|East End Girl – before my travels|
When I started my journey across Asia back in December 2011, I had no real plans, ideas or expectations. I knew that I wanted to make some big changes because, although I had been living a very comfortable and fulfilled life in London (on the surface, at least), I was in search of something deeper. And so it was that I, in that clichéd sort of a way, dropped it all and went off to India, that magical place which has stolen the hearts of so many seekers before me. I sat in temples. I worshipped the deities alongside thousands of devout Indians. I undertook an Ayurvedic detoxification of my body. I even learnt to stand on my head.
|Embracing my natural beauty in Rishikesh|
Stripped of make up, high heels, my pink vintage car and all of the props I had previously needed to make myself feel good, I began to open up to my inner beauty. The gorgeous people that I met reflected this and, as my heart gradually began to open up and I began to trust and surrender, amazing things started to happen. Significant people began to enter my life at times when I needed them, reinforcing the lessons that I was seemingly receiving from the universe. Ryan, a gorgeous scientist from Ohio with whom I spent a brief but life changing week in a community in Auroville, taught me that I could be attractive and sexy whilst shovelling my own poo, wearing no make up and sporting hairy legs. Jason Stewart who facilitated a one week workshop in NVC or Non Violent Communication made me examine my need to be ‘sexy’, seeking validation from others for my outer appearance. This was a belief that no longer served me and, in realising this, I let it go.
|Attuning to Shakti energy at Agama|
I had made a resolution at the beginning of my journey to preserve my female energy. In other words, I would undertake voluntary celibacy. (Thank you Liz Cirelli for the inspiration!) I wanted to be able to focus on my spiritual development without distraction and to ‘sublimate’ the energy upwards, directing it instead, for higher purposes. This is actually a Tantric method for attaining spiritual enlightenment. Tantrics believe that the female ‘Shakti’ energy we have residing in our base or muladhara chakra is incredibly powerful as it has the potential to create the entire universe. Instead of releasing this energy or wasting it in casual encounters, it should instead be directed upwards – towards our heart chakra (responsible for pure, unconditional love), our throat chakra (for creativity and expression), our third eye chakra (for meditation and contemplation) and ultimately towards our sahasrara chakra – the seat of the soul – which can take us to oneness or bliss.
|Through the eyes shines the soul|
In India, a land where alcohol is scarce and culture is overtly desexualised, it wasn’t difficult to begin to start living in these elevated chakras, especially when surrounded by seeking souls on similar missions. I began to realise how wonderful it can be to live a life in higher aspiration and I felt my inner beauty radiate out. Back home, the most common compliments I received on my appearance were on my legs. In India, everyone noticed my eyes – “flame yellow”, “olive with burnt sienna” – it was as if the new found luminescence of my soul was shining through. And yes, I was tested. Notably by the Israeli man I met in Kodaikanal who gave me whiskey, the too good looking to be true Indian I met before my ten day Vipassana meditation and yet another drop dead gorgeous Indian I shared many late night chais and cuddles with in Dharamsala. But I was not led into temptation. I stayed true to my word and to myself. After being dumped at the Indo Nepali border by a silver-tongued Sagittarius I had promised my heart to, I looked my video camera in the lens and vowed out loud that “no more, am I attracting worthless men into my life”.
|China – the ‘Eat’ chapter|
After months of subsisting off rice and dalh, when I rocked up in China my ardent devotion turned to another one of my great passions. Food. And indulge I did in everything from whole steamed fish in garlic and ginger, to Yunnan bacon, yak cheese, home made dumplings, Peking duck, eggplant cooked every which way, muscles, pork, French beans, Szechuan style shrimp, black carp, sushi, smoothies, salmon – you name it. Me and my friend Will went on a gastronomic tour of Shanghai, Beijing, Anhui and Hainan dining in some of the finest food establishments through to shopping malls, street food stalls, hutong eateries and local Chinese restaurants. The theme continued in Vietnam where I not only enjoyed all of my favourite Vietnamese dishes (mango salad, fried spring rolls, deep fried squid) but I also took a couple of cookery classes and learnt how to make them too.
And then came Thailand. I’ve always been a bit of a clairvoyant and I had had a psychic feeling that this might be the place to experience the ‘Love’ chapter – as did my friend Sandra Pearson (yes Sand, you win the £100 bet!) By this point it was August and I was feeling ready to move on – to take my spiritual progress to the next level. I had already planned to take 2 x courses in Tantra in Thailand and was curious to understand how spirituality and sexuality could become ‘bedfellows’. The workshops that I took on the ‘fantasy island’ of Koh Phangan were life changing. I had always sensed a resonance with tantra and here at the Agama school, I found the path for me. You can read all about my tantric journey here.
