Category Archives: India

Hridaya retreat and aftermath

Sat, Chit, Ananda. Existence, Conciousness, Bliss. The teachings of what we really are. The true self within us all and the awareness that we all spring from. Call it Shiva, or Nirvana, Brahman or the Absolute, Buddha Nature or Christ Conciousness during the 10 day Hridaya Meditation retreat I got some sense of the stillness and peace that lies at the heart of all of us and it opened me to great creativity and love.

Last night,
I saw the realm of joy and pleasure.
There I melted like salt;
no religion; no blasphemy,
no conviction or uncertainty remained.
In the middle of my heart,
a star appeared
and the seven heavens were lost
in its brilliance.
– Rumi

In Chiang Mai I had managed to get myself involved in a total shit-show, blown out of proportion by a lack of solid communication. It was playing on my mind because the events had affected my relationship with three good friends. I felt short-changed by their reactions but also upset with myself for dealing with the situation badly. So the retreat came at the perfect time for me, an opportunity to go deep into myself, to figure out what is really important and to connect with the heart. It was more profound and life-changing than I could ever have expected.

I came to the paradise island of Ko Phangan for the retreat having been told about it by several teachers at the yoga school in Rishikesh. It sounded like the perfect way for me to start to grasp the real meaning behind so much of the spiritual philosophy I had absorbed in the previous months, and it would certainly turn into an experiential beginning.

Hridaya is the Spiritual Heart, a place in the middle of the chest which is the gateway to access the “true self” as talked about in many spiritual traditions. Most clearly this retreat is based on the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (who I talked about in my post on Tiruvanimallai here) He explained that the Spiritual Heart is not the same as the physical heart and nor is it the Heart Chakra Anahata but it does contain the sacred tremor and stillness that enables you to touch base with your emotions and realise the greater reality.

The techniques that we used during the retreat were simple but profound. Leaving short pauses after each inhalation and exhalation and trying to be in the stillness that pervades during this pause. This allows the thoughts to slow down and the mind to relax into a point of deeper meditation. When thoughts do arise you counter them by realising that they all stem from the “I” thought. Either “I want” or “I have” or “I am” or some other variation, everything stems from this association with a solid entity we associate with “I”. The question to undercut all of these is “Who am I?” It sounds deceptively simple but when you deeply meditate on this thought you find that there is no “I” there any more, there is nothing solid that you can identify with that is eternal. There is conciousness and there is an observer – but what you see as yourself is not that which is observed. The body is not it because you can observe your body as a seperate entity and the same can be said of the mind. As you watch thoughts arise and fall away it becomes clear that you are really not these thoughts, you are just observing them. We were taught that allowing “I don’t know” to be the answer and greeting that with wonderment can connect you with the sacred within and give you an intimate feeling of existence without consistent form.

10 days of silence was difficult at times, especially when 6 or so hours a day were taken up with meditation but as the time progressed I found the course to be having a profound effect. Some of the meditations for me were unbelievable, with a real feeling of peace, tranquility and physical bliss flowing over my body far more than I have ever experienced with any other type of meditation. I still found 2 hour meditation sessions to be too much for me physically as much as anything and there were times when I wondered what the hell I was doing there. The first few days saw a lot of anger come up, with myself and others as I worked through some things that had been bothering me but I came to a point where I decided that I would let this go and settle into the meditation. After that it became a lot easier as I surrendered into the practice. One effective method for me was when we were taught “Blowing on the Embers of the Heart” where you breathe deeply and focus on the breath in your chest area to invoke feelings in the heart to remind you of this divine source. The technique had me feeling like I was burning anger and negative emotions in the energy that was centred there and I felt a great peace after the meditation. This focus can make you aware of the “Sacred Tremor of the heart”, the divine mystery of the deep throb or tremble at the chest, called the Spanda in Kashmiri Shaivism which shows you the way into the dynamic stillness that at a universal level is the very source of everything.

