India Is: My Journey

In my 20s, as a media career girl in London, I was renowned for my love of hedonism, decadence and partying. But when I turned 30 I decided that I wanted to search for a deeper means of fulfilment. And so it I dropped it all to travel the world with a backpack, seeking spiritual encounters and lasting happiness. My journey to self knowledge took me through India, Nepal, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and all the way back to India again. The Asia section of this site documents my journey, my dreams and desires, the people I met and experiences that I had.
I also made this short film, which was recently chosen as a finalist for the Indian Government’s IndiaIs competition. Hopefully it gives you a snapshot of the physical and psychological journey I went on during my 6 months in India:

Pray. Eat. Love.

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!

To be continued, whilst the rest of the travel journey unravels here…

Fantasy Island: Life in a Tantric Community

Koh Phangan – the fantasy island where I lived.
Photo courtesy of the gorgeously talented Clara Jansen

In Cambodia I fell ill again. Very ill. In fact so ill that I was trapped in a hotel room for several days, unable even to clamber down the 4 flights of stairs to get fresh water. I paid a Khmer man in the corridor to go and fetch me some. He came back with a bottle half filled. I couldn’t trust it. I didn’t drink water for 2 days and I watched myself waste away in the mirror as ants crawled up the walls. Losing weight was supposed to be a good thing but my cheeks were sunken and even my (formerly rather buxom) chest began to wither and sag. I felt alone and scared. I had to get out of Cambodia but I was trapped on a border town without my passport (on a last minute whim I had paid someone to send it back to Phnom Penh to get a 2 month Thai visa stamped in). Yet again I had to trust that it would come back to me on a local bus. I had to hope that I would get better. The days were drawing nearer to a course I had signed up to in Thailand. I held my breath. The passport arrived as promised. 

The beach that I would come to live on on KPN photo c/o Clara again
View from my beach hut on Koh Phangan

I spent a very uncomfortable day completely nil by mouth crossing the border into Thailand. Luckily I was amused by some very drunken boys from Devon, here on holiday. “I work in a pub and I drink in a pub. My life is great” said one of them, proudly. I told them I was doing a tantra course in Thailand and they oscillated between being fascinated and making crude jokes. It was to become the first of many conversations I would have about the definition of tantra which, clearly, is universally misunderstood. My first time in Bangkok was again spent sick and mostly inside a hotel room, punctuated only by a trip to hospital. In the end I had to fly down to Ko Phangan because I was too weak to travel by train.

Channelling the Goddess

A long day ensued taking in a bus and boat to Ko Phangan but as the sun was setting emblazoned across a purple and azure sky, the ferry glided over glass waters to the island. Triangular shaped smokey coloured mountains sulked in the background. The gulf islands of Thailand are quite possibly one the most sensationally beautiful places on earth. I wandered about the dusky air of the ferry, rocking with the motion of the boat and pondered how this was a dream come true for me to finally be here. And the next two months would be blissful, living on a beach and doing yoga every day.

Shakti awakens

The reason I had come all of this way was to enrol on a tantra course at the Agama School of yoga. Nobody had recommended it to me, I had simply found it on a Google search late one night on the Chinese island of Hainan. Tantra had come up for me a few times in India but I hadn’t felt ready for it back then. After months of deprivation or ‘tapas’, I now felt grounded enough in my spirituality to be able to start indulging my senses again. After all those months of sitting in ashrams and meditating, how to start living a normal life again? I believed that tantra was the answer.

The Shiva Hall at Agama, being prepared for a Tantric ritual

I didn’t know it at the time but I had stumbled upon a gem with the school. The Sanskrit word ‘Agama’ is the name of a collection of scriptures which teach the practices of tantra, the most ancient science of India and the root from which the other Indian religions have sprung. Lord Shiva himself, who lived as a great master around 7,000 years ago was one of the proponents of tantra, along with the Aryan nomad tribes who invaded India from the North West. They brought with them the notion of non-dualism which is this: we are inseparable from the divine – we are expressions of God, as is everything around us. “I am that.” We came from God and we can return to God and this is enlightenment. 

