Departure and Homecoming
On our final day in Tiruvannamalai, I had a small but delightful interchange with an Indian woman who lived on the property adjacent to the ashram. I had taken my blue-green plastic chair out behind my little apartment to sit and commune with Arunachala. While sitting, I took a couple of pictures with my IPad of the metal-roofed, open-air dwelling (which actually looked more like an oversized carport than a house) situated in the flat, grassy field nearby. Over my time there, I had taken an interest in the family, watching them cook and move about their home--their whole lives taking place in plain view. On this day, there was laundry draped over the fence between the ashram property and theirs, and the woman of the household was outside.
She saw me taking pictures, waved and walked toward me. I am embarrassed to admit that at first I didn’t want to meet her gaze because I feared she was going to ask for money, and I always felt conflicted when that happened. Finally, I thought, “What the heck,” and got up and walked closer to the barbed-wire fence. She approached to within 10 feet of me.. We exchanged smiles and greetings, to the degree that we could with no common language. Then, I said, “Wait here a minute,” as though she could understand, which she no doubt couldn’t, ran back to my room and got my last chocolate bar and gave it to her. She looked like she didn’t know what it was, so I said, “chocolate,” as if giving it a name would help. She repeated, “chocolate,” but I had no idea if she understood or not. Finally, after smiling at each other for a bit more, we waved goodbye; I went back to my chair, and she went on about her business.
As I resumed my meditations, her husband, wearing a sarong, walked from the house across the open field to a platform where there was an overhead spigot. He filled up a bucket and, without taking off his sarong, proceeded to lather himself up and take a very thorough outdoor shower. He managed to cleanse his entire body without ever disrobing entirely. Though I felt a little like a Peeping Tom, I was riveted. This couple, quite literally, lives out their existence with only a corrugated tin roof over their heads. To my Western mind, this was incomprehensible. I found myself concerned about how they fared during the monsoon season.
In our household, my husband normally is the trip organizer, but since I was making this journey without him, I had planned and taken care of every aspect myself. This was my first excursion to a foreign country without him or another close companion, and I was feeling a sense of satisfaction in my ability to navigate on my own. I had been very careful with money and was going home with around $500. I thought my husband would be pleased at my prudence.
In the early afternoon, I grabbed a tuk-tuk into Tiru. I first stopped at the grocery store and got some snacks for the airplane flight. I was so tired, however, that I mistakenly handed the clerk two $100 bills instead of two 100-rupee bills (100 rupees is about a dollar and 40 cents). She pointed out my error, for which I was extremely grateful, and I paid her in the appropriate currency. I went on to a shop I had heard about but not visited before. The man behind the counter eagerly began showing me goods, taking shawls, scarves and pillow shams from their protective plastic bags and unfolding them so they could be seen in their entirety.. However, I only had about $20 (about 1,500 rupees) to spend, so I wasn’t going to be able to buy much.
When he understood my circumstances, he informed me that he accepts American money and credit cards. I told him that I wasn’t going to spend American money, and that I didn’t have any credit cards on me. Being an enterprising sort, he offered to pay for a tuk-tuk ride to go with me to the ashram to get a credit card. After much back and forth, he finally accepted that I was only going to spend the rupees I had. I selected a few items, a couple of shawls and a scarf, then went to pay him. In my exhaustion, I did the same thing I had in the grocery store—I handed him one-hundred-dollar bills instead of rupees. As with the woman in the market, he was honest and pointed out my error. I thanked him, returned the money to my wallet. We talked some more, then I fished around in my wallet, pulled out some bills, paid him, and grabbed a tuk-tuk back to the ashram, my final shopping completed.
When I got back to my room, I decided to count my money one final time to make sure I knew exactly how much I had on me. I counted once. I counted twice. I was $200 short. For some reason, this discovery sent me over the edge, and I broke into tears. I was more distressed by my flakiness--that in the end I had, despite the honesty of the vendors, I had mistakenly given away two hundred-dollar bills along with the remaining rupies.
Amrita next door must have heard me, for she called through the open window. “Are you OK?” “No,” I said plaintively, opening the door and welcoming her into my room. When I told her my story, she just threw back her head and laughed out loud. “My dear,” she said gently with a big smile, “you have just made somebody very happy. Some family will be able to live comfortably for a long time on that amount of money.”
My distress and self-condemnation vanished instantly. I got it in a flash and said to her, "Oh, of course, I was being too stingy with my money. God decided to redistribute the wealth.” I never had a bit of regret after that, though I did wonder who actually ended up with the windfall, the shopkeeper or the tuk-tuk driver. In any event, it’s given me pleasure to think of an Indian family living more comfortably for several months because I couldn’t keep my head on straight.
Just after dark we assembled to board the buses for the trip to the airport. Some of us were staying behind to travel around India further, so I hugged and bid adieu to them, then boarded the bus. The trip to the airport had an unreal quality. By this time, I was so tired from nights of truncated or interrupted sleep and so filled up with spiritual lessons and energies that I was in a daze. I sat staring out the window into a moonless darkness, garishly broken when we passed through villages where glaringly bright lights illuminated makeshift structures. Everything seemed to have an unreal, carnival-like atmosphere.
We stopped again at the same chai stand we had frequented on our arrival trip. I took a pass on the chai, wanting to avoid caffeine-induced sleeplessness should the remote (for me) opportunity to sleep on the plane present itself, and instead watched with fascination a vendor pouring out huge chapatis on a large hot griddle setting off clouds of steam in the night air. So ordinary and yet so infused with beauty.
