“We begin to let go only when we see the pain that’s caused by holding on” – Mark Coleman
I came to India for the following reasons: to meditate, to spend time alone in nature, and to practice yoga. Feeling like I had adequately addressed the first objective, for now, I decided to move onto the second. Admittedly, India is not the first place that springs to mind when you say the words nature and solitude. But I manage to find myself a little hut on a farm that is fairly quiet and secluded. We drive for half an hour out of town, then another hour down a road that can more accurately be described as a river bed. Then I have to get out and walk for 10 minutes along winding paths that crumble down the hillside to arrive at my new abode. Though it is peak season, it seems I am the only guest. That said, my solitude is not absolute; there are various members of staff who speak varying amounts of English and eye me with universally high levels of suspicion.
I look around and can’t help but feel a little disappointed. Perhaps it was the less than friendly welcome, but the box of concrete, roof of tin, dirty gas stove and stinky squat toilet don’t fill me with huge levels of inspiration. The blankets exude the musty accumulated smell of everyone who has walked this path before me. The view is mostly covered by trees bar one precious window that has electricity cables running through it. I wanted a nice spacious view to support my spacious meditation! How can I be serene when no sunshine gets through and I’m being eaten by ants? I immediately start thinking of alternative plans. I don’t want to spend my birthday, Christmas, and New Year here. Alone.
I remind myself first days are always challenging for me. I’ll feel better in the morning. At home, I’m now more accustomed to sleeping alone in the wild than I am in a hostel dorm, but in this unfamiliar territory, I get catapulted back into that primal fear. Are the scratches and scuttles on my roof safe or sinister? Are the people up the hill trustworthy or treacherous? I find it hard to get to settle. At every noise I twitch; seeds falling, dogs barking, crickets jumping; door knocking. Is someone at the door? A man comes to bring me a very late dinner. How… Strange? Thoughtful? Creepy? I thank him, send him away, and firmly bolt the door. The starlight shines through the barred, dust smeared windows and I eventually sooth myself to sleep under the protection of Orion’s Belt and the grating noise of an aggressive cicada.
Indeed the night’s rest sets me in a more open frame of mind and the proximity to nature reaps great rewards. I startle a huge black snake, half caught in the act of devouring a large, warty toad. We lock eyes for an instant before it clicks its jaws back into a regular-sized skull and slithers off. It leaves the toad, guts spilling across the path, for later. I take a seat to look out at the disappointing view. Suddenly, an eagle sweeps in through the trees and does a pirouette just two metres in front of face; as if to say ‘You’re not impressed? Watch this!’ Later, I look up to see a 2-foot long giant squirrel scampering directly above my head and nibbling on little sour red fruits. All of these moments startle me into the present, wiping my mind cleaner than a slab of slate after the biblical downpour.
I return to the meditation book I’m reading, and the next chapter is on clinging and aversion. How apt. And the first paragraph? About a woman who discounts a beautiful place because a few electricity cables are ‘spoiling’ her view. I laugh as the words spread their illumination over me. It is me, not the view, that is spoiled. The whole point of meditation is to learn to be calm in the midst of that which we cannot change. Right in the belly of all the disappointment, irritation and down-right unfairness that makes up a human life, that’s where joy can be found. Not on some ethereal hilltop of perfection. Though if that place did exist, would it have ballet-dancing eagles? Whilst a few years ago my internal conversations over something like this would have had strong chastising overtones, now I can enjoy poking gentle fun at the clinginess of my ego. I chuckle again and settle in to appreciate my new objects of my meditation.
I imagined my time here taking long strolls through delicious woodland and bathing in crystal waterfalls. In reality, the waterfalls are pretty rancid and you need a police permit to go anywhere outside a one-mile radius. So, I content myself with climbing up the nearby hill every day. Up there the view is, in fact, heavenly, complete with airborne avian renditions from Strictly Come Dancing. Even when partially covered by clouds bubbling out of the valley like smoke from a witches cauldron, it is a pleasure to watch. I am happily meditating when two guys arrive on the hill almost out of nowhere. What are they doing here? Don’t they know this is my hilltop? That cheeky ego again. The first starts taking selfies and the other tries to talk to me. I feel unsure, my danger radar still calibrating itself against new cultural norms, and decide to pack up my things and leave. It annoys that my already small world is getting smaller.
