As my journey in India continues, I find it increasingly difficult to clearly portray how I am feeling. So much is happening within and around me at all times. The emotions and insights are feeling more complex and intimate. Most of the time, I find myself in a state of awe as I observe and absorb the environment, people, and daily life around me. Especially in this past week, I have been feeling completely speechless at the magnitude of just being alive in this world. I am slowly processing India at the core of my being, and I think I will continue to process it for a long time to come.
With that being said, here is an overview of some recent experiences.
I had heard about Tiruvannamalai at the beginning of my trip. My friend Lonneke (we met at the Sivananda Ashram) had decided to do a Vipassana retreat in the city in mid- February. At the time, it was just another Indian city that I couldn't pronounce, knew nothing about, and had no plans to visit. Things changed, of course. As I started making plans to leave Mysore, I reached out to Lonneke and told her that Tiruvannamalai had been popping into my mind. I heard it was a holy city and was curious about the spirituality there. Although she would be in a Vipassana retreat for the whole time that I could visit, she encouraged me to go (I'm so thankful that she did!).
A little background: I knew that Tiruvannamalai was a holy city, but I had no idea how special it was/is. I didn't know that Tiruvannamalai was the haven of both a remarkable guru and the Hindu god, Siva. Ramana Maharshi made his way to Tiruvannamalai in 1896 (and remained there sharing his wisdom until his death ("mahanirvana") in 1950). I had heard this guru's name from my parents (he is my Dad's guru!), but I honestly didn't know anything about his life or his teachings. This city is also home to the grand mountain, Arunachala, which is said to be lord Siva incarnate. Ramana had said that the magnetism of the godly mountain was what had brought him to Tiruvannamalai. In addition to these two spiritually powerful attractions, there is also an impressive Siva temple (actually a 9-temple complex!), Annamalaiyar temple.
My first day, a fellow traveler lent me her copy of the book "Face To Face With Sri Ramana Maharshi". The book shares enchanting and uplifting reminiscences of 202 people. I read the book throughout the week as I spent hours everyday in the Ramanasramam (Ashram). Reading the book, meditating in the spaces that are still very much alive with his energy, observing and participating in the daily rituals, talking with devotees/followers, and spending time on the mountain (meditating in caves!) all gave me a very sacred foundation in becoming familiar with this spiritual master. I resonate with his core teaching of self-inquiry. He encouraged seekers again and again to ask themselves "who am I?"; to look within instead of around. He said that continually asking this question will lead to liberation (also described as, reaching the level of a "jivamukta, emancipated while yet still in the physical body"). I feel a connection to this guru. When I look into the photographed eyes of Maharshi, I get the message "be gentle with yourself". I can sense his warmth. I have never really thought about seeking a particular guru. Do I want a guru? Is Ramana Maharshi my guru? I'm not sure. I find some spiritual masters very inspiring, but I don't know if I would want to become a devotee of one. Maybe?! In India, the ancient culture of spiritual study within the guru- disciple relationship is so strong. There is a common thread that seems to tie these enlightened beings (gurus) all together (from what I have heard), it's all about the love. Gurus seem to exude the highest level of unconditional love, light, and contentment. I think the goal is to develop the same level of unconditional love within and towards ourselves. When we practice Ahimsa (nonviolence) towards ourselves, the positivity ripples out. By asking "who I am?" we can connect with the observer within, the one who is everything and nothing at the same time, purity and stillness. It is in that inner sanctuary where we can grow our ability to love and forgive. I think that this space within is the guru.
Anyways, I had a very positive experience at the Ramana Ashram. I enjoyed the tranquility and wisdom that has showered visitors of the ashram for many many years. I was impressed with the environment created and maintained by the ashram staff. Even though I wasn't living at the ashram, it felt like a nourishing home. Apart from the spiritual focus, one of my favorite parts of everyday was around 4pm when all the monkeys would come out and interact with the guests at the ashram! They were so cute and entertaining 🙂
India is so extreme. Extreme beauty and bliss are always on the flip side of extreme suffering (and vice versa). While I was mostly focused on stories of enlightenment and inner expansion this week.... I was also recognizing the difficult reality of life in India. The poverty of this country has really started to sink in. There were more beggars in Tiruvannamalai than I had experienced in other places. Severe physical deformities and malnourishment were much more shocking and prevalent. I thought I had a pretty good handle on my emotions regarding this issue. However, I had a day when the darkness of it really overpowered me. When I gave money to
beggars it felt like it wasn't making a difference. There were always more and more people asking for help. The people that I did give money to, would continue to ask for more than what I gave. A feeling of helplessness settled in. I didn't know how to deal with all the emotions I was having regarding these daily experiences. In my attempt to make sense of my surroundings, I ended up getting the exact experience that I needed. I found myself in an Informal "India counseling session" in a cafe that afternoon. I had decided that I would take a break from the overstimulating streets for a while and enjoy the comforts of a touristy cafe. I sat down next to a 60 yr. old woman from Spain. She has been coming to India for the last 12 years as a volunteer to build homes for the "out of caste" population. She helps the poorest of the poor in India. She had taken a few days off after recently building 5 new homes completely by herself! As we talked, I started to feel lighter. The lightness did not come from the content (which was very heavy) of our conversation, but rather just a sense of relief in speaking to someone who understood exactly how I felt. She has seen it all! She told me many stories of the people that she helps and the things that she has seen. She said one couple was sleeping with an umbrella in their bed at night because a cyclone had destroyed half of their roof and they didn't have the means to fix it (she paid to have their roof fixed). She had encountered an old woman who was blind and dying on the side of the road, and arranged to have someone look after her. She shed light on many aspects of life in India, telling me that 100 rupees (about $1.50) could be the difference between parents feeding their kids that day or not, that multiple children often have to share one pair of shoes, and that many women suffer in their (arranged) marriages due to rape and abuse. She said the stories of despair are endless. When I praised her for the important work she is doing, she responded with "it's just a drop in the bucket". On a positive note, she said that she continues to come back to India every year because she never wants to become tolerant of the extremes that she witnesses. She wants to keep feeling alive, to be in touch with her heart, and to continue helping. I have read that 30-40% of the world's poor live in India. Life can be so incredibly hard for people here. But I would imagine that it doesn't feel quite so harsh to them. It's just their life. The challenges probably feel normal and somewhat acceptable. But from an outsider's perspective, the same challenges can feel unbearably depressing. I was inspired by this woman and I felt nourished by the raw essence of our discussion. I was able to ask lots of questions and to feel supported and understood by her. I would like to find a way to help, to add another drop to the bucket. I would like to practice more gratitude in general as well. I have never felt so privileged as I have felt here. I am extremely fortunate to have been born into a life of freedom and abundance.