Last Night As I Was Sleeping

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

Antonio Machado

The course included a lot of inspirational teachings and poetry, such as the couple of pieces I’ve quoted here, and also a hatha yoga practice each day. The hatha was similar to the Agama style I was used to but even more internalised making the class almost into a meditation in itself and leaving me perfectly ready to go deep into the practice after finishing.

The teachings in general were getting to the crux that the universiality that one can sense in the heart centre is the microcosmic experience in our ego-self of the greater whole and that it is pure bliss to settle there. Internalising and following practice can lead to this peace – “You are either in Dharma or in Drama”

One simple tenet that really fundamentally affected the way I have thought since is that “Love is in you – you don’t need it from the outside”. That and the advice that out of life’s experiences we choose to emphasise which aspects we remember. We have the choice to be positive or negative and so to avoid getting stuck in patterns we should emphasise the love and be grateful…!

I could go on and on about the teachings but it is apt to remember another snippet and not try to explain my experience too much:

“Silence is the language God speaks and everything else is a bad translation.”

Thomas Keating

After this amazing experience I was glowing. I came into my own power and manifested a world on this island that was quite simply magical. It wasn’t until the day after that I realised the profound effect the retreat had on me. I was seeing the world through eyes that saw things brighter and more intensely but also without fear or attachment. I threw myself into yoga practice, taking 2 classes a day of the Agama level one course and being totally present throughout each.  I pushed myself to the limit in all of these classes and found them extremely powerful (although after 4 days I’d exhausted myself in this fashion.) I was glowing and spoke to several other attendees of the retreat who had a similar experience. We would simply look, smile and sigh and know we were both feeling wonderful. I had amazing phone calls on Skype with my Mum and Dad and every interaction seemed to be full of joy.

I can’t mention all the people who I had great friendships with on the island but I have to bring a few characters in to explain the wonderful time that I had.


Sharon who I met before the retreat and who joined at the last minute to have a similar if not quite as deep an experience as I did. We had a very close friendship and she introduced me to the Shangri La restaurant which I would spend many a happy afternoon. She left to go to the jungle wanting to adopt a Thai girl she met on the beach, a very typical example of the “Sharon zone” the way wacky things seemed to happen around her..!

I met an Israeli girl in the sea one day, Nili, who was a fellow Pisces and we clicked immediately. We had a beautiful friendship for the few days she was on the island as we opened to one another in such an easy and mutually beneficial way. She was studying psychoanalysis and viewing the route to self-improvement very differently but our approaches were complimentary and the empathy we shared was tangible.

When Nili left things began to blossom even more fabulously as there were beautiful people around and our little gang of creatives continued hanging out at the wonderful beachfront restaurant making artwork. All of us were looking to bring more creativity into our lives by opening to the universe, love and being receptive to all that was available.


So there was Jackie O or Coco, living on the island for 2 years while writing some inspirational childrens books. Lulu Kattie, working on creativity through writing, a fellow water sign and showing her nurturing quality with everyone in such a beautiful and loving way. She named Shoo Shoo (and wanted to eat the little pumpkin) and was so in the love with everyone she had approx 13 leaving parties.


Flora, High Security kept us on the straight and narrow with her determination and ability to keep her wits about her when all others were losing their minds (let alone lighters). She led us to the right Mart and made sure we never paid more Bart than we should for a taxi. Strong willed and independent she would be first at the bar, last to bed and always goading us to more adventures.
‘Erbalicious lived up to her name, providing a laid back viewpoint over the whole situation and always ready to indulge in some great Shangri La grub when not getting seasick on her dive boat.


Johnny Hoops was wise and considerate with openness to all our ideas and some great additions. He and I riffed off each other and created a corner of Shiva while surrounded by the girls.


Sabine entered the group late but was one of the most beautiful, gentle souls and totally connected with the loving creatitvity that the group had established.


