Seeking Light in India

The following essay is a chapter I contributed for  “Yoga, Philosophy for Everyone Series: Bending Mind and Body”, published by Wiley-Blackwell on November 2011. Book can be found on Amazon.

My decision to quit my job and travel the world came at a unique junction in life. I was single, didn’t have kids, no mortgage, and I was bored silly at my job. I was at rope’s end and felt that my creative soul had fallen asleep. My fire was dimmed low, and I found myself in a dull place in life most of Monday through Friday.

I was seeking something but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I wanted to feel alive, to feel like my life had significance and that moments were inspired by divine meaning. The words of the Persian poet Hafiz haunted me, “I am the flute through which the Christ’s breath flows.” I wanted to feel that way.

One night a vision spontaneously exploded in my mind. I decided that I would quit my job and begin truly following my heart. For many years I had been dreaming of a journey around Asia to explore music, cultures, and peoples.  Through most of those years I feared it would never happen. But now the time seemed right and there was nothing to hold me back. The yearning in my heart was so strong I knew that I had to do it. For the first time in a long while, I was ecstatic to be alive. Everything felt right.

Read more

Reflections from a virgin at Burning Man


Burning ManThe lure of Burning Man has ebbed and flowed in my heart every summer since 1994 when I worked in Montana with some fun-loving hippies who’d tell me amazing stories of this annual “festival” that occurs in the Nevadan desert. Somehow something always intervened though, and year after year Burning Man would come and go, and never did I make it. I know now that the time simply had not yet arrived. This year, however, the universe was shouting “Burning Man!!!” and I could only respond with the obvious, “Of course”. At night while I’d try to sleep, a cryptic phrase kept me awake: Some things must die, others go up in flames.

I first began considering Burning Man earlier this spring while traveling around India with my dear friend, Rosanna. She and her sister were planning on going and invited me to join their camp. For the first time in my life, I had this strange sensation in my heart that somehow this could be the year my dream would become realized.

However, after traveling for most of the year in Nepal and India I wasn’t really seeking another epic adventure. In fact, I wasn’t even really considering Burning Man because a) I was broke, and b) I was supposed to be trying to find a job. But while leaving Fiddle Camp mid-August, I was saying bye to my good friend Ed Howe and he mentioned that he was getting ready to head out to Burning Man. My heart began accelerating, my eyes opened wide. (Ed is a great fiddler who would be performing with guitarist friend John Cote, creating super-funky and danceable music for the festival’s first contradance in history. ) Ed quickly noticed my intrigue and proceeded to tell me everything my heart already knew but had somehow minimized in my mind. Had I known then that what lay ahead was a promise for one of the greatest weeks of my life, it would’ve been a no-brainer. But unknowing these things, as Ed spoke I was nervous for I knew he was right: Burning Man will change your life! In one of the most spontaneous decisions I’ve ever made, just after that conversation I knew this had to be the year of Burning Man.

Read more

Dharamsala, India

The heat in India is becoming extreme. In fact, most travelers have been migrating slowly from the south on up to the north. Like seasonal birds, we began our journey in Kerala and Tamil Nadu where even in the winter the heat is intense, but feasible. Slowly the heat pushed us northward to the beaches of Gokarna and Goa. Travelers then take a few different routes northward, but eventually everyone ends up in Dharamsala, the Buddhist village in northern India’s Himalayan mountains. The climate here is just about perfect– beautiful days of summer sunshine, brisk mornings and nights of fresh mountain chill.

It’s been seven months now since I left home. I’m at the point in my travels in which I’m very much excited to visualize homecoming and smile to think of all the people I will soon get to hug and reconnect with. But now that I only have 40 days left in India there is some urgency to make the most of my days and enjoy this gift as much as possible. The point being: I’m excited to be going home, but I don’t want that day to arrive too quickly.

My travels have slowed down significantly past three months. In the beginning I was hopping around every few days to a different town and would get a bit anxious if I stayed anywhere for too long. Now it’s all about slowing down the time and enjoying the moments. Staying in Rishikesh for a month and half was a gift, taking refuge in days of leisure, yoga, meditation, inspirational teachings and frequent dips in the icy cold Ganga River. But eventually the heat there, too, got too extreme and I had to move onwards to the mountains.

I wasn’t planning on spending this long in Dharamsala but it’s hard to find a reason to leave. Of all the India places I’ve visited, Dharamsala is by far the most traveler-friendly. The air is fresh, mountains are green, countless delicious restaurants serve nice Indian, Tibetan, and international cuisine. And after months of drinking nothing but Nescafe mixed with hot milk, the discovery of great coffee shops serving delicious coffee has made me immensely happy.

