The 365th Day

It has been an amazing journey, to say the least. If I think back to the person I was when I thought up this whole idea there are many ways in which I can say that I have changed. I remember standing in the café I was working at, around this time last year and thinking there has to be more to this life than this work and misery cycle. I thought I was saving my money to go back to Indonesia, but I never made it back to the boat where I had spent the previous two years. What happened instead was that I took the first step towards my true self and from there on was led to some of the most life-changing places, moments and people I have ever known. I remember being the kind of girl who was hiding behind her long hair, a little uncertain of her place in the world, insecure, anxious, with no conception of who she was. I had lost my sense of self in a co-dependent relationship and had stopped listening to my inner voice. I remember when I began meditating, how difficult it was to get through five minutes! I was detached from reality, unconscious of the pulsating rhythm of life. I remember being the kind of person that was surprised by spontaneous happiness. What kind of human condition has set us on course to accept infinite sadness as the norm?

I was supposed to be getting married, settling down and becoming the quiet and sedate house[boat]wife. Instead, a tiny voice inside told me to go to India and as I waited for the plane to Mexico, I booked a one-way ticket to Delhi. It was the greatest feeling, knowing I had finally made the decision to go somewhere alone, knowing that I was finally directing my own life. Even as I travelled through Mexico, I remember feeling like I was being dragged along on someone else’s trip. I wasn’t the leader on my own path until I separated from that situation, that person and from the expectation that people around me had.

That pinnacle turning point of the break-up, where I had stood in front of my fiancé and watched him cry and scream and all I could hear was that tiny voice inside telling me I was doing the right thing. To watch another human being suffer is always hard; to know that you have caused their suffering is even harder. Had I stayed, I would have withered and died. I was lost and unhappy in that situation and although there will always be good memories from that time of my life, I never once doubted my decision.

Celebrating the Hindu new-year in the Gedong Ghandi Ashram in Bali, a day of silence showed me how useless all these words had become. I had been to that ashram once before at the beginning of that relationship and then I returned there at the end, the whole experience framed in time by a sense of peace and a reminder that I could only walk this part of the journey alone, because I was all that I needed. Shaving my hair off was like the final shedding of the old self, the abandonment of ego, vanity and superficiality. It also made travelling really easy when I didn’t have to carry around shampoo and conditioner.

Going straight into the Sadhana Mandir ashram in Rishikesh, India, was a confronting and liberating experience. Our teacher, who I aptly named Rafiki after the wise witch doctor baboon from The Lion King, was full of energy, three letter acronyms and bewildering enlightenment. He tore apart our social conditioning and handed us back, bare and naked to see truth in ourselves. I remember crying in the temple, begging Swami Rama to make sense of it all. What was I doing here? What had I done? I just shaved my head and broke off my engagement to come here and be yelled at for closing my eyes when I meditated. All those questions were never answered; they simply became obsolete. I will never forget the coolness of the holy mother Ganga as I stood in the blistering hot sun, a light veil over my head, feeling the coolness creep up from my feet. Or the colours of pink and purple in the dawn as I let my hair go with the current of that holy river. When the course in the ashram was over, climbing to the source, to the Gaumukh glacier I faced the divine and saw only love and forgiveness. After trekking for 19km up to 4000m in altitude, I felt like I had to offer this place something of myself, so I threw in my engagement ring and let go of my old self, of that old life.

Everyone I met in India became shining beacons of hope. I had gone through an incredibly emotional time by myself, with little contact to the outside world, so each of those friendships were connections to the divine. I started to see the light in every person I spoke to. Suddenly the world was shimmering as though it was on fire; I could see life force in everything.

Coming back to Sydney was hard. I felt displaced. I no longer had a room, had lost friends because of the last relationship and was in a kind of limbo about whether to stay or just go back to India or skip on over to Africa… until I met Krystle. My best friend, the strong independent and slightly crazy woman who loves herself so fiercely she barely needs anyone else. But she has me.

Working in bars again was completely against my yogic lifestyle, but I was now entering the Persephone phase. I had to spend some time in the darkness re-planting the seeds of my life so that I could once again grow into the light. I had to explore my shadow side to understand every side of me. What I found was an incredible resilience and strength. I camped in the snow and hauled a sled full of human waste up a 2km slope, carrying a 10kg pack. I ran the City 2 Surf, a 14km race that I had never even thought about before. I looked at a new job as a wine rep and just went for it, with enough confidence to just take it. Anything I wanted, I could manifest. I made mistakes and I forgave myself. More importantly I learnt how to love myself unconditionally. Even when the rest of the world turned against me and started to criticise my life choices, I couldn’t help but be grateful for every moment.

And then it happened. Just when I was telling someone that I wanted to stay alone and single for ten years… I met him. I resisted and struggled against the most powerful force until finally I realised that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. In that funny little place called love. The universe had not steered me wrong and as long as I listened to my inner voice (which had by now become a lot louder), I wouldn’t get lost again. I sat by the south boat ramp in Malabar, a place I had called home for years, and told Matt that I loved him. And he loves me. He is the kind of person that wakes up with laughter every day, who is so full of light that he can make the world smile just by entering a room. In this person I see reflected all the things I love in the world; goodness, purity, energy. And he is the yin to my yang. He is organised and tidy while I lean towards chaos and erratic disorder. He keeps me grounded when I am in danger of floating away and maybe I add a touch of flight where he is in danger of being too structured… We fit together in every way and I am no longer so terrified of this love. I have managed to let go of fear, of future expectations and past projections. Just being in the now, I can see that there is nothing to be afraid of.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on meditation, or yoga. In fact, I gave up teaching yoga the more I learnt about it, until I felt that I could teach in an authentic manner. I don’t pretend that my spiritual journey is over or complete. All I know is that I had to lose everything in order to gain everything. I had to delve deep inside my lightest and darkest and most honest moments in order to truly learn how to love myself. I had to learn to be happy alone. From the person that was constantly surprised when happiness would creep up, I now wake up and am overcome with joy and gratitude for everything that I have in my life. I am awake, conscious and aware of each breath.

I learnt a lot about myself and about the world this year. I learnt that to find peace, I have to stay in the NOW. The past and future do not matter and there is only ever this moment. I learnt that gratitude and manifestation are valuable tools in the pursuit if happiness. I learnt how to become aware of my breath and use it as a tool to keep me anchored into the present. I learnt that emotional energy is the same below the neck; that the mind has a strong influence over our experience over the world and when we learnt to harness it, we can choose the course of our lives. I learnt that to walk the path toward spiritual learning is not always straight and narrow, but wide and curving, up hill and through dark forest. It may not always be clear but when you allow the inner voice to be the guide, it is easy to find the way. I learnt that the only two certainties in life are death and change and to embrace change is to accept the natural flow of the universe. I learnt how to exist in this flow so that I no longer feel resistance to the universe.

And I learnt that nothing is more powerful than love.

At the end of each year I write down my achievements for the year and some goals for the next year. It is always interesting to see how much I have achieved from the goals of the previous year. I found this list and I can tick the 365 Days in Bliss, I also wrote GO TO INDIA! Big tick there… I also found a page at the back of a diary I wrote in last year:

When I woke up today I lay in bed and witnessed my breath. Drinking in te prana, I found stillness and the highest form of meditation, I felt momentary Samadhi; bliss.

If someone came up to me and said, “Who are you?” my answer would be silence.

To just BE is who I am.

So Hum.

I also make a point to write down my gratefuls. I don’t think I could list them all. I am grateful for everything. From this loving man beside me to the sun shining on my leg, to the air in my lungs. This year may have started off as a search, a struggle for bliss. Now it is easy to recognise bliss all around me, to see the divine in everyone and everything, to make every moment sacred. What began as a meditation separate from life has turned into making life a meditation.

Finally I would like to thank all of the people who helped me this year. From my friends and family who were encouraging and kept avidly reading throughout, to the teachers who came into my life and made an impression. I would also like to thank all of those who donated to the I-India project when I cut my hair and to the beautiful people at I-India for showing me around the projects. Also thank you to Sascha and all the girls form Yogatime for accepting me as a teacher when I got back from my travels, to Rosie and all the girls at Embrace for their friendship and help with meditation tools and finally to my mum for… everything. From the bottom of my heart and soul I express deep gratitude and honour for this journey and to myself for having the courage to turn up every day and make something out of nothing, and to be brave enough to write about it with open honesty.