And then there was Sophie Wilson. Veronica, Kavita Shakti, as she became known, joined our merry group and added a new dimension of fun, flying, sexuality and spirituality all at the same time. We clicked very quickly. In fact it didn’t take long before we were living together in Chiang Mai in a New York Style apartment and starting a business empire … but then, that’s a different story…



So after artwork, writing postcards in the round, day trips to the other side of the island where we made Shiva Lingam sandcastles swam and swung on swings, had meditations interrupted by bacon sandwiches, got lost looking for the right mart and saw Johnny off in the nick of time at the pier we came back for fire shows on the beach and full moon astrological blanket ceremonies, bhajans, bungalow parties and of course that pink bucket…

It was magical and I felt my heart open with all these wonderful souls and somehow I think the retreat allowed me to be in that space and watch everyone blossom and be so grateful to see it and be a part of it.

I don’t want to forget Sofie D and Jade as well as the others who were also an important part of the energy as I continued with level 2 Agama and learnt more and more.
As the original group changed when people left and others joined we carried on in a similar vein and when Gray, Sophie’s Dad arrived he didn’t bat an eyelid, settling into the island vibe very easily and being more than happy to hang out at the Three Monkeys Bar on the beach with the rest of us. We took a second trip to the Sanctuary with him where he discussed football with Chard Jumlong and ate great fish and chips at the most incongruous place on the island the Mason’s Arms…

Good times one and all…
Some photographs are from Clara Jansen, Georgina and Chaitaly Jay

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Spiti

Leah left us in the early morning to head back for a Tantra workshop in Dharamsala which left Sev and I alone. I don’t think Siddarth wanted us to leave as his instructions on how to catch the bus were somewhat reluctantly given but we walked down the hill to the main road and then waited by the chicken shop for about 2 hours. As we are cursing Siddarth the bus eventually comes and Caroline, a French girl we met in Peo is sitting at the front.

We have to stand for some time but eventually arrive at Nako where we stay in an odd room with the most terrifying water heating system I have ever seen. The village is amazing though and we walk up to a past the lake to a pass where we see even more mountains.

It is our first experience of walking at really high altitudes and is noticeable but exhilarating – Sev climbs to the top of a rocky outcrop where for a moment I consider what I would do if he didn’t come back.

There is an old monastery here, a shop that sells Nutella and we find a place with some decent Tibetan food.
Our next stop is Tabo with its very old monastery and meditation caves up the hill.
The road here is particularly treacherous, with steep drops, narrow roads where the bus has to pull over often to allow trucks and cars coming the other way to pass and often you are driving seemingly through the side off the cliff that has been hollowed out.
The bus stop is an incongruous start coming from this direction as you approach the edge of town surrounded by big, ugly, modern buildings, part of some sort of agricultural centre and stop in a big car park.
Things change when we get up early and hear the Monks giving a puja in the new monastery, however. It is a beautiful, meditative experience and the first meditation that I had done for a while.

The ancient mud walled monastery has some incredible frescoes and statues in its dark corners (torches very necessary) and is still well used by the community of Sangha here.
We find a restaurant with a load of local food on the menu, and being adventurous we order about 6 dishes between the 3 of us. This prompts great activity as the 4 staff jump up from their TV watching and begin moving. Two rush out to the market while the others start preparing and soon all four are beavering away in the kitchen leaving new customers unserved as our feast is cooked up in a dervish. The tsampa porridge with Yak Cheese was a bit disappointing but the other dishes were great. A local type of Momo which was more like a Cornish Pastry, another Momo that was similar to normal and a “local” thali, which was a slight variation on the normal sabji.


Our next stop, off the main road and up a hill overlooking the valley and river is the mighty Dhankar, a village pretty much situated on top of a rock.

There is a monastery here as well (of course) and an old fort, although that is pretty much derelict.

The monastery is literally balanced on a rock, on the edge of the world. We were given tea by the monks there as we looked around and climbed onto the roof.

It was here that we stayed with Anil and his family in a basic but beautiful little homestay at the top of the village. He helped us wash our clothes in the stream, served us home cooked food and then took us on a five day trek.

He has worked with Ecosphere who do a lot of great work in this very impoverished region and Caroline had heard people who had done a similar walk from village to village, ending up at the main hub of Kaza.

