India Journals

November 2019 – Kashmir (Video)

I found myself staying on a houseboat on a lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. I arrived here through what I first thought were purely coincidental circumstances, but ended up finding out it had been a bit more orchestrated. It’s a long story involving a charismatic, impressively manipulative travel agent; but in the end I can’t say I’m unhappy to be here.

The sunrise over the Himalayas is stunning, and we get around this kind of Indian version of Venice on a canoe. Rowing steadily through tunnels of lilypads and lotus farms, surrounded by mountains and prayer calls, eagles screaming, crescent moon shining.

Day 11 on the houseboat. It’s been 3 days since the snowstorm. All flights are cancelled, all roads are blocked. No electricity, internet or phone service. For now, there’s no way out and no contact with the outside world. There isn’t much to do except sitting by the wood stove playing chess with the makeshift board and pieces my friends and I made. We had rum and hashish but finished them all. I’ve spent quite a large amount of money to be here, and the only activity we really did was to go illegal duck hunting at 4am, up to our waists in a muddy marsh. I shot my shotgun twice and missed both times, which I’m kind of happy about.

Apart from that, I’ve just been killing time. And I keep asking myself, what’s the lesson here? Can I let this teach me patience, stillness, the art of boredom? Compassion for the workers here who clearly have it harder than I do, showveling snow off their boat’s roof. I think I’ll remember with fondness the moments shared with the friends I made trapped here with me, and with humor the absurdity of the whole situation. For now, though, what can be done? Striving to be mentally comfortable, letting the lack of distractions and control make me better somehow. Is doing nothing a skill one can get better at with practice? I’ve been playing with the idea that these events were meant to happen to teach me all those things. It makes me feel better, but I don’t know if I really believe it. Not every random set of circumstances has a deep hidden meaning. But opportunities for growth, yes, I think so, if one looks for them.

December 2019 – Dharamsala (Video)

I’ve been staying for about 10 days at an ashram in the mountains, though it doesn’t feel like that long. I feel like being here, more or less isolated from the outside world in the cold mountains, is impacting me as much as the intense yoga schedule. Both are so different than what I’m used to. The kind of asceticism that naturally comes from being here is doing wonders for my abilities to fully appreciate little things. The absence of any centralized heating makes me so grateful for the hot morning tea, when it’s still dark and freezing outside. The lack of drinking, smoking or junk food made me enjoy the living hell out of the fruits and oats we had this morning. And though there’s still wi-fi here, the lack of constant easy distractions makes it actually enjoyable to adhere to the rigid schedule.

My body is exhausted from putting it in all kinds of new positions. I rarely sit in chairs around here as there aren’t many, and my legs are slowly getting used to constantly being on the ground. The variety of exotic poses and stretches we’ve been doing is actually leaving me more sore in the morning than weight lifting used to. The daily chanting of mantras, breathing exercises and other ritualistic communal things we do are subtly having an effect on my mind too, I think. It’s hard to tell, but I feel somehow lighter. The rituals (pujas, chanting etc.) are a bit much sometimes, and those are what get me slipping into skepticism for a moment; but otherwise I feel like every activity has its purpose and is providing me with growth in some area.

Homesickness comes and goes in waves, sometimes as an intense yearning for familiarity. Sudden flashes of childhood memories, usually striking during yoga practice. People, smells, food, specific places from my hometown. All so vivid.

I’ve been dreaming more than ever, strangely realistic dreams of traveling to different places only to wake up here in the same bed. But I’m not unhappy to be here; in many moments I find myself realizing there’s nowhere else I’d rather be, really, than in the mountains learning esoteric practices, doing yoga, communing daily.

I think my brain is clinging to familiar things as the building blocks of my ordinary reality are radically shifting. Being in a new and distant place, cold and minimal in its comforts, stripped of my usual coping mechanisms.

It’s a call to presence… the resistance is strong. When I can remind myself to truly be here then flow comes easily in daily activities. The nostalgic flashes appear unexpectedly, powerful spasms of attachment drawing me in. But I can slowly let them go and immerse myself here. I think this is the way growth works.