Peace.

Bliss.

Namaste.

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Day 123- past, practice and pumpkin curry

I have spent most of the day staring at either the yoga mat or the computer screen and I’m starting to wonder if I didn’t waste my last day in Rishikesh. They serve a pumpkin curry at the ashram that they have never served before with some kind of pumpkin fritter ball floating around in it. Suddenly my small tummy decides it can fit in three bowls and I spend the rest of the day rolling around like a half filled water balloon.

It is evening when the four of us sit around and battle Mosquitos, spending our last evening together talking. As usual, the topic is life, yoga, meditation and the etcetera’s. My phone starts making noises and I’m singing along to AC/DC’s Back in Black for a few seconds before I remember that this is my ringtone. Wow. My phone hasn’t rung in ages!

When I answer it is the past calling and I have nothing meaningful to say. What happens when you let go of the past but it is still holding on to you? Guilt is what happens. I am condemning myself. How could you be so selfish as to move on, to grow and evolve, Liz? But if I didn’t come this far, if I never climbed that icy mountain, seen what I’ve seen, done the hours of practice that I’ve done or met these beautiful souls, would I be at this point where I can so easily speak my truth? I know the answer to that. The simple truth is P.P.P. practice persistence and patience.

You never step in the same river twice. I’m sorry for changing but “time grabs you by the wrist and directs you where to go.” (Yon pointed out the words to this Greenday song and said it made him think of me.)

Here I am, speaking my truth and that truth is that the past is gone, the future does not exist and all we have is NOW.

Day 112 to Day 114 – entering the default world again

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Day 112 – the first taste of the ‘default’ outside world

The program has ended this morning. Our final practice we do in complete silence, flowing into every asan and pranayam easily. Lunchtime comes and we say the first of our goodbyes. Pria, John and I get out of the ashram. Crossing Laxman Julle, again entering the throng of people, we feel more sensitive to the cognitive overload. It’s like we are little children thrust into the enormous world. Everything is even louder than last time, the colours are brighter, the sun is hotter and the flavours are stronger. We want to eat “something that isn’t yellow” and are on the hunt for burritos. Mangoes have just come into season so we have a bright yellow, sweet mango juice. I order a veggie burger but it is the fries that interest me most. They must have been dusted in turmeric because they are yellow. We get nachos but it still tastes like Indian food.

After lunch we go to the tall temple on the low bank, to the left of the bridge. We hand over our shoes and 5 rupees to go up. Each small room is filled with bright effigies of gods and goddesses. Pri tells us who they all are and we walk around ringing the enormous heavy bells. John finds a phallic Shiva sculpture and explains the symbolism of the oval shaped pot it sits in. Then he mimics the carved figure and hugs the phallus. What makes it more amusing is the Indian man that laughs at him, probably thinking he has no idea what he is doing.

We go to the banks of the Ganga and standing in the water, easily find a stillness from inside, away from the bustle of the market street. We may outside in the crazy world, but inside there is calm.

Day 113 – looking back on the Transformation of the Self

Shal, Pri and I have just practiced a Qi Gong sequence of healing sounds. It is amazing how the subtle vibrations can be directed with simple hand movements and single syllables. We are sitting at the river, waiting for the Rishi to come and do the evening puja of the Ganga Aarti. In typical IST, Indian Standard Time, it is a full hour and a half later than we expect so we stand at the water and practice. We are talking about the Program, what we gained and which practices we will definitely be continuing when we leave. Shal remembers when I first arrived that I told her I was terrified because I had just broken up with my fiancé and come to India on my own to find myself. It’s like someone has told me about something I did when I was a child. I had completely forgotten that feeling! Even Pri is stunned when we look at how much that energy has transformed.

Of everything that I have learned from yoga in the past three weeks and the past decade, I now know that it is all about the breath. We have been practicing 2:1 breath regulation. As soon as I wake up, before bed and as many times as I can throughout the day I find a clock and time my breath; exhale for ten seconds and inhale for five seconds. That is 4 breaths a minute, but the aim is to increase it so that eventually (in a few years) we are on one breath per minute. I also now use this 2:1 breathing when I jog or do anything dynamic, which is pretty much everything except yoga nidra. Using the breath to stay present has always been something I say when teaching a class, but it has taken on new meaning since I have been focusing the awareness on the dance of consciousness at the bridge between the two nostrils and looping the breath up my spine on the inhale and down my front on the exhale. Presence is easy to have when breathing in ujjayi all the time; it is like a whispering reminder of that “I” within.

Admittedly, I appreciate the systematic set-up we have to do for every meditation, however I do hope to find something that fits in with my personality as the year goes on. Looking at the past 113 days, I have had deeper moments of meditation and no-content than the days experienced using this method, which has been leaving me feeling more frustrated than enlightened the past few days. I can hear manas, the lower mind, and ahamkara, the ego, saying “it shouldn’t be this hard!” But that is because I have to keep them busy, running up and down my spine and dancing between my nostrils. I will continue practicing this way, though. At least until I find something that suits me a little better.

I like the style of movement we have done- the benefits to my spine are already visible. I am much more aware of my lumbar lordosis and constantly remember to feel my mastoid pivots in the back of my head are lifting in order to keep the spine elongated.

The language with which I speak has changed a lot. I hesitate to begin a sentence with “I think…”, which reaffirms the dominance of the mind. The theory side of how the mind works has been invaluable, especially realising that I can actually delete latent impressions and useless thoughts as they come up. I have realised that I have the power to Acknowledge, Accept and Release any thought pattern, negative energy, memory or emotion that comes up and is not meaningful or useful. At this stage referring to myself in the third person is still strange, but the internal dialogue has altered and the mind has started to say, “Elizabeth needs to brush her teeth…” instead of reaffirming the attachment to this temporary vessel we call the body.

I know that I suffer from serious FOMO- Fear of Missing Out, so I tend to want to get through the morning pranayamas faster than I should but every day I do them a little bit slower and I can feel more prana being harnessed through the practice. This is awakening so much subtle awareness in the breath, the body and the mind.

I have to remind myself to adjust my posture again and again and constantly tell my shoulders to relax. That is the practice of yoga- constantly coming back to the centre. It doesn’t matter how many times you get scattered by the wheel of ignorance or your mind floats off like a helium balloon, if you come back to the centre, elongate the spine, focus on the breath, then home is always closer than you think. As the Ganga Aarti begins, the three of us line up beside the young Rishi and each takes a flower as he chants the prayers. I feel alive, present and grateful.

Day 114 – defying logic of the gut

I wake up at 4.30am with my alarm and rush to the bathroom. The sounds from my stomach last night were a warning that this would happen, but I still had that hot chocolate and Kit-Kat after dinner. It is interesting to be aware enough to witness the mind work like that- it convinces itself that this unhealthy snack is nurturing in some way and then in the perfect clarity of hindsight wonders why the hell it did that! That is being consciously unconscious- I can see it all happening, but do not yet have the Power of Will to stop it. It is probably not the chocolate that made me sick, but the milk in the hot chocolate that I have had for the past 3 days. A bit of milk in tea isn’t a problem, but a 300ml cup of milk everyday is way more lactose than my intolerant gut can handle. So there has been a strike and I end up in the bathroom another 6 times before breakfast. I am given a teaspoon of psyllium husk in 4 spoons of yogurt and told it will help, so once again that conscious unconsciousness takes over and says, “Well then since you are having this, it is ok to eat that pancake type thingy with the spicy sauce. Better put another 3 teaspoons of spicy sauce on it just for good measure!”

I spend the rest of the day wilting in the heat… A small part of me is looking forward to Sydney. When I get home it will be winter. Wait, what am I saying? I hate being cold! Typical vata! The ironic thing about a hot day in India is how refreshing a hot cup of chai can be. It is one of the many paradoxes of this place.

I am excited today because I get to collect my mala beads. They have been behind the picture of Swami Rama in the meditation hall, picking up some residual morphic field energy. When I retrieve them, I sit down and holding them in my left hand, set up for my meditation. It is only ten minutes before my stomach orders me out again. It doesn’t matter how much the “I” wants to stay, when the stomach says go, it is time to go! It is strange trying to fit in a schedule when I am in limbo like this. We are about to leave Rishikesh on Wednesday to go trekking so keeping the daily Sadhana, spiritual practice, will become a little bit of a challenge. As long as I make a daily date with mySELF, then it will be easier to SOTP- stay on the path (and hope there are rest stops along this path).