After a couple of days exploring the village, visiting the beautiful lake and doing yoga on his terrace we set off for the first town…

The first day in blistering sun took us on an easy 4 hour hike to the village of Lalung along dusty paths and into the wilderness of Spiti. As well as the three of us we had Anil as guide, Tenzin our young porter and the donkeys, later to be named Prem and Dill. We were shown the ancient monastery here, a theme in all parts of the valley, and spent some time meditating by a beautiful tree.

That night we sat and practiced our Momo making skills with the family – mine leave something to be desired but it was nice to have something other than rice and dal to eat.

Day two saw an easy start and then a very difficult second section after crossing the river. We had to climb 800m on this day and the majority was straight up on a steep series of switchbacks. I found untapped energy during this, listening to the Prodigy and storming ahead but we were all knackered by the time we reached Dhomul at the top of the hill. We were fed tsampa porridge with Yak cheese when we arrived and it was significantly better than in Tabo – really tasty actually, but it did include a big heap of sugar which might have helped.

The basic family room was comfortable enough and the corridor was filled with cow dung to be used as fuel for the long winter.

In the morning we had omlette and parantha (as usual) before setting off on the next stage.
This was the day we reached our highest point, the Dhomul pass at roughly 4500m with snow covering the sides of the path and the wind whistling a shrill and freezing breeze around us we only stopped long enough for a quick photo.

Our next stop was slightly lower at Komik where I wasn’t feeling the best. We had a look around the monastery, one of the biggest in the region, but all bar two of the monks were away attending a ceremony in Kaza. The guesthouse was pleasant enough although the large windows made the room a little cold and I couldn’t really stomach much dinner.
The next day we set off for Langza which would be the highest place we would stop at 4325m. We approached through some fields and scanned the whole village before finding the homestay (Anil’s first choice was full.) Sev wanted to go on a search for fossils so we went to a dried up riverbed but I was more interested in the huge herd of animals, yaks, cows, goats, donkeys, sheep etc that were grazing down there. I went and checked out the monastery and the big Buddha statue on the hill and the place felt noticeably closer to civilisation, being just up the road from Kaza.

During this time we spent our evenings watching Arrested Development on my laptop – it’s great by the way. I think this is the best episode…

One night we watched I heart Huckabees which seemed to mirror what was going on in the trek… Caroline and I loved it but Sev wasn’t so sure. (He preferred The Expendables..) For me though I realised that, having watched Huckabees after my last trip to South East Asia and really enjoyed it, this movie could have been my first introduction to Buddhist ideas and explains a lot how I took to Buddhism very quickly. I mean the film isn’t explicit in this, it very cleverly talks philosophy without really specifying where the ideas come from and the techniques clearly aren’t Buddhist per se but the concepts.. oh yeah.

Kaza is the administrative centre of Spiti and finds itself cut off from the rest of India for most of the year when the nearby road to Manali is closed. The town itself is nice though, split into old and new Kaza by a small river but there isn’t too much to distinguish. There is a modern Gompa which is great and I saw the monks doing a big puja with horns, cymbals and drums – one of the more dramatic ceremonies I have attended.
We spent a couple of days winding down from the trek, though, eating Indian sweets and pastries from the German Bakery and enjoying the things we hadn’t been able to get on the trek. Sev and I did a trip up to Kibber for the night, which used to be the highest village in the world with a road (although there are now places higher in Tibet.) We walked down to see Ki Gompa, one of the most famous monasteries in this region and found ourselves on one of the steepest paths we had been on..

Looking back where we had walked from it was hard to believe we had just come down what looked like a sheer cliff face!
The Gompa was impressive as you can see but we found ourselves without a lift back to Kaza and started walking. At first we thought, there will be something we can hitch-hike soon. After a while, with all the traffic going in the opposite direction, it became clear we would have to walk the 11Km back to Kaza – we got a lift for maybe the last 1 or 2 K but pretty much walked the whole way..!