|Scorpio Pie looking delicious|
During my time on the island I decided that, although I had enjoyed my time focusing on my self and my spiritual practice, I wanted to be able to open again into love. I had a brief romance with a wonderful soul, Phil. And then I met Ian Marshall – Scorpio Pie, Pisces Iscariot. One night as I was making my way back from a yoga class at the Agama school I met him at a fruit juice stand. I immediately noticed him because I liked his glasses and his attitude. He was intelligent and a little bit bristly.. and he was wearing a nice orange shirt. Unfortunately at the time, I think that his affections were elsewhere. But that was OK, so were mine.
|Hear no evil…Ian, Flora and me at Three Monkeys bar|
After a month of hard core yogi activity, I was beginning to tire a little of the community and its hard line ways. So one night I headed along the little beach where I lived to a tiny little reggae bar the Three Monkeys with the intention to have a few beers and a good time. Little did I know what was about to take place. My friend Jonny introduced me to a whole crowd of gorgeous individuals who had been gathering at the Three Monkeys every night, enjoying each other’s company and being creative. Amongst them was Ian. We connected immediately over our discussion of the school (he was studying yoga there too). As the night progressed I think we realised we were falling for each other.
|Our beach hut|
A slightly furtive courtship ensued whilst we navigated getting to know each other in such an intense environment. The day after meeting him properly I moved beach huts so that I was almost next door to him. Then we effectively moved in together (we had to sleep in my place because he had a rather large lizard living under his bed who decided to come out whenever I was around – we thought that she was jealous!) After an idyllic couple of weeks together and with the rest of our loving crew from Three Monkeys, my dad came out to the island for a holiday. As I suspected, he and Ian clicked right away and we had fun exploring Ko Phangan on motorbikes, eating lots of delicious food and sunning ourselves on the beach and in the pool.
|Ian and Dad hit it off immediately|
Dad had a friend living in Chiang Mai and had got his return flight booked out of there. About a week before we were due to leave, Ian decided to leave with us because he had an exciting writing project up in Chiang Mai – working on a cookery book with a chef. And so it came to pass that within a few weeks of knowing each other, we had moved in together, travelled up Thailand and Ian had met my dad! Things happen fast in backpacker circles. I’ll be writing more about my adventures in Chiang Mai shortly, but once dad left I moved in with Ian and I don’t think I have felt happier, healthier or slept better in my life. Things were perfect.
|Enjoying the other side of the island – holiday within a holiday|
Those who have known me for a very long time understand that, after the breakdown of a long term relationship many years ago, I haven’t had much luck with men. Sure, I’ve had some interesting experiences – some horrific ones too. In fact, I could write a book about the trials, tribulations and disasters that I’ve had – too many to list out here. My little red heart has certainly been bashed, bruised and broken. And through all of it, I could not understand why I couldn’t find the one thing that I was looking for – someone who understood me in my entirety – from the hard exteriors of my wild party girl, through to my soppy emotional heart – the girl that liked listening to the radio and cuddles. The girl that wanted a canal boat, a dog and children – as well as the one that needed the glitz, glamour and raciness of life in the fast lane.
In summer 2011, long before I went away I was driving me and my friend Kate home from a festival and she told me to just ask for it. To just ask for what I wanted. And so I did. I compiled a list – a man who loved me for all of me. Someone who was sexy, kind, intelligent, funny and spiritual. It may have taken time, but one year later, that is exactly what I got.
|At one of our local cafes in Ko Phangan|
|On the road again – travelling up to Chiang Mai|
Ian is a really interesting person. He has studied Buddhism, Hinduism and tantra and he has been travelling the world for a long time. He’s a writer and has a blog. It turns out that we had not only travelled to many of the same places in India but that we had also been there – on one occasion in the same room at a satsang – at the same time. We both went to University in Sheffield, we both studied English literature. We both used to live in London and work in the broadcasting industry. We share the same taste in music although he is a little older than me – but he doesn’t look it or act it either. Most importantly we share the same values and dedication to a spiritual path – although equally we are both willing to fall off it. He is very funny and clever and eloquent but he’s also understated and quite humble – the contrast to my alter ego party personality. It doesn’t feel like relationships or romances I’ve had before – affairs that have caused me to to weep oceans of tears, waste thousands of words in conversation with friends or on email – trying to understand the inside of the heads of these men who broke my heart. There’s no dramas – it all just, well – it works.
Ian and I have been together nearly 6 months now and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting his family and friends, who unsurprisingly, are my kind of people. He took to my friends like a duck to water and now he’s part of my life. I’m very grateful for his being part of it and it feels so lovely to have such a supportive partner. We’re planning a future together and it is exciting.
