the Ganga in the dark, as the waning moon shines a pale yellow light onto my dusty path. It’s so quiet: only the sound of birds and the odd barking dog interrupt the silence. I see
people sleeping in brick houses with open doors and the light on: women, men, children, all huddled together on the floor. Mind you, I can only see their bare legs. It is still dark when I reach the river, so for once I don’t have to jump in fully clothed. I light some incense, dip into the invigorating cold water three times and do a chakra blessing. A fish tries to bite my toe, and a little green glowworm dances around on a rock. The stillness, contentment and beauty I experience is only marred by one thing: the stench of shit. Human shit. The sadhus and other people that live by the Ganga relieve their intestines daily between the rocks that line the Ganga bank beneath the ashram. Each morning, I will have to find a different spot to bathe to avoid new turds gracing my path. This contrast sums up India perfectly: the sacred and the profane, the pure and the impure, the blessed and the damned, the truth and the lies, the illusion and the disillusion. And, ultimately, the recognition that there is no difference between them at all, we merely create it in our minds.
6 am, I meet my fellow sadhana
participants at the ceremonial fire: Sanjay (who is leading the process), Yogi Vishva’s brother Parmod, and Parmod’s 16-year old daughter Barkha. Parmod’s mother Mata-Ji and his wife Vimlesh join us for support. The fire ceremony lasts for two and a half hours and feels mainly blissful, despite the physical discomfort of sitting cross-legged and near-motionless (sort-of) for all that time. It is quite hypnotic to chant the same words in a loop non-stop, in particular with the rising flames of the fire and the scent of the samagree herbs.
During the first retreat day, my main feelings are a mixture of bliss, anger, joy and frustration. Our day is structured around the fire ceremonies which last from 6 until 8.30 am, and from 4 until 6 pm. We have half an hour for breakfast, after which we go to our rooms and I chant five japa malas
until 12 pm and lunch, which again we take alone. At 1 pm I chant another five japa malas
, and reconvene with the others at 4 pm for the afternoon ceremony. At 6 pm, we eat dinner and chant another couple of japa malas
exhausted, I fall into bed at 8.30 pm. There simply isn’t time to do anything apart from chanting, eating and sleeping, and some writing between the japa malas
. It's a bit like being in prison, with the outside world doing its thing, and us leading a ghost-like existence in a bare room, only emerging to get some food from the kitchen. I can see now why the sadhus like to meditate in caves: the sensory deprivation is so helpful for concentration.
The five days in itself are a strange and powerful contrast of emotions, different states of awareness, and often crushing insights. Everything is magnified and intensified. One minute I am in a loving space during which I dedicate a mantra to each of my friends, family and ancestors; the next minute I feel so angry I could kill. Sometimes I can get really into the chanting and at other times it seems so much, so mad, so arduous. When I am in my room and I chant quickly, it feels as though I am rushing and I can’t see the point in it. So I decide to take my time and enjoy the process, even if it takes much longer. When I chant with concentration, focus and passion, it becomes a meditation, a practice to be fully in the moment. I manage to relax into the practice, and I start to really understand and embody the meaning of the Sanskrit mantra. For a while, at least. From the second night onwards, I wake up to the sound of my own voice: I am singing the mantra in my sleep. This gets more intense every night and drives me crazy, as it becomes a relentless soundtrack to my dreams.
I get mad at the others more than once. It seems to me that the Indians have a different concept of silence and sadhana. Silence, for them, simply seems to mean ‘not speaking’ - everything else, listening to conversations, meeting up and writing each other notes seems fine. Yet, every time I start to feel irritated or distracted by this, I remind myself that this is not my problem, that my concern is with myself and how I do my own sadhana (which is certainly not flawless either, quite the opposite infact) - but it’s hard. Sometimes, I feel quite unsupported and in a completely different space to the rest of the group. At other times, a fantastic joyful and serene energy flow connects us and I can’t imagine a more perfect bunch of people to do this practice with; it all depends what moods we are in and how each of us feels.
It’s also interesting how the focused silence works energetically. During a last rooftop briefing on the night before the sadhana starts, Sanjay reminds me ‘When you want to contact another soul, then do so in spirit, in your thoughts, in your heart. That soul will hear you, they will receive you.’ Over the next days, as I sit in isolation in my room, with nothing to keep me occupied than a ridiculous amount of mantras, I certainly find that to be true. Every time I have an epiphany and my feelings towards another person in the retreat change, the energy around them changes completely, too. It is as though we have become telepathic, and more than ever, I am aware of the power of thoughts.