The two main lessons that this trip to India seems to be pushing me to learn are essentially the same as in my ayahuasca ceremony half a year ago. I didn’t really integrate them then, but there’s no escaping it now. The first has to do with impatience, the second with the potential of my actions to be destructive. These are the main ways in which I seem to have sabotaged my like and others’ in the past. The solution seems incredibly simple, almost childishly so, but these are the words that keep coming to mind. Love everyone and tell the truth.

This is the answer Ram Dass’ guru had for him when asked about life. And for some reason it resonates, the utter obviousness of it combined with the difficulty of actually applying that in one’s day-to-day. I realize telling the truth isn’t something I’ve always honored in the past. As for being able to apprehend everybody from a place of love, well, that’s surely a whole life’s work.

Anyway, this entry was mostly just a collection of thoughts about the past few days. The actual activities have been going well, though many things are really testing me in the patience department. Accumulations of small annoyances… it’s something I need to keep working on, not letting those affect me too much.

So on this cold and rainy day, as I sit under 3 blankets writing this, I’ll close by saying it’s been a mentally challenging and rewarding time. I’m really grateful for you taking the time to read through these personal, tentative thoughts that must feel at times a bit obscure. It’s good to hear you’re also pushing through challenging times and developing what sounds like new levels of self-awareness and resilience in the process.

I’m curious about the effects of this prolonged celibacy I’ve been experiencing. From what I can tell after a month and a half of zero sexual stimulation, I’ve lost most conscious desire. It manifests itself sometimes through dreams. But in waking life, I barely think about it. That energy seems to be redirected. I wonder if the idea, common in many traditions, of libido being transmuted into spiritual energy when it’s not indulged in holds up. I’ve certainly been much more sensitive to the subtly fulfilling effects of things like singing mantras,drawing mandalas, and doing breathwork. I also feel a general sense of innocence, or more like light-hearted softness. At least more often than I used to. The thing that’s most surprising to me is that this abstinence was not forced or self imposed. It wasn’t even a conscious choice, but just happened naturally. We’ll see what happens with that in the long run…

Am I ready to let the jubilant creative impulse that infused my childhood come back and inform my work? There seems to have been a link that was severed. A disconnect between the joyous instinct to invent and tell stories, and my ability to transfer this to adult life, to creative projects. What will it take to regain that freedom of mind? Maybe the loads of introspection I’ve been doing, the new experiences and absorption of input, are all soon going to give fruit to some kind of imaginative breakthrough. I can feel there’s some deep internal changes happening,but I don’t know yet how they’ll manifest externally. I do sense it has to do with some kind of openness of heart. And I’m now dealing with the tremors of a dying inner judge whose harshness is just now being fully acknowledged. It is messy.

I stumbled upon writings from Carl Jung that suggested the urge to draw mandalas emerges at a time of change and personal growth in a person’s life. The idea is that the symmetry of the drawing is a form of order one tries to create out of the ongoing chaos in their life/mind. It seems pretty accurate, considering I rarely ever felt drawn to mandalas in my regular life and have been furiously drawing them in the past weeks. Maybe I’m just inspired by the abundance of such designs around here; I’m still blown away whenever I lay eyes upon the intricate art pieces of Tibetan monks. But I do think Jung had an important point… just like writing feels natural in periods of challenge and novelty, so does representing our process visually. The soothing effect of creating ever-expanding patterns also seems to stimulate the part of the mind that enjoys finding meaning. The whole thing is almost random, automatic, but also pleasantly structured in the end.

How strange that when at home I dream of wild adventures, and when adventuring I dream of home. Dreaming in the literal sense. There’s an abnormal level of attachment in my subconscious, it seems, or maybe it’s a valid instinct. But I know I’d regret not pushing this lone journey to its limits. Honoring this time of discomfort and growth feels necessary. I think the point of the attachment’s persistence may be that I have to face it and outgrow it. Like any archetypal adventure story, this one has at its core a longing for home that can’t be indulged until some treasure has been found (or some evil destroyed, as with the Lord of the Rings). Whichever one it is, we’ll see, maybe a bit of both. And if the whole thing is pointless, that’ll be a lesson in itself.

