“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet. We sit here stranded though we’re all doing our best to deny it.” - Visions of Johanna, Bob Dylan
(This was written in pieces over the period of many days.)
May 10, 2011, 7:14pm
I’m sitting on the banks of the mighty Ganges as dusk settles upon Rishikesh. A haze of heat hangs over the river valley muting the sun's intensity and softening the edges that normally contrast the mountains, the river, and the horizon. The air is heavy and still as if a storm may rain down upon us later in the evening. A cool breeze slithers through the valley, snaking its way between the mountains, and for a moment the oppressive temperature drops a few degrees.
It is the hour when Indians gather on the banks of the Ganges. Indian men and woman wash themselves or come to pray, tourists dip their feet in the mighty river, and still others seek the stillness of meditation. Foreign chants of ages old drift across the river from temples on waves of sound, then continue down the valley. Pujas (offerings of flowers, incense, and candles) float down the river and above me upstream, pedestrians, motorcycles, cows, and monkeys move across the narrow, wire-framed Laxman Jula Bridge. As if held in place by the strings of an invisible diorama, a fingernail of a moon hangs directly above the town. In this hour, insects come for a drink of life only to find their own extinguished by feeding fish, and the great Prana of the Ganges inhales and exhales a timeless breath into all who inhabit its shores.
For the first time since I arrived in Rishikesh six days ago I’m truly alone. I’m sure this may get old to you, my dear reader, but not a day has passed where I am not completely amazed that I am living the life I am living. Perhaps it is simply a byproduct of the hyper-awareness that comes with traveling in a land that is so foreign to one’s native country. It’s as if you are so completely engaged in the present moment that you become the present moment, moving beyond the self and into a character in a novel or a part of the landscape in a painting. From the vantage point where I sit by the Ganges this evening, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. It’s as if I have been lead here by some divine GPS system—to India, to this moment, to the people who I have met and who have influenced me, to the experiences I have had.
My time in Rishikesh has been a blur. It just so happened that the crew I was hanging out with were all staying in the Divine Ganga Guesthouse and so it felt very much like college or summer camp as we moved from one dorm room to the next, stopping by just to say hello and to see how each other’s day was going. We would convene at various points throughout the afternoon in someone’s room to make a plan for dinner, which most nights involved the Little Buddha Café, an open-air restaurant with a thatch roof that looks down upon the Ganges.
Three of the six of my crew left yesterday, and tomorrow I will be moving on from Rishikesh. The road calls me onward but I could spend a lot of time here. I did not want to leave McLeod Ganj and here I am in Rishikesh, and now I don’t want to leave here. These places could have been just any old town on a map if it were not for the friendships I’ve forged, which have made McLeod Ganj and Rishikesh not just destinations, but homes for the time I have inhabited them.
To rewind just a bit, I just have to say that the train ride to Rishikesh was miserable. To begin with, I had never ridden on an Indian train. Sleeper Car rang out Amtrak to me, but nothing could have been further from the truth. To add insult to injury, I was under the impression that I had a full sleeping berth all to myself, but in fact, since my ticket was not confirmed (I’m still not sure how to do this), I had to share my sleeping birth with someone else—and her son 8 year-old son.
To get to the train from McLeod was a beautiful, leisurely 3-hour drive through many landscapes I had not yet seen, from jungles to tea farms to scorched earth and dried riverbeds. I took a taxi that Gasha and Palla had arranged through their friend. When I arrived at the Chakki Bank train station in Pathankot, they told me to check the board so as to find out what car and seat I would be in. I was expecting some digital board that you might see in Penn or Grand Central Station, but actually—it was literally a roster nailed to a board, a print out from an old-school printer, perforated edges still intact.
The first train that passed was my first introduction to trains in India. The cars that were not reserved blew my mind as they had as many people as you could possibly fit into a car. It looked like a train full of cows going to slaughter. Indians were hanging out of the entrance and piled on top of each othere. Arms and limbs desperately reached out of windows as if trying to sip the last few drops of oxygen from the bottom of a glass full of air.
Gasha and Palla had instructed me not to eat or drink anything that was offered to me, either while waiting for the train or while on it. “They may slip you something and boom! You wake up and all your possessions are gone.” Sure enough, some slimy looking Indians were eyeing me up and offered to get me something to drink. My driver told me they were drunk, but I just stared at them stoically, doing my best to be a hard-ass. Most likely they are just curious because they don’t see a lot of white people around these parts, but you can’t help but be on the defensive when people are staring at you. I find myself in cities and while traveling in-between places on the defensive and ready to be on the offensive if need be. I’m actually a giant compared to many Indians, not only in height but the broadness of my body, if you can imagine that. I’m hoping, however, that I don’t have to ever use my ninja skills.