And so, once more to spirituality – which is what this journey was all about. Way back in early 2012, I prayed to a 65 foot statue of Shiva to send me my man. And Lord Shiva – he of the cosmic dance, stamped his foot and delivered this man to me. The man of my dreams at long long last. Thank you. Thank you and Om Namah Shivay!
|View of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas|
After the austerities of vipassana, I decided to stay in the beautiful mountainous town of upper Bhagsu in Dharamsala, to allow myself to gradually normalise again and to integrate and process the lessons of the silent meditation. Liz had a couple of days left before she had to depart for the UK, so we stayed in a serene and peaceful guest house, coincidentally complete with shrines to Shiva (my God) and Amma (her guru) overlooking the valley. We mostly talked, walked, shopped, kept up a daily practice of yoga and meditation, read and wrote. Breathing in the mountain air and looking out at the snowy capped peaks of the Himalayas, I felt pleased to be alive.
|Me and Liz enjoying epic muesli in chill out cafe, Bhagsu
Once I had simmered down and got over the hysteria of my initial release, I realised that I had, in fact, really, really changed. I didn’t want to indulge in excesses any more. My mind – once a wild, untamed beast which would descend into fantasy at the drop of the hat – remained more measured and present. I found that I had more control over my thoughts. I had patience, compassion and tolerance in even the most trying of situations. I was highly attuned to the energies and vibrations of others. I wanted to live simply. I had attained a new-found consciousness. For this, I had vipassana to thank.
|Me in my pink Shiva guest house|
The appointed day for Liz’s departure arrived and she left – it felt strange to wave her goodbye after all the experiences we had lived through together on the subcontinent. It felt even stranger that she was going back to London and yet I was not (for a long time – maybe, indeed, ever) going home. I checked into a new guest house – it was candy pink and had pictures of Shiva painted all over it. It was made for me. I was in the hands of new friends: Indians, Irish, English, Czech – a merry band of us would spend our days doing as we pleased then would all meet up after dinner in Om Star chill cafe, to cuddle around steaming cups of chai or ginger lemon honey drinks, wrapped in blankets as the black stark cold of the Himalayan night descended. There was often music (beautiful Sufi sounds) and sometimes marijuana. A peaceful vibe prevailed.
|Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the breeze|
I passed my days with onward travel planning, administration, writing, blogging, reading and awaiting the arrival of a parcel from Delhi. I wandered in the hills, the primary colours of thousands of Tibetan prayer flags – each of them signifying the utterance of a mantra – fluttered overhead. Flashes of scarlet amongst the lush mountain landscape – the peace of Tibetan monks pervaded the air. I visited the residency of the Dalai Lama amidst the flames of a thousand butter lamps and watched the rhythmical ritual of women in traditional tibetan dress, their brown faces creased with age and wisdom, bowing and prostrating rhythmically onto a plank of polished wood. Vipassana had gifted to me a new-found appreciation of Buddhism. I hummed along to the “Om Mani Padem Hum” mantra as it resounded daily through the mountains.
|The disenfranchised people of Tibet – still fighting the good fight in Dharamsala|
|Butter lamps aflame in the residency of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala|
|Inside the temple – you had to go through the lion’s
mouth to enter the ‘cave’
|Inside the cave|
|The best was an Englishman’s response to this in Jaisalmer – he simply said “I don’t have the money…!”|
|Apparently there is ‘no parkig’ in Kanyakumari|
|I wish that this were actually true…|
|I love this sign, from a tiny hole in the wall in Udaipur which basically only sold chocolate and cigarettes|
|The crossed out ‘s’ is just the icing on the cake…|
|I mean, who was thinking of parking on a box of eggs anyway?|
|The motto of the Keralan police! That’s bound to put the fear of God into would-be crims!|
|If you listen very quietly you can hear them rapping…|
|Loving the handiwork..|
Nearly always the second question I get asked in India (after the requisite “are you married”?) is – “do you have children”? Children are absolutely revered and adored here – in particular, I have noticed, by fathers who take a proactive role in the raising of children and are often seen playing fondly with their kids and holding them in their arms. I was enchanted by many gorgeous little ones on my trip. Here is a selection of the best:
|‘Little Red Riding Hood’ – gorgeous little one in Vattakanal|
|An inquisitive boy peers over his father’s shoulder as he queues for the temple in Madurai|
|“Pretty in Pink”: little girl on temple bus outside Madurai|
|Tibetan children playing in the residency of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala|
|“Three Sisters”: in Rishikesh|
|Schoolgirls in Kerala|
|This little Princess purses her lips in a small village outside of Hampi|
|Proud shopkeeper – I like how the pink in his T-shirt matches his hibiscus wares|
|Gorgeous little girl in the Isha Layam school, Kerala|
|These two cheeky lads wouldn’t stop following us in Kanyakumari|
|I love the look on this inquisitive little monkey’s face, peering from Isha Layam classroom window, Kerala|
|Giving this bonny babe a snog in Pondicherry|
|Here she is again – the most beautiful little girl in India at Isha Layam, Kerala|
|The vipassana centre in Dharamkot, Dharamsala|
All the way back in February whilst scaling a mountain in Kodaikanal I made a quiet little decision to myself that I would complete a ten day silent meditation or vipassana in Dharamsala, north India – home of the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. I had met a series of people early on who had gone through with it and had varying but powerful experiences. Having found myself turning into a kind of ‘spiritual junkie’ I was keen to add this to the portfolio. And so, after one particularly heavy night in Mumbai when I was feeling the need to “get back on the path”, I sent in my application. It was a rather lengthy process with probing questions about the state of my present and past mental health and inquiring into any other spiritual or healing practices I undertake. It wasn’t until late March when I was living in Auroville that I finally received an approval of my application. The email weighed heavily on me. This was it. I approached the prospect of vipassana with a mixture of curiosity and terror.
