Tasting the sweet nectar of silence: Reflections from a 40 day silent retreat in the Himalayas

The sacred mountains

The sacred mountains

‘Once upon a time, a student of meditation went to see a sage. The student began discussing philosophical concepts, such as God and the divine existence, but the sage didn’t say anything. The aspirant talked on and on about God and asked many probing questions, but still the sage kept still. Finally, in frustration, the aspirant inquired why the sage wouldn’t answer his questions. Then the sage smiled and said gently, ‘I have been answering you, but you are not listening: God is silence.’ – Swami Rama

In 2012, I read a book that stirred me deeply: ‘Cave in the Snow’ by Tenzin Palmo. It describes the life of a young English woman who went to India, became a Buddhist nun and spent twelve years living alone in a Himalayan cave to meditate. Her descriptions of the depth of her spiritual practice brought forth a strong longing in me to retreat into these sacred mountains, too. At around the same time, a friend told me about a forty day silent retreat she’d completed in South America, and how healing this experience had been for her. As my spiritual practices intensified in the last two years, I resolved to find the time to do the same in the Himalayas, a place I have a strong connection with. What interested me particularly about this retreat was the solitude. I’d done ten day silent Vipassana courses before, and though they are very strong, one is never alone. There is always the safety net of the teachers and the other students; one sometimes even shares a bedroom. I wanted to know what would happen if I’d spend a good amount of time in silence and solitude in an energetically strong place.

And energetically strong the Himalayas certainly are: sages and aspirants have performed tapasya (austerities) and sadhana (spiritual practices) there for thousands of years, and thus the spiritual vibrations are very high. Sure, you can perform a silent retreat anywhere in the world, even in your home, but there is something special about these mountains and the mighty river Ganga that emanates from them. There is something very ancient and magical in the air, and you can perceive this very well when you are still. This becomes stronger the higher up you travel, for example in the area of Gangotri, the place where Ganga first descended upon earth. Here, I constantly had the feeling that otherworldly Beings were watching over me as I meditated in the forest and by the river. I was later told that these are the ancient Masters who watch over the space and rejoice that you are doing these practices and thus add to thousands of years of spiritual tradition. I certainly had the feeling that the Masters were with me and guiding me lovingly on this journey of sadhana.

Firstly, of course, the question arises in the minds of many people as to why do something like this? Why lock yourself away for forty days with no contact to the external world, no phone, no internet, no conversations, no music, no books, no distractions of any kind? What is the point? For me, the point was to conduct a very fine study. If you really want to know yourself, your mind and its modifications and all the things that still hold you back, then silence is a superb tool for achieving this goal. In silence, the mind attains a very subtle and sensitive state in which you can realize many things you normally distract yourself from. There comes a point in sadhana where you understand that the answers to all questions lie in silence. I wanted to immerse myself in that silence.

I had a strong guidance to do this retreat in the Uttarkashi area, though I had not been there before, and set out to find a small, secluded cottage. As I live in the Himalayan foothills for much of the year, this was not too difficult – Swami friends gave me a couple of phone numbers and I found the perfect cottage in virtually no time at all. It was part of a small ashram that is run by a beautiful Swamini (a female Swami) who was very supportive of what I was trying to do. She availed a small cottage to me that was right at the banks of the Ganga and also had a covered terrace which allowed me to perform fire ceremonies even when it rained. The cottage was set amidst a beautiful garden full of flowers and trees and had an exquisite view of the mountains and forests. The roar of Ganga below was so loud that this was all I could hear, apart from the occasional bird song. As I thought it would be too distracting to buy and cook my own food in this retreat, I arranged to partake in ashram meals, however in solitude in my cottage. For this purpose, I gave the ashram cook a tiffin container into which she filled my food at meal times, which I then collected.

My little tapasya kutir

My little tapasya kutir

As I had decided to perform two havans (Vedic fire ceremonies) a day, I arrived at the cottage in late May with about ten kg of dried cow dung, five kg of home made ghee, bags of samagree and other paraphernalia in tow. High maintenance sadhana for sure! 🙂 After settling in for a couple of days, I went to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple in Uttarkashi to ask for Lord Siva’s blessings, and was promptly invited by the priest to help him wash and decorate the 4000 year old Siva lingam – a wonderful blessing indeed!

