Written by Le Anh Nguyen Long
It was with great anticipation and excitement that I arrived at the Prana Dewi Retreat Centre in Bali on 14 September 2023, ready to join the other fellows for my first retreat with Samdhana. By this point, I had been at Samdhana for almost three years, but had only been a Fellow for about six months. After a period of intense discussion and planning with Fellows Coordinator Yvan Biot, Krisna and other Fellows (including Anny, Beth, Melanie, Patrick, Pete and Tony), I had an idea of what we wanted to achieve together and – at the same time – no idea of what to expect.
2023 has been an important year for Samdhana, as it marks our 20th year of working with communities. Yvan was the architect of the three-day retreat, which was built around three core themes for activities: remember and revisit; open up, learn and get up to date; and, finally, make future plans. Reflecting on those activities, I have summarised my experiences into three words – each a verb – that I associate with what unfolded on each day.
Day 1: Belonging
For me, day one actually began the night before, when I arrived at Prana Dewi close to midnight and was immediately embraced – literally and figuratively – by Fellows Tony, Suraya and Melanie. We spoke briefly and I arranged to have breakfast with Tony, who has been my mentor for more than a decade, and to visit Pura Luhur Batukaru with Melanie in the morning. Walking, trading stories and experiences with Melanie, and visiting this holy place with her, strengthened the bond I have with Samdhana. Day one was like a homecoming: a chance to rediscover a sense of belonging and be with members of my own tribe.
Next, we engaged in a meditation and movement session led by Chip and Nonette, who then guided us through a process of remembrance and reflection. A timeline was created and each Samdhana Fellow was invited to recount how they first became involved with Samdhana. Each of us recalled our origin stories, when we were looking for ways to break the mould, escape the ‘machine’ and find ways to build a better, kinder and more just world; a world in which Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities are empowered to assert their rights to a dignified existence, through self-determination and independent governance of their territories.
Each of the Fellows recalled how Samdhana became a magnet for like-minded and like-hearted thinkers, each of whom would then help to enrich Samdhana, widen its understanding of itself and its mission, and provide a catalyst for the development of new mechanisms and tools for meeting its multi-faceted vision. In the process, Fellows have since managed to build up a community. Hanging in the air, unspoken, was a gratitude towards Chip and Nonette for cultivating the ground in which Samdhana was seeded, and to one another for nourishing this community and helping it to grow.
The morning ended with a reflection by Tony, who broke the timeline down for us and left us with a challenge: to reflect on the significance of Samdhana in a fast-evolving region and global context, and to reflect on our mistakes and missteps, along with what we could learn from them. We considered this question over lunch and then, in the afternoon, another: “what makes us want to be a part of Samdhana? As the ‘new kid on the block’, I was struck by how the Samdhana Institute could be mission, aspiration and refuge all at the same time.
As the other Fellows visited Jatiluwih, Melanie, Yvan and I stayed behind to meet with young staff members and partners. They would be in charge the next day and we wanted to give them free range and assure them we were there to support them. After dinner, Chip led us in a nuanced and thoughtful conversation on the many meanings of decolonisation and the various implications that emerging politics surrounding decolonisation discourses have for our work and our community. We embraced the opportunity to engage with these different ways of thinking, while still remaining true to our convictions as members of Samdhana.
Day 2: Accompanying
The morning kicked off with Pete treating us to a wonderful and artful refresher of the events, learnings and reflections from the day before. We proceeded with joy, curiosity and open-heartedness as our young teachers engaged us in a joyful icebreaker and invited us to travel with them through their story.
We were given the chance to learn about their dreams, their aspirations and the struggles they continue to face. I visited with the partners and staff from the Mekong area and heard heart-breaking stories of oppression, intertwined with hopeful and courageous tales of resistance and resilience. The impact of the stories was significant. We all felt sorrow, anger and frustration mixed with admiration for our young hosts; we also developed an understanding that we, as Samdhana, have so much more left to do – and to give. Fellows were brought to tears. And then the time came to share their concerns, their own very personal stories and even their own poetry. We were all gripped by the moment.