|The Himalayan setting of the Vipassana centre|
Although I had met a handful of wonderful people who were sound of mind and had survived vipassana, I couldn’t help but have trepidations about it. When I asked for advice from friends on Facebook their feedback ranged from “don’t do it”, to “I know someone who lost it quite badly” and “I also know someone who ended up in an asylum”. For someone who has battled with depression, anxiety and the occasional minor breakdown, I was fearful as to how I would fare. I was haunted with visions of going mad. I knew that it would be one of the biggest challenges I would ever face. I decided to put the vipassana on the backburner and decide at a later date if I could go through with it. Time flew by. As the date fast approached, I began to talk myself out of it. I had done so much growing already, what could vipassana possibly bring to me? I was enjoying following a completely spontaneous path – why ruin it with another scheduled activity? I wasn’t in great shape sporting a sprained wrist, a tummy parasite and moped injuries – surely I needed to be physically strong in order to face it? Yes it was the right thing to do vipassana, but was it the right time to do it? I had every excuse in the book down. But one day, in Rishikesh, I woke up and knew that I was ready.
|The serene Golden Temple in Amritsar|
Prior to my trip to India, I was a shambolic, self confessed ‘media whore’ – the life and soul of the party, drinking and indulging several times a week. In the past 5 months I had undertaken a panchakarma detoxification, given up smoking and (to all intents and purposes) drinking. I had been completely vegetarian. I felt pure and ready (or as ready as I would ever be) to take on the challenge. I began to look at vipassana as a natural conclusion to the spiritual growth of the previous months – a good way to round it all off and complete my adventures with Liz, my travel companion earlier on in India who had also signed up. I met a wonderful lady in a shop in Rishikesh who had recently finished vipassana and reassured me that it was a beautiful thing to do. And so, ignoring the scare-mongering on Facebook, I undertook a 2 day journey via the incredible Golden Temple in Amritsar where I had ample opportunity to be alone and contemplate what lay ahead. A surge of emotion and elation took hold of me as I took in the first sight of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas through the windows of the local bus as – exhausted, alone and still riddled with the shits, I arrived in Dharamsala, 2 days later.
|The ten virtues of vipassana|
And then – as it seems to do most afternoons in the Himalayas – the heavens opened. Eschewing the rip-off taxi option, I went local-style, squeezed into a share jeep to take me the final few kilometres up to where I would be staying. Among my fellow co-passengers there happened to be some ex Sadahana Forest volunteers (we get around) and a VERY good looking Indian man, who (can you believe this) knew my tabla player from Goa (yes ladies and gents, I succumbed to the charms of an Indian very early on in my trip). Offers of marijuana, alcohol, partying and said attractive man’s phone number followed. I felt that I was being tested and although very tempted to take up their offers and bunk in with them at their party guest house I resisted, stayed firm and continued on my path. A ridiculous rickshaw ride ensued, winding up the helter-skelter paths of the Himalayas – traffic jams n all – I dared not look out of the sides as we slipped and slopped around tiny corridors of the flooded mountainous pass. I was dumped out in the rain and spent a good 10 minutes getting soaked in the storm before finally finding the little woodland guest house that Liz had secured for us. A hot shower, ginger lemon honey drinks and dinner followed. Both Liz and I were happy to see each other again but tangibly scared of vipassana. We skirted around the subject – only occasionally coming out with the breathless confession that we were both equally (pardon the proverbial French) “shitting ourselves”.
|Liz and I – about to face our fears|
The morning dawned. I woke up from an ethereal dream, cuddled in blankets in the little stone cottage room I had shared with Liz to birdsong and the fresh Himalayan air. But the strangest thing happened – as I awoke I was overwhelmed with sadness and melancholic grief. I instinctively reached up to touch my throat as the reality of total silence hit me for the first time. I had been so busy worrying about the mental health and the meditation aspect of vipassana that I had hardly considered that I wouldn’t be able to speak at all for 10 days. I was stunned by the prospect of being unable to express myself. There was just time to grab breakfast with a huge crowd of Liz’s friends who had gathered to wish us well.In amongst this I took a quiet moment to write a list of words to myself, pre vipassana. Although I wouldn’t be able to take the journal in with me I knew that I could memorise these words and hold them close to me when times got tough:
- This is a unique opportunity to be truly with myself
- It is a chance for peace and quiet in amongst the Indian madness
- I am in a beautiful, spiritual place – what better location to do it in?