The vibe here is super kicked back and fun. There is the Tibetan part of town where Dalai Lama, many red robed monks and the Tibetan folk live. That’s the cultural part of town and there’s a big fascinating temple where monks sit around debating Buddhist philosophy and praying. The other two hotspots of this area are not much Indian, and have little culture per se. They are more just traveler enclaves where throngs of dreadlocked travelers from Israel and everywhere hang out all day and all of the night, socializing, partying, strumming guitars, and exchanging ideas. They are an extremely diverse, fun, beautiful population that walk around barefoot and smile a lot. After a few weeks of living here we’ve all become a curiously-close family of friends. In fact, you can’t go anywhere without bumping into friends and then you can’t help but stopping for a cup of chai and some fun conversation. Many spend all of their days doing little else but hanging out in restaurants rolling charras cigarettes, but there’s also many opportunities for learning and self-improvement. Yoga, Reiki, Tai Chi, meditation, massage, philosophy, silver-smithing, music lessons, dance…you name it, whatever your interest is there’s a class here for you.

My days have been quite busy as I’ve been doing some volunteer work as well as studying tabla, Swedish massage and Reiki, which is the spiritual practice of healing by laying of hands and channeling divine energy. The massage classes were excellent and I learned lots. Since then I’ve been giving many massages in hopes of solidifying the things I’ve learned.

Something magical happens while giving massage. For a long time now I’ve believed strongly in the healing power of touch, and I think that as a species we are much too shy with our affection, that we try to minimize human contact. Not surprisingly, many of us are also unable to love, and lack the ability to be compassionate, understanding, and kind to our fellow humans. Massage feels nice and can heal aches and pains. But for me, I’m most intrigued by its ability to restore peaceful, loving mind. When I give massages I close my eyes and I focus on this person in need, whose heart needs unconditional love and acceptance. With a prayer and a wish for happiness, I massage as lovingly as I can and just try to please this person. Patients come to me as strangers, but after giving them a massage I feel this profound warmth and connection. After 2 hours of projecting energy and touching them I feel able to love unconditionally, accepting them for who exactly who they are. My patients all tell me I give great massages, which makes me happy to hear. It’s proof of the old saying, “the heart that gives gathers”.

In two days I begin a ten-day silent retreat in the mountains. The retreat is an Introduction to Buddhism with emphasis on meditation, philosophy, and yoga. I can’t wait! I feel like these are my last two days on earth, to live the earthly life of desires and wordly pleasures before retreating into austerity and silence. The retreat center is a beautiful compound situated in a peaceful Himalayan forest where many monkeys are hopping around from tree to tree. After several weeks of this busy social life I’ve been living, I’m really looking forward to being silent for a while.

Seeking Patanjali in Holy Rishikesh

Finally, some peace has arrived. Yesterday concluded an intensive month-long program on esoteric yoga and meditation at the Trika Yoga School. To the celebrate the occasion I rallied our classmates for a bonfire down along the Ganga beach. I’ve been wanting to do this since I arrived in Rishikesh but, curiously, haven’t seen anyone else doing it. It began to make sense, however, once I began scouring the woods and the area for wood. In a town where the villagers use wood for cooking, there is simply no wood to be found. So I managed to find some villagers who’d sell me a bundle of their “fuel”. That was easy enough, but getting this huge bundle of wood on down to the beach proved quite challenging. It was well worth the effort though, and soon we had fire, stars and moon, and good people gathered around a fire with guitars and singing songs. This is and will always be one of life’s most enjoyable past times. Great way to celebrate our “graduation” from level one of this yoga program.

Friendships have formed up naturally and easily here, due largely to the fact that we spend all of our days together. Classes begin just after sunrise and continue until around 10 pm. The course was demanding and quite tiring, but everyday would reveal extraordinary teachings and breakthroughs that kept me always eager for more.

Yoga means “union”. 2500 years ago, the great self-realized yogis of India began practicing the science of yoga that promotes awareness and union with divine consciousness. This blew my mind when I began learning all this stuff. My ignorance previously led me to believe that yoga was just a form of exercise– an alternative to the mind-numbing drudgery of jogging. I’ve attended yoga classes back home but never had I heard a single word about using this time to connect with God and to fuse your mind and body with the divine presence that is all around and within us.

Our teachers at school are amazing! There is one teacher in particular who is living proof of the power of a disciplined practice of yoga. His mind is sharp, his communication is powerful, and his whole presence is like a laser beam of conscious living. When he speaks, every one of his words finds a home in my heart and mind. Our lectures cover a wide range of spiritual topics that promote a healthy lifestyle for yogis as I attentively scribble many notes.

