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This April, The Art of Living Retreat Center hosted the transformational Life Qi Renewal Retreat – a four-day journey to learn self-healing and Qi healing protocols headed by the dynamic duo of Dr. James Leary and Wah. We recently spoke to them about their experiences at the Retreat Center, the power of Kirtan, or mantra chanting, and the magic of the mountain.
Letting Go of What Isn’t Yours
AOLRC: What’s the goal that you strive to achieve while teaching?
Wah: Our goal is to generate the highest energy that we can, through the practices that we know, and then hold space for people to experience that energy and heal in that safe, protected space.
James: I try to explore how we connect to spirituality, and how we connect to nature. Society really drives us away from that kind of reflection these days. Everything is so fast, but coming up here to the Retreat Center is so powerful, because it’s a place where you can let go, regroup, and grasp the spirituality of nature and of the self. With our program, we try to get people to look at themselves, to see what’s truly theirs and what’s not theirs, and learn how to let go of the things that aren’t for them. It’s like any kind of program – it takes time, effort, and space to make it yours.
Being up here, even for the short program, is fantastic. It’s a place where you’re being held by the mountain, by the energy here, and by the wonderful staff and environment. That’s what we do. We hold this space for you to allow that developmental energy to come out in a way that is wholly yours.
AOLRC: Can you speak more about recognizing what is ours and not ours, and letting go of that? James: Everything we do has an emotional undercurrent to it, whether we like it or not. Whether we’re able to see it or not, everything has emotion attached to it – good, bad, or indifferent. In our practice and in our work, we deal with the energies that our ours. What are the things that we take on, even in the womb, that aren’t ours? We try to take on how these energies are affecting us and what it means to raise your vibration and consciousness above that, how to let go in a way that you can begin to breathe. It’s a powerful thing to identify what truly is yours, and to realize that no one can take that away from you. It’s all about recognizing who you are in any given moment, and your connection to that greater Source.
The Power of Kirtan
AOLRC: Can you speak about the Kirtan, the chanting of mantra? What drew you to this approach?
Wah: It’s a mild engagement of the mind. If you generate a lot of higher energy, things inside of you start to shift, including your beliefs. In our workshop, people are practically popping with emotion – there are tears and openings and pain, there’s so many realizations that are happening, and it’s very intense.
Mantra chanting can be a nice way to assimilate. In other words, you do your work, and something inside of you transforms, and suddenly you’re like “uh-oh! I have no idea who I am right now. This is not my normal. How do I put myself back together?” But you don’t want to force something back together – you want to allow yourself to float, and to find new, better, healthier ways to connect. The mantra-chanting comes in here – it’s a mild engagement, you just begin chanting, and there’s no storyline to it. It’s just words of praise, a positive affirmation, and so you keep it running through your system. We call it spiritual dialysis.
My own first experience with mantra chanting came at a vulnerable time in my life – I was 16 and traveling all over the world. I’m empathic, so I was feeling all of these feelings that weren’t mine, and then I found mantra and immediately I was like “Ah! This is it! This is good!” I have a lot of longing for God, and I was witnessing people singing to God. I grew up in the South, in a Baptist Church, and you know, singing is how you express wonderment. Mantra was the Indian version of that. Chanting mantra is a way into meditation. I always say to do yoga until you’re tired, and then start singing. Chant mantra and sing, and keep singing until you lose your voice, and then sit in silence.
AOLRC: After you discovered mantra, is that when silence came?
Wah: I’m not a silent person. I love silence, but if it gets too quiet or too somber, I get nervous. I go into cancer wards or into a hospital and people are very careful or fearful or they don’t want to talk too loud or disturb anyone. But my teachers, in mantra, made a lot of noise. And that was vibrant and exciting – this exuberance for God, exuberance for a higher energy, for freedom, for kindness, for compassion, for helping others. I think there should be more enthusiasm for that.
Mantra is for Everyone
AOLRC: Do you feel that there’s an audience that relates more to this approach, or do you feel that it’s a universal approach that anyone can connect to?
