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How to Access Demanding Spiritual Experiences Around the World

by Rebecca Toy Dec 6, 2019

There are types of spiritual experiences that come easy, and then there are those for which casual spirituality seekers need not apply. The latter are diverse but have some key ingredients: physical and mental effort, retreat from modern distractions, and a change in routine. But they also offer a special something that levels up from the normal retreat. These five experiences are some of the world’s most demanding, and it’s best to have all the information you can about the risks and rewards before diving in.

Editor’s Note: Matador Network encourages readers to research local laws and drug effects before taking part in activities that include intoxicants.

1. Ayahuasca retreats — Etnikas, Peru

Photo: Ammit Jack/Shutterstock

This one involves a hallucinogenic tea, but it’s far more than some simple, experimental high. Ayahuasca is made from the vines and leaves of plants native to the Amazon rainforest. When brewed together, they create a tea with dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a powerful and long-lasting psychedelic, and a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) that allows the drug to pass the blood-brain barrier. Communities across Amazonian South America have traditionally used the “vine of death” in healing ceremonies as a powerful anchor for the user to connect with the spirit world, lets their miseries die, and emerge healed. Modern neurology is starting to define what is happening to our brains after drinking ayahuasca, but the narrative remains the same: transformational near-death sensations as the body suffers and the mind expands.

What makes it demanding

There will be vomiting. Or diarrhea. Maybe both, but at the very least, your body will try. This purging is seen as a normal part of the process, and tribes who use ayahuasca see this as the soul expelling all the nastiness that keeps us down. Dizziness and raised blood pressure are also part of the physical demands of the tea.

There are also powerful forces at work mentally. Ayahuasca impacts neurons, the limbic system, and how you process emotions and memories. Your thoughts are unrestrained, and there are no guarantees about what you will experience.

Why it’s worth it

While it remains contentious, believers swear that a single use of ayahuasca is a shortcut to what years or even decades of other treatments can do for people suffering from PTSD, anxiety, and emotional trauma. Many come to an ayahuasca retreat after trying more traditional therapies with no lasting reprieve.

A responsible ayahuasca retreat is done with experienced locals and also a full medical team. While both Andean and Amazonian healers lead the Etnikas ayahuasca ceremonies, this retreat also has a cardiologist, psychiatrist, psychologist, general practitioner, and nursing staff as part of the process. Etnikas is firm in its stance that ayahuasca ceremonies should not be held daily, so at the most, you will participate in four. This leaves ample time for processing and other holistic treatment.

How to access it

Etnikas is in the Sacred Valley of Peru and offers anywhere from one- to eight-day retreats. You have to bring a comprehensive letter from your doctor outlining any physical and mental health conditions, both personal and family, to participate in any ceremonies. Once there, you will have regular health reviews, and if there are any concerns, you have to abstain.

Is it for you?

Safety cannot be overstated. This experience involves taking a substance with powerful and individually unpredictable results. You should not undertake this without doing your research and speaking with your doctor. Complete honesty with both your doctor and the program’s team is imperative.

2. Monastery pilgrimage — St. Patrick’s Sanctuary, Ireland

Photo: Lough Derg/Facebook

The official name is St. Patrick’s Sanctuary, but St. Patrick’s Purgatory is this Catholic monastery’s more popular name. Sitting on an Irish island in the remote Lough Derg, St. Patrick’s bears a distant resemblance to the infamous Alcatraz prison. But the term “purgatory” doesn’t just come from the institutional feel or even the legend that St. Patrick’s sits on one of the gates of hell — it’s from the hardship of the pilgrimage.

What makes it so demanding

First, you surrender your shoes and socks. The first 24 hours are a sleepless vigil, and if you need to nod off, you’ll be prodded awake. Instead, your hours are filled with worship as you pray at a rotation of stations around the island. These stations are not only in the church but also take you out shoeless on the cold, jagged rocks. There are long, scheduled hours of reflective silence. And, of course, no phones.

