Thursday, December 25, 2014
Silence and Noise
Silence and noise.
It feels like the entirety of this journey can be placed into one of those two categories.
Silence. Moments of pure stillness, communing with nature Herself or deep into inner space, where something in me speaks without making a sound. Sometimes I come to them on purpose, others by surprise. Climbing up a rocky mountain path in the pre-dawn hours is the perfect chance to get quiet, inside and out, a moving meditation. You know what you’re in for. Reaching the top to be greeted by a slip of a man whose strength is astounding as he lives out his days in a state of pure humility and devotion is enough to silence anyone. How many among us would choose life in a cave on a mountaintop, meditating on the Divine while the wind whips by above and society whips by below?
Noise. Moments of chaotic motion, thrust into the blaring horns, exhaust fumes and bumpy roads of the towns and cities of India. Thoughts race, judgments too, and sometimes I ask myself what I’m doing here. Even in the supposed sanctuary of your guesthouse room there are almost always neighbors talking, doors slamming and other ambient sounds to keep the peace just far enough at bay. Earplugs are a godsend. Headphones too. At least if it’s going to be noisy, let me choose sounds that soothe.
Then there are moments where it is proverbial silence and noise. Take today, Christmas in Mamallapuram. There are enough westerners who visit this beachside town complete with stunning displays of architecture and carvings that the gypsy street children and adults know well how to engage us for a few rupees whether we want to or not. This proposition always challenges me- the desire to give coming into conflict with the desire to not enable, because unfortunately "successful" begging could be what keeps these very same souls from seeking more substantial support and opportunity.
It’s noisy in my head, trying to make sense of all this, so noisy that I apparently need to be stunned into silence when I make it to my hotel in the evening. I try to offer the man who carried my bags a tip. He refused, and I immediately thought I’d insulted him somehow. When he returned with a fresh towel and basket of fruit for me, I’d fished out a bigger bill and handed it to him, hoping to right the perceived wrong. Again he tried to refuse, but I insisted and asked him to explain. He gestured to the red kumkum powder smudged across my third eye and said “You’re a Hindu,” as he then pointed to his own identical marking, a sign of solidarity and respect.
I was literally stunned silent. First at having been seen for what I often feel I am by a man I took as a representative of a people who generally thinks I’m anything but, and second at how I’d so easily mistaken an act of kindness for something aggressive thanks to my conditioning. How sweet that silence was, even as the noise out in the hotel halls continued on.
It’s pretty much impossible for me to not stand out here. I’m white-skinned and green-eyed in a land of brown and more brown. The more Indian I dress, the more that garners its own attention as local people seem to find the sight of a western woman in a saree something to behold, whether in amusement or appreciation I can’t totally be sure. That often causes me to go outwardly silent, feeling set apart from those around me, and not wanting to draw even more attention to myself than my physical presence already does. But inwardly the noise continues on, as I try to make sense of things I often don’t understand, dispel a negative thought or repeat a mantra.
This is never truer than in temples. For me being in India is a journey of devotion. I don’t come here to simply be a tourist. I come here to be immersed in my spiritual motherland and deepen my connection to my faith. Some temples are extremely accommodating to westerners; some outright fleece you, and others won’t even let you inside. You can’t always be sure which of these you’re in for, and I have definitely experienced them all.
A new experience for me this trip was Girivalam, the circumambulation of Mt. Arunachala, surely a temple in its own right. This nearly nine-mile walk around the mountain is held as holy of holies among Shaivists (that would be Shiva-worshipping Hindus) since it is considered to be Shiva, the Supreme Yogi and Cosmic Destroyer’s, fire incarnation. For me it was potent to partake in this ancient and sacred ritual, and equally potent to have such a unique experience in this silence and noise experiment that is my time in India.
I felt free to chant mantras, strut in my saree and channel Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, as I happily handed rupee notes to the many sadhus and others in need whose paths crossed mine as I went. I felt like I could be out in public and make noise, as a matter of speaking, and that if I was drawing attention to myself, so be it because the silence stemming from the intention and devotion in my heart was felt and heard by those I encountered as well. They understood what I was doing there without question, and I felt welcome among them. The noise was as joyous, peaceful and purposeful as the inner silence that such a meditative act brings.
Through it all, all the noise and all the silence, I come back to a practice that is of India, if not expressly of Hinduism. I come back to equanimity, that balance point taught by the Buddha. Recognizing the ephemeral nature of all as well as the inherent oneness of all, I eventually find the merging of the silence into the noise and the noise into the silence. I eventually find my peace.