Narayan Ashram Retreat

I have just got back home from the SIDH retreat at Narayan Ashram. This retreat was unique in many ways. Firstly, Narayan Ashram set at an altitude of 9000 feet on the India-Nepal border is very difficult to get to. Our 35 participants arrived in many difficult ways but most of us reached Delhi from our various locations and then travelled by a tempo traveller to the Ashram. It took us 30 hours to reach the ashram and around 24 hours plus a night halt in Pithoragarh to travel back to Delhi. This was one of the most difficult road journeys I have ever done. Of course, once you reach the ashram and experience its tranquillity, its simplicity and its beauty, you forget the difficult journey you had to make to reach there. Established in 1936 by Shri Narayan Swami the ashram was on the old route for the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra and the many pilgrims and sages who would have passed through must have enhanced its sacredness.

Secondly, it was a longer retreat than the ones we normally conduct. We thought that since it is so difficult to reach we should stay a few extra days. This was useful and helped us get comfortable in each others company and open up our hearts during the retreat. It also helped that the only mobile network that works there was BSNL and that was also down most of the time. So we had practically no contact with the outside world and with no internet, we were cut away from our favourite social media addictions. All the news we avidly consume in our daily lives was unavailable to us and we seem to have managed fine and not experienced the withdrawal symptoms that addicts usually face. Our powerful smart phones worked only as alarm clocks and cameras!

Thirdly, the participants came from very diverse backgrounds. We had a very learned swamiji, two traditional Sanskrit scholars, five PhDs (engineering, ecology, political science, economics), founding members of two alternative schools, the founder of an ashram working on traditional crafts, a Sanskrit scholar-businessman, a retired banker, two fashion designers etc. Although the ashram provided us with very tasty, simple food, five of our participants were cooking and eating their own food. The ashram only had 4 and 5 bedded rooms, so this diverse group was staying and interacting with each other in a deep manner.

We ran the retreat with a focus on meditative silences and contemplative discussions on quotations taken from the works of Professor A.K. Saran, J. Krishnamurti, Dharampal etc. The objective of the discussions (held in small groups and presented in the main large group) was to look inwards and see the deep assumptions that we hold and, if possible, to break out of them and begin to see things with a little more clarity. I felt that some things that had lain in separate compartments in my mind got connected when I listened to the ongoing discussions. I hope that this has happened, to a smaller or larger extent, for all the participants who came for our Narayan ashram retreat. Swamiji’s blessing to all of us on the last day is an apt way to close this post. He said – “May you learn to dance on the razor’s edge.”

What are our retreats about?

(The following is collected together from messages written by Pawanji on a WhatsApp group)

In the retreats that SIDH has been organising over the recent past, we have tried to invite only those who in our opinion are more or less aligned together. More or less on the same page in terms of self-enquiry and a genuine desire to Know (to know what is it all about?). The retreats are broadly about exploring the inner world, the self and the external world. We do not use any scripture, any Guru for this because we believe in this process of delving within in togetherness. We have no issues with scriptures or genuine Gurus, for them we have the highest of regard, but we think our retreat process, which is non-hierarchical, is better for self-learning. Authority has a tendency to lead us towards belief rather than learning.

Why saman-dharmi or people on the ‘same page’? The entire retreat process is a means to go deep within and get answers (from within) rather than from someone else. When people are on the same page and are sincere about the enquiry then they are deliberating (speaking and listening), but not with the other but with themselves. Samandharmita is supportive, or rather a pre-condition, of the other becoming a catalyst in our journey of diving deep within. Otherwise, the deliberations tend to be argumentative and opinions, facts and information start dominating rather than Truth. Arguments are aligned with opinions. Self-enquiry and authentic questioning (as different from rhetorical questions or challenging questions) is aligned with Truth. Opinions, by their very nature, will always differ, while Truth tends to converge even if different people come from different directions.

Another essential requirement, in line with the above, is the importance of authenticity in such a process. Authenticity is with oneself, honesty is with others. Honesty is certainly a virtue but authenticity is even more difficult. The ultimate lie is with the self not with the other. In the process of self enquiry and for “stepping out”, authenticity is essential. Authenticity to acknowledge our inauthenticity with ourselves (nothing to do with the other) and not feel depressed. No justification and no guilt. No blame and no complaint. No feeling sorry for oneself. No victimhood. All of these are escape routes – mind games to keep us away from going deep within.

To understand modernity we need to acknowledge that all of us – to a larger or lesser degree – are afflicted by it. This is painful to acknowledge because our tendency is to justify all our actions. To be rid of the trap of modernity we need to see its totally illusionary nature. The gap between what is professes and its reality. This leads to भ्रम मुक्ति and मोह भंग। if this happens, we step out of the trap of modernity. This is what we are trying to do in our retreats.

Parisamvaad at Bangalore

We have just finished a 5-day contemplative, residential, parisamvaad, a detailed discussion, on tradition and modernity, at Bangalore. The Parisamvaad was organized by Udhbhavaha, an alternative school that works closely with SIDH. Held at the Art of living ashram, the parisamvaad had around 20 participants who had a slow conversation around some passages from ‘Illuminations’, a book by Professor A.K. Saran. The objective of the parisamvaad was to help participants ‘see’ through the fog and brainwashing inflicted on us as we pass through the modern education system of India. It looked like the objective was met to a certain degree and all the participants felt that we had a useful conversation that opened some new doors and showed some new perspectives.

About the usefulness of the parisamvaad I had an insight that I shared with the participants. Long ago, I had gone for a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat to Igatpuri around the monsoon season. Set in the Western ghats near Nasik, Igatpuri was green and cloud-filled-wet and incredibly beautiful. I stayed in a small, isolated, single-room cottage on the campus as I went through the intense silent meditation retreat. I was deeply moved by my experience and at the end of the retreat I came out of the Vipassana centre thinking that my life was changed forever. I resolved that I would spend the rest of my life in the service of the divine and planned to further explore my deep meditative experience. As I travelled towards Mumbai in increasingly crowded local trains, I found my resolve weakening and my experience fading like a dream. My insight during the parisamvaad, however, was that even though the experience faded and I got caught in the rush of life, something had changed, because we cannot unsee what we have once seen. I felt that these slow conversations we have been having at SIDH samvaads also serve a similar purpose, where like minded people come together in friendship and openness and at an individual level get a little bit more clarity than before.

To give you a flavour of the parisamvaad, let me conclude with a sample passage that was discussed at length during the meeting:

“The Illuminations School has to grapple with minds which, to a good extent, are already formed and largely conditioned in favour of “modernity” (and the modern Western civilization) and against tradition (and the ancient civilizations). The first requirement of such a situation is to get out of the tradition-modernity antithesis or dichotomy…to go deeper and deeper into the nature and inner telos of modernity. Education aims at truth and not at desired types of mentality. The second requirement is to create a free, uncluttered intellectual space so that there can grow genuine receptivity in minds shaped and equipped by the present educational system for gullibility of one sort or another. The third requirement of our present pedagogical situation is to restore the internal relation between knowledge and action, theory and praxis, thinking and living; a relation which modern education completely disrupts, at best, rendering it contingent. Our task in the Illuminations School is to seek pedagogic methods, strategies and techniques that may meet the above requirements as adequately as possible.”
– Page 18 and 19, Illuminations, A. K. Saran