VARKALA, India — My mind is blank. It is void of thought. It is empty of emotion, meaning, objects. Lust has left India. This time, it’s not because of sweltering humidity that has crushed my libido like a cobra confusing my penis for a hamster. I am flat on my back in a dark, upstairs yoga studio. I face a wall hanging of a woman sitting in the lotus position with five big circles lined vertically on her body. I am focusing on the one on her groin, not for what you might think. The fan cools the studio but my first meditation lesson of my life has cooled any thoughts of intimacy or lust.
The circle on the groin is a focus point. I have emptied my mind as if I shoveled my walk of snow in order to see the pathway. One sentence runs through my brain.
“I want to experience the silence in me.”
And I breathe. Inhale.
“I want to experience the silence in me.”
“I want to experience the silence in me.”
Ullas Kumar, my yoga instructor, was introducing me to the wide world of meditation. This wasn’t just an adventure for a blog. I didn’t say, “When in India …” and signed up.
I need it. People have meditated say I need it. Then again, they say everyone needs it. After three two-hour sessions, I’ve come to a conclusion.
They may be right.
Everyone says I have the ideal life. I won’t argue. I’m retired in Rome. That alone emits images of romance and beauty, great food and wine, lazy mornings in sun-splashed piazzas. I travel the world and can’t even call it vacationing. How do you take a vacation from a retirement in Rome? Call it greed, a great life punctuated by fantastic times in exotic locales.
Yet through all the bottles of wine, sunsets from my top-floor terrace and travels from Yucatan to Sri Lanka, I admit I’m missing something. I’m not embarrassed by it. So are millions of people. It’s more difficult to acquire than a multi-million-dollar home or the perfect marriage. And it’s much more rewarding.
Sounds like a cliche, doesn’t it? “Oh, I’m going to India to find my inner peace. I want to find myself.” Yeah, right, pal.
Once in Nepal I met a guy from California who was trekking to the Annapurna Sanctuary to find “the meaning of life.” I saw him later sitting cross-legged in the middle of a circle of mountains between 20,000-28,000 feet high. I asked him, “What’s the meaning of life?”
He got up from his position, walked by me and said, “Life has no meaning.” He traveled 7,500 miles to learn that?
What is the meaning of inner peace? My definition is a perpetual calm state regardless of outside conflicts. Inner peace is not found through religion. Religious people will pray to their God, get dressed, then blow up a school bus or vote Republican.
What has attracted me to meditation after six hours of lessons is it is not based on religion. It is based on spirituality. India is 85 percent Hindu. Ullas is not a Hindu. Like me, he does not practice religion. But few people I have ever met are more at peace as this tiny, wiry Indian man.
“Religion puts you in jail,” Ullas told me. “Spirituality sets you free.”
I don’t have inner demons. I have outside demons. My landlady is my only source of stress in Rome. I would like to see a couple of former sports editors bleeding under a Buick. Some arrogant travelers I’ve met I wished nothing but typhoid and ringworm.
Everyone has character flaws. Lord knows I do. One of my biggest is I carry grudges. I have the ability to only look at the good side of cultures (I once spent a week in Haiti and loved it) yet only the bad side of some people (Within the species of landlords, mine is likely one of the better ones). I’d like to find inner peace and not have every bad mood bring on an invasion of negativity.
I spent my first few days in India thinking of ways to kill my ex-boss. When I settled on covering him in rat urine and throwing him in a cobra pit, I figured I needed some help. So when I met Ullas about the meditation course, I asked him jokingly, “Will meditation help stop me from thinking of ways to kill my ex-boss?”
He said it would and wasn’t surprised by the question. Maybe he’s met him.
We spent the first 90 minutes talking. That alone was difficult. Ullas sat in the lotus position, as comfortable as a puppy in someone’s lap. I sat with my knees trembling from trying to merely sit cross legged. I’d eventually lie down on one side, switch sides then sit on my arse again. Ullas never moved. Maybe we should start with inner peace in my hamstrings.
Ullas first talked philosophy. That’s what meditation is. It’s based in Buddhism which in itself is a philosophy. It’s a philosophy without a god. He talked generally about problems in the world and how meditation can help.
“There’s a huge imbalance in the external world,” he said. “The inner world is shrinking. Meditation is a way to extend the inner space.”
He mentioned two hugely important words in meditation. Avidya represents everything I experience. Material goods. Knowledge. Family.
Vidya is, as he describes it, “the internal experienceable spiritual knowledge.”
He mentioned a man from Kerala named Sri Shankara. He’s the pioneer of Avidya philosophy. About 1,300 years ago he said the universe, part of Avidya, isn’t real. It’s an illusion. Why? It’s always changing, from your job to your marriage to your health. The invisible reality, the Vidya, which I’ve determined is Sanskrit for “inner peace,” never changes. It’s a constant.
“Experiencing that reality,” Ullas said, looking me straight in the eye, “is the goal.”
He then asked me a question. For the first time I could speak.
“Who are you?”
I had to think. Journalist. Bachelor. Lover of fine wines. No. This is India. He wasn’t looking for substance. Finally I said, as esoterically as possible, “I am open minded. That’s why I’m here.”
He then drew esoteric images that bordered on existentialism.
“What is this?” he said, pointing at himself. “My body. But it’s not MY body. I am the possessor of my body. I own the body. I am not the body. I put my arm on my knee, but my arm may not want to be there.”
I was wondering where he was going with this. I longingly heard the Indian Ocean’s waves crashing on the beach outside the window.
“A bubble breaks and becomes one with the lake,” he said. “Where does the bubble come from? It was part of the lake. In a material world we think, ‘There is a bubble. There is a lake.’ We use names and forms.