I rented a bike to get me back and forth between class. It is a total piece of crap, but it does the trick. It’s a typical Indian bike; it weighs about 100 pounds and has no gears and so anything but going downhill requires tremendous strength and willpower. The pedals are falling apart, the chain comes off whenever I go over big bumps, and the bell only works some of the time. This last defect is perhaps the most concerning. The streets of Rishikesh are full of obstacles and road hazards and as I ride along I always feel like I’m flirting with catastrophe. I ride very slowly—as carefully as I can, trying to dodge the cows and weave in between the babas and the throngs of oblivious pedestrians. Something supernatural guides the path of my bicycle because astonishingly I don’t crash! There are so many near fatalities, but the swift hand of divine intervention guides these handlebars just in the nick of time. Sometimes I feel like Moses, as the sea of pedestrians magically parts just when I think I’m totally about to take out a big group of people.

I am thoroughly in love with India- the people, the culture, the traditions, the mindset. I love it all! It’s tourism unlike anywhere else. In other places tourists have itineraries and they go from one town to the next checking stuff out and getting on to the next destination. While I was in southern India I felt that way too, but then I forgot what I was looking for. In Rishikesh, pretty much everyone comes because they are spiritual aspirants of one kind or another. There are so many paths one can take and here in Rishikesh there are courses and gurus for every practice. People come and then they never leave, for the path to God is a long and winding road that never ends.

Sometimes at sunset I go down to beach and smile to see all the different peoples practicing their spirituality. Some are doing yoga, others are meditating, a group of smilers are banging bongos, playing guitars, and singing devotional songs in exstacy. A sadhu is standing in the Ganga with his face painted, praying and performing a religious ritual. A funny western dude has headphones on and is doing some wild hip hop dancing while a large group of Hindu pilgrims are sitting beside him eating chapatis with bewildered expressions on their faces. Indians are very tolerant people. Given the unlimited range of self-expression here, nothing is really all that strange here. It’s just different, and no one has a problem with that. In our home country these people would stand out like sore thumbs and would be regarded as total lunatics. In India, us weirdos find solidarity in a community that encourages us to just be whoever you wanna be.

It seems clear to me now that I will not be making it to Thailand on this journey. Funny how originally my journey was supposed to be Nepal and Thailand, and yet has turned out to be mostly India. When the spirit speaks, you can’t ignore her message. India is where I needed to be and I will be forever grateful for this experience. So for the next two months I’ll be in India and then plan on returning to my beloved home sweet home where all my dear people are.

Rishikesh, “Land of the Seers”

A rishi is a sage, a seer, a shaman. Rishikesh, situated along the Ganga River at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains, is a holy city where all of its inhabitants seem to be united in devotion and spiritual aspirations. Alcohol and non-vegetarian food are strictly prohibited here. Devotional music is blasting out of speakers all day and all of the night. Swamis, monks, and sadhus comprise of a large percentage of the population. The powerful Ganga River flows a severe turquoise green and clean through the city.

Rosanna and I arrived here a little over a week ago and were instantly spellbound. We loved it. I knew right away that I’d be here for longer than just a few days. The fact is that traveling can be really tiring and sometimes you go destination to destination and just keep bouncing around checking out stuff. But then it dawns on you that tourism for the sake of seeing more stuff is unnecessary. The most important life experiences lie in exploring your mind. And Rishikesh is the place to do it.

In 1968, John Lennon, George Harrison and the gang came here to study Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi Mahesh’s ashram. This area has been a powerful holy city for thousands of years, but the Beatles’ arrival put it on the map for spiritually-minded travelers and yogis. Today there are dozens of ashrams and hundreds of schools dedicated to teaching yoga and meditation. The mountains are beautiful here, as are the beaches along the Ganga, but most come here to take some time for themselves and learn about the mind.

At the ashram where I am staying there is morning meditation with Swami Dharmananda. At 6am, I rise before the sun and head on down to the meditation cave where swami sits in darkness surrounded by dim-candlelight, a shrine of important gurus and saints, and about 20 or so western students. We gather before him and practice breathing exercises (pranayana), chant mantras, and explore the mind in silent meditation. Meditation lasts an hour and half, and while at first it was difficult for me to sit this long, I am growing to absolutely love these sessions. With sustained effort and a deep yearning to progress, doors are opening.

Swami Dharmananda also teaches an afternoon class. Brilliant lectures! They last about 2 hours and during this time he expounds on a subject with lucidity and authority. Subjects range from meditation to yoga to Vedic philosophy. And what I love about this guy is that his teachings are so devoid of the “new-age” speek that seems to be inherent in so many western lecturers of the subject. Swami is straight up Indian, a no-frills monk, and when he speaks- he is conveying the wisdom of his guru, an unbroken lineage of knowledge that goes back thousands of years.

