It’s -22c, snowing, middle of the night, and i’m walking alone to the yoga school to attend a special meditation session.
No one is forcing me to do it.
So why do I?
Recently I flew to Romania and traveled to the Transylvania area to a small town in the Carpathian mountains.
I came to attend a special silent meditation retreat.
I’ve done many of these retreats in the past and they keep getting better and better, so this was one of the best yet.
The retreats are organized by the Hridaya yoga school and held by a Romanian teacher called Claudiu or Sahajananda.
If you’re like me, you probably don’t like guru-style teachers who claim they are enlightened and that you have to follow them and do everything they say so you would get enlightened otherwise you’ll miss your opportunity and will have to wait 12.5 life times to meet them again.
That’s what I love about this teacher.
There’s no new-age fluff, past lives obsession, UFOs, conspiracy theories, etc.
He shares his experience and gives you practices that you can do by yourself, without ever seeing him again.
The focus is on the students, the participants, not the teacher.
The techniques are simple and practical.The core of the teachings is to let go of thoughts and the limited experience of the mind, ego, and personality, to discover who you really are beyond that, and to rest in the natural state of pure being, awareness, and bliss.
I’m aware this might sound similar to many other teachings, and in some sense it is.
Personally, after exploring different schools, teachers, books, workshops and ideas during my spiritual journey, I find this to be the most profound, pure and practical approach to spirituality and meditative practice.
One of the things I love about the Hridaya retreats is that Sahajananda, the teacher, combines ideas and passages from many spiritual traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, Tantra, Buddhism, Zen, Christianity, Sufism, Judaism and many others.
He quotes other bonafide teachers and reads many inspiring poems by Rumi, Hafiz, Kabir and some western poets and writers like Emerson.
Here’s Sahajananda describing the essence of Hridaya yoga:
(Continue reading my experiences below the video)
I plan to write more about the spiritual and philosophical ideas of Hridaya in a separate article, soon.
Today I want to share more of my personal experiences of this retreat.
As I registered late, I had to stay in a small guest house 10 minutes away from the meditation center. It was winter in Romania and the temperatures around this area were at -10c or even lower, and it was often snowing.
The daily walk from the guest house to the meditation center seemed like an inconvenience at first. But once I actually walked it a few times, it turned out to be refreshing and introspective, a kind of walking meditation practice.
Those early morning or late night walks were very special. I witnessed nature from this calm and present place. I walked with ease.
We were around 40 people in a small meditation hall. It was a bit cramped but that was also the beauty of it – So many people who traveled from all over Europe to attend the retreat with this very special teacher and to go deeper into their essence.
Noble silence is observed throughout the 10 days, and any kind of communication, including eye contact or touch, is discouraged.
In emergencies, it’s possible to write a note to ask for something.
There is also some separation of men and women in the hall.
These rules are meant to serve the participant in going deeper into the meditation practice and ultimately into him or her self.
The schedule includes around 6-7 hours of meditation, 3 hours of lectures and 1.5 hours of yoga every day.
Although I’ve heard these lectures many times during the retreats I’ve attended in recent years, it always feels new and insightful, as if the lectures change or maybe I gain a deeper level of understanding.
I came to the retreat after a bit of a challenging period.
Nothing bad had actually happened; I was living in a beautiful house-boat in the center of Amsterdam, enjoying meaningful work, friends, lovers, dance, exercise, movies, good food, art and the wonderful city Amsterdam is.
But still I was quite stressed and not so satisfied with life. I would nap every afternoon, but in some sense I couldn’t really rest. I was constantly busy, and my mind was even busier, bothered with thoughts, worries, and plans and frustrated about things that didn’t go as I wanted them to, people who didn’t act in the way I hoped they would, and myself not living up to my own standards.
On the first day of the retreat, when i wasn’t nodding or actually sleeping, I kept thinking;
Questions and dilemmas kept running through my mind:
Where should I go next?
How long should I stay there?
Where do I want to settle?
Is flying to Australia worth the 1600Euro return ticket?
Where and when would I run my workshops?
Why do I keep delaying writing my book and what do I need to do to publish it asap?
and on and on.
How can I manage to do all the things I need to do?
The main issue that preoccupied me was “Where do I go after this retreat?”.
It felt like my mind was playing chess and trying to see the outcomes and repercussions of every possible move.
The excessive thinking activity was causing me stress, agitation, confusion, and something that felt like pain on a mental-emotional level.
It was also making the time go slower, and I found myself thinking obsessively for what seemed like hours and hours.
I kept thinking and finding things that I wasn’t happy about in the retreat, the venue, the food, and the people around me.
The prospect of spending 10 days like this was daunting, and I was playing with the idea to leave the retreat.
I went to sleep that night exhausted and a bit depressed.
Starting from the morning of the 2nd day, I already felt much better. The thoughts were still there but not nearly as pervasive and sticky. I was able to come back to the present moment more often. I was less identified with my thoughts, having less reactions to whatever thought came up, and less inclinations to follow a thought.
Sometimes I would still have obsessive thoughts in or outside a meditation session, but I didn’t fight them, and managed not to react and not to feel bad about having them. I would just accept them and allow them to pass.
During the next few days I realized once again that nearly all my thoughts bring me some kind of pain or at least worry, confusion, frustration, remorse, sadness or effort.
Even on a physical level i noticed that my forehead, eyes, jaw, neck, shoulders, belly and anus would tense when I was thinking. My eyes and forehead would even become slightly painful.
That became better as the retreat progressed.
When i noticed that I was thinking, I managed to relax these areas.
When I relaxed these areas, I managed to think less.
One of the notable improvements, that became one of the highlights of this retreat, was that I stopped thinking about, debating, pondering, evaluating, and trying to decide where to go next.
Whenever the thought came up, I recognized it and by a combined act of willpower and surrender, managed(mostly) to bring my awareness back to itself and not follow the thought.
There was sheer joy in that.
I recognized how my mind is constantly trying to lure me into thinking, summoning either happy memories or seemingly important decisions to make or memories that trigger strong emotions.
Often, my mind was actively looking for the negative aspect in whatever it found or actually looking for painful memories.
That was another important realization:
My mind was, and still is, trying to make me suffer.
The teacher explained that this is one of the tendencies of the mind, which is used by the mind and the ego to stay in control.
By meditating, we are creating instead a tendency of silence, which gradually absorbs the other tendencies.
Funny enough, it was sometimes the sounds and movements in the room caused by the other participants that brought me back to the present moment.
For the first time in any retreat, I was having trouble falling asleep at night because of the energy and alertness brought about by the long hours of meditation.
In the beginning of the retreat I felt a yearning to spend time in solitude in a dark room, known as “kaya kalpa” or a darkness retreat. I had already done that back in 2011 and it was very special.
Then “coincidently” on the 3rd day, Sahajananda said there is such a room there. During the next break I wrote a note to the organizer, asking to stay in the yoga center and book that dark room for a few days.
After all the plans and inner discussions and trying to weigh the different options, suddenly it was clear to me where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. It was that simple.
To read the 2nd part, where I describe the coldest night of my life, and share more inspiring realizations, click here.