“Think of the body as a cup, and the water in it as your mind. If you keep moving, the water cannot be still and you cannot see your reflection in the water; you cannot see what the water truly is. If you want to understand your body and your mind, then you have to be still.”
Those were the words from our guide as we rested underneath the shade of an overhead rice storage facility in the compound of a house built on a land that has been passed down over three generations. He had just summed up the reason why I was in Bali.
After a short flight from Changi Airport to Denpasar Airport, and after braving the crowd of beach-holiday goers and taxi touts at the arrival hall, my wife and I found ourselves on a long drive to a less glamorous part of Bali known as Tambanan. This was where our silent, no-internet retreat will happen at a place very simply and aptly called, Bali Silent Retreat. I had discovered and selected it as it fit our requirements for a retreat that had to be surrounded by nature; have a flexible, non-religious programme; serves healthy food; and within our modest budget.
The journey to the retreat from the airport was a 2-hour drive that in itself felt like a preview of the patience required to undertake the retreat. We meandered along two-lane roads where road signs and markings seem to be more of a suggested guideline instead of traffic law. We drove through towns and villages that seemed conjoined to one another, and we were continuously flanked by enterprises of all kinds, ranging from those that sell timber doors to cooked food. Dogs and children roamed freely just as scooters flowed through whatever gaps that the lorries and SUVs allowed for it. Makeshift stalls emerged from homes, unkempt streets were the norm, all in stark contrast to the temples that were always neat, clean, and with an offering at its entrance.
This seemed to go on endlessly until finally, we encounted a small wooden sign pointing to the right with the words “Bali Silent Retreat”. 5 minutes and one similar sign later, we were driving up a very steep hill which opened up to a calmer, greener, more expansive view of rice terraces. After a short bumpy ride on another narrow road, we arrived.
The reception area was nothing more than a desk in an open-air pavilion with a small back-office attached to it. Here, we sorted out administrative details and were given an “Ashram Pack” containing basic necessities like towels, notes, and utensils for our stay. We were then given a short orientation delivered in hushed voices around the compound as the staff explained how the retreat functioned. The entire on boarding process was over in 15 minutes – not austere nor ceremonial, but just respectful and simple.
With rice terraces on one side and the forest on the other, our wooden two-storey home for the next four nights was a stripped down shelter, completely powered by solar. There were no electrical charging points to tempt us to use our devices and there was just a single bulb in each part of the building with three solar-powered portable reading lamps that had to be charged every morning. A piece of wood to latch the door was the main security feature, and to ensure that we were secure against rats, snakes, and other insects, we were given two large, air-tight plastic boxes to keep our belongings. The ground floor housed a small sitting area, a toilet, and a semi-outdoor shower with water heater. A single queen-size bed with mosquito netting filled most of the sparse room at the upper storey, and there was a small terrace that offered a majestic view of Mount Batukaru, Bali’s second highest mountain. It was all one needed to live – nothing more, nothing less.
“Going nowhere, as Leonard Cohen would later emphasize for me, isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply. ”
– Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere
Wake up, meditate, eat, read, be in nature, toilet break, shower, sleep. The days and nights were made of permutations of those few activities and nature was the clock that I lived with. There was nowhere to go and nothing to be done, and every movement from washing our own utensils after meals (Yes, we had to clean our own dishes) to walking to the other side of the room became a slice of meditative practice. The entire compound was largely silent except for the sounds of nature, distant humming of machines in the paddy fields, and sounds coming from a nearby village. There was no need or desire to socialise with the other guests of the retreat as we passed each other with a smile to acknowledge the other’s presence or occasionally, the averted gaze to the floor.
As the vibrations of the gong ring through the compound at 5:45am everyday, I would stir from sleep. Mornings are spent sitting at the balcony with the warmth of a cup of ginger tea in my hands for comfort while accompanying the mountain to welcome the rising sun. I would sit for hours, watching the sky transition from the purple of dusk to the blue of mid-day while the birds usher in the day with their songs. Watching the grass grow in the afternoon became a spectacle of miracles, and as the evening mist dawns to make the volcano and the rest of the world disappear into the darkness, I would acknowledge the nocturnal animals who would begin to make their presence felt with their sounds, rhythms, and melodies.
“What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.”
The days of gradually disconnecting from the rest of the world made transitioning to this new lifestyle slightly easier and being an introvert by nature may have contributed to the ease as well. The environment was serene and each moment felt so precious that I did not want to spoil it by taking out my phone to capture a photo or to share it on social media. (Although I did take a photo on the last day of the retreat. It’s the cover photo of this post!). There was a brief moment where I wondered if I should turn on my phone to check for any emergencies but I resisted, trusting that the Universe would take care of things in my momentary absence.
While being still, I went on a journey within. Before leaving, I had jotted down in my notebook prompts and questions for me to mull over but just a few hours into my stay, I realised how inadequate these signposts were to navigate the cacophony in me. I needed to wander down the uncharted paths of my mind and heart with bravery. I recalled Yoda’s words to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars Episode V about what he would encounter in the cave: “Only what you take with you.”
As I explored within, I encountered frustration, anger, sadness, fear, hopes, and dreams. I scribbled out my thoughts in my notebook, working through the stories that were being told in my head and the feelings that I had left unvisited in my heart. I allowed time for emotions to bubble up to the surface and sink to the bottom. I penned my observations, and reminded myself to note without judgement. In the stillness, silence, and solitude, I was able to truly feel. By the end of the first full day at the retreat, I was overwhelmed by a profound sense of heaviness in my heart.
In the following days, I reminded myself to treat my soul and mind with love and compassion and simply be present to the heaviness without attempting to offer solutions. I seeked guidance in prayers and wisdom from those before me. In the gentle care of the universe and the delicious plant-based dishes of chef Simon Jongenotter, I gently confronted hard truths and uncomfortable ideas. It was a difficult and demanding process that almost necessitated the quietness of the retreat. I appreciated the luxury of being able to channel my entire attention and energy to care for myself. I found joy in the little details and moments of the simple days and touched what it must have meant to live slowly.
Gradually, the clouds of confusion and worry parted. I managed to achieve some clarity on what was going through in my head and heart and began to be able to sieve through what were false stories that I was telling myself, and the real issues that I was truly grappling with. I was able to articulate and write more coherent thoughts in my notebook and while there were little fully formed answers, I felt a lightness that I have not felt in a long time. On the morning of the fourth day at the retreat, I smiled with my heart.
The real challenge of this silent, no-internet retreat is always to happen when I am back in regular city life. It is always easier to be mindful in a controlled environment like a retreat, but when faced with real demands on my attention and energy, all that could so easily be forgotten. It is early days, and I am still basking in the afterglow of the retreat experience and I pray that this will not evaporate into memory. So till time passes on this year for me to reflect back on it all, I remind myself with the words of Carl Honoré from his book In Praise of Slowness, “The slow philosophy can be summed up in a single word: balance. Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for. Seek to live at what musicians call the tempo giusto — the right speed.”