My Silent Retreat in Bali
I needed to try something different. I was going through some personal issues and needed to cut through the clutter and get away to the mountains. A co-worker referred me to the Bali Silent Retreat in Batukaru, an hour and a half from Ubud. The premise of the silent retreat is no talking, no phones, no gadgets, no computers and non-violence. While I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, it was just what I needed. Here was my experience.
Day 1 I Murdered an Ant
My room was ashram style, well a little better, a very comfortable single bed, mosquito net, crisp cotton sheets, a kimono, sarong and a plush comforter. The balcony opened out into the jungle, no windows just a big bamboo screen rolled up.
There was no clock in the room. That would pose a problem because I had no phone, no computer, and no way to tell the time. A mild panic began to set in. There were timed events for guests to participate; yoga at 7.am and 2:30pm., guided meditations at 3:30pm. Meals were served at certain times. I didn’t want to miss out.
I packed quite a few things to do. I had two pants that needed mending, magazines and books to read and notebooks to write in. I even brought a candle to help me relax. I had a lot of nervous energy. I must’ve spun around my room fifteen times. What to do? What to do? My mind raced. I stitched up both pants and read an entire magazine. I walked over to the balcony, looked at the birds circling in the sky and had an intense yearning to log onto the internet. I kept wondering about the time.
It felt like the walls were closing in. There was nowhere to unpack my clothes. I grasped for SOMETHING to do. I hadn’t even checked in an hour yet, but was seriously considering calling back my driver to come and get me. He wasn’t too far away by now.
I walked up to the lodge. The property is a working farm. I walked past beds of lettuce, fresh herbs, pineapples, papaya trees, passion fruit vines and chili peppers. There was also a rice paddy that had begun being harvested.
Eating was communal and vegetarian food was laid out buffet style on big wooden tables. Upon check in I was given an iron bowl, an iron cup, a coconut bowl, a knife and a spoon. I was told to wash my own dishes and keep them in a cubby hole that coincided with my room number. I was also told to make my own bed and clean my own room. I didn’t mind this at all because they were more things to do to pass the time.
The ant was crawling on a lettuce leaf in my freshly spooned green salad. Effortlessly I crushed it between my fingers and continued eating. So much for non-violence.
Lunch: Red rice salad with papaya and mint/ green salad with almond and raisins/jasmine tea
There were about seven women at the lodge. Colorful bean bags were plonked in the middle of loft; wooden desks were around the perimeter. The space opened up to panoramic views of the mountains, rice fields and farm land.
What is the art of doing nothing? I mused as I perused the small library. Even reading and writing were tasks, they were doing something. I felt my mind emptying and unloading.
There was a clear view from the lodge’s top floor to the yoga and meditation space. I saw a few distant figures gathering under the massive white tent. Time for yoga. My muscles stretched and knees cracked like a goat’s as I went from downward dog to planks. Yoga was kicking my ass. Meditation followed immediately and the instructor taught us nice technique of building a temple in our minds and pictures ourselves walking there, entering with a question that needed to be worked on. I liked building my temple and planned on using this technique in my future practice.
I settled into a beanbag and just looked at the mountains. Shortly after I heard wooden gongs announcing dinner. The sun was still high in the sky. I glanced at the laminated card and dinner was served at 4:30. Dinner at 4:30 huh? Downstairs we scurried around each other. When our eyes locked we nodded, smiled as we dished out our meals.
Dinner: Pumpkin risotto/ tarragon, potato, sage fritters/ tomato basil soup/ green salad with basil vinaigrette
Mosquitos drove me back to my room at sundown. The darkness descended like a thick blanket. I looked outside and it was quite dark. It started to rain. I grabbed an umbrella and a book light to see my way down the graveled path and perilous wooden steps.
The long night stretched out in front of me. I know it wasn’t even yet 8 o’clock by how the moon was angled. Who was I kidding? I had no idea the time.
Day 2 Ghosts, Snakes and Missing Clocks
Woke up somebody’s alarm. Looked like it was 5a.m. I woke up annoyed and frustrated. It was hard going to sleep, my night was restless. I rolled up the bamboo screen to a scene of yellow butterflies fluttering about the tree’s blossoms. I let the anxiety pass through me. The mist was just hovering about the tree tops. Large black bees darted between the butterflies to share in the flowers’ nectar. I stood there just looking at morning’s rush hour. I didn’t want to miss yoga so I walked to the space. I bumped into the yoga instructor on the path.