“We miss the reality.”
He could tell by my expression that he may as well have been talking in Hindi. He put it simpler.
“In the material world, it is a bubble,” he said. “But in a non-material sense, it’s the lake. It’s a temporary for what’s formed by the lake.”
I get it. Our world is temporary. Our world is a bubble. What we need is to be part of a lake, an ever-present, non-changing entity.
“Waves are in the ocean,” he said. “Become one with the ocean. Waves are not separate.”
Ullas yawned. I heard waves. However, I didn’t want to throw myself in the surf. I was starting to understand. After 90 minutes of talking and me changing positions every five minutes (“Do you want to lean against the wall?” he asked me as I tried rubbing circulation back into my hamstrings), we started to meditate. As I slowly grasped the meaning, I still wanted something less abstract. I’m a journalist. I wanted concrete answers. I asked him, “What is the meaning of meditation?”
He said, “Meditation means dropping everything in one’s memory and come to a state where only silence remains.”
That’s harder that it sounds, much harder. Don’t think so? OK, stop thinking about elephants. Now. Don’t think about elephants. You’re thinking about elephants, aren’t you? Now try not to think about anything.
There is a technique. Ullas had me take a deep breath, so deep that not an ounce of air could get into my lungs. Then I let out the air slooooooowly, until not a breath remained and my arched back was flat on the floor. Next time, every time I inhaled, I held my breath, put my tongue to the roof of my mouth (he said it’ll prevent me from passing out) and repeat this sentence: “I want to experience the silence in me.” Then exhale and when out of breath, repeat it again. I did that cycle three times.
What did I think about? I must admit, my to-do list, the next great seafood dish or the awaiting ocean did not come to mind. I thought of nothing. How that translates into peace and harmony and not garroting ex bosses I was about to find out.
We had to do two two-hour sessions on Sunday as Ullas spent Saturday taking a neighborhood dog to the vet after he got hit by a car. Today, the dog has inner peace. He died.
I felt like dying the next day.
It’s probably not wise to meditate a few hours after drinking until 4 in the morning. I joined a half dozen others at a table at the Rock ‘n Roll Cafe and played a drinking game called Never Have I Ever … You say something you’ve never done and if anyone in the group has done it, they must take a drink. Of course, every single thing someone mentioned was a sex act.
I learned way too much about strangers’ sex lives. I wondered who needed to empty their mind more, me or the British woman who once had a man … um, never mind. (I momentarily forgot this blog is for general consumption. WordPress, my blog site company, would’ve shut me down then got out of the business if I’d finished that last sentence.)
Combined with only three hours sleep, I poured myself into the yoga studio. The mind was truly empty. I was too tired to think. About the only thing I could say was, “OMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM.” It’s the start of every session. I asked Ullas what “Ommm” meant.
“It is the sound of absolute,” he said. “It’s awareness. Consciousness.”
I asked why you sit with your forefinger and thumb forming a circle.
“Energy passes out of your index finger to your thumb,” he said. “That’s why you point with your index finger. The finger and thumb allows the energy to circulate.”
For some reason, saying, “OMMMMMMM” didn’t make up for three hours of sleep. Instead of going “OMMMMMMM” I almost went “ZZZZZZZZZ.”
Leaning against a wall, I jotted down about a dozen pages of notes, He mentioned three states of consciousness: Jagrath, the present state of consciousness; Swapna, the dream state; and Sushupthi, the dreamless sleep state.
“Beyond the state of consciousness,” he said, “No problems can enter. How do we get there?”
I wanted to suggest sleep. I could have had a dreamless sleep right then and there.
“How do you think now? There is nothing to think,” he said. “So be in the present. That is the meditative state.”
I sat up against the wall. Ullas had me close my middle finger and index finger to my palm and press one nostril with the thumb of the same hand. I inhaled and exhaled — slowly — six times on each side. He said my “nadi” is being cleansed. A person apparently has 72,000 nadis. The one nadi I was cleansing is the channel through which energy flows. Gee, all this time I thought it was snot.
“When the body is cleansed,” he said, “the mind is cleansed.”
He told me to focus on breathing and not thoughts.
“If you have a good mind, then you’ll have good thoughts,” he said. “If you have good thoughts you’ll have good actions. If you have good actions, you’ll have good results. If you have good results, you’ll have good rewards.”
My reward was sleep. At one point when I emptied my mind and concentrated on my groin area, he left the room. The next thing I remember was him saying, “OK. Rise.” I had fallen asleep. I hope I didn’t snore.
We went back to the wall hanging. He had me focus on circles covering three other body parts: the navel, the chest and between the eyes. After concentrating on nothing but each area, called “chakras,” I focused on 10 minutes of silence.
“Think of nothing,” he said. “If the mind isn’t there, you can not think. You must be disciplined. Don’t let thoughts come. Neglect thoughts.”
Frankly, I was too tired to think. I thought of nothing but sleep. This was as close to a meditative state I’ve ever been. It had less to do with meditation as it did a drinking game learning about strangers’ threesomes.
We then went over what he wanted as my daily routine:
1. Ten quick exhales and slowly work up to 30.
2. Thumb to the nose and breathe six times.
3. Three sets of long exhales and inhales.
4. The four chatres.
5. Ten minutes of silence.
“If the meditation is so deep, you can not hurt a single human being,” he said. “Your personality will change. You’ll see. Just practice. You’ll know taking revenge is not good.”
I gave Ullas a hearty handshake and walked out into a blinding sun setting on the Indian Ocean. A new path awaits me. Let’s see where it goes — after, of course, a bed and a bar.