Finding my Harmonious Mind

Martin O'Toole
14 min readSep 29, 2019

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Learning to love and finding happiness at a silent meditation retreat

My new teacher, Pak Merta Ada

The day before yesterday, I spoke my first words in seven days. And then yesterday, 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 around Bali’s vast international airport, I realised I’d rather unceremoniously flung myself from a contrasting scene of serenity, back into the brutal and hectic arms of civilisation.

I’m in a mad-busy cafe in Kuala Lumpur. For the first time in over a week, I’m once again able to write. And so I’d like to tell you a story about my last few days.

Some months ago, I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful healer by the name of Kartika Alexandra. This deeply attentive and gentle woman helped me greatly some months ago; and along that vein, she then 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 Ada, but from the reverence in her tone, I instantly gleaned that she had a great deal of respect for this man.

And so last Sunday, I embarked on the next phase of my healing journey: to deepen my spiritual practise. Once again I charged into the green countryside of central Bali, trusting as I so often do, 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)

I eventually arrived at a plot of land, entirely 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 bridge and up a steep driveway, I exited the darkness and slowly entered this serene camp. I’d arrived at Forest Island, and it was time to boldly embark on an entirely tech, speech, reading & writing-free week. This was to be hard and serious healing work — on 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 within, through the development of the ‘harmonious mind’. By definition, the process is a deep journey into the self; into spiritualism, and into healing any 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 one’s 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 prior to my trip. I’ve deliberately leapt into every new healing experience in this way. I want to enter everything free of expectation — with open arms and an open mind. And so during our introduction, I could do naught but give a (silent) chuckle to myself as I first learnt that every day would begin at 04:30 sharp — when Pak Ketut Suadika, a member of the tea, 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 most jolly 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 chi exercises, and of course, a great deal of meditating. 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 all went about our business that first evening — either listening, meditating, or drinking hot ginger water silently during the break — we surreptitiously observed each other. Who were we? Where were we from? What drew us to this place?

During that first night, I realised that it wasn’t Pak Suadika’s early morning alarm clock I had to worry about; it was the world-class snore belonging to my new roommate Ken. As the first evening closed, and my roommates and I stumbled wearily to our beds, it was evident we craved rest, as we slumped and slept in short order. It’s a funny thing spending a week in the middle of the jungle, sharing a bedroom with two strangers from different countries, whom you’ve never met nor spoken to. Nor will you speak for several days.

As I drifted off with surprising peace and stillness (and of course absolute silence), it occurred to me that this unusual situation provided me with an observation of the human condition. I.e. how quick we are to judge, based solely on actions and body language. In the absence of information, our monkey mind is so often keen to fill in the blanks. And when nobody’s talking, the monkey’s chatter can indeed be incessant.

My New Teacher

For me, Pak Merta Ada is a cross between Yoda, Gandhi, and a lovely man you’ve simply got chatting 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. [NOTE: I make my Yoda observation with the utmost respect, and with sincere wishes that he allows me to return to his centre one day soon, for further training.]

My teacher is a most beloved and blessed man — an internationally respected and renowned Balinese healer, whose practises and theories have been examined and applauded by countless physicians all over the world. He teaches a rare blend of science and spirituality — and of what we Westerners might refer to as ‘mysticism’.

As I write these words, my heart is still bursting with love and gratitude for him, and whenever I stop to mindfully breathe, I can still hear his thick northern Balinese accent, talking in detail about the human body, and cheerfully declaring “May all beings be happy!” [Note: This expression, I will explain in better detail 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 for him — inevitably directing him towards his life purpose as a healer. In his early years, he went into the garment trade, and became a successful businessman. Regardless of having around 2,000 employees, this unspeakably devoted man splits his time between running his business interests, and as 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 manages 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 in this way, as he is also very humble and unassuming. He would rather share cheeky jokes or access his ludicrously vast memory bank of inter-faith stories and parables, than talk about himself in a grandiose manner.

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 wonderful 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 their daily ritual, and others who know of the Tapa Brata. You may also know of the Vipassana — by all accounts a rather more strict and seemingly hardcore type of silent retreat. On the flip-side, there will be others who meditate irregularly or not at all. As a regular meditator, already practising around one and a half to two hours a day, I can tell you that the Tapa Brata is still a challenge for the mind and body. That being said, it is also one of the most rewarding things I have done to date in this less-than-dull life.

Under the Bodhi Tree: Photo by Roy Tan (fellow meditator and all-round legend)

Anicca

An important 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, and it means ‘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 say the words often: “Anicca… Anicca… Aniiiiicca!”

