Day 149 – close the eyes and see the beauty of the world

Australia Day, 2010, I was admitted into hospital for the first time in my life. It was only a few days before that I had said aloud that I had never slept in a hospital, so of course, the gods had to strike me down for my hubris. I didn’t take my contact lenses out that weekend and by the Monday, my left eye felt like some unidentifiable spec was inside it. I took my contacts out and administered eye drops all day but no matter what I did, the spec just got more irritating. By the next morning, I had not slept from pain and fear. I was terrified that I would tear my own eyeball out of my face in pure agony. It turns out I had a severe infection and a big ulcer on my left eye. The doctor reprimanded me for keeping my contacts in for so long- 16 hours a day? Overnight? But I was told these fortnightly lenses could be kept for the whole fortnight if you used enough eye drops! Apparently I was wrong and they should only stay in for 8 hours a day. Well, wasn’t I learning this the hard way? She said that I could lose all sight and had to begin treatment immediately. As my left eye wept puss, my right eye wept tears of fear at the idea that I could go half blind. The nurses of Sydney Eye Hospital had to put acidic drops into my eye every ten minutes for the next 24 hours, all through the night. I was kept on heavy painkillers and barely remembered waking up. By the next day the eye drops were going in every half hour and the rim of my eye was stinging and red. I couldn’t see anything out of my left eye. It hurt to open it and when I did only dim light made it through the thick cloudy fog. I couldn’t keep my right open for very long without my left eye hurting so I just had to sit or lie with my eyes closed. I stayed in hospital for a week.

It was only on the third day that I realised what this was all about. When you have no other option but to sit still with your eyes closed, meditation just happens. In removing my vision, sensorial distraction was stripped away and I began to delve deeper inside. In only a few days my other senses grew sharper. Deep in that internal space, I heard a voice, my voice, the voice of my higher self, the divine, whatever you want to call it. It started to speak louder. I could feel the warmth on my skin, as though I was being embraced by the wings of an angel. I could smell the flowers beside me and the cauliflower (it was always cauliflower) on the dinner tray. I could taste the sweet nectar of the meditation trickling down the back of my throat. As I became a witness to my thoughts, I began to see my internal world and was forced to face myself there in its depths. In facing ourselves, we may not always like what we see but it is only that deep introspection that can allow change to take place.

When the eyedrops were cut back to once every two hours, I began to escape from the hospital. I was only a short walk from the Botanical Gardens so I began to potter around in the sunshine. The wild hair and white band around my wrist probably had people wondering if I wasn’t an escapee from the Psychiatric ward. I found my way to the herb garden and, with my eyes closed, walked around imbibing fragrances of basil, lemongrass, rosemary and thyme. I stopped to feel the heat of the bronze statues warmed by the sun and listened to the Wattle birds high up in the Morton Bay Fig trees. By the time I had let go of the fear of going blind, I could see out of my left eye again and with more gratitude than ever before.

In yoga we call the withdrawal of the senses pratyahara. In order to practice pratyahara, it is important to first focus all the mindful awareness into the senses so that one can then consciously withdraw them. Withdrawing the sight is hard, because our instinct insists that we see the world openly, that we observe and keep a look out for danger; but with television, advertising and the fast pace of the modern world, the senses are overloaded and we see so much that we end up seeing nothing. Like that old adage about not seeing the forest for the trees except that we probably can’t see the trees for the buildings. In a yoga class, especially, we rely upon the eyes, out of fear of ‘doing something wrong’ or of falling over. We watch the teacher or the other students or a spot on the carpet. I have even been guilty of inspecting my toe nail polish in a forward bend. But when we close our eyes, the attention has to go inwards. It is one thing to close the eyes, knowing that they can be opened at any moment… It is another experience entirely to be blindfolded. Tonight at Yogatime, I am teaching a blindfolded yoga class. I have never taught one before, but knowing what it feels like to be blind, I trust my higher self to guide me. As I instruct the class to tie their blindfolds around their eyes, I can feel their fear and apprehension at surrendering to the darkness.The hardest thing for everyone is not balancing on one leg or finding the wall. The hardest part is trusting oneself to know exactly where the mat ends, trusting that when you turn to your left that you actually are facing the left wall. (They all get it right straight away and then half of them use their toes to check and end up turning a little bit too far.) As I watch the students fumble, stumble and giggle their way around, they eventually surrender to their innocence. When we can not see and we know we can not be seen, the judgement is stripped away and the ego grows quiet. People smile more when they fall, they laugh more when they bump each other and they open their mouths wider in lion’s breath. Everybody slows down and by the end of the class, there is a bubbling energy as everybody figures out whose head they patted or whose legs became intertwined.

