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Typically, taking time out to recharge and rebalance in Bali involves a weekend at Amed or a trip to the spa. In more serious cases a few days in the Gilis might be in order. I felt a deep need for recalibration and time away from my routine. Ever contrary, I decided on a silent meditation retreat in Sri Lanka. “Well,” friends said politely. “THAT sounds interesting…” So a three-wheeled tuktuk drove me out of Kandy early one morning, heading south. Soon we were in the countryside, chugging past modest houses, tiny shops, slumbering dogs and old men guarding piles of golden coconuts. Flocks of pretty school girls in white uniforms, their hair in glossy braids, held hands and smiled at me shyly. Turning off the main road we entered a tea plantation and drove up, up between the steep terraces on a narrow road of hand-laid stone. The switchbacks grew tighter as we climbed, the tea fields almost perpendicular, until we reached a bamboo pole across the road. “Silence”, bade the hand-painted sign. The Nilambe Meditation Centre was set in a large garden between the tea farms below and a plantation of lofty pines on the ridge above.

A white-clad figure appeared and led me to the tiny office. This was Upul, the meditation teacher, a profoundly serene presence with large, clear eyes. “Welcome to this jail,” Upul smiled. “Why are you here?” I tried to explain about needing time out, taking some time to be quiet. “Ah, time,” he observed tranquilly. “We invent the concept of Time, then we fill it, then we say we don’t have any.” Picking up a couple of blankets, a sheet and a key, he led me to a row of accommodation across the garden. My cell was a concrete room about 2.5 by 3 metres. Two concrete beds 60 cm wide were built against the walls; one had a thin foam mattress. On a wooden table were two candles in clay holders, a lighter and a small bottle of water. I unpacked some warm clothes, socks, a torch. There was no electricity here. No ensuite, either.

“Ah, time,” he observed tranquilly. “We invent the concept of Time, then we fill it, then we say we don’t have any.” The schedule on the wall listed the divisions of the day; the first of four daily group meditations started at 0500 followed by individual meditations, moving meditations, working meditations, two meals and tea breaks. Except for half an hour during afternoon tea break, we were to maintain silence. The day ended after the last group meditation at 8 pm. A wooden gong similar to a kulkul was beaten just before each mediation time starting at 0445. In the cold darkness we sleepily made our way to the meditation hall -– after the first morning I emulated the others and cocooned myself in one of the thick blankets from my bed for the pre-dawn meditation. As the week went by the numbers changed a little, but most mornings about 25 people sat in intense stillness around the wall of the hall. After that first meditation we had a cup of hot tea. Most of us sat on the benches outside, still huddled in our blankets, cradling our mugs and watching the sun come up. The darkness slowly thinned to reveal a panorama of forested mountains and valleys as far as the eye could see, punctuated by distant Adam’s Peak. Only wind and birdsong broke the vast, world-justcreated silence. At breakfast time we lined up silently in the dining area, took a plate from the rack and helped ourselves from the huge cauldron of gruel, then dates, peanuts and a banana. After mindfully washing our plates and filling our water b o t t l e s a t t h e f i l t e r, w e consulted the daily work list and set to sweeping, tidying and watering the garden and cleaning the ablution blocks. Then it was time for the first 90 minute meditation of the day. More individual meditation, lunch, then a break to use the library or rest before the second long sitting. Another individual meditation, another working meditation, then the sunset devotion. Just as it grew dark we filed into the hall, which had been made ready with rows of cushions on the floor and a candle and prayer book at each place. We sat, helped one another light our candles, then at the back of the hall one of the Sri Lankans led the chant in Pali. I followed the strange words in the little book with difficulty at first, but as the days passed I grew to savour the rich rhythms and cadence of the chant. Then we wrapped in shawls and took our places against the walls for the last meditation of the day.

At first the resistance was strong. Is it time to meditate AGAIN? What am I doing here? When can I leave? I had to keep reminding myself how much I had wanted to come here and do this. The meditations, especially the 90 minute ones, seemed endless. Despite a decade of yoga, my hips and knees burned and ached. On the second day, I stood up stiffly after a long meditation and an engorged leech tumbled out of my trouser leg onto the floor (several of the other meditators silently displayed their own wounds). By the third day I’d settled into the routine; the resistance softened, somehow. Sitting quietly in the garden, the immense afternoon silence expanded and engulfed me; time disappeared. After a few days I began to see how some people could embrace this life. No email, no phone, no meetings, no deadlines, appointments… And no talking. It was so restful to be silent, amid nameless strangers. Nothing to do but sit quietly with myself, not thinking. Most days tuktuks chugged up the steep hill, collecting and delivering new meditators. The changing faces in the hall were mostly those of young European men, taking one to several weeks away from their lives and travels to sit with themselves on this remote, beautiful mountainside. The full moon is celebrated by Sri Lankan Buddhists with extra prayers and devotion. Local people started to arrive the day before and there were special meditations for them. On this holy day, monks at a temple across the valley chanted all day and far into the night; the sound drifted through the garden with the wind. A kind donor sponsored our lunch that day and it was a feast by our modest standards: rice, boiled vegetables, dahl, boiled tapioca, fried okra and -- be still, my heart -– half a papadam each. The food was plentiful and nourishing but very bland. I’d been apprehensive about the two-meal a day routine but in fact, I was seldom hungry. Many of the young men, on the contrary, were always starving. The ‘snack’ before last meditation was a big sack of thick, dry rusks and these would be devoured by the plateful with thick smears of margarine and vegemite by everyone except me. One big Nordic guy was finding the catering inadequate to his needs. The twice-daily servings of rice, dahl and boiled tapioca didn’t begin to fill him up. He took to using his ‘meditation in motion’ time to walk to the small shop at the foot of the hill 3 km away each day, and had soon bought them out of biscuits. I began to feel still and contented inside. Often in the very small hours as I readied myself by torchlight for the day’s first sitting, I counted four different kinds of tree frog on the bathroom wall. The morning meditations slipped by easily. I sat with my mug outside as the dawn opened around us. I felt cold and a bit stiff and happy. I had enough to eat. I was warm enough at night. There was plenty of time for reading and reflection. I loved the deep silence. No matter how little sleep I got, I never felt tired. No matter how little I ate, I was never hungry. We’re conditioned to think we need more sleep and food than we do. Life was so very simple. Would I be able to remember this when I return to the real world? After a week my time was up. I checked out, and Upul rewarded me with a big smile and an invitation to return. I felt serene, refreshed, recalibrated. This was indeed a sanctuary for tired spirits. It was like having Nyepi every day. For a while, a week, I left the world and entered myself.

Dragons in the Bath, a collection of Ibu Kat’s stories, it is available at Ganesha Books in Ubud and at Biku in Seminyak, and at Periplus bookstores in Bali. It can be ordered nationally and internationally through <>

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