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Himachal Pradesh Valleys

 

Stage One: Parvati.
We could hardly believe it as we sat down in the warm tent on cushioned seats more like beds and perused the menu of Indian, Continental and Israeli food while the more established guests cleaned their chillums. The culmination of a five hour trek through challenging but quite breathtaking scenery led us to this point and it was only then that someone mentioned the hot springs. Pinching myself to be sure my near death experience on our walk had not landed me in some sort of backpacker heaven I was eventually able to relax.


 Our journey had begun 3 days earlier in Rishikesh where Leah, Sev and I set off without a clear destination but with a motivation for mountains, nature and adventure. We took the bus to Dehra Dun and then asked where their buses were going. Kasol was the place that jumped out and despite not entirely being prepared for a lengthy Himachal Pradesh local bus ride we took it in our stride and arrived in the early morning for tea and an omlette while Babaji, our guesthouse owner, shared a joint with an Israeli girl on the opposite table.


The Parvati Valley is known for its beautiful lush valleys, its charas and in recent years its influx of Israeli tourists from where a burgeoning psy-trance scene has developed. It was incredible to hike out of the town into the woods, meditate on a rock by the river and enjoy the serene countryside but less enjoyable to hang out due to every place blasting innappropriate music. There was a festival “Shiva Squad” just out of town when we were there but the whole place felt a bit like the dodgy part of a festival to me, all black light t-shirts and posters and people wandering about looking lost, confused and pale.

From here we follow our noses and some scratchy notes from Leah’s sister towards Pasani by hitch-hike and bus before setting off towards Khir Ganga, the destination we know little about.
Pasani is dominated by a hydro-electric dam project, so we just get off the bus and follow a route pointed to us by tourists and locals. It turns out to be the long way, but what a way… Possibly the most amazing trek I have ever been on saw 5 hours of enormous trees, gushing waterfalls, grassy clearings and the light coming through the leaves and making the place look like a kaleidoscope of colour.

It was challenging as well, with steep sections, muddy sections, slippery sections, bits where you had to climb over trees or hop across rocks and the bit where I nearly lost my footing on a rock and slipped down a ravine. I made it though and arriving in the most amazing place with hot springs and schakhlab with nutella has never been sweeter.

We stayed 2 nights, and it would have been longer but we hadn’t really brought anything with us. So then we returned, this time by the more simple, but still beautiful, path and then took a last minute detour to stay at the small village of Tosh. Tosh is actually a village, with people living there, and things happening. I mean, not much happening, but still. We stayed at the basic Last Resort Guesthouse and were really upset while having a rudimentary chat with the woman running the place on understanding that her husband had died three weeks previously falling from a cliff. It was one of those conversations that started normally and then ended up without any of us knowing what to say or do. The eldest daughter came and showed us a photo of her with her Dad and looked sad so we did our best to keep the children amused and were as generous as we could be, although we hadn’t brought enough money with us to be really charitable.


The next morning we stroll down the hour to Pasani and just make the bus for Kasol where lunch is taken and our next long journey on to Reckong Peo via Mandi begins immediately.
Peo is the entrance to the Kinnaur Valley which leads on to Spiti, one of the most remote places in India.

We self-medicate for the overnight bus from Mandi to Peo and riding along the treacherous mountain roads with the bus swinging from one side to the other it was a good move. From the window all you can see is darkness, lit up by the headlights to show either nothing, or a rock face in front of you. Sometimes you can see stars twinkling but then you realise that stars aren’t below you and that actually these are houses a long, long way down in the valley. To say it is terrifying would be an understatement. At times you start praying, chanting mantras, fingering your mala and crossing yourself in an attempt to cover all the potential bases. It turns out this isn’t even the most dangerous road we travel on during the trip.


We don’t stay in Peo, despite the exhausting journey, but take the bus up the mountain to the pretty village of Kalpa where we meditate in the ancient gompa, are amused by the erotic artwork and enjoy not being on a bus for a while.