My sadhana began on the same evening at 6pm with a blessing from the Swamini and my first silent fire ceremony. I felt that it would be important to have a fixed daily schedule of spiritual disciplines in the retreat, a routine that I committed to for those forty days. For me, this was a mix of meditation, japa, pranayama, havan, asanas, contemplation, yoga nidra, baths in Ganga and at times a meditative walk. Mainly, I wanted to focus on my meditation and make systematic progress in it, and many of the other practices served to support this intention.

My days started at 3.30am and ended at 9.30pm, and during this time, I did around ten hours of practice per day. I had some free time in the mornings, during which I cleaned my cottage, did laundry and so on, and after lunch, when it was very hot. In the afternoons, I practiced the Pawanmuktasana series 1 from Bihar School of Yoga. These are joint-freeing exercises that focus on making the ankles, knees, hips etc more flexible. Though arguably the most tedious exercises in the world, they aided my ability to sit still in a meditation posture greatly.

So what was the retreat like? At first, it was mainly blissful. I felt immersed in the lap of the Divine Mother, Ma Ganga, who was rushing by with great speed just below my cottage. I loved being so close to nature, with the stars sparkling like diamonds in the black sky above me and the many birds, animals and creatures that lived around and inside my cottage. A bird family had made its nest under my roof, and I watched the baby birds hatch and take their first flight. My Being slowed down, and it felt like such a gift to have forty whole days to concentrate on my sadhana without distractions of any kind.

But the bliss, of course, doesn’t last. One thing that happens when you are in silence is that many memories and stored impressions from your life (and even other lives) rise to the surface. All your suppressed emotions, anxieties, desires, doubts and thoughts come up for you to observe. In a sadhana like this, you will really see how much you have forgiven others or processed your anger. It is like seeing yourself clearly in a giant mirror, and you don’t necessarily always like what you see. I, for example, was surprised to see how many old resentments and negativities I was still carrying around – something I hadn’t really been aware of as these things lie so deeply buried in the unconscious mind. Silence brings all this to the surface so that you can see it, feel it, process it and let it go. It’s like a major cleanse.


View from my cottage

A key question for me in this retreat was: do you want to be free? Truly free? Free of likes, dislikes, samskaras, attachments? Every day I asked myself this question, and to attain this freedom, I knew that I had to go through the fire of transformation. And the Universe certainly brought me many situations to test my equanimity of mind and my desire to be truly free. Of course, in silence, where you can’t even complain, many small things seem like a big deal.

In my case, silence isn’t really tapasya. I enjoy and love silence and anyway spend a lot of time alone in nature. So other things came my way, for example the incredible pre-monsoon heat in a cottage with a corrugated metal roof and no fan. It became so brutally hot in the afternoons that it was often very difficult to perform my pranayama and meditation sessions. Or the many flies that decided to ambush my face and body during meditation and who I suspected were secret agents of the Taliban, as they caused me to wrap my entire body from head to toe in material. However, at some point I realized that it was good that I didn’t have a fan or fly screens in my cottage: with all those things, we control our environment, but we lose all control over ourselves. The flies were teaching me patience, ahimsa (non-violence) and sense control; the heat was teaching me strength of mind and surrender. It is said that everything that happens in such a sadhana is perfect, designed for the growth of the aspirant – and to maintain one’s centre throughout is key. And you can be sure that God and Guru always find new ways to test the sadhaka!  🙂

But the most difficult thing of the retreat was my mind, or rather, realizing how little control I have over my mind. My mind was constantly chattering, distracting and throwing up memories, and all I could do was try to learn to observe it and focus on my mantra or my breath throughout. With time, though, my mind became calmer, stiller and more focused. I spent a lot of time watching the beauty of nature and feeling immense gratitude. When we allow ourselves to surrender to silence, everything becomes clear, and we open in the process. Our inner wisdom can unfold. I became acutely aware that everything around me is alive, singing, playing, celebrating life: the birds, the plants, the rocks, the soil, the flowers, the leaves, the river. In particular, I entered into deep communion with Ganga, often hearing music and songs coming from her waves, at other times mantras, sometimes even voices. I spent much of my time simply listening to her, and became very intimately connected to her.