Then there’s the fasting. Participants fast from midnight on the day of their arrival to midnight on the third day. Coffee and tea, as well as an oatcake, are allowed each day. Participants joke about the island’s speciality: hot water with salt and pepper. Sleep and food become precious, grateful commodities.

Why it’s worth it

While most of the experiences listed here involve some level of deprivation and isolation to embrace spirituality, this is the only one that overtly embraces suffering. Still, devout visitors continue to come, many on a return visit, reporting that they feel stronger at the end and more confident in themselves. Even the late author Pete McCarthy, who irreverently captured his purgatory experience, couldn’t help but express a subtle transformation, despite his skepticism.

How to access it

Bookings for the pilgrimage and visits are done through the Lough Derg website.

Is it for you?

Suffering aside, this experience is also the only religious option on this list. While St. Patrick’s Sanctuary doesn’t openly restrict other faiths, it’s important to remember that the pilgrimage is centered around Catholicism. St. Patrick’s Sanctuary has a certain type of celebrity and draw, but ultimately, responsible tourism means being respectful.

3. Jungle immersion — Naku, Ecuadorian Amazon

Photo: Dr Morley Read/Shutterstock

The Sapara people have long lived in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but there are only around 600 left, and only five who speak Sapara. To teach outsiders of their culture and way of life, a group called Naku flies small groups deep into the Ecuadorian jungle for five days for total immersion.

What makes it demanding

In short: total immersion in the challenges of living in the jungle. You wake each day in your open-air cabin and rise to the sounds of the wildlife hidden in the dense vegetation. Activities involve ceremonial cleansing with the ash of medicinal plants, spiritual dream exploration, dancing, hiking, canoeing and swimming in the river, and fasting for those who want to participate in a shamanic ceremony that may involve ayahuasca. When you’re not fasting, each meal will be similar: simple vegetarian fare that might be supplemented with fresh-caught fish. All of our normally mindless, mundane routines back home take on new forms at Naku.

Daily life will not include phones, and there will be no WiFi of any kind. There’s no running drinkable water (though there are water bottles for guests) and no hot showers or baths (water is boiled for cleaning). If there’s an emergency, they’ll radio a plane for the short ride back to town, weather permitting.

Why it’s worth it

You’ll get exposure to a deep spiritual interconnectedness with nature and subconscious states. You’ll also have an opportunity to learn from a UNESCO intangible heritage community that, sadly, is vanishing.

It also benefits the hosts. The Sapara are using fees from visitors for a shared community fund. They’re aiming to cover health emergencies, improve basic needs like water filtration systems, and provide education past grade five for the communities. No one wants to feel like a cultural vampire, and this allows you to give back.

How to access it

This is a guided organized experience, with 10 guests on average and no more than 20. There’s some initial consultation involved to make sure it’s the right fit for you, especially if you are interested in the specialized healing center.

Is it for you?

This is the Amazon, and that is worth some serious reflection. Are you physically and mentally prepared to experience some level of deprivation? Even though people with the community and program are trained in first aid, you are a 30-minute plane ride from a city of any size. The risk and reward equation is a personal one that only you can set.

There are also complex ethics around voluntourism and cultural immersion. Responsible trips are community-based and not just tribal voyeurism. Naku presents itself as an idea driven by the Sapara, with community involvement and fees going to the community fund after trip costs, guides, and helpers are paid.

4. Ashrams — Bihar School of Yoga at Ganga Darshan, India

Photo: Bihar School of Yoga/Facebook

This is not your average yoga class. Ashrams have been a powerful piece in Hindu history and spirituality long before Eat, Pray, Love sold the experience. They are intentional communities, secluded from distraction, where people practice spiritual and physical exercise. Ashrams worldwide offer a spectrum of spiritual practice that vary in intensity and length. The particularly remote Bihar School of Yoga at Ganga Darshan is known for its no-frills focus and need for absolute commitment.

What makes it demanding

For starters, once you enter the Bihar School of Yoga for your training, you will not leave the campus again until you are done. No shopping, no banking, no email, no outer contact. There’s also no smoking, drinking, or cell phones. The provided meals are vegetarian, and any outside cooking and meat are prohibited. The rooms are simple, and bathrooms are shared.

