By Flora Tsapovsky
Novato’s Anubhuti Meditation & Retreat Center, on a hilltop surrounded by protected open space, offers everything from meditation workshops to longer retreats. Courtesy of Anubhuti Brahma
The journey to Anubhuti Meditation & Retreat Center in Novato isn’t the most spiritual: An exit from 101 North takes a turn, and one passes nondescript office buildings and you-could-be-anywhere strip malls. At some point, however, the road opens up to Bel Marin Keys and adopts a picturesque quality. A couple of minutes later, you’ve arrived.
Anubhuti is one of those places that residents would be surprised to discover in their own backyard—remote, humble and very popular. A number of buildings, benches and meadows comprise the facilities, lacking the opulence and lavishness that other retreats often boast. I came here to meditate, for the first time in my life, and although a photogenic environment is always welcome, it didn’t feel necessary. From first sight, I realized that Anubhuti is about doing, not impressing. And for a cynical first-timer like me, this was both reassuring and worrisome.
Before visiting, I learned that the retreat center belongs to the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization, a non-denominational NGO founded in India in 1937 and currently present in more than 110 countries all over the world. Led by women, it offers practical meditation tools—including retreats of various self-help shades, lengthier courses on positive thinking, Raja Yoga meditation and stress management—to cope with the everyday. In the U.S., the organization has 32 locations in 13 states. Anubhuti is Brahma Kumaris’ only ‘retreat’ location in California, built in 2007 and meant, it seems, to feel a bit outside of trends and times.
Vintage photos hanging in the main building’s hallway showcase Indian and Japanese groups in various community gatherings. The room through which you enter the meditation space is half English tearoom, half Indian hostel. Flowery pillows, abstract paintings of vortexes and sunsets and embroidered throws all coexist in the sunlit room, wrapped in a nostalgic, musty smell.
Shoes are off, but some participants bring their own fuzzy socks. As more and more sock-wearers of all ages come in, I contemplate the best and worst scenarios. The concept of meditation, going hand-in-hand with trending ‘mindfulness’ and ‘awareness,’ has always stressed me out—quite the opposite of its purpose. Exploding in popularity in recent years, meditation is now on our cell phone apps, in mainstream yoga studios and is even advocated by David Lynch, one of my favorite directors and a seemingly anti-spiritual neurotic (he likes the trandscendental kind). Accordingly, it has been lurking in the background for a while as a ‘good for you’ practice that I probably should be engaging in, given the fact that my most workable, profitable tool is my mind—which doesn’t get any rest. Thinking, conversing, conceptualizing and dreaming are bread and butter, and voided boredom is unacceptable. The possibility of meditation, or rather, giving the mind a break in forms other than sleeping, has been on my mind (no pun intended), but it has also carried apprehensions and resistance. How could I possibly sit quietly for a long period of time, no thoughts involved, if I can’t even get through a dull five-minute conversation?
Luckily, Anubhuti’s weekly, donation-based Sunday meditation practice is a relatively short affair—one hour and 45 minutes in total, which is a cheap price to pay for possible benefits. Upon entering the meditation room, where simple office chairs are arranged in a half-circle in front of a stage, I almost miss the cross-legged, Indian man dressed in white, sitting quietly by a microphone, eyes shut. This is Harsha Palli, a Raja Yoga practitioner and also an IT engineer, the facilitator of today’s practice.
Unsure of what to do, I join the rest of the group—11 people in total—and sit on a chair with my eyes closed for a while. It’s nice to gather my thoughts and relax, but soon I start growing bored and peep at the others and at the clock. Exactly 15 minutes after the official beginning time, Palli opens his eyes and addresses us with a warm welcome.
“Why are you here?” he asks quietly, inviting volunteers to speak. “To create a peaceful space,” says one. “To be at one with the world and my environment,” confesses another. “To give my brain a break,” I admit, worrying that my answer isn’t spiritual enough. The concern soon turns out to be unjustified—‘spirituality,’ with its wishy-washy, high-and-mighty, ‘light’ and ‘universe’ vocabulary, a concept which normally turns me into a bitter naysayer, isn’t what Palli or Anubhuti seem to be about. As evidence, right after the round of answers, Palli invites us for an energetic stretch, in a sequence of movements fit for a completely unspiritual, pedestrian yoga class. Hip-rotators, ankle-rollers, leg-shakers and eventually, jumps, follow, inevitably eliciting smiles and giggles from the so-far silent crowd. Would a serious ‘spiritual’ guru do that and not say anything about the body being a tree rooted in the ground? Or a temple in need of nourishment? I don’t think so. And then, finally, it’s time to get down to business.
Palli instructs us to sit with our hands on our knees, and to focus on breathing with eyes closed. Over the next 20 minutes or so, he quietly releases abstract yet simple instructions, such as, “Feel the energy you breathe in with the fresh air,” and “Create a space of inner peace, of stillness,” while everyone around inhales and exhales vigorously. Here’s what is going on in my head: Spanish verbs. That ’90s movie with Kate Hudson about gossip (must Google name!). The awesomeness of cold grapes and that I probably should buy some. Booking hotels for my next trip. Article ideas. But slowly, as I focus on breathing and try to block everything out, a heavy, warm sensation emerges, and a sleep-like, soothing state ensues, making my head spin. After staying with it, in a few moments, I decide to open my eyes and focus on the burning candlelight in front of me, which turns out to be just as calming. Mindless, but not agitated, I watch the fire and listen to the bird sounds outside, in quiet observation and well, stillness. It is easy, and very new to me.
Palli invites us to ‘come back,’ and takes the next 15 minutes to talk about the basic rules of successful meditation: Awareness to the moment beyond bodily sensations, and the ability to ‘zoom out,’ “like on Google Maps,” to feel outside of a certain situation or reality. Are these clear-cut instructions to the novice meditator? Hardly. But after having sat at the session, guided by Palli’s gentle voice, they make sense to me.
At the end of the workshop, a smiling, elderly woman in a uniform similar to Palli’s comes in and offers us healthy-looking, raisin and oatmeal cookies. A simple gesture, received and consumed quickly as all of the sitting, stretching and mind-clearing makes everyone quite hungry. Soon, people—among them, a mother and daughter, a young Brazilian woman, a couple of elderly men and women and a student-type in glasses—get up (no Oms or ‘blessings’ are issued) and start leaving, smiling goodbye. Just like the uncomplicated, complimentary cookie, the whole experience is much more straightforward than I originally expect, and free of sugary additives and flavorings. No divine or holy anything. No higher purpose. Nothing to inflame my innate cynicism towards certain aspects of ‘practicing meditation.’ And most importantly, no aftertaste of inadequacy or doing something wrong, like you might get at your very first SoulCycle class or at a retreat for the ‘enlightened.’
Leaving, I feel rested (and slightly sleepy, in a good way) and certainly calmer, and that is more than enough. Enough to keep me coming? Possibly. For a first date with meditation, the center, with its low-pressure atmosphere and no-judgment, glitz-free premise, was a great option. Brave the suburban ride in, get rid of inhibitions and give it a whirl. The cookies, I promise, are great.
Anubhuti Meditation & Retreat Center; 820 Bel Marin Keys Blvd., Novato; 415/884-2314; anubhutiretreatcenter.org.