On this day six years ago, 12.12.12, when the Mayans predicted the beginning of the end of the world*, I found myself wandering, lost in Guatemala, the home of the great Mayan temple, Tikal. I had gone to Guatemala to do a five day silent meditation retreat on one of my first, biggest spiritual quests.
Recently spat out of the corporate world (first time around) I had spent some months travelling, seeing old friends around the world, partying, doing some volunteer work in Colombia when the time came for me to do some 'inner' work. At the time it sounded so cliche to me but I had this thought in my mind that I had to learn to 'open my heart' and that I had no idea how.
I was intrigued by the idea of a silent meditation retreat. So while in Colombia I Googled "silent meditation retreat / central / south america". The closest one that popped up was in Guatemala.
Absent a meditation self-practice and very little previous experience with meditation, my curiosity, sense of adventure and willingness to give almost anything a go landed me at the Kaivalya Yoga School, San Marcos, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, completely unprepared for what came next.
It seems that the universe had some how heard my wishes. The school was guided by the teachings the great sage Sri Ramana Maharshi** whose meditation practices are spiritual heart-based, kindness, love and compassion and the retreat focused on Hridaya or the Spiritual Heart in its practices and daily discourse.
Over the five days, we observed noble silence. The noble silence meant that you didn't speak to anyone or make eye contact with anyone. I quite enjoyed the silence and got to know everyone else doing the retreat by their shoes. After the five days when we broke silence, a young American guy said to me "Oh you're socks and sandals!". The only time I broke silence during the five days was when I yelped as a gigantic, Central American bee / fly /wasp / flying orbit peed on my arm.
We ate a traditional sattvic diet, vegetarian, no onions, no garlic, no mushrooms, no eggs, no other stimulants. I recall the real struggle I had with this at the time as I had just come from a life of lots of flavour, caffeine and partying ... looking back I can imagine my system was fairly toxic! The only meal I really looked forward to was breakfast because of the sweet tropical fruit. After many stints at an ashram in India since and a much cleaner diet, I look back and long to be cooked for like that again. How we can change.
The real challenge however came in the meditation.
Firstly, the physical body. I hadn't realised how many aches and pains I had. No matter what I did, I couldn't find a comfortable seat. It gave a whole new meaning to why asana means 'comfortable seat'. I realised then and there that I did not have one. I knew I'd had a comfortable seat (meaning I could sit comfortably on the floor for extended periods of time) when I was a child so what had I done with it?
That uncomfortable seat I had for five days gave me the kick-start motivation I needed to begin a more dedicated yoga practice the following year.
Then the thoughts. Wow, so many thoughts. So many useless thoughts. The same thoughts, variations of the same thoughts, the same worries, variations of the same worries, self-judgment, self-criticism, impatience, stubbornness, desire, expectation, distraction, fantasy, over and over and over and over ...
Where was this elusive inner peace I had been promised? Where was the opening of the heart I had heard so much about? Surely I would be cured after these five days. But by about Day 3 I began to realise that I was insane, that inner peace was elusive, let alone transcendental experiences, the blue light or unconditional love. (If you don't know me personally then these high expectations fall directly in line with my high achieving, high expectations personality type.)
Day 5 came and it was a relief to share my experiences with the others in the group, some who had had similar experiences and others vastly different (one guy had gone straight into the retreat from spending 40 days in a dark room on his own - he had a lot to say!).
You might think that after discovering I was insane and experiencing about two minutes of total inner peace over five days I might be put off meditation. To the contrary. What I really realised was that we are all this insane. We are all (except for some truly enlightened souls) obssessively thinking, judging, criticising etc. I realised that this is what meditation offers. The possibility to begin to see this inner world, to begin to work with this, to begin to choose what kind of inner world you really want and perhaps begin to sculpt one of greater inner peace, contentment and happiness.
Six years on I now teach meditation.
I am still opening my heart, I have since realised this is a lifetime quest and that 'inner work' is a journey of a lifetime, not a destination, not something I might attain in five days. It can be hard, very hard, but it is fulfilling. Life gets better and better. I am less lost and discover over and over again that I have never been lost. I am always at home in my heart so long as I live in my heart.
“Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.” ― Sri Ramana Maharshi
Incidentally the Kaivalya Yoga School is running another five day silent meditation retreat 28 December 2018 - 3 January 2019 if you happen to find yourself that way! https://yogaretreatguatemala.com/Silent-Meditation-Retreat.html
*Article about 12.12.12: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/dec/16/mayan-death-rebirth-date-planet-crisis