- I am safe, nourished, provided for and surrounded by other wonderful souls
- This is a natural conclusion to my sadhna (spiritual journey) in India
- Many others before me have survived this
- Remember the words of Gandhi: “We have to live simply, in order for others to simply live”
- It takes courage to pause
- The universe will provide for and protect me
- Life just gets better
- And, on a more shallow note…after this I will treat myself to pampering and hopefully I will have weight loss to look forward to!
|One of the centre’s motivational signs|
Another piece of last minute advice was imparted from my friend Jaskirat, who phoned me from Delhi. He said “as we walk in the jungle, we will see many things. Just don’t eat the poison plants!” Shored up with this and the good wishes of others, Liz and I ascended the stone steps of the vipassana centre which was to become our home for the next 12 days with heavy, thumping hearts (one thing I have learned: anxiety and uphill walking do not go well together…)
|View of the dining hall in vipassana centre|
How to even begin to explain vipassana? I guess I should start with the practicalities. At the beginning we were presented with the very exacting ‘code of discipline’: students must stay for the entire duration of the course, complete segregation of the sexes is observed throughout. No physical contact, no looking at one another or communicating through gestures (which translates mostly to walking around looking at the floor). No contact with the outside world for the duration – we were to remain within the centre boundaries which must have only been about 500m in length if that, not great for a self-professed claustrophobic.
On arrival into the barred cage of the ‘female side’ of the vipassana centre we were presented with some simple linen, a laundry bag, a room number, a meditation mat number and the only piece of paper we would be allowed – the Code of Discipline, outlining all of the above rules. I accurately predicted that I would read this piece of paper about a thousand times over the coming days – the thought of breaking my lifetime habit of reading before bed scared the wits out of me.
|The stone tin-roofed dorm block|
The requisite paperwork was completed where we had to pledge to adhere to all of these rules, most especially the rule of not leaving. Vipassana is strictly a ten day course and we were given repeated warnings that to stay any less time would be harmful to ourself and to others. We then had to hand in all of the ‘banned items’ on the list to the surly manager: camera, phone, laptop, all books, journals, writing implements, paper, incense, prayer beads, Shiva statues. I looked around my tiny, cold stone cell and thought “this is it, kid – just you and me”. I collected 12 x stones from the woods and laid them out on the table next to my iron-hard bed: (ten days total but 2 x days either side in the vipassana centre). Each morning I would place one of the stone’s on the bottom shelf, counting down the days in a fashion reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption.
|The daily schedule: 11hrs meditation!!|
What followed was essentially twelve days of monastic life: wake up at 04.30 for meditation till 06.30. Simple breakfast of gruel / sprouting seeds then meditation till 11.00am in cold room. Lunch (lentils and rice) then meditation till 5.00pm – cup of tea and some crispbread. Meditate till 7pm – till 1 hr of discourse. More meditation till 9pm then retire to stone cold room. No talking, no looking at anyone, no writing or reading material – no nothing, just meditation, meditation, meditation. 11 hours of meditation per day. And to think that, back in the early ashram days I found it difficult to meditate for an hour at the time! At 17 hours in duration, the days were incredibly long. Stripped of all my usual diversions, I made small activities such as taking a shower, sorting through laundry, repacking my backpack stretch throughout the little free time that we had. The alternative – to lie there with my own thoughts – was often unbearable, given that I was with them already for 11hours per day. The first two days I remained in a dream-like state – finding it impossible not to slip into crazy, lucid half wakefulness or just plain unconsciousness. The physical adjustment to the schedule was hard – after my travel and sickness to boot. Day three I got heavily into the meditation and was ardent in all my endeavours. I thought that I was over the hill. But things would only get harder…
|The forest setting|
It is incredibly difficult to summarise vipassana, but I will sketch here some of the emotions that I encountered: terror, ardour, inertia, desire, calm, happiness, anger, boredom, rebellion, lethargy, desperation. The whole thing to be seemed to be an exercise in memory. Just as in the ashram, entire scenes from my life – hitherto forgotten or long since committed to the haze of time – resurfaced and played in front of my eyes. Some of these memories were painful and horrific, rendering me so angry that on one occasion I practically ran out of the meditation hall, fists clenched, gasping for air. Others were rather more difficult to swallow. I wrestled with my physical desires.. Cheese, bacon and pizza seemed to be recurring fantasies..Some meditation sessions I found impossible to concentrate, at times I rebelled and actively indulged my thoughts. In others – I achieved bliss. For 3 x sittings per day we had to use ‘adhittana’ or ‘strong determination’ and in these sittings we were unable to move any part of our body for the whole hour. Whilst this could be excruciating, it did help to concentrate the mind.