Shakti Power with Lyonne, another Tantric yogini

I have a lot to say on the matter of tantra, some of which is impossible or inappropriate to include here (please feel free to email me personally if you want to know more). It is a difficult subject to paraphrase but I will try my best. Tantra can be divided into two paths – the Right Handed Path and the Left Handed Path. Christ sat at the right hand of God. In India, the right hand is used for prayer and devotion. The Right Handed Path is that which takes you straight to the divine. Jesus was capable of this, Buddha was capable of this however most human beings, limited by working out karmas and bound by samskaras (imprints left by actions in previous lives), are not.  Most religions emphasise deprivation of the senses to get closer to God – through fasting, celibacy and asceticism. However the tantrics believed that it was possible to use the senses in order to transcend them.

More beautiful Shaktis

The left handed path offers an approach whereby the human body can be used as a tool to overcome itself, to attain ‘one-ness’ with the divine. The tantrics believed that in the age of Kali Yuga (the age of vice) in which we live, the left handed path is the only realistic path for people born into a life of materialism who are unable or unwilling to give it all up. Tantra provides a healthy route to enlightenment without complete renunciation – it basically involves bringing latent energy from our base chakras (associated with low, physical desires) into higher chakras associated with unconditional love, devotion, expression, intellect, creativity, knowledge and soul. I took to it immediately. The course itself was extremely well presented and inspirational. I was hugely affected by the teachings and the meditations which were so powerful I was often either in tears or flying out of my seat. Having been a reiki healer and member of the Usui reiki network for several years, I was well versed in using energy and I found the techniques of moving it upwards came naturally to me. Being an earthy, sensual woman, I had plenty of energy to use in the first place (a pre requisite for being a tantrica). At last I could use it for something positive.

Me and Joel, one of my gorgeous Shivas

The left handed path prescribes many ways of reaching enlightenment and although much smaller emphasis is given to it in the Shastra (the tantric scriptures) one route is sexuality. The sacred union of Shiva (masculine) and Shakti (feminine). The theory is that polarity exists in this entire universe – night and day, good and bad, yin and yang, black and white, male and female, Shiva and Shakti. Shakti represents energy, creation, manifestation, everything on this earth. Shiva is the consciousness which witnesses the action. Shiva is the eye and Shakti is the storm. Without Shiva, Shakti is nothing. Without Shakti, Shiva is nothing. In tantra, the point at which these two forces unite is the point at which Brahma or ‘oneness’ can be achieved. It is not only a beautiful notion but a beautiful and sacred practice which is completely undermined by ignorant modern-day interpretations based on new age derivations and activities of celebrities such as Sting.  

In the ‘yab yum’ with my teacher Assaf who I later
ran a workshop with in Goa

To get to the goal requires not only a very high level of purity of body and mind, but rigorous physical and spiritual training that demands an enormous amount of readiness and preparation. There are two pillars in tantra – sublimation (the raising of the energy) and transfiguration of yourself and your partner – to see them and yourself as an incarnation of the divine and to be as devoted to them as you are to God himself. Ram Dass has put this much bRetter than I ever could so I shall defer to him on this one: “It’s all about making love. Make love in beauty, in joy, in seeing each other in truth…Let the man worship woman as God, the Holy Mother, the Divine Shakti, the Mana, the Food of Life, the Sustainer of Being, Isis, Astarte, the Good Earth, Terrible Kali and Herself – All of It. She is all of it. Let the woman worship man as God, the Son, the Sun, the Father, the Lite of Her Life, the Creator, the Provider, as Jesus, as Ram, as Shiva, as Krishna, as all of them and Himself. Surrender and die to one another. Become one. The glorious Mystic rose in the garden of the heavenly Father, Permeate the universe, fill it, become it, for this is the union beyond duality. O Holy Family. This is the seat of the practice.”  

My beach hut home

And so it was that I lived in a little hut on the beach replete with hammock to swing in as the waves lapped nearby.. Paradise. I enrolled not only on the Tantra 1 and Tantra 2 courses, but a month long intensive yoga training course (6 days per week), which incorporated asana practice, meditation initiation and lessons, esoteric and mystical teaching, philosophy, laya yoga, lessons in a yogic lifestyle and kriyas (cleansing practices). I also embarked on a 10 day detox in which I ate nothing but brown rice and steamed vegetables and avoided all sugar (even toothpaste) to attempt to rid myself of the parasite that kept thwarting me. 