Day 107 – Day 111

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Day 107 – a bit of positive ju-ju

We are going on an excursion to the Swami Rama Hospital and Ayurvedic Centre in Dehradun. It is only about 45 minutes away and the road is lined with signs warning drivers about mad elephants. Apparently they charge the cars at night when they see the headlights. It is mid-morning so no elephants in sight, sane or mad. As we travel through, Radha leans forward and instructs the driver in Hindi. Even when she just speaks, her voice sounds like singing.

At the hospital we move straight into the meditation hall. It consists of two small rooms that are beside the room in which Swami Rama left the body. There is definitely a different vibration in this space so we all pull up a pillow and begin our meditation set up. Despite the incense curling into my face, I immediately go straight into one-pointed focus. Instead of it being a struggle to keep the mind chatter out, it seems as though it is a struggle for the mind chatter to get in. Regardless of what people believe, I think most would agree that some places in the world seem to have a bit of positive ju-ju. Places that resonate at a higher level, like the static energy may just be a little bit more active there. I remember once saying to someone that I don’t intend to die of sickness or old age. When the time has come and my breath quota is up, I will consciously leave the body like all the great sages. I’ll let you know when I have figured it out.

Day 108 – Japa Mala

I wake up feeling a little ordinary…  I feel nauseas, my joints feel sore and achy and I am sure someone came into my room last night and filled my head with cement. For some reason, I don’t believe that I could actually be sick and so I feel guilty about not practicing or going jogging. Instead I move from the bed to the yoga mat and practice systematic relaxation and then fall asleep on the floor. When I get to our morning class, it turns out that everyone is sick. Half of the group have vomited and the rest are just as nauseas, exhausted and sore as I am. Instead of our usual YQ morning series, we all lie down on the yoga mats, curled up in blankets and rest. Our teacher and Radha, who don’t feel sick, rush around with homeopathic pellets and organise ginger tea. My neighbour is upstairs in bed- she also feels sick. Microbiologists are called to inspect the water, the filters are fixed and filled with filtered, boiled water and the rest of the day only kichari is on the menu. After breakfast I go for a walk and find the fresh air makes me feel better for a while… Eventually though I can feel that same heaviness and I fall asleep in our morning theory lecture, even with the teacher yelling over my immobile body. By afternoon he is talking about shutting down the program and sending us off to hospital. It turns out people are sick at the hospital too, so they believe it is something that was travelling in the air there that we picked up. Either way, we spend most of the day horizontal either on yoga mats or in bed. My stomach must be fine because I end up eating like 3 bowls of kichari, this cleansing mung bean and rice dish that works like medicine.

Today is the 108th day of the year, so in our theory class, we ask Rafiki to teach us about Mala. He is reluctant for some reason, but eventually tells us some technical pointers. In this tradition of tantra yoga, which deals with moving beyond the heart chakra and into the upper doors of the esoteric body, the Mala is held in front of the heart. The beads are draped over the ring finger and locked by the middle finger of the left hand, while the thumb moves the bead along. The guru bead, the 109th bead is never crossed, but rather the whole thing is flipped when one reaches that point. The Mala works as an abacus, to aid one in mantra repetition to prepare for meditation. It is comparable to the Christian Rosary, or the Jewish prayer shawl. If one is wearing the beads, they must be removed for ablutions, excretions and fornications. Apparently wearing them can keep one calm, offer protection and should always be beneath the clothing and in contact with the skin, where other people cannot touch them. Our teacher does 14 rounds of his mala every morning.

One of the participants is a Buddhist so she practices Japa Maladaily. She explains so beautifully that the Mala chooses you, that you build a relationship with the Mala and talk to them, sing to them, feed them with prayers so that you have a connection (but not attachment) to them.

Learning from Swami Rama’s Himalayan tradition, we have been given two mantras, Hum So and Aum. It is said that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. With Swami Rama, his Guru came to see him as a baby and whispered the mantra into his right ear. Swami Rama remembered the mantra immediately and it stayed with him always. I don’t believe that this is supposed to be taken literally, but rather that the mantra is a “resounding resonance emanating from the very core of one’s being.” This sound, of the true self, of the immortal “I” echoingdeep within the cave of the heart is never forgotten by the “I” but is always there. It is only the mind breathing body that must remember in order to return home. I don’t remember the first time I hear the sound of Aum. Is it like I always knew it? Was it like a reminder of the deep sound that is within all of us? All I know is that nothing sounds more like home than the reverberation of that sound as it is carried on the breath. It is the sound of unconditional love, of pure life force and of consciousness.

Day 109 – the default world

Everyone is feeling a whole lot better today and I can feel my feet itching for a run so I get out before the sun starts melting the pavement again and even manage a second jog before breakfast. I should have quit while I was ahead, though, because the second one just wasn’t as good! That is my trouble- G.R.E.E.D. I always want more. We have learnt that people in this world are motivated in the wheel of ignorance by one of two main drives: Generally Recurring Excessive Emotional Disorder and F.E.A.R, False Expectations Appearing Real. Those motivated by FEAR have serious attachments- past associations and those motivated by GREED have expectations – future assumptions. It is funny how true this is. If we always move toward the centre, then we can let go of attachments and expectations and live in the NOW.

We have been asked to write a daily schedule of practicefor when we return to the ‘default world’ outside (this seems like a future projection). I write and re-write this timeline more than five times, trying to fit in all the practices, all the pranayamas, hatha, a jog, time to eat and of course, work and study. Since none of us are quite ready to become renunciates and leave behind the world entirely, one of the biggest challenges we all share is the social aspect. If we have to practice in the evening for over an hour and wake up before 5am to start practicing then we can’t be up late partying. Not that this is much of a concern for this group of people, but the desire to have a late night dinner and a glass of wine with friends is going to, at some point, thwart the dedication to practice.

Looking at my schedule, I have left no room for error. There isn’t even really a 10-minute window for that post-work chat I know I will always succumb to. When I show my teacher, he asks me to take out the hour and a half of reading time in the evening so that I can have quiet time and get to bed earlier. I am starting to feel frustrations rise up- if this is too strict, then there is no chance I will follow it. Meditation should be fun! He even wants me to get rid of the jog! Admittedly there will be many days where this little yogi will want to forego the early morning jog, but there is no way I am giving up curling up in bed with a good book. Sorry! I compromise and tell myself that as long as I stick to the morning schedule, then on the days off I can do yoga nidra during the day and have the evenings to do whatever the hell I want, keeping in mind that after creating new grooves and displacing the old habits, I am sure what I want is probably going to be more meditation or yoga nidra anyway. I also give myself the secret permission to sleep in on the days off and just do the morning practice a little bit later in the day. Sorry, G, but if I don’t give myself one day a week of sleep-in to look forward to, then I will loose motivation. I know exactly what Elizabeth’s ego is like and she needs a sleep-in with Jane Austen every now and then. Ok, maybe not always Jane Austen… maybe a trashy, post-apocalyptic zombie novel will turn up there somewhere.

Sorry, I may be on the path of enlightenment and Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, will make me stop watching the news as it is just more negative impressions I will have to swaha, and get rid of later, but the written word is my drug of choice and nobody can prise my face out of the pages of a good novel.

Day 110 – summing up the STP

In Yoga Nidra, I can feel my ethereal body rocking back and forth, as though slipping out of the physical body. At some point, I feel myself drool. Excessive saliva is a trademark sign of complete relaxation. For a few breaths I wake up and feel completely conscious, within the body. We roll to the left and feel the body expand, then onto the back and then onto the right. When we finally move into the cave of the heart, I can feel the vast space and empty darkness around me. Then it feels like I am falling through the floor, not in a scary way, but like the space between the atoms of the floor is moving out of the way slowly and I am sliding down, down… I can feel a gentle pressure on the exact point where the cave of the heart is, like that is the space I am falling into. I can’t explain it. That is how you know you have transcended the mind- there is no explanation. When we come out, I feel myself slowly come back up and into the body. The saliva has dried and when I open my eyes, it is like I have slept for eight hours.

It has come to the end and with a couple of people leaving early, we have managed to sum up everything from this Self Transformation Program. Our teacher turns to each of us and bows deeply, offering us gratitude even though it was he that gave us so much. He gives us a card. It has a picture of Swami Rama on it and a poem by the Guru:

Close your eyes and you will see clearly.

