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  • ‘You are born, a bunch of things happen, and then you die.’

    Silence. Hundreds of us soul-searching cadets stood in awe.

    ‘Yep, that’s what you paid me three hundred pounds to tell you,’ Coleman, the group teacher, said with his distinct Australian accent. That’s the apogee of the course, the point where students “pop” and have their “breakthrough” in Landmark Forum parlance.

    Charismatic teacher, check. Distinguishing lingo, check. Elaborate brain programming about selling the course to every friend, spouse, family, extended family, co-worker, client, hell why not, complete strangers too. Yes, the hallmarks of a cult were all there, complete with a bitter historical feud with the Scientology camp. Buddhism, Yoga Nidra, awareness meditation, Freud concepts and other wisdoms souped up and crammed in an intense two-day morning-to-night experience. Stories of suffering shared by participants, together with life-affirming messages of forgiveness managed to make a strong, yes perhaps even life-changing impact for some.

    The second part of the course is where they lost me. The remaining one and half days are all about enrolling others. That urgent new life directive all students have to swear by, before they’re sent off to change the world. By enrolling everyone and their dog to the course, that is.

    Deflecting the onslaught of graduate ninjas at the door I managed to escape early. I could not find liberation in a weekend course. I had to go further, I had to risk more. So I said to myself as I stocked up on microfibers, packing tubes and Lonely Planet guides, and booked a pilgrimage to Asia. A hippie in a post-hippie era, a thirty something year old infantile discovering a backpack for the first time.

    I chose not to pack a camera. I had grown to despise the verb “capture” and its emphasis on building stories at the expense of the moment. I realised the merits of this decision early on in Bombay, once I arrived to Chowpatty beach in time for sunset. If there were a photographer’s nirvana, I was walking on it, barefoot. If I had my DSLR with me, I’d be obsessing with shutter speeds, apertures, tripods, focus points. Thank goodness, I strolled along the soft sand of the receding tide released of earthly concerns.

    A father and his young son scrapped figures in the sand with a long bamboo stick. Boys walked past pulling a tiny kite. Scattered along the vastness of the beach, groups of seagulls had feeding frenzies on fishing nets and rubbish piles. You cannot say much about the subcontinent before stating the obvious. Skipping adverbs and adjectives, I would begin by saying that India is about gifts. Yes, I was about to receive one, right there.

    A young man approached and sat down next to me.

    ‘Hello,’ I said and gave him a nervous grin.

    ‘Hello sir.’

    He took his shoes off and let his eyes join my abstract gaze on the ocean. What could this man want, money, my shoes? Apprehension turned to wonder as he kept sitting there, quiet, peaceful.

    ‘What’s your name,’ I asked as reverent silence was obviously getting too much for me.

    ‘Faarooq… what is your good name sir?’

    ‘I’m Leonidas, nice to meet you Faarooq.’

    ‘Where you from?’

    Ah, the quintessentially Indian probing.

    ‘I am Greek,’ I said and smiled. ‘I live in London though.’

    ‘Are you married?’

    ‘No,’

    ‘Girlfriend?’

    ‘Nope,’ I turned my head and pushed lips together as I began to warm up to the benevolence of his questions.

    ‘No friends?’

    ‘No, I’m here alone.’

    His head giggled. This silent head gesture passed relay baton to the eyes. Like he knew me for years, as if our bond of familiarity and companionship had no beginning or end. All I could see was kindness, oneness. Overwhelmed, I faced forward. My heartbeat eased. I was in India. I was in good hands.

    ---//---

    I waited in a frenzied bus station in Amritsar. The place was curiously chaotic. All here seemed to know exactly what they shouted about, where they spitted at, or running toward. Everybody else joined the hordes of stray dogs slumbering all over the floor. It was loud. It was colourful. It was alive.

    I found myself enclosed between two Indian men and a backpack, aboard an Ashok Leyland relic of a bus straight out of a black and white movie. The ensuing ten-hour pummelling to Dharamsala served as a good immersion to suburban India’s road system. A steep uphill rickshaw journey through MacLeod Ganj and I stepped through the gate of the meditation centre. I handed over mobile phone, books and writing materials before taking the oath of noble silence. No talk, or any form of communication was allowed. “Eyes downcast,” “observe breath,” “be happy.” Instructions were posted throughout the campus area. From how to rinse our plates without wasting water, to guides on keeping the communal toilet clean, all thirty of us learned how to coexist in our barrack-style hut without interacting. At four each morning, covered with blankets like ghosts we stumbled uphill to the meditation hall.