Nicola, my new friend enjoying raw food made with
love by Sabrina  at Wake Up Bar, Chaloklum

It was tough work but I was helped greatly by my fairy godmother Sabrina of Wake Up restaurant who prepared my raw food with love for the duration). With all of this healing work and yet more devotion to spirituality, things came up but on the whole, life was peachy. Tantra had given me a new and wonderful outlook on life and myself. I appeared to magnetise several men whilst on the island, including a gorgeous 22 year old German who became my tantric partner and together we enjoyed intense and beautiful practice. It had been a long time and I entered into love with him fully, consciously, joyfully and spiritually.  

But it wasn’t all a walk in the park and, as with most communities, I found some of the aspects of the Agama ‘way’ challenging. Some of the members of the community were hard core non-drinking, non-smoking yogis who advocated ‘urine therapy’ (the daily drinking of one’s own urine) and eating only ‘yang foods’ such as brown rice. I don’t have anything against the lifestyle choices of others, but again I defer to Ram Dass on this when it comes to enforced asceticism “you cannot rip the skin from the snake, the snake will shed it’s skin when it’s ready”. Nevertheless, with one notable exception (more on this later) the majority of my time on the island was also spent in sobriety. 

What I found more difficult was the encouragement of polyamoury within the community. Whilst I find the concepts of non ownership and unconditional love something to aspire to, I couldn’t help but feeling that there were a few people on the island indulging in ‘red tantra’ – i.e. sex for the sake of sex. In this way, the ego is indulged, not surpassed and it is very easy to fall into the usual sense-pleasure games under the thin guise of ‘spirituality’. They do say the tantric path is a slippery one after all. Although at times tempted, I did manage to successfully avoid getting dragged in. Another of my concerns focused around the ubiquitousness of sexual healing and the occasional unscrupulousness of certain people purporting to be healers whose motives might not be entirely pure. Thankfully the instances of this were peripheral and rare, but nonetheless it was something that I was conscious of and had occasional concerns for those more vulnerable than myself.

Despite this, however, my time on the island was nothing short of transformational. I am now a fully fledged and initiated tantrica and I went on from this to not only complete a tantric yoga teacher training course, but found my own company which runs tantric workshops. We have just launched our first event in Goa which was a great success – you can read all about it on my website and our Facebook page. Perhaps most importantly, I learned what it truly is to be a woman. To surrender. To devote myself to the Divine. To be a good partner. To love myself. And I was about to open myself to such riches that I could not have previously dreamt possible before. For this, I have my lover, Phil to thank, I have my new friends to thank (Johnny, Nicola, Lauren) and I have Agama. Although I don’t necessarily sign up to all of their teachings, I think I have found my path.

To be continued… 

Sleepover in a Tibetan Settlement

Tibetan prayer flags litter every building in the camps
Ever since I was a young child I have had an interest in Tibet, Tibetan monks and Buddhism. My inherent interest in this culture was only enhanced by my recent stay in Dharamsala, home to the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. Tibetan people seem to me to emanate a natural peace in spite of all of the social and political challenges that they have faced. When I landed in Nepal, the Tibetan theme continued as I realised that despite its relatively small size, this country is home to an estimated 30,000 Tibetan refugees and Tibet is everywhere – whether that be in the form of handicraft shops, the sound of the “Om mani padme hum” mantra echoing from shops, prayer flags fluttering overhead, even Lama schools – you can’t help but see the Tibetan influence exerted on Nepali life. 

Washing hanging to dry inside the camp

The refugees began to arrive in the early 1950s but came in their droves after the Lhasa uprising in 1959. The Nepali government helpfully operated a fairly relaxed policy towards the entry of Tibetan people, partly feeling unable to stop it due to an inability to enforce tight border controls and seeing their provision of shelter as a good solution to a potential human crisis of great magnitude. With the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), temporary sites were set up in the 60s to house the refugees and support was provided by aid organisations and the US government. This arrangement was in place until 1986 when Nepal and China entered into agreements that Nepal would no longer accept Tibetan refugees and severely restricted the movements of existing Tibetans within the country. (ref ‘Tibetan Refugees in Nepal’

Houses within the settlement

I had heard that there were two settlements within driving distance of Pokhara so Kevin and I got on the scooter I had hired and drove out to stay for the night. We found the entrance to Tashi Palkhal settlement on a busy main high street – a large Tibetan gate behind the bustling market stalls out on the road to Baglong and pulled in. Inside was an ordered, if shabby settlement of concrete breeze block houses, punctuated with services buildings such as a health clinic, a nursery etc and of course, a large stupa (a mound-like construction containing relics and used in Buddhist worship) and a monastery. We immediately got picked up by a Tibetan man who seemed a bit slow but unsure of the protocol we allowed him to lead us. 

