Written by Kara Goodsell
During the course of an interview, the Dalai Lama was once asked if he ever felt lonely. He answered no and said that he realises he is no different to anybody else on the planet, experiencing the same spectrum of emotions as others, and this understanding gives him the comfort he needs in knowing he is not alone.
The prefix ‘com’ means ‘with, together or jointly’. Think community, compassion, comfort. Think of the feelings these words inspire in you – it is through our experience of sharing with others that the separateness of ‘I’ can surrender to the collective ‘we’. For meditation teacher Stephan Kahlert, it was the isolation of feeling distinctly alone that was the catalyst for him strapping on a backpack and beginning a journey from post-war Germany to a community in Byron Bay.
“I know it is a cliché, but I was empty,” says Stephan. “From a young age I had a great interest in philosophy and by extension the human psyche. I sought the reasons for existence, constantly asking “What am I doing? What is life about?” This conundrum of existence carried Stephan across continents and transformed the interior landscape of his being.
“It was the 70s and the paradigm of post-war Germany had started its slow shift, embracing the philosophies of Woodstock and the notion of a progressive society. I had left the army as a conscientious objector, rejecting what my parents and society were instructing me to follow. I studied psychology at University in Heidelberg and soon after opened a pub with friends in the University town which was a hub for left-wing thinkers and community-minded groups.” Stephan embraced the anti-authoritarian ideals of his patrons and opened himself to an alternative culture. This lateral mindedness eventually urged him to travel.
“I didn’t know what I was looking for, only that I had a deep longing to find something else. I had been involved in film – big Hollywood productions on location in Munich. I had a good grasp of English so was entrusted to look after luminaries such as Bianca Jagger and Jeff Bridges. I was in an environment where money was no object, working long hours, lots of parties and huge stress. I saw first-hand how people who appeared to have it all were still unhappy.”
Stephan felt as if he was treading water in a shallow pond, drowning not waving, and finally became submerged in an existential crisis. He landed on the west coast of Australia in the late ‘70s. “I was walking the streets of Fremantle when I saw a small group of people dressed in orange robes. Something in me connected, tears started streaming down my face, and I didn’t know why.”
Stephan struck up a conversation with the members of the group, who invited him to their Centre. “When the door opened, I knew I wanted to become a part of this.” ‘This’ was the Sanyassin movement, led by Osho.
“The community was actively involved in meditation and offered courses in personal growth. Suddenly my whole life turned upside down. I was dressing in orange, meditating each day, and encountering new therapeutic models such as Gestalt, Primal Scream Encounter, Breath Therapy and Re-birthing.
After studying the ‘theory of psychology’, Stephan says these expressive forms of therapy “ripped me wide open.” He immersed himself in communal living for three years before moving to another community in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where he joined the staff of the Jungian Transpersonal Psychology Centre. The Centre had over 50 people in residence and Stephan applied his skills teaching and facilitating groups in meditation.
“It was a great learning experience. I was living and working in an ashram-like therapeutic community embedded in meditation, personal growth and interaction with others.”
“Eventually I left the community and traveled to India to pay my respects to Guru Osho.” The Osho community was like a mini-Metropolis consisting of over 10,000 people from all walks of life. Community members were encouraged to follow spiritual and creative pursuits such as meditation, personal development, music, pottery and dance.
“I began teaching Tantric Meditation techniques, having discovered the process of transforming sexual energy into spiritual energy.”
This was the first of many journeys to India for Stephan. “I feel a homecoming in India. In my experience of India, spirituality is part of life. Nothing is behind closed doors – people pray in front of trees and on the streets. Everything is a shrine and has spiritual significance. Amongst the chanting and music lies endless possibilities – cows bellowing beside sadus performing pujas (worship), immaculate 1960s Ford Ambassadors billowing clouds of sepia dust toward beggars on wheels.
“Life and death on every corner, veiled behind the coloured curtains of saris. The devotional and emotional character of the Indians touches something deep inside of me.”
Stephan would often withdraw into a simple hut and retreat into silence for months on end. It was on such a retreat that Stephan experienced what yogis call ‘Samprajnata Samadhi’ which translates to ‘Bliss with seed.’
“At the time I didn’t know what was happening – I felt an inexplicable bliss with everything. I knew there is no individual self. It was in deep stillness that I finally found the answer to all my questions – in the gaps between thoughts.”
Stephan returned to Australia, now his home, in this heightened state of bliss. However this return to ‘normality’, family and commitments, slowly dissipated his experience and Stephan began to slide into a depression.
“It was so strange – a negative emptiness. After the peaks of my experience, I didn’t know where to go. It was like my life could finish now. The painful thing was that I saw the light and experienced the deep understanding … and then it left me.”
During this period of painful struggle, Stephan’s spiritual practices and reading dropped away. “I was back in darkness. I could no longer call myself a spiritual seeker as there was nothing to seek.”
|Stephan and his wife Bettina on the beach at Byron Bay|
Then Stephan found yoga. “My wife is a yoga teacher and she finally dragged me along to a class with John Ogilvie. There was no judgment and I was encouraged to do whatever felt right for me. It was such a relief to not need to do what everybody else in the class was doing. I kept at it and found through gaining physical flexibility, I could begin to balance my mental state. This, in turn, encouraged me to reignite my spiritual practices and move back toward the light.”
Stephan returns to India every year and plans to head over in November with Byron Yoga Centre. “I have been asked whether one needs to travel to India to experience the process. It is hard to put into words, but the vibration is different there. For over 10,000 years, people on that continent have sat meditating, struggling with the same mind.”
Stephan continues to maintain a regular yoga, meditation and pranayama practice and is now a key facilitator with Byron Yoga Centre, teaching meditation and philosophy and counseling those in need. Indeed, a wander around the Byron Yoga Centre will often find Stephan sitting with someone, listening intently or deep in conversation, helping them find a way from difficulty.
“When John offered me a role at the Yoga Centre over five years ago, it felt like a homecoming. I was given the opportunity to teach meditation and philosophy and to share my experience in counseling others. It all came full circle, where I share what is dearest to my heart – the search for the path home.”
|Stephan meditating on Byron Bay beach|
Stephan practices what he preaches, maintaining togetherness in his home life by establishing a community of like-minded people based on common ecological and philosophical principles.
“I wanted to transcend the isolation of the suburbs, so about six years ago, a small group got together and bought 120 acres outside of Bangalow, which we developed into individual lots. I feel strongly that, with the help of a community, we can survive the political and environmental crisis of our times. When I am in the spirit of community, this expansion of self loosens the grip of the ‘I’”.
“It is through a deeply felt realisation of the oneness of life that we can dissolve our mistaken notion that we are separate. If we can honestly live this truth, we can embrace our life with joy and laughter.”