Slowly I relax into a routine. I wake up at dawn, make a cup of tea and watch the sunrise through the tangle of trees, clouds, and cables. I wait until the rays strip the air of last night’s chill before practicing yoga, working up both sweat and an appetite. I sip rather good locally grown coffee whilst waiting for my complimentary breakfast, which is always a surprise; anything from a slice of toast to full curried banquet. One ‘dreich’ morning – as the Scots would say – they serve porridge and I almost feel at home, gazing wistfully at rolling mist over rolling hills. After alternating periods of walking and sitting meditation on ‘my’ hilltop, I return to my box of concrete and make a pot of lentil soup.
Long afternoons are filled with words; I wander through the streets of Barcelona in my favourite childhood novel, I’m thrown back 2,500 years to unravel the Buddha’s story and then fast forward to present day commentaries by Western psychologists. Still riding the wave that has been stirred up from my creative depths, I write poems for the first time in my life. They fall into me, like eagle feathers falling from the sky. I eat a simple dinner as the sunsets over another simple day.
As dark sets in, I light candles and chant. I never thought I’d be the kind of person that chants. Until you bathe in that thick, enveloping silence that dances in the wake of a chant, vibrating and alive, you will probably think the whole thing is a bit silly – just like I did. I chant the mantra of Tara, one of the many incarnations of Buddha who is both compassionate mother nature and fearless badass. Her presence feels very appropriate for my current setting. I let the chant move through me; sometimes small and meek, sometimes loud and ferocious, a voice I barely recognise as my own professing forth into the void. Then I drift off to sleep around 9pm, Tara’s protective echo ringing in my ears as I try not to think about all the cockroaches I’ve found in my bed.
Someone left a rogue guitar here and I commandeer it. I haven’t played in years, but slowly the lessons from my teenage years breathe life back into my fingers. Taking inspiration from the pufferfish at my last pit-stop, I serenade the waterfall with out of tune, out of time, ramshackle renditions of the same 3 songs over and over again. There is a notably awkward pause between every chord change: especially Bm7. Nobody asks me to stop and so I keep playing until my delicate novice fingertips start to blister. I abandoned most of my artistic endeavours in high school when someone who should have known better told me I couldn’t sing and clearly wasn’t born for the stage. Whilst perhaps true, these remarks robbed me of the deep satisfaction that is born from watching our imagination come to life in the world. They boxed me into the realms of science and fact, which I love, but render a whole half of my brain redundant. So I sing, feeling all of the self-expression that has been lodged in my throat for more than a decade finally flowing freely, like the waterfall before my eyes. It doesn’t apologise for the way it flows, and neither will I.
Although I’m settled in, I’m still not loving the place. Finally, I meet some other guests and they confirm my perception of the weird vibe. It’s badged as an ecological, spiritual community but everyone smokes, drinks and shouts at each other. The environmental credentials are down the drain along with all the plastic litter. The manager randomly shows up at my hut and stares at my chest on the pretence that he ‘likes my scarf’. The guy whom I thought I’d put firmly in the friend zone is messaging me incessantly about moonlit walks. The whole set up is rather uncomfortable. And whilst I’m all up for seeing how the hue of the ego colours our reality, I’m also up for changing my circumstances when they stink.
I have been watching my mind orchestrate a full-blown cyclone of anxiety over what I should do over the festive period. Yet the winds are not strong enough to blow away the mountain of attachment I have built around these dates. I’m sort of relieved when my birthday arrives and my plans to wake at 5 a.m. to climb the hill and watch the sunrise are thwarted by heavy rain and 5m visibility. I lie in bed drinking hot chocolate and eating an orange, wondering why I have never tried this delectable combination before. Upon letting go of the idea of trying to do something ‘special’ I am opened up to the specialness of the moment right in front of me.
