"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Our Life in India : Seeking Enlightenment in the Land of Spirituality

I'm not a religious person. Neither am I guru groupie material ! I was born and grew up in the land of Descartes, who said, among other things : "I think, therefore I am." In other words, rational thinking is everything, forget about God! I distanced myself from my Catholic upbringing (my mother is Spanish: need I say more?) as soon as I was able to articulate my own opinion (as opposed to going with the flow of the education I had received) and declared myself an atheist. I didn't know any alternative at the time, and being an atheist seemed the closest match to my state of mind.

Then, I travelled throughout South East Asia, and met someone who told me about the Buddhist Silent Meditation retreat at Suan Mokkh. It starts on the first day of each month, which happened to be the following day, and what do you know, I jumped in a bus, and soon found myself sitting on a tiny cushion listening to Thai Buddhist monks mumbling in barely understandable English. Complete silence was the rule, we ate two vegetarian meals a day, and spent the rest of the time meditating (sitting, standing, walking, chanting meditation.) Only, I could not meditate, and sitting cross-legged on that hard floor for hours on end was sheer torture. I couldn't sleep on the concrete bed of my tiny, Spartan (mm, Spartan or Buddhist?) cell, not to mention the throngs of mosquitoes buzzing around my mosquito net, and the tiny insects that passed through and landed on my face, my mouth... Agh! I lasted 5 days out of the 10, only because I found the talks each morning incredibly profound and thought provoking. So much so that I copied them in my traveling journal. So, when the talk on the sixth morning failed to inspire me, I went back to my cell, packed my bag, and hitch-hiked to Surathani, where I got into a ferry to Koh Samui to do a diving course.

Over the years, the Buddha's teachings always stayed with me, though. I love Buddha. And then, I went to live in New York, where I discovered the New Age movement. Suddenly, it dawned on me that organized religion and spirituality are not the same thing. I didn't need to practice a particular religion to feel a connexion with a Higher Power. Wow! That was a major breakthrough for me.

Fast-forward. For the past few years, we have lived in India, and witnessed, recorded, and sometimes partaken in Hindu celebrations. I'm continuously reading and learning about all the Hindu festivals and the many gods in the Hindu pantheon. And all the while, I have continued my own personal journey. So, when a local friend called to tell me about a meditation workshop happening in Hyderabad, I decided to give it a try, even though it meant being away from home and the kids for four entire days, including a week-end, from 9 am until 9 pm.

And ???

Well, I remain French in the sense that I cannot totally surrender, ever, to... anything or anyone, including a guru, however brilliant and inspiring he may be. That said, anyone who has the opportunity of listening and/or participating in a workshop with Paramahansa Nithyananda (Nithya means eternal in Sanskrit, and Ananda means bliss) should just drop everything else, and DO it ! (Be prepared to waste some time ; this workshop lasted 12/13 hours each day, but it could have easily been made shorter by at least 3 or 4 hours on practically every day, time that we wasted waiting for people to be all seated, coming back from extensively long lunch breaks, napping, having tea breaks, or waiting for Swamiji to read all the questions dropped in a box, even  though many of them were the same. Also, be prepared to overlook some of the statistics that he comes up with, as I didn't always find them very convincing. Finally, go there with a sincerely open mind. It is a leap of faith, and going with a mind set on criticizing, and finding fault will most certainly result in a total waste of money and time.)

Swamiji (the Hindu honorific title that everyone uses when talking about him or addressing him) is intensely bright - good thing for an enlightened Master, I know, but I, the writer, am having a hard time finding the right word to describe his acute intelligence, his clarity, and his gift for coming up with striking metaphors. Not only that, but he has a unique way of blending a decidedly traditional approach with a most modern mindset. He's very straightforward, in a way that is rarely seen or heard in India.

Examples: during one of the Q and A sessions, he told us that when a man comes to him during darshan (a blessing ceremony) asking for his blessing so his wife gives birth to a boy, he tells him to "get lost." He will give his blessing to someone who wants a child, not someone who wants a boy. Also, traditionally, women are banned from entering temples when they're menstruating. He doesn't believe in that. His take is that such rule may have been created to allow women to rest during those days when they are easily tired. He also feels that "tolerance" about other religions is not enough : there should be "mutual respect" between people of all faiths. Etc, etc.

One metaphor has stayed with me. He used it on the last day, as he explained to us the need to "un-clutch," or let go. In Northern India, they use a very simple device to catch birds. A rope is tied in the middle of a stick, and both ends of the rope attached to the branches of a tree. When a bird perches on one side of the stick, its weight makes it flip, and the bird finds itself head down. It seems that the bird then freezes. Because it is in a destabilizing position, a situation unknown to him, he clings to the stick for dear life, forgetting that it can simply fly away. The hunter only needs to come, and catches the bird. Whenever our comfort zone is disturbed, whenever we feel threatened, or unsure, we all tend to grip onto things, thoughts, people. That's our mind playing tricks on us, and telling us that if we let go, we will fall - like that bird. We don't realize that we only need to un-clutch, and we'll be able to fly.

A lot of what he says is common sense, based on the Vedic Culture. His meditation techniques are quite powerful, and he has a radiating presence. We were told repeatedly that he has healing powers. I wouldn't know about that. (My take would be, rather, that he has a way of helping people connect with their own positive energies so that they heal themselves, or rather, they stop destroying themselves.) But I did have my own intense experience with him, during the first darshan, and I have to admit that his reaction (our interaction lasted but one minute - there were 900 hundred people in that hall) had a strong impact on me. He made me think, he made me laugh, and he made me cry. He also managed to make me sit on a cotton mattress for hours on end, and even to meditate for more than one hour at a time!

Overall, a great experience !

Below are the few pictures that I took when I first arrived. Good thing, because after that, we were requested to not take any more photographs.

All the shoes left outside. I did worry about my sandals disappearing. The conference hall was inside a huge compound called Shilparamam and open to the public. I'm pleased to report that I always found them exactly where I'd left them.

Below: The conference hall. This was still early, so it's not full.

The workshop kit :
- An eye band used to cover our eyes during meditation. I confess that I peeked underneath from time to time. Come on !
- Two notebooks that were used to record all our engraved memories (physical, mental, and emotional pains, desires, guilt, etc.) On the last day, we ripped these pages and threw them away, along with an offering of flowers and some seeds which name I've forgotten. All these pages were supposed to be burned at the ashram, later. I would have liked to be able to throw them myself into the fire, but I can understand that it was not the most practical thing to organize.

Nithyanandam !


Nandini said...

Very interesting, Katia. Sounds like you found it to be a great experience. I love how you put this "Suddenly, it dawned on me that organized religion and spirituality are not the same thing." I agree.

Katia said...

Seems so obvious, right? And yet, it took me so long to figure that out. Hope you and the kids are well, Nandini.