Heavy winter rains pound the Vedanta Retreat House roof as they roar in from the Pacific Ocean on this dark night. Here, at the Olema Retreat, is a sanctuary for women. This spiritual refuge from the cold, wind, rain and the harshness of the world is a place for the soul to rest and regain clarity, insight and inspiration. Late in spring, the silence will be punctuated only by the song of birds. A solitary bobcat may amble quietly along the forest-edge, a reminder of the power and strength gathered through solitude. These wild creatures, seldom seen by humans, are a gentle reminder of our need to remove ourselves from the world for a few days to dive within the sweet territory of the soul.
Just down the road is Camp Taylor where Swami Vivekananda meditated under the stars. And to the south is San Francisco where Swamiji founded the second Vedanta Society in America in 1900. From busy coastal Highway One, a humble wooden sign quietly announces the Vedanta Retreat.
We enter the long, meandering road lined with fragrant, one hundred fifty feet high eucalyptus trees towering on either side like sentries guarding the path from the outer to the inner world. The Vivekananda Bridge must be crossed like the threshold from one realm of existence to another. The cares and concerns of the outside world fall away as we drive towards the Women's Retreat House. Even the mind seems to sigh in relief. This is the space for inner contemplation.
More than two thousand acres of ranch land on the Point Reyes Peninsula, northwest of San Francisco, provide the setting for the largest Vedanta retreat in America. It was dedicated by Swami Ashokananda on 26 July 1946, and is established in the midst of green lush meadows by the hillsides draped with forest. As a tribute to Swami Vivekananda, trees were planted here at Olema and rocks set from places associated with his travels in America, including the Hale residence in Chicago, Thousand Island Park and Ridgley Manor in New York. We, the students of Vedanta in the West are indebted to Swamiji who gave more than four years of his precious short life to us, out of only nine years of his public teaching and ministry.
A mid-western farmer's daughter raised in America's heartland, my first encounter with Vedanta happened through a next-door neighbour. He and his wife befriended our family when we moved to the city of Fort Dodge, Iowa. He demonstrated yoga and spoke inspiring words of India's eternal wisdom. Several years later, our families moved to California. As a young college student, I walked past the Vedanta Society in San Francisco on Vallejo Street and wrote down the name of Swami Prabuddhananda. When I wrote to him, he suggested that I go to the Vedanta Society in Sacramento to meet Swami Shraddhananda.
During the first years there, I was thrilled by Swami Vivekananda and his message of strength and fearlessness. His dedicated Irish disciple, Sister Nivedita, also inspired me. It was easy to accept Swamiji's belief that women should solve their own problems. Sister Nivedita wrote in The Master as I Saw Him: 'Our Master [Swamiji] regarded the Order to which he belonged as one whose lot was cast for all time with the cause of Woman and the People ... Never forget! The word is, "Woman and the People"!'
We young Vedantins found refuge at the Women's Retreat House at Olema. We met women disciples of Swami Ashokananda. Their dedication to Vedanta and spiritual life and their clear, shining eyes inspired us. Olema became my haven for regular, intense spiritual practice from the mid-1970s. The heart's clear appeals are recorded in my journals maintained over the years: 'O Thou! Companion of my soul. There is none like Thee! An ocean of love swells within when I remember Thee. Keep me ever at the shelter of Thy feet in life and in death.'
Swami Ashokananda (1893-1969) was an illustrious monk and spiritual teacher of the Ramakrishna Order. He dedicated his life to the ideals of Swami Vivekananda and came to the West in the early 1930s. Under his guidance, the Vedanta Society of Northern California built three temples-in Berkeley, San Francisco and Sacramento-and also purchased the Olema Retreat property. His lectures include 'Swami Vivekananda, Prophet of the New Man' and 'Swami Vivekananda, Prophet to America'. Through his talks, he described Swamiji as the conduit and embodiment of Sri Ramakrishna's powerful message and quoted Swamiji's well-known dictum, 'He led that great life and I read the meaning.'
Among his disciples was Marie Louise Burke, later known as Sister Gargi. She dedicated her life to research Swami Vivekananda's experiences in America and also stayed at the Women's Retreat House during the 1970s. She wrote the six-volume classic, Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries; a biography of her spiritual teacher, Swami Ashokananda, A Heart Poured Out and her own spiritual memoir, A Disciple's Journal. She co-authored with Shelley Brown, Shafts of Light, a guide to the practice of Vedanta based upon the spiritual instructions of Swami Ashokananda.