I experienced so much in this last week. From the ashram to the mountain to the streets. Many lessons and insights. I began to really wonder what brought me here (to India). India is not the dreamland of yoga and Ayurveda that I had expected it to be (India is teaching me again and again to release any and ALL expectations!!). It is relatively easy to be blind towards the hardships of the country by staying within the comforts of nice hotels, restaurants, ashrams, and upper class transportation. There is a harsh reality here. This is a third world country. I don't want to deny the whole picture of India. There is always "bad" with the "good", it's a balance. But it's a lot to handle. What am I learning by being exposed to these extremes? I think my skin is getting thicker, but what else? Can my journey of study and personal growth here help others? Can I make the world a better place after developing a more well- rounded perspective? How can I make a difference? How can I incorporate all that I am leaning into my career as a yoga teacher? Going back to the question of "who am I?", Ramana says that we must first work on ourselves and find out who we are before we can make the world a better place. I hope that the happiness I feel (and am building on) within will indeed ripple out and create more ease in the hearts of others. I also believe in being proactive in terms of finding ways to help others as often as possible. I would like to volunteer here in some way ( this trip or another time) and continue to be more mindful about offering service in the future (wherever I am).
Another experience this week: The annual celebration of Lord Siva happened while I was in Tiruvannamalai, its called Sivaratri. I had never heard of it before coming to India. Since the mountain Arunachala is said to BE Siva, I felt that I was in a very special place for the festivities. However, I had come down with a bad cold the day before. So I decided to take it easy and just check out the temple and relax at the ashram. I walked to the temple with some friends that night and on the way, I stepped in a big pile of cow poop! My friend said "it's good luck!" Haha. That was my Siva gift! The temple was too crowded, so we decided to just head back to the ashram. The rituals there were beautiful as always and happened throughout the entire night. Most people celebrated by fasting during the day and staying up all night either offering prayers at the temple or circling Arunachala until dawn. Even though I could not fully participate in the Sivaratri activities, I had trekked up Arunachala earlier in the week and felt deeply satisfied with that experience. I had hired a guide to trek with me up the mountain. The guide was a local man named Ashok Kumar. He is 34 and was born and raised in Tiruvannamalai. He started hiking the mountain when he was just 8 yrs. old and began leading tours when he was 16. He said he treks up the mountain everyday (sometimes twice!). He was easy to talk to and had a wealth of information to share. We started our trek at 5am and stopped a few times along the way to meditate, watch the sun rise, and rest. We arrived at the top around 8:30am. Once at the top, Ashok took me to a small cave that contained an altar for Siva. He guided me through a meditation, which I loved! I got to spend some time with the view before we made our way back down. I had an interesting thought at the top of Arunachala. I realized.. "well I am in an extremely special and spiritual place right now, if some magical enlightenment was meant to happen, it could happen now!" But I didn't experience anything particularly mystical...Only thoughts about what I wanted to release. I had the thought that I probably won't become enlightened in this lifetime (it seems that most spiritual masters experience enlightenment at an early age)... so maybe I should ease up! Be more gentle with myself (which is the message that I got from Ramana Marharshi). It's not that I don't want to try to continue experiencing bliss... but I would like to drop the expectations. I can loosen up and enjoy more. I can just be. 🙏❤️
My experiences in Tiruvannamalai filled my spiritual "cup", and I am so grateful.
That's it for now~ Continuing one step at a time 🙏 this blog post may seem a bit scattered, so thanks for reading along! My brain is exploding all the time these days.
I am currently hanging out (NOT in my
plan) at the New Delhi airport for 13 hours... crazy travel day today, nothing went as planned. I have a flight to Rishikesh tomorrow morning at 8:30am and can't wait to begin my experience at the International Yoga Festival!
Love love love ❤️