Eventually, I decide to go to Vattakanal – a little hill village with permit-free hiking and ample supplies of hummus. It’s badged as ‘Mini Israel’ due to all of the pot-smoking, mushroom munching Israelis that cluster there. I think I’ll stick to my slower, more methodical method for feeling at one with the universe, but I do become curious. I start reading into the renaissance of research into meditation, mushrooms, and mystical experiences. One thing they all have in common is the dissolution of self, or more specifically, the ego. This is an experience nature-lovers know well; the feeling of being invite insanely small but unimaginably interconnected. As John Muir says, ‘when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it is hitched to everything else in the universe.
The ego was overlooked in neuroscience for a long time because it’s in the space that operates when you’re not doing anything in particular – the default mode, the baseline that scientists start from before investigating something deemed more interesting. But what is more innately interesting than our sense of self? This area is responsible for a whole foray of phenomena. It conducts the orchestral brain – which is otherwise as chaotic as an acid trip – into efficiency and order. It makes melody from all the sensory noise. It’s where your sense of ‘I’ resides, along with your self-reflection, your self-talk and your sense of whether or not you are enough. From that place of ‘I am’ also comes, ‘I like’, ‘I don’t like’ and ‘I detest with such aggressive fervour that I start sweating and turning purple’. It’s the place where hilltops, scenic views and spiritual journeys get covered in that sticky, gooey word: mine. A number of Eastern spiritual traditions and increasingly Western psychologists would have us believe that our suffering comes this place too. Without an I, who is there to be disappointed and depressed?
But hey, don’t we need egos? Isn’t that what Freud said? Many of us, the ego especially, fear what might happen if we were to let ourselves go. Our fear of death, of what may or may not exist beyond the void, is perhaps paramount. Mountain climbers, mushroom takers and meditators alike describe the experience of losing grip on the self as a wave of anxiety cresting into full-blown panic, before breaking into a wide-open ocean of pure love, pure awareness, pure joy. Or some other metaphor for an experience that is, by nature, indescribable. The fear of death is often also submerged in this ocean of calm. And the neural correlate with this experience? The quietening down of the default mode, a shifting of our baseline.
I find it fascinating that something as seemingly fixed as ‘me’ is in fact not fixed at all. That through a simple rewiring process we can obliterate ourselves entirely and become the whole ocean. Admittedly, that is not so practical for paying the bills and getting the kids to school on time. The ego also evolved for a purpose: a very important one. Without a healthy sense of self we struggle to protect ourselves; if I wasn’t able to distinguish between ‘my breasts’ and ‘that creepy man staring at them’ then trouble could have easily ensued. Equally, we need our brains to help us make sense of an overly complex world so we don’t get overwhelmed; when this happens it’s called psychosis, a prolonged episode of the infamous ‘bad trip’. That’s why most scientists are advocating ‘psychedelic-assisted therapy’ over recreational use, which reduces the risk of a bad trip to almost nothing. Drug assisted therapy could be legal as soon as 2021, with MDMA leading the way for a more liberal (and scientific) stance on class A drugs.
Even if we don’t want to go full titanic on the self, I do think this knowledge throws the portholes open for the smaller egotistical tasks. Psychedelics and meditation both increase the connectivity and flexibility of the brain, perhaps making it easier to see and change old habits. Changing our self-image and self-talk to something a little more positive is something we could all perhaps benefit from. Letting go of the needy attachments that have been plaguing this part of my journey has definitely set me free to enjoy it more wholeheartedly. I am yet to be fully obliterated, but I’m starting to colour outside my lines.
On my way to Vattakanal I end up sharing a taxi with a woman in the throes of labour and her anxious husband on the way to the hospital. My friend suggests it’s a symbol of rebirth, and I like the idea. I like how I am constantly in flux. I like being able to see my sneaky ego’s patterns and slowly being able to shift them. I like how every birthday, every new year, and every moment that takes our breath away is an opportunity for us to begin: again and again.