Sometime before midnight we arrived at the Chennai Airport. I had a scare at the airport entrance when it appeared that an official wasn’t going to let me even enter the building because he didn’t have my name on a list. Somehow it got cleared up, much to my relief, and I was allowed inside. We checked in, went through security and then sat around--a few of us in chairs, many sprawled on the floor--sharing chocolate chip cookies from the German Bakery and killing time until departure.
The four-hour flight to Dubai was uneventful. I was struck again by the sumptuousness of the Dubai Airport, clean, glittery and filled with expensive items for sale. It was such a contrast to the dingy, bare-bones facility in Chennai. We then boarded our 15-hour Emirates Air flight to San Francisco. Again the plane and the service was impeccable, but I don’t remember much about it except that I slept little and binge-watched the British series “Poldark,” finishing an entire season before the trip was over.
It was midday when we arrived at San Francisco Airport. I stumbled through customs and was met by my waiting husband, who after a warm welcome, shepherded me and my belongings to our van. By this time, having slept little for some 30 hours, I was so exhausted I could barely speak. We talked enough for me to tell him that I was on my last legs, and I would communicate after I regrouped a little. I put the seat back and tried to sleep, but I was too keyed up. Eventually, I sat up and drank in the familiar scenery between San Francisco and Carmel Valley. Highway 101 near San Jose, which I normally find congested and fast-paced, seemed sane and orderly after traffic in India.
At home, I ate a light supper and took a hot bath, washing away layers of dry skin and mineral deposits accumulated after a month of cursory cold showers in hard water. It was heaven. I went to sleep at 8 p.m. and didn’t wake up until 11 the next morning. For days it felt like I was neither here nor there. I instinctively knew that it was going to take me a long time to integrate this experience. People would ask me about my trip, and I was stymied at how to respond, so much of it couldn’t be captured in words. It was at the same time, one of the most challenging and one of the most rewarding months of my life. As it would turn out, I couldn’t even begin to write about it until a year had passed.
When is all said and done, it seems that the theme for this Indian pilgrimage was bringing to consciousness deep-seated fear/rejection psychological constructs that dated back to my earliest years. I was able to meet layers of deeply ingrained beliefs, fears and projections, and I came away with a greater ability to see these quick-as-lightning defense mechanisms that arise when I feel threatened, rejected and/or out of my element. There would be more work to be done, but it was a good start.
Almost three years later I can only say that something was freed in the process, and I am not plagued by some long-standing response patterns that had been a challenge for me all my life. The pure, unconditional love that I experienced while in India is not my ongoing experience, but it was so pure, true and real that it is indelibly seared in my marrow. I have had a greater capacity to relax the ego so that pure Presence, or Beingness, or whatever you want to call it, is my foreground experience with greater consistency.
The point that Devaji makes over and over again, is that this state, which is characterized by peace, love and joy, is not coming from anywhere outside of us. It is not because of someone or something. It dwells within each and every one of us as our own hearts and is simply awaiting our recognition of it. Unblemished and untainted, it can never be destroyed because it is our true nature.
The more time I spend cultivating this inner space, which is ever-present right here and right now, the more it pervades every aspect of my life. So many things have changed for the better since that trip that I cannot begin to enumerate them. Whatever temporary discomfort I might have experienced while on this holy pilgrimage pales in comparison to the benefits that have unfolded and continue to unfold since my return.
While not everyone can take a trip to India, we all can make it a priority to come to know who we are at the deepest levels, if only by making it a practice to ask ourselves Ramana Maharshi’s seminal question: Who Am I?
When you look inside and follow the question to the end of the road, you will find quite a different answer than you might have expected. You discover that you are not who you thought you were. The real “I” is something far beyond what we believe ourselves to be, our limited sense of who we are, the personality and the roles we play. The real “I” is a state of emptiness that is at the same time full (of peace, joy and love). It is quite natural; it never changes and is always available. As we turn to it with frequency, our lives begin to stabilize so that no matter what transpires in the external world, it doesn’t seem to affect our ability to stay grounded in the truth and beauty of who we are..
While a trip to India, or any other sacred place on the planet, though it can catapult you along the path, it is not required to awaken to the Truth. The real pilgrimage is always a journey of discovery into who you really are. that can be embarked upon anywhere, any time..
This poem, which was recently composed at a weekly writing group of which I am a part., reveals how easily it can happen if we just remain still.
White is How I feel
White is how I feel,
Blank and empty
Like a snow-covered
Meadow in winter.
I like this quiet mind
That can’t kick into gear
Even though words are expected.
Looking to see what’s here
I sink into a soft, gauzy warmth
So infinitely preferable
To any thought or recollection..
White is how I feel
When only the spots of yellow
On the lemon tree
Offer a reminder
That one day,
Something will move
And calves will be birthed
And leaves unfurled
And this deep resting
Will yield to the wild energies of life
But until then,
White is how I feel
Slow, inward, inclining toward silence,
Filling a hunger
To connect with something
Far more essential
Than my next meal or assignation.
White is how I feel
When I strip off
Names and titles,
Costumes and descriptions
And look to see what remains
Beneath the surface.
And discover once again
That I am made of light,
That everything is light.
And I might not have noticed
Were it not
A cold day in January
When I had nothing to say.