Cease to listen and you will hear truth.

Be silent and your heart will sing.

Seek no contact and you will find union.

Be still and you will move on the tide of the spirit.

Be gentle and you will need no strength.

Be patient and you will achieve all things.

Be humble and you will remain entire.

– Sri Swami Rama of the Himalayas –

In one of our final group talks we are discussing the four states of consciousness, including Turya, the highest, the place we are all working towards, the ‘beyond’, the dot at the top of the OM symbol. To get there, one must leave behind the body, the breath and especially the mind. This is terrifying because although enlightenment is home, it is also a vast and empty no man’s land between the ego/mindfield and the true self. It requires a huge leap of faith to leave behind everything that we have previously associated with our identity and individuality. IndiviDUALITY. That is the key. As long as there is duality, then we can’t experience oneness and if we don’t allow the letting go to happen, to fall like a drop of water into the ocean, then we will never know the complete bliss of immersion, self-realisation. To find the true self, to go home, to reach turya, Samadhi (bliss), become one with the divine, enlightenment, ascension… whatever you want to call it. In the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, there is a line from the Gospel of Thoma, which apparently directly quotes Jesus as saying “The Kingdom of God is within you.” In India, it is a generally acknowledged truth that Jesus spent about 18 years of his undocumented life roaming around and getting to know the wisdom of the ancient sages. They say he is one and the same as St. Issa and that he is even buried in Pakistan. Regardless of religion, of belief, or differences, the one common truth throughout the world is that within each being a fire burns, a sacred light that shines from the depths of their being, something that transcends this illusion we call the body. No matter who you pray to or if you pray at all, there is something that makes us value life, something that makes us connect and something that makes us continually transform.

In the past three weeks, this transformation has happened so spontaneously it is almost undetectable. The tradition, the practice and the beautiful energy of this time and place have all brought me closer than ever to that inner fire, to feeling that oneness with the true self. One day I will go within the cave of the heart and climb that mountain and instead of seeing my higher self in the inner temple, I will enter the inner temple. No more duality. Just I.

Day 111 – river of tears

We get to the last chapter that we have not yet discussed in the book. It is actually the middle chapter of Path of Fire and Light, Vol. II, but it was left until now. It is the chapter on relationships. It is a short section, less than ten pages but like every other page of this text, has a wealth of meaning behind every line. But you can read all the relationship advice in the world and it won’t make a lick of difference until you experience it for yourself and half the time, when you do experience it, all of that “knowledge” you thought you absorbed just dissolves and once you feel lost and helpless, like you are swimming against the tide.

The question comes up whether it is better to have a partner who is spiritual or not. I end up red in the face trying to argue that the question is moot because you can’t measure spirituality and even if you could, whether a partner is spiritual or not is only a matter of perspective. Just because someone isn’t “spiritual” in the same way you are, does not mean they haven’t found that oneness. I can say from first hand experience that I was engaged to the least spiritual man on the planet and yet when he was surfing, he managed to flow straight into the divine. He may never have called it that, but the sense of ‘oneness’ was clearly visible. Besides if meditation is a state of having no content in the mind than he surely reaches that state all the time! I argue strongly and finally am dismissed with a wave of the hand and told, “Fine, Liz, you have no answer. You can stay single.” In the least spiritual response possible, I leave the room trying to hide the tears stinging my eyes and I go down to the Ganga. It is almost midday so it is hotter than a whore’s handbag and I can feel the sun burning the back of my neck. I go down to the river and add some drops to the vast expanse of moving water.

Why am I crying?

The answer, as always, comes from within. Because you are full of judgement and condemnation. Let go. Ahimsa.

The first of the yamas, ahimsa, is non-violence or selfless love. If we love selflessly then we do not condemn or judge. This must be first applied to the self because that is the most important relationship we will ever know.

‘Expectation is the mother of all misery in relationships. If you did not expect so much, you would be happy. Having no expectations means happiness. Share, enjoy, and give freely to each other whatever you have. That should be the formula. You will enjoy love when you do not expect it from others… The problem is that you expect something great and powerful from something small and limited.’

–          Swami Rama

Day 100 to Day 106 of the Self Transformation Program, Sadhana Mandir Trust, Rishikesh, India

Day 100 – the descending force

In meditation last night, I experienced a strange feeling of velocity, as though everything inside of me is being pulled upwards. It is so profound, I can’t even describe. We are told to let go of such experiences as they can lead to expectations and false delusions. Today, Rafiki tells us that when you reach the stage of meditation, all the steps of asana (postures), pranayama (breathing and prana regulation), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), and dharana (concentration) all fall away and it becomes effortless. The ascending and descending forces start to work and it is as though the divine reaches down and pulls you up, to home.

After dinner last night, we sang Kirtan lead by Radha who sings classical Indian song. Her beautiful warbling voice filled the room and while it was not Pratyahara, since music uses the senses rather than withdrawing them, it still feels like the sound of the divine. After Kirtan, we snuck up onto the roof to listen to John play his Yukalele and have a little bit of a sing along. We were like naughty children and at 9.30pm we had to retreat to bed, knowing we need to be awake early. This course is pretty intense- like spiritual boot camp. A part of me can’t wait to sleep in, but another part of me knows that this is a long term commitment and that I could keep up this routine forever. I just need the Sankalpa Shakti- the determination, the power to will and the one pointed focus.

 

Day 101 – Swaha, letting go into the river

I find a letter today that I wrote at the beginning of the year. The person it was for refused to read it, so I never threw it away. I guess I felt like I wasn’t being heard and that whatever was in the letter must be important. Without reading it, I take it down to the Ganga. Standing in ankle deep cool water that flows from the Himalayas, I easily tear up the pages into small pieces. I let go, release the attachment that is associated with it and let go of the past. In class, we constantly check our footprints on the yoga mat. The yoga mat is the Guru and it shows exactly how you use your feet. When we step onto the mat we always step forward, never backwards, never stepping into the past grooves. As I release the pieces of paper into the water and watch the current float them away, I can feel the cool energy of the river creeping up my legs. Silently, I chant swaha, which is the offering into the fire, the burning of past karmas and samskaras. The hand motions from the stomach and opens out, almost like vomiting up the excessive emotions. For the first time in a few nights, this person who refused to read what I wrote is not in my dreams.

As CS Lewis wrote, ‘There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.’

 

Day 102 – ants in the pants

Lying down for systematic relaxation, I become aware of an ant crawling on my collarbone. I try to ignore it, hoping that it moves onto my clothing, but I can’t focus and I am missing key points in the relaxation. I reach up and scratch at it quickly. After a few seconds I can feel more on my feet and legs. I rub my legs together but they don’t go away. I can feel a whole line of them crawling up my stomach so, frustrated, finally I sit up and lift up my shirt to see… nothing. There are no ants. Suddenly I am panicking. If there are no ants, then I must be hallucinating? What is going on? I can feel them! I am sure of it. I keep moving, twitching and scratching at my legs and stomach. Then they are all up my shirt, just tiny ones marching in lines across my body. When the relaxation finally ends, I sit up and look all over the mat and in my clothes. Not one ant.

Later, in theory class, Rafiki asks if we have anything to share but I keep quiet. I don’t need everyone thinking I am loopy. I can ask him about the ants later. He is talking and notices me scratching my arm. He starts laughing and yells, “Stop scratching! Be here NOW! What, you think those were really ants biting you all over? Hahaha! I nearly laughed my head off! You just missed an important step in the process!” Suddenly three other people pipe up that they also experienced the ants crawling or biting or feelings of energy shooting all over the body. I say, “Well I am glad it is funny, but I am worried that I was hallucinating!” He says I was. He won’t tell me why, but says to just let it go. Let go, let god, let guru.

 

Day 103 – thoughts are people

I am walking the path along the beautiful river Ganges when I see a group of monkeys foraging in the dry scrub to my right. They seem content enough and ignore me, so I continue to walk. I see a baby ahead but its mother isn’t bothered since I am keeping my distance. What I don’t see is the big male sitting to my left. By the time I see him, he is running towards me with his finger in between his bared teeth in an open threat. I stop and for a moment I think ‘fight’ but realise my only weapon would be my rubber sandal so I opt for ‘flight’ and run back a few metres. He sits down in the middle of the path and stares at me, making sure that I don’t come closer. I stand and watch him, laughing. This is just too symbolic. In yoga, the mind is often referred to as the ‘Monkey Mind’ and Swami Rama says the mind is a ‘drunken monkey’. Here I am, on the path and before me is an angry monkey, feeling threatened. As I watch him, he opens his legs and starts scratching himself. He probably isn’t itchy; he is making a point. Eventually he gets distracted and wonders away and I am free to pass.