I’d already learnt about Anicca and in fact just three months before, I’d had a hard lesson, as my little 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 toughest years of my life. After what had already been a long and beautiful life journey together, we travelled to Bali, and then after a few short months settling into island life, she was gone. Learning how to sit with that, free from attachment, and to let it go with loving kindness, was a real game changer for the way I now react to the events in my life.

Doing the Work

Focussed meditation isn’t easy. Sitting multiple daily sessions up to a maximum of 45 minutes takes a great deal of determination and concentration. Our backs creak whilst our minds present random faces, or in my case, sing long lost songs; consider ideas for a movie treatment, or a blog (about meditation). Our knees complain about their cross-legged position, and we 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 very much part of the rich journey. Training the mind is just like training any other part of the body; it takes work and regular practise, and then it most definitely gets easier.

Every day, we worked hard on various meditation exercises. The core focus of Tapa Brata (#1) is to learn the way to the ‘harmonious mind’, and to ‘loving kindness’. The key to practising ‘loving kindness’ is in learning how to develop a feeling of love, gentleness, and kindness — first felt inside our body — and then radiated from our heart. This is pure and beautiful chakra activation; it’s the stuff of magic, and it’s transferrable and sharable. After all, the intention in this practise is to share that loving energy.

The core focus of Tapa Brata (#1) is to learn the way to the ‘harmonious mind’, and to ‘loving kindness’.

The first few days were tough. Honestly? halfway through the second full day, it occurred to me to throw the towel in. I was having some trapped nerve issues which were dogging my ability to clear my mind. At that very moment, Eva (Pak Merta’s assistant) invited us all to “trust in the process”, and so I silently knuckled down and carried on.

Throughout the course, Pak Merta regaled us with dozens of stories designed to entertain, educate, and inspire. We learnt about the make-up 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, and we were all allowed to speak to each other for the first time. This was such a beautiful moment. All of us had spent the most part of a week in total silence as we learnt and meditated alongside one another; passing each other in the grounds, and eating side by side at every meal. And this was the first time we were able to speak. 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.

Finding 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 a wonderful and kind woman named Amanda. During this meditation, she invited me into my inner self, where I eventually met a character who announced himself as my “Higher Self”. For the laymen, this is the ‘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 I was technically talking to myself; I wasn’t actually talking to myself.

I will never forget his response for as long as I live. He simply said “You are here to learn to love”.

Had I known then that I was having a lucid and unfettered conversation with my consciousness, perhaps my life would’ve 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:

Image taken from Text My Eyes Instagram

“Maybe you are searching among the branches for what only appears in the roots.”

In part, I interpreted this to mean: to be able to truly love others, I must first learn to love myself — not in the egoic way, but in the proper way.

As I’ve discussed in previous stories: as a young man, I developed into an angry, detached and emotionally inexperienced pain in the arse. And so despite this profound spiritual experience in my twenties, I very quickly became distracted by drink, drugs, womanising and work. And womanising at work — just to add a little more drama to my life. As the years went by and people came and left my life, I created a large and complex psychological structure, with battlements and high security fencing around my emotions; ensuring nothing (or no one) would get in or out. I see now that falling in love and allowing myself to be loved was an impossibility. And whilst 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 string of fairly 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 final day, we were asked whether anyone felt willing to share their story with the rest of the group. I wanted to tell them what had brought me to that place and of my journey towards self-awareness. I wanted to talk about my own experiences of impermanence and of my healing process. Actually, the main reason for my compulsion to speak related to something that had happened to me the previous day.

Day six had been dedicated to us developing our ability to channel loving kindness towards other, and to friends, family, and even complete strangers. And then during a guided meditation, Pak Merta invited us to turn the loving kindness on ourselves; and for us 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 the tears streamed down my face, I knew right there and then that this beautiful journey I’m on had come to a very important point. Once completely broken — now 43, single and reinventing — with a trail of destruction and unconscious behaviour in my wake — I finally learnt to love. To love myself in the right way.

Day #6 sharing session

I sat quietly with this beautiful feeling inside me. The tears continuing to come as I rode waves of happiness and deep gratitude. I was struck with 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 then a sudden sense of serenity.

I finally learnt to love. To love myself in the right way.

Shortly thereafter, Pak Merta once again invited us to further extend our loving kindness to others — to family, friends and enemies. To people who may dislike us, to people we hardly know — and of course to people 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 and filled 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 bridge and 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 me. School was out, and the kids were everywhere, in their clean 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 to them all. Overtaking them, I found myself quietly chanting the mantra “May all beings be happy!”, and thus the great big smile on my face widened even 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 broken 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 wonderful 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 on my journey? 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.

May you be happy. Peace & love to you all.

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Martin O'Toole

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