It was a mad rush to get on to the train and I got swept up in the panic trying to figure out what car I was in. My driver from McLeod Ganj to Pathankot was a friend of Palla and Gasha and they ordered him to stay with me until I got on the train. He had never ridden on a train before either, however, so he seemed more nervous than me. Several times he asked to see my ticket and disappeared into the crowd to check, double-check, and triple-check the board where my seat and car numbers were posted.
I spent a good part of the time on the train writing chapter 9, and spent the rest of the time fighting with a child for leg room and space, although he didn’t know I was fighting with him because he was sound asleep, sprawled out, legs and dirty feet touching, touching, touching me. Occasionally his mother would notice and wrangle the boy’s legs toward her but it wound up happening again and again that his legs kicked out towards me. And so when she wasn’t looking or had dozed off, I would push his legs into the aisle. Only once did he fall into the isle, but he was so sound asleep and startled when he landed that he had no idea I was the culprit. I could have taken him anyway if it came to fists. (Of course you know I’m joking—well, mostly. I mean, I did have about 100lbs on him and a good 16 inches. I know, I know…but what can you do? In a country of 1.2 billion people where there is no such thing as a line or a que, where many Indians seem to have little self-awareness of those around them, you have to fight for your own space.)
As a result of this all-night donnybrook between a sleeping, lifeless child and myself, I don’t think I slept a wink, and by the time I arrived at the Divine Ganga Guesthouse I had been up for nearly 30 hours. I chose the Divine Ganga Guesthouse because Garfield, my friend who was part of the documentary film crew for the Mt. Madonna School, was staying there with his friend Tom. Garfield saw me right as my taxi pulled up and we devised a lose plan as to where and when to meet up, but first I needed to rest. I hit the pillow at 9:30am and woke up around 4pm.
The rough plan was to meet Garfield at The Little Buddha Café overlooking the Ganges at some point in the afternoon. I figured I missed him so I sat down for a while, ordered some food, and did some writing. I was impressed with Garfield’s prowess because when he did show up, he had two cute girls in tow. As it turned out, the four of us formed the core of a crew who would hang out together for the next six days.
The following morning I had breakfast with Garfield. An Argentinian woman named Maria, who Garfield had previously met, showed up towards the end of our meal and she was absorbed into our conversation. As per usual, I had my own agenda for the day, which included some reading and writing, but when Garfield left us to go to yoga, Maria and I kept talking—and talking and talking and talking.
As it turned out, Maria led expeditions in Patagonia and Antarctica and is the mother of a 14-year-old daughter. Like so many other people who find themselves in India, she had an undeniable and unidentifiable calling that she could not ignore. While some teenagers can be clingy and needy, her daughter supported her in this urging and stayed at home in Patagonia with her ex-husband.
As it happens when you’re traveling, before our lingering breakfast was over, we had covered vast swaths of the territories that our lives have taken us, including the shared experience of having mother’s with Parkinson’s Disease and what that has taught us.
“Just so you know,” she said in her Argentinian accent, eyes twitching from dry contacts, “I don’t usually just tell strangers these things.”
“Well that’s good,” I said. “Because I’m not a stranger anymore.”
I had planned to meet the rest of the crew that afternoon for a walk to the Beatles Ashram, but as the protons and neutrons of Maria and my connection organized themselves, we found ourselves first having lunch together, then meandering through the crowded streets of Rishikesh, and finally on a sandy beach, where under her tutelage I took my first swim in the Ganges. Well, let’s call it more of a dip. As Martin Short said, “I’m not a strong swimmer,” and so I didn’t trust the deceiving current of the Ganges, especially since several people have told me they’ve seen dead bodies floating down the river. You must respect the Ganges; as much as it can give life, it’s currents and whirlpools can also take it very easily.
“The Ganges is supposed to purify you with its waters,” Maria said as we waded knee deep in its waters. “And so when you immerse yourself in its waters, you’re supposed to make an intention of what you want to be rid or purified of.” Each of us thought about it for a moment, closed our eyes, and made an intention. When we were both ready, we held each other’s hands and slipped beneath the surface of the Ganges in the hope and faith that when we emerged, we would be cleansed of things we both felt we no longer needed.
Maria and I went back to the Divine Ganga Guesthouse and sat on her balcony as we watched a storm come over the mountains, the concussion waves of the distant thunder becoming ever closer. We watched as sheets of rain moved through the mountains and towards us, remaining on the balcony as long as we could until we could almost feel the electricity of the lightning. When the storm shifted into high gear, the wind picked up and began blowing rain at us despite being underneath shelter, so we retreated into Maria’s room, fighting the wind to close the door.