“Good Morning” we both mouthed to each other. When she caught up to me she whispered
“How was your sleep?”
“Eh. It was hard going down and I was restless.”
“Oh they’re spirits everywhere here!” her eyes big as saucers. “But they’re good,” she recovered with a flick of her wrist.
“Good to know.”
“Have you been to the jungle yet?”
“Maybe later. Any snakes I should worry about?”
“Oh snakes are everywhere here.” Another flick of the wrist, “But they’re not dangerous.”
I let her walk ahead of me into the yoga space. I needed time to process what just went down.
Breakfast: Baked organic duck egg with tofu, ginger and oregano/ banana wrapped pancake/ coconut yogurt/ mango and papaya fruit salad/ fresh pulled mint and lemongrass tea.
After a hearty breakfast I went back to my room to color and deep condition my hair. As my hair was steaming under the plastic bag and large chocolate butterfly with white speckles entered and landed on the wooden chair. Its wings moved in slow motion. I was drawn into the lascivious wing movements. The butterfly pitched on two other spots on the chair with the same movements, briefly pausing before completely closing its wings and bringing them down again. Then it left as suddenly as it came.
I hung out in my room for the whole day because I wanted to be alone. I didn’t feel like smiling and nodding at anyone.
The labyrinth was right outside my door. I had never done a labyrinth meditation before, but according to the reading provided the idea is to walk a single path along the entire structure. Your mind just focuses on the singular act of walking. After the initial confusion of which way to go settled, my concentration was fully on putting one foot in front the other. Concentrating on each step as it happened was my main focus. I tuned into the sounds around me. Falling fruit, bees buzzing around the elephant ear flowers, a farmer chopping into the trunk of a coconut tree.
Lunch: Papaya noodle salad/ sweet corn and mixed fruit salad/ watermelon and mint juice/ slice of banana bread.
I got a clock! I placed it in my complimentary tote bag and walked around with it for the rest of the time.
In meditation we learnt to call on our intuition. Quieting or bodies, subsequently our minds and recall a time when we listened to our intuition and just notice the emotions and call on intuition to help us more.
Dinner: Sweet corn soup/ tomato basil pasta/ sweet and sour tempe/ mixed salad/ kue Bangkok
On a scale of 1-10, my technology withdrawal symptoms are at an 20. Especially in the evening when yoga, meditation, dinner are done. Still grasping for some tangible busy work. I’m not used to this slow pace of life.
Day 3 Getting the Hang of It.
I had no idea what my hair was doing. Was my Afro leaning? The mirror in my room was about four inches big. I didn’t miss having a mirror. I got up at daybreak and went hiking through the rice paddies. I took my camera along. Many of the terraces were ripe for harvest showcasing pale yellow and light brown rice grains. I was a curious sight to the villagers who had flashes of quizzical looks right before smiling brightly and waving. After a while, I didn’t see any more villagers. I became hyper sensitive to sounds around me, rustling in the bushes. I cleared a hill and ran into a gaggle of chickens feasting on a patch of rice grains. They were unfazed by my presence.
When I returned to the lodge a friendly chin length dreadlocked blonde greeted me from behind the desk.
“Did you enjoy your walk?” She whispered
“Yes, I went through the paddies.” I whispered back.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“I have no idea what time it is,” she chirped looking around. “But, breakfast isn’t here yet so it’s not yet 8:30.”
Upstairs a little group of women were whispering. I went into my little corner with the mountain range view. I kept glancing at them quietly cackling and giggling. That same group has been doing a lot of talking since I arrived.
Breakfast: Spinach, basil and tomato frittata/ coconut yogurt with granola/ mango, papaya, watermelon fruit salad/passion fruit vanilla smoothie/ mint and lemongrass tea.
Back in my room reading. Too many insects were coming in today. I didn’t mind the odd butterfly or two but wasps? Hell no.
I went back to the lodge for lunch and heard loud talking. The horror. Two new folks were checking in. The man’s voice boomed around the corners of the lodge. I shot him a death glance across the room.
