Finding my Harmonious Mind

Learning to love and finding happiness at a Balinese silent meditation retreat

Martin O'Toole
14 min readSep 29, 2019


My new teacher, Pak Merta Ada

The day before yesterday, I spoke my first words in seven days. Twenty-four hours later, I left the peace and stillness of the jungle to battle with the animated cacophony that is Denpasar’s late afternoon traffic en route to Ngurah Rai. As I plunged headlong into a sea of sun-blasted travellers, milling wearily inside Bali’s international airport, I realised I’d unceremoniously catapulted myself from a scene of serenity into “civilisation’s” brutal and hectic hands. The thriving Kuala Lumpur cafe in which I currently reside does nothing but amplify the extreme environmental and sensual contrast bombarding me. For the first time in over a week, I can write again. And so I’d like to tell you a story about my last few days.

Some months ago, I was lucky to meet a remarkable healer and hypnotherapist named Kartika Alexandra. This deeply attentive and gentle woman helped me immensely some months ago, and along that vein, she referred me to one of her teachers, Pak Merta Ada. She was scant in her description of what I should expect to learn from Pak Merta, but from the reverence in her tone, I instantly gleaned that she had immeasurable respect for the man.

And so last Sunday, I embarked on the next phase of my healing journey: to deepen my spiritual practice. Once again, I charged into the green countryside of central Bali, entrusting (as I often do) my fate to the instructional voice of the Google Maps lady. My destination: Bali Usada Health Meditation Centre. The purpose of my visit: to attend a seven-day (six-night) silent meditation retreat known as the ‘Tapa Brata’.

Bali Usada Forest Island Centre (photo by Bali Usada)

After an eventful ride through Bali’s unique traffic, I arrived at a plot of land surrounded by a steep-sided valley. This natural, moat-like perimeter is encased with forestry and bamboo so thick and high that the stream at the bottom of the steep ravine barely sees any light at all. As I threw my motorbike over a moss-covered stone bridge and up a steep driveway, I exited the darkness and entered this tranquil camp of modest wooden buildings surrounded by lush green foliage on all sides. I’d arrived at Forest Island, and it was time to boldly embark on a tech, speech, reading and writing-free week. This would be testing and serious healing work — for my mind, spirit, and body.

So what’s Tapa Brata? In English, it translates as an intensive retreat in silence, whereby we train our mind and body by meditation to achieve peace and happiness by developing what Pak Merta calls the ‘harmonious mind’. By definition, the process is a deep journey into the self, spiritualism, and healing of past traumas — no matter how small — which have been buried and stored by our subconscious, unconscious mind. It typically includes fasting and meditation and can be directed towards various personal intentions. The aim is to redefine one’s concentration, consciousness, calmness, gentleness, and compassion. Whilst this description is wholly accurate and provides at least an indication, this short story cannot possibly come close to articulating how life-changing and epiphany-stuffed this experience truly is.

Silent Night

I did no research before my trip. I’ve deliberately leapt into every new healing experience in this way since leaving my old life behind in London. I want to enter everything free of expectation — with an open heart and mind. And so during our introduction, I could do nought but give a (silent) chuckle to myself as I first learnt that every day would begin at 04:30 sharp — when Pak Ketut Suadika (Pak Merta’s assistant) would stand outside our room and wake us by banging a gong.

Our first evening was hosted by a most kind and gentle woman named Eva — a learned and gracious lady who has also been a healer for many years. In Pak Merta’s absence, we met a slightly younger video version of this jolliest man, who, with Eva’s assistance, steadily introduced us to the Tapa Brata process and to the nitty-gritty of our week-long itinerary.

This would include talks, ancient far-eastern qi exercises, and much meditation. No stranger to meditation, Eva worked patiently with us throughout the process. I watched the other 32 people in the group — my fellow students — all brought together in this most magical of ways. These people from the far corners of the planet were of all ages, creeds and religions. As we went about our business that first evening — either listening, meditating, or drinking hot ginger tea during the break — we silently and surreptitiously observed each other. Who were we? Where were we from? What drew us to this place and process?

