My daughter and I spent a week at the Hariharalaya Retreat Center in Bakong, Cambodia. Everyone staying there hailed from North America, Europe or Australia; most on extended sojourns to a patch of the world where a sabbatical year is cheap and exotic. Hariharalaya’s campus is funky, the staff warm, the vegan food good, and the daily rhythm rich: yoga and meditation interspersed with free time.
Abby lives in Cambodia, I was visiting, and Hariharalaya allowed us to infuse our sightseeing with some reflection. Abby is a regular yogi but wanted to refresh her practice, as she has no partners in the small village where she lives. I just finished a four-year stint of daily Bikram and was seeking a broader yoga expression. However, I had little meditation experience, and was anxious at the prospect of sitting silent and cross-legged three times a day.
At the first evening’s meditation I sat up straight, but my mind wandered. In proper meditation, if there is such a thing, thoughts flow but don’t stick. Unfortunately, the minutiae of my life littered my brain like syrupy shards of glass in a recycling bin.
The following morning we chanted. I should clarify; they chanted. All sorts of Om’s and Hari’s. It seemed so juvenile I could have laughed, but I didn’t out of fear that Abby got something from all this. I was so glad when the annoying noise stopped that my focus during silent meditation improved. I sat quiet, breathed deep, and if my mind stuck on an old argument from work, I persevered.
The next morning’s chant produced more odd Hindi vowels that I didn’t utter. The final chant, however, was in English. It was so absurd I couldn’t help but join in. Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.
At first I sang quiet, then I swayed a bit, then I jumped among the rounds. The sounds formed in my mouth, bounced off the inside of my cheeks, and exploded forth. I realized this nursery rhyme is an excellent chant, simple and cryptic and fixed in the present.
Once cracked open, I was receptive to the dharma talk that followed. Meditation is like rowing your boat. It requires work and surrender, effort and flow. If all we have is effort, then we push against everything, even ourselves. We tire out. We need to flow with the current, to follow the path of the stream. But if we just flow without effort, we get pulled into eddies or stuck along the shore. We become lazy, we never reach our destination. Meditation is the same. It requires effort, concentration, focus, and presence. At the same time, it requires surrender and flow.
The next day, Amy, Hariharalaya’s yoga teacher, led us through yin postures in preparation for the evening meditation. For a man steeped in the Bikram tradition, yin is a revelation. Simple postures, held a long time, at good depth, inducing regular, conscious breathing. After an hour of these poses, my breath was so calm and expansive I didn’t tense up when Amy announced a forty-five minute meditation. I just kept breathing.
I breathed loud, at least in my own head. I drew my ribs up on the inhale and, in defiance of physics, they continued up on the exhale. My core ascended and floated like a balloon. I didn’t count the breaths but they continued without measure, each containing a long, sustained life of its own. Light flickered within my third eye. Perhaps it was the dwindling twilight; perhaps it was a synapse ricocheting in my brain. I rooted into my sits bones; consciousness escaped my head; it flooded the hollow of my belly.
I lost time and space. My breath became enormous; it smothered any intruding memory or fantasy. I could have hyperventilated, but didn’t. Unconscious breaths took an eternity to draw in and spell out. I’m hallucinating, I thought. And as soon as that concept formed, my ecstasy deflated. When I abandoned the mind, my being soared, until instability triggered specific thoughts that grounded me again. The gong chimed. Forty-five minutes passed in an instant. There was distant noise. People rustled about. Amy spoke. Nothing registered in me. Aha, I realized as my mind reengaged, this is real meditation. But the more I tried to remember it, the less I could reclaim.
Hariharalaya Retreat Center
Abby at Hariharalaya