We broke off and returned to participate and barter in a marketplace of ideas. In such an ingenious set up, so many wonderful ideas were shared and exchanged. And in all this wealth of imagination, one word stuck with me: companionship. Our young partners did not want to be helped or supported. They wanted companionship – for someone to accompany them on this journey. This reminded me of the words of wisdom Ram Dass imparted to us: “we're all just walking each other home.” Once gain we were grateful, this time to these young people for sharing so much with us and for walking by our side in this moment. Much credit goes to Melanie and Beth, who organised the day and made it possible for the young people to be in charge that morning – and thank goodness for it.
In the afternoon, there was a lively discussion on inclusivity, on ways of working and the challenges and opportunities change had brought. We discussed Samdhana’s accomplishments, changing relationships with other organisations, the importance of communication and perception, reflected on the promise of ‘one Samdhana’ and heard the results of an external evaluation. I am always in awe of just how much the staff at Samdhana are able to accomplish. Beyond manifesting the mission and vision of Samdhana fellows, they find a way to enhance it and bring their own creativity, talent and heart into it. In me, they simply inspire awe.
The afternoon was filled with lively discussions, particularly in regard to the danger of Samdhana becoming a victim of its own success. Growing means changing relationships and new dynamics, which are not always healthy. The discussions were open and honest, with occasional tense moments, disagreements, discomfort and even tears. However, honesty and openheartedness have a way of clearing the air, and love can lead the way to understanding and reconciliation. When fellows who had argued ended the day with an embrace, they embodied Samdhana; a Sanskrit term that means healing, uniting and peace-making.
In the evening, Tony led us in a spirited conversation about mentorship and accompaniment. Should we mentor next-generation agents of change and, if so, how should we go about it? Many of the ideas, experiences and thoughts shared in the evening would resurface in our discussions on the following day. For me, it was a treat to catch up afterward with Tony; my valued mentor, teacher and friend.
Day 3: Committing
Day three began alongside Dami and Melanie, with whom I made a pilgrimage up to Pura Luhur Batukaru. I could tell that Melanie and Dami were also there to greet a friend, who made Prana Dewi a possibility for us. They remembered him and told his story. They honoured him and visited with him. It was in this spirit of remembrance and appreciation that day three began.
Just as Pete had done the day before, Jo creatively unpacked the lessons learned and treasures discovered through our discussions and engagement on day two. After that, led by Patrick and Tony, we split up into working groups that would decide how to tackle some of the challenges that lay ahead and how to seed more change in the world. We made decisions on how to grow our community and how to keep it active; we made decisions on how to clarify the relationship between fellowship and institute, and discussed the first steps that needed to be taken towards that end; and we made decisions on how to support young activists, to accompany them in their struggle. In other words, we recommitted to Samdhana and to each other.
I truly appreciated the gusto, open-heartedness, honesty and community feeling that I found at Prana Dewi. Every single person who I had spoken to before setting foot in Prana Dewi told me, “that place changes you.” I can tell you that Prana Dewi did not disappoint, and nor did Samdhana. What do I mean by this? There’s a Michael Buble song that I often find myself humming when I’m in a particularly good mood. Its lyrics are wistful and hopeful. The lines I sing the most to myself are as follows:
I might have to wait, I'll never give up
I guess it's half timing and the other half's luck
Wherever you are, whenever it's right
You'll come out of nowhere and into my life
And I know that we can be so amazing
And baby, your love is gonna change me
And now I can see every possibility
And somehow, I know that it'll all turn out
You'll make me work so we can work to work it out
And promise you, kid, I'll give so much more than I get
I just haven't met you yet
Without even realising it, I had spent so much time anticipating, waiting to meet Samdhana. Now, having finally met Samdhana, I feel that I belong, that I am accompanied and I am fully committed.