I can feel the firm, dimpled cushion beneath me as I struggle (albeit, with difficulty) to silently fold my body into a more contented position. It’s been ages since I sat cross-legged this long without a pain or discomfort of some kind, and today is certainly no exception. Between the occasional cough and sniffle and a shuffling of tense bodies nearby, I can hear the calls of dogs howling under the cover of darkness and the monkeys squealing above the treetops in playful glee. The smell of butter lamps wafts lazily through the air as the heavy woollen blanket that surrounds me engulfs me in its coarse, but cosy, fibres in the cool evening mountain air, and I can’t help but feeling the pleasant notion that I am exactly where I am meant to be right now. It’s day 7 into my silent Buddhist meditation retreat, where sixty-five of us from all parts of the world and from all walks of life have descended upon this little town of McLeod Ganj to delve into our own psyches and learn the powers of what lies lurking beneath.
There is poetry in this place. Poetry and a living wisdom that comes from years of spiritual practice. McLeod Ganj, known as “Little Lhasa,” is a small town 1750m (5741 feet) above sea level that overlooks the luscious green Kangra Valley below in the Himachal Pradesh District of Northern India. In 1959 after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama fled here in exile and set up residence in the Tsuglagkhang Complex at the end of Temple Road, one of two small main roads that comprises this town. Today this place is now home to a large Tibetan refugee community, many maroon-robed Buddhist monks and nuns, European and American volunteers, hippies, journalists, activists, barefoot nomads, bearded men strumming guitars, beggars from all over the sub-continent, including stray dogs, wandering rubbish-eating cows, macaque rhesus monkeys poised anxiously above, waiting to steal your belongings…and of course, travellers (of which I am one), who come here for a chance glimpse of the divine.
There are ever-present reminders of this town being filled with a spiritual air: the presence of his holiness, the Dalai Lama; Buddhist stupas, shrines and temples; prayer flags and prayer wheels; mantra-covered stones; and Tibetan musical chanting floating up over the hillsides. It’s a special atmosphere that cannot be fully described but must be personally felt. Breathing, despite the elevation, seems easier somehow; likely from the crystal clear mountain air flowing down from the snowy tips and slate faces of the Himalayas (pronounced “him-all-yahs” by the locals). Beauty resides everywhere in this rolling landscape of rhododendron forests, clustered houses and dusty dirt paths, but it’s the all-pervading kindness in this town that gets me, scoops me up and swaddles me in a kind of bear hug that I wasn’t expecting…like the elderly Tibetan monk I met a few days ago in passing who was tortured in a Chinese prison for 33 long years, and yet still oozes a kindness and compassion that’s otherworldly.
Day 7 of this retreat also happens to fall on an auspicious Buddhist holiday called the Lha-Bab Duchen, a day of prayer to honour the Buddha’s descent from the heavenly realms back to earth. After waking up at 5am to take ceremonial vows and then participating in a beautiful candlelight vigil this evening to send endless love and compassion out into the world, I now sit here shifting upon my cushion, tears streaming down my face in a kind of collective sigh, knowing and truly feeling for the first time the deep loneliness of being a human being, and where I can feel a wide chasm in my heart opening up…unraveling…allowing the rumbling demons a place to rise up and out for good.
My time sitting here on this cushion folded in prayer for the last week has been anything but wasted. In fact, upon reflection, I would have to say it has been the single most profoundly mind-altering experience I have ever gone through. It’s not often that we take the time, or even make the time, to hold a magnifying glass up to our souls and truly examine who we are, what makes us tick, and why we seem to tick that way? And so it’s been a week of silences and inner challenges, philosophies and sciences, and a sheer unraveling of selves and open hearts. In the words of Emily Dickinson, what I learned most about time and it’s preciousness is that, “forever is composed of nows,” and in this crazy, chaotic, and impermanent world in which we live, we need to live more in the moment if we ever want to get out alive.
About the Author: Woman. Observer. Learner. Explorer. Artist.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.