I found true north at the Gawler Foundation
It’s a scorcher of a day when I pull up outside the Gawler Foundation in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. The heat hits me as I open the door, and I hear a kookaburra laughing. Illogically, I think it’s laughing at me. I’m here to attend a Set Your Compass retreat and, quite frankly, my internal compass doesn’t know which way’s north any more.
This three-day retreat is a working retreat, meaning no beauty treatments or luxury quarters. That said, it’s no hardship posting. The Yarra Valley Living Centre is positioned on a bucolic 20-acre block of bushland, right beside a river and amid working farms. There are walking paths, a vast biodynamic vegie patch, an orchard, a gorgeous herb Garden and meditation sanctuaries.
After settling in to my private room with an ensuite (there’s dormitory-style accommodation available as well), I head to the introductory session led by the foundation’s therapeutic director and retreat leader, Siegfried Gutbrod. He tells us how we’ll examine our lives through workshops, activities and quiet contemplation, and crystallise our values, overall direction and specific goals for the year ahead. Each person introduces themselves and tells why they’re here.
German-born Gutbrod recounts his own story: how he left the corporate world 20 years ago and moved his family to Australia in search of a more meaningful life. He tells us this retreat is designed to allow us to connect with our inner selves and find a balance between the horizontal mode of being (when you’re “very busy being busy”) and the vertical mode (when you “have a chance to connect to your inner wisdom”). This balance, he says, will allow us to find our inner bliss.
This retreat is designed to allow us to ... find a balance between the horizontal mode of being (when you’re “very busy being busy”) and the vertical mode (when you “have a chance to connect to your inner wisdom”).
We break for lunch and, oh, what a spread. It, like all the meals here, is fresh, organic, plant-based, plentiful and tasty. The food is part of what makes the retreat appealing. Over the weekend we eat our way through multiple-course meals of vegie-packed ricepaper rolls, raw nut loaf, multi-colourful salads, polenta cake, freshly baked bread … With such variety, I don’t miss meat, dairy or even caffeine.
Then the self-work starts. First, we look at the past. We write down the memorable events in our lives over the past year, pinpoint highlights, lowlights and key themes and present them to the group. This sharing is confronting at first, revealing such personal details to strangers, but by Sunday’s close it has become second nature.
I indulge in an optional massage — one of the best I’ve ever had — before dinner and an after-dinner treat: laughter yoga. It’s cathartic and my sides hurt when I retire, early, to bed.
We wake at 7am for a half-hour meditation before breakfast and more self-discovery. It’s on to the present. Therapist Robyn Jones helps us take stock of our current commitments and our satisfaction with our lives. We spend a lot of time outside, in nature. That afternoon, we walk a labyrinth down by the river, my first experience of this ancient spiritual practice designed to lead seekers to new sources of wisdom, change and renewal.
For our last night, there’s a drumming workshop. I love music but don’t have much rhythm, so I’m amazed at how good it feels to play the African drum I’m given. I’m even more surprised when everyone gets up to dance — and I join them. It feels wonderful after all this reflection to have a good old boogie.
Sunday dawns. After an early-morning stroll to clear my mind, I meditate with the group. It’s the final day and we focus on what we want to achieve this year. We look at what our hearts are telling us to do right now. I step outside and write furiously, accompanied by the birds. I feel focused; what seemed so hazy on Friday is suddenly clear.
Back inside, we decide which areas of our lives we want to invest energy in and jot down objectives. We then examine our life values. Mine are remarkably simple but I don’t always think about them, so I embrace the idea of meditating on them daily.
The final exercise is to contemplate our values and objectives and to imagine how it would feel to achieve what we want. I grab some crayons, draw my ideal future and, back inside, share it with my new-found friends. It feels good, I feel good and I can’t wait to get started.
A few months later, I find a book about animal messengers and the first page I flick to mentions kookaburras. It says that if you need the kookaburra’s medicine, you will hear it. What does the kookaburra signify? Self-healing and a wake-up call to your passions. A sign? I hope so.
- Set Your Compass retreats are held each January. Visit gawler.org/retreats/wellness.
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