    At an elevation of 3000 metres, the one warm spot on this otherwise frigid campus, appeared at midday when the sun surfaced atop the Deodar trees, forming a glowing balmy corridor on the flagstones of the male yard. It was wide enough for us to crowd into, spread our palms open and indulge in those precious remnants of cosiness. Vipassana practice is not for everyone. Yes, food and accommodation are entirely free – and in a place like India, that strikes some as a crazy endeavour. But it was just a matter of days before our numbers halved. The unprepared or uninformed grew weary of the strict vegan diet, gender segregation and arduous meditation regime. It took days of surreal solitude for me to grasp what the whole thing was about.

    Beyond the ubiquitous packs of wild monkeys, we benefited from the company of two stray dogs, common bastards, the types loitering en masse across the country. They hardly missed an opportunity to monopolise the petting. I could resort to economic theorems of utility, psychological concepts of intimacy, or just plain common sense. At any rate, I would expect them to get happier the more I pet them. A tad more content even. Alas, their eyes shined with angst, dreading the inevitability of my attention moving away. They trailed my hand and muscled in to displace each other. No one could have enacted craving and aversion any better.

    ‘The subconscious is constantly reacting,’ said S.N.Goenka, the principle teacher. ‘Craving, aversion, craving, aversion, craving, aversion.’ He twisted his small hand with each repetition.

    ‘All impurities of the mind, all defilements of the mind are a product of those two.’ His gracious palm opened up.

    The back pain was excruciating, my knees were about to fall off. Sitting in half-lotus day is taxing for the body. Striving to sustain this posture until pain burned and dissolved into vibrations of warmth was – eventually – pleasing, gratifying. During this cycle of pain and pleasure, he instructed us to remain equanimous, stay still. Vipassana advocates observing each sensation, without reacting. Watch them come and go, and in doing so, clear tension from within.

    ‘May all beings be happy and free,’ Goenka wrapped up his daily discourses keeping his eyes closed, before sending out peace and love with a gentle hand gesture.

    I put my shoes on and stepped out of our meditation hall. The Himalayas presented themselves like a grand payoff. Purified from emotional fat, my eyes scanned the refinement of those white peaks as if I had never seen a mountain before. I could almost hear the universe whispering to me. Some say that all-day silent meditation is nothing more than a head-trip, a blackout of suspended consciousness. I disagree. Leaving the Vipassana gates behind me, I thought I had never been more awake.

    What did I miss most? Lack of a mattress, central heating, or even water at times? Weeks without showering or opening my mouth for anything other than puffed rice and tea? No. I could go without any of these bodily comforts, I found. When they handed back our belongings at the end, the one item I used straight away, with trembling hands, as if I was asphyxiating and my whole life depended on it, was my phone. The one thing I craved was the constant stimuli of texts, emails and Facebook. The first place I ran to was the Internet café. I stayed holed up for six hours until my insatiable need was relieved.

    I have been an outcast all my life. A slightly deranged “child of divorce” at private schools in Salonika, I evolved into a blundering Greek student in Britain, before joining the Greek Army with the stargazer Englishman insignia on my forehead. I never managed to fit in, anywhere.

    Well, dirt was peeling off my skin; lips resembled an excavation site, yet it wasn’t with eagerness that I boarded the bus out of McLeod Ganj. There is a gravitating confidence of profound proportions that comes with fitting in. When everyone around me seems to live and breathe like me. I was not an alien anymore.

    Rishikesh should be annexed to California. No, really. I have not seen so many new agey, vegan, yoga instructors congregating in such numbers anywhere else. Being the ancient birthplace of yoga has something to do with it I suppose, and as my Lonely Planet guide eloquently confirms, spiritual seekers “make a beeline” for this place. This should account for all the OM Hotels, Hari OM rooms, Green Internet cafes, little Buddha restaurants, enlightenment bookshops and Ayurvedic pharmacies mushrooming atop the one main village street. Staying true to my contrarian – or plain miserable – ideals, I waded through all this spiritual tourist-fed diarrhoea with an admirable level of detachment.

