Some of us go to the beach or camping by a river or lake for our holidays.
Some of us stay home and read books.
The really exhausted ones, the spiritually exhausted ones, go on retreat.
That’s what I did between Christmas and new year.
It was billed as a yoga and meditation retreat.
On December 27, I loaded up with two unknown fellow retreaters and hitched a lift to Healesville, deep in a valley where prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, to a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of old wooden rooms that I suppose once constituted a mountain guesthouse. Buddha, in various statue forms, and a few of his followers have since moved in.
Each day began with a gong at what seemed to be some time around daybreak.
We did asanas (yoga poses) and pranayama (breathing exercises with meditation), yoga nidra (lying down yoga for feeling into the body), inquiry, some chanting and lots of eating – very healthy tucker.
And we could talk. And lie under vast mountain trees in waist-high grass and watch the clouds float by and the butterflies dance.
Fortunately renunciation was off the agenda.
The Buddhists served very nice coffee and cake on-site and outdoors overlooking the valley.
This wasn’t religion.
This was true spiritual experience.
Over the six days we stretched our bodies to open the knots held there by habit and found new spaces inside ourselves.
And I met some very extraordinary people.
The daughter of a migrant, whose mother had fled Latvia after her brother and father were tortured to death, and who was carrying her mother’s grief.
A young man grieving the loss of his unborn Down Syndrome child.
A mining professional who had fled his native England in the wake of his marriage collapse and found himself alone and ill with no name to write as next of kin on his hospital entry forms.
A woman, freshly widowed.
An IT expert who, when two, had been left in her aunt’s care while her mother went to work and study in another country.
Her aunt left upon her mother’s return, leaving her confused about who her real mother was.
She had struggled to stay connected with people since.
A writer whose marriage had crumbled and who was trying to deal with his obsession with his new girlfriend.
A doctor who had worked with indigenous communities.
A trauma expert working with boat people.
The expert said boat people had nothing yet came to their appointments bearing biscuits made in the microwave with milk powder and whatever they could scratch up in the detention centre.
There was the yoga teacher who had danced until her ligaments were ruined, the former ministerial media adviser, the newly married (for the second time) mining lawyer and his wife who said they were pathetically joyful, the hoola hoop dancer who doubled as a telemarketing trainer in her working life. (I almost swore I’d never be rude to a telemarketer again after I met her.)
What grace and wonder we found in each other when spared the time to discover.
And come New Year’s Eve and the final night of the retreat we sat under the stars with nothing but the mountain air, two guitars, some hoola hoops and space and night to fill our souls.
It was a most glorious evening.
One of the best new year beginnings yet.
And this is what I learnt.
The answer to exhaustion is whole-heartedness.