Choosing Kindness

An Ayurvedic retreat that overturns some accepted "fix it" approaches brings clarity for Charlotte Francis

An Ayurvedic retreat that overturns some accepted "fix it" approaches brings clarity for Charlotte Francis

My plane to Coolangatta is delayed and they don't know what the rescheduled departure time will be. Do I fret or do I go with the flow? On my way to an intensive Ayurveda and Zen retreat, I choose not worry and instead relax into the moment. I find a sunny table in the airport café, spread out my homemade lunch and settle into a good book.

Surprisingly, given the hustle and bustle of the airport, I enjoy my "free" time. Nothing is expected of me and all I have to do is keep an eye on the departure screen. Thankfully, the delay turns out to be no more than two hours and I land at Coolangatta in the early evening. En route to the Sangsurya Retreat Centre, I notice a car sticker with purple flowery lettering: "Remember to breathe." Only in Byron, I smile to myself as we pass blond, barefoot teenagers skateboarding through the traffic.

Designed by the Mudita Institute, founded by Sensei Michael Doko Hatchett, a Zen Buddhist priest, Kester Marshall, a herbalist and naturopath, and his wife Nadia, an Ayurvedic lifestyle consultant and yoga teacher, the essence of the retreat is about simplifying the intensity of our lives and bringing our minds and bodies back into wholeness.

The polar opposite of a punishing raw food, goal setting, exercise-driven boot camp, we are invited to slow down, invite in space, sweetness and simplicity and to meet life with clarity for the proper digestion of food, thoughts and ideas. Our path for the next six days is to let go of that which is rushed, aggressive and shallow and to make contact with that which is deep and real; the warmth and wisdom at the core of our being.

"Just give yourself to the breath. There is nothing to achieve so you can't fail," says Doko with the warmest of smiles after our first Zazen meditation session. "Don't fuss if thoughts come up." And yet, that night it's an enormous challenge to drop into the moment and "just do your teeth", "just get into bed", "just go to sleep." The mental chatter continues, along with the ingrained need to plan ahead and fill in the space with reading, doing and thinking.

That's why patience is so important. One of three key themes of the retreat, along with warmth and precision, this is our opportunity to stop wasting energy by constantly engaging in the "fix it" approach to life. In his crystal clear and beautifully worded lectures, Doko explains how even our efforts to create a healthy lifestyle imply a grasping for answers and, ultimately, create division in the mind and knots in the body. We are always ON and measuring life.

By contrast, warmth is the uncontrived space of relaxation, where we can feel into the enjoyment of healthy living for the simple joy of it, not because we should or because we have a strategy.

Warmth is also a key quality in Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India that aims to bring the body into balance with nature. Contrary to much of what is widely perceived as healthy - cold, raw, low fat, dry and rough foods (think iced water, salad, rice crackers, raw vegetables and cooling yoghurt) - Ayurveda works on the basis that like encourages like and so recommends warm, light and slightly oily foods.

To give a simple example: if you drink a glass of iced water, you are effectively immersing your internal organs in a cold plunge pool causing your muscles to contract. Ayurveda recommends starting the day with a warming drink of ginger, lemon and honey, and sipping warm water throughout the day.

Central to Ayurveda is the belief that all disease begins in the digestive tract and is caused by an imbalance of digestive fire, known in Sanskrit as agni. As a gluten and dairy free girl, I am fascinated to learn that all food intolerances reflect a disturbance in our agni. Poorly metabolised food causes a build up of ama (toxins) in the body and depletes not only our energy levels, but also our immune system.

As Doko encourages us to transform life's hard stuff with inner sweetness - he chuckles and taps his belly at this point - Kester tells us about the healing properties of milk, ghee (clarified butter), honey, sweet ripe fruits, basmati rice, dates and cakes and desserts made with raw sugar. How wonderful that sweetness (and we are not talking refined sugar!) counters astringency and is part of a recipe for contentment and longevity. We put it to the test at afternoon tea each day after stretching, strengthening and warming our limbs with Nadia's shadow yoga routine.

And if you, like me, have been avoiding milk, you may want to think again. Milk is an excellent source of nourishment and, just as our grandmothers told us, a great sleep-inducer. The trick is to buy full fat, organic, unhomogenised milk and to mix it with a little water and some freshly ground nutmeg and cinnamon - this prevents mucus.

