Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy Heartbreak in Rishikesh

There are places where you arrive and know, just so completely and entirely know, that you've been there before. That's how I feel in Rishikesh. I've never been here, in this life at least, but as a believer in reincarnation, I'd stake money on one of my past lives, or several, linking to this sacred place. It feels like home.

Consciously, it could be the familiarity I feel stems from the place being kind of like one giant ashram, and having spent a good bit of time at ashrams back at home, it's a vibe I know and love. It could be that from the years I lived in Chile and traveled in South America, I'm well acquainted with the way life is lived so largely in the streets in a third world country like this:  women washing laundry, men standing around chatting in groups, vendors selling a multitude of wares, smells of food wafting from every which cart and restaurant, unclaimed animals with innocent eyes roaming about, children being children. It could be that over the years I've been immersed in yoga I've been hearing and reading about this place all the time, the source and center of it all with rudraksha trees supposedly grown from the fallen tears of Lord Siva and the great Ganges river, Mother Ganga, flowing down from the Himalayas. 

Everywhere you look there is an image of the Divine. Hinduism loves its deities, and there are an overabundance of statues, signs, shrines, temples, you name it, absolutely everywhere. When I was first exposed to the Hindu aspect of yoga, the concept of these deities was kind of uncomfortable for me, having been raised Jewish and thus told bowing to idols and worshipping multiple gods goes against the faith. But that isn't what Hinduism is about. These faces are exactly that: faces of the Divine. They represent different aspects of the Infinite, embodiments of the Universal Consciousness. So you can call it whatever you want, relate to whatever aspect appeals to you or meets your needs at a particular moment, but it's really all one and the same. And having come to understand and appreciate that, I consider myself something of a HinJew these days, emphasis on the "Hin", and for me being here is like having made a pilgrimage to the most sacred site of my faith. 

So God is really everywhere here, not just in the esoteric sense. It's not just the deities. Mantras  can be heard coming from temples and market stalls alike. I've been singing all the time, sometimes without even realizing I've switched my tune to harmonize with whatever I happened to walk past. Whether praying on the banks of the Ganges, strolling the grounds of an ashram, giving food or change to someone in need or walking around town soaking it all in, that soundtrack is always there. And just like the mantras, the river, the temples  and the deities,  people are always there, and what better representation of the Divine than us creatures created in his/her image. Seeing God in all is what it's all about. That's what we're basically saying when we "Namaste" in a yoga class and use that same word here in India as a greeting. It is the foundation of true religion. And it is the lesson that, when truly learned and internalized, will break your heart wide open with infinite compassion and love.

My heart got broken open today in a big way. I went to Swami Sivananda's memorial ghat, the site of my guruji's cremation, intending to meditate there, hoping for some solitude if only for a few minutes. I arrived to an Indian family from South Africa taking turns dunking themselves in three times each, chanting Om Namah Sivaya. So I watched and photographed, figuring I'd get a little quiet time once they'd gone.  It wasn't long before several children crept up with baskets of flowers and incense that they sell so any passerby can perform their own offering of Ganga Arati along the riverbank. These kids are everywhere, saying "Just one flower, madam" and "Ten rupees please" just like I go around chanting "Hare Krishna" or "Jai Ma". It's all a mantra that falls so easily from the lips you lose sight of it's significance if you don't stay focused.

I didn't really want the flowers, and I'm kind of ambivalent on the matter of giving money to these little ones because I'm afraid that if they're too "successful" at their daily collections it could keep them from being put in school where they belong. Instead I offered the last of my trail mix to the two boys and two girls who'd gathered around me, the "Didi" they'd been so persistently working at. They gobbled up the first handfuls and crammed seconds into dirty little pockets. Then the boys got hold of the all but empty bag and literally did a tug of war over it that lasted several minutes. They left shortly after, knowing that having gotten food, they weren't likely to get money from me, and I sobbed into the waters of Mother Ganga from somewhere deep inside my freshly broken heart.

Trying to compose myself and process the flood of emotions, I took my journal to a nearby meditation bench and began to write, eyes still red and wet. Once again, I'm an easy target, being a single, white female in this land, and soon it was "Didi, Didi" all over again. This time, I said yes to the little boy, and after he struck a match to light the little camphor square in the center of the flower basket, he suddenly grabbed my pen. I'd asked his name, and he wanted to write it for me. I was shocked. 