Rosanna and I visited a few different yoga schools here and each one of them offered valuable experiences. But in my heart I knew it wasn’t enough just to do yoga. I needed understanding. I was seeking a teacher but was somewhat daunted by the infinite variety of teachers and schools here in Rishikesh. In a wonderful flash of serendipity, I encountered a great guy I’d met on the Annapurna circuit a few months ago. I spoke of my search, and he and his brother instantly began singing praises of the Trika school.

He said all the things I wanted to hear. A school that takes you from the beginning, that explains the philosophy of yoga and the precise mechanics of the postures, while also detailing the spiritual application of the asanas. With a great enthusiasm I listened to him talk about this month-long intensive course. The next course would begin tomorrow morning, he said.

So, with the rising sun I marched up to the Trika school and enrolled. That was four days ago. Each day since then has been incredible. These long days of meditation, yoga, and lectures, feel like spiritual boot camp, but I love every minute. Our teachers are knowledgeable and impressive. One teacher, in particular, is like a laser beam of knowledge and zaps me with complete understanding and great excitement each day. Everything that I am learning resonates on many different levels, uniting the disparate spiritual teachings I’ve studied through the years. All religions are saying the same thing, using different words and approaches. My education at Trika is clearly illuminating the missing puzzle piece- the science of why all these holy paths work, and why all devout spiritualists arrive at the same place.

So now I’m committed to a month here in Rishikesh. Not sure what comes next. A few weeks ago I attempted to buy a flight to Thailand that was supposed to depart March 1. I failed, and while I was frustrated at the time, I now realize why—I’m supposed to stay in Rishikesh. It feels right.

Saints, Sadhus, and Kumbh Mela

All over India, the vast majority of citizens place an extremely high priority on devotion. While Hindu is a monotheistic religion, there are many “Gods” or manifestations of God, and they are praised and honored in regular religious festivals throughout the year and fascinating rituals. One of these festivals is Kumbh Mela, which due to its awesome important and massive popularity has made it the largest gatherings of humans on earth. Celebrated over the course of 45 days beginning in January, Kumbh Mela draws many pilgrims to the holy Ganga River. In 2003, 70 million people made the journey.

This year happens to be an important year for the Mela because of the moon’s auspicious alignment. I really wanted to experience this event, and so I decided to fly from sunny south on up to Deli just in time for Shivarati—a festival that coincides with Kumbh Mela.

Leaving Delhi before sunrise, Rosanna and I took a northbound bus headed to Hardiwar (I’m now traveling with lovely Rosanna, who I met in Nepal a few months ago and met up with her in Delhi last night.) Rosanna is great company and that helped make this tumultuous journey in a local bus enjoyable. Two passengers in seats just in front of us spent the majority of the 8-hour bus ride leaning out the window and puking their brains out. We began counting the episodes with amazement that there could be anything left in their systems. Ten puking sessions later we arrived in crazy Haridwar.

Roads were blocked off. Pilgrims were hauling bags and suitcases on their heads, walking every which way. Confusion abounded, gridlock to be expected. We got out of the bus and began searching for another bus to Rishikesh, which is where we planned on being based out of. However, we learned that the whole city was blockaded and that unless we wished to walk 13 miles, we weren’t going anywhere.

Every single hotel and accommodation was way overbooked during this massive festival, but a helpful tourist info dude set us on the road to an ashram that could lodge us for the night. Pretending to be husband and wife (this was necessary), Rosanna and I talked the serious swami proprietor of the ashram into letting us stay there. He seemed skeptical about our marital status, but didn’t question our different last names and that our passports listed home addresses that were opposite sides of the country.

A little before sunset we embarked upon the journey to Hari Ki Pari, the centre of town where the festivities occur, where the Ganga River flows.

Along with millions of devotees and pilgrims who come the Kumbh Mela, it’s also the largest gathering of sadhus, saints, and monks. Walking barefoot around town, many of these sadhus are naked, painted white with ash and wearing sparse jewelry and accessories that make them look like ancient sages who have just emerged from a cave. Orange is the color and everywhere you look you see the saffron garb of monks and spiritual ascetics, carrying their only possessions- beggars bowls and blankets.

Much energy was swirling around. The volume of people was astounding. The road was like two rivers of people flowing in opposite directions. Their were many blockades and Rosanna and I had to hire several rickshaws who would take us another couple hundred of yards, before quitting at the next blockade. Eventually we arrived at the Ganga.

Loud Hindi devotional music was blasting out of megaphone speakers. Many lights were strung across the bridges and everywhere, reminding me of the lawn-art scenes you see around Christmas, like millions of candles illuminating the amazing spectacle. Great joy filled my heart as we walked around with open eyes taking it all in.

