The author on the Ganges, still thinking. Scarf from Matalan, strangers on the boat at one with the Universe.
An insomniac! Too many ‘nuits blanc’ over the years, and so in 2013, tired of being tired, I signed up at The London Meditation Centre where Jillian Lavender and Michael Miller teach Vedic meditation. It’s a way of de-stressing and managing the complexity of what happens in the mind. Loved it, took to it like a duck to water. But its simplicity doesn’t mean that you can get it from a book, or a mate. It needs to come from personal instruction, when you’ll be introduced to your new best friend, a mantra. Just knowing that twenty-minutes of meditation is the equivalent of four hours sleep, makes sleep less important, so I sleep better. And when (not if) I don’t, there’s good reason, as something needs attention that couldn’t be accommodated in the busy- ness of the day. I’m now an ex-somniac.
I’ve been doing my med’s for two lots of twenty minutes a day for five years. That’s 3650 meditations stacking up to 73,000 minutes. About 30,000 minutes into my relationship with my mantra, that’s March 2015, I took us off to Rishikesh, Northern India, where the Ganges flows wide, clear and bright from the Himalayas, and where Jillian and Michael host a retreat every couple of years.
Before retreating to Rishikesh, we advance on Delhi for a few days sight seeing, my socialist head trying to understand a mass of population so at ease with itself. Does a culture that promotes collectivism and acceptance also hold it back? Much to understand, but it seemed that Vedic (Hindu) culture was a kind of marinade – as my generation of post war Brits are dunked in Christianity-lite. My dialectical spiritual experiences in Delhi were very rich indeed: the Sikh temple kitchens with armies of people chopping veg’, stirring pots, and catching chapattis shooting out from a machine, where anybody can eat for free. Gandhi’s house, the great liberator’s life laid out. The amazing spice market. Delhi station at 6 in the morning, our train for the North clanking in like a red and green dragon, the huge wheel of Indian Railways on its flank. If this were filmed it would be set against drums and sitar, rather than the Bach fugue running through my head. Why do so many filmmakers use clichéd music? I thought. So much thinking.
One of India’s biggest employers is Indian Railways, and we were served a ten course breakfast during the five hour journey as the glacial plane of Northern India slid by. The beauty of it, the smell of early summer earth as we stopped at village stations. Then the drive through the foothills to Rishikesh, (meaning town of the bearded ones) where Vedic culture started about 5000 years ago. And so 17 curious people, of no type, arrived at the 1000 bedroom Parmarth Niketan Ashram where we were assigned our own corridor. The place is rather like a Hindu theme park, with its well watered gardens, monkeys thumping along the roofs, cases and vitrines of saints, gods and divine beings – Shiva – blue from drinking the poisons of the world, the elephantine Ganesh, Vishnu with his lotus flower, and one I’d never heard of peering out of his case wearing old NHS specs. Vegetarian food was served and we ate in silence, better for digestion and to focus on the food as a gift from the cooks. There was so much to say to each other the rest of the time it was good to eat in silence.
Midnight, that first night, a dog barked outside my window – a sharp, nasty tenor, through which I slept quite well. What I assumed was luck, I now understand as resignation. Lesson number 1: surrender at the feet, not in DEfeat. The second night, convinced there will be no sleep, if the dog is sounding off, I used earplugs. Although plugged against the possibility of, but not the actual dog noise, they tuned me into the thrum and hum of my liver and lights, and I slept badly. Lesson number 2 – don’t anticipate; take action on what is there, not what might be. So no more era (I’ll keep that typo) plugs.
