In the quiet hum of an airplane's cabin, as the engines roared to life and the world beyond the window became a blur, I couldn't help but wonder about the familiar rush that always seemed to accompany my travels. It's a pattern I've come to expect - the sprint through airports, the mad dash to catch a taxi, the charming persuasion of airline staff to let me board despite missing the check-in deadline, and the recurrent act of forgetting something of importance to me.
This recurring habit led me to ponder, is there more to this routine than meets the eye?
As the plane took me on a journey towards Stockholm, my thoughts meandered through the labyrinth of my travel history, setting the stage for an introspective voyage that lay ahead. This time, it wasn't just another adventure; it was a path that would lead me to the tranquil village of Ödeshög in southern Sweden, where I was about to embark on a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat cloaked in profound silence.
But this wasn't my first rendezvous with the art of living in silence. I had walked this path before, in a jungle in Costa Rica and on the same Swedish soil. Each time, it had unveiled new layers of understanding, prompting me to explore the depths of my own self.
In this post, I invite you to join me on a journey that transcends time and place, exploring the intersections of travel, nature, and mindfulness. Together, let's dive into the depths of silence, embrace nature's wisdom, and unveil the insights that emerged during my retreat in Ödeshög.
Travel reflections & Yttertjärna Detour
On my way there, I was invited to a place I hadn't heard of 24 hours before. In a mysterious email we got an invitation "to collaborate". I had only had a short online meeting the day before, and since it fit my schedule, we agreed that I would take the train from Arlanda to Södertälje Syd, arriving at 19:16. With no further communication, as I was leaving the train station, I wondered where life would take me next. I was met at high speed by a dark German car, and two friendly people welcomed me.
In the car, they enthusiastically told me about their involvement in biodynamic farming, self-sufficiency, and pointed to the dairy, bakery, and farms they ran as they told me that they both were milking cows every sunday together. Jostein was a former international oil lawyer and Juhani was the CEO of the network of our 20 different businesses and initiatives.
As I stepped out of the car, I was greeted by Anders, with a local grandfather vibe, who told me he was a sauna enthusiast and had visited us in Tromsø, where the water was four degrees Celsius. He had been looking forward to a warm shower but quickly realized that it was just as cold and concluded that that's how it is in the north - it should be a bit brisk.
Wandering around Yttertjärna was a unique and profoundly inspiring experience. In Arne Næss' influential book, "Livsviktig," he vividly paints a portrait of an utopia set in the year 2100, nestled on the idyllic west coast of Norway. This utopia is no ordinary place; it is a manifestation of ecological harmony where every facet of life, from people to animals and even plants, coexists in a magnificent dance of balance and synchrony with the natural world. As I traversed the grounds of Yttertjärna, I couldn't help but sense the echoes of this ecological dream. The very air seemed charged with the palpable serenity of a world that respects and celebrates the interconnectedness of all living beings with the environment. It was as if I had stepped into the pages of Næss' vision, a place where nature's rhythms and the human spirit converged, painting a portrait of utopia that was not bound by time or place. The experience left an indelible mark, a testament to the enduring power of living in harmony with the world around us.
The Apple Doesn't Fall Far
Nature's cycle is endless and will continue to give and give. The experience of this is amplified as we stroll down to the water. Jostein tells me about the natural purification systems they have set up in the ground while an apple falls by the path. I take a bite, sweet, sour, balanced. In this one apple are dozens of seeds that will, on their own, produce countless apple trees, which in turn multiply, expanding to an abundance of apples for everyone, all naturally.
Two White Dots on the Wall
Before I leave Yttertjärna, we stand and study the wall of the cultural center, a pale baby blue color. It's about to be painted, and the group is examining two different shades of blue that look identical to the ordinary eye. "Details matter," says Anders. On the house, there are some white spots that have been scraped off. "It's going to be beautiful," Juhani says. "It already is," Anders concludes. What a refreshing perspective.
The day in Yttertjärna left its mark. Now I'm ready. As I settle down and the first instructions reach my ears, I realize I'm faced with two choices: to accept my mind wandering in all directions, or to cultivate resistance to why I can't pay attention to how my breath touches my upper lip as it flows in and out.
It becomes a dance between both, but I do my best to accept life's realities while continuously leaning into the mantra and starting over.
Mediation and silence
In this section, I will take you deeper into the heart of a 10-day silent meditation retreat. I'll explore the range of emotions, challenges, and profound transformations that arise when one ventures into the stillness of the mind for an extended period.
Initial Excitement and High Expectations
During my first encounter with a 10-day silent meditation retreat, excitement coursed through me, but it was accompanied by sky-high expectations. The idea of maintaining silence for an entire 10 days, while dedicating 10-12 hours each day to meditation, seemed nothing short of extraordinary. It felt like stepping into uncharted territory. Questions swirled in my mind - was I delving into the realm of madness? Could I truly manage such a rigorous practice, given my previous struggles to meditate for just one hour in my daily routine?