The monks and sadhus stay in camps located around Haridwar. The following morning, Rosanna and I were exploring the camps when one extraordinarily little man arrived to be our guide. With a waving of a hand he encouraged us to follow him. We passed through a little doorway and arrived in a sadhu camp with many tarps stretched across wooden frames, forming up several communal “living room” spaces. In each one is a group of babas, saints and naked sadhus, surrounded by devotees. We were invited to join them and so we took a seat. Speaking in elementary broken English we were able to communicate a little, and where words failed we shared in laughter.

Rosanna and I were intrigued by the Mela because we had heard that it’s an opportunity to discuss with monks and saints the finer points and philosophy of their faith, exchange ideas, and learn the sacred traditions of this varied community of holy aspirants. Having spent some time with these guys, I really don’t know how much philosophizing/ praying actually happens here. All I do know is that they smoke prodigious quantities of hash and marijuana.

They smoke out of a chillum, which is a hollow graduated cylinder that gets filled with a combination of hash and tobacco. And as soon as they finish one chillum, taking massive hits and exhaling thick clouds of smoke, they begin preparing another, which involves a curious ritual of rolling the tobacco and hash together in their hand. Neither Rosanna or I smoke, and refused when offered, which fortunately didn’t seem to bother the babas.

After hanging out with the babas for the better part of the afternoon, Rosanna and I concluded that hanging with the babas was a lot like hanging out with some of our hippie friends, and were kind of bored.

Leaving the camps, we headed on down to the river. It was there that I took my first dip in the Ganga. A sacred bath it was. When I emerged from that frigid green water I felt fully alive and completely grateful for the gift of life. The Hindus are fanatical about the Ganga and speak endlessly of its sacred power and healing properties. I was skeptical about this, but after taking a dip I am now a believer. It was amazing! The Indians were elated to see western me strip down into my underwear (this is what all the Indian men wear when they swim, so I followed suit) and bathe in the Ganga.

At sunset we attended the riverside puja. Puja is a religious ceremony of gratitude to God. During the Kumbh Mela this puja is incredibly popular. The whole area was packed to maximum density hours in advance of the ceremony- it was impossible to move. Rosanna and I had secured a great place, but then at the last minute we were booted and had to go elsewhere. In a vast ocean of people all we could see were the backs of peoples’ heads. For a moment I was disheartened, but then we spied a ladder and monkeyed up it just in time to witness the Brahmin priests wielding fire and offerings.

The Past Few Week in South India

I haven’t been very good about blogging lately. Days go by so quickly in the ever surging torrent of daily activity and traveling here and there and hanging out with people that there just isn’t enough time.

Anyhow, that disclaimer aside…here’s the last two weeks.

Leaving the beautiful beach of Gokarna I headed down to Kochi. Kochi is a cute historic village on the coast. It was a Portuguese colony for a while, and much of its European flavor still remains. While I didn’t find it particularly exciting to visit, I did enjoy the peaceful air around the place and spent two days happily wandering aimlessly through the quiet streets and sitting on the banks of the Arabian Sea watching the sun go down.

While in Kochi, experienced an ayurvedic massage, an experience I will briefly describe for you so that you won’t have to experience it yourself. Later on I learned that ayurvedic massages aren’t supposed to be enjoyable and now I know why. The masseuse gave me a petite paper G-string “garment” (what’s the point, nothing was covered and obviously I wasn’t shy) and laid me out on the table, which was just a massive block of wood—no pillows. He then proceeded to dump oil all over my head and began ripping out the hair follicles in my head. Once he was done with that he poured another gallon of oil over my slippery oily body and began mashing my bones and limbs into the table. I was yelping silently for relief but I trusted the masseuse and endured it. Finally when the massage was complete he had me sit in a box that was like a phonebooth that only goes up to the neck. This is the “steam room”, and slowly the heat begins to increase. I’m feeling extremely vulnerable locked in this box with just my head sticking out of it, like a chicken being cooked slowly. Soon the heat becomes unbearable, I’m sweating buckets, and I’m totally ready to cut my losses and call this massage a wrap. Meanwhile the masseuse is just staring at me with a funny smile that just makes it all seem hilarious and strange. Eventually he released me, I took a shower, and then he had the audacity to sit me down with a pen and his comments book where he asked me to write about how great my experience was.

Anyhow, the mosquitoes were killers in Kochi and it was screaming hot there too. So after two days of that I jumped on a bus to Munnar, a breathtaking mountain village about 5 hours inland from Kochi. The bus ride was windy, turbulent, and difficult as usual, but the views were amazing. The higher we went the cooler the air got and the better the views became.

The mountains around Munnar are the highest in South India and in all directions you see an endless vista of hills covered in tea plantations. They look like paint-by-number scenes—a thick beautifully-manicured carpet of vivid greens in every shade with trees spaced strategically for proper shade all across the landscape. The air is fresh here and in the mornings the fog and the rays of light that shatter through the trees inspire many photographs.