Tibetans going about their daily life in Tashi Palkal

He showed us into the monastery and we were flung unsolicited into the quarters of an extremely old and decript Lama who was lying there on a mat in filthy quarters. We prostrated in front of him (we weren’t sure what else to do). He spoke no English and realising that we appeared inept, somewhat cantankerously showed us the door. So we wandered around exploring the rest of the monastery.  It was strange seeing the intimate lives of the monks – their scarlet habits drying out on the concrete floor. A number of young monks appeared to live there – one popped out from behind the curtain (having been disturbed by our unsubtle guide) revealing himself to be half naked in just a scarlet vest – nipple showing. But despite our blaitant voyeurism (and the “no outsiders allowed” sign in the centre of the camp) the inhabitants were all very friendly and warm. 

The couple who sold us handicrafts in their house

It wasn’t long before we were hustled into a tiny (but very neat) house to buy some Tibetan handicrafts. We sat cross legged on a low divan whilst the gentleman showed us his bags of wares, meanwhile his podgy wife brought out the Tibetan butter tea. “She’s done this before”, I thought but apparently all guests receive this beverage which is an integral part of Tibetan culture. The tea is indeed made with butter and although sounds rather tempting, is pretty fattening and disgusting. Apparently nomads can drink up to 40 cups of butter tea per day and the calorific content lends itself to high altitude living plus prevents the chapping of lips. I don’t really like the drink and am mindful of how cloying and unhealthy it is but the old lady kept refilling my cup after every sip. Apparently this is customary and the only way to avoid it is to leave the cup full until you want to beat a retreat then to down it in one! (Thank you wikipedia! ).

An old monk presides over the butter lamps 

There was a shrine to the Dalai Lama in the house (although little else) and candles and butter lamps were flickering in the gloom. Despite the ludicrous price I was quoted, I spent money on some bracelets and prayer beads as gifts for family and friends. I felt that if money were needed, it was here. After handing over the cash, we went for a wander and I asked if I could meditate in the monastery. The docile guide disturbed the young monks (again!) from behind their curtain and a very young lad was sent to unpin the silk prayer flag that covered the door, unlock it and open it by means of the giant and beautiful silk tassles that adorned the huge golden circular door handles of the temple. I sat in an easy meditate stance – physically the cross-legged position has improved so much for me since the early days of the ashram. Afterwards, we lit a butter lamp, paying the very old monk who presided over them 10 rupees for his troubles. 

Butter lamps 
Inside the temple

The Tibetan elders meditate together 

As we were about to leave, I noticed another building and asked the guide what it was. “A meditation centre for the elderly” he replied. Although I was with Kevin who wasn’t that into the spiritual aspect, something inside me made me ask if we could go and look inside. I am so glad that I did. What followed was possibly one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. We rounded the corner to see a meditation hall, kind of shabby like an old church hall and inside were 12 or 13 Tibetan elders. All were sitting on cushions, twizzling prayer sticks in front of them. Some had cataracts, some had paunches, others were skinny and stick thin. All were ravaged by old age, ill health and the weariness of lives blighted by conflict, humiliation and expulsion. But they were at peace. 

Sheep & goats next to the monastery in the camp

Welcoming us in, we took our places on mats on the floor. Inexplicably – in their midst – also taking his place on a prayer mat was a donkey. Each elder was mid chant – as one voice rose, another fell – syncopated, in their own rhythm and tune but the effect of it was truly hypnotic and above all – totally peaceful. The energy was divine – not in a sweaty, orgasmic, Shiva kind of a way – but in the total quietitude of Buddhism. I tried to stop the tears that glistened in my eyes from rolling down my cheeks. I didn’t want to alarm those gorgeous, beautiful, welcoming people. I could have stayed with them there all day but sensed that Kevin felt a little uncomfortable, so I forcibly pulled myself out of that most magical of moments. I am sure it will stay with me for eternity. 