“I know this doesn’t look good but don’t worry,” she laughed as I entered the room and she pushed the deadbolt into the locked position.
The next few days I spent with Garfield, from Vancouver, British Columbia, Hannah, from Brooklyn, New York, Camilla from Sweden, and Maria, from Patagonia, Argentina. Tom, Garfield’s friend who is also from British Columbia, was at a meditation retreat but joined us the last two days. He did not miss a beat when he joined our group, but I suppose that’s because we had already heard so much about him. For those few days we all spent together, we walked, we ate, we talked, we ate, we swam in the river, ate, swam in the river, and drank many, many Limon-nanas, a refreshing frozen drink made of lemon, ice, and muddled mint.
One afternoon, since the group didn’t make it previously, we went for a walk to find the Ashram that the Beatles made famous with a visit in 1968. Being the clueless white folk we are, we walked a few kilometers past it on a remote jungle road, the only inhabitants we passed being monkeys. And of course, being clueless white folk, we set out in the height of the day’s heat and failed to bring with us any water. After walking and walking up hills we were each within a few hundred feet of saying “screw it” when a police truck passed us. We flagged them down and luckily they offered to drive us to the Ashram. Now normally I don’t feel too comfortable in the back of a squad car, but as good fortune would have it, I was just a lost tourist and didn’t have the bracelets on me.
The police dropped us off near the ashram and when we finally found it, we had to pay 50 rupees to get in (a little more than a dollar).
At one point, with not much more than dust lining our throats, Garfield said, “You know what would make this place awesome?”
“What’s that?” I replied.
“A Starbucks,” he said.
“I could definitely go for a Frappuccino right now,” I replied. “You know what would be even better?”
“If there was a parking lot so we could have driven here.”
Exactly one month to the day of arriving in India, I once again met up with M.C. Mehta. I was to meet him at a hotel in the outskirts of Rishikesh, which he instructed me should cost no more than 50 rupees to get from my guesthouse to the hotel. As it so happened, when I went to the Virkam stand (eclectic rickshaws) they asked me to pay 400 rupees. I made a fuss and immediately displayed my dissatisfaction.
“Are you kidding me? The hotel was going to charge me 150 rupees.” To which I expected some sort of negotiation, as is the way in India.
“Then go! Go back to the hotel!” he said aggressively to me. Not how I imagined our exchange would go. Note to self: lose the angry, defensive posture, speak softly, and smile.
I was a sweaty mess at this point and decided these bastards weren’t going to get the best of me, and so in 100+ degree heat, I headed back to my guesthouse, backpack and possession in tow. (In hindsight, this giant pain in my ass was the difference of about $4. It’s the principle though.)
And so I went back to the hotel in a huff to call a Vikram, which as it turned out took 45 minutes to arrive. In the meantime, M.C. was calling and texting to tell me he was there and to inquire as to where I was. I think it was more out of concern than impatience, though his wife was also sick and in the hospital, not to mention he is a man of strong demand. In the past few weeks there have been large protests in Hardiwar to protect the Ganges, a holy city right on the Ganges. MC is a figurehead and leader to these activists and is always asked to speak or lead.
When the Vikram finally arrived, after the hotel attendant called three people because they said they would come in 5 minutes and then never came (such is the way in India), I jumped in the Vikram and we drove past the Virkam stand where I had been rejected. It took every, EVERY ounce of restraint I tell you, not to yell out “F*%K YOU!” But the look of disappoint on their face as I passed—that they challenged me and lost my business—was rewarding enough. I simply smiled at them and gave them a taste of their own medicine; the infamously ambiguous Indian head bobble.
I have to say that the only uncomfortable moments of my travel so far have been when I am actually traveling. My feeling and excitement level each time I move from one place to the next is like that of a rising stock. For instance, the longer I stayed in Rishikesh or McLeod, the higher the stock climbed, but each subsequent time I moved, the stock takes a massive hit. It’s not so much the fact that I have to move on; it’s more of getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and the adjustment period that ensues. I suppose with a little more time and distance, these uncomfortable moments will be fond memories and growth points, but right now they’re more like a pimple inside one’s nose; somewhat painful and hard to get to.
Judging from M.C.’s office in Delhi, the Eco Ashram is what I would expect from an environmentalist who has won not one, but two equivalents to the Nobel Prize (The Magsaysay Award in 1997 and the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1996). He also recently had a documentary made about him entitled, “The Man Who Saved the Taj Majal”. The Eco Ashram is low impact, low energy consumption, and bare bones. The first day I arrived, I said to myself—as I usually say when I find myself in a new situation—what have you gotten yourself into this time?