In my experience of no-sight, I found light. I stumbled into meditation and found something valuable in the dark stillness. If for no other reason than to give them a rest, I invite you to close your eyes for just a moment and know that when you open them again, you will be seeing everything a little bit brighter. In this way can we honour the beauty of the world, in this way can we honour the beauty of our sight.

Day 129 – eating carbs alone

Over breakfast chai, I am reading the paper one last time with the girls. I am feeling nervous about setting off on my own for the next few days. I have been pushing this niggling feeling away all morning. Of course, The Times of India have an article called the Speaking Tree and today it is about self-love. Talking about loving and respecting the self, first, the writer says, ‘Ask: Could you live with yourself on a deserted island?’ Beside it, in the Sacred Space column are quotes by various Gurus about being Free of Fear. One of them is Swami Rama. What are the chances? It says ‘All your fears should be examined so that you can remain fearless as long as you live.’ India always seems to have a message for me when I need it the most.

Sadly, I hug my friends one more time as they leave for Uddaipur. I am at the Janpath Guesthouse in the Sodala area. Mr Tyagi, the owner of the guesthouse, is like grandpa and even though he speaks perfect English, he is a little hard of hearing so I have to slow down my usual rapid stream-of-consciousness and speak a little louder. His wife speaks no English, but he tells me that she likes my tattoo of wings on the back of my neck. I need to change money so I am taken in the car with one of their assistants as he submits my details to the local police and runs some other errands. After Sumatra, Bali, Rishikesh and Agra, the heat of Rhajasthan seems normal. I am sweating out of my shirt but I barely notice anymore. I would always prefer to be hot than cold.

Back at the guesthouse, it is already 1.30pm when I call Mr Prabhaker who tells me to just relax and settle in and we can start tomorrow. My over-active Vata energy wants to just get started but I know I need to rest. I have been going without stopping for the past five days and I can’t remember the last time I had an afternoon to just be alone and read a book. I also have some clothes that need to be washed. I should go and get online but I need to eat something so I take the short walk to a sandwich shop across the road. I get a Veg Burger that is mostly bread, a packet of corn chips that pretend to be jalapeno flavoured and a large bar of Silk Cadbury Roasted Almond. Alone in my room, I sit down on the edge of the bed and eat. It suddenly occurs to me that although I came to India alone, I haven’t actually been alone at all. I was immediately thrown into the family of the STP program at the ashram, then I went trekking with Yon and ended up trekking with a small group of blokes, then met Pri and had a bit of a girls’ trip… Now I am finally alone and the first thing I do is overload on carbs and eat a single person’s meal. It. Is. AWESOME. I munch happily at the chips, though they are not spicy at all and then finish with three pieces of chocolate. The packet says it should be stored below 26 degrees. I know it is going to be well over that in here when I don’t have the fan on. I briefly consider finishing the whole thing right now but I don’t feel like having a tummy ache.

In my solitude I am struck with the possibility of doing so much. I write, I read, I roll out the yoga mat and then I lie down on the bed for a moment and fall asleep. When I wake up it is late afternoon. I feel like I have wasted all my solitude! I think I slept for at least two hours, which will probably interrupt my sleep tonight. I slowly roll out of bed and find my way to my poor, forgotten yoga mat. I have been running on the treadmill at the gym of the hotel the past couple of days so my legs are tight and sore. I need to stretch. Afterwards, in savasana, I start to dream about what it will be like to get back to Sydney, seeing my friends and family for the first time and getting a real soy mocha. I gently pull myself back to the yoga mat I am lying on. Be here now, Liz. When it is over, you will be dreaming about India again so just be present and enjoy the final week and a half of cows in the streets, real chai and chapatti. As of tomorrow, I get to offer back some of my gratitude to this beautiful country for the gifts it has given me. This will be the best part.