The people in my mind are running amok and it is distracting me from meditation. During relaxation I lose focus entirely and my imagination takes over the reigns when I am supposed to be melting into the floor. I can’t sleep, I can’t focus on eating and I can’t even make sense of the thoughts and people and people and thoughts. When thoughts come up in meditation, we say neti, which means ‘not this’. It has worked like a dam and now all those thoughts are flooding through, outraged at being held back. These people are attachments; they create bondage and misery instead of peace, harmony and bliss. Since blocking them makes no sense, I allow them to come through. I once again find myself at the Ganga with a piece of bottle brush- each red fibre of the bush flower represents an attachment, a person, a thought that is limiting my path and I let it go. Each day, I say my Sankalpa Shakti at least 4 times before meditation. It is the intention, the determination to practice.

I now take another step on the path towards enlightenment. Nothing and nobody can take me from this path. Least of all and especially not myself or my mind.

In the evening, I can’t sleep and so I sit up to write a list of unfulfilled desires. We are taught to practice santosh, contentment, so that we no are longer slaves to our unfulfilled desires. However, it is acknowledged that certain desires must be fulfilled so that one can feel contentment. One need not renounce the world, but rather live in it and above it, unaffected by events. My list is not long and I can’t help but add a few at the bottom just so that I can cross them out. This is a kind of encouragement. Like reminding myself how easy it is to fulfil desires.

Go to India. CHECK!

 

Day 104 – running in the rain

Pria, John and I sneak off to my room with the Yukalele and a small parcel wrapped in tissue. My neighbour managed to sneak in some contraband and we feel like naughty children. Behind the closed doors, we open up the tissue to reveal the trademark purple wrapping and can’t decide which one to open first- dairy milk or fruit n’ nut. Pria says she thought this was Indian chocolate, but I thought it was Australian chocolate but we are corrected by John, the Englishman, haughtily tells us that Cadbury is an English company. However, since both countries were part of the British Empire, Cadbury is sold there too. It is gone far too quickly, so we indulge in breaking the other rule- the rule of santaya. Here at the ashram, we are told to remain silent as it is the only truth. We are supposed to be having quiet time right now but being the three youngest means we are suffering from conversation deprivation so we sit and chat for two hours. Our teacher is an omniscient presence in this ashram and he has thrown some disapproving looks our way lately when talking about the importance of silence.

Although summer was here a couple of days ago, the weather has turned and the wind, cold and rain is making my Vattic bones ache. Halfway through the morning, I have been thinking a lot about how much practice we have to fit in every morning. I need six hours sleep, but at this rate I wake up at 3.45am! And lately I have been running after breakfast, instead of at dawn. I start to stress over all the things to do every morning when I decide to go for a run to clear my head. The rain parts for enough time for me to borrow a rain jacket from Pria but by the time I am up on the road, the light sprinkle has become a steady drizzle. I am jogging at a slow trot. We have been told to practice with a breath ratio of 2:1 when doing dynamic movements so asana, meditation preparation, walking and jogging especially means exhale for 10, inhale for 5. This detoxes the system and makes sure that the carbonic acid is being removed from the lungs so that lactic acid can’t build up. It also means that once I get used to the rhythm and pace of exhaling for ten steps and inhaling for five steps, I can jog for much longer. I love to jog but I gave up a few years ago because I wasn’t seeing any improvement. With this new method of breathing I can feel my endurance increasing and my lungs expanding. The rain is beating down on me, but I could keep on going. I have to stop because it is almost time for class and I am soaking wet. I slow down to a walk and turn my face up to the sky. My eyes closed, I lift my arms up and I can see bright orange/yellow light radiating up to the heavens all around me, like it is going to lift me up to another plane…. Like something out of Star Trek. That descending /ascending force again? Samadhi through running in the rain, reaching a new level of endurance… Apparently it is endorphins, and the neuro-chemical reaction of the blood vessels stimulated through nostril breathing but enough meaning making. It feels good.

On the way back, the rain has gotten heavier and my pants are falling down, heavy with water. I decide to sprint the last few metres but suddenly I step on something sharp. It is so sharp, I am sure it has pierced the thin sole of my runners but I can’t be angry; only grateful at the reminder to stay grounded.

 

Day 105 – the story of the King and the Jin

This story was a Swami Rama story, as told to me by our teacher and guide at the Sadhana Mandir Trust. Poetic licence has been taken in the retelling of this story…

Once upon a time, in a Kingdom far away, a festival was being held. This festival was full of music, bright colours, dancers, fire breathers and small stalls selling anything and everything a person could want. In one small, unnamed stall sat an old man who had only one item to sell. It was a very small, very unremarkable little wooden box. People would stop to enquire about this mysterious box, but the old man would tell them it was too expensive. No matter how much they offered to pay, the old man would say, “I am sorry but you can not afford this.”

The King and his Queen entered this colourful festival. After watching some performers, the Queen wanted to go shopping. The King suggested they go through the stalls systematically but the Queen was impatient. She spotted this tiny stall with the box that nobody could afford and she dragged the King straight over.

“I want this wooden box, my King. Please get it for me. I must have it to show all my friends when they come over tomorrow.” The King was reluctant but, being a good man, he wanted to please his wife so he approached the old man and asked the price of this small, unremarkable, box. The old man shook his head,

“I am sorry, my Lord, but this box is not for you,” the old man said.

“I can afford it, I assure you so please name your price,” said the King.

“You misunderstand me, sire. It is not a matter of price. I cannot sell this item to just anybody. It must go to one who can handle its contents,” insisted the old man.

“Whatever do you mean? I am the King! I am sure I can handle whatever small and ordinary item might be inside such a container.”

The old man sighed. Knowing the King to be wise, he finally agreed to give him the box, however he did not let the King pay.

“I cannot take any money from you, my Lord. Only promise me this; that you will never, ever, under any circumstances, open this box.”

“Yes, yes, whatever. As long as it is in my care, it shall remain unopened.” The King promised this, forgetting that it would not always be in his care. Feeling that the old man was good at heart, he went away, instructing his Prime Minister to make sure that the old man and his family would be taken care of for the rest of their lives in the kingdom.

Emerging from the market stall, the Queen quickly snatched the box and marched straight back to the castle.

“Don’t you want to do some more shopping?” Asked the King.

“No, no. I have what I want. You go on, I am going home.” The Queen hurried away.

The King knew his wife very well, so he followed her up to their room where he found her excitedly hovering over the box.

“Now, remember we aren’t to open this ugly little box,” the King warned.

“Oh don’t be an old fool. That man was nothing more than a swindler. He would have given you this damn thing; you didn’t need to go and give him a house!” The Queen, being stubborn and excitable, could not wait any longer so before the King could reach her side, she opened the tiny, unexceptional and unsightly little box.

All of a sudden the box exploded in a huge cloud of ancient dust and from within the haze emerged an enormous Jin with terrifying, glowing red eyes and skin blacker than the moonless night. It hovered over the royal couple, drooling ethereal saliva and smiling a wicked grin, it folded its enormous bulging arms over its bare chest.

“At your service, Master.” He growled.

The Queen stared open mouthed and then her eyes rolled back into her head as she fainted and collapsed in a heap on the floor. The King, in his shock, did little to help his incapacitated wife.

The Jin continued, “Your wish is my command. Only tell me what it is that you want and I shall complete any task you set for me. The only condition to this is that you never stop. The moment you have no work for me, I will be forced to eat you up!”

And so the King and Queen thought they were very lucky. Despite the hideous appearance of their new acquisition, he performed remarkably well and brought them anything they needed. This went along fine until a few years later, when they realised that their whole castle was full of useless things. They couldn’t possibly ask the Jin for anything else and they realised that they would seen be eaten alive by their own monster if they didn’t think of something. The King consulted his very wise Prime Minister who assured the King that he would solve the problem. So the King and Queen left the Prime Minister in charge, instructing the Jin to take his orders from the Minister until they return. They left in haste, thinking that the Minister would surely be eaten before long.