After getting to know one another over dinner, I retreated to my room on a very dark night. It was only about a 200-yard walk from where we ate and where Myrium’s room and the kitchen were, but in the pitch black it felt like an eternity. It is a wild place where the Ashram is, surrounded by forests and mountains. A while back M.C. had said something about leopards and elephants in the area, and so as I was walking to my room, I was expecting to see gleaming eyes looking back at me. (It’s also noteworthy that the road leading to the ashram goes through a national park and the road is closed at night because elephants have been known to surround cars, pull out the drivers, and use their trunks to kill them by slamming the people into the ground.)
I stayed up that night working on a first draft of the third podcast. No sooner had I put my head on the pillow around 1am than the wind picked up and whipped through my room. I closed the windows as the distant thunder grew ever closer, followed by rain and more wind. The power had gone out and I curled up in a ball underneath a mosquito net—headlamp next to me—watching the flashes of lighting through the outline of my thatched and slate roof. As the storm picked up I began to hear the slate tiles ripping off and so I curled up tighter into a ball and tried to protect my head. At one point, the wind blew open my door bringing the storm into my room and causing me to jump out of bed. It also just so happened that earlier in afternoon, one of the workers had peeled back part of the slate to tie up the mosquito net, and exactly where he did, which was right above me, the roof began to leak—directly onto my forehead. I moved the bed and settled in for the night, half expecting either a Tiger to jump into the room or Thor to kick the door open and split me in two with a lighting bolt. When the storm finally died down around 3:30am, I was wired, so I took a half a xanax and slept until 11am the next morning. No matter. There is not much to do at the Ashram except relax and read.
Friday, May 13th, Eco Ashram
Tonight, for the first time since I have been at the Eco Ashram, I ventured out in the darkness of night into the courtyard outside my room—all of 20 feet, mind you. I rolled a Drum and smoked it down while looking out in awe at the monochromatic night; the half moonlit landscape in the foreground, the silhouettes of the foothills in the background, and the sparkling diamonds of the Northern Hemisphere above me. And I feel very peaceful. There is no anxiety within me (at least for tonight), but rather on this evening I am a reflection of the stillness of the night. I am a part of the painting. I have no uneasiness about the future or the past—just the contentment and ease of the present moment. Since I have been in India, I find when my mind wanders to the fictitious place of the future or the written story of the past, I have been able to view it with detachment, like watching a movie. Perhaps that’s an outcome of age, maturity, or a lot of work to control the mind and its wild, unpredictable emotions. When I do become so engrossed in that movie and it takes me too far to one of those places, I try to adjust my inner tuner and bring it back to the present moment. It’s kind of like using an electric tuner to tune your guitar; you make adjustments until the needle comes to the center, letting you know the strings are no longer too flat or too sharp.
As I sit here tonight somewhere in north India beneath a waxing moon, for some reason my thoughts drifted to a spring night in Baltimore when I was a senior in college. There was nothing special about this night, in fact it’s a scene that’s played itself out countless times in my life—and I can’t really tell you why my mind drifted to this particular scene. But I remember standing in front of the mirror for a long time having no idea who the person staring back at me was. I wondered why he was here, now, in this body, born to the parents he was born to, in this particular part of the world, why he had the brother and sisters he had, why the people who were a part of his life were a part of his life. I wondered what life held for this young man whose inner sadness was dense, heavy, physical, and real.
The person staring back in the mirror wanted to take off into his future like a rocket, fueled by an inner thirst for truth—his individual truth and the truth of the singular intelligence that united of all life. He wanted to see the world, drink voraciously from the cup of experience, but the present moment felt like shoes of concrete keeping him firmly rooted to the earth. When I look back on that person, I can see that beyond the trials of having a mind over which he had no control, it was the present moment he feared most.
I don’t know if that inner sadness that accompanied the present moment was something that was born of nature—passed to me through the DNA strands of my ancestors; if it was nurture—an experience a highly sensitive kid internalized; or if it was simply the first moment of self-awareness, when consciousness determines that it is separate from what is. Regardless, I seem to have outgrown that sadness as I have gotten older, shed it as a chrysalis sheds its former self—or perhaps the better word choice is "transforms," because only when the caterpillar wraps itself in a cocoon and looks within can it find the inner strength to transform to a butterfly, and only when it finds that form is it truly free.