Mood making is the expression of a state of consciousness you don’t have. The alley bordering the Ganges seemed to be in a permanent state of re-construction, (aren’t we all?) shops with jewelry, books, CDs, plenty of Hindu bling and cheap clothes, which we stocked up with for the duration. Beggars, holy men and wandering bullocks, like old blokes that no one knew what to do with. (A self defined ‘old bloke” shared this thought by the way). There was the constant beeping of the motorbikes, signaling I am here, not get out of the way; and plenty of mood making – poseurs, particularly Europeans. It felt like Glastonbury on the Ganges, or maybe the corporate hospitality tent. My crapo-meter off the scale, my inner cynic honed and toned, I said as much to a young American woman sitting in the Honey Hut cafe, a western enterprise with waiters dressed as bees. She was here to study acupuncture at the Ashram’s hospital. ‘Give it a day or two,’ she said ‘and see you at the Aarti.’
Jillian and Michael had told us about the Aarti, and the Satsung afterwards, expecting us to attend without telling us what to expect. (This was no flipchart/notebook trip.) I came to understand that this was part of their extraordinary care for us, that things need to unfold as experience, without an idea or expectation getting in the way. Standing ankle deep in the Ganges at 7am the first morning, while our priest in residence Pandit ji – a man on a rolling boil of happiness – performed a Yagya – a long ritual invoking the deities, I longed for my bed. But then if they’d told us of the pleasure of swimming in the Ganges afterwards, the sun just up, I might not have felt that pleasure. Day three, another Yagya, this one to celebrate the beginning of the Nine Days of the Mother Divine. Pandit-ji set it all up – firebox, dishes of herbs, pieces of cotton soaked in ghee, statuettes of the deities, pots of red and yellow paste, like an artist, us the participants in his performance. None of this is symbolic, but the expression of thing itself. Like Francis Bacon wanting people to experience his painting, directly through the nervous system, not the intellect. Sequence is important; purification, thought, action, surrender, and fulfillment – echoing how things should happen in the mind. Like making a cake. Imagine putting the eggs straight into the flour? Cake making had always been obvious – but my brain? Fascinating to learn that the fire represents (not symbolises) consciousness, burning irrelevancies and bad feelings. The same idea is there in Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. But only if you cultivate Presence. Ah – but how do you do that? Way to go.
The Aarti is a purifying fire ritual performed at sunset the Ashram’s ghat, (waters edge) where it’s been done for over 3000 years. Tourists were enthralled, the monks and clerics zoned out. I noticed the beautifully expressive hands Swami-ji, finger dancing to something he presided over every night. Pujya Swami ji is the Ashram’s spiritual leader. He’s also ecologist, social worker and environmentalist. I experienced the chanting as kitsch but when looking simultaneously at the setting sun, beautiful. So, pick n’ mix the senses, make something new, as Swami ji does every night. Satsungs felt like the vicar’s sermons of my childhood, but without the guilt. The first one we went to was on love, Swami-ji saying ‘If you love you can only be in the present.’ Is that so obvious to people as they fret about past and future in relation to people they think they love? That you offer your fulfillment, not your need? He also emphasised individual divinity through shared consciousness. I have no religion, and the European expressions of this have been through Jung and Marx – I thought! Thinking, still so much thinking: showing on the face – like ill-fitting shoes. But where else was I to process all these new things but through my buddhi – intellect.
We were offered trips into the Himalayas to see temples, caves, and to swim at the base of waterfalls. I remember the second day – feeling a bit knackered from my bad night, whining at Jillian that I was tired and ‘might I miss the trip to Shiva’s cave and hang out in the Ashram all day?’
‘Sure,’ she said, full of kindness, ‘best not over do it.’ Then she looked up into the Himalayas muttering something about Ganesh, that part of his job description was the remover of obstacles. I still have no idea whether that was a ploy by the clever Jillian, but something in me said to the whiner – ‘what? You’re not going to a cave in the Himalayas because you’re feeling tired?’ And so, onto the coach, off to the mountains to sit in Shiva’s cave, in whose inner space we were asked to think about inner space. So I did, deciding that I take on too much. Realising too, that my reluctance to go, was because I thought I’d be too tired and wired to enjoy it, and that this would be upsetting. Bullocks! With another experience entering the mind and senses, all that changes. So thanks Jillian – and my hat off to you Ganesh. Then later to Shiva’s temple, where we touched the lingam, an overtly sexual symbol which is as far from pornography as fillet steak is from Pot Noodle. This was followed by lunch at a posh spa, with westerners draped over the lawns like sleeping lions.