The new enrollees came upstairs. Great. The man couldn’t sit still. I observed him from my lofty perch on the bean bag. He filled his hollow cheeks with salad and chewed loudly. He got up between bites and took photos. The petite brunette he was with found a bean bag, curled up on her side and took a nap. He walked over, wakes her up so she could look at his pictures. He narrated even single photograph, she nodded, threw her back and laughed and smiled through it all.
Lunch: kidney bean salad/ pumpkin salad/ beet and mint salad/ passion fruit vinaigrette/pineapple and ginger juice/fresh popcorn
All week there has been this lithe, thin French woman. She draws mandalas, doesn’t wear a bra and her neck is decked out with prayer beads. How did I know she was French? I heard her say, “I normally speak French.”
The instructor announced that since it was everyone’s last day we’ll cleanse our auras and chakras. After meditation I became curious about the women I’ve been spending time with in silence. I whispered to Frenchie, “Are you going back home?”
“No,” she breathed.
“Oh you’re just travelling around.”
“Where to next?”
She put her forefingers into an X and placed them over her lips.
“No. I’m not talking today.”
Ok so all week she’s been parlez-vous-ing up a storm, but when I talk to her she finally decided to adhere to the rules of the silent retreat on her last day? Excusez-moi.
At dinner time, I saw the dreadlocked blonde at the top of the stairs staring at the books.
“Do you have a minute? I need to talk,” she said.
There were only three of us in the loft, me, the blonde and Frenchie. I nodded and we walked to a quiet corner.
“I’m supposed to go Thailand to kill time for two months until my sister comes over to visit in Vietnam. I’ve been travelling for ten months and I wanna go home, but I’m hanging around waiting on my sister. So this place just offered to pay my airfare to Vietnam if I stay on and volunteer for the two months.”
“That’s a pretty sweet deal,” I said.
“So what do you think?” she implored.
“If I were you, I’d take it. They’re paying your airfare. Have you been to Thailand?”
“Yes! For three months.”
I shrugged, “There you have it. Plus it’s high season in Thailand and you’ll be surrounded by a bunch of drunken idiots anyway.”
“So you think I should take the deal?”
Frenchie glances over at us with furrowed eyebrows.
I gave her the Kanye shrug. Whatever.
The blonde smiled, relieved. “I know this place and all the silence and stuff, but I needed to talk to someone.”
“Sometimes you just have to hear the words outside of your head to work through an issue.”
“I know! Totally,” she touched my shoulder, “Good talking to you.”
Dinner: Coconut tofu fritters/gado-gado/stir fried mixed vegetables/ 1 gluten free mango brownie.
Day 4 Last Day Reflections
I woke up at the crack of dawn again. The air was crisp and I stayed under my blanket relishing its toasty warmth. At the end of this silent journey, I reflected on what, if anything I’ve learnt about myself. I realized I had the same 24 hour clock as everyone else, but by re-arranging how I used those hours I became more introspective and productive. I wrote more, ideas were firing around in my head, I meditated and learnt to value my own company more. I liked starting my day with a physical activity out in nature. I missed being sociable, I didn’t connect with my fellow silent retreaters except those I shared whispers with. I noticed I observed more, a skill that I can manipulate descriptively as a writer. Taking the time to immerse myself and observe nature made me grateful and appreciative of those moments I was a part of.
I walked the labyrinth one last time in the rain, under an umbrella. I noticed that depending on which side of the labyrinth I was walking my thought pattern shifted. Right brain thought about getting new sneakers because the rains have ruined my only pair. Why are you out here in this rain? Left brain thought about connectedness with people. Does it really matter to know people’s stories? Where they’re from? Occupation? Countenance? We are all in this life together. People tell you what you want to hear and show you what you want to see, but they can’t hide their true selves in certain moments. It will all come out, eventually.
I passed Frenchie and the dreadlocked blonde chatting on the steps. Shocker. I nodded and as I passed them Frenchie said smiling, “I can talk today!”
Breakfast: pumpkin spinach frittata/ 2 slices homemade wheat bread with mango and passionfruit jam/ mango and mint juice.
COST: USD $15 in dormitory/ $40 single room/ $90 bungalow
MEALS: USD $25 a day