During that first night, I realised that Pak Suadika’s early morning alarm clock would be a walk in the park compared to the ground-rumbling snore belonging to my new roommate Ken. As the first evening closed, and my roommates and I walked wearily to our beds, it was evident we craved rest, as we slumped and slept in short order. It’s funny to spend a week in the middle of the jungle, sharing a bedroom with two strangers from different countries whom you’ve never met or spoken to. Nor will you speak for several days.

As I drifted off with surprising peace and stillness, I realised that this unusual situation provided me with an observation of the human condition. I.e. how quick we are to judge based solely on looks, actions, and body language. With only partial information, our monkey mind is keen to fill in the blanks. And when nobody’s talking, the monkey’s chatter can certainly be incessant.

My New Teacher

For me, Pak Merta Ada is a cross between Yoda, Gandhi, and a lovely man you’ve simply chatted to in a cafe or park, whose wisdom you could gladly imbibe for hours while you go without lunch and miss your train without a second thought. My teacher is a most beloved and blessed man — an internationally respected and renowned Balinese healer whose practices and theories have been examined and applauded by countless physicians worldwide. He teaches a rare blend of science and spirituality — and of what Westerners might call “mysticism”.

As I write these words, my heart still wells with love and gratitude for him. Whenever I take a conscious breath, I can still hear his thick northern Balinese accent, talking in detail about the human body and cheerfully declaring, “May all beings be happy!” The expression, I’ll explain better shortly.

As a young man, Pak Merta was naturally drawn to healing. One could even say that at every corner he turned, the Universe planted a string of clear and present signposts — inevitably directing him towards his life purpose as a healer. In his early years, he entered the garment trade and became a successful businessman. Regardless of having around 2,000 employees, this unspeakably devoted man splits his time between business interests and being the head of the Bali Usada Institute and Bali Usada Foundation. In addition to the work he does teaching his students during the week-long and daily retreats in Bali and Java, he also holds weekly healing sessions for people in various centres throughout Bali and beyond — helping those who cannot help themselves. When he’s not doing live-streaming events and managing regular radio broadcasts, he interacts with countless WhatsApp groups, continuing to mentor students from the 800+ silent retreats he has overseen in the past 27 years. He has taught meditation face-to-face to more than 127,000 people.

I’m conscious of writing about the man this way, as he is humble and unassuming. He would rather share cheeky jokes or access his ludicrously vast memory bank of inter-faith stories than talk about himself grandiosely. With this in mind, I’ll avoid any seemingly sycophantic description and simply say this: there can be no doubt that Pak Merta Ada and his incredible team of devotees have changed the lives of millions, and there will be millions more. Of that, I have no doubt.

Meditation’s What You Need

There will be people who read this, who regularly meditate as part of a daily ritual, and others who know of the Tapa Brata. You may also know of the Vipassana — by all accounts, a somewhat stricter and longer (from three days to three months, with 10 days being standard) silent retreat. On the flip side, others will meditate irregularly or not at all. As a frequent meditator, already practising one and a half to two hours daily, I can tell you that the Tapa Brata is still challenging for the mind and body. It is also one of the most rewarding things I have done in this less-than-dull life.

Under the Bodhi Tree: Photo (shared with permission) by Roy Tan


An essential part of Pak Merta Ada’s teachings relates to our understanding and ability to observe “Anicca”. This word is from an ancient language used in the time of Buddha, meaning “impermanence”. We were invited to consider the unequivocal fact that everything in this Universe is impermanent, and everything changes faster or slower and sooner or later. Change is the one inevitable constant. Pak Merta would often say: “Anicca… Anicca… Aniiiiicca!”.

