Yes, that's me, wrapped in shawls, lotus sitting on the cushioned floor of an enormous white tent, singing bahjans (spiritual chanting) with 200 other people, tears running down my uplifted face. And that was only the fourth day...
From Lisbon, the train to Faro takes about 2-1/2 hours and there, as I climb off the train, I realize that I, like most of the others aboard, strangers only a moment before, are all bound for the same destination. It takes, in fact, two full busses for all of us to cram our bags into into the luggage compartment and climb aboard. The bus is full of the chatter of new friends, the sudden intimacy of knowing we will be spending the next several days together in a shared quest. Well, mostly it is the women who are doing the chattering...the men look more introspective. Or scared...?
We drive for about 45 minutes into the countryside. Central southern Portugal is hilly and lightly wooded with live oak and olive trees...if I were dropped suddenly into the middle of it, I would be certain that I was in central California...until I see the buildings. They are unmistakably Portuguese: white plaster walls, red tiled roofs, many of the facades completely covered with the beautiful painted tiles called 'azulejos' which are ubiquitous here.
We arrive at Zmar (pronounced Z-mar), an eco-camping resort located on a dry scrubby plateau and surrounded by cow pastures, some donkeys in a another large pasture below the camp. The sky is bright, vivid blue, scattered clouds here and there. The resort is built around a central complex of simple buildings which includes a beautiful 300-meter long swimming pool, an indoor wave pool, a gym, and a spa which includes a wonderful indoor thalassotherapy pool. At the top of a small grassy hill, there is an enormous white, double-peaked circus tent. It is visually stunning, especially at night when, lit from within, it glows. To add to this effect, at some time around midnight each night during the retreat, the crescent moon will set in a starry sky over this tent, perfectly centered between its glowing white peaks: a scene of mystical beauty.
We are met at the bus by young men who help us to carry our luggage across the gravel parking lot and onto a wooden deck surrounding the reception area. Leaving them in a pile outside, we all line up in a large room manufactured from some kind of pressed wood, light golden in color. All of the buildings here are made of this wood and glass combination, with soft polished wooden floors. The effect is open, airy and filled with light.
The staff who check us in are extremely thorough, walking us through everything we might need to know -- even checking our travel arrangements for leaving Z-mar at the end of the retreat. Any concerns we may have had for the next several days, it is their mission to remove here. At the end of the check-in and orientation process we are given badges to hang around our neck. The badge contains our name, our indicated food preference; vegetarian, meat, fish (I have chosen vegetarian), a card key that will open our room, and can be loaded with money for purchasing things, like lattes at the bar...oh, thank goodness! Although we do not know it at this moment, we are also color-coded. On the back of the badge, there are only the words "in silence". This seems to me an unnecessary reminder as everyone here -- except for Z-mar staff and Mooji's team -- will be in silence.
We are sent off to find our rooms and to await the arrival of our luggage, brought shortly by Z-mar staff driving golf carts. I am in a Z-chalet, a small square box in a group of small square boxes which have two very small bedrooms, a small central area, a tiny toilet, a very tiny shower enclosure and a large veranda with wooden chairs across the front. All of this is constructed of the same golden pressed wood. It is all very new, neat and tidy. On the roof of each building there are solar panels. In keeping with he 'eco' theme, the entire resort is powered solar powered. In one of the two bedrooms - which are both exactly the same size (about 5' x 10'), there is a very small double bed. This is my room. In the other, there are four bunk beds crammed into the same small space! As I watch four other women trying to fit themselves and their possessions into that tiny space, I thank myself fervently for having opted for a private room. I also feel a little bit guilty, seeing their misery... I cannot recall ever before having felt guilty for the luxury of 50 square feet...
I unpack into a small open closet and make myself comfortable. Dinner will be served soon and after that we will assemble for our first meeting with Mooji: the official beginning of our time in silence. For some reason, I have very little apprehension about this. I have spent long periods of time during the past year without conversation, while traveling in Asia, and so I think perhaps this is something I can do. But still, I wonder. Seven days...
