How I did not find myself: Part 1

The lengths that one can go to find answers to unformed questions are far and wide. I had many of those questions wriggling about in all the nooks and corners of my mind. So I enrolled for a ten-day long vigorous residential meditation course. My friends and family were dumbfounded, why would I do this to myself? Subject myself to prison-like conditions, not speaking to anyone for the length of the course, not eating after mid-day, living solitary etc. They showed anger, amusement, concern and often puzzlement. One of my cousins even declared me nuts and proceeded to tell me just exactly what I will find at the end of this very futile attempt ( “All that matters in life is doing good deeds, that is all you will realize.” ) They asked me questions I did not know how to answer. Mostly about why I wanted to do this. I responded sometimes, or I just remained quiet, resigned to the possibility that I won’t be able to put into words what I am only vaguely aware of. But it made me wonder. Why did I want to do this anyway? I knew I was looking for something, but what?

Maybe I was just looking for some peace and quiet, and mostly some perspective, sometime from my life that is only my own and that no one else can encroach on it or fill it with things that are not of my choosing. I went with a desire to look at my life from afar, from an objective stance. I went because the idea of silence pulled me towards it and at some level I looked forward to being cut off from the outside world that has begun to fill up every waking moment, wanting to escape each free thought coloured by the beeping of my phone, the knock on my apartment door, the unexplainable urge to take a walk around my house, forgetting as I get from one room to the next, what exactly got me here in the first place. I wanted to introspect and this meditation course seemed like the perfect place to begin.

This is my experience there, just the way it happened.

Often we find ourselves in phases in life that leave us confused and full of questions. There is no telling how we got there, or what motivated us to make the choices that led us there, but all that is clear is that we are in that space, whether we like it or not, and somehow have to find ways to remain ourselves amid all of that.

I got off the train at this far flung suburb that I had never been to ever before. Just heard the name and sniggered at its vulgarity. Titwala. The man with boobs?

It is the height of summer and like a popular commercial dramatizes, the sun literally slurps the juices from our body with a straw on top of our heads. The heat blocks out all other thoughts and sensations and your body demands water like it demands air, with a fervency and persistence that cannot be negotiated.

As I stood at the bus stop hoping that I haven’t forgotten anything important while packing, two women asked me where I am headed and offer to share an autorickshaw. I thus start my journey into myself with three strange women jammed in an auto with me and all the things that we will need for the next ten days. The women discussed the various lies they told their mothers-in-law to get these ten days from their own lives for themselves. I stayed silent and looked outside at the passing scenes, watched children from the village bathing in the river with an abandonment I can only dream of. Their brown bodies’ slick with water and their hair plastered to their skull as they laughed and talked. I looked at the sky that was so blue and bright and felt anticipation surging in my heart and I tried to ignore the visible shaking of my hands. I can do this, I am doing this.

I was wearing not a single piece of jewellery or make-up and neither was carrying any. I felt bare and exposed. But this was hardly going to be my biggest problem. The toughest part for me was going to be something else entirely. We were not allowed any reading or writing material. No reading or writing for ten days! I cannot remember the last time I did that. No wait, since I learnt how to read and write, I have never done that. Words are what keep me afloat in my ship-wrecked life. They let me sing in the life boats. Words and the strange comfort of their black on white simplicity. Words that will form sentences that will form paragraphs that will turn into something meaningful. That will always mean something. Not like silence, ambiguously suspended in the air. Silence that can mean nothing, or that can mean everything.

I reached the meditation centre to be greeted by beautiful terraced gardens, the kind that seemed right out of a gardening magazine. There were people there already, filling out consent forms, reading out the pages after pages of “Rules of Conduct”. We were seated in the reception area, next to the dining hall as we were guided through the formalities. There were rules and timings written everywhere. On pillars, boards, walls, tables and shrubs.

Dining hall timings.

Noble silence must be strictly followed.

Old students are recommended to follow the eight silas.

Take only one.

Do not wash hands here.

Dry the utensils before keeping.

Do not use drinking water for washing.

Do not walk beyond this point.

Do not do this. Do not do that. Do not think. Follow. Obey. Be silent.

After I was done filling out the forms, I was asked to ‘deposit’ all my valuables including my cellphone, wallet, debit cards, keys and any writing material I was carrying. In exchange of all this, I got a card with my name and residence chamber number. I was D-5. I felt like a prisoner already, reducing my identity to a number.

D-5.

I walked in the baking heat towards my room, which I had chosen to be alone in. The entire area was filled with loud silence. I felt the gravel crunching under my flip flops. I looked at it wondering if it was any different from the city gravel. Wondering why it was so loud. It was a sound like that of many bones breaking at once. A sound like the crushing of heaps of scrap metal. It was the sound of my hesitation.

D-5.

It wasn’t a room. It was a cell. A 6×6 cell with an attached bath and a marble slab in one corner that was the platform for the choir mattress on top of it. I dragged in my trolley bag behind me and sat on the bed. A whoosh of heat emanated from it as I sat atop it. I looked around for a fan and switched it on. It creakily started blowing a gush of hot air around the room. Sweat was trickling through all the crevices of my body. I walked into the bath, it was dirty. I splashed warm water on my face and left my belongings to walk back to the dining hall for the pre-course talk. I skipped the snacks offered, too excited to eat and the Thai curry lunch I had indulged in still sitting heavy in my belly.

I sat in the front row, eager to know what our days are going to be like. Eager to get started. There were about fifty women in the room, siting in plastic chairs exactly equidistant from one another. I looked around at the mixed bag of people. No question of making friends with the strict silence policy. But we all need a few familiar faces to pull us through the days. I picked my few and smiled in acknowledgment. I could not wait to begin.

One side of the hall was lined with generously large windows and on it was a sign. “Keep windows closed”. Strange, I thought.

I thought I was here to open closed doors.

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