|My little stone cell|
There were times when, even though we weren’t allowed to communicate – you could tell that the others were finding it hard. Several people left a few days in and did not complete the course. Often there were people crying or there were occasional bursts of hysterical laughter. On day 3, when we learned the vipassana technique proper (the first few days were merely preparation) I came out of the gruelling afternoon 4 hour meditation session, bursting with anger and tears of frustration. I felt that I might explode. Instead, I lay on the ground and looked up at the canopy of pine trees overhead. At that moment, an eagle swooped across the azure sky and I suddenly realised the viapssana maxim for the first time – annicha – impermanence. Nothing last forever and each new moment is a possibility for something wonderful to materialise. That was a realisation that made everything bearable. And then… a butterfly.. fluttered in my periphery…
|This bit was difficult…|
This lies in opposition to the feminine, tantric practices that I am used to which are more sensuous and involve the direction of energy inwards and outwards. Reiki, a healing art that I have practiced with great passion for several years, is forbidden in vipassana (apparently it interferes with your ability to observe yourself). As is prayer. I noticed that other people ignored this rule and I have to say, I did utter a few words to Shiva myself. I really can’t see how they can legislate against your own mind or thoughts in this way. However, although I found the technique was not really for me, I did enjoy the intellectual ‘discourse’ (nightly videos featuring commentaries from Goenka) very engaging and they made me question and re-evaulation a lot of the learnings I had picked up in india. For brevity, I will not detail here the many revelations these discourses helped me to have, but am more than happy to discuss them further in person or on email.
The grounds themselves were very beautiful, although probably only a few hundred metres in length. I would amuse myself by doing rounds and rounds of the small pathway like a madwoman. We lived amongst the monkeys, who were incredibly vicious and cheeky. We were warned to always walk with a ‘monkey stick’ and not to provoke them or stare in their eyes. Occasionally the monkeys would prowl in packs or swinging from tree to tree, crashing onto the tin roofs of our accommodation with tremendous noise. With little else to focus on, they provided welcome diversion. Another excitement included the discovery of a scorpion in one of the girls’ rooms (cue forbidden shriekings) and very large spiders suddenly swooping down on webs in the bathrooms.
|Thank the Lord!|
Vipassana wasn’t all doom and gloom. On the whole I realised that I have lived a fulsome, colourful and brilliant life. I treasured the many happy memories that emerged, along with the horrid. I thought often of the many people out there who I love and have enjoyed happy times with. I missed people. I was bored. As time went on, I found it harder and harder. I rebelled a little against the programme, doing an hour of yoga asanas in the afternoon, shortening the 4hr meditation to 3hrs. I questioned some of the technique. The last four days were a marathon – a test of sanity and of faith. But I needn’t have worried. Day 10 finally dawned.
|We made it!|
Upon ‘release’, my initial reaction was to talk, laugh, tell jokes at a million miles an hour, drink coffee, whoop into the Himalayan landscape, tell everyone I loved them, run around, drink coffee and eat chocolate. But when the hysteria finally bubbled down there was a new found sense of inner calm and equanimity. There was a quiet knowledge in me that I don’t need as much to live as I previously thought: not noise, not things, not as much food. Although I had found the process painful the thought that I would go mad, break down and be confined to the loony bin were unfounded. All the spiritual and healing work I have undertaken in the last 5 months have definitely paid dividends. I faced my fears and realised that I am strong. I can make it. I emerged from vipassana a changed woman. I have a wonderful inner self, strength and sense of humour that really got me through.
|Aarti bowl of flowers and oil votive I floated on the Ganga|
In typical Sophie style, my departure from Bangalore was dramatic. I had miscalculated the departure time of my train by two hours. Cue panic dash across the city on the back of a dodgy Indian guy’s moped trailing cashew nut cookies, mobiles phones and yoga mats in my wake. But the universe was smiling on me – I made it onto the train with approximately 20 seconds to spare before it pulled out of the platform to wend it’s slow chugging way from south to north India. The journey was an epic 45 hours: 2 x nights on one train, 9 x hours on local buses and 1 x rickshaw ride later, I arrived in Rishikesh. Despite being exhausted, I was elated to be there and at sunset I quietly celebrated my arrival with my own personal aarti, offering flowers and flames to the river as the sun set over the Holy Ganga. I had come home.
|Devi music ashram where I studied harmonium & kirtan|
Rishikesh is dubbed the ‘yoga capital’ of India and I found plenty of diversions in the spiritual consumerist capital, including asana classes, Osho dance meditation and music lessons at a local ashram where I learnt how to accompany myself on harmonium to the kirtan singing I had been practicing in Auroville. Literally meaning ‘praise’ in Sanskrit, kirtan is call and response devotional chanting. Ever since I had arrived in India I had felt the aspect of Saraswati (goddess of music, knowledge and science) flowering within me and music, in particular kirtan, had become important as a way of expressing my creativity and my spirituality.