James: There are many ways to look at mantra. I share a lot of mantra in my work, and there are certain words, or ideas of focus. What can we use to bring us to a certain focus? The Kirtan, with music, with mantras, is an idea of focus. You might not understand what the words are, but you’re going to feel them.
It’s a cross-cultural thing – we’ve worked all across the globe and we’ve never really found people who haven’t connected to that in some way. If you’re willing to sit through your preconceived notions and open up a little, it’s a powerful experience. Everyone is searching for a higher level, and trying to find something with truth in it. Something that’s going to be lasting. Mantra is that, for us.
The first mantra is typically “Out with the old, in with the new.” Getting the old out is really not that difficult. It can be a lot of fun, or it can be really intense, but it’s totally doable. What kind of new do we want to replace it with? That’s the exciting part. It makes you want to think about what your dreams really are. What never came to fruition? Allowing this to come through now and get us more into our different paths opens up to the art of personal spirituality with the universe. That’s where the magic happens. There is no such thing as white or black magic – everything is magic in the universe. The only difference is intention.
That thought of “why are we here? why do I exist?” is present in so many people’s minds. We have jobs, lives, families, but we’re always still searching. There’s something else that we’re grasping for. It’s really unique to be able to bring people closer to their dreams and hold space for them. That’s one of the things that I share and that Wah shares with people – “make it yours”. When you make it yours, that’s when magic really takes off, and it’s so much fun. We call it the Work, and when the Work really happens, it’s magic, because it’s about everybody.
Wah: Everybody. Every person of every age. Everyone has a dream or a hope that they want to come forward, and there’s usually something blocking it. That’s part of being alive. So, when you come and you are part of this retreat, you get support and courage to drop the old way of doing things and learn to move into the new.
AOLRC: How would you guide someone who wanted to set out to learn mantra chanting and to learn to sing, to be part of this practice? What would you say to someone who was sitting at home, who didn’t have this environment around them, on how to get started?
Wah: One of James’ favourite mantras is “Show me”. It’s a prayer. If you want to go in a certain direction, you know you want to get there, so you ask the universe – “show me.” Show me how to get there. Show me what I need to now. Show me what I can learn next. And then, a door opens. That’s how you start.
The Magic of the Mountain
AOLRC: How is teaching at the Art of Living Retreat Center different from your previous courses?
James: The mountain is very energetic – and that energy is something that anybody can come and experience. The energy of the nature here has this way of bringing people into it and awakening so much inside of you.
Wah: We do teach at a lot of retreat centers. Some are more intellectually-focused, offering a lot of learning materials and nurturing that side of the practice. I found the Art of Living to be a really heart-centered retreat center; it’s a place that welcomes you wholly. The wisdom here doesn’t necessarily come from books or scholarly discussion of spiritual concepts – it comes from the Earth itself. There is magic here. It was used as a meditation center before it’s current incarnation, so you can feel a lot of beautiful meditative energy here, an energy that is easy to tap into for support for transformation.
The Art of Living Retreat Center is a beautiful place to reset and renew. Everybody here is so welcoming, and the food is lovely and Ayurvedic, soothing to the system. People love the spa, too – you can have an oil massage, an Ayurvedic treatment or consultation – pottery, different things you can do. You can come just for R&R or you can come to study with people like us, and the place is big enough to accommodate all of it.
James: It’s a hidden jewel up here, you know. It’s about the mountain – because everything sits on it, there’s an incredible energy here. It’s expansive. There’s just so much life here.
Wah: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar did something very kind and noble with rescuing this place. By recognizing that this place needed to be saved and rekindled, and putting his glance on this land and his intention, that it should be used to help people.
James: On a fun note, at a recent Kirtan, a number of people were saying that you could actually feel Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s energy. You could feel his presence, and it was something that was incredibly beautiful. It was just great – everyone smiling. People were coming up and giving hugs. It was a blessed event. It’s so beautiful to have a living master that blesses this facility and the people and programs and the future.