As part of the fellowship program, we were treated to a week’s retreat in the Satkhol Ashram. And so, fellows from around the country converged through trains and planes and automobiles, to wind our way up to the ashram, nestled in the hills of Uttarakhand.
It seems that ashrams, like all good superheroes, are not complete without a badass origin story. The story, according to Satish Tiwari, the ashram manager, goes something like this. Chariji, the then Heartfulness Global Guide had been looking to start an ashram somewhere in the Himalayas. Many abhyasis had found land around Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh but none attracted Chariji. He was enamoured with a place called Almora, although he had never visited there. The amount of land that they were looking for was notoriously difficult to locate en bloc. However, when he came to know that there was land near Almora he became excited. Plans were drawn up and he came to visit it in the 1990s. At this time there were no roads and so he made the arduous journey on foot despite old age. Some overseas architects who had drafted the plans accompanied him, and the residents became very curious about these peculiar companions and made some enquiries. When they heard about the purpose of the visit, they informed them that there was another plot of land for sale, directly below the place which they had originally ear-marked. Chariji said he would go and view the land, belonging to a farmer called Ram Gopal. Upon arrival, he drank water from a nearby source and he said that the water is abey zham zham, or holy water from Mecca. He then asked the group to meditate together. After the meditation, one of the members of the group told him that during the meditation, he had embodied the form of a bird and flown around the boundaries of the land. He described how it looked to him and the owner of the land confirmed that he was indeed, correct. Then, Chariji asked what the name of the place was, and the owner replied, “Satkhol”. Sat means the true essence in Sanskrit. Upon hearing this, he placed his walking stick firmly on the ground and pronounced “This is the ashram now.”
It is at this exact spot that the ashram was built. It was not until the early 2000s that the land purchase was finalized and the construction was completed. Its purpose is to provide a space, sanctuary and silence to spiritual seekers for them to retreat within themselves. Babuji in two separate Whispers described it as having “a big radiance” and being like an “antenna” where high-level spiritual beings would appreciate coming to seek peace there. It is almost as if the ashram has sprung out of the hillside, such is the way that the two seem intertwined. Nature reigns supreme and the silence is pierced with bird-song, insects and occasionally, the screams of monkeys. Satish warned us not to leave the ashram to wander at night as leopards can prowl the boundary walls and to avoid roaming the gardens when the gardeners are not on duty as snakes can come to heat themselves in the afternoon sun.
In the meditation hall, a sign boldly states that those whose phone rings in the meditation hall will be asked to leave the ashram premises. It is translated into no less than 6 languages. Satish told us that this was no joke. Apparently 16 abhyasis to date have had their guest status unceremoniously revoked. I was reminded of Eve in the Garden of Eden, how the modern-day Apple of Knowledge had been replaced by the ever-bleating temptation of an Apple Iphone. How, upon tasting the fruit, they too, had been expelled from Paradise. I hurriedly switched my phone off.
Each morning, we had sessions with the Mindfulness practitioner and trainer, Amir Imani. He gave us a taste for the Mindfulness practise and gently invited us to assess what we needed for our own personal growth and self-care. I had come to Satkhol with no expectations and no agenda and so, this orientation was direly needed. Upon delving further still, I was able to identify what I needed and to present this intention to Satkhol. Over the next few days I felt like she had accepted my offering and I began to heal. Chariji also decreed that hot tea be served every morning at the ashram. There is nothing that can heal the soul of an Irish woman faster than a cup of steaming hot tea.
When one tells people they are going on a retreat, there is an expectation of complete peace, stillness and isolation. A retreat serves as a momentary pause in one’s life, to take stock, to reflect and to dig further into what lies beneath the surface when one has the courage to look there. But retreats are also challenging. Turning the mirror directly on oneself when there are no distractions and nowhere else to divert attention, can unearth things that you would prefer remain buried. They are not for the faint-hearted.
To this effect, I leave you with three poems, written during my stay in Satkhol.
As the trees
Throw fragmented shadows
Across the puzzled stones
I ask myself
What do I need?
Here, in the beauty of nature
Where the hills rise up to meet me
And the birds so sweetly greet me
And the silence deep within me
I crave to unite with the Source
Merge in Oneness
And adjust to the person
I am becoming
Leaving behind impressions
Of the person I once was
Now, whispers on the breeze
The wind carries me onward.
“The keys that open all gates
Are strapped to love’s chest”
When travelling the spiritual path
At each junction, a key will materialize
A key to part of your heart
Be brave and turn the key
The treasure trove of memories
Which you thought were long forgotten.
Out will spring the ghosts of the past
You will feel their cold breath on your skin
Their eyes boring into your soul
Their haunting presence like the lingering of uninvited guests
Who have long overstayed their welcome
And whose skin has soured to rot
Don’t be afraid
Face them with love and compassion
Dare to bare your scars
Look them in the eyes
And you will find
When you liberate them
You liberate yourself.
My eyes fix on the horizon where cloud and peak met
The rosey hews of sunset
Pierce through parted clouds
Until a shadow shrouds it in darkness.
I know I have a long way yet
To the vast expanse of the Infinite.