Northern North India - difficult to get to, easy to stay. A place to find your inner self (again).
One of our EHT goals (yes, we still have these!) was to find our soul again. We had lost some of it in Hong Kong due to working hours, lack of time to spend with others or just plain keeping in touch with your inner self - you know, the stuff that you pay a therapist thousands to help you stay "centered".
So during the trip we have kind of been hoping that something or someone will magically do something or make something happen so we could start getting it back. But as with most things in life that are worthwhile, it takes hard work and dedicated time and effort in getting what you need (which is different to getting what you want…).
India is an extremely spiritual country. Everyone is talking about life and spirituality and the greater meaning of things and how to attain inner peace. Even the bumper stickers have something to add - Are you close to God? Drive faster if you want to get even closer! This could be part of the reason that there seems to be a generallack of thinking externally (pollution not seeming to be an issue with most people just throwing their rubbishg anywhere) and a bigger focus on what happens internally (most people seemingly accepting their life as it is and living in the present).
So it is little wonder then that the amount of ashrams (centres of spiritual study and retreat) and gurus (spiritual leaders) available to offer the path to enlightenment is multiplying - especially with so many foreigners looking for answers that are left over from questions that Western philosophy and religion doesn't seem to answer.There are Hindi retreats, Yoga retreats, Buddhist retreats, Meditation retreats, Vipasana retreats and more.
The meditation retreat sounded like the best option for us and we are more aligned to Buddhism than Hinduism (Christianity not offering meditation as a tool of introspection and growth), so when we found the course "How to Meditate" based in Mcleod Ganj where the Dalai Lama is based, we thought this is the spot to start working on getting that elusive soul back.
This is the deal: You're based in a Buddhist monastery set on a mountain side surrounded by huge trees and lots of quiet (a novelty in India).
You spend 5 days in guided meditations (starting with a crawl and working your way up to standing just a little bit - it's only 5 days, so it's just enough to get you started) and you take a vow of silence. No talking whatsoever for 5 days. Germarie and I slept apart, ate apart, meditated apart.
Try the following exercise with me please. Close your eyes and think of the nicest, quietest place that makes you feel most peaceful. Now stay in that moment until you're comfortable enough to keep the image. Now stay there for 2 minutes and think about nothing. No thoughts, no things-to-do, no chatter from your mind, no scratching your nose, or rubbing that itch - just 2 minutes. Try it.
Failed miserably? We did too. It turns out that thinking of nothing for more than 2 or 3 seconds at a time is really difficult. Our minds are like huge garbage dumps that we keep piling up with all the thoughts, feelings, emotions and general day to day inputs from everything around us. We never spend any time cleaning this, although we spend loads of time cleaning our bodies through exercise, proper eating habits etc. It turns out that if you don't focus your mind and choose what you keep and what you discard (and actually throw it away), then your mind will take control and start running around thinking of whatever it wants and wanting stimulus from all sources that fulfills it in the short term. So when you actually try and shut it down to make it do what you want it to do i.e. think of nothing, it rebels and starts thinking of things in the future or things in the past, or it makes you aware of your arm itching or something on your leg - basically anything to give it something to do. Shutting down the dynamo is damn hard work.
So being quiet for 5 days straight with no distractions and professional people to take you through this path of gaining back some control of your mind is a unique experience to say the least. After the first two days it feels like you have more things in your mind and that it's not working. But somewhere on day 3 you touch on something during the meditations (about 5 - 6 hours per day sitting on your bum trying to think of nothing/being aware or working through analytical meditations or visualization meditations). And for the first time there is nowhere for your mind to run - no TV, internet, playstation, music, books, cameras, phones (they take all these away from you), people talking to you etc. And what happens? Your mind listens to where you want to go and starts thinking in a straight line about one single thing - for three days, morning to night. Needless to say, there are things we all run away from, so being confronted with this and learning the tools to resolve it is pretty powerful stuff. Things you feel are resolved are proved to only be subdued, so breaking that open and understanding what you have been doing to yourself is quite a shock - usually you would run away and have a drink, or watch a movie or be interrupted by having to make dinner. This time there's nowhere to run.
So this is the part where I tell you that I have decided to become a monk and am writing this from my cave up in the mountain (thank god for satellite internet access).
No, not really. But it was enough to make us think and want to learn more about this excellent tool called meditation. We now spend 20 minutes each morning giving our minds a bit of concentrated awareness (mindfulness). Who knows, we might have opened the door leading to getting that elusive soul back.
Mcleod Ganj is a beautiful little mountainside village. It's cool…literally, with temperatures around 23 degrees Celsius with little humidity -great relief from India's hot and sticky summer weather.
It's also the home to the Dalai Lama's government in exile. We were fortunate enough to be there during one of his teachings and went along for the first morning session (together with loads of visitors, Buddhists and other interested people). During our meditation retreat one of the old monks told us that we have to hear the Lama speak. So we did, and to be very honest, it wasn't exactly what we expected. Lots of high English (translated from Tibetan) and lots of Buddhism 101. But it was an excellent end to our time in Mcleod Ganj.
From the obvious political point of view it's a bit of a strange place with loads of young Tibetans sitting around discussing their predicament over a few beers or teas with the foreign tourists. They make do with what they are given (from overseas donors) or do a few odd jobs to earn some more money. What struck us as odd was the fact that most of them have been born in India, not Tibet. But in the 60 plus years the Tibetans have been here, they have not built up much of a sustainable community. Most of what sustains them is provided by India's government and outside donors. Maybe it's a hard judgment, but all the groups of people we have met so far (Chinese, Lao, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Thai and Indian) would probably have done more with this situation if given 60 years.
For the other side of this debate you can Google anything about Tibet and the Dalai Lama and it will give you loads of opinions from the other side.
Dharamsala - just below Mcleod Ganj - and you're out of little Tibet and into India again. We came out of our retreat and for the first time ever we let life take control. And what a trip she has given us. Once you stop planning every minute detail and living your life according to that plan, something strange happens. You suddenly become more aware and mindful of everything going on around you. This leads to you being more open to life's little gifts and surprises. Example: We got lost trying to find someone giving a talk. Instead of giving up and heading home we just wondered and asked the first guy in coming in our direction if he knew where someone would be giving a talk? No he said, but if we could wait at his office he would be back in 5 minutes and call and try to help us. He turned out to be a very well respected and experienced doctor of homeopathy. We drank some tea, watched some cricket (religion in India) and then we discussed his organic farm and family and our lives and other things (obviously the time for the speech had come and gone, but we enjoyed just letting things happen). He looked us up and down a bit and started advising us on a few points. This ended with us getting a full check-up and homeopathy medicines for all our ailments. So what started with an internal cleansing of the mind ended with us getting our physical problems looked after as well - all because we let life happen for a change.
Back on the bus at 04h00 the next morning and on our way to Delhi (via Chandigar).