View to Ganga from my cottage

I experienced Ganga as a perfect embodiment of the Divine Feminine: sometimes as a compassionate loving mother who gives and soothes our pain; at other times as the lover who is rushing to meet her Beloved; and sometimes even as a violent force that has the power to take life. She’s always different yet always powerful. Being near her is a transformation in itself. Ma Ganga, the river so sacred and important to the people of India, washes away your rough spots, just like she does with the stones who don’t even notice they are being polished and worn away. Being near her is a gentle transformation, one that is so subtle that you don’t realize it at first. Taking a bath in her icy Himalayan waters every afternoon also helped to cool the internal body heat that accumulates when doing intense sadhana.

During the course of the retreat, I became so sensitive that I started to communicate with the flowers, plants and animals in my mind, and literally saw that the Self is present in all of them. The connection with all that is around us becomes very strong in silence – the veils of illusion begin to melt away and we see things as they truly are. I particularly remember one day about halfway through my retreat when I heard the most beautiful ‘Om’ resounding from Ganga, sang by soft angelic voices. I heard it all through my asana practice, and in my meditation that day I vividly saw the core of who we are: concentrated energy, and everything else is just surface: the karmas, the personality, events. It is not us. We are that energy, the immortal Self. I was in such bliss and sweet joy that it almost made me cry. Shortly after I saw a butterfly and I felt its wings ecstatically flapping in my heart.

One of the many Himalayan birds

One of the many Himalayan birds

I also developed a very strong intuitive connection with my Guru. My Guru and other Masters were guiding my retreat constantly. I often heard Guruji’s voice in my meditation, instructing and guiding me, revealing and explaining things to me, even scolding me when I was becoming lazy, ungrateful or too whiny. ‘If you want me to bring you to the final goal’, he’d often say, ‘you have to let go of all conditioning. Just get over it.’ The mind needs to be peaceful in all situations, whether we like what’s happening or not.

In stillness, I’d often have deep insights and intuitions. And at times, I had sublime experiences in meditation that I previously only experienced in the physical presence of my Guru. I’d lose bodily consciousness, my breath would become subtle and effortless and I’d be fully alert and yet full of flowing bliss. A quiet joy would fill my heart. This wasn’t often the case, but I realized that sadhana is about showing up every day, practicing and being ready to receive grace when we’ve done all we can. Tapasya is sitting through the practice even when it appears fruitless. When the body aches and screams, when the mind wanders, when it’s impossible to focus on the breath and everything is sheer resistance. Then it’s the observation of exactly this state that matters: sitting through resistance, knowing that it will change. This realization was useful when at other times, especially in the heat, my meditation was terrible and I couldn’t focus at all, which brought me a lot of humility as well as patience with myself.

Another side effect of the retreat was a reduced need for sleep. Swami Rama once remarked that sleep is just a concept. In fact, in yoga, sleep is seen as one of the five vrittis, the main fluctuations that affect our outer consciousness. People who have realized the Self don’t tend to sleep more than two or three hours a night because they are constantly plugged into the vast storehouse of divine energy. Though I am far from such a stage in my sadhana, I certainly noticed my need for sleep decreasing. This, I feel, was mainly due to the pranayama exercises I was practicing twice daily, a daily yoga nidra as well as the fact that I wasn’t wasting any energy through talking and other external distractions. Though I needed around eight hours of sleep before, this decreased to about five or six hours and I managed to get up at 3.30am in the mornings without difficulty.


Om Namah Shivaya

There is something special about doing a retreat for forty days, too. Forty day retreats are common in the Himalayan as well as in Christian traditions, as of course, already Jesus retreated to fast in the desert for forty days. Why forty? It is believed that forty represents a time of testing and trial, and that on the grand scale forty represents the experience of spirit in the physical body. Forty is a traditional number of discipline, devotion and preparation for confronting the ego. Certainly, what I noticed is that the first thirty days of my retreat prepared me for the last ten days. The last ten days were a thunderstorm of emotional and karmic releases and insights that weren’t very easy to sit through. But as in any purification, the revelations brought about great healings and led me to a point where my heart opened wide with compassion, forgiveness and gratitude.

