“You don’t have to go to a mountaintop in the Himalayas to learn meditation,” a friend of mine opined to me just before I left for glorious India. But I’m eternally grateful that I did.
I went to India because I wanted to immerse myself into presence. To press pause on the hamster wheel (I think you know the one), where there’s always one more step or thing to do. I found myself late to almost everything — to pick up my kids, to yoga class (ironic) — and I finally decided, I don’t want to be late for my life.
So when an opportunity came to go to India, I leapt at it.
We did create profound meditation time, but what I found myself immersed in was the sensual onslaught that is northern India. The enveloping noise and smells and poverty amid the richness of color and so many people. Living. Praying. Suffering. Dying. All there, as if hung like laundry on the line.
With a documentarian lens, I looked at the people we passed down and up the hills of Rishikesh, India, with an air of inspection still embedded in my Western perspective. Through the incessant noise of horns honking, near-miss crashes on lawless roads, I found my heart skipping beats…taking gasps…looking with pity and holding back on really seeing them, out of fear of feeling connected. I documented the moments; filed them away, not feeling them, not being there wholly.
A few days in, bit by bit, I began to feel that lens start to shift. The rhythm began to change in my heart. Personal judgments gave way to open observation, even a dollop of understanding occasionally, and my sense of unease towards the trash strewn about, the dirt floors and tin roofs and the haunting eyes of those residing within, found itself moving towards compassion and curiosity. I began to see the richness of it all against the depths of my assumptions.
But still, one night as I lay in bed, tears streaming down my face as I held — grasped! — images on my phone of my loved ones continents away, my mind untethered by any of its usual comforts or routines (but missing them too), I wondered, How am I going to make it through eight more days of this?
I learned how.
Rishikesh. A perfect first stop: other Westerners. Porridge with peanut butter, smoothies, double espresso. A hike on Mount Abode: clean, clear air. Healthy puppies and kittens. An expanse of quietude. Close to the sun. Clear and peaceful.
Varanasi. Mystical. Death in the open range. Hidden temples. Roadside dentist. So many emaciated dogs, skinny like greyhounds, sleepy all the time as if to preserve their energy. It’s a cultural difference, I later learned, and they look at our dogs as overfed, overindulged, and treated like toys.
Bodhgaya. Poorest state in India. Site of the Bodhi tree, where it’s said Buddha received enlightenment. Tiny ones, children and the elderly unable to walk they’re so emaciated. “Don’t give money to them; they’ll never stop following you,” well-dressed visitors warned us. Hot hot hot. Dog fights outside the window. Was it bed bugs that made me itch all over? Orphanage, school, health center for the poor and HIV orphans. I don’t want to forget this when I’m back home. But India cannot be unseen, I think.
It all happened in slow motion, a cinematic experience….
India pulled me out from behind my camera.
As time went on, I learned to stop and observe, to watch rather than to judge. To let the tears flow, to deeply exhale. It’s alright to cry. It feels so right, actually. Not out of pity, but out of solidarity, oneness. Almost like a freeze frame, interspersed between these moments I began thinking of my own life at home–bustling, busy, six children and a dog. I saw the melee of my life as it’s structured and how difficult it is to give time and attention to presence.
Talking with my travel companion Kimm, who lost her only child (incredibly, named India), about the banalities of life — in my case, the obsession with phones, TV watching, piles and piles of laundry, dishes in the sink, so much time in the car, so many hurried meals, rarely eating together — this dear friend offered me these words of advice, tucked away in the file to recenter every time I get off track:
“Wrestle your children to the ground, kiss them all over, hold them tight, even if they fight you off. Forget about phones. Forget about laundry… Just love them, kiss them, hold them… Touch them… The rest doesn’t matter.” -Kimm Fearnley
By the time I left, I’d gained a very clear sense of the way I want my life to be. And careening into the last year of having all of our children under one roof together, I returned home feeling an overwhelming urge to immerse, to steep, to pause again.
The way for me to show up and not be late for my life, I learned, is to enter deeply into it.
And so I’ve decided to press the pause button. I’m stepping away from Lifeyum and my own storyline to gently unwrap my life and practice presence.
To invert the gaze upon myself and my own life; to cast my documentarian lens upon my own setting, and to peel back the layers of what I’ve realized are judgments and opinions built on privilege, not on presence.
On this site I’ve said I believe an exhale can change everything, and I still believe this is true. It means a natural letting-go, but is not an ending. I feel a Great Work still within, and it needs time to gestate. I’ve decided to take a sabbatical to come back to its essence and dig deeply to its roots. My hope is that by taking a long inward breath of refreshment and readiness, when I return to the scene — whether it appears as a business or a calling or a project (I’ve yet to see)— the next exhale you might hear from me is a song, a lesson, or the fruits of what I find through this daily “onslaught” and being fully present to it.
I also, of course, intend to wrestle my kids to the ground, kiss them all over, and hold them tight, even if they fight me off. To learn how to forget about my phone at little more. To do more listening, even if it means a little less laundry. To love, and hold, and touch my life, and to find what really matters.
You can (always) still find me exploring, discovering, and sharing on Instagram. If you’re on a similar path, I hope you’ll join me there on this next great journey.
It’s in life that you discover how open you are, how closed you are. Your life is it. There’s no other place to practice. -Pema Chodron
To the Right Here,