This region is the perfect climate for growing tea and for the past 100 years these hills have been expertly groomed to produce some of the highest quality tea in the world. Tata, the richest family in India, owns the Tata Team Company and pretty much all of Munnar, along with every hillside in a 50 mile radius. The Tata Tea Museum shows countless scenes of incredibly hardworked Indians who, despite earning less than a dollar a day in the field, are beaming great big ecstatic smiles.

One day I took a ride with Stepha, a German yogi, up to Top Station, the veritable top of the world overlooking South India. It was quite beautiful up there and along the way we passed through several picturesque landscapes, saw elephants, visited a little spice garden, a flower garden, and visited Echo Lake where everything you shout comes back at you.

At nighttime we had a great group of travelers kicking it on the patio of the hotel. Two guys had guitars, I had a drum (and chocolate), a group of Canadians had beers, and a couple of Israeli girls had white bread and jelly. All together we had the fixins for a great little party and probably would’ve continued late into the night if it hadn’t been for the night watchman who turned the lights out on us and told us to wrap it up because school kids were trying to study in the neighborhood.

After Munnar I headed on down Alleppey, where I met a lovely British girl waiting for the ferry. We began talking and laughing and before long two days had passed and we were still together. We stayed at Gowri, a supercool guesthouse, in a primitive tree house with a veritable zoo of animals chirping, howling, and cockle-doodle-doing all night long. It felt like we were in the jungle. Rowan is an expert mosquito killer and before lights out she was a madwoman securing mosquito nets and swatting violently at everything that buzzed.

The area around Alleppey, known as the “backwaters”, is a network of waterways and canals that extend inland from Kerala’s coast. Narrow rivers and lazy lily pad waterways wind through tropical jungle terrain, yielding to wide open expansive oceans. Some people rent houseboats. It sounds completely romantic and I’d love to do it someday with a special someone, but for the time being Rowan and I enjoyed the local ferries, which travel along the same path at a price of 25 cents for a 5 hour ride. Along the way you see women doing laundry, men lounging around shirtless doing nothing but sitting in sunlight, little kids playing and shouting out to passer-byes for pens. It was all quite beautiful.

Amma is Love

From the lovely jungle backwaters of Allepey, I boarded a ferry that headed south through narrow waterways lined with palm trees and lotus flowers and green. Every tourist on board had their camera out and were snapping away as every moment was a photo opportunity.

Along the boat ride, a smiley Indian man took a liking to me. We were sharing a couple of laughs, and when I told him I had a drum he became ecstatic. This guy played tabla and began to demonstrate on my Nepali drum. When I told him I play cello he began kissing my feet in admiration, and with a big genuine smile kept saying that he was not worthy. I still don’t know what that was all about, but I liked his spirit and enjoyed his crazy companionship. I only understood about a third of what he was saying. He went away for a while, but then came up behind me and whispered in my ear, inviting me to come down below into the captain’s chamber. I thought it was strange and was a bit leary, but it seemed classically Asian and random, so I followed him.

In the captains chamber I found my smiley friend, along with the captain, and the co-captain. A couple empty bottles of rum were strewn about and the smiler quickly emptied the contents of a bottle into a glass and handed it to me. At first I protested, but then with a smile I embraced the randomness of the situation and enjoyed the delicious rum. After finishing the first glass, he poured a second and I enjoyed that one too. The more I drank the easier it was to understand this guy’s crazy mind. I soon came to understand that my smiley friend, along with the captains and crew, were all drunk as a skunk!

By the time I arrived at Amma’s ashram the universe was smiling with me and everyone was glad. Walking slowly in peaceful summer bliss, I sauntered across the bridge and entered the sprawling pink compound that is Amma’s ashram. Gentle late afternoon sunlight painted everything in soft golden hues, a light breeze was blowing, and at this moment all of this stimuli felt like a giant cosmic hug. It felt right here. This is where I needed to be right now. Love felt omnipresent and I smiled to think we were all in this place together in celebration of love, in celebration of Amma- “the hugging guru”.

Long ago Amma devoted herself to the welfare of humanity and began offering love to the destitute and all by offering hugs. She calls it “giving darshan,” and over the course of her lifetime she has hugged millions and millions of people. Hugging is her “service”, that is what she does and people loooooove this woman! Her great love has inspired the adoration of many, and today she is revered as a living saint.

An ashram is a holy place where devotees live, learn, and practice their faith. At Amma’s ashram, there are over 4,000 people who’ve been living here permanently for several years. They are from every country, including a large population of Indians. There are also many dorm rooms to accommodate the several thousand visitors who come from far and wide to experience Amma’s “darshan”. The ashram is a microcosm—a veritable city with a university, a hospital, several apartment buildings, a pool, restaurants, gift shops, laundry facilities—it’s all here. The ashram is situated on a thin strip of land with the backwater canals on one side, and the Arabian Sea on the other. At sunset, devotees gather on the beach for prayer and meditation.

