I arrive at The Yogi’s Garden in Payangan, Bali, with a small red suitcase. But I’m also carrying another burden, one that’s harder to put down. A parent’s Will has created family discord, a problem that I don’t seem able to fix. Trapped in a cognitive cycle of anxiety, my mind’s whirring at an alarming speed.
Our retreat centre’s in the uplands north of Ubud, so it’s cooler here than in the city. There’s a lush vegetable garden and a lookout deck where you can see Mount Agung, a cone-shaped live volcano and the island’s highest point. As a first-time retreatant, I feel there’s something about the mountain's solidity and imperturbability I will need on this new experience and resolve to visit the lookout deck every day.
Hamid, our retreat organiser, offers luminous dharma talks. On our first day, he explains that our practice is goalless – the task is to “just sit.” That’s it. The simplicity of this instruction moves me, but by day three, I’m struggling. I’m fairly new to meditation, still a fidgety sceptic. My hips hurt, my hands and feet keep falling asleep. I can’t concentrate. In the breaks, knotted in panic, I head for the lookout point, but I don’t find answers here. From across the island, the volcano gazes back at me with stony indifference, or perhaps the wisdom of a million years.
The retreat is silent, so there’s no verbal way to process all this. But there are other languages. There’s the non-judgemental presence of my fellow retreatants, for a start, which forms a natural support net. There are the classes run by Sarah, an extraordinarily skilful yoga teacher, which bring somatic relief. And there’s the gorgeous, trippy beauty of our jungle environment, which I start to notice more with every passing day.
By the end of the retreat, I haven’t found a quick-fix solution to the problem I came in with. But something has shifted.
The eight days of constant meditation work to drive a wedge between me and my anxiety – an escape from what David Foster Wallace called “the kingdom of the skull.” I’m calmed at some submerged and mysterious level, and for this I remain deeply grateful.
The time also allows me to observe my mind more objectively. So much of what complicates our lives are the assumptions we make and our reactions to them. In the quiet, I notice more clearly how much I grasp after solutions and outcomes, and rush to make judgements about what’s happening all around.
Sometimes we can needlessly hold onto rage. There are moments when I recognise this too. I catch glimpses of a more capacious awareness, one which doesn’t judge, blame or hanker after fixing things. In those all-too-brief moments of non-thinking, going nowhere, I can sense a new perspective - one I want to maintain.
At one point, I’m also taken by surprise by an enormous wave of warmth and compassion for the sibling whose challenging behaviour has caused my family rift. Elated, I head for the lookout point. “So this is it, then! I think I see your point now, you trickster Mount Agung!” I tell myself.
When I get there, though, the mountain has vanished. Wrapped in mist and rain, it’s invisible, for now at least. Just sitting, I notice the clouds come and go.