As mentioned in my previous post, I am back once again in India in an attempt to get my mojo back after a challenging few months in the UK. This is the fourth time in just over a year that I’ve touched down on Indian soil, having made three separate trips last year beginning in January. Clearly this country has had a big effect on me and it continues to call me back. I thought I’d attempt to explain why.
In my thirty years of life on earth India has proven to be one of my greatest teachers and certainly one of my harshest. It is not an easy country to travel, by any means, which is why I put off coming here for so many years (I began making solo foreign escapades aged 18 and it was not until I was 29 that I felt ready for India). Somehow I knew early on that this country is not a holiday destination; it is far, far more than that, and whatever it had in store for me would require a level of maturity and resilience that I just didn’t have in my teens and early twenties. Boy does she keep proving me right!
Below are some of the lessons which I continually find myself coming face-to-face with while here – and will continue to do so, here or otherwise, again and again – until one day, hopefully, finally (!), I will learn from them once and for all.
1. Let go, let go, let go, let go!
By letting go it all gets done.
– Lao Tzo
If I had to sum up what India continues to teach me, and I know many who’ll attest to this, it’s LET. GO. Let go of control, let go of expectations, let go of fear, let go of judgment… Just let go!
We all have control issues, especially those of us conditioned by Western culture. Whether it’s a diagnosable disorder such as OCD, ADD or anorexia, or just a general obsession with order and routine, touch down in India and within minutes your nerves will be put to the test. The functional chaos that characterises this bizarre yet wonderful country simply cannot be endured, let alone enjoyed without a laid back attitude, and for those with serious anxiety / control disorders, India is quite possibly hell on earth. On the flip side, for those who can and are willing to use the physical, mental and psychological challenges that this crazy place presents on a minutely basis as tools for self-inquiry and healing, India is the ideal playground.
Case in point: booking train tickets. My boyfriend and I (he joined me in Rishikesh when my yoga course finished) had been trying to book train tickets from Rishikesh to Varanasi for four consecutive days with no success. Many different ‘travel agents’ (men of varying degrees of English and a questionable knowledge of the tourist industry) attempted to supply these to us on a last-minute basis, all with their best assurances that despite the trains being fully booked some emergency slots would become available. The first attempt was thwarted by a citywide power cut following a 24-hour downpour, the other failures we could not quite deduce the reasons for. Needless to say, by day four we were pretty peeved.
Aside from the obvious disappointment of being let down over and over again (Indians don’t like to be negative and so have a habit of over-promising!) the real disappointment came as we had intended to arrive in Varanasi in time for Holi Festival on 6th May, something my boyfriend in particular had had his hopes up about. Although of course there was nothing to be gained by us being upset, we soon started bickering, taking out our disappointment at not having had our expectations met on each other.
What we should have done instead? Surrendered.
Any seasoned traveller in India, myself included, knows full well that this kind of occurrence is commonplace and there is little to nothing one can do about it. Rather than getting worked up, which served only to cause us distress, we should have used this as an opportunity to practise the art of letting go. After all, not knowing what is going to happen next is all part of this country’s charm (it wouldn’t be India without travel mayhem!) and, if you can let go of expectations, surrender control, and embrace the inevitable uncertainty of life, magic happens…
As if to prove the point: Having resigned ourselves to staying in Rishikesh for a few more days, we kissed and made up from our latest petty dispute and headed out into the sunshine, determined to make the best of our new circumstances. Just this simple act of letting go was so cathartic: I felt an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders and, having escaped the torment of my restless mind, I was free again to feel, hear and see the beauty all around me.
Without much thought we ambled up the road to a guesthouse where we’d had a massage a few days prior to enquire about courses, this being something we both want to do while in India. We were greeted by a friendly and well-spoken man who told us his brother (the massage teacher) would most certainly be able to accommodate our needs and we could even begin the following day. Then he said: ‘Come, join us for something special. Upstairs on your left’, he gestured. ‘Come, come.’
Not quite sure what was in store, we obediently took off our shoes, tiptoed up the stairs and gingerly entered a dark room with a candlelit alter at its centre. Adjusting our eyes to the light we saw a handful of other Westerners sitting on the floor and silently we joined them, each nestling onto a cushion facing the softly burning flame, surrounded by incense, flowers and other offerings to the gods. Within minutes I was in a deeply meditative state, with eyes closed and heart open, chanting mantras into the dusk settling over Rishikesh. Just what the doctor ordered.