I find myself struggling to connect with some of the more “spiritual”activities here. The chakra meditation, Kundalini yoga, countless prayers.. I get glimpses of genuine appreciation for them, but most of the time I end up in some kind of anthropological mindset, analyzing these peculiar ritual practices informed by a mythology I still don’t quite understand. It’s frustrating, because I thought I would truly enjoy this more mystical component and easily find a sense of personal spirituality within it. But having to be honest with myself, the kind of bodily knowledge that I get when a practice rings true (as with Ayahuasca or personal meditations) is just not here most of the time. Maybe it’s because I’m new to this specific kind of work. Maybe the teachers and I aren’t a right fit. The whole Hindu framework might not be for me, or I may just need to give it more time. Feeling spiritually disillusioned, after all, seems like an inevitable step on whichever path one chooses.

Today is Christmas Eve and the Himalayan landscape, with its evergreens and snowy mountains, definitely makes up for the lack of Christmas lights and decorations I’m used to seeing back home. At the Ashram, we’re cooking a big dinner together. I’ve grown to quite like this little community, even though I’m also eager to leave and adventure alone. If everything goes according to plan, which is a lot to ask for in India, I’ll be in Pushkar, a small holy/hippie town bordering the desert, in 5 days. What a change it will be from this cold, this altitude, this structured lifestyle, this repetitive diet… But I did it, and I’m glad to have taken up the challenge. In what felt much longer than a month, I think I’ve changed a lot in certain areas. I don’t know if that feeling will last, but the vulnerability I felt here overall opened me up to some inner terrains I hadn’t considered spending much time in before.

A strange experiment today in what I would call reverse hedonic adaptation. We had the latter half of the day off at the Ashram since it’s Christmas and the training is essentially over. So I decided to go out, get a beer and drink it by the lake to celebrate. Having not had a beer in a month the first few sips were amazing, refreshing, wonderfully carbonated. But the process of drinking this beer got less and less enjoyable as it went on, until I almost had to force myself to finish it. Instead of feeling pleasantly tipsy, I just felt clumsy and clouded. I think my body got used to the kind of subtle good feeling induced by things like yoga and chanting. Feeding it ‘packaged’ good chemicals suddenly was quite a clash. I’m sure I’ll end up drinking again on my trip; but it’s interesting to notice how unnatural and gross it felt to engage in the kind of hedonic, mildly self-destructive thing I usually enjoy. This is something I’m grateful for, because it allowed me to see yet another of my normally mindless behaviors in a fresh way.

January 2020 – Rajasthan (Video)

A new decade starts. Well, for me it’s just a new day in Pushkar, not too different from the two I previously spent here. There’s not a whole lot to do here apart from drinking lassis, chilling in cafes and hammocks on rooftops. Not complaining. Although I’m not sure I’ll stay much longer in this town. I feel a bit of a malaise about it, the fact that it’s a ‘hippie paradise’ but also a holy and ancient place for Hindus. There’s a weird thing going on where every little shop and restaurant seems to cater to backpackers in a way that makes the whole town seem like a spirituality-themed Pleasantville. Anyway, the new year… probably a good day to reflect some more on why the hell I’m in India, and what to do next that will make this trip most valuable. I can’t say I feel excellent about it now, though I learned a lot, I’m still a bit aimless, unfocused, foggy. I don’t know if it’s fantasy but in my mind there’s a point where I’ll realize why I’m here, what to do, and go into a flow. I don’t know what I’m waiting for to let that happen.

Some of the hippies I spot in various cities in India seem in tune, genuinely comfortable with the culture and their place in it. Others look so awkward, like caricatures with the clothes and jewellery and an air of forced beatitude. I think I judge the latter group especially hard because of the old Jungian thing where you hate in others what you’re scared to see in yourself. But also, my perspective on travel is changing a bit. Just because you’re backpacking doesn’t necessarily make you cooler or more ‘in’ with the culture than a regular tourist. I think I’ve had the assumption before that this kind of travel somehow entitled you to a more real experience. But you can be a backpacker who just hangs out in hostels with other travelers all day (a few of those here), and how different is that from the resort life we always shit on? There is value in aimless traveling but the things you end up doing often add up to a fairly stereotypical experience. Sometimes you can’t really escape just being one of many westerners peering into a world they don’t understand through temple arches and incense smoke. I feel sick of being myself in this environment, I don’t want to belong to a demographic that screams clueless-asshole-easy-target-money-bag. And I know my thirst for a more real experience is also a part of the cliché…