Devi Falls in the underground caves

Thanking (and paying) our guide, Kevin and I scooted away back to the Tibetan settlement where we were staying. We had a quick lunch in the Tibetan Yak restaurant. I ordered veg but was presented with a watery bowl of thukpa with lumps of grey “buff” (beef) which I had to send back. Instead we ate plain chowmein – Tibetan food is really very austere. Then we made a visit to the Gupteswor Mahadev (Shiva) Cave and underground Devi waterfalls. The cave visit was a real highlight of the Nepal trip. As we descended into the subterranean world formed by natural rock there, at the mouth was the biggest, most incredible Shiva linga I have ever seen. I payed my respects, walking around the enormous thing and feeling the power from it. I wondered how many thousands of hands had touched it’s tip. Concealed within a grotto was a stone statue of cow, from whose udders dripped real milk onto a linga below it. Insane. We descended through a network of tunnels and steps in the dripping dank and it was so cool! I had visions of the 80s cult film “The Goonies”. I also fought a natural urge of claustrophobia that bubbled up. Being below the earth is a strange feeling that can incite a certain kind of terror. But, I got through it and as we reached the waterfall at the end – oh my! What a wonderful sight! Through shafts of light in the rock, jets of water plumed and fell into a natural pool below. I was mesmorised and at that moment, as we sat precariously on a damp rock, gazing out at the light, I was truly present. 

Hanging out on the scooter in the settlement

We went back to our room in the ‘Tibetan guest house’ which was really one spartan bedroom in an otherwise locked community hall where Tibetans stay when they visit other members of the settlement. Kevin and I lay there in the dark of the afternoon storm and the total silence of the rest of the Tibetan camp. It would have driven me mad before – being ‘stuck’ in a place with no diversions but vipassana as equipped me well for such occasions. Kevin dozed, I read and wrote and afterwards walked outside alone, breathing in the fresh evening air, restored and lush from the downpour. Later on we drove back into Pokhara to get some dahl baht to eat. The two little restaurants in the settlement were closed as apparently Tibetan people only eat at home during the evening. After dinner, Kevin drove us back – my rented scooter was without a headlight and I had to shine my torch to light the way over potholed roads – it was completely insufficient in the black of the power-cut-night. 

Elders make handicrafts outside their homes

I gripped onto Kevin as he drove us (at first on the wrong side of the road – he is Swiss) through villages that were unrecognisable to me. At one point we neared towards a flashing light. Oh shit! The police! We had to explain that it wasn’t our fault we were driving without a headlight but they seemed to understand that we had been jibbed by the rental man and let us off without so much as asking for a bribe. Kevin finally got us back to the camp. I was so thankful, at that moment, for his manly capabilities. As a relatively new driver and nervous in particular driving at night, even on well lit European roads, there is no way I could have found our way back through the Nepali countryside in the dark. 

Oxen in the street outside the settlement
The settlement we slept in

Morning prayers in the monastery

The next morning I awoke at 4.50am and made my way to the monastery. It was eerie and silent walking through the settlement in the grey of the dawning light. But there was life – people on their way to work and in the monastery itself. One of the small chamber rooms was open revealing a giant prayer wheel (perhaps 5 foot in height) and two very elderly ladies were walking in circles around it, turning the wheel as tradition dictates – it is said to have the same effect as orally reciting a prayer – and muttering their mantras. Other women rambled the grounds, circling the monastery over and over again as they prayed fervently, beads in hand. Every time the huge wheel completed a full circle a piece of wood that protruded from one if the sides sounded a bell. I stood and watched.  There is something so mesmeric about the ceaseless ritual of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Tibetan butter tea for breakfast

Elsewhere the monks were rousing from sleep. Emerging from tiny cells, they scratched their shaven heads, rubbed sleep from their eyes, washed their faces and brushed their teeth. I followed them up into the prayer room, intending to stand outside as they began their chanting – sitting cross legged and facing one another on two opposite sides of a narrow room containing cushions and benches, as well as books, manuscripts and a Buddha shrine. Imagine my surprise when one of the monks beckoned me to come in and join them. I quietly sat down next to a very young monk who was playing the traditional instruments and closed my eyes to absorb their guttural chanting as the sun rose. I don’t know if any of you have ever listened to Buddhist monks chanting – at first it can be disconcerting – you imagine it to be a peaceful, soothing noise. In fact, often the voices of the monks are very low – unbelievably so and it can almost sound a little scary at first. They chant out of sync, starting verses as others finish, breathing out the syllables in an almost vibratory fashion, reminiscent of bubble-blowing. As they do so, they read the Sanskrit prayers from beautiful calligraphy on rectangular shaped pieces of paper, plucked from colourful boxes that sit in front of them.