I left floating on air, my mind calmer than it had been in days and my soul nourished by the repetitive, soothing sounds of the ancient songs that call the Divine in his/her many manifestations. And although my boyfriend isn’t exactly the happy-clappy Hare Krishna type, I could tell it had had a positive effect on him too. Strolling hand-in-hand to find some dinner, we decided to stop by another travel agent’s on the way and arrange our onward train for four or five days’ time, after having completing the course in Ayruvedic massage at the lovely yogic guesthouse in Rishikesh. To our amusement, we found once again that all seats were booked, meaning we would have to do the emergency ticket dance in just a couple of days’ time and continue to do it until something came up. Nothing is ever easy in India, we laughed, that’s for sure!
But then a thought came to my mind: had we checked trains for the following day? It would mean traveling on Holi and missing the festivities, but perhaps this would mean they weren’t quite so full? Low and behold, there were two seats left for the next evening, in the class we had wanted, and seated together. A work of Divine intervention (and rather ironic given we had only just changed our mindset into embracing another few days in Rishikesh!) And so I write this from the train on the way to one of the oldest and holiest cities in the world, Varanasi. While it wasn’t quite the perfect plan we had formulated in our minds, we made it, and I for one learnt a lot of lessons along the way. Namely: let go. (NOTHING is under control!)
2. With(out) effort comes (no) reward
Overcoming sloth through earnestness, the wise climb beyond suffering to the peaks of wisdom. They look upon the suffering multitude as one from a mountaintop looks on the plains below.
The earnest spiritual aspirant, fearing sloth, advances like a fire, burning all fetters. Such seekers will never fall back; they are nearing nirvana.
– The Buddha, from the Dhammapada
My last trip to India was one of the most, if not the most, magical experiences of my life. And that is no exaggeration: ‘magic’ truly is the only word to describe what I saw and felt in the Himalayan hills in May last year. While the place (Dharamsala) itself is certainly special and the people I met are wonderful, there was a greater reason for the elation I felt, about which I have only briefly talked about on this blog. I was in the midst of a Kundalini awakening: the life-force energy which had before resided dormant at the base of my spine one day woke up, and furiously so, bringing with it a feeling of total ecstasy that lasted for days, and the memory of which has changed my life (and Self) immeasurably.
It was a state of Being so perfect that I felt impermeable to suffering, unafraid of death and filled with an overwhelming sense of love, appreciation and gratitude for life in all its manifestations, so much so that my heart ached and I had a permanent grin on my face. I didn’t sleep for days, so high that to close my eyes would be to miss the iridescent beauty all around me and the magical synchronicities that presented themselves in every moment, showing me how beautifully life flowed when one surrendered to the process instead of fighting it. It was, I realize now, a glimpse of nirvana – the feeling of joy that cannot be found in fleeting pleasures of the material world but can only be realized from within. And it was absolutely bloody amazing.
But, it didn’t last. And that disappointment was harder to bear than any before it.
I see now that coming back to London was a test – a test to see if (and how) I could balance my newfound spiritual awareness with my ‘old life’ in the physical realm. In many ways I failed (although I’d prefer to regard ‘failures’ more positively as ‘opportunities to grow’). Faced with the same worldly challenges that I’d left behind nine months before (earning money, dealing with banks and insurance companies, managing challenging relationships and facing difficult questions about the future), I soon found myself controlled again by my mind, once again suffering from the same self-doubt, fear and despondence which had held me back for so many years before. Realizing that I am, while on one hand connected with and an integral part of the most beautiful, perfect, blissful, transcendent energy, I am also, on the other, still decidedly human, came as a huge blow to my ego and my heart.
Naively, I realize now, I had hoped that negative thoughts and feelings would be banished from my psyche having gone through the magical experience of awakening in Dharamsala. I felt so at peace during those days when my energetic vibrations were at their highest – my chakras fully opened – that I believed nothing could ever hurt me again. Life was perfect and so was I. All I had to do was stay open, go with the flow and enjoy the ride. For a while I rode the waves successfully, continuing to travel for three months afterwards and enjoying every minute of it. (Even a broken foot couldn’t break my spirit!) Ending my trip at Burning Man was one heck of a climax; the energy there blew open my heart to the point of bursting, the love around and within me so intense I could hardly believe how wonderful life could be. So, to see this joy slowly slip away, leaving me once again ruled by a fearful and anxious mind, was a painfully disheartening experience.
The harsh but true lesson I am learning now is that I must work for this joy, if I am to experience it again – if I am to progress on my spiritual journey. I was lucky, or should I say blessed, to have had such a transcendent, out-of-this-world experience last year, but to maintain such a state of bliss takes effort – lifetimes of effort!
