07.02.2017 - 21.02.2017 25 °C
Distant music and deep echoes help clear the mind. As the last long om fades around the yoga hall, I feel still and my mind is quiet. Let all thoughts go and breathe. Perhaps I hold this for ten seconds, perhaps a minute.
The search for this stillness is everywhere in Rishikesh and it's a town full of seekers and self-improvers, silent retreaters and bhajan singers. Many seek to discover the ‘self’ or however you want to conceptualise it. Worlds, theories and people collide here on the banks of the River Ganges. The town drips crystals and hums Hare Krishna, salutes the sun in the morning and burns its dead at dusk. Its tourism industry thrives on its spirituality, an odd symbiosis. It is a one-stop spirituality shop, no less, where anything can bought.
But perhaps that's the cynic in me. I’ve tried to keep him at bay since arriving a couple of weeks ago. Hence my agreement to stay in an ashram, and to dedicating my time to improve my yoga practice. Not that I needed much persuading – the folding, lengthening, tightening, pulling, pressing of the body is just what I needed after 2 months travel with limited regular exercise. It aches in a good way and is addictive too. Must. Get. Head. To. Knee. And breathe, I am not angry at the pose. Now all that remains is to continue my practice wherever we go.
What is real about Rishikesh? Why is it such a spiritual hotspot? Ma Ganga, smooth and fast, blue-grey-green and all colours in between emerges from the jagged tooth hills of the Himalaya. A steep valley focuses its energy as it shimmers out across the plain of India. A secret revealed. Life shared, and the water flows with stories. The river is sacred. To bathe is to purify.
In the Western world Rishikesh has been popularized since the 60s with the visit of the Beatles and the Maharishis world tours, spreading mediation techniques and more. This chimed with the growing experimentation and mysticism of the hippie movement. Middle-class westerners have been returning ever since, and here we are.
People come with the same questions. Why are Indians poor but happy? (Not the case, witness; the depression etched in the lines on the face of a street sleeper or the confused eyes of children who should be at school, not selling flowers to tourists.)
Why are we rich but feel like something is missing? How can I find myself? What is myself? Not easy questions to answer, and when answers do come, they are complicated and come with more questions.
We attend spiritual talks with gurus. First Prem Baba, the singing guru. Beautiful group singing to start, then he talked smooth in Portuguese. His words meander through fables and parables. He answers questions with questions and Hindu mythology. To me it doesn’t connect but he undoubtedly has a strong energy, aura, personality and authority. This is evident in the flocks of adoring (mostly female) fans who drape him with flowers after his talk. My knees are killing me after 3 hours sat on the floor. More singing and we are done.
Behind inner door number two, Mooji! Apparently a big name in the guru game. Everyone has been talking about his arrival for the last couple of weeks and his poster is everywhere. Jamaican born, lived in Brixton, London. His ting is to make it as easy as possible to move into a natural state or present state, and leave the chattering of the conscious mind behind. And he does make it easy; the whole crowd (4,000 strong) seems to manage it, including people reduced to tears as they achieve it for the first time. I went back a second time to see if it was a fluke. It was not so powerful, but the energy was still there. I didn't need a third time, but perhaps it is more useful for those carrying more emotional baggage than me - some of the the questions asked to Mooji related to grieving, and personal and familial relationships. Lucky for me I don't have too many problems in my life.
What is real, what is unreal? That which is created by the mind but perceived to be outside the mind? The true self, stream of collective concious, natural state? Or another trick played by the ego? If it helps and it feels good then by all means pursue, I say to myself. But keep a grip on the reality provided by external senses. The world is happening outside - there is a danger of withdrawing inwards to much where it becomes almost selfish. Not being a slave to emotion, having wisdom, patience, calmness. These are virtues we could all do with having a little more of. Self-improvement by some degrees is the order of the day.
The state of some of the sadhus, holy men, attest to the consequences of letting go. Their circumstances differ but all have more or less abandoned (for various reasons) their lives and live very much in the present. Moment to moment, rupee to rupee, beedie to beedie. Dirty beards and and long flowing orange robes, a mass of dreadlocks sit over eyes that sometimes smile. Some are consistent beggars, others not at all. Many smoke a lot of charras -perhaps it helps with the enlightenment. Some are clearly destitute. Others have clean robes and sunglasses; something of the drug dealer in them. There must be well over 100 in town, along the road that sits beside the river Ganges. We say hello to all of them, but refrain to giving money. Sometimes they are happy, these babas, but language barriers and mistrust prevent us getting to know any of them very well.
So we leave Rishikesh - fitter, healthier and still of sound mind. I haven't joined Mooji's touring assistants or started growing dreadlocks. Just feeling a little more educated about the spiritual path, and also with more questions yet to be answered.