The monks awake for morning prayers

I was taking in the scene when suddenly the monk at the front directed a few others to leave the room. I was just wondering what could be so important as to interrupt their prayers when the monks came back in carrying a giant barrel of toast. I then realised that the monks had stashed their knives, plates and mugs on the prayer benches, ready to receive their morning breakfast. Whilst they chanted and prayed continuously, pieces of white bread toast were handed around – as was a jar of jam and peanut butter which each monk applied conservatively and mindfully to his piece of toast.  I also noticed a couple of young monks had some packets of supplementary digestive biscuits to accompany their meal! I don’t know what I was expecting Tibetan monks to eat for breakfast but it certainly wasn’t jam and peanut butter on toast. 

Tibetan monks breakfast

Just as I was looking on (I confess, somewhat hungrily), the senior monk directed a young monk who hastily ran to me with a plate, a cup and a generous helping of bread. I waited my turn for the peanut butter and jam, feeling quite guilty that I was participating in their yummy breakfast and yet not in the gruelling schedule that no doubt charactises their monastic day. I walked back to the settlement to collect Kevin and saddle up the scooter, reflecting on the generosity and beauty of the Tibetan people and possibly the most unforgettable and spontaneously spiritual breakfast I had ever enjoyed in my life – jam on toast with the monks, amidst incence and prayer. 

My helping of toast and butter tea

India: A Love Letter

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’
But despite this, my devotion was still ardent to Lord Shiva. I found the most amazing temple on the road to Upper Bhagsu – it was like a crazy haunted house fairground ride – complete with a sculpted lion whose mouth you had to enter to get into the ‘cave’ of the inner sanctum. Worshippers have to crouch low to wander through the labyrinthine fibreglass wonderworld passing gods, deities, serpents and Shiva linga until you finally come to a teeny tiny cave where, each night, you could squish in with other Indian devotees and take evening puja. This became a nightly ritual for me – firstly to sit in front of the deities and meditate downstairs after paying respects to the giant Shiva linga and then cram into the tiny, airless space – dizzy with the smell of incence.
Inside the cave
The priest was fabulously scruffy and disorganised. He would rock up in stained clothes and trainers, complete the chants as quickly as his voice would carry them, occasionally being interrupted by the beeping of his mobile phone. In amongst this, there was one other Westerner who would attend. Busy in prayer and with my thoughts, I tried not to look at him. But I felt a certain energy between us – an attraction and a question. What was he doing there too? I enjoyed the tension, and other than a few passing comments as we placed our shoes back on after taking tikka and prasad and ringing the bell (to awaken the Gods), we didn’t talk.  The mystery between us heightened the experience, plus I enjoyed the nightly ritual, which always culminated with sitting cross legged on the floor, clapping and singing along as schoolboys and girls trickled in, picked up instruments and banged along to the rousing devotional songs – the whiny melody of the village women and the jingling of the bells being carried across the night air.

Golden prayer wheels turning at the Dalai Lama Residency

On one particular day – I was walking down the mountain path into McLeod Gange (the nearest big town) to attend to some business when I literally bumped into none other than the gorgeous friend Sunshine I had met in Auroville. It’s a long story that entails a broken nose and more hospital visiations (including to the Tibetan hospital which I was very impressed with) but she ended up staying with me in the pink house. And so it was that I shared a bed with her again, sleeping in her energy, manifesting great things, having positive thoughts, indulging in girly time, going shopping for clothes and fabrics for her burgeoning fashion business. Together we enjoyed the chill out scene of Bhagsu – having epic breakfasts in ‘Munchies’ healthy chill out cafe and even attending the odd party in the evening. I was definitely integrating myself back into normal life again with a vengeance!