After dinner, we make our way past a large caged enclosure full of screaming, blue and gold macaws, to the tent. It is a permanent structure with raised wooden-deck floors and clear plastic side panels which can be raised and lowered to let air flow through. The tent has been divided into two rooms by a temporary wall. As we enter the tent we remove our shoes and leave them in large rectangular areas defined by masking tape with signs taped to the floor inside the rectangles directing us to "leave shoes here". Each time I do this, I have the urge to leave my shoes directly on top of the "here", but I only smile at my (very!) small joke and restrain myself.
On the other side of the barricade, is a raised platform, the backdrop of which is draped in tapestry and hung with a large, smiling, photograph of Papaji - Mooji's teacher in Arunachala, India, now deceased. In the middle of the platform, like a throne, one large cushioned arm chair. Next to the chair a table with flowers and a small photo of Sri Ramana Maharshi (http://www.sriramanamaharshi.org/ -- an amazing man: the look in his eyes is the real reason why I have come here), a pedestal with a large bronze statue of Shiva dancing, an image I particularly like, orchids here and there, and a low footstool-like chair made from some sort of polished tree trunk for those who are invited to come up and talk with
In front of the stage there is a cushioned area for us those who want sit on the floor, and behind this, rows of folding wooden chairs. We trickle into the hall and choose seats. I take a seat on the floor - I will come to know those cushions well during the next several days...
After everyone is assembled, Shree, a woman who is part of Mooji's team comes onto the stage to make practical announcements, explain general rules (no talking...really?), tell us how to request help -- without talking -- if we need it. She also walks us through the daily schedule and explains the color coding to us. This is actually a nice idea and yet another way in which they are taking care of us. Satsang means 'company of the truth' - and there will be two of these meetings each day for about two hours. Participants will be allowed to enter the tent, each session, according to color coding. In this way, there is an opportunity for everyone who wishes to sit in the front without having to queue hours early. In practice, there is still a queue beginning about an hour before each satsang, but the coding makes it possible to arrive at the tent about 30 minutes before, on one's color day, and still be able to sit directly at Mooji's feet. I exercise this option only once during the week. I find that I have no need to be that close and I am not interested in being part of the clamor - yes, some of this does go on -- for Mooji's direct attention. I am here with strong desire to leave as much of my ego behind as possible, and the energy when Mooji is with us is palpable, everywhere in the tent.
After announcements, Shree tells us Mooji will be arriving shortly and leaves the platform. Each time Mooji comes it is like this: quiet music, a hushed expectancy in the tent, the sound of a car approaching, tires crunching over the gravel, growing closer, and then stopping. Mooji appears, walking around the end of the barricade. He is always accompanied by someone who holds his hand until he has walked up the three steps onto the platform. I wonder if this is to make sure he doesn't trip coming up the stairs or for some other reason? But I am not talking so I cannot ask.... Most days his companion is a tall slender, deeply tanned, handsome, European man in his 40's. He is also accompanied by one of three young women, each of them beautiful and serene with short cropped hair. Over the next week I will discover that each of them is also gifted with a lovely singing voice as they are asked to perform - exquisitely! - at the end of each satsang. The young woman arranges his shoes, white crocs, on the ground by the steps facing away from the stage so he can step into them without stooping when he leaves.
For those of you who have not seen pictures of Mooji, he is Jamaican man, in his late fifties, his greying dark hair in long dreadlocks pulled back into an ornate knot. He is always dressed in traditional Hindu garb of long tunic and pants, the color varying from ochre to lavender, sage, navy, and a heavy, brown necklace that looks to be carved from wood or seeds of some type. Dreadlocks aside, he looks like a black Santa Claus, with a smile that is the most serene, joyful, inclusive, and loving that I can ever remember having seen. Whenever he turns it on, which he does often, it is as if the sun has just broken though on a cloudy day. Just watching that smile can fill me with happiness.