Chef Stephen Galpin, a lifelong student of yoga and meditation, produces a mouth-watering, varied and colourful array of dishes all cooked with the freshest prana -infused ingredients, warming spices, ladlefuls of love and enthusiasm. Inspired by a fresh flower and a photo of his teacher Swami Nityananda on the kitchen bench, he explains his "yoga of food" approach in a cookery demonstration and encourages us to knead our chapattis with love.

Ayurveda teaches that there are three constitutional types governing our physiology and psychology. Known in Sanskrit as prakriti, they are vata (Air), pitta (Fire) and kapha (Earth). Our fast paced, multi tasking, goal oriented lifestyle tends to encourage a predominance of vata, and it is the vata element that increases as we age. Vata imbalances manifest in dry and rough skin, cracking joints, digestive problems, a restless mind, insomnia, changing moods and a predisposition towards anxiety and stress.

Following the Ayurvedic diet to build nourishment and counter depletion helps to balance vata, along with regular routines around sleep and mealtimes. Too much time at the computer, too much thinking, too much doing - even too much talking - can overstimulate vata.

As the primary energetic organiser in the body, it is vital that we take care of our vata referred to as "that which needs love" in Ayurvedic texts - and cultivate a sattvic lifestyle. Sattva, one of theThree Maha Gunas or Three Universal Qualities, embodies the qualities of light, space, simplicity, peace, creativity and contentment. By contrast, rajas has an agitated, driven and outward looking focus, while tamas has qualities of heaviness, lethargy and dullness. We can increase sattva in our life by being in nature, smelling the roses, listening to Vivaldi, eating wholefoods and doing things that bring peace and joy. Just thinking about that which is calm and beautiful enhances sattva and increases ojas in the body.

Described by Kester as the gatekeeper of our tissues and the essence of our immunity, ojas is a golden, honey-like, unctuous liquid located primarily in the heart. We can nurture it by maintaining strong agni and good digestion, as well as taking the breath (prana) deep into our body to build vitality. If you pursue life with dryness and sharpness - grasping at answers (a vata quality) - you burn out your tissues, explains Doko.

Buddha-like with his shining blue eyes, round belly, gentle humour and air of contentment, Doko encourages us to let go of the distractions of the thinking mind, its opinions and views, and instead to feel into, and relate to, the present moment as it is.

"This is the path of Outshining Distraction. We can experience what it feels like to calmly recognise and accept an imbalance or illness in our body or mind, take responsibility for it, and work or seek help to heal it with warmth, patience and precision." This way, he explains, we lose interest in the search for answers and instead gain interest in what lies beyond the divided thinking mind.

It is not about abandoning our habitual thoughts and desires, but about caring for them, being kind and loving towards them. Doko recommends winking at them and giving them a half smile. Once we abandon the striving, we can be friendly and accepting of ourselves in a way that maintains, rather than clouds, clarity. As we relax our attention from the pursuit of a solution - we allow life to reveal itself to us - this is precision.

Towards the end of the retreat, I get a taste of what it is to let go of the resistance and to feel into space, simplicity, warmth and loving kindness. With views of the ocean filtered through tropical foliage and palm trees and nothing but the chatter of birds to pierce the morning silence (we maintain silence from our evening meditation through to the first lecture of the morning), I am deeply moved by the warmth and softness all around me. Ahh, I think to myself, this is sattva.

Later, during that morning's meditation, I drop down into the depths and feel and breathe my way past the mental chatter. Tears of joy mixed with wistfulness, even a tinge of loneliness, quietly well up and flow over. Recognising how much of my life has been spent in a contracted place of impatience, self judgement and striving, I am sitting in self kindness; tasting it, feeling it and reaching out to it with gratitude.

Dropping into kindness, the word, the feeling and the sense of it produce an intense emotion - perhaps relief - that is hard to put into words. It is a release into a place within me that feels both familiar and all too unfamiliar.

Now, when I find myself frittering energy and being led astray by my thinking mind, I go back to Doko's teachings and am nourished anew.

"Really delicious balanced food, deep laughter, mindful breathing, love, compassion and sweet music - don't these things help us be more in touch with our bodies and minds and also with what is painful, confusing and truly difficult in the world? Don't romanticise complexity. Don't dismiss simplicity. Take it seriously. Devote yourself to its Kingdom. Be its servant, lover, friend."

Extracts taken from: Feeling into Human Warmth & Wisdom Lectures On The Path of Outshining Distraction by Sensei Michael Doko Hatchett, part of the Medicine of Life As-it-Is Series published by the Mudita Institute.