Munchies Healthy Chill out cafe: best breakfasts in Bhagsu
We went to a reggae party and danced the night away. On full moon we went to another party at Rainbows bar – high up in Upper Bhagsu, perched precariously on the edge of the mountain. We were told that on this night the moon was the closest to the earth than it had been in thousands of year – and here we were the closet we had ever been to the moon, ourselves up in the Himalayas. It was a powerful and beautiful experience – bathed in milky white light we sipped ‘Rumplechaiskins’ (our own homemade concoction of chai spiced with a bit of rum) and danced and sang to Shiva. I was devastatingly happy. And guess who was there? The man from the temple. I saw his face through the flames of a fire dancer (the beautiful Petra  – a mate from the Bhagsu massive). We couldn’t wait to speak to one another and found, when we did, that we had a wonderful connection. His name is Govinda and he was born in India, although raised in Itlay. In the temple, we shared the love of nightly puja. In life – we shared the same hopes and dreams. I felt beautiful energy emanating from me – my eyes and my heart – full of life and love and attracting and manifesting wonderful people and things.
The gang in Munchies
I had a reason to be happy. Some of you might remember the Rambunctious Englishman of my Udaipur… blog. Well, all the way back when we had enjoyed each other’s company so much that we had made a little commitment to meet each other again. For four months we had corresponded, readers. Four months. A correspondence I had kept secret from you in case I cursed it, but I dared to hope – with baited breath – that this blue eyed boy might be the one I had been searching for. I had felt that Shiva had decreed it so, having met Tom (his real name) immediately after my prayer to the statue in Bangalore (in which I asked to meet my soul mate). I had also been told by an astrologer in January that I was about to meet the man of my dreams in India. In a guided meditation I met Tom himself (in spirit)  and he told me that he loved me.

With Annie, a lovely Irish lass I met in Bhagsu 

But, but, but, he also told me that he “wasn’t a grown up” and in those times since our wonderful weekend together in Januay, I had had ups and downs, experienced intense connections with others, re-evaluated myself, had doubts about him and his place on my new-found ‘sattvic’ path. But, dear readers – I had faith. I knew that I had found myself in India and hoped that I had found love. It was the most perfect story – meeting in Udaipur (the most romantic city in India) and being reuinted in the Himalayas 4 months later. But this, of course, is the classic example of me “writing the story before it has begun” as was foretold to me I would do, many months ago back in Goa . After a late night Facebook chat with Tom back in Amritsar I woke up the next day with a heavy heart. I intuitively knew that he wasn’t for me. The clues were there. All my spiritual work had proven to me to have no expectations – but ever the romantic, I continued to believe. Embracing a newly skinny body, I beautified and prepared. I endured a ‘third world waxing session’. I bought him gifts and stocked up on films I knew he would like. I invested in a whole new wardrobe and left my beloved India (and Sunshine and the joy of Dharamsala) a month early. I know it – I was foolish.

The train I spent 22hrs on before receiving the news..

Reader – I did not marry him. In fact, I didn’t even meet up with him. On disembarkation at Gorakhpur, near the Indo Nepalese border, after a horrendous 22hr sleeper class non AC train journey in which 7 indian people were in my seat, I arrived to a cockroach infested hotel. I checked my messages only to be in receipt of a ‘dump email’ from Tom, who had decided to go it to Thailand (where we were headed together), alone. The dream was over.

My final few hours in India were pure survival. After a blazing row with the hotelier (it was recommended in Lonely Planet, by the way), I managed to acquire a new room where the cockroaches only adorned the floor and bathroom, not the pillows and sheets as in my previous room. Unable to bear the thought of insects crawling on me as I processed the shocking news, I took a sleeping pill.

Last sunset in India at a stop along the way…

I woke up the next day and realised I had to get out of there. Already reconciled to the fact that I didn’t want to journey back into the nearly unbearable Indian summer for the few weeks left on my visa, I decided to continue to Nepal. From there I would make a plan. Unfortunately (and very unusually for me in my otherwise untainted time in India) I was ludicriously ripped off by a cowboy of a travel agent who – telling me that Nepal was ‘closed’ and that there was no way to get thereby bus for 2 x days – charged me $170 (a ridiculous sum by Western standards – never mind Indian) plus an additional 2,000 rupees to be flown to Kathmandu. It actually transpired that this money did not get me to the airport, in fact it barely got me to the border. On arrival at the frontier I was turfed out of the taxi due to political strikes in Nepal blocking the road. Heartbroken but determined, I crossed the border on foot. Goodbye Mother India – I wish it didn’t have to be this way.