The devotees who have been here for a long time wear white, and all around the busy compound you see them walking about and working with great industry. Sometimes it feels like a cult because they are slow to warm up to outsiders, segregate between men and women, and in general live a curious life of singular focus and adoration of this one woman, Amma.

Day begins at 4:50, at which time the haunting chant of several hundred women rhythmically overlaps the solemn lonesome drone of the men’s chanting. Each morning at this time I would go and sit beside the fire where morning puja is performed. Some 40 or 50 devotees are gathered around a fireplace where a Brahmin priest builds a fire and begins tossing oil, flower petals, and all sorts of ritualistic items into the fire while murmuring prayers and chanting the names of Shiva. With eyes half closed in a soft gaze, I sat there immersed in prayer while the loud enthusiastic chanting of devotees would sing me towards spiritual trance.

As the hour progressed the tone of chant rises in step. Just before six it reaches a climax– a wild surging melody as this ecstatic band of angels belts out adoration. And then at six, suddenly it’s over and in the absence of the intense chant, a mystical silence and peace pervades the ashram. White robed women and men emerge from morning birjan and suddenly flood the silent compound. Surrounded in darkness, cool morning wind is blowing through my hair as I miander around slowly in walking meditation.

At seven, there is yoga in the main hall. I join about twenty other men. Somewhere else the women do yoga. (Everything at the ashram is divided by gender.) And at nine, we all take breakfast. This is when my Seva begins. Seva is the name given to selfless service offered by devotees. Amma encourages devotees to sign up to perform tasks and do work around the ashram, and says that selfless service is the most direct path to God. I must agree–of all the activities that I did during my few days at the ashram, none were more rewarding than the three hours per day when I got to feed and serve all the hungry devotees.

Soon afterward, loud devotional music began blasting out of speakers all around the compound. Hindu rituals would commence as a prelude to another session of Amma giving darshan.

The main hall is a large open-aired canopy with concrete floors and a stage up front where Amma sits surrounded by devotees and assistants. There are two large movie screens at the front of the hall that display the live video cameras fixed upon Amma. An ocean of folding chairs are lined up in rows and at the center there is a band of Hindu musicians who sing devotional songs all day long. A never-ending river of people file in from both sides of the stage, slowly approaching Amma for a hug. Along with thousands of devotees, I sat there in meditation watching the movie screens, observing the love Amma offers uniquely to each person that would come into her arms. Sometimes it would seem like she was crying, other times smiling, and on one particular day she seemed very tired, almost pained by the strain of this emotionally taxing activity.

It’s a great love that she practices and I found myself quite moved by her selfless commitment. It’s interesting that she never proclaimed herself a saint, but by virtue of her practice and the endless love that pours forth from her, she is celebrated as a saint. You can see it in the eyes of people that approach her. To touch her is to experience a miracle. To be healed. To be made right with God. And to feel her arms wrapped around you is to know it’s gonna be alright. There is a light, and there is a path to peace.

Now, I must confess, I didn’t exactly feel that light of love or compassion in my darshan experience. For me, the process was quite tumultuous. With the typical hierarchy of pushy Indian men running the show, we were like cattle being herded frantically up onto the stage. Like drill sergeants, these uncompromising ringleaders command you this way and that way and you will obey. Just before approaching Amma you are instructed to get down on your knees where you inch forward amidst incredible commotion. When it was my turn, many hands grappled by head and placed it near Amma’s shoulder. Amma took hold of me for about 3 seconds, mumbled a Hindu prayer in my ear, and instantly I was being pushed and pulled away from the guru. It all happened so quickly, I barely had time to consider the arms of a saint wrapped around me.

Since visiting Amma I keep imagining what it would be like to go on world tour giving people hugs wherever I go. That’s a beautiful thing. I would like to do it. To be a light and give hope and love and hugs to all who need it—what could be more noble or rewarding?

Musings on traveling, South India

My backpack is too big, and too heavy, and now is beginning to tear at the seems. I don’t know how much longer it will last. On particularly rough days, I wonder how much longer I can last. It’s been nearly four months now since I left home, traveling around India and Nepal, and living out of my backpack.

It’s real tiring some days, and in the heat of extreme summer sun I find myself longing for a peaceful place where I’m not constantly on the move and sweating like a sumo wrestler. Usually I wear the same clothes day after day- my repertoire is so unexciting. My threshold for what constitutes unwearable has risen drastically and though all of my clothes are dirty and wrinkled, day after day I continue to wear it.