When the completion of the retreat approached, I spent as much time in japa and meditation as possible. Though the last ten days were tough, in the end, I didn’t really want to come out of the silence. It had become so nourishing, like a mother’s loving embrace. But Guruji spoke to me and said ‘the important thing is to keep the peace and silence in your heart.’ And that’s true: when we can keep that peace within us when the world around us is falling apart, then we’re really getting somewhere with our practice.

On the morning of day 41, I broke the silence with the chanting of ‘Om’ and later chanted kirtan for an hour to liberate my voice. It was strange to be speaking again after nearly six weeks of being perfectly silent. The sadhana, however continued: the actual boon of the retreat didn’t happen until three days after I had concluded it. It was the day of Guru Purnima, the Full Moon day in July on which we honour the Guru. I’d decided to stay longer in the Himalayas and to celebrate Guru Purnima in my cottage with an early morning fire ceremony. A friend from the ashram joined me. It was during this fire ceremony that I had a huge karmic opening that showed me the background to my sadhana in the Himalayas. I was shown one of my past lives in this area and why I had to come back to do this tapasya in this life. This piece of information released a huge block and grief I’d carried around inside of me. The process was very emotional as the issue was brought to resolution through the fire ceremony. This state of remembering my past life continued for a couple of days after Guru Purnima when I was synchronistically led to places in which I had lived. This revelation helped me to better understand my deep connection to and yearning for the Himalayas and sadhu life. It’s incredible what intense sadhana can set free; it really has the ability to burn karma.

Guru Purnima havan

Guru Purnima havan

In conclusion, a 40 day silent retreat can be challenging at times but at the same time it’s incredibly rewarding. The spiritual path is a tough one, one of constant deaths and rebirths, full of thorns and dangers, and yet there is this light that guides us on – the light of love and freedom. We have to die to who we are to become our true Selves again, and immersing in such a sadhana can greatly aid this process. I really recommend it, whether you do it alone or as part of a group. Because, as Albert Camus already said, ‘In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.’

Hari Om Tat Sat.

Some tips on designing your own silent retreat:

Have a goal. What is the purpose of your doing this sadhana? What do you want to focus on? What would you like to get out of it?
Write out a daily schedule of spiritual practices and resolve to stick to it for the time of the retreat. This will help your process greatly. Be realistic, and at the same time remember that you are doing this retreat to progress in your sadhana.
Rise early. The best time for meditation is before sunrise. In yoga, the time between 4am and 6am is often considered best for meditation; in the Himalayan tradition it’s as early as 3am.
Be moderate with your sleep and your food. Eat sufficiently, but don’t overeat and especially stay away from stimulants such as black tea, coffee, sugar, garlic, onion, spicy and heavy foods. These will hinder your meditation progress. It’s also good to not oversleep; 5 to 6 hours should suffice in such a sadhana.
Keep a journal of your experiences. Many insights and spiritual experiences will come to you in a long retreat. It is good to keep track of them, as you are bound to forget them later.
Be prepared that big things can be triggered. Don’t undertake such a sadhana if you are mentally unstable or on medication. It is best to test your ability to be silent first in a guided silent retreat, such as Vipassana. Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama also offers great silent retreats and support for your designing your own retreat.
Organize everything in advance. Make sure you have everything you need before you enter silence – especially food arrangements need to be sound. If you cook for yourself, have a reliable person supply you with fresh fruit and vegetables once or twice a week and write out shopping lists in advance. You don’t want to be distracted by any organisational issues once you enter the retreat.
Give an emergency number to somebody. If you have family, you might like to give the number of the ashram you’re staying in to them – just for cases of extreme emergencies. This will put your mind at ease.
Consider studying a sacred text in the retreat. Though traditionally, one doesn’t read during silent retreats, scriptures like the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita can actually deepen your experience by reading a page or so every day and contemplating on it.
Incorporate a loving kindness meditation towards the end of your sadhana to ensure that the spiritual blessings you have accumulated are shared by all.
Allow enough time after the retreat to integrate what you have experienced – one week is minimum before you enter back into the world! If you leave too early, you risk dissipating the spiritual energy you have so arduously gained.
Feel free to contact me for advice on designing your own retreat – I’m happy to share!

If you enjoy my writing, my book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is available now via Changemakers Books and BPI India.