Silent Retreat in the Netherlands September 20-24th 2019
By Nina Terpstra
A 5-day silent retreat was held at monastery De Beukenhof in Biezenmortel, the Netherlands. Teachers Swami Ritavan Bharati, Swami Ma Tripurashakti Bharati and Ashutosh inspired and lovingly helped a group of more than sixty people practicing yoga and meditation. This report describes some details of the retreat, but mainly my personal experience. First of all, I would like to mention that it was a true delight to experience the retreat with the teachers and all of the participants.
At the opening ceremony Swami Ritavan introduced a theme: ‘fearlessly walk the path of light and love to freedom.’ Then we meditated. I felt like a dark cloud was coming over me: intense thoughts, extreme feelings and I felt physically unwell. At the end of the meditation those feelings intensified. It came to my mind that the intensity was high because I felt like I had to handle them alone. As the silence had not started yet, I decided to share my thoughts and feelings with someone during dinner. I expressed a fear that it may become a very tough retreat for me. Miraculously, after sharing this experience, the pain disappeared. Later I realized that something which I was not really aware of, might have caused the difficult start (described later in this report).
During the retreat the teachers further elaborated on the subject Swami Ritavan introduced. They talked about the teachings of Swami Rama and Veda. Swami Ritavan read paragraphs from their books. One of the books Swami Ritavan talked about was ‘Silence’. The magic of silence is described in this book in many ways. For example in the book it is expressed in the simple, but deep words:
Sleep is not silence. Silence is alert. Silence speaks.
Silence creates. Silence silences.
Eat only when you are fasting,
Speak only when you are in silence.
The day programme contained various types of practices and talks. Practices included makarasana (training diaphragmatic breath), hatha yoga, nadi shodhana, relaxation practices, yoga nidra, meditation and japa. There was free time to practice contemplative walking, go into nature and brisk walking with master Ashutosh. I remember a yoga teacher once shared the teaching of Swami Rama that exercise helps meditation. Cannot imagine how deep the meditation of Ashutosh is, then – he is a gifted brisk walker.
Swami Ritavan emphasised the importance of regular nadi shodhana practice. Nadi Shodhana is a very effective tool to balance the energies in the body. It purifies the mind. Nadi Shodhana is taught in many forms. It is even possible to practice it without closing the nostrils physically.
Just like in previous silent retreats, I experienced some ups and downs in this one. Sometimes obsessed with all kinds of thoughts, other times completely relaxed and peaceful. I realize that advice from various teachers in previous retreats has helped me a lot to deal with ‘silence’. Although every person who does meditation and/or silent retreats has their own ‘best practices’ and lessons from teachers that help them; I thought: why not sharing mine in this report?
First of all: the realization that it is normal that all kinds of things happen inside yourself and especially things that you don’t expect or want. When silence starts, things that were repressed in the mind, emotions or body feel the space to express themselves. But the silence itself also brings forward changes underneath the surface of the mind. I have experienced that sometimes an extremely busy mind precedes deep silence and feelings of surrender.
Second: a teacher once explained that every experience is temporary. Every experience! Practicing this thought was a true revelation. I felt a stability emerging that was new to me. It helps me to observe the puppet show my mind creates, especially during silent retreats.
Third: taking care of myself. Every retreat Ashutosh reminds us that we have an actual body. He often advises: try to feel what your body needs. Other teachers also remind us to pay attention to our physical needs. How much sleep feels healthy; how much food; which types of food; how much exercise? Try to listen to your body. In this retreat I even realized that the ‘bad start’ was partially caused by neglecting the need of my body to rest. Interesting how the physical state can affect the mind, even to the point that the mind reproduces negative memories.
Fourth: breath awareness. I guess it is not possible to have too much breath awareness?
Fifth: when something very sad, painful or frightening comes up in the mind: try to relax (for example by means of nadi shodana or makarasana) and try to open up for the emotion/feeling behind it. Maybe it helps to start inner dialogue to come into contact with the cause. When the emotion comes up: allow it to come, welcome it with open arms and accept it with as much love as possible. By fully opening up to it, it tends to disappear spontaneously, no matter the intensity.
Sixth: practice at home. As a teacher explained: during a silent retreat and intensive yoga/meditation practice a seed starts to grow into a tree. At the end of the retreat, this tree is still young, small and vulnerable. In order to grow it bigger, it needs a fence to protect it. Regular (preferably daily) practice makes up the fence.
Seventh: time after time it feels like I have to start all over again. Sometimes I think I have learned something, maybe left some ‘bad habit’ behind. But suddenly it appears again. It is like nothing has changed. Or discover something new which makes me think: have I been so stupid I have never seen this before? I am such a beginner! These thoughts and experiences are apparently part of the process.
I guess there are many other lessons which my teachers and experiences have taught me, which are very important, but these seven come up in my mind at this moment. As I am wandering off a bit from the silent retreat itself, I would like to go back to the final part of it. The last 24 hours of the retreat were dedicated to japa of the Akhand mantra.
Akhaṇḍa-maṇḍalākāram vyāptam yena carācaram
Tat padam darśitam yena, tasmai śrī gurave namah
We were invited by Swami Ritavan to experience the mantra. Japa gives a possibility to ‘dissolve’ in it, to experience the essence; feel deep gratitude and surrender.
On the fifth day, the retreat closed with a session in which participants reflected on their experiences. It is intriguing, but also touching, to hear how every person walked his or her own path in the silence. Sometimes intense, emotional or ill and other moments very quiet, happy and peaceful. Suddenly I became very aware of my inner critic. I cried, for I could experience how this critic isolates me from others, makes me feel alone. A fear that people don’t understand why I am doing yoga and meditation, maybe reject it. This feeling touches the theme of Swami Ritavan: walking your path fearlessly. The critical voice is very good at invoking fear. At the same time, during the closing session, I was ‘positively’ touched. I experienced an inexplicable ‘home’-feeling I haven’t experienced elsewhere but at the yoga/meditation tradition. This leads to my final personal ‘statement’:
Eighth: for unknown reasons, I tend to forget how much this tradition, the yoga and meditation, feel like a place where I belong, a home. Luckily, my yoga teacher has provided me with this experience and I hope that no matter what, I will always manage to find the way back home.