|Crossing Ram Jhula bridge|
I was keen to continue the practice in Rishikesh and, having heard good things about the music in Sasha Dam ashram I attended the satsang of the living guru Prem Baba and his followers. Prem Baba happened to be at the ashram whilst I was there. I enjoyed the music, but I found the experience to be deeply unsettling – full of privileged westerners in pristine clothes and full make up, worshiping at his feet. The ashram seemed like a resort – a far cry from the sweaty corporeal nature of worship that I enjoy, packed up amongst Indians in dark musty temples. In addition to this, some of the followers appeared to be so far gone into guru worship that they were losing their minds completely – dancing, shrieking, crying and having to be forcibly held back from Prem Baba and the rest of us. I had heard of the phenomenon of devotees-gone-mad but not witnessed it until here. I realised after this experience that guru worship is not for me. Although I appreciate the words and wisdom of self realised individuals both living and dead, I am fortunate in that I feel able to access the divine directly without need for a human conduit.
|View from Ram Jhula|
But please do not be put off by these lurid descriptions of devotees. Rishikesh was a study in pure beauty. It flanks both sides of the beautiful green of the curling Ganga, pure and unspoilt this far north. Two bridges, Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula cross the Ganga and connect both banks. I found a peaceful place of rest up in High Bank in the hills overlooking the river – a bougainvillea strewn terrace, a spacious room and two beautiful dogs and one puppy to keep me company. From this peaceful vantage point I looked over the Ganga, worshipped Shiva, read, reflected and wrote. Every evening I would wander down the hill and sit on the silver sand of one of the beautiful beaches of the holy mother river and watch the deep orange orb of the sun set over the water.
|Offering incense during the nightly Ganga puja|
My favourite thing to do was to attend Ganga puja – each evening five ashram boys, led by the chants of a priest offered rice, petals and coloured powder to the river in a beautiful, stylised ritual. I stood with them and threw rice and petals into the water as well as pour holy water into the river from conch shells. As night fell we lit incredible flaming torches and the music would become progressively more dramatic as we chanted to Shiva, the flames licking out of the serpent shaped votives as the boys swirled them in the night sky. The puja finished with offering fire in the traditional way to the river – circling oil lamps back and forth over the waves and taking sweet prasad.
|Hanuman Chalisa on the banks of the Ganga|
|Offering fire after the Hanuman Chalisa|
Hanuman worship in Rishikesh is extremely popular and one evening I attended the Hanuman Chalisa on the banks of the Ganga with hundreds of Indian people. This is a devotional song consisting of 40 verses in the Awadhi language, dedicated to the monkey God. We sat there on the white marble steps, with hundreds of other Indians chanting and clapping. It felt the very essence of India.
|Shakti and Shiva: me & Steven had a beautiful connection|
Regular readers will already know that in Bangalore I had undertaken a meditation in which I was told by a spirit guide that I would meet a man named Steven, ‘writing abroad’. On my first night in Rishikesh I was standing on the street looking around for a puja and Steven literally walked into my life. He was randomly introduced to me and within moments we realised that we were both Shiva followers and loved to sing kirtan. I couldn’t believe it when he told me his name and that he was an investigative journalist from the states. Here he was in India, ‘writing abroad’. Steven and I formed an immediate, intense connection. That night, at dinner I challenged him to walk to the Neelkandth temple – the temple of the blue throated Shiva – with me the following day.
|With a Shiva devotee at Neelkanth temple|
We met in the middle of Ram Jhula bridge at 6am as Rishikesh was waking up and started our pilgrimage. Whilst we still have no definitive idea of the distance (this is India, after all and differing reports were conflicting) we hiked for the best part of 4 hours, accompanied the entire way by a faithful doggy friend we picked up at the beginning of the trail at Swarg Ashram. It was a gorgeous walk through the peace of the forest path as the sun rose higher in the sky. Wild peacocks flew over our heads and the view expanded and became more breathtaking as we climbed higher and higher. We took in a few stops for chai and biscuits for the dog, encountering friendly Indian Shiva devotees en route who were very excited to see us making the trek up there. I don’t think that many tourists see this temple.
|Darshan plates to offer at the Shiva temple|
On the way in we bought a beautiful darshan plate containing gifts to offer to Shiva – fresh hibiscus flowers, sweet sugra prasad, honey, incense, holy water and pictures of the god. We entered the inner sanctum and offered the flowers and honey, pouring the water on the holy Shiva ‘lingum’ or phallus. We rolled the sticky incense into linga and lit them outside. In another room we took tikka from a priest and bowed to the sacred fire (agni). The room was dark and dense with energy and filled with metal Shiva forks. Standing in there, once again I was overcome with the full force of the divine – it felt as if Shiva had entered me. Full of energy I was almost reeling. We sat outside quietly in the sun and shared tales of our lives, then silence – an intimate act which requires familiarity to be able to do this comfortably. I had only known Steven for a matter of hours but somehow our souls were totally connected.
|Steven takes a dip in the Ganga after our temple trip|
The journey back down to Rishikesh was a typical Indian racket. Refusing to take the usual tourist taxi route and be ripped off, Steven and I travelled ‘Indian style’, which entailed a share jeep with 15 other Indians. As we descended the windy mountainous bumpy roads, I knew that Steve suffered from travel sickness so I put my hands on his chest and gave him reiki all the way. He felt my ‘Ma’ or nurturing mother energy and was thankful for the fact that he made it down unscathed. As we sat together in a chill out cafe later, we shared a beatiful and intense tantric exchange of love energy through the eyes and then both walked into the Ganga fully clothed under the setting sun. No drugs, no alchohol and yet I was the highest I’ve ever been, dancing amidst the yogis of the Himalayas. Blissed out.