The Prime Minister, however, had an idea. He approached the Jin and said, “Please fetch me the longest and strongest piece of bamboo in the entire world.” The Jin disappeared but within a few hours was back from the humid jungle of Sumatra with the longest and strongest bamboo in the world. The Prime Minister was impressed.

“Ok, Jin. Now put this bamboo in the ground in such a way that it can not be moved, bent or broken.”

The Jin shoved the stick hard into the earth and no matter how much it was flicked, hacked or pushed, it indeed could be moved by no force.

“Now,” said the Prime Minister, “Listen carefully, Jin. This part is important. I need you to run up and down the bamboo. Do not stop until I come and tell you to stop!”

The bamboo is the spine.

The Jin is the mind.

It is running and breathing.

As long as the mind is focused on the breath running up and down the spine, it cannot eat us alive.

 

Day 106 – The Great Escape

Over breakfast I try not to look at the others. As soon as we finish eating, John, Pria and I hurry to get dressed. We feel like spies trying to exit the ashram separately so as not to arouse suspicion. As I walk out, the manager sees me and says, “Holiday today!” and I say, “shh, we are escaping!” to which he only laughs. After two weeks of silence, mindful conscious awareness and the sheltered life of the ashram, the world outside is a bombardment of noise, colour, movement, smells and velocity. We catch the rickshaw to the market and then change to go up to Lakshman Julle. All we talk about is all the amazing food we are going to eat. First stop is an iced coffee accompanied by baked cheese-cake and a chocolate ball. John has to stand still as his eyes cross over from a sugar overdose. We join the throng of people crossing the bridge and are lucky enough to find a gap where we can stop to take photos.

The whole purpose of this outing was so that I could get some clothes- it has been really cold the past couple of days and I only brought summer clothes so I need some leggings and a jumper. Of course, now that I am actually shopping, it has become boiling hot again! No doubt this weather will stay hot for the rest of my time in India, rendering my purchases redundant. Either way, my lower mind is excited to be shopping and I have to remind myself that I still have a lot of moving around in India before I can start filling my bags with incense and books.

I am dying to eat some street food but Pria talks me out of it. The samosas look greasy and dirty and delicious. After all, I don’t feel like I am truly in a country until I eat some dirty street food and make myself extremely ill.

Crossing back over the thin bridge, I can feel it swaying beneath our feet. Monkeys are perched along the cables, screeching at the crowd. Children with wide dark eyes, a black kohl marking in the centre of the forehead to keep the evil spirits away and completely shaven heads stare up at the creatures calmly while the parents nervously move away. In a sudden surge, we are pressed up against the cables and metal grates of the bridge and look around the oncoming motorbike to see an enormous bull standing in the metre-wide walkway. I am starting to believe that these cows aren’t just wondering around aimlessly. For a cow to join a huge crowd of people and get onto this narrow bridge implies that he must have business on the other side.

We have missed lunch at the ashram but find a small restaurant overlooking the river where we get dosas and lassis. We may be silent as we eat but it is because we are so busy enjoying the food. We don’t eat as slowly as we know we should, but the dosa just tastes too good! We know we will arrive back later than expected to watch the afternoon Swami Rama lecture DVD, but we have bought chocolate to supplement our lateness. Chocolate fixes everything.

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Day 92 to Day 99 – First week of the Self Transformation Program at Sadhana Mandir

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Day 92 – it’s a long way to the top if you wanna know your soul

The program has begun and it is pretty intense. Today is only Sunday so it is a Holy Day and it means we have extra free time during the day instead of our usual theory and practice. We are expected to be up at 5am for personal practice of asana, meditation or pranayama. At 6am hot chai or lemon and honey is served. Thinking that the hot water and lemon will help detox me, I opt for this. At 6.30am we meet in the meditation hall, which has a small altar to Swami Rama, the original Guru who established the Sadhana Mandir Trust. In the picture he is young, his eyes closed in meditation. All around the picture are mala beads, floral leys and candles. A pot of ghee in a glass cabinet burns constantly and a lamp shines on his face. This room and the dining room are always open, just in case you need to meditate in the middle of the night. In the mornings, our guide, who I will name Rafiki because of the way he reminds us of the Shaman baboon from the Lion King (not aesthetically but rather because he tends to wack us over the head when we talk about the past), asks what time we woke up, whether we used an alarm, how much water we have drunk and “poo or no poo?” For those that have, he asks what type, whether it floated or sunk. Apparently there are good and there are bad shits. He has acronyms for everything. He calls the Self Transformation Program, STP, the Sewerage Treatment Plant and says that our minds are full of CRAP- Constantly Retarding Awareness Perpetually.

Until 8am, we are shown the first sequence of Hatha Yoga from the Himalayan Swami Rama tradition and to be honest, I don’t get it. It seems so… anal! He keeps coming over and twisting my shoulders in. For someone who has been practicing asana with my shoulders always rolling out to open the heart and expand the chest, this is like re-learning how to walk. We stand with most of the weight in the front of our feet and by 7.30am I am stoked when he tells us to lie down for systematic relaxation, the preparation for Yoga Nidra. In Swami Rama’s book, The Path of Fire and Light, vol. II (which is the prescribed reading and one of only four books permitted), it says that sleep will not benefit us, however a practice of Yoga Nidra will. It will help us to find a deep state of relaxation, further reducing our need to sleep. Apparently the sleep cycle means that in an eight hour sleep, we only get 3 hours of truly deep rest so we don’t need as much sleep as we think. Now, I am a little wary of this. I like 9-10 hours of sleep so anyone telling me I only need 4-6 can just sh…. Anyway, now I see why the meditation room is open for 24 hours a day!

We have the daytime off… After breakfast I read Meditation and Its Practices, which is a great book on meditation, and Living with the Himalayan Masters, both by Swami Rama. I try to meditate at 12.30pm and I start to feel really good when I realise that I am falling asleep. I get a little annoyed with myself and go down to lunch at 1pm. By 2.30pm we watch a video of Swami Rama and I just can’t focus. I am relieved to see that other people are falling asleep as well.

By evening Satsang at 7.45pm I am getting annoyed. Actually, I am downright cranky. I feel tired and irritable. I am not PMSing either. I can hear my internal dialogue- it is my ego, fighting for its life. Ganesa, the god, is the remover of obstacles and I can feel him stomping around in my head. Rafiki is trying to kill my ego. Not my big-headed arrogance, but the side of the mind that keeps me from connecting to my true self. I can hear it arguing with myself. Lucky Rafiki himself calls the practices “very advanced bullshit”, because my ego is saying pretty much the same thing. I can also here the self saying that it has to be a struggle if it is going to really change me. It has to be painful if it is going to kill away the old habits (samskaras) and break open the path to Samadhi. If it was easy, then everyone would be enlightened beings! But we aren’t. We are mostly zombies. I may be on a spiritual path, but the past 91 days have been relatively easy compared to this. Now I have to put in the hard yards and it may be a struggle, but if I don’t give it my all, then I am only cheating mySELF.

Day 93 – dealing with the blockages

It was only from the movement of my wrist that Rafiki is able to spot that my ayurvedic constitution is Vata Dosha. He tells me the hot water and lemon is only making my vata imbalance worse and it is my current Dosha, Pitta, that is causing me to crave the sour taste. I had no idea I could be Pitta Dosha, which is ruled by fire. I am so airy and flighty and windy (in every way), I just always saw myself as Vata. Now that he has said this, however I can really see the fire. Spicy food, love of hot climates, the way I can get passionate or angry in the blink of an eye… Yeah there is a bit of fire in this body. There is also a bit of a lack of fire and fibre going on. I’m not sure when the Delhi Belly is supposed to be kicking in, but I am currently experiencing more than just an emotional/mental blockage.

Once again in our morning lecture, “Elizabeth” just keeps thinking, “Why the hell is this Indian man still yelling at us?” During practice, during relaxation, again during meditation… It is all just grinding at my bones and I want to share, but instead I hold back. After breakfast, we are back to the full program so we meet again at 10am for theory and meditation before lunch. After lunch, we are shown a digestive practice which doesn’t work for me and in a bit of a huff, I go to leave the meditation hall. As I open the door I stop and look at Swami Rama.