There’s something that seems inherently difficult in trying to create a sense of meaning within a day when there’s no structure. Amazing synchronicities can emerge out of unplanned days, for sure, but they depend on luck and one’s ability to align themselves with a current that works in mysterious ways. I’m just surprised by how difficult it is to just enjoy freedom. Whenever I’m blessed with an absolute lack of obligations, it only takes a few days before some kind of frantic energy rises, desperate to fill the perceived void of meaning in the situation. My theory is that the western lifestyle (very focused on work, doing, accomplishing) leaves us with an immaturity regarding freedom. We don’t know how to handle it, we treat it like another puzzle to solve or skill to master. Maybe it is a skill in some sense (and if so I suck at it) but it certainly doesn’t respond to an effortful attitude. Nor is it best enjoyed through hedonic pursuits. The anxiety to do something meaningful with my freedom clashes painfully with my tendency to spend unstructured time meandering and seeking pleasure or comfort. Creating a personal structure for times like these is key.

I’m realizing that ritual is one of the most important things we have as humans. And I’ve felt alienated by some of the practices I’ve seen while traveling, and felt drawn to others. I have been bored to death during a fire Puja, and been hit by a sense of understanding about the importance of candles and rose water and rattles during an ayahuasca ceremony. Either way they’re the same thing, serve the same anchoring purpose in this leap we take trying to connect with something greater. And I feel the same about personal ritual, be it something as simple as sun and yoga. Without something like it I feel lost, aimless like the other day. There’s an incredible power in simple personal routine I keep forgetting. As much as I want to be detached from outside events’ impact on my inner state, it’s hard to deny the efficiency of a few simple actions (a short meditation, a coffee, a long squat, a sun salutation) to catapult one’s body and mind into a better place.

February 2020 – Goa (Video)

Meeting strange and wide-eyed characters who will talk your ears off about their past, about future opportunities, drawing you into their sense of amazement at the magic of synchronicities and the secret workings of the universe. Listening to them with a mix of openness, amusement, excitement and skepticism. There is a kind of magnetic force in this place, clearly, drawing people together in the name of love and art. And sometimes it is truly working, but let’s be careful not to be deluded into thinking everything happens for a reason. Some things just are, and don’t carry any extra meaning or cosmic significance. It’s easy to develop a sense of pronoia when luck and happenstance are turned up high.

Travel brings that out in general, highlights it, how randomness affects one’s life and can seem truly mystical when things go well. And perhaps it is divine, who’s to say, but then bad luck would have to be as well. Maybe that’s what karma is meant to describe; a universal force that dictates both positive and negative chains of events. And if we can find meaning in the negative ones, it truly feels like we’ve cracked the code of rolling with whatever life may throw at us. Meaning-making is a skill that travel seems to train you for.

But it’s a lot to take in. Both the good and the bad. The former is scary because it might turn into the latter at any time. So opportunities always hold the potential of disaster, and that fear can prevent you from diving in. A little bit of it is healthy, too much will paralyze you.

So who to trust among psychopathic travel agents, humble farmers, motherly teachers, absurd gurus, starry-eyed jewelers and manic film directors? Those adjectives are always easier to find in hindsight. In the split second when the pressure is on and you have to choose, intuition can be of some help; but you may just find yourself praying for this particular coincidence, karmic or not, to be a good one.

I’m leaving India feeling less spiritual than when I arrived. Disenchanted, but not in a bad sense: I just experienced a sobering dive regarding the things I used to romanticize. In a way I felt as estranged from the world of Hinduism as I already was from Western theology. On paper they both have some things to say that I’m interested in, but to experience them in an organized religious context leaves me cold. I think the pressure I put on India to provide me with some kind of spiritual experience just led to a collapse of the very meaning of that word. What is spirituality but something to be found by looking inward? I thought place and context would matter, but they didn’t seem to have any effect beyond logistics: making it easier to meditate because of the abundance of cushions, etc. Even yoga provided me with a pretty bland experience compared to the blissful flow I sometimes feel when doing calisthenics alone in a park. How that kind of secular practice can summon up a state one would expect from religious rituals, I don’t know; but it does suggest that those rituals are arbitrary and that whatever we do with enough focus has the potential of revealing the mystical quality of life to us.

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