I’ve mainly been writing about the things that happen around here, the things I see and smell and hear and do. I haven’t been writing as much about the internal experience here, which is really the largest part of my focus.
It’s a tricky thing to write about. For one, it’s so abstract, as I’ve written about before. Whatever words are used to describe the sort of personal explorations I have here are still just words. It doesn’t really capture it. A lot of it is about feelings and sensations; I’ve been doing hours of guided meditations that focus on how you perceive your body and the space within and around it. It’s like when I get home and every acquaintance I run into will ask, “So how was India?” And there’s just no way to answer that question thoroughly. Whatever I say will fail to communicate how India actually has been. I will either come across slightly nutso, say the same gushing and vague things everybody always says about India, or give a generic, easily digested* answer. If you’re interested in more than a quick overview of my approach to nonduality and meditation, I highly recommend Sam Harris’s book “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”, which is a superb overview of what I’m up to here.
(*More easily digested than some of the food. Speaking of the internal experience, I’ve been having some on-and-off gut issues; an inevitability in India but still not much fun.)
For another, it feels vulnerable to talk about it. I’m playing with the very sense of being “me”, and what that is like. I am observing my psyche, my patterns, my habits, expectations, my triggers, and whatever else comes up. Sometimes it’s fun and light, and sometimes it’s painful or humbling. Sometimes it’s deeply personal and sometimes it’s universal. I’m exploring my feelings about community, about my relationship, about my reactions and judgements. It can be tender and private, discoveries that I might discuss with a close friend, but not broadcast here on a public blog.
“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”
“Very deep,” said Arthur, “you should send that in to the Reader’s Digest. They’ve got a page for people like you.”
— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Time seems weird here. I seem to have so much to do, so much I don’t get around to doing; I’m living at a modest pace and still rushed. I’m still working on some projects but they’re all going slower than I mean them to, need them to. I’ve got other ideas for blog posts that I haven’t gotten to writing. I have a checklist of things I haven’t done yet: visit the animal sanctuary, visit the Arunachaleshwara Temple, learn some Tamil, take a cooking lesson. I’m getting a little restless and feeling ready to explore somewhere other than Tiru, maybe do a weekend trip somewhere. I’ve got my return trip in March partially planned but still need to nail down some details, spend some time on Airbnb.
In some ways time feels more relaxed and natural. It doesn’t seem so strange to take a long nap, take time to just rest and be with no particular goal in mind. Lunch can take forever; at some of the more enjoyable restaurants, where you can get a healthy, filling thali for around $2 CAD, you may be waiting for 45 minutes or so to get your meal. But there’s usually friends around to chat with, or you might strike up a conversation with a stranger – something that would be unthinkable at a Vancouver restaurant. An hour or two slip by easily at lunchtime. Afterwards I often go to the ashram and walk around or sit for a while; it’s nice there just after lunch, when it’s quiet. I feel like I can step out of time at these moments, stand my ground and say, “No, I am choosing to be fully present with these people and this place now, do these things that matter to me, and not worry about the other things I think I should be doing.”
But sooner or later, the obligations come tugging at my sleeve again: you need to get in another hour or two of work. Or, after a full day of work: you need to get to the ashram and meditate, you haven’t been for a day or two.
So that conditioning lurks within: what is the thing I should be doing right now that I’m not doing? Even here you can still have FOMO, not of social anxieties and pressures, but of your very own life.
Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Part of the idea here is to let go of the very Western notion that you are in charge of your destiny. It’s almost comical to me now to see how we’ve all been trained to believe we can do whatever we want if we just put our minds to it and try real hard. (“Anyone can be president!”) How frustrated we all get when things turn out not to work that way, how we blame ourselves for our perceived failings – and take credit for our successes. How we reframe our worldview to always be pointing outwards, like laser beams firing out from our brains through our eyes into the world, with our limited perspectives.
It’s not that I’m totally buying into karma or fatalism. It doesn’t mean you can’t have success if you try. It’s just that willing something to be the way you want it to be is no guarantee, whatever Oprah or “The Secret” may tell you. (“Law of Attraction” is a nice way of saying “confirmation bias”.) There’s so many possible factors that need to play themselves out in any situation. There’s so many factors even within you that you may not be aware of: what drives you, what sabotages you, subtle threads strung out from before your memory formed, subtle pressures from society. And the more you believe “I” am the one in control, the more you’re likely to suffer when something doesn’t turn out the way you intended. You take personal responsibility for the actions of not only your own billions of neurons, but those of the people you engage with. You create a facade, a mask you wear that declares “I am THIS type of person,” expect others to see this mask as YOU, and your life to be scripted according to this role you have chosen for yourself.
We’ve all looked at another person at some point and clearly seen beyond a mask they are presenting to the world, the face they need you to believe they are wearing.
Have you ever looked behind your own mask?
What do you badly need others to believe about you? What do you need to believe about yourself?
Is it safe to look at it? Is there a sense of shame, of fear, of anger at the very idea?
Is there curiousity?
Rummaging through Pandora’s Box
Traveling to a place like India that’s as bizarro-world different from my Canadian surroundings as possible, the habits get shaken up. Maybe there’s still a mask, but it doesn’t always serve the purpose I’ve expected it to. Or it’s more obvious to me that I’m wearing it. And all the regulars here agree that there is something about Tiruvannamalai in particular that seems to amplify and intensify our usual situations, our reactions, our emotions, blowing everything up larger than life so that we’re forced to look at it directly. You can’t just slip into the usual routines and ignore your issues; something won’t let you.
One friend here said today that our personal issues come up more strongly here, but that there’s more room around it and more clarity. I’ve certainly found that to be true. I had an incident last week where I was in a perfectly harmless social situation and yet given the particular context and my particular conditioning, I was triggered into a full-on emotional response as if I was about to face junior high school bullying all over again. And the fascinating thing was, I could watch it unfold with total clarity. I knew why it was happening. But I still had to let it play out, and let my feelings run haywire for a bit, and be kind to myself. All this meditation and self-inquiry doesn’t mean you magically don’t have any issues. You just don’t have to take it so personally all the time, and make it your private failure or success.
People come to Tiru often unprepared for the full force of what’ll be opened up while they’re here. Some reel with the shock and then roll with what happens, opening up to growth and change. Some fight for control of their self-image and make themselves miserable for weeks until they finally look at what’s going on inside. Some get totally overwhelmed and go a bit loony. A pleasant long-time resident here was telling me about a friend of hers who didn’t leave the intensity of Tiru for years and lost her grip on reality. She shook her head sadly: “It was just too much sand for her little dump truck.”
People come to Tiru often because something is wrong in their regular lives and they don’t know what, and they’re looking for answers. I came here not so much of my own initiative the first visit, but after some time here realized oh, there IS a different way of living, of being, that might work better. I’ve taken things for granted about how I believe reality to be, how I think society works, how I make decisions and view the world. Once you start opening that up, that curiousity grows: what else is there? What’s behind this door? What’s inside this box?
Even better, what’s outside this box?