Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A walk with the soul

Soft landing

A couple of weeks before the finals of my second year in ‘tertiary education’, I was feeling a bit worried, not so much about the exams themselves but about the holidays that would follow! This would seem very eccentric on the outset, but the cause of all the confusion was about what I was supposed to do with nearly six months of holidays! It was then that the idea crossed my mind that maybe I should start off by making a decent effort to get my life back in order again and what better way to do it than to try the ancient art of meditation! My parents were thrilled about the idea and so too was my friend Miron who was delighted to join in. We had grown up in a society which boasts of a 2500 year ancestry and the culture we inherited by birth in this land is both ancient and rich. The traditions and practices of this society have been almost entirely carved out by the chisel of Buddhist philosophy. While being Catholics by faith, this was never going to be a totally novel experience for us, because the practice of meditation has always been a component of our culture, though a relatively neglected one in recent times. We made plans about the trip soon after our exams and it did not take long to set it all motion.

I had decided to make the trip by bus, but the unexpected sight of Miron’s jeep under my porch brought a sense of relief mixed with a feeling of depravation, because I did not expect to start off on a luxurious note. That is because my mother had been trying her best to test how serious I was about meditation, with monstrous descriptions of the ‘very basic’ facilities at the meditation center and the vegetarian meals there. This is why I felt that any craving for the luxuries right at the beginning could weaken our resolve. But I also knew that Miron has been travelling for over three hours from the sandy beaches of Negombo, so the suggestion to take a one and a half hour rickety old bus ride with all the heavy luggage wouldn’t be music in his ears. We decided to stop for lunch on our way and loaded our bags with a few soft-drink cans, biscuit packs and chocolates; ‘just in case the food isn’t great there’.

The road to peace stretched tightly around the Hantata Mountains with twists and turns that traced the contours of the slope it hugged and disappeared around the edge of a hill in the distant horizon. Small waterways peeped through tunnels underneath the narrow road and nourished the majestic waters of the Mahaweli River that flowed right beside the mountains like the veil of a bride drifting along the isle. The great Hantata Mountain range forms a formidable south-western wall, where Kandy the ancient hill capital of Sri Lanka rests peacefully at its foot, secured on one side from the mountains and the great river flowing right around it. The mountains are mostly covered in velvet grass with spots of pine forests and tea estates cascading down from the crests. Concealed on its far side nested on a steep rise above the tea estates of Nilambe – a remote village between Kandy and Galaha - is a small cloister where many ‘souls’ from all over the world come in search of inner peace and spiritual light.

We had passed the beautifully landscaped campus of the University of Peradeniya and travelled about five miles when a small yellow notice by the left side of the road proclaimed in black lettering that “Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Center” was a further two miles up the mountain. It gave prominence to a small byroad that would otherwise have easily scrambled up to the mountain unnoticed. The extra climb which only the four-wheel-drive could have managed so easily took us to the cloister, where we had come to spend two days to meditate and discover ourselves.

We were welcomed by Priyantha at the ‘office’ with a sincere smile. The way he spoke and the very few gestures he made reflected a deep and mysterious sense of control and a powerful personality. After we had registered our names we were briefed about the daily routine that is followed by the ‘inhabitants’ and we descended to our rooms along a flight of paved stone steps with a few booklets on meditation, pillows and blankets in hand. My mother was right about the ‘basic facilities’ but nothing actually seemed as horrific as the picture she had been able to paint in my mind. The tiny room I occupied was just wide enough to contain the bed and a small side cupboard. A luggage rack was fastened to the wall above the bed. Despite the limited space and basic furniture it was clean, comfortable and warm. My chamber was by no means a luxury suite; there was no cable TV or even any electricity but it was good enough to make me consider even extending my stay later on.

We had made our entry at about one o’clock; during the lunch break which extends till 2.30 pm to allow time for the inhabitants to read and rest. But then, we were in a different time zone altogether because the time there was read half an hour late or ‘the real time’ as they called it. The library had volumes covering many interesting topics where subjects such as Yoga, meditation and Buddhism were heavily featured. But my attention focused on a book titled “Absolute Truth - The Catholic Church in the world today” by Edward Stourton to which I returned at almost every possible break I got, during the two days that followed.

We were invited to join the group meditation session that was to start at 2.30 pm and we made use of the time at hand to get our rooms in order and get used to the environment. The first thing I noticed was how very silent the surroundings were. It occurred to me that there is so much noise around us city-dwellers sometimes and our ears feed on it like vultures feed on rotting carcasses that we have grown to almost fear the power of silence. The steady breeze was soft and cool enough for the warmth of the sunrays that beamed down through the clouds to stir a magical sensation of delight. I do remember pinching myself a couple of times in disbelief that I was actually doing this and asking my self “what am I doing here?” But I knew I was there for a purpose, if not anything else, at least on a mission of adventure!

Peace and serenity was not what I was looking for; in fact I was looking for just the opposite. I had gotten used to a lifestyle that I preferred to describe as rather laid back and relaxed, even though most others would have called it ‘lazy’ and boring. I was fond of postponing things and indiscipline had grown into my days and ways like a cancer; for which I was now desperately searching for a cure. So I actually came to speed up my life, ‘rev it up and to shift on to a faster lane’. During the past year or so, I had gradually cut myself off from the world and drifted into seclusion and I had often happily proclaimed to have ‘crawled back to my own small corner of the world’. Now I wanted to come back out again and make the most of the days that were drifting by; idle and often quite empty. I wanted to spend meaningful time with those people who meant a lot to me – my family and friends and ‘to live each day to the max’ without being constantly distracted by things that are beyond my realm of control and influence.

