I’m a chronic multitasker. A restless sleeper. A compulsive mental to-do list compiler. A neurotic over-analyser. Put simply: my head is an exhausting place to be.
People have often told me meditation could help me shush things up top, and I have tried it a couple of times.
There was that session a girlfriend convinced me to attend 10 years ago because “the monk running it is so hot” (he was), and those couple of Buddhist meditation classes I did half-heartedly last year because the website said it was a “good antidote for restlessness and anxiety” (it wasn’t).
But when I received an invitation to attend a detox meditation retreat named ONELife, high in the rainforest-clad hills of Ubud, Bali, I decided it could be a case of third time lucky. “What have I got to lose?” I asked myself. “Only your sanity,” my overactive brain whispered back.
Hangovers and quests for spiritual enlightenment don’t mix. That much I now know, having spent my first waking moments at ONELife Retreat – post-boozy late-night flight – cotton-mouthed and hazy. But as I draw back the thick cream curtains of my stilted bungalow, said hangover is swiftly forgotten. I’m at the bottom of a valley, cocooned by lush, tropical vegetation turned the most striking shades of acid green by the bright sunshine. I might have reached nirvana already.
The day unfolds in a haze of fresh organic food grown on the property, a couple of hours sunbathing and book-skimming by the pool, a soothing jacuzzi and sauna session, and a fantastic Balinese massage, which is the first of three spa treatments included in our retreat package. By the time I arrive at our first group meeting at 3pm, I feel fabulously floaty.
The group – 16 people, 11 of whom are female, most of whom are in their early to mid-30s and none of whom are the dreadlocked hippie types I was expecting – sit cross-legged in a circle of yoga mats in a rotund, glass-walled room overlooking the rainforest. There’s awkward silence until the co-founder of ONELife, Tom Cronin, a fortysomething Sydneysider with salt-and-pepper hair and a soothingly low, even voice, starts talking.
He began meditating 17 years ago, he says, because he’d developed severe anxiety and agoraphobia after 10 years of hard partying combined with the stresses of work as a stockbroker. The meditation cured him, so he kept it up and for the past five years has been teaching others. Last year, he launched his online meditation business, Science of Stillness. “Think of your body and mind like a sponge that’s absorbed all the toxins and negative emotions you’ve been subjected to throughout your life,” Cronin says, sitting cross-legged and sage-like at the top of the circle. During the next six days, he says, we’ll learn an ancient Indian process called “rounding” that will help us “squeeze that sponge out”, releasing months or even years of stress during the week. We can expect tears and laughter along the way, but he promises we’ll emerge a “lighter, clearer, more aware, more connected version of ourselves”. Lighter is perhaps the operative word: there’ll be no sugar, dairy, wheat or alcohol during the week.
Cronin then leads us through our first “round”. It starts with 20 minutes of yoga, moves into seven minutes of pranayama yogic breathing, followed by a 20-minute meditation session and ends with us lying on our backs for 10 minutes in “shavasana”. Just as I’m thinking how an hour of that a day will be a light enough cross to bear in between being fed, watered and pummelled, Cronin tells us to start the process over again, and we’ll be expected to do three solo rounds in our bungalows tomorrow.
“Shut up. ShutupshutupshutUP!” I’ve been screaming this at myself for the better part of 90 minutes, since I started rounding at 7.30am. I’m failing miserably. Instead of sitting still and quiet as it’s been told to, my mind is jumping around and grabbing whatever mundane thought whizzes past it. What should I wear to dinner tonight? What was the name of that book I wanted to read? Should I snuff out that incense? My internal struggle to keep the thoughts at bay is making my heart thump like crazy.
I struggle through my third round and, feeling rather dejected, go to lunch. The discussions only make me feel worse: it turns out most people rose at 5 this morning and are all peaced out from their rounds. One woman, all gorgeous blonde hair and flawless skin, says she got up at 3am, as she does every day, and the vibrations during her meditation had been so strong that animals were being attracted to her room: three birds, two frogs and a cat. All I got was a bite from a mosquito.