|Me and ‘Mush’ the puppy at the guesthouse|
But just at that moment I saw two dogs fighting on the shore dangerously close to my camera. Fleeing to rescue it, I tripped on both wet trouser legs and fell, sickeningly and painfully on my wrist. The next day I also became ill with a stomach parasite. These injuries necessitated a few days of sweating and recovering in bed, where I was forced to meditate on my own body and my treatment of it. I had undergone many realisations in Rishikesh and it seemed no coincidence that I had developed a problem with my digestion. I knew from my healing work that that these kinds of illnesses often accompany the integration of new ideas that are ‘hard to stomach’. I realised that I needed to take better care of myself – slow down and listen to my body. It wasn’t an easy lesson for a high achiever such as me, who hates to be laid low by anything at all. However, I did quite enjoy a dramatic journey to the local government hospital where I received an XRay for my wrist. It all felt rather third world, with stained walls, crowds fighting to see the doctor and the radiographer spitting on the XRay room floor in front of me!
|Krissy, one of the beautiful souls I met in Rishikesh|
|Shakti energy: three dunks in Mother Ganga|
In Rishikesh, just as in Auroville, I seemed to be a magnet for beautiful, spiritual people who gave me further reassurance that this sattvic path was the way for me. All of these people were American, further convincing me that a future calling might lie for me in the States. On one day when I was craving some Shakti (female) company, I opened my door to find Krissy, a lovely American, had moved in next door. We shared some interesting conversations together and on Easter Sunday we took three dunks in the river with another lady who had opportunely appeared on the banks of the Ganga, one each for past, present and future. And the ongoing partnership with Steven was beautiful. Although there was no romantic connection, we were both able to communicate with each other so openly, we both felt that our relationship enabled us to see what we were looking for in a future partner.
|The deserted ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh yogi|
|Steve on top of one of the turrets of the Maharishi Mahesh yogi ashram|
And there were yet more coincidences. As well as having undergone NVC training (the same that I had done in Auroville which had changed my life) Steven had taken his initiation into Transcendental meditation or TM – something that I had been interested in since childhood. One night when we were eating together, by complete chance we had met the youngest ever TM teacher in the restaurant. She had grown up in Fairfield, Iowa, in the TM comunity founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I was really interested in spending more time with this divine being but I was physically weak and although Steven went to see her again (they had much to talk about, having known the same people), I stayed in bed. I had read somewhere that “it takes courage to pause” – another important lesson I was beginning to learn. One day Steven and I visited the derelict buildings and meditation chambers of the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – the ashram where The Beatles had stayed and written many songs for the White Album and Abbey Road. It was magical to walk in their footsteps and feel the latent spiritualism of the place. We wandered amongst the atmospheric ruins, singing Beatles songs, hearing them echo in the empty rooms and crumbling walls.
|Rishikesh was full of cheeky monkeys|
Long ago in Bombay I had signed up for a ten day silent vipassana meditation. However, I had still been unsure if I was brave enough to go through it without going insane. I had heard a few horror stories about people losing their minds. I was also worried about my many physical ailments and therefore my ability to endure 11hrs meditation per day in the cold of the mountains. However, I woke up one morning and realised that it was now or never for vipassana. Having drunk alcohol on only three occasions in the past three months and given up smoking, I was the purest I had ever been. I felt on a different spiritual plain the entire time in Rishikesh – totally high and energetically elevated.
|Steve meditating in one of the Vasishta caves|
On my last day, Steven and I drove on his scooter out to the mountains. We undertook a deep and profound meditation in the Vashista caves and after this we both knew that I was ready. And I was. Before starting a very laborious journey further north to Dharamsala, via Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple I was seen off by my new friends. One of the men I had met here, a shaman who facilitates ayahuasca ceremonies in South America, sat me down and unexpectedly played me a song to bid me on my way for vipassana.”Sweet soul, your journey’s just begun. Sweet lover of the light, your time has come. In the circle of the heart, the white bird flies. From time to time she rides the wave, she’s never born and never dies. Like the wind, like the wind she flies. Across the endless, across the endless skies. Sweet soul, your journey’s just begun. Sweet lover of the light, your time has come“.
|Me and Krissy on the banks of the Ganga|
As I approached Haridwar, tears of joy and disbelief at the beauty and generosity of those I had met were pouring down my face. I hiked, without fear, in the pitch blackness a couple of kilometers to the bus station and then was given a free ride in a Rickshaw by a poor and lame Indian man who refused to accept my ten rupees, instead insisting that wanted to welcome me to his ‘chair’. Entirely overwhelmed by the beauty of life and the universe I began my journey to the unknown. To vipassana.