We progressed through the first meditation session without much of a clue as to what we were doing or should do. But it gradually came to us and the booklets we got as well as some meaningful discussions with the teachers about the purpose of meditation and the common problems encountered by novices like ourselves enabled us to gain a deeper appreciation of what we were doing. Probably the toughest task for me on the first day was to get up early morning at 4.45 am (Nilambe time!).

The atmosphere was most conducive to meditation with perfect silence maintained throughout the day except for half an hour from 4.00 pm to 4.30 pm each day (except on poya days) during which time ‘practices of proper speech’ were cultivated. The group meditation sessions also were a great source of motivation for us to constantly engage ourselves in quiet thought. The long hall with its matting floor and low roof had a cushioned concrete platform around it attached to the walls where we sat during meditation. We were also encouraged to break the routine at intervals to shift to ‘standing’ and ‘walking’ forms of meditation. Here the objective was to focus the mind and guide it through the being of our physical body from the crest of the head to the toes while paying detailed attention to all the organs of our physical being. This coupled with Yoga exercises early in the morning and at dusk enhanced my ‘awareness’ of some muscles and joints in my body that I never knew existed! I paid equal attention also to explore my mind and what I found really amazed me! Yet it is not difficult to imagine that I could have made these discoveries at any point of my life without the aid of ‘meditation’ or ever going to a meditation center. But in practice Nilambe offers the ideal atmosphere and motivation for any individual to engage in reflective thought with proper guidance sans the distractions and deterrents of our day-to-day attachments and activities.

During all these times, one chief cause of distraction for us though was the food. Good food was something I knew I couldn’t live without, and knowing how I peck and choose at mealtimes, my mother had given alarming warnings beforehand. A vegetarian diet wouldn’t pose much of a problem, but how am I to digest rice without the usual dhal curry? These fears were short lived. Even though the fashion was to ‘go light’ on dinner, the ‘mung-eta-kiribath’ with roasted peanuts and the fresh fruits that adorned the table regularly was simply ‘out of this world’!

The one thing which attached me to the hills of Nilambe above all else was the stunning scenery; the beauty of which I could not fully absorb despite climbing up the leach infested mountain several times or now personify in your imagination through mere words. The cloudy skies never allowed us the luxury of witnessing the legendary sunset from the mountainside during our stay there and the leaches which attached to our feet in dozens with every step we took, did not allow for too long a stay on any of our excursions. The large pond that was nestled between two hills and the grassland and the forest that merged at its banks created a sight that I had only seen in picture postcards before. Ice-cold water from the pond rushes through the taps and the showers offer a most soothing bath to the courageous souls who dare step in under them. It is almost like I can still hear the sound of the soft bustling of tall grass wavering in the breeze calling me to climb into the bosom of the great mountain and enjoy the blissful and soothing views it has to offer.

The chanting of ‘pansil’ or the ‘five precepts’ is a Buddhist tradition that is still widely practiced in Sri Lanka and at Nilambe it is done just after sunset. The hall which was lit entirely with candles and lamps that were placed on the floor and the chanting which echoed within a range of only a few semitones attracted my attention like the light of the oil lamps attracted insects. The combination of these elements created an atmosphere of both mystery and enchantment. Even though I was unable to actively participate it was probably as beautiful a sight for me as much as it was a meaningful spiritual exercise for those who took part.

The group discussion in the hall after dinner opened up a forum where all of us could share our experience and thoughts, and it was a very insightful practice as it gave all inhabitants most of whom were outlanders, the chance to understand the different circumstances that had brought us there.

Meditation is not a practice that can be confined to the practice of quiet contemplation in isolated surroundings. On the contrary, it is something that can be incorporated in our daily lives and at all times. ‘Working meditation’ sessions in the morning was a good opportunity to ‘put theory into practice’ where we would attempt to engage in some sort of activity such as washing, cleaning or rearranging with a deeper sense of awareness than we usually do. And as with all other ambitions in life, here too success is buried under countless layers of failure. The effort could be made collectively as a group or as individuals, but the emphasis is not on ‘achievement’ but on ‘attempt’.

Even though we considered staying on for a third day, we decided to leave having spent exactly two days at the meditation center. This was not so much a difficult decision because we were sure that we had fulfilled the purpose of our endeavour. I was sure that as an individual, I had taken a successful first step on a journey that may last forever. Though it was a fact that I hadn’t changed much noticeably within those two days, the essence of all the changes that took place during that time had taken root within me. I found out that both Miron and I had a somewhat altered outlook to life, where life itself had more purpose and verve in it.

I am sometimes surprised how the experience I had at Nilambe has been so productive for me, even though I had chosen the path of meditation for reasons that are opposite to those of most others who make the same choice of path. Among the lessons I learned was that there are no instant cures for any of the real problems in life. Meditation is no magic spell that can give you superhuman powers, but a tool that anyone can and indeed should use to strengthen their human powers – of courage and determination. It is a path that stretches through the jungles of introspection and one that leads you to your own heart – but also to the hidden regions of it that you have not yet discovered. I am mostly amazed about how much I managed to ‘get done’ in just two days of introspective contemplation, where I was free to run about and play with my mind like a child, to sing and dance with my consciousness and to take a quiet walk with my soul in the garden of awareness.

Originally published in The Sunday Times Plus sometime in August 2003... I think.

No comments: