Looking out the cab on the steep ride uphill, I let my gaze wander through the lush, uneven terrain. The dense canopy of Cedar, Himalayan Oak, and Rhododendron trees blocked out the sun, if any, was kind enough to pass through. September was one of the wettest months of the season and we were at an altitude of 1888 m in the foothills of the Himalayas. It almost never stopped raining.
The driver’s complaints about the large groups of foreigners and people from other parts of India who came here to take up week-long Buddhism courses and the high amount of garbage dumped around the area was muffled by the sweet smell of wet tree barks and a sense of calm energy that the place evoked. There were more monks here than I’d ever seen. Dharamshala had been home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetian government-in-exile since the 1960s, which explained why almost half the city looked like it was painted in maroon.
We arrived at our destination within a span of fifteen minutes and it occurred to me later, that we may have been going around in circles. I was certain I had seen our hotel at least once on the way but didn’t mention it out of a lack of certainty. McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala, was a small town. It wouldn’t take one more than a couple of days to get familiarized with the locals or the town center.
Once we paid our dues to the driver, the security guard opened the gate and let us into the earthen way towards the main facility. Tushita, the meditation Centre I was visiting, nestled amongst a thicket of Deodar trees, above McLeod Ganj on a forested mountain slope of the Dhauladhar range. It was as scenic as it could get.
The pillars of the gate were decorated in elaborate, traditional Thangka paintings. And colorful prayer flags dangled from its roof. White, blue, yellow, green and red pieces of cloth covered in Tibetan scriptures were hung up everywhere. There was a Vipassana Centre opposite to it that almost did not exist if not for its signboards. Apart from the view, monkeys were a top tourist attraction here.
One of the Stupas at Tushita, Dharamshala
I walked ahead clumsily, trying to balance the weight of my oversized backpack and an aimless wandering mind. Traveling light was a concept beyond me and a realization that hit when there wasn’t much I could do about it. My boyfriend and I had been caught off guard by the heavy rains in Delhi while on our way to Himachal. In the absence of sunlight, our backpacks and everything inside it hadn’t had a chance to dry up since. Everything was twice as heavier.
When I found my way to the group assembled for the introductory talk, I felt their gazes pierce through me. I was late, and it wasn’t funny. Leaving my bags in the dining area like everyone else, I managed to find a corner where I felt invisible to the rest of them. To add up to my horror, in about five minutes a couple of men carried a bench for me to sit on.
Welcome to the land of good genes and amazing bone structure!
This by far, is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done!
Gulping the voices down like you do with bad-tasting medicine, I tried my best to follow what the woman with a heavy German accent was saying. I saw one of the facilitators break up a couple in the middle of a kiss and realized that I hadn’t had the chance for a proper goodbye either. My boyfriend was gone and I wasn’t going to see, hear or write to him for the next ten days. I quickly typed a short text and switched off my phone.
What the hell were you even thinking?
Gathering my straying thoughts, I tried to focus. This time, not on the self-sabotaging inner monologue but on the woman, who was explaining everything we were to do for the next ten days. The first thing I noticed, however, was how the maroon robe she wore complimented her milky skin tone. My deeply rooted insecurities and poor self-image were taking a roller coaster ride as she talked about the living arrangements and the daily activities that would take place for the length of our stay. She listed out the rules of engagement which were none. And stressed on how we were to not feed the monkeys that roamed about within the bounds of the campus. Doing our own laundry was not an option unless we wanted our unmentionables stolen by the unfriendly primates or turned into a science project given the damp weather. There was a basic laundry service at a minimal cost that could take care of that situation. A good thing considering we did not have the otherwise luxuries of a typical vacation.
Following the talk, we were called based on the sequence of registrations received on Tushita’s website. I had signed up three months in advance, just to be sure I got a slot. The seniors picked out their rooms first, and then I heard someone call out my name. There was an enormous number of people who hadn’t registered and were still waiting in queue to find out if there was any room left. Some were asked to come back and check later since a lot of people couldn’t deal with the seclusion and quit the retreat the very next day.
There were four tables placed adjacently in the dining area where we each had to go in succession. The first table was meant for selecting the type of room we’d like to stay in, then we had the option of additional blankets if we needed them, followed by handing over our phones, wallets, camera, and finally the assignment of daily jobs. All payments were to be made upfront since we weren’t allowed to carry any money except for the library deposit. We were to remain within the campus for all ten days and there were no shops inside. Anything we needed had to be brought on arrival or before the course began the same evening. Medicines and toilet paper were the only things available at the admin office.
As I walked towards table number one, I noticed a couple of Indian faces and felt relieved. I was surprised to notice an innate reaction – identifying with only a group while every single person was practically a stranger was everything I preached against. Although at that moment, I cut myself some slack and took comfort in the fact that it was instinct and not just me.
We were given an option of dormitories, shared rooms, and single rooms. I chose a single room without so much as a thought. The restrooms were common for men and women alike, apart from a couple of them that were attached to the double rooms but were limited in number. I skipped the blanket table and moved on to the next, where we were assigned our ‘Karma Yoga’ jobs. These were basic chores everyone had to do in groups of five, to help the housekeeping staff during our stay.
By the time it was my turn to choose, the only tasks that remained unclaimed were toilet cleaning and dish-washing. Being painfully aware of the awkward silence that lingered and a similar hesitation among my fellow mates on being asked to volunteer for toilet cleaning, we glanced at each other’s faces. Saved by the virtue of people who did eventually volunteer to do the deed, I silently thanked my good fortune at being assigned to dish-washing.
There were several blocks within the campus – two women’s dormitories, two men’s dormitories, cottages for guests who preferred complete solitude, two meditation halls, two dining areas, three stupas, and residential quarters of the in-house staff, monks, and nuns. It was about four acres of land on a ridge beneath the snow-capped peaks amid Pine, Oak and Rhododendron forests. We had about an hour and a half to settle down or look around before dinner and the first meditation session.
One of the caretakers pointed out to the block where my room was, on a slope, a flight of stairs away from the dining area. There was a patio with tables and benches that looked like a perfect spot to get some sun, if at all. I took the stairs, unlatched the door, took a deep breath locking the door behind me, and burst into tears. I didn’t know if it was the pressure of being in uncharted territory, in confinement, for ten days or the realization that I was the one who brought it on myself. I sat on the edge of the bed, opened my blank journal and marked ‘Day 1’, finger counting the nine remaining days over and over like it would speed up the process. It was the first day at school all over again and I was standing naked in the hallway.
The room was small and damp just like everything else. The walls were cold and an unusually earthy, sweet, woody smell lingered everywhere that was unique to this place. It had just enough space to fit a single bed, a wobbling wooden table, and a plastic chair. I unpacked my bags, arranging the things I thought I’d need, on the built-in concrete shelves attached to the walls. Moisturizers, toothpaste, shampoo, and a tiny mirror. The floor was so numbingly cold that you couldn’t stand on your feet if you didn’t have any socks on. I hated wearing socks but decided against it. I hung up my raincoat and wet clothes on the nails hammered to the wall hoping some of it will dry up. I had been wrong. Feeling slightly better after organizing helped calm down my nerves, I decided to get out and take a walk. Tidying up can do wonders for anxiety and it has always helped distract me from the never-ending, self-deprecating soliloquy. I lit up an incense stick placed in one of the shelves, next to a picture of the Buddha out of respect and shut the door.
After giving it a lot of thought over a period of two years, I decided to take up a beginner’s meditation course at Tushita. Over ten days, we would be taught about the basic concepts of Buddhism and how to practice meditation. Throughout the course, we weren’t allowed to use our phones, cameras or any other form of a media device. The treacherous objects went straight into the safety deposit box – a basic steel trunk flimsily secured by a basic steel lock at registration. There was no meat, no alcohol, no smoking of cigarettes or any other herb, no drugs, and no sex. There was no swatting of mosquitoes nor the killing of insects. We could shift directions of the occasional slugs to get them out of our way with a leaf or a twig but strictly no killing. In its entirety, we weren’t allowed any distractions, not even as much as talking to the next person. It was a silent meditation retreat up in the mountains among the conniving monkeys who stole your food at the first opportunity they could get.
What convinced me to take up the course despite the long list of “Dont’s” was the detachment. My anxiety had been spiraling upward without any comedowns. I wasn’t expecting a miracle. But I did hope to gain some form of mental clarity considering the silence and the prolonged period of phoneless-ness but also doubted the longevity of its effects. I wanted synchrony between the thoughts in my head and the reality so that everything didn’t have to feel so chaotic all the time. Being a complete nobody to the practice and rewards of mindfulness, I opted for this course instead of something as rigorous as Vipassana. I wasn’t sure if I could make it through ten or more hours of meditation a day, in silence, without even making eye contact with the opposite sex at the first try. While my friends encouraged the widely accepted appeal of ‘meeting new people’ and ‘exposure to diverse cultures’, I remained the skeptic that I was. I decided to do it for the sake of my mental health. I would prefer meeting people on a holiday where you could actually talk to them.
At dinner, we queued in the rain while I avoided all eye contact. It was necessary that we had a raincoat or an umbrella at all times. And mine was hanging up in my room. I found myself a table at the open dining area away from the chatter and the compulsion of obligatory introductions. I sat alone, ate quietly while water splattered on my face and dripped in my pumpkin soup. It was the first time I was trying it and didn’t understand how could someone turn one of my favorite vegetables into something so barely palatable. I saved the apple we got for dessert in case of late-night hunger pangs because I knew a piece of bread and pumpkin soup was not going to do it. It was only 6 pm.
After dinner, we were asked to gather at the Gompa. It was a large hall where the meditation sessions and teachings would take place over the next few days. Architecturally like every place of worship, it had a central prayer hall containing a Murti (an image, statue or idol of a deity or person in Indian culture), an idol of the Buddha that was about 10 ft tall, several thangkas (a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala), and meditation benches and cushions for the monks, nuns, and participants to engage in prayer or meditation. The walls and ceilings were covered in intricate paintings depicting the wheel of life that apparently took days and numerous artists to finish.
After all the people I exchanged awkward glances with, I met Peter. Peter was an elderly Belgian pharmacist and reflexologist with a passion for astrology who had done several other retreats prior to this one. He offered to check the pressure points in my feet and told me I had problems in my diaphragm and should consider yoga. There was Jeje from China who I didn’t know much about apart from that she knew her way around India judging by the personalized ‘Coorg wildlife society’ flask she carried. Then there was the only Hawaiian man with colorful Koi fish tattoos all over his arms, whose name at this point I simply cannot seem to remember. And another French guy who didn’t speak much let alone English. We were allowed to get acquainted with the people sitting beside us before it all began. It lasted ten minutes and I did the listening for the most part.
Later, we were introduced to our Buddhist philosophy teacher and our meditation leader and reminded several times about the importance of keeping the silence that would begin after dinner. We also had the time to briefly discuss the hippie movement of the ’60s and how it played a big role in the spread of Buddhism. In totality, there were a hundred and twenty-six of us and as per the authorities, this was the highest number of applicants they had ever received.
A large chunk of the group were Israelites, maybe sixteen people of Indian descent and the rest were either from Europe or the States. There was just enough room to accommodate all of us in the Gompa. And as per my beliefs, I was the only one who didn’t know a damn thing about meditation. A significant number of people were already in what seemed like a trance-like state, deeply engaged in meditation without being distracted or even the slightest of movement while I struggled to sit in the lotus position for barely ten minutes.
I didn’t get much sleep the first night. I was anxious and jittery. Not being able to scroll through my phone, listen to music, binge-watch shows on Netflix, being devoid of any kind of stimulation, was finally getting to me. I was crying one moment and journaling the next. I must have written ten times more than I had been able to in months. We weren’t allowed to read apart from the books in the library that were predominantly on Buddhism and mindfulness. I couldn’t have been more relieved that we could journal. In a Vipassana retreat, which was among the top two choices on my list, you weren’t even allowed to read or write. I considered going to the authorities in the morning to tell them I was not going to make it. I was off work only for two weeks and spending ten days out of fourteen in a nightmare. I told myself I was going back to the hotel and heading to Manali with my boyfriend. Then, I fell asleep.
It was the gong at 3 am that woke me up. It wasn’t the gong at Tushita but the Vipassana center next door. They had told us earlier this would happen and we could go back to sleep for two more hours. I couldn’t. So I waited for another hour and went for a shower ahead of the crowd. Hot water was only available around 5 am but I thought cold water was just fine. It wasn’t. I faced the repercussions four days later in clutches of the common flu.
Following the first guided meditation session, I ate greedily. Provided we were served only three vegetarian meals a day – breakfast, lunch, and dinner with no snacks in between, we had to make the most of it. My concentration during the meditation session suffered from the anticipation of food. There was freshly baked homemade bread, raw honey, peanut butter that was made from scratch, porridge and fruits. Nothing had ever tasted better and I had never been less guilty of what I was eating. I had seen a few people cheat by saving up on it for later, maybe even smelled smoke coming from one of the rooms earlier, but I was going to do it right. I was not going to cheat on myself. It was a cliche.
It hit me and my back the next day that I was to spend most part of my day meditating and sitting upright. Not talking, only listening, to what the teacher had to say. We did get about fifteen minutes at the end of each session where we could ask questions, but fifteen minutes is barely enough time to handle thought-provoking, mind-bending questions of a hundred and twenty-six people. Heated discussions on one’s beliefs weren’t welcome nor encouraged, unlike the people who were, from any and every walk of life.
Our days started early, and everything took place at least three hours ahead of my regular schedule. We would wake up by 5 am or earlier if you pleased, then meditate. Eat breakfast, then meditate. Learn about a few concepts on Buddhist philosophy, then meditate. Eat lunch, do our Karma Yoga jobs and after only just managing to take in a proud moment feeling worthy of our accomplishments for the day, we had the discussion groups. The discussion groups were on the concepts we were taught earlier. Ranging anywhere from our views on suffering, compassion, and attachment, to our beliefs on reincarnation. Before we could even get to the point we were trying to put across (discussion groups only lasted about an hour), the silence ensued. There was a tea break before another philosophy session, then meditation. Dinner, then meditation. You get the pattern.
Our teacher was an American woman who was an ordained nun for over fourteen years and also a psychologist. She explained how Buddhism was based on four noble truths – our clinginess to impermanent states and things, this clinginess resulting in the endless cycle of rebirth, the only way out of the cycle being liberation, and this state of liberation eventually leading to Nirvana or nothingness. Apart from these concepts and philosophies, she didn’t deviate from the course of action. Carefully dodging questions when they got controversial in nature, she blamed it on the scarcity of time.
I think it was the third day when the back pain went away. Like they told us it would. If we could only get to the part where we stopped noticing it was even there. I was amazed there was no pain despite extended periods of sitting upright, without slouching. We could stretch our legs for a bit but no more than a minute. That moment was no short of a miracle and maybe the most pivotal point of my slow transformation.
The next couple of days I started to feel better, in love with where I was and who I was with. I wrote unstoppably that I would wake up in the middle of the night only to note down how great I was feeling and how delightful everyone was. I was more attentive at each upcoming session and started to believe. Heck, I would possibly even consider taking up monasticism if only they nudged me a little. That was the level of stimulation my senses were receiving. And all without the addictive, debilitating habit of internet everything. The people, the place, the routine, I think it all added up to it. I wasn’t a fan of the guided meditation sessions which were more beginner-friendly, and our leader’s ceaseless narration threw me off every time, but you take what you get. The inner monologue carried on, but somehow it was getting easier to choose whether I was willing to pay attention to it. I was completely aware of my thoughts and my ability to steer them in any direction I wanted. There was so much going on, all my senses working in tandem without the distraction of a constantly buzzing phone or the city, its people and their honking cars.
At night, I noticed how thin the mattress was and yet how peacefully I slept. I noticed the same wobbling table and how easily it could be fixed by sticking a piece of folded paper underneath the short leg. I noticed the very dim almost unusable table lamb that heated up way too fast, but that was enough to get any reading or writing done after lights out, as long as you didn’t accidentally touch the lampshade. Instead of music, I listened to the chirping birds throughout the night and how a concoction of the damp smell of wet grass, tree barks and the 3 am Gong at the Vipassana center woke me up every morning. After the freezing shower, in washrooms that were no more than public toilets, battling my way through the tribe of monkeys who were always lurking around, with a flashlight for a weapon, I started to feel present. Even doing dishes of a hundred and twenty-six people couldn’t bring me down because everyone was willing to help, and warming my hands holding a cup of tea after was pure bliss.
The guided meditation sessions were focused on one concept at a time. We had sessions on compassion, on suffering, on love, on attachment and death. We meditated on how all of it existed only in our minds. Emotions were fleeting in nature just like everything else. All things were transient but the present. And the goal was, to be present. We reflected on past experiences that could possibly enable us to come in terms with unresolved issues. The only way – was acceptance. In order to be rid of pain, you must also be rid of pleasure. Something along those lines, easier to preach than practice. I’m not sure if it worked. But towards the end, when we chanted on mantras together, it felt as if I was being lifted as if I was one with everything, with everyone. A feeling, probably only a psychedelic drug could induce, or at least in my experience.
It was around day five when we had the chance to have a Q & A session with another monk who was visiting. This replaced our regular discussion group about which not everyone in my group was excited for anyway. Being the good listener that I was, I attended only to listen to what he had to say. I wanted a fresh perspective after being repetitively exposed to the concept of reincarnation and prescribed definitions of good and bad karma.
A very young woman probably in her early 20’s and very evidently vegan posed a question on how it was acceptable for the Dalai Lama to be eating meat despite rooting against the slaughter of any conscious being. The explanation of this predicament was that he did so for health reasons and that even animals would consider themselves fortunate to be of service to the Dalai Lama. The woman’s furious rebuttal was countered by turning her futile anger against her. And for the first time, I wanted to run away. Things had started to feel lopsided at this end of the spectrum when the monk answered another woman’s question on whether it was good or bad karma for a butcher to be killing animals if he only did so to earn a living. What followed was not an answer but the dissection of the butcher’s actions and how parts of it fit in good karma and others in the bad, no middle grounds. I’m in no state nor will I ever be, to make judgments but come on!
At that time, it was blatantly clear that any form of organized or unorganized religion was not for me. But I also understood why it was for some. The idea of reincarnation, of a second chance, brings hope. Even if life may not have turned out quite exactly as planned. The idea of amending something bad with good acts as a reason to be better again. And maybe that’s why it works so goddamn well. Belonging to something or having a purpose was all that counted. People don’t like to be on their own and neither do they like knowing there is no way to right a wrong. That is if they only accept they were wrong in the first place. I don’t have a problem with a certain ideology, just people’s interpretation of it. Religion is not religion as much as it is the people who prescribe it. But nothing really changes based on what I do or do not think. Hence, moving on.
I skipped a few sessions the next couple of days, went to the library and picked up a book on regular philosophy instead. My flu didn’t let me take long breaths without coughing every five minutes so I saved others the distraction and the viruses. Peter, Jeje, and my nameless Hawaiian friend were kind enough to offer medicines and cough drops every time they saw me. I had never met kinder people. It was all too good to be true and probably was.
On days 8 and 9, we watched a movie and went for a short trek instead of discussion groups. The documentary was about a nun who spent twelve years living in a remote cave in the Himalayas, and three of those years in strict meditation retreat. We were not exactly thrilled but the projection screen felt like home. We also had the chance to do some yoga when the sun was out – a break from all the sitting felt normal. There was a lighting ceremony at the end of day 9, where we chanted prayers and lit candles around the Stupas. The lights and our singing may have agitated the monkeys to some extent, there was a lot of jumping and shaking of tree branches.
A picnic was arranged on the last day. We had pizza for lunch outside the Gompa. For some weird reason, I only craved for the bland steamed vegetables and lentils we had been eating for the past nine days. We could talk without being concerned about anyone ringing the gong, asking us to keep the silence. And got our phones back after lunch. Everyone’s excitement was evident in their toothy grins. I don’t know what I felt. I wasn’t glad it was over but I don’t think I could or would stay any longer. I knew I would miss the peace and quiet, the freedom I felt from judgments, from opinions, from everyday life to just be. But I was ready to go back. Couples reunited and people made plans to meet up as soon as we got out while I had a bus to catch the same night leaving for Manali. I got in a taxi and headed for the bus station in McLeod Ganj.
This was taken on the last day before we left
I met a tremendous amount of people. People from cultures so diverse than my own that it was hard to even fathom we were all there together in the same place and time. They were young, and they were old. Some with the spirit of a child in mature bodies, some in-between, perhaps still figuring out this mess we’re all in. People so open to new experiences that made me ashamed of the shallow waters I swam in. Everyone had a story or at least they had a story in my head. The nuns and the monks, the staff and housekeeping, were all there, doing exactly what they were supposed to be, for one reason or another and that made perfect sense.
I continued with the meditation for about a month and just like everything else, I lost touch. I haven’t been able to make time ever since. I plan to start soon. For real. And although I can’t vouch for its benefits, I can definitely say it helps immensely to declutter your mind. I’ve had war veterans tell me it helped them feel a hug once again.
Disconnecting was good. And I plan on doing it on purpose this time without needing to go to a retreat. I try to stay home instead of going out every weekend. A lot of socializing always leaves me muddled for days. So I try and write instead.
Would I do it again?
I’ll take the leap and try Vipassana this time. In a few more years.
Should you do it?
This is an experience no one but you can be a better judge of. So go ahead and take the leap. At worst, you will only learn something you didn’t know today.