    I crossed Ganges over the Ram Jhula Bridge when I met a mob of cows. Kids, sugar cane vendors, street merchants and elders fed them apples and stroked them as they walked past. I could not help but stop and cherish one particular female calf. The bright red neck scarf signified femininity I suppose, but there was no need for cues. I was sufficiently seduced, in a way only a female pair of eyes can. I teased those protruding ears as I patted her well-formed face.

    ‘No, no sir…’ a perturbed local interrupted our play. He placed his palm on the animal’s lips and then on his forehead. His English was not fluent but his solemn, respectful eyes were. Belittling a cow albeit in a benevolent, big-hearted way is ill advised in this part of this world. Their significance rises above culture or religion. It is a symbol that conveys as much about the sacred animal as it does about Indian temperament altogether. For what does abundance really mean, other than contentment? If there was an embodiment of peace and dare I say beauty, those ruminants placed a fat tick on the box.

    Clearing my way through dense clouds of flies, I deviated from the main street and climbed down the stone path to the Ganga. One of the few Internet cafés in town was located just there. Taking the liberty to use their wireless Internet, I reposed at the embankment and fiddled with my phone. To keep my karma intact, once done with my emails I paid the café owner and confessed my sin.

    ‘No sir outside,’ he grumbled loud enough for tourist patron’s heads to turn. ‘Today last time.’

    I took another fifty-rupee note out and slid it down his shirt pocket. Like watching your newborn grin at you, the storekeeper’s cracking smile made this fifty-rupee investment look stingy.

    ‘No problem sir.’

    Procrastinating on the Internet doesn’t quite make for a healthy traveller preoccupation. Still whenever I walked downtown, which was two or three times a day, I couldn’t help but goof-off online for a quarter of an hour, or two.

    With a fresh aftertaste of papaya lassi in my mouth I made my way to that same riverside spot. Streets were empty – save for drifters burning small heaps of rubbish and cows feasting on leftovers. I climbed down, assumed my seat on the bottom stair and took the phone out. Amused by the heavy gushing sound, I raised my gaze to that imposing mass of pouring water. In all its vastness, Ganga surged past in surreal momentum.

    Elevated by this natural mystique, I paused pondering.

    ‘Come back to me,’ the river whispered. Palms were still clinching on my electronic exobrain. Eyes watered. My short-circuited consciousness was receiving a kiss of life. ‘Where are you? Come back… come home.’

    Flowing. Passing by. Never the same, yet eternal. Fluid, generous, wholesome. It soaked through me. I surrendered to its fierce current. My intellect washed away. It was easy. It was instant. It was life.

    ---//---

    ‘What brings you happiness?’ the greying teacher said.

    The closest to ancient wisdom I could get to once back in Britain, was my local Yoga studio. Sri Dharma Mittra, the renowned yoga master, was giving a discourse in London. I was lucky enough to scrape some space and squeeze my mat in the last row.

    ‘Parents? They go away. Children? They leave you. Car? It gets old… it breaks down. Health? It goes away… Your teeth? It falls.’

    I could barely make out his frail voice. His face bowed slightly. I propped my head up a bit to get another glimpse.

    ‘Everything that brings us happiness… it goes away.’

    Sombre as his words may be, he spoke as if he was letting us in on some great news. After each phrase, he injected a seemingly shy, cheeky dose of smile therapy.

    ‘If you identify with your body and mind you really suffer… They are subject to time, they get old, sickened and disappear. In time you lose everything…’

    ‘Yoga is peace of mind,’ he said and rose from the stool, removed his dark blue kurta, placed palms on the floor and raised his body to a headstand. Watching a seventy-year-old man move legs behind his neck and assume elaborate pretzel asanas by standing on one hand, all without losing a breath, is a feat I don’t get to see everyday. Yet, what touched me the most was his reassuring disposition. Just by looking at him, I came to believe that all is fine, that life is benevolent, that there is nothing to fear.

    I began cycling home. The bass entree of chart-topping “Perfect Moment” was just kicking in. My feet became light, hair rose. My bike levitated high above the Westbourne Park streets. Was it Yoga, was it the vegan diet, meditation, India, anti-depressants? Under the tyre, I noticed pink cherry blossoms resting on the asphalt. I gazed at their beauty, their transience. I carried the bike to my flat. Closed in a tiny space that made a suffocating cocoon some months ago, I stared up at the ceiling and saw nothing less than the universe.
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