“Gurudev, help me. I’m struggling. I don’t get it. I mean, I’m not feeling anything. I feel this blockage I have never felt before and I know you probably want me to try harder but I just need some… help. I need a sign to tell me if I’m really supposed to be here or not. I usually believe that where I am is exactly where I am supposed to be but it’s like this just doesn’t make any sense yet. Just… please… help?” I stare at the picture, but his eyes stay closed. No magical voice from the beyond, no sudden vision… nothing. Just me.

After this we have some free time before chai is served at 4pm and then we go for a second walk before we meet again at 5pm for evening practice and meditation. Dinner is at 7pm, and finally the evening Satsang where we gather to ask questions, share and read from the book, Path of Fire and Light, Vol II. In Satsang, John, one of the other participants shares that he is experiencing resistance and I am so grateful that I can finally say so as well. It feels like a load is lifted from my shoulders and as I am preparing for an evening meditation before bed, my friend Amy comes upstairs to my room to ask if I am ok. She reminds me so much of mum. She offers a hug and this expression of ahimsa, selfless love, just radiates through me. I sit down to meditate and look at the small picture of Swami Rama in my room. Thank you.

Day 94 – releasing, letting go, surrendering, and liberation- moksha

It is dawn and the sun is yet to rise over the misty mountains across the river. The sky is filled with bird song and flocks move across the sky in the pink light. I have a small bundle tucked under my sarong that is wrapped over my head and around my shoulders. It is still a little cool in the mornings here in Rishikesh. I walk through the beautiful flowers of the garden and as I come to the gate of the ashram, I hear the beat of wings, like a bird taking off. When I look around, there is no bird. I look up and lean back but I see nothing in the sky above me. I step down to the river’s edge and sit beside a woman in a red sari who is meditating. Two men behind me are doing vigorous chatturangas on the steps. I sit down remove my bundle, holding onto the wad of hair that once fell across my face. It is still soft and smells a little sweet, like coconut. I give it a couple of strokes. I say a short prayer, “with this I let go of my ego, of my old samskaras, of the conditioning that is holding me back from realising my true self. Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” I throw the hair into the river and watch it scatter on the surface of the water. I close my eyes for a moment and breathe slowly, bringing my awareness to the bridge between my two nostrils. I feel the cool air moving in and the warm air moving out. The current is surprisingly strong and within a few minutes my hair has passed a few metres down the river. I continue to sit and stare at the beautiful morning: the birds flying all around me, the sound of chanting in the distance and the perpetual flow of this holy river of life.

When I enter the meditation hall, I can hear no argument, no negativity from within my mind. Instead, my heart is filled with ahimsa, selfless love. For some reason, Rafiki is not yelling today and as I begin the Hatha Yoga practice, I feel all the subtle energies moving through my body. I get one of those “aha!” moments when I realise that this is real yoga- getting to the subtle body. A million sun salutes may never get me to the subtle awareness of Atman, but this practice is creating Mindful Conscious Awareness and with THAT, I can feel something shifting deep inside of me. I don’t know if the ego has completely gone, but I have definitely released something of the blockage that has been holding me back.

As to the other blockage… well Rafiki has given me some Ayurvedic herbs, which I hope will work and instructed me to do strong Bhastrika as I walk back from my morning run. At least my mind is starting to empty out the CRAP.

Day 95 – there is only practice

Elizabeth, in a moment of being unconsciously unconscious, can not find her glasses. It is 5am. She has already practiced kapalabhati and the ‘Joints and Glands’ Hatha Yoga sequence and is now going out to do meditation (preparation) and then run along the Ganga. She stops in the meditation hall to look for her glasses but seeing the tranquil darkness, she steps in to do her practice there. In the early morning stillness, two devotees are already seated. They have obviously been there for hours. Elizabeth gets a blanket and sandbag and sits in easy pose. The hall is still and although it is dark, it is luminous, full of the vibrational radiance of the Saucha of the other meditators. Sitting down, Elizabeth focuses her attention on the breath; the dance of consciousness at the bridge between the two nostrils and the loop of breath that exhales down to the tail bone and up to the crown of the head. She can hear the gentle whisper of ujjayi breath resonating from the cave of her heart as her abdomen expands and contracts. After 20 minutes, a tightness in the body’s thoracic spine becomes pain and Elizabeth stands up to leave. She believes herself to have failed; however she hears a voice from within, “there is no success and there is no failure. There is only practice.”

Day 96 – Swami Rama’s systematic approach to meditation

This system is very intense. You can tell doctors who were using the left side of the brain developed it. ‘Elizabeth’ is a more right brain kind of girl, so it is taking some time to understand this methodological approach. Being more of a ‘go-with-the-flow’ kind of person means that I want there to be mystical, esoteric meanings behind everything but the fact of the matter is that this practice has been developed as a systematic approach to meditation. It has steps and every action in Hatha has to do with pranayama (the movement and expansion of prana around the body; not breathing exercises as I have previously believed) and the meditation techniques. Up until now I have been meditating for three months on any meditation technique I can get my hand on. While it has all been a beautiful learning process, in this ashram, I am learning the preparations required to place me into meditative stillness wherein which, apparently Samadhi can be reached. Rafiki even thinks we can reach Samadhi by the end of the three weeks. The first rule in Swami Rama’s teachings is to meditate at the same time every single day. This creates new grooves in the mind and gets rid of old habits. Along with breath regulation, kapalabhati, lion’s breath, drinking 1.5L water, asana practice and a run before the sun gets too hot, this body has to be up and about at 4am in order to get this all done before morning chai is served at 6am. And apparently we haven’t even started meditating yet! Rafiki has only been giving us systematic relaxation and “preparation” for meditation. Well, it feels like meditation to me. And even if the technique is based on the same principles, the experience of each day is new and different.

Although I sleep only six hours (I usually prefer 9), the 4 daily meditations, 2 daily walking meditations and 2 daily yoga nidras have all contributed to more energy, better cardio fitness as I can run faster and further, I find it easier to wake up earlier, sleep deeper and can fall asleep in only 5 breaths, feel less drowsy during the day, feel more conscious and I am aware of my breath more consistently.

Day 97 – day of Hanuman, the monkey god

Today is the day of Hanuman. It is also Passover and Good Friday, which automatically leads me to recall that there are no bottle shop sales in New South Wales. I swipe that association from my mind- that can definitely go into the Ganges!

Some of the girls in our small group, which we call a family, decide to tell us the story of Hanuman. Apparently it all starts with Prince Rama. He is banished to the forest by his king who is indebted to his second wife, Kikai. Kikai wants nothing more than her son to be the King. Being ‘apta’, meaning a genuine person who walks their talk, the King must grant this to his wife as he has promised. The younger step-brother is actually a pretty cool guy so he places Rama’s sandals on the throne and says he will save the crown for when Rama gets back.  So Rama, his wife Sita and his brother-in-law Laksmula go to the forest in exile for seven years. There, the demon shape-shifter, Shupanaka, comes to seduce Rama but he recognises that she is a demon and cuts off her nose! Her brother, the demon king, Ravana, decides to take revege and so sends another shape-shifter, Mareecha, in as a ruse. Mareecha appears as a beautiful golden deer and Sita wants it so she orders Rama out to capture it for her. He suspects something so he is reluctant but ultimately leaves their little forest hut to get it. Laksmula stays to protect Sita but  Mareecha is able to throw his voice and mimics Rama crying out for help. Laksmula must now run out to save Rama, but before he leaves, he draws a line around the hut and tells Sita that as long as she is behind this line, she will be protected. Now that Sita is alone and vulnerable, Ravana sees his opportunity so he appears as a Sadhu, or holy man, begging for alms. Initially he tries to cross the line but finds that it creates a protective force field so he must lure Sita out. Since it is a sin to deny a Sadhu, Sita is in a bit of confusion about what to do, but eventually decides to step out of the circle. Ravana then kidnaps her and they fly away in his magical chariot to Sri-Lanka. She cries for help and drops a bag of jewellery as they fly away.

Rama calls his army, the head of which is the monkey god, Hanuman. Hanuman is extremely devoted to Rama and with the power of his master in his heart he is able to do anything, so he leaps across to Sri Lanka in a single bound. Once there, he realises that he will not be able to find Sita since he does not know what she looks like as you were not supposed to look royalty in the eye. He searches in vain until finally he hears somebody chanting “Hare Ram, Hare Ram…” Realising it could be nobody else, he has one of Rama’s rings which he drops on Sita’s lap. She looks up and realises that Hanuman must be the head of the army.

