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  • Margaret Page

Unleashing Inner Peace: The Transformative Journey of a Silent Retreat

Imagine being in a room with a thousand other men and women from around the world, and the room is so silent you can hear a pin drop. Not just for 30 seconds or even three minutes either - an extended silence. Silence so long you get lost, or perhaps it’s the opposite - you begin to find yourself.


This week, I traveled to an ashram north of Montreal, in a pristine forest just outside a Canadian National Park, to participate in a silent retreat. The ashram is owned by the Art of Living Foundation, and the program and teachings are led by their Founder and Spiritual Leader from India, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Sri Sri (a term of respect in Hindi culture) is affectionately referred to as Gurudev by those who are part of The Art of Living movement.


The essence of Gurudev’s teachings is that the spiritual bond we share as part of the human family is more important than nationality, gender, religion, profession, or other identities that separate us. The courses at the Art of Living are about discovery through yoga practice, breathwork, and meditation.


At the ashram, the days are filled with spiritual teaching and practice. According to Gurudev, science and spirituality are linked and compatible, both springing from the urge to know. The question, "Who am I?" leads to spirituality; the question, "What is this?" leads to science.


Yoga starts at seven a.m. sharp. Row after row of lime green or dark blue mats fill the hall. All listen to the instructions from the main stage and observe on the jumbo screen, with translation provided in several languages from booths on one side of the hall. Young and old, from Nigeria to Poland, from Argentina to Canada, many in salwar kameez, and some in sweats or Lululemon gear.

At the end of yoga comes breathwork and Sudarshan Kriya, a technique developed and trademarked by the Art of Living. After breakfast and assigned work, there are spiritual teachings from Swami Sadyojaathah and meditations from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.  Each meditation ends in a song. Lunch is at 1 p.m., followed by an hour or more of ashram work, with more teaching and meditations at three. Dinner is at 6. After dinner, there is Satsang, which means gathering of the people.


Everyone at the ashram contributes to its running by working at tasks such as tending to the vegetable garden, cleaning kitchen pots, serving meals, or cleaning the meditation hall or toilets. I was assigned to cutting vegetables along with thirty other people. Five hair-netted people to a table, armed with cutting boards and knives—all in silence except for the cooks who work at the ashram year-round. Some washed. Some peeled. Some brought in crates of vegetables. I chopped. It felt wholesome and good to be part of the rhythm of the kitchen, feeding so many.


The cuisine was mostly Indian vegetarian dishes, served warm, except for the fruit. You can have as much of any dish as you wish. Meals are eaten in silence for those in the program, while visitors and children chat. Cleanup is organized effectively and efficiently. Everyone cleans up after themselves. Compost goes in one bin and utensils in another. Soiled paper plates or bowls are stacked neatly to take up as little space as possible.


The end of the day Satsang is a time for music, singing, dancing, and reflection. Most snuggle up close to the stage, sitting on the floor with back-jacks for support. At stage right, there is seating for those who can’t endure sitting on the floor any longer or simply prefer a chair. Off to the left, there are risers where musicians and vocalists gather with their instruments. At center stage, there is a beautifully carved massive chair where the Spiritual Leader can comfortably sit cross-legged. From below the stage, with his white garments flowing about him, Gurudev appears to be floating. From his perch, Gurudev sings, shares wisdom, leads meditation, and drinks tea. Behind him, garlands of yellow and orange flowers hang. The rest of the stage is filled with beautiful bouquets of flowers and three towering palm plants.


Musicians come from many parts of the country and haven’t practiced together, yet the music from their drums, guitars, and voices create uplifting harmonies. The songs are in Hindi, and sometimes the heartfelt lyrics and chorus speed up. Other times they get louder and then softer, depending on the exuberance of those in the meditation hall. Clapping is allowed for those in the silent program, and some are so stirred by the melodies they jump up and exuberantly dance along.


Gurudev arrives after several songs and joins in with the singing, spontaneously contributing a solo with others repeating his refrain. When Gurudev signals, the music stops, and he answers questions posed. He is wise, charming, and most evenings, witty in his responses. He chastises some, provides metaphors for others, and nudges most to be patient with their growth and understanding. The evening comes to an end when Gurudev once again leads us in a song. When other vocalists and the band join in, the spiritual leader is whisked away with forty or fifty running after him—to get one more glimpse or just to be nearby.


This year has been filled with spiritual journeys for me - some external, most internal. Focusing on spirituality was not a conscious choice, yet somehow that has happened. When doors of opportunity have opened, I have been willing to step through them and explore. I am better of it.


What doors of opportunity have opened for you? Did you step through? I would love to hear the results.


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