I was introduced to the word three months earlier when I had a hard lesson as my best friend and Beagle (Macy) went missing from my home in Bali. That dog once stopped me from killing myself and helped me through the most brutal years of my adult life. After what had already been a long and beautiful journey together, we travelled to Bali, and then after a few short months of settling into island life, she was gone. Learning how to sit with that, free from attachment, and let it go with loving-kindness, was a real game-changer for how I now react to life events.

Doing the Work

Focussed meditation can be challenging. Sitting in multiple daily sessions for five to sixty minutes takes great determination and concentration. Our backs creak while our minds present random faces, good and bad memories, long-lost songs, and ideas for movies or blogs about meditation. Our knees complain about their cross-legged position, and we ironically fall out with ourselves for losing concentration. It is hard work.

As any meditation practitioner will know, these early pains are far from harmonious, though they are indeed part of the rich process of going inwards. Training the mind is like teaching any other body part; it takes work and regular practice, and then it gets easier.

Every day, we worked on various meditation exercises. The core focus of Tapa Brata (#1) is to learn the way to the “harmonious mind” and to inwardly direct “loving-kindness”. The key to practising loving-kindness is learning to develop a feeling of love and gentleness — first felt inside our body and then radiating from our hearts. This is pure and beautiful chakra activation, transferrable and sharable magic. After all, this practice intends to share that loving energy.

The first few days were tough. Honestly? Halfway through the second full day, I almost threw in the towel. I was having some shoulder pain issues, which were dogging my ability to clear my mind. At that moment, Eva invited us all to “trust in the process, “ motivating me to silently knuckle down.

Throughout the course, Pak Merta regaled us with dozens of stories designed to entertain, educate, and inspire. We learnt about the makeup of the human body, the structural and energetic flow. It was just like being back at school again, except for the first time in a long time, I genuinely cared about what I was being taught. After all, this was learning how to heal.

And then, on the afternoon of the penultimate day, our “noble silence” was broken; we were all allowed to speak for the first time. This was such a beautiful moment. We all had spent most of a week in total silence as we learnt and meditated alongside one another, passing each other on the grounds and eating side by side at every meal. And this was the first time we were able to communicate. The group embraced this moment wildly and enthusiastically. And as we dined together for the first time without silence, I remember thinking I’d not heard so many people laugh together like that for such a long time.

Learning to Love

Aside from living in a terribly haunted house as a six-year-old, I had my first real spiritual experience 20 years ago during a deep, guided meditation with an excellent and kind woman named Amanda. During this session, she invited me into my inner self, where I eventually met a character I learned was my “Higher Self”. For the laymen, this is our higher consciousness.

Amanda suggested I ask him something, so in my mind, I blurted out the words, “Why am I here?” I will never forget his response for as long as I live. He simply said, “You are here to learn to love.” As obvious as this instruction might sound to some, it was a most profound moment for me. Notwithstanding the fact I’d never before meditated, I had no idea what a Higher Self was. And whilst technically talking to myself, I wasn’t actually talking to myself.

If I had known then that I was having a lucid and unfettered conversation with my consciousness, my life would have been very different. But then, I would not have learnt the perfectly painful lessons which led me to this here and now.

It was only much later in life that I discovered the writings of Rumi — a 13th-century Persian poet, Islamic scholar, and Sufi mystic. Rumi once wrote: “Maybe you are searching among the branches for what only appears in the roots”.

Image taken from Text My Eyes Instagram

In part, I interpreted this to mean: to truly love others, I must first learn to love myself — not in an egoic way, but with kindness and gentleness.

From a traumatic childhood, I evolved into an angry, detached and emotionally stunted young man. And so, despite this profound spiritual experience in my twenties, my mental illness ensured I would remain distracted by drink, drugs, drama, womanising and work. And womanising at work to add yet more unhealthy details to my life’s stained tapestry.