We had been recommended a place called Chitkul in the adjoining Sangla valley so take the bus along the scarred countryside where dam projects, military bases, and other construction have left the place looking pretty ugly. Chitkul itself seems pretty well shut. We are greeted in an unfriendly manner, if we are greeted at all and the guesthouses seem to be waiting for the season to start. Apparently in a month the valley is lush and verdant but when we are there it is cold, barren and looks like the end of the world. Entertainment is in the form of the farmers abusing some oxen to plough a field but it is effective farming as while we watch they turn the earth, plant some seeds and cover with fertiliser. Food is hard to come by as is decent accomodation and after one night we turn around and get the 6AM bus back to Peo.


From Peo into the Spiti Valley it is necessary to get an “Inner Line Permit” because of the proximity to the Tibet/China border. The talkative travel agent suggests an option for us since we don’t want to take another 6 hour bus journey onwards the same day and so we get the bus to the village of Ribbe where we are put up in a homestay by the generous if slightly overbearing, Siddarth. We are most welcome in his awesome house – one of three his family own in the village, and after all the travel it is the most amazing place to relax.
The sun is shining and we have a lawn to relax and do yoga. Siddarth shows us around the village, taking us to meet his father and baby daughter and arranging for a local monk to give us a tour of the three gompas in the village. Ribbe seems to be a pretty well off place, with Siddarth’s family alone having a large farm growing apples as the cash crop but also almonds and wheat alongside the house among other things. Visiting this “backyard” was absolutely beautiful and felt like the garden of Eden in comparison to Chitkul.
Siddarth also made us sit through his wedding video which was interestingly produced and included a segment that was a good 20 minutes long showing cars arriving. There was a lot of money being draped over peoples necks as well. For an hour or so this would have been interesting but I think the film went on for at least 3 hours. He fed and watered us very well though and it would be churlish to complain too much, even when he woke us up at 6 in the morning with a chai. Ribbe was a great experience and off the tourist route so I’m really happy to have stopped there.

It was here that Leah left us and Sev and I found ourselves waiting by the side of the road next to a chicken stall cursing Siddarth for getting the bus times wrong.

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Spiritual as…: Guru Hopping and Mystic Mountain Power in Tiruvanimallai.

Mooji sits at the front of a large, mostly off-white hall crammed full of mostly white, western truth seekers.  He is not a typical yogi; more Laughing Buddha than ascetic monk, Jamaican and with a gurgling chuckle that brings to mind an affable Uncle, albeit one with some profound things to say about the world.  He is delivering Satsang; an opportunity for people to ask questions relating to truth from one who has some experience of the subject.  Mooji, like most of the Gurus in this town, follows the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy where the path to enlightenment involves questioning “Who Am I?” until you finally unveil the true “self”.  This is the non-dual view of the universe that takes us all as one, coming from one source and ultimately being the same in our true nature. The illusion of life as we see it comes from our associating truth to it but actually by using self-inquiry you can begin to understand that the “I” we create is not real.  You are not your body and you are not your mind because it is possible to observe both and possible to disassociate from them also.  You are not your past or your future but you are existing as pure consciousness and awareness right now in the present moment observing what the character you are associating with is doing.  Viewing life in this way can bring a great lightness to everything you do, allowing you to take things less seriously and ultimately to exist in a state that is closer to whatever universal truth exists out there.  In this way it is quite beautiful in its simplicity and the way that some of the teachers present it is often said to be in us already. We are already enlightened we just don’t realise it yet.

The search for truth, says Mooji, is like a fish in the ocean looking for water.  The fish complains “I’m really thirsty.”  “So drink, you are surrounded by water” responds Mooji. “Well yes,” replies the fish, “I understand that intellectually…”

On a more subtle level the search for truth is like waves looking for the ocean, it is difficult to see because we are part of the whole.