Rounding is a sequence of yoga moves, breathing exercises, meditation and rest, each a 50-minute cycle. Michael taught us the all important sequence, and Jillian allocated the number we should be doing in our rooms each day. No black tea, coffee or alcohol (Rishikesh is dry anyway). Starting with one round before breakfast and two in the afternoon, and upped gradually to four or five before breakfast (so up at five) and four in the afternoon. This is known as being high in the roundings. We had to get one marathon lot done before a 5.45am water ceremony that was being filmed for the UN as part of Water Awareness Day. Great ecology sensibility, but to me it seemed passive. I’d rattled the fence at Greenham Common, demonstrated outside the V&A against entry charges, marched against the invasion of Iraq. Lovely though the water ceremony was, each us pouring a cup of Ganges over a globe, I wondered what impact this could possibly have. But then –
‘A ritual is the expression of a condition, the creation of a state of mind, not through words but through behavior’ Gerald Heard, Vedanta for the Western World’ ed’ Christopher Isherwood, 1949.
It’s what people choose to do afterwards that counts. I thought! Yet with the upgrade in consciousness you’re more likely to take action. For an interesting take on this culture, and how it might be good for us, see Christopher Isherwood – Vedanta for the Western World (1949) a collection of essays, including several by Aldous Huxley, who wrote an essay on these three lines of Shakespeare …
But thought’s the slave of life, and life’s time’s fool,
And time that takes survey of all the world
Must have a stop. (Hotspur, Henry 1V Part 1) Vedanta for the Western World (1949)
The Bard had noticed that we live in psychological time rather than the only thing we really have – the present. The Vedics understood this; that the present is the future in the making.
By the last day, we’d decreased our roundings to just one, feeling in a different relationship with time and we could get back to black tea and coffee. That first cup of chai is divine, I can tell you. So, fit and detoxed, we enjoyed the next series of outings with heightened sensibilities. One was a visit to the Temple of Ma, where we were asked to think about our mothers. I thought about how mine loved unconditionally. And that complication on my original meditation course in February 2013, when Mum was having a serious operation, that maybe I should postpone. Jillian suggested that learning to meditate would help me with what was going on. It did. A gentle old lady of 84, Mum died shortly after the operation. Meditation helped me cope with all night hospital vigils, family grief, and the post death arrangements.
I also thought how Matron, rather than Patron Saints would have served humanity better – maybe even personal ones. I’d have Sally Davies our choir leader in Camden, my writing compadre Anne Aylor, Naomi Klein, and Jillian.
I was charmed by the visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram where the Beatles and many other artists found a shift in cultural direction in 1968. It was widely thought that the Beatles ‘made’ Maharishi, but it was the other way round. Great to be there, exploring the meditator’s huts, warrens of cells, group yoga halls overgrown with foliage; like the ruins of a lost civilization – a poetic haunting. I asked why it wasn’t a UNESCO world heritage site, and told it was something to do with the complexity of Indian land rights. Not overrun by tourists either. But these were experiences provided by people working with contacts that unlocked doors. Our last night – dinner at an orphanage in Rishikesh, where the kids cooked for us – was delightful. The kids were looked after by a strong Scots woman and her staff. I used to work in a children’s’ home and expected to see that lost look of broken attachment, but they looked happy, together.
There was discussion each evening in a lovely room overlooking the Ganges, our teachers, checking in with how we were doing, learning that in the Vedic tradition a guru is someone who creates self-sufficiency in the student, not a dependency – that Soma is the flow of human consciousness and attention. That it is the best thing you can offer anyone, including yourself.