Team SOG took a well deserved break over January. Justine flew to Europe to see the family, and Valeria and I went south for some beech, hitch hiking, relaxing, and also some spiritual retreat time in the Andes mountains of Chile. The south of Argentina is beautiful. Trees, mountains, and crystal clear fresh water lakes. It was the perfect environment to escape after a full on year in the hustle and bustle of the big city!
What was a real treat was that for the last three weeks of our trip there was no cell phone reception so our contact with the outside world was nil.
The final two weeks of our journey were spent in Kitralma, Chile, which is located 800km south of Santiago in the Andes mountains of La Araucanía region. Kitralma (fire of the soul) is located in a beautiful green valley with mountains steeply climbing on both sides. There is a lodge, several houses, a camp site, facilities, and various ceremonial sites including tipis, dance circles, and temazcales which are like little sauna/igloos.
The easiest way that I can explain this place is as follows. It is a spiritual retreat aimed at self reflexion and development through ancient and traditional North American/Mexican ceremonies, in harmony with Mother Earth. That is the best I can do at summing it up in one sentence!
My time here in South America is to say the least, life changing, and I feel that the experiences that I have had, and am having are definitely making me a better person and giving me a new perspective on my life and the lives of the people and cultures around me.
This is a very personal thing and I have realised that in order to continue to pursue the things that give meaning to my life, I first have to have a good look at the person at the centre of it….Me.
As part of the “vision quest” (VQ) in Kitralma you have to spend 4 days in a designated spot in the mountain. You stay in this site by yourself with no food or water. The idea is some self reflection time. So there was plenty of time to look within!
There are 4 different stages. 4 day, 7 day, 9 day, and 13 day VQ’s. Don’t worry only the first 4 days are without food and water. For the VQ’s longer than 4 days, food and water are provided.
There is also no talking up there, just thinking, and a lot of it. There is a ceremony in the hot sauna igloo (temazcal) before you are taken to your site. In this ceremony there are traditional songs, herbs burning on hot rocks and a lot of steam. The idea is a big cleansing before you hit the mountain. In this ceremony they also take away your privilege to speak.
For the different stages in the mountain there are different themes. 4 days – humility, 7 – will power, 9 – sincerity, 13 – integrity. The way I see it, if you have a good grasp of these concepts, you’re a well rounded person! I wonder what would happen if all the world’s leaders had a good grasp on these concepts!
Now you could be mistaken by thinking these guys are a religious organisation. They do speak of the gran espiritu. My interpretation of this is that they are referring to the Gran Espiritu as not a god or great creator but the sky, stars, moon and sun, madre tierra (mother earth and all of the elements), and all of the energies that exist within it. What is really important to these guys is our conscious state within this environment and our connection to it.
Because all of the people in this camp were working on the 4 concepts, everyone was extremely easy to talk to and interested in conversing. During my time in the mountain I didn’t have any great vision, encounter any profound meaning of life or connect directly with a supreme being. I didn’t expect any of this but was completely open to it if it came.
I spent a lot of time thinking and even got a bit bored. So at the time I was a little bit disappointed about not receiving anything from the mountain. What was truly amazing was that all of the good stuff came as soon as I returned to the camp. The most beautiful moments were the conversations with the people after I came down. The way I see it is that I couldn’t put the pieces of the puzzle together but with the help of others, all of the pieces just seem to fall into place.
As soon and you come back down from the mountain, you are given some water (the sweetest water I have tasted in my life) and a piece of watermelon (now my favourite fruit). Once you have finished your feast you enter the temazcal for another hot singing/sauna ceremony at the end of which you ignite a tobacco wrapped in corn husk that you have been looking after the whole time in the mountain. At this moment they return your right to speak.
It is very difficult to describe my two weeks in Kitralma. I feel that each person there would also have a very distinctive and personal experience. After talking to many people and listening to their stories, I realised what it meant to each of them was very unique and individual.
So in the mountain, I thought a lot about what it is to have humility. What it is to be humble and have a modest opinion of my general importance.
I gave it a lot of time and I suppose, with practice, anyone can get better at reaching a deeper understanding around any given topic. I find that in general here in Argentina for example, people have the ability to think much more deeply on any given topic. Where as for one reason or another my capacity to do so was very limited. It still is not great. I am currently trying to think more deeply on the topic of thinking deeply!
What did come from the mountain and my limited deep thinking ability were five words. Love, listen, compassion, patience, and consciousness. I say that the mountain gave them to me. It really didn’t, because these words came from my head. What happened was because of the time and the environment I was able process a few disorganised thoughts and put them into a few simple words. What was really cool was that after I came down, the people in the camp made all of these words make so much sense. They added layer upon layer of meaning to these words. They confirmed that they were the right words and added purpose to them. I feel that I have a much better understanding of what it is to be humble. Now the big challenge, is to be able to apply this in daily life. Knowing what humility is and having humility are two different things.
So what I got from the mountain, the vision quest, the people and conversations in Kitralma, hopefully was a deeper understanding of humility. If I can be conscious about listening, being patient and compassionate, and use love as a base for decision making, I’m on the right track to becoming humble. (I don’t really use the word love much, and it is often very hard to use it. The deal is this, it may be a little uncomfortable, but if use it more often, you get used to saying it and then it becomes easier to say).
The support that we all received in the mountain was phenomenal. Yes we paid money to be there, not a lot. So many others paid money to be there too, and only to support those in the mountain. The main focus of all the people in the camp was to support the questers. From singing songs in the morning and night (it was great to wake up to the singing and it would also be the last thing you heard at night), to looking after the fire that is a representation of the heart of your strength in the mountain, (it stays lit for the whole 13 days), to carrying supplies and water up to those who stay longer than four days in the mountain.
The whole retreat is aimed to support every individual in the quest to self improve to therefore become a better member of society and a healthier, happier and conscious member of any community. What a beautiful concept.
Now I have done the best to explain my experience and for sure if any newcomer was to give it a crack, they would have a completely different experience. What I encountered was a group of humble, strong willed, and sincere people with a strong sense of integrity. Every single person that I talked to was interesting and offered a unique perspective on life and usually offered a great piece of advice.
The couple that run these camps are Claudio and Sole. They are the owners of the land and the operators of the retreat. These two are the essence of this camp. They are the perfect leaders. The example that they give is truly admirable. What they represent as two people is the perfect combination of the message they are trying to deliver. The words that the mountain gave to me can be used to describe these two. They are great listeners. Sole has an aura of love and compassion. Claudio is truly conscious or present, and demonstrates a man of great patience. They ooze humility, strong will, sincerity and integrity.
While I was up the mountain for four days I thought to myself, there is no way that I can make seven days up here. After my experience I can see the benefit it was to me and I witnessed the positive effects that it had on every other person in that camp. I can definitely see myself returning to attempt seven days. To be honest, the biggest challenge were the slugs that wanted to crawl on my face and sleep in my sleeping bag during the night. If I can work out a solution to this problem then 7 days will be easy! At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
It has been difficult to write this because I have never really been this open before. Something that was spoken about in Kiltralma was speaking your thoughts and being true to your word. I suppose this is an attempt to give that a shot!
So there you have it. A spiritual retreat for a man who knew nothing about spirituality. Who knows if I’m in a better place because of it. I think I am. We’ll have to just wait and see……