Spending one month in a spiritual centre in the Swiss Alps
I recently spend a month volunteering at a spiritual center promoting Truth, Simplicity and Love. The center has seminar facilities and can accommodate more than 100 guests. It also has a daily inter-religious temple with various Vedic rituals and is an international eco-community that maintains a permaculture garden. Located admits snow-capped mountains overlooking a stunning turquoise-blue lake, the center sparked my curiosity in many ways!
What do you do at a spiritual center? Well, mostly working! The center relies heavily on volunteers to keep it running smoothly. Volunteers work about 30 hours a week, in the kitchen, in the household, or in outdoor maintenance. I was assigned to work in the kitchen, where I washed dishes and prepped meals for the dozens of guests and volunteers. The work was physically demanding at times. I have never worked as much for board and lodging before, and it felt a bit challenging to balance the demands of work with my own desire to rest, explore the surrounding area, participate in rituals, and work on my own projects. The center referred to this work as "karma yoga" or "devotion," but for me, it was simply a practical exchange for board and lodging while I tried to understand the center's spiritual mission.
A day in the centre
Every morning at 7am, I was awoken by the
sound of drumming from the temple, where the arti ritual was taking place. This ritual involves singing, meditation, and worship of "the divine light". As someone who has completed a yoga teacher training in India, I'm somewhat familiar with Vedic rituals, but I preferred to sleep in rather than attend every day. I did appreciate that the temple had altars for the five main world religions, as it promoted unity and peace.
After the arti, it was time for breakfast, followed by a sharing circle. On my first morning, we participated in a name game where everyone held hands, closed their eyes, and shared their impressions of the person on their right. The person next to me said that my hands were soft and warm and that my energy felt like that of a "young spring tree." After sharing, we sang a song together (often something in Sanskrit or about love and light), and then held hands again with our eyes closed. Upon opening our eyes, we looked into each other's eyes one by one with a loving gaze. While this way of relating was a bit unfamiliar to me and felt awkward at first, I do see the value in consciously connecting with my co-residents each morning. It set a positive tone for the day and I think it gave many people a sense of belonging.
Given the spiritual nature of the center, it attracts people from all walks of life, particularly those who are seeking healing and answers. When I first arrived, I was overwhelmed by the heavy energies I encountered among some of the volunteers. Some came with quite a bagage and seemed to be on the verge of crying all the time. On the other hand, there were also those who had been at the center for a while and had this sparkle in their eyes and an ever-present smile. I was a little doubtful of where I ended up.
Christmas dinner, the pinnacle of alienation
It wasn't until the Christmas celebration that I truly felt weirded out. As I sat at the long table surrounded by this group of new faces, I watched in amazement as everyone stood up, clapping and singing songs of love and light. I didn't know the words, and I felt a sense of alienation wash over me as I watched them laugh and embrace one another.
Just before this, I had been engaged in a conversation with a volunteer to my right who was angrily rambling about various conspiracies. He then told me, with a dark and angry expression, "You don't need to be scared of me." By my other side, was a 70-year-old volunteer, a former prisoner, who had the unpleasant habit of licking his lips excessively every few minutes and would burst into hysterical laughter out of the blue.
As I stood there among all these happy, singing faces, I couldn't help but think to myself, "Where the heck did I end up?!" I couldn't remember the last time I had felt so alienated. That evening, I concluded that this place was a little too strange for me and that I would just try to make the most of it by focusing on the people who seemed relatively normal.
This piece of journal text that I wrote midway is very telling:
14 december 2022
I thought I was open-minded. But here I notice how my openness of the first days quickly gave way to closure. I concluded: “Ah, this is how it goes here, this is not my atmosphere and not my type of people. These other people are all right so let me focus on them”, and poeeef I closed the door. I had made up my mind.
And tonight, I'm talking to a figure I've been avoiding for weeks. He looks like Jesus and eats only a leaf of lettuce a day. We get into a deep conversation in which we share our life paths, and I feel so much admiration for this person's journey. I suddenly realise:
A) How closed off I was;
B) How far I've actually come this past year and the reasons why I got stuck;
C) What matters to me: living more in the here and now, in openness, trust, and with curiosity.
Thanks to this Jesus figure for bringing me back to openness 🙏
Nothing is what it seems and no one is who you think they are if you can see beyond the surface. Stay open, stay curious!
This conversation was a turning point in my final 1,5 weeks there, as I experienced a shift in my mindset and attitude. I started opening up to people I never spoke to before, and it turned out people weren't as bad as the first impression I had. We had a good time enjoying getaways like ice-bathing in the nearby river, hiking to one of the summits, or visiting the nearby towns. I also enjoyed how the center naturally encourages self reflection and exchange about spirituality.
The beauty and majesty of the mountains definitely contributes to a deepening of one's spiritual awareness as well. They inspire a sense of awe. As you feel humbled by their grandiosity, you become so incredibly present and silent, it brings about a sense of connection to something larger than oneself.
I didn't have any expectations, but not this!
When I first arrived at this place, I was a bit skeptical about the claims that it is a powerful place for transformation and growth. I wasn't sure if this type of environment, in which I felt out of my comfort zone, would have the capacity to give any meaningful experiences. Boy, was I wrong! Just before I left the center, I got a heavy flue. As I struggled through my illness, I had a series of revelations about myself and my place in the world. I felt a strong sense of inner peace and love, and this feeling has stayed with me even after leaving the place a couple of weeks ago.
As it turned out, this experience exceeded my expectations, and has a lasting impact on me. The lesson I took away from this experience is to stay open and curious, because you never know what kind of people or situations will come your way and have the power to bring out the unexpected. Even when things seem difficult or uncertain at first, particularly those situations have the potential for increasing self awareness and personal growth.