My anguish at the journey, the hotel, the dumping

What greeted my arrival in Nepal was the realisation that I had been overcharged by $70 for the air ticket by the travel agent. The money I had paid for a taxi was wasted. All of the roads in Nepal were closed due to a political strike or ‘bandh’ and I was forced to have carriage to the airport on the back of a cart. It was the blazing heat of day – I had no guide book, no map and mobile phone. The most vulnerable I had ever been – I was headed into unknown country with a peasant who couldn’t speak English, going through what I can only describe as third world villages on one pot holed road. And out here the villagers were angry. We passed many soldiers – roadblocks and people following us menacingly with guns and sticks. (At the time I did not know it but the driver of the cart was taking a huge risk in conveying me to the airport during a country-wide ban on transportation). I knew that if I let fear take hold of me I would collapse – so I chanted and prayed and trusted and finally I arrived at the ‘airport’. My onward flight was cancelled and I spent the night in a Nepali village – no power, sharing a bed with a young 19 yr old I had met at the airport. Planes, Trains and Automobiles eat your heart out. Finally – after 5 days of journeying. I arrived in Kathmandu.

First sights of Nepal – impoverished villages

But I will not let this last image of heartbreak embellish the profound and life changing experience of the previous months. Ah India, India, India…where do I even begin? There comes a time that the things that no longer serve you fall away. In the past 5 months I have given up cigarettes, alcohol (to all intents and purposes) and casual encounters. And what about the space those things have left behind? Well, I’ve filled them with bhakti (devotion), sanga (community), puja (prayer) and prem (love). My life has improved immeasurably. It is wonderful.

Mother India – you have had an irreversible effect on me. I have made such progress here! You have given me faith – in Lord Shiva, in the universe, in the divine and in myself. In you I have learnt trust. Under your nurturing, beautiful wings, love and compassion have blossomed within me. I now possess equanimity. Though my heart and my body have been shaken and rattled – you shined a beacon of light – a Pharos in every tempest. Thanks to all you have taught me I now know infinite gratitude in every waking moment. I have no reason to complain ever again – all my so called ‘first world problems’ are just that – meaningless. Thanks to you I discovered the joy in devotion and, in so doing, meaning has been restored to my life. I understand (truly, have experienced) the law of attraction. I am an extension of everyone and we are all children of God. You took my hand and showed me the truth of impermanence. Nothing will ever stay the same and therefore everything is bearable. You showed me my spiritual powers, opened my eyes (all three of them) and welcomed me with your many, open blue arms onto a powerful path direct to the gods. Not only this – you took me ‘inside’, where I met the real Sophie once more – and found that she was beautiful. The soft side as well as the party animal. The healer. The orator. The storyteller. Now, my alter ego lies dead on the road and I can love myself once more.

You gave me Saraswati who, lovingly from her lotus flower plucked the strings of her veena and the creativity flowed up my spine and flowered in my brain. You showed me a different life – one suffused with faith and music and friendship and books. And you taught me that I should return to my first love…that of the written word.

From drunken media girl…

to blissed out hippy chick

Thank you, India. Thank you, for all that you have gifted to me. How will I ever repay you?

Surviving Vipassana

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. 

    Banned items
    No sensual bodily decoration – only simple, modest and conserative clothing. No intoxicants at all (including medication and supplements) should be used. Observation of noble silence had to be maintained throughout – we were only allowed a one hour slot in which we could make a brief appointment to talk with our teacher if we had any questions concerning the technique and were strictly forbidden from using this time to ‘indulge’ in any intellectual or philosophical debate. No musical recorders, radios or cameras allowed. Basically – no nothing. Everything I had ever known was stripped away from me. It occured to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had gone 10 days without using the internet. I had probably never gone 10 days without reading or writing anything in my entire life. Appropriately, the lack of stimulus scared me senseless!

    Behind bars! 

    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… 

    Although I am not sure if I’m allowed to divulge the particulars, the vipassana technique is, to my mind, incredibly difficult. It is an ancient method that was rediscovered in India around 2,500 years ago by the Buddha (see for more info) and was brought to India from Burma by S.N. Goenka and then taken to many other countries by him in the East and West. (The chubby little form of Goenka we would come to know and love over the following week, although perhaps not his incessant, tuneless chanting that was piped through the centre.) I had been warned in advance that it is a very ‘male’ discipline – a lot of inward gazing and scientific theory. 

    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. 

    Monkey warnings

    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. 

     Little did I know how much I was going to need it…

    Transcendental Rishikesh

    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.