If there is a spiritual zeitgeist it seems we are riding the wave after hearing that:

“Oh yeah, most of the spiritual world are in Tiru right now, make sure you see Werner”

Werner sits on the roof of his house under a shade with a perfectly framed view of the holy mountain Arunachala in the background.  He is the most happy looking and bright-eyed of meditators, with an ageless air about him as he recieves questions twice a week from another group of western truth seekers.  There are Russians here who through confession don’t understand a word he says and yet come regularly to feel his presence.  Compared to Mooji this is a low key affair but his story is quite extreme by Western standards, having spent at least 7 years  in the basement of Amma’s ashram in the Kerala backwaters meditating until he reached a point of realisation.

The view of the mountain is what dominates this small town and Arunachala, said to be an emanation of Shiva, does seem to have a power to it.  We start walking up the hill and are stopped by a Baba at a temple, stripped to the waist and wearing a black lunghi almost the same colour as his skin. He has bright eyes, a wide smile and good enough English to draw us into his story. We go inside the baking hot shrine room where he shows us a photo book gift he was given by some German tourists who stayed with him.  It is a beautiful present with some touching photos and he is obviously as proud of the present as his visitors were inspired to give it.  He takes our name and performs a blessing on each one individually.

Carrying on along the Inner Path and surrounded by herbs and lush vegetation it doesn’t take long before you turn a corner and find the honking bustle of the town below is long left behind and a peacefulness descends.  It is here that I really begin to understand the magic of the town.

Each full moon the town and pilgrims from afar do a full Cora or circumnambulation of the mountain on the longer 14Km road route which takes in a multitude of Shiva Lingams.  As is often the case in India of course, a spiritual activity like this is turned somewhat into a family holiday trip as shops along the route sell everything from gold watches to posters of WWE wrestlers (or your favourite God). In December the full moon is marked by a giant fire on the top of the hill and the crowd swells to massive numbers. It seemed crowded enough when we did it so I can only imagine the bedlam on this occasion.

The pilgramage or Gilvaram is supposed to be undertaken barefoot although we didn’t realise this when we set off.  We took our time and made several Chai stops, checked out the stalls selling honeyed dates and marvelled at the lengthy queue building to climb through a small gap at one of the many Shiva Lingam shrines around the mountain.

The most famous Guru from Tiru is undoubtedly Sri Ramana Maharisi. His ashram dominates proceedings and the tourist part of town emanates from it as a central hub. (From there and the chai shop opposite doing the best ginger masala chai around).  He meditated in a cave halfway up Arunachala for around 20 years after some years suffering rats in the main temple in town and then established his ashram as a home for truth seekers. The ashram is a relatively peaceful place (as long as you don’t get a room next to the road) with powerful meditation spaces, peacocks roaming the grounds and a beautiful old tree in the entrance courtyard.

His most fundamental and common teaching was to ask the question “Who am I?” while probing at that which marks us out as an individual.  He said that his greatest teacher was the mountain and his silent teachings were the ones he considered most powerful.

Using the subject/object oriented view of the world one can begin to understand that you are not your mind or body because you are able to observe both.  Looking at the awareness that is behind that is when you start to probe the true self and by extension the source of all existence.

The main temple is a huge affair. With 4 gigantic towers marking the compass point entrances and leading through more and more shrines to the central Darshan area which is like an oven as you queue to get the blessing from the Shiva flame burning constantly inside. Stepping in is like something from a fantasy film and the energy is powerful. You get a great birds eye view from up the mountain and going inside is equally impressive.  You can get blessed by the (not particularly happy-looking) elephant, or watch the baby monkeys counting their prayer beads. I stayed down here for the first week or so due to the lack of accomodation and the pissy-smelling street with tourbusses of pilgrims arriving to a honking chorus at 5AM eventually made my decision to move but it was a great area with some fantastic local food and the feel of real, crazy India apart from the sanitised western guru grounds.

James Schwarz sits in a small air-conditioned room on the top of one of the more expensive hotels in town, teaching more intellectual types his interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita.  He is a very impressive scholar, clearly doing a great deal of research and explaining the spiritual path as he sees it from an academic perspective but also reflecting on the different types of practice and how he sees it.  Where Mooji can be vague in his practical teachings but warm and all-encomapssing in his welcome then James is very precise in his teaching but harder to warm to.