Slowly, deliberately, in English, he wrote M-u-n-e-e-s-h. Elated, and wanting to give him something personal as well, something aside from rupees or snacks, which I was fresh out of, I pulled out my camera and asked if he'd like to have a picture. He was thrilled, and after posing for me, he made for the camera to turn it around on me. Admittedly, I was a little wary. I hate to say I thought this child might make off with my pricey camera, but that thought did pass through my mind. 

The thought passed almost as quickly as it came once we began a purely joyful game of snapping shots back, forth and together. Two little girls joined us, posing, dancing, laughing. They hugged me fiercely, wanted to kiss me, hold my hand and join me to offer Arati to the river. They took turns trying on my sunglasses. Tons of pictures were taken. And more children came. Each one signed my journal. Each one told me his or her name. Each one had a moment of my love, and I, theirs. It was incredible.

I'm not sure how long this all lasted. I'd guess maybe 45 minutes or so. By the end, my tears were long gone, replaced by a glimmer of sheer joy in my eyes, having seen God in such a tangible, beautiful way. If I thought the sadness of the first encounter had broken my heart wide open, I was mistaken. The abundance of pure love and delight exchanged blew the door to my heart off its veritable hinges. What a way to come unhinged!

I realized  I'd been viewing these children with pity because I hadn't really been viewing them as simply children. They may be unkempt, dirty and selling wares in the street, but they are still sweet, good, innocent kids who want to play, laugh, dance and be loved. They crave attention and affection more than anything. When Muneesh invited me into a space where we could share that with each other, it brought both of us to life in an entirely different way than the typical encounter between a westerner and the children on the streets of India. Muneesh was my teacher, all of these little ones were, and each and every one of them is God. Each and every one holds the spark of the Divine inside. It's up to me to open my eyes to see that.

I'm sad to be leaving Rishikesh so soon, but grateful beyond words to this sacred place where God is truly everywhere. I'm grateful for sweet Muneesh and all his friends. I'm grateful for everyone holding a space of Divine Love here. Just as I know I've been here before, I know I will be back. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Day One: Fog and Clarity

That my plane landed about 45 minutes early, yes, early, certainly had me feeling like this was an auspicious start. Just about everyone I know who's been to India prior had warned me to expect things to go slow, run late, etc. I figured I was coming in ahead of the game at this rate. Breezed through customs to find my bags already waiting alongside the baggage claim carousel. Made contact with my welcoming committee with little trouble at all. And aside from a fog (smog) hanging thick in the air, making visibility beyond ten feet obscure and breathing more laborious than it ought to be, my entry into India was picturesque. 

Pamma, my local point of contact, was gracious and seemed very pleased by my intention to readily adopt the Indian habit of saying yes to everything. (Side note for the unacquainted. . . you're not going to hear "no" much around here, even if that's the correct answer, and there is a preponderance of ambiguous head bobbing instead of decisive yes/no nods) I find it so easy to take down walls and toss out expectations while traveling, more so than in everyday life. What good would it do me to have them? I might miss something remarkable otherwise. So I'm here to say yes. Want to see ___? Why, yes, I do! Want to taste ___? Yes please! Would you like to shopping for Indian dress? (I love how they say that!) Sure, of course!

But saying no to the beggars, thus far exclusively women and children, is hard, and it's only been one day. It's one of those things you're warned about and try to prepare yourself for, but nothing can quite get you ready. They see my white skin, my Western look, and bam! I become a supposedly easy target. I have yet to be asked for money by anyone looking too terribly malnourished or destitute, but then who the hell am I to judge that? These are people who have so little, especially in comparison to the abundant lI live, and they know so much struggle. And just because I know I can't help them all, and whatever I may be able to give probably won't make or break their lives, doesn't mean I feel any less guilty. 

In fact, I almost feel more guilty (not that guilt is a great use of energy) because that attitude goes against the "every little bit counts" mentality us optimistic, liberal, tree-hugging types tout when talking about things like recycling, conserving water or contributing to your community. This IS my community, the global one, and it is hurting my heart to see what I know isn't even close to the worst of the suffering here. So I've been praying almost nonstop. I go around silently chanting the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra like a song on replay, sending prayers of protection and liberation to the souls in need. And who isn't in need of some Tryambakams?

I've been chanting not only for the people OF the street, but for the people ON the street. Everyone in a car, on a bike, in a rickshaw, my driver, me. . . we all need it. It's madness on these roads, though I can't help but marvel at how the drivers and pedestrians alike are all familiar with the steps of the positively insane dance that is navigating the streets of Delhi. The ladies ride side-saddle off their honey's motorbike like it's nothing. Kids don't even flinch at the [ever-present] sound of a horn blaring. 