Mooji crosses the dais to the throne-like, armchair, sits down, covers his lap with a cloth, and greets us with the traditional gesture of namaste: palms clasped together to his forehead. Then he looks at us. Each one of us. For some timeless time, he merely looks, making eye contact with every person in the tent, one after the other. When he turns that gaze on me, time stands still and I know that he sees me...as I have never been seen before. I have no secrets, or perhaps I should say that we have no secrets, for his gaze is candid, searching and full of love. It is a moment of complete openness and enchantment. I am willing to do nothing but sit at his feet forever. Then he moves on to the next person and I am alone again, but feel as if I have never actually been alone and can never be again.
After some time he begins to speak. He talks of practical matters concerning our practice and his teaching. I will not try to repeat his words. For those who are curious, there are books and videos on You Tube. His teachings are from a branch of Vedanta Hinduism which is called Advaita, meaning 'non-dual'. The thrust of this teaching is the study of the nature of mind and the true self. This is what I have come to learn. His promise to each of us is that we can, if we choose, come to know ourselves more completely than we have previously imagined, and that knowledge will bring freedom, joy and lightness. After speaking for some time, he begins chanting while ringing a bell, signaling us to begin our time of silence. For the next seven days, none of us will speak again unless we have questions during satsang and are invited to speak directly to him. And so it begins... He teaches, with love, gentleness, occasional sternness, answering questions and frequently making us laugh. There is so much laughter in the tent, and when we laugh it is always gentle, joyful -- laughing at ourselves, as we laugh at one another in the understanding of our shared fears and the complications of life.
Sometime during the second evening, I get it. With a sense of complete wonder, I find the place inside myself toward which he is pointing and I am brought to tears by its simplicity. During the next six days of continuous introspection, practice and learning, I break again and again into tears or spontaneous laughter. (Perhaps, now, you are shaking your head and saying to yourself: "See? This is what comes of seven days without speaking!") It is common, sitting in solitude in the dining hall to hear someone erupt into sudden laughter. Sometimes you look up and there is another person with tears streaming down their face. And you are glad for them. I know it will sound grandiose for me to say that in this moment my life has changed forever, but it is true. I will never again see in the same way. And I am completely ruined for many things, pursuits, the work I used to do. Things I have always felt were important, may no longer have any meaning for me. And yet the world has opened and I am free, as I have never been before.
Imagine, sitting under a tree in the warm afternoon sun. There is no thought of tomorrow, or even later today, no thoughts at all, in fact. There is only deep contentment of heart and body as you watch the play of light, sky, wind, trees, grass, the complete wonder of existence. And now I can sit that way for hours, or days... The sense of yearning restlessness that has always been with me, felt in my mind and expressed in the constant, searching, need for motion is gone. What remains is deep, endless, peace. Yes, there will still be moments of turmoil, when I am again caught in the play of life and emotion, but I will always know this place and return.
On the last morning of silence, after yoga and breakfast, I walk out of the dining hall and, as I walk toward the tent where they have begun chanting bahjans, I see the sun rising through a mist which lays in the hollows of the hills and pastures, cows and donkeys grazing quietly, birds flying, calling to one another. I listen to the chanting from the tent and It seems as if God is singing joy! So I go inside, sit down and add my voice to the song... (Yes, I hear you shaking your head again.)
Friday, after breakfast, I climb aboard the bus leaving for Faro. I choose this bus for no other reason than that one bus is going there, the other to Lisbon. And because I came from Lisbon, I choose the new direction. The bus drops me at the airport in a city where I have never been. I have no hotel reservation, no plans at all. I order a coffee, turn on my iPhone for the first time and let the world flow back to me. As I open my calendar, I find that there are no future entries. Nothing is scheduled. There is nowhere I must be...for the rest of my life. Only freedom....