Transitioning with Calm and Composure
Returning to this unique experience with more composure, it's akin to immersing oneself in the freezing waters of the Arctic. The first plunge, the body resists with every fiber of its being, screaming a resounding "no." Each day brings an adjustment to the temperature, but not because the water warms; it remains just as icy as ever. Instead, it's we who adapt. We progressively shed layers of fear, release pent-up tension, and relinquish unrealistic expectations. With each successive dive into silence, we master the art of letting go.
From Fear to Comfort
Initially, the idea of silence was daunting, especially for someone like me whose words typically flow incessantly. But as the days passed, a surprising revelation unfolded - silence need not be terrifying. In fact, it has the potential to be wonderfully comfortable once we find our rhythm and settle into its soothing embrace.
Nature's Wisdom & planting seeds of change
During one of the breaks on the fifth day, a butterfly landed on my shoulder and another on my thigh, and in that moment, I felt at home. While a friendly wasp buzzes around me and a large dragonfly lands on my other shoulder, I realize that there's something about the moral principles we commit to as part of the course. One of the five is not to harm any living being. In Odeshog, the insects aren't afraid but live in harmony with their surroundings. This aligns with the stories I've heard from other centers, such as those in Australia. Kangaroos are typically very shy, but in these centers, they live as equals.
This Too Shall Pass
In a group with many other people, even in silence, it is supportive. The first few days are typically spent learning that things like pain are temporary. It's easier said than done, but the reality is that it will pass before it arises somewhere else. The realization begins to seep into the spine that life ebbs and flows, and what I hold onto will eventually disappear.
Back on the Forest Path, It Begins to Dawn
The slight irritation that I didn't bring the latest Arc'teryx jacket with me is superficial, but it's an indication of how desire infects everything, and the slightest thing that goes against us is akin to throwing more logs onto a fire. When it gets really tough, it´s like a whole can of gasoline is poured into the fire, and the flames get out of control.
The Way Out is In
In Norway, a country often touted as one of the world's wealthiest, poverty lines are increasing, inequality is on the rise, and people are living longer, but unfortunately, more and more are struggling.
Is the accumulation of difficulties a reality, and if so, is there a way out?
I can only speak for myself, and after spending roughly 100 hours in contemplative silence over one week, a revelation dawns. It's the recognition of how desire shapes our existence. The ceaseless chase to win, to assert, to achieve, to be right, to be the best, and to see our children excel as doctors, artists, or athletes - it's the dream. But who is the puppeteer pulling these strings of desire? Anything or anyone obstructing this vision becomes an adversary, and the ego thrives in the battle for supremacy.
Who is it that wants all of this?
Everything and everyone that stands in the way of this is wrong, and we don't like them/it.
The word "ego" trends on Google, and having as little ego as possible in today's modern society is important. Even that becomes a rat race and a great opportunity for the ego to shine.
"I can be wrong," the title of a book I've read by Bjørn Natthiko, could just as well have been the title of what I learned in my moments of silence. All the perceptions I carry with me are like a heavy backpack. Everything I engage in creates a lot of noise in my head. The power of thought is good, but not all the time. A significant part of the course was about purifying the mind. Clearing up. Letting go. Dusting off the mirror so that we can see more clearly. For me, it's clear that life needs to become simpler from now on. Simplicity leads to greater well-being. It´s starting with the basics. As the old zen saying goes:
"As you do one thing, you do everything"
Along the Riverbank
A friend once told me that if she were forced to attend a Vipassana course, it would feel like a prison, and I think she's right. Because you quickly realize the prison we live in: a prison of desire, resistance, and ignorance. So many of us live in this prison, a story about our past and future. This big burden, big pain and wall on our back can we let go of. Isn't it wonderful to think that it's possible? The ego clings to old ideas that aren't even true, distorted, having little to do with reality.
We are told to learn from the past, and yes we do. As my guide Gustav told me, I do think we can learn more from letting go. Bring the most valuable elements and move.
The body is in continuous change. All of me is changing.
In this particular prison in Ödeshög I showed up voluntarily, and with curiosity, I listened to the teacher's precise advice. Moment by moment, I chisel myself out of the prison. Not with a sledgehammer, but by working to keep my attention balanced, like a surgeon with a scalpel.
With a sharper and sharper eye, the images I hold onto start to shatter, and the prison door opens. I begin to understand a bit more about what Gustav has been trying to explain to me about the power that comes from a pure heart. A nourishing river that gives, and just gives.
The Ganges is India's largest river. And I keep falling into it, struggling and swimming against the current. Sometimes it feels like I'm drowning, but in those ten days, I got a taste of what it's like to sit completely still by the riverbank and let go of habitual patterns. In this there is freedom.