At 6.30am, I wake up from a disturbing, violent dream. It leaves me feeling rattled during my morning rounds – we have six to do today – yet I can’t help but feel proud when sharing it with the group. Surely this means some kind of release is taking place within my subconscious?
After lunch each day, Cronin tells us we accumulate 14 units of stress in our bodies each day. Sleep gets rid of 10 but the remaining four “accumulate in your body, day after day. That’s why we end up getting sick and why we age,” he says. Twenty minutes of meditation each morning removes four units, so by doing another 20 minutes in the afternoon you are, apparently, eating into that bank of stored stress that’s been building up throughout your life. “What you start to do, then, is reverse the ageing process,” he says. “So much cheaper than Botox,” I hear a woman whisper.
Later, I think the three hours of rounding I’ve done this afternoon has added about 1052 units of stress to my life. Twenty minutes into the first round I had a blinding headache that’s hung around ever since. Cronin tells me the headache probably has something to do with the toxins my body’s releasing. Toxins shmoxins, I just need a drink. And I do get a shot after our delicious seafood dinner, only it’s not vodka, it’s mangosteen rind and it tastes like dirt.
It’s pitch-black when I walk out to my balcony at 5am, and as I finish the first of my requisite eight hours of rounding today I watch the sky turn from a star-studded inky black to a soft, velvety grey. A busy hum rises from the valley at dawn; the comical belchings of frogs and crickets are joined by the chatter of birds and as the sun spills into the valley, a haunting Balinese chant snakes its way to my balcony. So this is the magic I’ve been missing.
My meditations are much more peaceful this morning. There are thoughts but I just let them come and go and don’t torture myself about their existence. My heart rate slows and I’m lulled into a state of calm that only deepens as the rounds continue.
I’ve been on a bit of a euphoric high all afternoon, and as Cronin launches into his nightly talk, I find myself suppressing the desperate need to giggle. My shoulders start to shake until I can hold it in no more. “BWAAAHAHAH!” A spurt of rough laughter erupts from my belly. Soon, the entire room is filled with hysterical guffaws. Some – including Cronin – have tears rolling down their cheeks; others are lying on their backs, squirming around like ecstatic cockroaches.
I notice a change in people’s eyes and skin: glowing, fresh, bright. There’s a change in the energy of the group, too: a looseness, a collective sigh of relief, almost. I see it mostly at the farewell feast that night. Balinese dancers do a surprise performance to a traditional gamelan orchestra, and by the end of it we’re all dancing on the grass together, cackling away like mad things. Nothing but euphoria, wherever I turn.
Departure day. There have been breakdowns, breakthroughs and transformations. Decisions and pacts have been made. Somehow, I find myself at Denpasar airport without a suitcase. In my Zen state, I managed to throw it into the wrong car at the retreat. Luckily, our driver phones the other car, which is, thankfully, still at the airport, and I retrieve my bag. Ten minutes later, I’m standing in front of the airport ATM without the faintest idea of what my PIN might be. Cheeks crimson, I explain the situation to a girl from the retreat who lends me the cash for my exit visa.
When I check my naked wrist for the time at the baggage check-in, I realise I’ve left my watch at the security scan. At this point, I’d usually be in tears. Instead, I stand in the middle of the chaotic departure hall with a big, goofy grin on my face. It may have taken six days of rounding, a complete detox and a whole lot of quiet time, but it seems my brain has, finally, switched off.
The writer travelled as a guest of ONELife Retreats.
READ NINA’S REVIEW OF A BALI SURF & YOGA RETREAT HERE
More Informationhttp://jetstar.com.au http://oneliferetreats.net http://scienceofstillness.com
Jetstar flies direct from Sydney to Denpasar daily from about $750 return. jetstar.com.au.STAYING THERE
ONELife Retreat, at Bagus Jati, costs $2967 a person for a five-night stay. The price includes five nights’ accommodation, three organic meals a day, daily yoga classes and a lifetime Science of Stillness membership. scienceofstillness.com. The next retreat will take place from April 1 to 6, 2013. oneliferetreats.net.