He seemed to do a good job of making what is a very simple philosophy rather more complicated than it needed to be and his habit of disparaging the credentials of other spiritual practicioners didn’t really sit right with me but then he has many followers who find his words inspiring so he must be doing something right.
While James was the wordiest guru I went to see the ancient Hindu practice of Mouna or silence is also in effect with some teachers.

Every day sees the opportunity for Darshan (meeting the guru) with Shiva Shakti. We sat in silence in the bright room at her ashram and waited until this small Indian woman descended the stairs.  She looked calm and peaceful and the atmosphere was reverent but positive. Her every move was slow and deliberate as she crossed the room and sat down.  Looking around she would blink her eyes between people as she made to look at everyone in the room individually. Then she stood up and came closer to the group, seemingly making Mudras with her hands and blessing people through this action.  After 15 minutes observing this I was no closer to being convinced by her enlightenment, although I appreciate this isn’t the point.  I did feel peaceful afterwards and it seems that she does have a good energy which perhaps the room leeches from her, I guess this is her gift to us. Going in I knew nothing about her and even now I know little more.

The philosophy of Sri Ramana and by extension Papaji, Mooji and Eckhart Tolle has been a bit of a revelation since I first picked up the Power of Now in Thailand. To arrive in Tiru where the philosophy is so ingrained in the teachings and where this thinking has certainly been popularised is a revelation, particularly since I had no idea what I was coming to beforehand.  As much as I like Buddhism, the core philosophy isn’t so different but Advaita offers a more direct path and with less BS ritual or practice.  Self-inquiry isn’t so easy or simple as it sounds but at the same time it does cut right to the crux and makes a lot of sense to me.

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Nepal nutshell

While Nepal may be one of the poorest countries in the world and have all the infrastructure problems that go along with that, it is a decidedly easy and enjoyable place to visit. It has the chaos of India, the roads and the pollution are worse in places, but the people seem friendlier and Kathmandu is really the only place you can call a city anyhow.

In March I trekked to Annapurna base camp but this time I’ve been hanging in Kathmandu waiting for the Lam Rim Buddhism course at Kopan Monastery which starts in about a week.

I’ve managed to do some volunteering with a local community centre called Bright Future arranged by Isabel from Australia, talking to the children and seeing what they do. I also taught a couple of lessons at a local school which was cool, although I felt that I was in the deep end in front of 30 twelve to fourteen year olds with no teaching experience.

Anyway, it was fun but with all the festivals they have here the schools aren’t really sitting at the moment so I took the opportunity to go and visit some spots in the valley for a few days…

It’s interesting when you consider the lifestyles of the people here, so simple and with very little of what we consider essential back home. There are political views, of course, with the Maoist government not necessarily being hated but also judged on their actions.  With encroachment from India in the south and China in the north, sometimes in the guise of “development” (where roads are being built to connect with China in rural areas potentially destroying fertile trekking ground for the Nepal tourism trade, the roads in Kathmandu are terrible and often feel like driving over boulders.)

To compare to the “austerity” in Britain, however, is a little tricky. I’ve made the joke that to escape Cameron’s measures at home I’m escaping to a monastery – maybe it will be less austere but that’s really a little flippant.  I mean, having looked into the followers of the Occupy movement a little and being broadly supportive of their (slightly vague) aims it is interesting to see how in a country as poor as Nepal the global economy doesn’t really impact it all that much.  They don’t really have natural resources, apart from the Himalaya, and that isn’t something you can export so they are reliant on the tourist trade and their own craftsmanship and farming to live.  This is a simple life for sure but isn’t it what a lot of middle class people in England claim to be aiming for as well?

It’s that weird dichotomy you get in third world countries, the people here are looking to have more of the western consumer culture while in the west we shy away from it. Actually, I don’t think Nepal is too “spoiled” by that desire; it is an immensely spiritual country with incredible nature and temples everywhere. I mean, EVERYWHERE!

Anyway, I’m off to the monastery in less than a week now so we will see how that goes.. wish me luck now…

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