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Letter from a retreat in Petra

By SANA ABDALLAH

AMMAN, Jordan, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- They were an amazing five days spent in the ancient city of Petra in southern Jordan, where 17 of us gathered for a retreat and a "semi-advanced" course given by the Art of Living Foundation, one of the largest international non-government organizations in the world focusing on human and spiritual well-being.

Five days of spiritual techniques, including almost three days of silence, a lot of breathing exercises, meditation, caffeine-free days and vegetarian meals spent in an old renovated stone village, Taybet Zaman, brought us all together in a special experience that is hard to describe in layman's terms.

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Surrounded by the silent, rocky hills of Petra, our Art of Living teacher, Christoph Glaser, who traveled from Germany to guide us, started our days at 6:30 a.m. with yoga and breathing exercises. The days ended at 10 p.m. after a "satsang" celebration of singing and music-playing, and recorded talks by Art of Living founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, during which he shared his profound spiritual knowledge, wisdom and humor with us.

In between, there were sessions of deep, guided meditations that opened many of our hidden wounds, cleansing our souls from pain, anger, stress, and all the earthly vices we gathered in the core of bodies and minds throughout the years of struggling to live.

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All of us, mostly women and a few men, left our families, children, jobs, and other "responsibilities" behind to find our Divine selves that we had lost throughout our adulthood. I believe it worked for most of us, if not all.

It was a perfect opportunity to drop our personal, professional and social worries and to turn away from the anguish -- if only for several days -- from the violence and destruction, taking place around us in Palestine and Iraq.

We were all Jordanians, and one Iraqi woman. We represented a cross-section of an Arab society: Muslims, Christians, young and old, lawyers, professionals and businesspeople, all with different backgrounds, experiences, beliefs and views. Yet we had so much in common, not only with each other, it turned out, but with all humanity.

Although some of us wept at times, consumed by our silence and reflection, most of the time, we laughed a lot.

When I asked our teacher, Christoph, how our group was different than others he has taught in other parts of the world, he said ours was the "one that laughed the most, and was very open with their feelings and emotions."

We had all taken the basic Art of Living (AOL) course before, and we wanted to further our spiritual development after having found that the techniques of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, one of India's most popular spiritual leaders, were working for us here in Jordan.

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Since the first AOL teacher came to Jordan a few years ago, more than 250 people have taken the basic course. Although there is no AOL center set up in the kingdom yet as some are working to officially register it here as an NGO branch, that number is growing. And the committed members get together once a week for a breathing session, known as "Sudarshan Kriya."

However, the foundation has reached other countries in the region, especially in some of the oil-rich Arab Gulf states. Most recently, it has sent six teachers to help out Iraqis traumatized by the consecutive wars and sanctions that have plagued their country in the past 20 years. So far, more than 85 Iraqis have been taught the AOL techniques.

New Age spirituality is being quickly embraced in this country of 5.2 million, as it is spreading across the region and the world, despite the strong conservative Islamic mood in Jordan. Personally, since my "transformation" last July, I keep coming across so many people here that have found comfort and understanding through various Eastern meditation techniques.

Some of those conservative Muslims, especially the women, have resorted to the Eastern form of spiritual methods simply because they do not see any conflict with their own religious beliefs. They see more similarities than differences when the general philosophy focuses on the power of God, and "alternative" ways of coming closer to the wisdom of the Divine.

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Nevertheless, there is a general caution among those who have embraced New Age to remain low profile to avert any possible resistance or uproar from the organized and powerful Islamic groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood Movement, which recently won 17 seats in the 110-seat Lower House of Parliament.

There is a risk of having their practices forcibly stopped if the conservative Islamists become loud enough to persuade the authorities that these practices contradict the teachings of Islam, which many believe they don't. That's why there are certain Eastern traditional paths that are being kept hidden from public view, even though the AOL members do not hide their spiritual activities and are working to officially register the foundation in the country.

The fact that the AOL Foundation -- whose wide range of non-profit programs are run by volunteers -- is recognized as an official NGO of the United Nations would probably make its presence in Jordan and the rest of the Muslim countries easier.

In addition to the AOL courses offered to individuals, corporate employees, and students, the foundation, which works in more than 140 countries, develops and sponsors services across the world, including programs for HIV and cancer patients, rehabilitative training for prisoners and vocational training for rural populations.

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Describing itself as a "an international nonprofit educational, charitable, and humanitarian foundation," it has been heavily involved in educational development, including setting up free schools in 22 rural villages surrounding Bangalore, India, the hometown of its founder.

I am among more than one million people worldwide who have been deeply touched by the Art of Living courses, especially the recent one in Petra, where I felt one with the world, one with the Divine -- a feeling that I believe will remain with me for the rest of my life.

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