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Mandali: Where The Experience Economy Meets Spirituality

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By Nastassja Salem

Away from the wine, cheese and sweet idleness of authentic Italian culture is a completely different version of relaxation. Nestled in the Alps, you’ll meet a Dutch idea, translated by a Scottish meditation expert, and delivered by a team of local Italians. Mandali is in many ways revolutionary: it is a sanctuary of self-inquiry, wellness, and relaxation, born from the most interesting of stories.

It’s here, somewhere between Milan and Torino, that new age spiritual practices, relaxation and the power of thought (or lack of it) have the upper hand. The recently opened non-profit retreat center is situated in an energetically powerful geographic point, identified as such by the Feng Shui masters and energy workers involved in its inception. Though the views from the center nestled in the mountain tops overlooking Lago d’Orta are silencing, you’d be mistaken to think that is all they have to offer. At Mandali, the laissez-faire character of Italian culture meets the all-accepting embrace of Eastern practices aimed at awakening the mind.

In their previous lives, Mandali’s founders Wouter Tavecchio and Wildrik Timmerman were hugely successful in the music festival industry as the founders of Tomorrowland, the world’s largest electronic music festival, amongst other such events. The events company they founded, Qdance, was actually referenced in the renowned book about the revolutionary business theory of the Experience Economy that suggests that providing products and services alone are no longer satisfactory, but that brands must compete on the experiences they offer.  

And it’s exactly life-changing experiences that the founders of Mandali now specialise in. After nurturing their own spiritual practices in pursuit of real happiness, they decided to invest in a space that would allow for others to experience their own spiritual awakening through offering different disciplines and methods. Today, Mandali is  a discovery den for spiritual wellbeing and an extension of their life’s work as providers of experiences.

Unlike some retreats, Mandali allows for digital devices to be used, allowing you to do what you need to do for the days you are there. They believe technology can be an aid to our state of relaxation, so long as we are not tethered to our phones for work. One example how they play a song from their Spotify playlist at the beginning and end of the guided meditation classes. The objective is to help you create an anchor to that moment; one that you can revisit when listening to that tune back home – the memory of it should transport you to the space and mood of that moment in  a way that only music can.

Though that may not sound revolutionary, for me, it was still more accessible than traditional retreats designed for experts in yoga or meditation. Whether you are experienced or not, you can benefit greatly from the space, the intention and the teachings to the extent that you desire.

Come As You Are

The retreat attracts people who want to contribute to a space of open hearts, where anyone can feel accepted just as they are. The retreat center is not run by any particular doctrine, dogma or discipline; the objective instead is for you to spontaneously elicit a state of connection and oneness. Aesthetics here are what you’d expect from a world class retreat: think thick, downy duvets, brass bathtubs and furniture made from natural rattan, wood and stone. There are spaces for all budgets, ranging from shared dorm-like rooms to private apartments.

A sense of perfectionism pervades throughout, both in the selectivity of the activities on offer, down to the scrutiny of the intention of the visitors-to-be. All must “vibe” with the space, or so I am told. And those people may be more diverse than you’d expect.

Over dinner in the warmly lit,  intimate dining hall, I chatted with an Australian “Wall Street-er” about to be married, an exhausted theatre director from Amsterdam, a university professor from Berlin, and a Belgian forest conservationist. Conversations produced tears, and openness connected us. Theories as to what exactly was “in the air” that created such calm and content was much debated, but seemed to boiled down to the agreement that the intention of the space meant all was flowing in the right direction.

It is worth mentioning that aside from connection, there is also the aspect of relaxation that is a major aspect of the awakening process they want us to learn. At Mandali I learnt that whatever you yourself deem as true “relaxation” is the activity that will allow your whole being to melt into absolute acceptance and to energize. This could be sitting alone, staring into space, reading a book, chatting with new friends – whatever makes you happy. The main thing is to nix the notions of “benefit” or “achievement” we are so stuck on. That’s why taking part in the classes is entirely optional, and pushing yourself is not advised. With so little distraction, you really have all the time in the world to figure out what works for you.

For example, mornings can begin with with a guided meditation in the temple,  followed by a breakfast of fresh fruit and cereals in social silence to allow for mindful indulgence. There’s plenty of time for massages, saunas or Jacuzzi in the spa, walks, Tai Chi or Chi Kung workshops, swims and socializing before the 11am Hatha Yoga class in the temple. Every detail is thoughtful, from the way there are plates of fruits, herbal waters and teas laid around should you get peckish, to the generous manner in which vegetarian buffet is laid out. You can indulge in some lunch, practice more yoga or do what you wish in more free time and then follow this with a healthy dinner.

I can’t stress enough how enjoyable it is to eat a healthy meal overlooking Lake Orta. Communal tables really do encourage you to make new friends and share your experiences, but if you prefer, there are also more private areas, too. The vegetarian menu was carefully designed by chef Kes Lilani, who includes foods based on their nutritional and  healing qualities – some are even grown in private gardens. Vegan and gluten-free diets are catered to, of course.

“Just let go. The moment is as it is and acceptance is opening to what is there without resisting” we hear, eyes closed in the candle-lit temple, sitting on meditation chairs wrapped in blankets. This is what safety feels like, I think. There is no running away here, only platonic acceptance.  

So it goes that it was the kindness of the open hearts I met that allowed me to feel whole again, like we were all in this healing together. Hours later,  I rolled over in bed to the sunrise over the lake and I thought: it always shines, whatever its mood. Perhaps I should learn from the sun. I didn’t need to read a book, take a class, or make an effort to experience that insight. That’s exactly the type of confirmation I was seeking, that everything I needed to know could already be accessed from within – if I just took the time to tune in.

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Nastassja Salem

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