On Day 3, we’re all starting to look a bit rough: we have dark shadows beneath our eyes, the men are unshaven and our clothes are crumpled. Sanjay growls at me for stroking Jackie, the ashram’s puppy. I shoot him back a murderous look. In response, I am asked to lead the ceremony, count the japa malas and
stoke the fire. Thankfully, Mata-Ji steps in and saves me from the latter two tasks - just as well, as my count is always way out of line with that of the others.
Mata-Ji, the lovable matriarch, keeps us all on our toes, and likewise, she keeps us all going with her big compassionate presence. An archetypal priestess, she is a devout Hindu, yet equally down to earth. One day, she comes to the ceremony in the middle of a japa mala
, gets her beads out, and says something to the extent of ‘Now, can someone tell me where we are here?’ Of course, none of us can, and we all crack up laughing. Another time, nobody notices when Sanjay marks the end of a japa mala
by placing a samidha (dried cow dung) into the fire, and everybody gets confused. Have we finished? Do we continue chanting? Mata-Ji summarizes everyone’s confusion by cackling and remarking loudly, ‘Sanjay, how many beads does your mala have? 150?’ Again, everybody loses it - Mata-Ji laughs so much she cries, and then reprimands us all sternly for drinking water during the ceremony afterwards. We nod seriously and shuffle back to our rooms, clutching our water bottles behind our backs.
On Day 4, I completely fall apart in my room and realize just how much I miss my friends and family back home. I think that maybe it’s time to go home, process everything I’ve learned, write a book about my experiences. For the first time since I left Germany sixteen years ago, I miss my birthplace, the woods and the tiny village where I grew up. This is completely strange and surprising to me. But maybe, so I reason, I’ve had enough challenges, enough new experiences, enough excitement for a while. Maybe it’s time to simply stand still, write, rest? I have visions of teaching my father, who is resistant to all things spiritual like a cat to water, the fire ceremony and the Sanskrit mantras in my parents’ garden. I laugh uncontrollably when I imagine the neighbours’ faces as they peek over their fences.
On Day 5, during the last evening of the sadhana, there is a huge forest fire on one of the hills opposite the ashram. I watch it start out small and spread rapidly. The flames rise high into the sky, and from afar, the scene reminds me of an erupting volcano. Somewhat alarmed, I go to the rooftop and motion to the others as to whether someone should call the firemen. They shake their heads and Sanjay writes me a note saying that there is no road on those hills and the forest department can’t get to it for lack of equipment. Rather symbolically, the fire continues to burn all night, reminding me of its awesome destructive powers.
Day 6, the end of the retreat, starts, rather unceremoniously, with me throwing a box of matches at Sanjay’s head and losing my temper with him (in silence, of course) because he neglected to tell me about a group outing to Ganga that morning (and for a whole plethora of other reasons). To his credit, he doesn’t react and simply writes me a note telling me that a Priest is coming at 8.30 am to bless us and that we have to chant in our rooms until then. The others watch our interaction with a mixture of amusement and concern. So much for achieving serenity, non-reactiveness and equilibrium in the practice. Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.
The Priest with the fabulous singing voice and the balding head arrives as foretold, and leads us through a two-hour long ceremony. He blesses us with all manners of items and objects, and races through one japa mala
so fast that none of us can breathe, let alone keep up. What takes us normally thirty minutes to accomplish he finishes in less than ten. The ceremony ends with the sharing of prasad (sweets) and a sermon by Balyogi Premvarni, an old Yogi from the times when Rishikesh was but a mere jungle, about how most ashrams in Rishikesh are hotels nowadays, including ours. However, he adds, the difference between our ashram and a hotel is that we engage in activities like the fire puja, which, he rightly says, are a direct connection with the divine, the heart, with unconditional love. He also reminds us of the metaphor that ‘the sun is always shining, twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes there are clouds and we don’t see it, but it is always there. It’s the same with love, it’s just always there.’
The guests showers us with flower petals, and we end our sadhana, aptly, with the mantra
'Om purnamadah purnamidam
Purnat purnam udachyate
Purnasya purnam adaya
‘Om. That is full/complete/perfect.
This is full/complete/perfect.
Perfection arises from the perfect.
Taking the perfect of the perfect,
It remains as the perfect alone.’
I feel a bit like I’ve come out of a war, but indeed, in all of its imperfection, everything is perfect.
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