All of the questions that haunted me from when I began writing at 17 through my late 20s or early 30s were like memories of a dream from the night before—a series of hazy, nonsensical images that were familiar but distant, arising from the subconscious to give me clues about my life. I think the difference between that younger person and the person I am at this moment in my life is a growing inner strength, the illumination of a light that has always been, and the recognition that my consciousness—the I that is the observer—is not separate but rather an extension of a greater consciousness, and that the world (and all who inhabit it) are part of one living, breathing organism of which each single expansion and contraction of breath may last thousands or millions of years.
In the stillness of nights like this, where your mind and being are in communion with nature, there’s no telling where your senses will take you. As the observer of my life tonight, I found myself stretching out my past as if I were viewing a series of stills on an old filmstrip. It made me think of something Paramahansa Yognanda said in The Autobiography of a Yogi; “One’s values are profoundly changed when he is finally convinced that creation is only a vast motion picture; and that not in it, but beyond it, lies his own reality.” In 1930, Sir James Jeans, an English physicist, astronomer, and mathematician wrote, “The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” Perhaps this motion picture we are a part of is but a thought within a dream of the Creator.
If you were the executive producer of the film of your life, how would you edit the motion picture to tell your story? There is a structure and story arch to each of our lives, a rise and fall of action, perhaps a singular climax or multiple ones upon which the story is built. As I think about my story tonight and how much more is to be written, I think about the structure that holds it all together. The structure is the relationships of my life—some that are gone, such as my parents and the people and relationships I have lost along the way—but mostly tonight I’m thinking about my family and friends. Tonight, in the darkness of this Indian night, I can feel all of your light.
Light. While I am not a physicist, among the billions of physical laws of the cosmos, perhaps the most mysterious is light. I’m sure my limited knowledge of the universe is outdated, but from what little I know of the physical laws of the cosmos, unlike sound waves, whose transmission requires air or other material upon which to be carried, light waves pass freely through the vacuum of space. At the center of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, he proved mathematically that light, moving at 186,300 miles per hour, is the only constant in a universe of flux. The only other constant I can think of is the mystery of why we’re all here. Marconi, the great inventor said, “The inability of science to solve life is absolute. This fact would be truly frightening if it were not for faith. The mystery of life is certainly the most persistent ever placed before the thought of man.”
As my travels—and the corresponding experiences that are born from the experience of my travel arise, I am falling more deeply into this mystery, and unlike that young man who was so burdened with questions so much larger than himself, who looked in that mirror in Baltimore and had now idea who he was, I’m comfortable with my place in the mystery, for I know I am not separate from the mystery, but a part of it. This is no great secret, and perhaps the ancients were more familiar with it than we are, but somehow along the way we lost the truth. Some things in life can’t be known through science and experience, and that is where the miracle of faith becomes alive. I just read something the other day that said, belief is what man thinks is perhaps truth; faith is what man knows is truth.
The innocence of childhood is a beautiful vessel. It’s the law of life and experience that somewhere along the way, that vessel begins to crack, and eventually it shatters and breaks down, and we as adults (or sometimes earlier) are forced to figure out how to put the pieces back together. As I get older, settle into this body and this world, and begin to put the pieces back together to create a new form, I no longer feel the need to figure out the mechanistic structures of creation; instead I am merely engaged in a playful game with a conscious universe that is aware of its own creation, a universe that responds to the creations of Its Creation. As the part of creation that has been given the most highly evolved brain of all species, we have been given the gift of thought, feeling, and emotions, and these intangibles are the foundation of our reality—they are what dictate the strength, creative potential, and ultimately the response of the interactive universe.
When I was a child, my mother used to warn me to guard my thoughts. She said that you can sin simply by thinking impure thoughts. These words came from the worldview of very fearful Catholic woman—and thinking I knew more than she did, I scoffed at her. But in her devote wisdom she was on to something. At its most simple element, our thoughts are part of the law of attraction; like attracts like—what we put out in our thoughts—which is wave energy—is what returns to us. Our thoughts, this internal drama that plays itself out, are the most creative or destructive forces of our life and reality. This is why the ancient masters and the saints of our current age say that to develop the mind and control over the ego should be one of our highest aims. I, by no means, am even close to this ideal, but merely a student in the world’s classroom, sharing what I’m learning along the way. India seems to be a very fruitful class, however.
I’ll leave you with one more quote from Sri Yukteswar, yogi and master to Paramahansa Yognanda. “There is a deeper astrology not dependent on the testimony of calendars and clocks. Each man is part of the Creator, or Cosmic Man; he has a heavenly body as well as one of the earth. The human eye sees the physical form, but the inner eye penetrates more profoundly, even to the universal pattern of which each man is an integral and individual part.”