Tuesday, 24 July 2012
In Search of a Retreat
The journey to find that piece of heaven invariably begins with a purgotary of long queues in a congested airport and equally congested traffic on the road as people seek to get away from their normal life and perhaps even from their normal selves. To seek what?
Here, the Balinese has the right idea. 'Nyepi' is the time to stay put, not do anything, produce anything, use up any energy, including electricity or communicate with anyone. It is the time to be silent and to be still. The time to connect with the Self and meditate on one's existence. To leave behind for one day our routine lives and daily habits with their stresses, frustrations and myriad of emotions and thoughts, and go back to the Source that makes us humans a spiritual animal. And this we can only achieve through pure contemplation and being truly in the moment.
Unable to find it within ourselves or in our normal surrounding, we seek out places that take us away from who we are and what we do.
We arrive at a place of perfect beauty, like in a picture postcard. Dark blue mountains crowned with fluffy white midday clouds loom in the background of a retreat nestled amidst the luscious green of a natural forest full of trees, shrubs and flowering plants. A lawn of manicured grass, stony footpaths with terra cotta vases placed tastefully here and there greet the visitors, weary from a couple of hours of maddening traffic jams, like a welcome oasis. The villas have airy verandas, wooden doors, wooden furniture and floor tiles that remind one of childhood, grandmothers and days when rainy weather meant time to play outdoors.
Our host, Brian, a blond chap with an even tan and tight arm muscles that speak of a lifetime of healthy and balanced existence, shows us to an area where us urbanites are to leave our work issues and troubles behind and step into the now. He tells us to take our shoes off. But first, he informs us that in this place strict rules apply; rules that some in our party find a little draconian and resolve to transgress.
The no-smoking in the premises clearly distress a couple of my friends who rely on those white tobacco sticks to support them like crutches during their times of stress, which is more or less all the time. One of them inquires anxiously where the smoking area could be found. Outside in the village, comes the answer. So much for smoking.
There is more. Yes, alcohol is served (to a general sigh of relief), but can only be consumed after 5pm. So lunch will have to be strictly healthy (red rice). A friend who is cradling her third can of beer during this exchange (to soothe the stress of being stuck on the road for so many hours) is asked to hide her beer away as being seen with alcohol before the appointed time not only breaks the rule but is clearly offensive. A sign of lack of self-discipline and indulgence. She complies begrudgingly as she begins to wonder what she's getting herself into. Personally, I am beginning to like this place.
As to the use of mobile phones, Brian explains like a military sergeant, looking at the gadgets that we all clutch in our hands, it is forbidden in the public area. How about texting? A voice asks anxiously. If you must, comes the reply. But this is really a place where you pay good money precisely to get away from doing the stuff that you get up to back home.
Filling a form detailing the objective of the stay, I tick relaxation, energizing and spiritual growth as my main purpose. I thought that we only came here for lack of better things to do, but if spiritual growth is a choice that is offered, then I'm all for it.
Brian takes us to a large gong in one corner of the lawn not far from the lobby of the main building. Hit it as hard or as softly as you like, he says. Give all yourself to it and let it go. Listen to the sound and take in the vibration of the energy. I hit the gong with a big, round stick as hard as I can. It makes a loud but deep, reverberating sound that goes straight through my ear drums and into my being. The sound travels through the garden, the trees, the leaves and dissolve into the shrubs, no doubt chasing away whatever spirits and demon that lurk there. I'm here, I say to myself. This is how I'm making my presence felt.
Brian shows us a pebbled labyrinth nearby. It is made of five different types of stones from the nearby mountains. Some are big, broad, smooth and light, some small and sharp to step on, some look like round, speckled bird eggs. Walk the labyrinth, Brian tells us. I wince as my bare feet are unused to the painful sensation of the stones digging into the soles.
Savour the pain, Brian says. Let it wash over you and feel the relief as you step on the smoother stones. I limp, shuffle and feel my way on the pebbled path, following the path of the labyrinth. Eight stones at different spots are larger and darker. They symbolize the eight mountains surrounding the area. As I tottered slowly like an invalid Brian reminds us to be aware of every sensation, every pain, every leaf and every object that we can feel beneath our feet. He also tells us to listen to the sounds around us. The rustling of the leaves, the birds and the chirping of insects. We are learning to be in the Now.
By the time lunchtime comes, I feel enlightened already.
(Desi Anwar: First Published in The Jakarta Globe)