The demands of the ashram are not so much about what you can’t have or do but what you fill your days with. The Bihar School of Yoga acknowledges that it has a disciplined environment that is not for the casual visitor. The daily routine, essential to the experience, must be followed. Waking and lights out are specifically set. The day includes at least four hours of yogic practice, including movement and meditation, and two daily practices of service work known as karma yoga. Silence is observed during all meals and from evening to morning, no exceptions.

Why it’s worth it

Imagine what you might discover about your strengths and limitations if you were able to devote entire days to personal and spiritual reflection. That is the glory of the ashram. It’s a lifestyle that’s temporarily free from attachment and distraction. Basically, you learn to live with yourself.

How to access it

There are ashrams in India that you can just drop in for a visit. This is not one of them. Applications for training and accommodation need to be sent by letter or fax. The school is selective, and “a personal introduction letter is preferred.” Having an ongoing yoga practice and a relationship with a spiritual mentor is at the very least an asset if not a necessity.

Is this for you?

Bihar Yoga is for serious applicants. Exposure to yogic practices before arrival is recommended. Doing the same thing day after day is not for everyone, and it’s good to get a taste of this before heading to the remote northeast corner of India for the Olympics of spirituality.

If you’re an aspiring ashram visitor, you also need to think about your re-entry to life after the ashram. This is the longest retreat listed, and reverse culture shock is real. Many people experience a period of depressive symptoms as they return to their normal routines. Have a game plan for ongoing spiritual practice. If you don’t feel curiosity or yearning for this, consider ashrams with shorter visits.

5. Pilgrimage walks — St. Olav Ways, Norway

People have long journeyed to spiritual places to find meaning and reset their lives. Sacred destinations and popular pilgrimages are on every continent — and they have the crowds to prove it. But there’s an off-the-radar option with Nordic beauty and quiet miles of consideration: St. Olav Ways.

What makes it demanding

It’s long. While there are several routes to take, the longest clocks in at just under 400 miles. Even the shortest official route is still 62 miles. Altitudes may not be soaring (no fjord scrambling required), but you’ll still need poles and boots to handle the “hills.” Shipping bags ahead is sporadic, and you’ll need to carry everything you need. You cover at least 12 miles a day, every day, if you want to finish in the typical month timeline.

This will also be a pilgrimage with fewer people. It’s not entirely deserted, especially when you factor in possible stays at official path lodging each night. But consider that Europe’s popular Camino de Santiago saw 300,000 completions in 2017. St. Olav Ways had 1,000. Solitude and separation will not be a problem. At least not yet.

Why it’s worth it

The demands also make the journey rewarding. The pilgrimage process comes through the effort, the mindful practice of the walking itself, and any religious devotions a person observes along the way. St. Olav’s hits all the criteria.

It also delivers the scenery with sweeping valleys, forests, central farmland, mountain vistas, medieval buildings and, of course, churches from all different ages. The route outlines the path and history of Olav II, a viking chief, the first king of united Norway, Christian convert, and, ultimately, saint. With the views, the culture, and the trail hospitality, this is one of the most affordable ways to experience Norway.

How to access it

Thanks to Norway’s free-to-roam rights, this experience is the easiest to just pick up and start. If you want, organized tour groups will help you manage the details. But it’s not necessary on this well-posted and mapped path. There are 106 official accommodations on the seven potential routes, but again, you’re free to camp and stay where you like as long as you’re respectful.

Is it for you?

Considerations for this experience are primarily physical: Do you want to walk for a month carrying your belongings on your back? Will you be physically able to attempt this, especially if you’re taking one of the more remote routes further from civilization?

Remember, too, that even for the most stolid of introverts, solitude can be unnerving. We often crave it, and silent contemplation is a part of most spiritual experiences. But be honest with yourself on where your mental health stands. Can you be by yourself, or with few companions, for long periods? It may sound lovely now, but don’t push yourself too far away from an exit plan if you’re already strained. There’s no shame in finding a more popular alternative route.

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