In 1957, Swami Shraddhananda (1907-1996) became the assistant minister of the Vedanta Society of Northern California. He served with Swami Ashokananda and travelled nearly every week from San Francisco to the monastic community at Olema and on to Sacramento to support and supervise the construction of the new Vedanta Societies, with occasional visits to Berkeley. Once he became the swami in-charge of the Vedanta Society of Sacramento, he established a choir and taught many of the Bengali and Sanskrit songs which appear in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. The Sacramento Vedanta choir sang at the Memorial Day retreats held at Olema in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to sing during the 4 July Olema retreat which honours the mahasamadhi of Swami Vivekananda.
Swami Prabuddhananda, the current minister of the Vedanta Society of Northern California, oversaw the construction of the Women's Retreat House on the Olema property. It was dedicated in May 1972, and opened to spiritual aspirants the following year. The pamphlet of the Vedanta Retreat quotes the Svetasvatara Upanishad: `In a place helpful to the mind and pleasing to the eyes, in a hidden retreat, let the aspirant cultivate spirituality.' The swami interviews those interested in making a pilgrimage to Olema and offers suggestions on how to have a successful spiritual retreat. He also holds regular spiritual classes at the Women's Retreat House with those interested in discussing spiritual topics.
The established silent hours are from four to seven o'clock in the evening and from nine at night until ten o'clock in the morning. A retreat limit of five days further enhances the atmosphere at the Olema Women's Retreat House. No cell phones, computers or televisions are allowed within and most participants choose to be silent during the entire stay. A full kitchen for individual preparation of simple meals and a library of spiritual literature are available for all. Women spend time in self study, contemplation, meditation and other spiritual practices. As America's own poet and philosopher, John Muir declared, 'Keep close to Nature's heart... break clear away, once in a while and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your Spirit clean.'
Currently, hundreds of women take advantage of this serene atmosphere each year. At Olema, individuals can practise their own faith's traditions. Self-directed personal retreats are conducted by Buddhist women along with Sufis, Christians, Jews and Hindus. In the simple meditation room, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda surely smile as women of all faiths quietly sit in the same space, inwardly engaged in their own spiritual practice.
Here at Olema, removed from the world, inspiration bubbles up naturally from within. One resonates with Sri Krishna's words in the Bhagavad Gita, (IX.34): 'Fix your mind on Me, be My devotee, sacrifice to Me; thus fixing the mind on Me and having Me for the supreme goal, you will attain Me alone.'
The retreat house itself has imbibed the vibrations of numberless meditations, contemplations and soul searching of the women during the past thirty-eight years. Women return to their lives with families, work colleagues and communities feeling refreshed and inspired by their experiences while on retreat. Most report an inner spiritual strength and greater flexibility in adapting to changing times and circumstances. Each year a public interfaith celebration is held at the Olema Retreat during the Memorial Day weekend in May. The entire property serves as sacred space for this annual spiritual festival.
Throughout the year, the fruit orchard, flower beds and gardens and the retreat grounds are lovingly tended by members of the Vedanta Society of Northern California's convent, monastery and devotees. Guest speakers from many spiritual traditions share inspiring thoughts on spiritual themes. Lunch and dinner are provided free of charge for the hundreds of participants in this all-day programme.
On 8 April 1900, Swami Vivekananda delivered, 'Is Vedanta the Future Religion?' lecture in nearby San Francisco. 'If Vedanta-this conscious knowledge that all is one Spirit-spreads, the whole of humanity will become spiritual. But is it possible? I do not know. Not within thousands of years. The old superstitions must run out ... But you are Spirit. Pull yourself out of difficulties by yourself! Save yourself by yourself. There is none to help you-never was. To think that there is, is sweet delusion.'
Those who enter the Vedanta Retreat at Olema for self-directed spiritual study and inquiry are indeed fortunate. There one can put Swamiji's instructions into practice. 'Whenever you have leisure, go into solitude for a day or two. At that time, refrain from having relations with the outside world and avoid engaging in conversations with worldly people on worldly affairs.'