I’d had a number of imagined scenarios of how the first week of our month long retreat would be but none of my day dreaming came close to the rural idyll we found ourselves in.
We are in Maharashtra in central India taking part in a month long retreat at two separate communities founded 50 years ago by Baba Amte a social activist, visionary and humanitarian. He and his wife wanted to help those who were afflicted by leprosy which meant that not only did they suffer great physical and emotional pain they were also ostracised from their families and communities. The emphasis here is not only on treating the physical disease, but on allowing each individual to live a productive and full life. Although leprosy is now a curable disease and quickly and efficiently diagnosed and treated, there is still a lot of prejudice, but the work of this project is slowly helping to bust some of the myths that still abound.
Over time Anandwan, which translates to “The Forest of Bliss”, opened its gates to many people, and today it is home to 5000 residents housed in several communities throughout Maharashtra. These include leprosy patients and their families, visually and hearing impaired children, some orphans, those who are physically and mentally impaired, as well as volunteers who have dedicated their life to these communities.
Our first week was spent at Somnath a deeply rural and simple community, home to 500 people who work on the land or in the village. Having been in the heat and chaos of Mumbai and then several long days of travelling with a bit of sightseeing thrown in on our way here it was a great relief to arrive in this sanctuary of relative peace and quiet. No blaring horns, no shouting vendors, no beggars tugging at your sleeve, no tinny music, no hustle, no bustle.
Sure there were sounds but they were of a more natural and gentle persuasion – the sound of water flowing along channels from the dam to the fields for irrigation, the whir of a bicycle wheel, the crunch of a child’s footsteps on their way back home, the rhythm of oxen’s hooves pulling the cart to the field, the distant shout of labourers, the calls and songs of the myriad of bird life, the barking of the semi-wild dogs, the cackle of the langur monkeys and the crash and rustle as they bound through the trees and in the evenings the constant chorus of the cicadas. But all these sounds rather than being distracting acted as a support, a cushion to sink back in to and aided my ability to stay present.
Our purpose for being here was to slow down, to stop and rest, to reconnect and drop in to ourselves and we did this in silence, with the simple structure of meditation, Buddhist teachings, work periods and rest. Our schedule looked pretty brutal;
6am wake up call
6.15am optional yoga or exercise session
7.15am sitting meditation
9-9.45am work period
10am guided meditation
11am walking meditation or group sharing
11.45 sitting meditation
12.30pm lunch and rest period
3.15pm sitting meditation
4pm walking meditation
4.45pm Dharma talk
5.30pm walking meditation
6.15pm sitting meditation
8pm sitting meditation
9pm bed time
Actually it was incredibly restful to allow this structure to support me. I didn’t have to make a decision about what to do next, I didn’t have to wear a watch and be driven by time as a bell was rung to let you know when it was time to move from one activity to another, I could just let go in to the rhythm of this pattern. Luckily the facilitators are not overly strict as some retreats can be and there was an emphasis on us taking responsibility for ourselves and doing what would be most supportive, so if we didn’t want to go to a mediation or wanted to do it outside by the side of the lake which I often did in the early morning that was fine. The food was simple too – delicious but simple. Rice, dhal, veg curry and chapati. The veg curry would change and occasionally the dhal but basically this is what we had day in day out for lunch and supper. Breakfast was a banana and orange or some papaya and a traditional Indian breakfast dish again made out of rice! I thought I would get bored with this but it became strangely reassuring knowing what we would have. No surprises to nudge us out of our reverie!
Following the past 12 months and the monumental decisions and changes we have made such as changing my name, the investment in the rental property and all that that entailed subsequently, the completion of my focusing practitioner training, the closure of my cherished business, leaving my dream job, the clearing, storing and renting of our home, leaving the city where we’d spent the last 20 years and our family and friends I was expecting a tsunami of emotion as I stopped all the doing and simply had time to be with myself. So I have been surprised that there’s been hardly a ripple!
This place really is another world so I guess the newness of this and the feeling and indeed the gritty reality that we are really thousands of miles away from our Bristol life may help
distance me from the emotions and response to the changes. Even as I write this I know it’s not entirely true. We don’t leave our emotions behind, they travel with us, not taking any space in my bulging ruck sack I’m happy to say, but we do carry them with us. As Jon Kabat-Zin so aptly says, “wherever you go there you are”. Perhaps they will come later or perhaps I could trust myself that I processed them sufficiently at the time. The decisions we have made have been good and solid, made from our hearts as well as our heads so may be enough has been done – for now at least. Whatever may arise in the future and I’m sure plenty will, I am treating this period of peace and calm as a gift which I am cherishing.