I’m just out of 40 days of meditation retreat in solitude and in complete darkness. I’m usually not a big fan of sharing spiritual experiences online but the fact that so many people have been asking me how it was, and that I struggled to find information online about long dark retreats before mine, decided me to write what is shareable about it.
By Ian Marshall
Weeeaaooohhhh… What a ride… The Hridaya Teacher Training Course was more than I ever dreamt. A three-month investigation into the witness consciousness, the question “Who am I?” and an invitation into love, community, introspection and learning.
The day before our graduation we had a sharing circle. Each one of the 30 TTCers brought something to the group as a way of expressing gratitude for the experience and became profoundly moving as each new person offered up a fresh perspective.
It lasted for 9 hours.
From songs and invitations to dance to individual stories of difficult times mixed in with deep stillness and tears, it was the culmination of a journey which we had all been undertaking in our own different ways.
I’ve thought about how to write about an experience which lives with me every day, which I still haven’t really been able to even begin to process and which is the culmination of a journey I’ve been on for a few years and a profound catalyst for change at the same time.
I discovered Agama first, in Thailand, and after studying tantra with them it wasn’t until Rishikesh that I took Level 1 and was introduced to the Hridaya style of meditation. It resonated with me immediately as the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and my time in Tiruvannamalai with Mooji had been an important part of my journey. So I went back to Thailand for my first Hridaya retreat with Sahajananda and was immediately hooked. I would have signed up for the TTC straight away if it had been possible but it was a year later that I finally made it out to Mazunte.
Each day on the TTC was an adventure with new stuff coming up and fresh challenges to be faced. We meditated a lot.
We listened to lectures about yoga philosophy, meditation practices and brain waves.
We learnt about Samadhi, the supreme state in meditation where subject and object merge into one, and how it has many forms. I attained none of them but at least one of our group did, the mystery remains.
We studied the body with a series of multi-media anatomy lectures that engaged and entertained.
We practised nauli kriya daily. For ages.
We suffered the anxiety of the first practicum. We enjoyed the elation of the second practicum. We learnt just to be during the third practicum.
We stared at the sun and allowed the blind spot in our vision to be a focus of meditation. Meditate on light, go into the light, become the light that you are, reflect on the many ways of accessing this, from staring at the horizon to looking from the corner of the eye.
We had a turn with the Brain Machine, a set of goggles and headphones that transmits a series of LED flashes and pulse sounds into your head. I felt like I’d been attacked the first time I tried it.
We practised voluntary hibernation, I liked that one a lot.
We had two ten day silent retreats and one 48 hour stretch in the dark room.
I was among the first in the dark and it came at a good time. I was feeling exhausted from everything but as soon as I turned off the light it felt like being enveloped in a blanket of darkness and I absolutely loved it. It lead me to deep states of meditation, a feeling of disconnection from the body and I emerged completely re-energised. I spent some time lying on my bed in a state of nearly sleeping and nearly waking feeling myself drift in and out of the dream state. When I was dreaming it was vivid and bright and lucid and on awaking the flower of life image lasered its way into the darkness.
The first 10 day retreat couldn’t come too soon. I was overwhelmed with material and looking for some time to cogitate on the content. It turned out frustrating, though, as deep moments for me were rare. There was no lack of drama as massive storms rolled in, tents washed away and the boom of thunder during a dark afternoon meditation coupled with an outburst and screaming as things got too much for one.
Before the second retreat I started the Ohsawa 10 day brown rice diet and up until the first day of silence things were improving. Focus, practice and meditation were all becoming more natural and although whole wheat chapatis meant I wasn’t solely eating rice, it felt like a good discipline.
The first day of retreat saw an attack of diarrhea and I struggled to eat even the small amount of rice I’d served myself. An attitude of disconnecting from food became the opposite as I spent my whole time thinking about how I could dam the flow and gain some strength. After barely eating for three days, and completely fasting for one, as soon as I started eating the “normal” food I got better. The amaranth and papaya breakfast was my favourite thing in the world that morning. The day I fasted was great, I practised asanas during the lecture and went full on into a strong practice but the day after left me even weaker than ever and I had to leave the hatha class to vomit. Powerful purifications there.
While my retreat experience might not have been what I had dreamt, each week we would have kirtan or devotional singing and it was during these beautiful events that I found myself going deeper inside, to a state of profound bliss and connection.
I love being in nature, although I realised I’m not as in touch with my hippie side as I thought after meeting some of the free spirits at the school.
We went to see the turtles hatching one evening and spent a couple of nights camping by some waterfalls in an amazing part of the Mexican countryside. After swimming in the falls, hugging giant trees and having an all night bhajan party a tired but happy group of yogis raided the Oxxo store on the way back into civilisation for ice cream and crisps, a far cry from the yogic diet but food for the soul, I like to think.
It wasn’t all fun and games though and when the serious business of exams came around there was a flurry of activity as people tried to study. Small revision groups in the kitchen definitely did me a world of good, as did some excellent work producing professional notes that some yogis found the time to manifest. At the end of the day, the exams weren’t really what the course was about. There is no marking system involved in attaining connection with the divine self and having a lot of book knowledge does not necessarily produce a teacher who can transmit. Still, I somehow found myself getting 100% in the last exam, which my little ego was kind of happy about!
During the course, as I tried to move away from the personal ego and worldly concerns, I found myself drawn into a confusing triangle of relationships which was distracting but ultimately rewarding. While we follow a path that leads directly inside to the highest truth of our being this is still a tantric school after all, and relationship remains of utmost importance. I’m still learning how best to share my love and knowledge with the world and allowing the stillness to blossom from deep within me but I know that I have all the skills at my disposal now.
Our graduation was a beautiful and typically drawn out affair. All dressed in white we collected our certificates and received our prasad before it was time for our host to lead us through a group of performances ranging from the truly sublime to the truly ridiculous, touching on comedic genius and virtuoso performance as it progressed. The mystery of the English nanny was revealed, but alas not the mystery of the samadhi. We had powerful belly dancing, peaceful tai chi, fiery flamenco and interesting interpretative dance mixed in with the rapping, comedy skits, singer-songwriters and group performance of Tender. Our hearts were full of rainbows and we were all so busy sharing that things again went on late enough that the DJ went home and the after party ended up with table dancing in the kitchen.
It was blissful exuberance, a pure expression of spanda, released after an intense three months, a far cry from “Maple leaf, falling down, showing front, showing back” but no less centered in the Heart and representative of what this school is trying to achieve.
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