When I feel it’s time for a change I reach down into the bottom of my pack and blindly grab whatever feels like a t-shirt. I begin to pull upwards, and when it surfaces I’ll consider the degree of dirtiness, and if it’s not to bad, that’s what I’ll wear.

I want to shed my possessions—all of them. Everything that I have I carry upon my back. I wish to be free of the burden of stuff. It’s the classic conundrum of my life. But when I sift through my belongings, I always return to the conclusion that I need all of the things I’m carrying—perhaps minus a pair of socks or a shirt, but that doesn’t do much for reducing the weight and bulk of my bag. In fact, I still feel that I am lacking stuff—like a mosquito net, which already would’ve saved me from countless sleepless nights of extreme discomfort. But where will I put it once I buy one?

Lately I find myself facing the exciting, but sometimes disconcerting, realization that the world is simply too big! There’s way too much I wish to do and I don’t have nearly enough time. Consequently, this travelers’ heart becomes torn as I evaluate every decision, constantly strategizing on the best way to spend the remaining days of my life. This realization becomes disconcerting when I consider the reality that I need several lifetimes to visit all the places that excite my imagination.

Back to the Beach

January 19, 2010: Gokarna Beach

After Goa I thought I’d gotten my beach fix. My goal was satisfied—I’d savored warmth, got a nice tan, I got to go swimming and do beach things. I wasn’t planning on returning to the beach, but my friend Irati sent me a persuasive email from Gokarana. She spoke passionately about a beautiful tropical beach just south of Goa and described this bohemian enclave—“what Goa used to be like before it got so touristy.” She spoke to my heart and convinced me that I needed to return to the coast.

I took an overnight bus from Hampi to Gokarna. My neighbors aboard the bus were a couple of Russians who were loud and rowdy while everyone else was trying to sleep. I liked these guys though, and was enjoying hanging out with them in darkness, laughing and drinking tequila from a flask. I stayed up late into the night talking with a kind-hearted Australian girl that I’d met in a restaurant a few days earlier, whom serendipity had assigned to the seat next to mine on this journey.

The beds in this sleeper bus were quite small, and there are two of them very close, side by side. My neighbor was one of the Russian dudes, and so as I lay me down to (try to) sleep this night I found myself basically in bed with this guy. He was a good guy, though, and we had a good laugh when laying down ground rules about spooning and unintended advances.

All through the night the motley bunch of bus drivers and assistants caused me to awake in fear many times. They’d throw on the bright lights. I’d awake and find the bus stopped in the middle the street as these goons were racing around the bus shouting at the top of their lungs, chanting something like “Oyyyyy, Oyyyyy.” In my panic, it seemed reasonable to conclude either terrorists had just attacked the bus, or that some major calamity was before us. But then, with no explanation to the madness, the lights would be dimmed and the bus would proceed on down the road.

That was over a week ago. Since then I’ve been enjoying a most peaceful existence on the beautiful shores of Kudly Beach, Gokarna. My life is simple here. Sun comes up, I go for a walk on the beach, return to my guesthouse for coffee and morning musings while the sun is rising. Up and down the beach you see hippies and eccentrics doing yoga, tai chi, morning stretches, and meditating. It’s nice in the mornings, before the sun has risen to full-strength. When the ocean calls, I go for a dip. When I get hungry I eat killer Indian food. All day long I read and take walks and swim. And once the sun goes down the bohemian celebration begins around a bonfire.

I saw the fire from a distance and could tell there were many people around it. The last colors of the beautiful sunset were fading and stars were becoming brighter. I was feeling good because I’d just gotten off the phone with Ryan and learned about the birth of my new lil’ nephew, Nolan. As I got closer to the fire I saw spirited hippie women dancing around the fire with great big smiles on their faces. I heard many drums and guitars jangling, and everyone was singing Hindu devotional songs and chanting the name of Shiva lovingly. I was surprised that everyone (except me) seemed to know the lyrics to these songs. Little kids and their parents were sitting around the fire. Everyone seemed quite happy here. It was a remarkable bohemian celebration.

A few days later I learned from a mysterious Baba with crazy eyes that the Rainbow Family had relocated from the US to this area. He explained to me that the Rainbow spirit is based in love and freedom and aspires to retain the spirit of the 60’s. Apparently, many of these freedom-loving hippies split straight America and headed to India, where eccentricity is accepted more than anyplace else. This explained why everyone knew the lyrics to these songs—apparently all are part of the family and have been singing these songs for years.

Here at Gokarna, hippie is the populace. Many laid-back people come here and never leave. Every guesthouse is full, no one leaves, and everyday you see the same people lounging around the beaches, enjoying the moments. It’s real easy to get swept up into this life. It costs less than $10 a day to live very well here. At $300/month, why leave? Most everyone I’ve spoke to has been for over a month.