Coming back to India has reminded me of the path I need to take to cultivate this peace and joy again inside me. That path is yoga. And by yoga I don’t just mean Downward Facing Dog et al (although physical practice is important), I mean yoga by its literal meaning: to unite; yoga as the practice of mind-body-spirit connection; yoga as a state of Being.
For the first two weeks in Rishikesh I was up at 5.30 every morning to practice a combination of asana, pranayama, bundha and meditation, which I found challenging from a physical, mental and emotional perspective. Pedro Franco, an experienced teacher from Brazil, put us through our paces to get the prana flowing through our bodies on those cold, wintery mornings. It was the most physically demanding and mentally challenging (the two going hand-in-hand) classes I have done, and I found myself surrounded by yogis and yoginis far more experienced than I, most of them qualified teachers. I was glad though. The effort paid off, each class leaving me feeling energized and ready to face the day, a virtuous feeling indeed at just 8am! Even when it was really tough – even when the tears came –again I was grateful, knowing that yoga was bringing me to the places I needed to go to heal and to grow. I felt stronger and more peaceful during those two weeks than I had in a long while and with that came waves of creativity, ideas for the future and importantly, a desire to write again.
Since the course finished however, it has been all-too-easy to get complacent. While I’ve maintained my practice to an extent, it’s been with less vigor and consistency than I’d have liked, and it shows. As sugar highs have too often replaced prana highs I’ve become more irritable, more impatient, and generally less happy – all of which of course I know can be remedied by meditating or practicing yoga.
Having met this lesson head-on again and again, I am determined to make my sadhana (spiritual practice) a daily ritual. Whether it’s a two-hour focused yoga practice or a five-minute meditation while on the train, it’s so important to my health and wellbeing to spend that time every day going into my internal world. Every little helps, and the more I do, the deeper I go, proving again that with effort comes reward. My meditations these days are growing deeper and more transcendent – a beautiful reminder that while I’m certainly not walking around in a constant state of bliss, inner peace is always there inside of me for the taking.
So what is the lesson? Happiness is a state of being, and to achieve it requires practice, discipline and continued effort. I know the path I need to take. Now I just have to do it, and keep doing it, for life.
3. You attract the energy you give out
Following from the above, the practice of yoga must not stop when I get off my mat. I am aware that my thoughts and actions in every waking moment affect my own happiness, and that of those around me. Travelling with a partner is a great reminder of this. He has his own anxiety issues to deal with and being the sensitive person I am, I often find his stress and worry infects me.
The funny thing is, when I project calmness and positivity, that is mirrored in my boyfriend and in the circumstances we find ourselves in, while if I react to his stress or that around me, things inevitably go from bad to worse. You can guarantee, for example, that if I am in a bad mood that is when the wifi will be excruciatingly slow, the taxi will be late or I’ll spill my coffee. Because the truth is, peace and happiness isn’t to be found in India, or in any place at all. It comes from within. As Prem Baba, a Brazilian guru who’s satsangs I went to daily in Rishikesh, says: “You are where you put yourself.” We are responsible for the energy that we project and for that which we receive.
4. Have patience, be compassionate
This applies to myself as well as to others and there is no better place to learn it than India. I’ve always considered myself a good person and thought patience and compassion came naturally to me but I’ve really been put to the test here. Walking through the streets of India it is commonplace to see poverty, sickness, and desperation and after a while I have to say it grates. While I certainly care greatly for others and wish harm to no one, there is no way I can give money to every beggar, feed every starving animal and even feel sadness for all the despair that I see around me. If I did I would be utterly drained, financially and emotionally. There is a difference however between compassion and pity; kindness and guilt. What I wish to maintain during the sad and challenging encounters I face here (and elsewhere) is to always act with kindness and patience. This I believe is the true definition of compassion.
I must be patient too, with myself. I realise now that I have tried to treat my spiritual journey in the same way I’ve treated projects at work or university in the past: control it, manage it, and propel it forward, quickly. This is clearly counter-productive however (see point 1!): the more I control, the more resistance I face. Besides, as a very wise person once said (Gandhi) “there is more to life than making it go faster”. I must honour my own journey, at whatever pace it unfolds, and develop compassion and patience for myself as I do my best to follow my path – my dharma.
5. Be grateful, always
With all the frustration, disappointment, stress and sadness India provokes, above all, it teaches me to have gratitude.
Thank you India for teaching me all that you do. Thank you yoga for showing me peace and joy. Thank you Universe for giving me all that I need. And thank you to all my friends and family for supporting me on my journey.