Then I walk around a monument or historic site for some sightseeing, and I become a target for something other than monetary handouts. Photo ops! I've been asked to pose for pictures with cute young girls in brightly colored, traditional dress  escorted by their fathers, multiple generations of families touring around together, preteen boys in school uniforms snapping shots on their cell phones and asking if they can find me on Facebook. Seriously?!? Is this just because of my white skin? I'm not complaining in the least. Photo lover that I am, I'm generally happy to pose for a shot, especially if it is bringing joy to someone. It's just that it's a joy I can't quite comprehend. I'd never approach someone of a different ethnicity and ask for a quick pic just because of their skin, and I'd venture that most of you would agree. So I find it interesting and, frankly, odd, that I'm being propositioned for just that. 

If I'm clear on anything after not even 24 full hours here, it's that I have to make peace with not being clear on a lot. This is a place of contradiction, conundrums and contrasts. Irony abounds. Polar opposites live next door to each other. Yes means no. Head bobs could mean anything. So long as I can be clear on me, on who I am and what I'm doing here, then that'll be enough.

And like an answer to my prayers, a space of calm amidst the chaos, strolling down the street from my hotel to get a feel for the immediate neighborhood, I walk dead-on into a Durga temple. Durga is one of the Hindu faces of the Divine Mother, and just happens to be my girl ;-) Amidst honking and spitting, polluted air and tattered clothes, buyers and sellers, beggars and businessmen, the Divine. Always the Divine. I shed my shoes, stepped inside the small, vibrant space, inhaled the incense and bowed my head in reverence. Out of the fog, clarity.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Getting where I'm going

Often the most fascinating aspect of travel isn't just the place, it's the people. Take an airport for instance, especially a large international hub. Chances are you will hear unfamiliar languages, skin colors as diverse as the rainbow, fashion across the entire spectrum. You might see displays of affection not suitable for public consumption by one standard and completely normal by another. Chat up the person sitting next to you and you could be talking to a veritable globe trotter or a first-time flyer. Watch, and random acts of kindness will unfold right alongside that stereotypical irate traveler. You never know what you're going to get, only that by being an open observer and willing participant in this amazing display of humanity, you will be influenced, and perhaps even enhanced.

Right now it's 4:20am by my body's clock but 9:20am in Amsterdam where I have my layover to Delhi. I arrived to a dark, rainy winter morning, bleary-eyed from the few hours of airplane sleep I managed to get, yet excited to step into an unknown territory. Just seeing signs in a language I can't read, foods I wouldn't regularly find at home, shops whose names I can't pronounce and all the other trademarks of a foreign airport and my bleary eyes turned bright. Even though Brad Pitt's beautiful face is plastered around hocking Chanel No. 5, McDonald's is serving up its fare and other signs of thriving American capitalism abound, I love this.

Just going to the ladies room was an interesting experience. All of us girls, no matter what the accent, country of departure or final destination, were pulling out our cosmetic cases with impressive synchronization, moisturizing faces, powdering noses, brushing teeth. The prim and proper stood side by side with the backpackers. The young with the old. Common courtesy was a given. Common custom a pleasant surprise to witness.

After a bit of meandering, I found the space my soul must've sensed even before my brain even registered it was there: the meditation center. What a beautiful haven! Walk down a corridor away from the bright lights, music and hustle of people and a calmness takes over, leading straight to a sanctuary open to all, dedicated to contemplation and compassion.

 The room is light and peaceful, with colorful glass art on the walls, a single tree, bookshelves lined with bibles and other spiritual texts in many languages, prayer mats, meditation benches and seats so you can take your pick of how to practice. I crept in quietly so as to not disturb a man sitting cross-legged and praying in a whisper. Out of the corner of my upside-down eye while practicing headstand I saw an Orthodox Jewish man bind himself with teflin. When I had completed my seated meditation I turned to see a Muslim man positioned toward Mecca, engaged in his prayer routine. Others had come and gone in the time that had lapsed, leaving behind an intangible imprint that only the subtle senses could perceive. It was one of the most beautiful, moving experiences I've ever had. All these different faiths, sharing space in one small room, worshipping and communing with the Divine, showing such respect and reverence for one another. That is the world I wish to live in, and there it was.

