Clear Mind, Pure Heart in Orangeville

For $295 plus a pay-from-the-heart donation, you can buy yourself three days, two nights and utter mental clarity at the Ecology Retreat Centre overlooking the Hockley Valley, part of the Niagara Escarpment Biosphere Reserve. From Toronto, the drive north takes about an hour and several jaw-dropping Hindu temples along the Gore Road seem like obvious signposts to a journey inwards.

The centre’s Clear Mind, Pure Heart retreat is run by a man named Russell Scott, a self-proclaimed “non-dogmatic spiritual teacher.” With his reserved demeanor, white beard, and uniform of flannel shirts and belted khakis, he exudes a gentle Canadian grandpa vibe. Russell had a run-in with a cult in his youth, which left him at first disheartened and then resolute: he has studiously refined his own brand of independent inquiry for people he calls spiritual seekers and mystical misfits. Russell’s school of meditation politely avoids any talk of deities or chakras and instead leans hard on basic technique: secular mantras (such as, “I am calm”), deep sound (like gongs) and deep silence (…). For many of the twenty or so stressed urban professionals in attendance, this tool-based approach appealed on both a practical and cultural level. 

At the 6:00 p.m. welcome talk one Friday night before a long weekend, Russell explained that the point of meditation was not, contrary to popular perception, straining to achieve a thought-free state variously referred to as nirvana or bliss. The point of meditation was just to sit quietly, which has its own neurological and physiological benefits, with no expectations or goals. The point of meditation is just acceptance. And part of the work of acceptance is that some sits will be better than others. Our egos will want to chase the deep profound sits, he said, but of course not all sits are like that. This is it: just keep coming back to the simple act of sitting quietly and breathing deeply, even if all you do sometimes is run through your grocery list in your mind. It’s not about nirvana, whatever that is! 

So that’s it? a brusque Russian woman asked. Just sit?

What we are hoping for, he replied softly, is that with a regular practice of sitting still and being quiet, we can eventually learn to accept life as it is and through this surrender, if we’re lucky, we can find a manageable kind of peace, a type of inner sovereignty.

Having never heard the term “inner sovereignty” before, I had a total coup de foudre. My skepticism left the building. I was suddenly, wholeheartedly on board. With gentle grandpa at the helm, inner sovereignty seemed attainable, or at least more so than it ever had in my past attempts at cultivating a meditation practice.

We’ll start with breath exercises, Russell said, since most modern humans spend the day breathing shallowly. Control over our breath is fascinating in and of itself: it’s one of few bodily processes both automatic and self-regulated. And it’s exciting, because once you become more mindful of your breath, you naturally become more aware of your thoughts – how ephemeral they are. How your thoughts are not reality. They are merely thoughts. 

Breath is like a metaphor for life, he said. Things come, things go. We sat breathing deeply for many minutes until he called us back, and then we went to unpack. Most of us were in bed by 9:30 p.m. It was so quiet out there in the valley, I had trouble falling asleep.

We spent a good portion of the three days in silence, except for Q&A sessions, partnered communication exercises (which Russell called “dyads”), and some meals. Guided meditation and quiet contemplation were also interspersed with walks, hatha yoga classes, free time and journalling, which was my favourite, of course. I journalled the heck out of journal time. However, I was writing these notes and not reflecting on my life, which was probably wrong. I need to reflect more on that. 

The Ecology Retreat Centre comprises a sleeping lodge, a dining hall and a large meeting space, all of which are simple, clean and quintessentially Canadian in aesthetic. A 13-ring labyrinth for walking meditation, a small swimming pool and several densely forested hiking trails make up the grounds. A rushing stream cuts through the property, and during one meditation session when Russell opened the windows of the meeting hall, I noticed I could “drop down” more easily with the help of sound. In pure silence, I had a harder time tuning out the aching of my lower back, the Russian lady’s throat clearing, the slight shifting of others around me, the muffled gurgling of my stomach.   

When speaking was permitted at meals, we all quietly raved about the incredible vegetarian food that came out of the kitchen: shepherd’s pie made with sweet potato, tomato basil soup, dairy-free pancakes, strawberry shortcake – even the egg salad sandwiches tasted gourmet. Was it our relaxed minds and bodies that made everything more delicious than normal? Maybe, but we lavished the cook with praise all the same.

On our last journalling session on the last night, Russell told us to write down what we were ready to let go of in our lives, what we were holding onto that we didn’t want to hold onto anymore. We obediently did. Now, he said, tear out that page and put it in your pocket. Then he directed us to follow him out of the meeting hall into the forest, walking meditatively (i.e., in slow motion) and silently in the dark. About six minutes into the walk, we reached a towering, smoky bonfire that had been lit for us. We murmured in happy surprise and formed a ring around it, lost in staring, as homo sapiens have for millennia, at its elemental beauty. Russell explained we would now come forward, one by one, and read what we were ready to let go of, and then throw our papers into the fire. We would be free.

My heart began to pound. I am never ready for public declarations of my emotional life, not even to a small group of sympathetic fellow retreatants. Rarely in private, even just to myself. A few more minutes of beautiful fire staring passed in silence. The Russian lady cleared her throat. Someone bravely stepped forward and went first, and once the telling started, it quickly grew in intensity ­– people became more emotional and the energy changed from mellow to rock concert-y. I did not want to cry and struggled not to, until the effort against crying was harder to bear than the simple embarrassment of crying. I tried not to look around at people’s faces too much, but I think everyone was crying by that point. Also, the wind kept blowing the smoke in our eyes, it could have also been that.

Things people declared they were ready to let go of: crippling remorse about how their marriage ended, anger over a recent career setback, the general feeling that they were not good enough, despair about multiple business failures, anxiety about having cashed out of Toronto’s hot housing market too soon, guilt about possibly causing their daughter’s mental health issues, debilitating sorrow over a loved one’s passing, resentfulness about a physical illness that had cost them so much in so many ways, phobias from a childhood trauma, self-disgust about a cheating romantic partner they kept going back to, an inexplicable numbness that made them immune the joy of living.

What was mine? I can’t repeat it; anyway, I’m not even supposed to be telling you this much, it was sacred, which Russell reminded us many times in a warning tone that made me uneasy at the time and makes me tense as I write this now.

But watching each paper, each wound, each source of self-torture burn up so quickly, the paper almost instantly red-orange and gone, was so satisfying I would have paid $295 just for the letting go fire ceremony. We were in bed by 9:45 p.m. and once again I tossed and turned until it was light enough to just get up again and go shower in the tiny stalls in the communal bathroom.

Perhaps meditation is not about bliss, but it was truly blissful to be there, not trying to find it.