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The Benefits of Spiritual Retreat
Interview with Anandi Cornell, Ananda meditation teacher and counselor
You have taught thousands of people to meditate at Ananda Village’s Expanding Light guest retreat. In your experience, what helps people be successful in meditation?
Some guests say: “I’m the kind of person who can’t meditate.” When I ask why they say this, they respond that they’ve tried it once or twice, and found that their minds wandered. There are two main reasons for their response. First of all, some people think that if you just sit with eyes closed, you should then be able to easily quiet your mind, but it’s very difficult to do this without a technique to help you.
Other people have learned a technique, but have become discouraged after trying it only a few times. We shouldn’t be discouraged if our mind wanders. It simply has never been trained not to wander. This is the most commonly experienced obstacle to meditation. Just as in learning any skill, our minds need time to practice.
If you keep your meditation practice time short, in the beginning, so that you are really interested in finding that place of inner silence, and are not just sitting idly, this will help you.
The longer I work at The Expanding Light, the more inspired I am by what the Hong-Sau technique gives people. Often people who have been meditating with a mantra or visualization are deeply inspired by the greater sense of focus, clarity of direction, and upliftment.
With Hong-Sau we learn that our energy is to be flowing toward the point between the eyebrows, and we have a technique to help us do this. I find that students really feel the blessing from this. Recently a man who’d been meditating for a decade came to class; he said afterwards, “I didn’t expect much from this class because I’ve had my own practice for so long, but this technique is an enormous help.”
There’s an article on this site called Why Hong-Sau Works. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already. I’ve heard many comments from people on how helpful just about every part of the technique is — some are helped by the simple tensing and relaxing at the beginning; many comment on how helpful it is to keep the eyes lifted when meditating.
A friend of mine has had trouble sleeping for years. A healer suggested that every hour she practice for just a minute the even count breathing exercise (one of the simple, preparatory techniques used in Hong-Sau practice). My friend is now sleeping without difficulty! Our goal is meditation, not sleep, but the story shows the relaxing power of this breathing exercise and how it calms and interiorizes your energy.
Can attending a meditation retreat energize one’s practice? If so, tell us how.
One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is a spiritual retreat. Walking onto the property of Ananda is like bathing in peace. This community is dedicated to God, and so people immediately feel the peace that permeates it.
At home one’s mind is pulled in dozens of directions — projects, people, lists of to do’s. At The Expanding Light, on retreat, life is simple — with none of the busy energy of home, no responsibilities. Every aspect of your day allows you to relax and to go into a deeper, and often ignored, part of yourself. We offer guided spiritual practices and classes (see below). The day revolves around these peace-giving activities. Conversations during meals are often about people’s spiritual journey. When you’re surrounded by other truthseekers, you feel comfortable exploring your deeper side —perhaps things you wouldn’t even share with friends, if those friends are not consciously looking for spiritual truth.
Most of the hours in one’s day are devoted to earning money or eating or sleeping to fulfill the needs of the body. Yet, it is the soul that enlivens all of our life. When we “come home” to the inner peace of our soul, we feel inspired and filled in a way that nothing else can touch. We have more energy, enthusiasm, and love to share in all aspects of our life.
Last week I spoke with a meditator who was on retreat at The Expanding Light for only two days. She had had an extremely challenging year, mentally and emotionally. In her two days of retreat, she once again experienced deeper meditations and was able to pick up her life with a fresh and healthier perspective, to return to her busy life with enthusiasm and clarity.
Actually, I have to say a bit more about The Expanding Light. I mentioned that this community is dedicated to God. It is also dedicated to Yogananda, and the staff are praying to him as they go about their service helping guests. I feel that Yogananda’s blessings infuse people who come here. It’s not that they become converted to his path necessarily, but they become “converted” to the reality of Light and inner joy within themselves — they discover their own highest nature.
Please describe a typical day at The Expanding Light.
Highlights of the day include periods of spiritual practices: Energization Exercises, yoga postures, and meditation before breakfast and before dinner; shorter meditation before lunch.
Some guests come for one of our many scheduled programs. They have classes from about 10 am – noon, 2 – 4 pm, and evening activities from 7:30 – 9 pm. Classes here are rich with insight and humor, always focused on some aspect of spiritual living, so class discussions are lively and relevant. The schedule is varied, a mixture of classes and more experiential activities. We want people who come to receive the tools they need for personal transformation, as well as have time here to “live” in uplifted consciousness. This is a vacation for them, and we want the whole experience to be extremely nurturing and filling.
Some guests come on what we call “Personal Renewal”—they can create their own program. We offer them one or two scheduled activities per day in addition to the periods of spiritual practices. They can choose to take a meditation class, restorative yoga session, an evening in an Ananda member’s home, as some among many of the types of choices. We have just started a new offering. Bharat, in his “other life” as Joseph Cornell, created activities for people to do in nature to help them tune in to stillness and self-expansion. Guests can request a private, guided nature outing, using these inspiring activities.
The response of guests to their time here is wonderfully rewarding. I would say that it is not uncommon for people to have life-changing experiences, even if they are here for a couple of days. How can this be? Because we are dedicated to seeking the highest within ourselves, we can help other people connect with the highest within themselves. Once people feel that inner connection with the Divine within themselves, all of life makes much more sense, it is much more fun!
What kind of programs are offered at The Expanding Light that would be of special interest to meditators?
We offer about 150 programs during the year, so there are a lot to choose from. Of course, we have some excellent meditation programs and a Meditation Teacher Training program. We also have many other meditation programs about how to bring the consciousness of meditation into all aspects of your life to make it more fulfilling.
In addition, many of our yoga programs help meditators get their bodies relaxed enough to allow for deeper meditation.