To think, this was just the airport! Imagine what spiritual awakening and displays of divinity are in store once I actually get to where I'm going. And on that note, off I go!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Leaping into the unknown

Look before you leap, or so they say. Who are “they” anyway? And why should their rules apply to me and my life? Now don’t get me wrong . . . I’m not necessarily rebellious, at least not in any readily identifiable way.  I’ve just always had an intrinsic belief that there are rules, norms, expectations, etc. in life that can simply be bent, if not thrown out the window altogether. Couple that with an adventurous spirit and let the fun begin!

My dad used to love to tell a story about me as a young child. There was this beautiful park near our home in New York with a huge field stretching out from it. To my toddler self that field must have seemed to reach to the ends of the earth. One day my parents let me loose to see what I’d do. I ran. I ran and ran and never once stopped to look back. There was no fear. There was no wondering if someone was watching me, whether for safety sake or approval. There was only me, the brilliant green of the grass, the bright blue of the sky, the ends of the earth and whatever lay beyond.

True to toddler form, earlier this year while in Jamaica with some friends we found ourselves at a very well known cliff-jumping site. It was packed with showy locals and gawking tourists perpetuating the spectacle as human bodies plummeted from the rocky ledges to the crystal blue ocean below.  We sat and watched. Then the urge took me, and I was standing at the edge, a prayer on my lips, solid ground suddenly swept out from beneath my feet as I stepped off into the air. I closed my eyes and literally did not look as I leapt. I felt time slow down in a way I’ve never experienced before as the wind rushed past and the water rose to meet me. It was exhilarating, terrifying and life affirming. For what felt like an eternity, though I know it to have been mere seconds, I tasted the sensation of not only going to the ends of the earth, but also finding what lies beyond.

Tomorrow I am boarding a plane for India. In typical don’t look before you leap fashion, inspiration struck, the stars aligned and suddenly I was making arrangements for six weeks away from life as I know it to travel to Mother India. For me India is the place of dreams, my dreams, as I feel a connection to this land and its culture stronger than I’ve ever felt about any other place. Through yoga many Hindu traditions and Indian customs have woven themselves into the fabric of my life, yet my life is still lived in comfortable Western style for the most part. I want to be uncomfortable. I want to be challenged in ways I can only begin to imagine. I want to let go of the idea of who I think I am so I have space to embrace who I will become through this journey. To do that I’m traveling farther than I’ve ever gone, for a longer solo trip than I’ve ever made to a place with a culture more drastically different than the ones I know. And if I’m at all apprehensive or have been at any moment in preparing for this adventure, that apprehension pales in comparison to the anticipation and delight that I take in running, flying, falling, and soaring into the unknown.

I guess some things never change.

This I know to be true: I thrive on exploring my edge and pushing beyond it. Lately I’ve felt a bit stifled by a sort of complacency and redundancy in certain aspects of my life. I’m craving the chance to shake things up. I want to get lost, turned inside out and upside down. I want to see, smell, taste, hear and, most importantly, feel things that are new, different and maybe even a little uncomfortable. That is how I know I’m alive. That is how I feel vital. And I believe that is how I am best meant to be of service and find my way along the Divine path I’m following through this life.

Another truth: I have a tremendous capacity to manifest my dreams. Don’t get me wrong . . . I’m not special in this way. We can all do this. It just happens that I’ve put a lot of effort into getting clear on what it is I want to attract into my life and making it happen. It is something I work at constantly, something I have been successful at in certain areas while continuing to hone my skill in others. A very practical tool for manifesting that I’ve been using for several years now is a vision board. I create one near the start of the year and use it to guide me toward the things I most want to feel, create, be, accomplish, etc. India is the crown jewel of this year’s vision board, and it is truly remarkable that I can sit here and say every single thing I pasted to that piece of plain white poster board has become manifest. 2012 was full of spirit, fearlessness, friendship, love, music, sexual exploration, travel, yoga, financial health, awakening, unexpected turns and joyful moments, which is exactly what I ordered up.  And the adventure continues as I welcome 2013, and a new vision, in India.

I don’t know exactly what my time in India will bring about, but I do know, strongly, certainly, intrinsically, that I will be changed by the experience. I want to be changed for it is only through change that I evolve into the person I want to be. As I immerse myself in the unfolding of this process, this experience, I look forward to sharing pieces of it with you. I deeply believe we need to share with one another more. As we shift into a new consciousness, a new era energetically speaking, it is so critical that we share, collaborate and all around concern ourselves more with each other. The lessons we learn as individuals can and do contribute to the collective. So let’s put it out there for everyone to see and learn from. That is what this blog has always been about, and I am thrilled to share from my heart, from India, with you.