As the years passed and people came and left, I created a large and complex psychological structure, with battlements and high-security fencing around my broken heart, ensuring nothing (or no one) would get in or out. I now see that falling in love and allowing myself to be loved was impossible for the earlier versions of myself. And while successful in the advertising business, a long string of questionable life choices provided me with a well-dressed platter of three nervous breakdowns and a series of serious injuries. Towards the end of 2018, I was absolutely broken — physically, mentally, and spiritually. And then, I discovered meditation.

May I Be Happy

On the Tapa Brata’s final day, those willing were invited to share their story with the rest of the group. I was compelled to tell them what brought me to that place and my journey towards self-awareness. I wanted to talk about my experiences of impermanence and my healing process. The main reason for my compulsion to speak related to something that had happened to me the previous day.

Day six was dedicated to developing our ability to channel loving-kindness towards others, friends, family, complete strangers, and even enemies. And then, during a guided meditation, Pak Merta invited us to turn the loving-kindness on ourselves — to mentally chant the words “May I be happy”. The moment I did so, my heart filled with a warmth I’ve rarely known. The feeling burst throughout my body, taking me entirely by surprise. I began to sob. As my chest welled with love, forgiveness and gratitude, and tears streamed down my face, I knew right then that this beautiful healing journey I was on had come to a crucial turning point. Once wholly broken — now 43, single and reinventing — with a trail of destruction and unconscious behaviour in my wake — I finally learnt to love. To love me in the right way.

Day six sharing session

I sat quietly with this beautifully warm feeling inside. The tears continued as I rode waves of happiness and deep gratitude. I was struck by the realisation of how badly I’d mistreated myself my entire adult life. And as I consciously breathed through this changing process, that feeling was replaced with forgiveness and a sudden sense of serenity.

Shortly after that, Pak Merta again invited us to extend our loving-kindness to others. To people who may dislike us, to people we hardly know — and, of course, to those we’ve never met. I hope you felt it, though it matters not if you didn’t. I sent it loud and fast your way. And from here on, I’ll send it every day I’m alive.

May All Beings Be Happy

Pak Merta must’ve said, “May all beings be happy” a thousand times during that week, and every time I heard his voice send out this Universal invitation of loving-kindness, it brought a smile to my face, filling my heart with love.

I said farewell to my new teacher, his colleagues, and my new friends, and I jump-started my sleepy bike down the steep driveway. As I gained momentum over the moss-covered stone bridge, through the calming canopy of bamboo, the engine roared to life, and I shot out of the dark and into the light, back into the “real” world.

As I quickly readapted to the organised chaos that is Bali traffic, 50 shades of green, countless small warungs (shops and canteens), and smiling dark faces whizzed past. The school was out, and today was one of many formal religious days; people were everywhere in their ceremonial whites.

I rode up behind a three-vehicle convoy of vans stuffed so full of kids that two of them nonchalantly hung out of the back of the rear vehicle — their feet carelessly trailing. As soon as our eyes met, beaming white smiles filled the back of the van as they enthusiastically shouted, “Hallo!”. I let out a loud and happy laugh as I responded in kind — gleefully offering a thumbs-up. Overtaking, I quietly chanted the mantra, “May all beings be happy!” Thus, the giant smile on my face widened further.

The healing secrets of this island and its people constantly surprise me. Just when I think I could fall no further in love with Bali, I fall deeper and deeper into her arms. She cradles my broken body and soothes my damaged mind. She gives freely and willingly all which I need to heal. And then, just two days ago, she repaired my broken heart. I will never forget my first Tapa Brata and the extraordinary souls I met there. After all, they are now a part of my healing journey, the part where I learnt to love.

So what’s next? I don’t know. But the really cool thing is that I don’t mind in the slightest. These days I’m surrendering to the flow of life — to Anicca. And I’m loving every second of it.



Martin O'Toole

How To Die Happy author, podcaster, and mental health advocate writing about healing and the Anatomy of Happy.

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