Returning to India, Hanuman must devise a plan to rescue Sita so they map out the tower where she is held hostage and prepare for war. To cross the sea to Sri Lanka, they decide to build a bridge. This bridge is made with the help of two brothers who were cursed by a Sadhu in their youth. Their curse was that if they throw a stone in the water, the stone could not sink but would float instead. So they made the floating bridge to Sri Lanka and the war began…

Apparently one of those stones is still here in Rishikesh.

Day 98 – if you ask a question, the answer will be given

I am sitting outside in the shade, looking out at the flowing Ganges, wondering how can I possibly balance my city life with my search for enlightenment. How can I go back to that life and still be able to meditate four times a day? I am seriously considering whether I should just give up everything and head for a cave in the Himalayas when I flip open Living with the Himalayan Masters, by Swami Rama, and read,

‘I once asked my master, “Is it possible for a man in the world to get freedom from all conditionings of the mind, or does he have to live in the Himalayas his whole life to develop powers such as yours?”

He said, “If a human being remains constantly aware of the purpose of his life and directs all his actions toward the fulfilment of that purpose, there remains nothing impossible for him.”

Day 99- in search of a floating stone

Waking up early, I decide to take it slow and since today is Sunday, I do not put my runners on. Instead of running, I plan to just meditate for about fifteen minutes extra and still have enough time to sip morning honey water instead of gulping it down as I usually do. My meditation is thwarted in half an hour by a mosquito and so I take it outside for a cool walk in the pre-dawn. I realise that it is my vattic tendency to rush around because I feel like I am going to miss out on something. Looping the breath, I become conscious of so much more than just breathing. Strangely enough, I have done everything slower than usual and I seem to have more time.

It is the middle of the day and it is hot. Usually we would be in class studying the theory of Mindful Conscious Awareness and trying to focus on the bridge between the nostrils and the loop of exhale to the toes and inhale back up to the head all at the same time, but today is Sunday and it is a holi-day. Pria, my friend and sister in our small family circle, has invited me for a walk. We escape the ashram to go in search of a floating stone. What we discover is the endless looping of false directions from locals and eventually find a Shiva Mandir (temple) where we hoped we would find ruins. We climb the steps to look out from what we thought would be some historical ruins only to find a rooftop of cow patties.

Sometimes India is just a series of endless loops.

Day 91- first day in India and I’m already putting the Holy Ganges in my mouth.

I barely slept from the noise in Delhi. The Cottage Yes Please is situated behind a market and I can feel the buzz of a city that doesn’t sleep. A horse clomps around the corner and dogs bark in a frenzy every few hours. It is hot and the fan or air conditioning unit is really loud. I wake up and look out the window, spying a chai vendor across the road. I really want to go down and get some tea but for some reason I am paralysed by fear. I want to stay in this room until the driver comes to take me to Rishikesh. I don’t know what is wrong with me, but I think I am a little psyched out by all my friends and family worrying about me and telling me to be careful. Obviously the world is just unsafe and I would have been better off to just stay within the womb instead of making the bold gesture of being born! I get annoyed at myself and at the conditioning influencing me. You can worry all you like, family, but you know as well as I do that I have as much, if not more, of a chance of getting viciously attacked in my own neighbourhood back in Sydney as I do here in Delhi. Finally I shake off the fear and frustration and wonder down to the chai stand. This tiny cup of hot, spicy tea costs me less than 13 cents and is possibly the most delicious liquid I have ever had the pleasure to imbibe. I sit down on the plastic chair and slowly sip away as I watch the world go by. The one thing I am eternally grateful for is that nobody says boo to me. Obviously they are used to the wide-mouthed foreigners, but it is such a relief not to have someone sit down next to me and try to strike up a conversation like they would in Bali, Padang, Mexico or even Sydney. Maybe nobody speaks English. After another round of tea and a pastry finger, I wonder away through the market. The lassi vendors call out to me and make me regret filling up on chai. Taking a photo of a temple, I see a black cow out of the corner of my eye. It ducks behind a truck and I look around, thinking I have gone mad- why the hell would a cow be hiding behind a car in a busy street? Then I remember I am in India. Why the hell WOULDN’T a cow be in a busy street?

The drive to the Sadhana Mandir Trust, Swami Rama Ashram, Rishikesh is about six hours of constant horn-blowing, ox-carts, rickshaws, dust, huge buses and motorbikes. The driver barely speaks any English so I am left to dodge back and forth across the backseat, trying to take photos of anything I can, but eventually I give up and just sit and watch. I wish somebody would invent camera sunglasses so I can press a button that takes a picture of what I see. Maybe they exist in a movie? When we finally arrive at the ashram, I am shown to the room and have enough time to shower before more chai. I am onto the fourth cup of the day and it still tastes amazing!

After tea, I go for a walk along the Ganges river. I have dreamt about this river for years. Thousands of birds call out in the setting sun and mysterious animals sound their calls from the jungle across the river. My favourite sight is the women in saris. The women dress so beautifully, with such attention to detail. I can’t imagine an Indian woman every wearing a mismatched sari. The colours are all so vivid and bright. They say that there are as many different spiritual paths as there are people, and I think the same thing could be said of saris.

At 6pm I attend the Aarti, an evening puja by the river. The Rishi comes down in his white robes, a red line down the centre of his forehead. With a clank, he places a cloth bag down beside a tray of incense and cups of herbs and sugar balls. He gets knee deep into the water and pulls out some weeds, cupping water and throwing it away, as though clearing this small section of river. He throws water over his own head and drinks some, then calls out to us in Hindi to do the same. I follow the lead of my new friend Ameeta, who is from Bangalore. She is roughly mum’s age and has a daughter my age so she takes me under her wing. I wimp out of drinking the water, but put a dab on my lips, contemplating the fine line between holy and shit. I figure a few water molecules are bound to make their way into me. The Rishi passes us a cup of red paste and we flick it into the water, then a pink flower that we hold in our prayer mudras, facing the holy river as he chants. After the flower is tossed, we are given tulsi basil and then sugar balls, with the same process. We pass around the incense and then a tray of burning ghee. I don’t know any of the chants, but when the om comes around, I chime in enthusiastically. In quiet meditation I keep opening my eyes, hearing the call of a peacock in the distance and watching the Rishi beside me. I can’t keep my eyes closed, I just want to drink in everything – the sights, the sounds, the smells… everything except the river water. Finally the Rishi passes the red paste to a large woman in a turquoise blue sari and she places a dot on each of our foreheads. When she reaches me, she applies the red paste and then gives my spiky head an affectionate pat. The Rishi uses his small stick to spread the paste upwards and then gives us some sugar balls, tulsi leaf and water to take. He adjusts my hands, mumbling, and I understand the word ‘mudra’, as he pushes my thumb into the centre of my palm. I walk away feeling as though my heart has just been ripped open. I feel terrified again at the magnificence of this feeling and the enormity of what I am doing. My heart has been ripped open and so has my mind, but that is exactly what I came here for.

After a dinner of Kichari, the seven people attending the Self Transformation Program meet in the meditation hall and are greeted by our ‘guide’, a self-proclaimed ‘monk-key’. He doesn’t lie when he calls himself radical. He loves palindromic sentences such as “stillness in motion; motion in stillness” and tells us that when “everything is changing, one must change everything!” He promises to kill the ego and give us the experience, because learning is not possible without the experience. He insists we refer to ourselves in the third person, stripping away attachment to who we think we are. When he asks in which position we like to meditate, assuming that everyone sits, I say that I prefer to stand. I have no idea why I say this because even though I really enjoy a standing meditation, more often than not I sit or lie down or move. I probably said it just to be backwards, but it has backfired on me because now I have to go through with it. After the meeting, we are sent to our rooms with the warning not to emerge after 10pm until the vegetarian dogs get used to our scent. We must practice silence when not in the discussion times and are only permitted to read three prescribed texts. Our teacher wants to move us from unconsciously unconscious to consciously conscious. As I stand and meditate before my lit candle, I think of the Standing Babas who spend their lives on their swollen feet for god. It really is more comfortable than sitting, though.

Due to the intensity of the course, we are no longer permitted contact with the outside world. I don’t know what will happen in the next three weeks, but I imagine it will be a huge transformation. I have the Doors’ song stuck in my head: “Break on through to the other side!!”