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Ha! Who needs hair?

I’ve been sick for about two weeks beginning with mild nausea and headaches that gradually worsened. After more than a week of that Bhakti took me to see her English doctor friend who suspected something to do with the liver and sent me into town to a lab for a complete blood count and liver function test. It turned out I was mildly jaundiced. Then I remembered the artemisia we’ve been taking to prevent malaria. It’s widely used in Africa and Asia for malaria and approved by the World Health Organization, however I was aware, but had forgotten, that there could be issues to do with the liver if you took it for too long. I guess I took it for too long. Anyway thank goodness for Bhakti’s doctor friend who sussed out liver issues immediately, and for me for remembering about the artemisia. So I’ve stopped taking it of course and gone on to a no fat no oil diet, and am now on the mend. Mild jaundice – really horrible. I have a whole new sympathy for anyone who’s had hepatitis. Of all the illnesses you can get in India, I get sick from trying to prevent one. Oh the irony!

I looked out the window one morning and saw this on the roof of the building across the lane:

An auto-rickshaw is a kind of enclosed 3-wheel motor bike with seats front and back. Steering is done with handle-bars like a motor bike. They are the Indian version of a Yellow Cab, for a fraction of the cost. When the weather gets hot in the afternoon it’s nice to take one from Ramana’s Ashram back to our apartment – a distance of almost two km, for about a dollar!

One night we meditated late, and ate out at one of the local cafes, so it was dark before we set off for home. We jumped into the first auto-rickshaw we came to. Big mistake! While on the main road we became aware that it had no headlights! It was okay though because there were streetlights. Still, we should have gotten out right away. I don’t know why we didn’t. When the driver turned down the road towards our place, about half way home, it became really really dangerous and scary. There are rolling power cuts at different times in different parts of town every day, and there was a power cut in that part of town and it was pitch black. NOW we should have stopped him and gotten out. I suppose it was some masochistic fascination with the situation that kept us going. Or we just didn’t want to walk. We were kind of frozen in place. It’s not just that we couldn’t see where we were going, it was all the other unlit traffic on the road – people walking, cows, people riding bicycles, motorbikes, all with no lights. Honestly I’m beginning to think everyone here has a death wish. Everyone walks on the road, because there’s nowhere else to walk really. It’s a miracle we didn’t hit anyone. We did actually get home in one piece. And we learned a valuable lesson – after dark, always check for headlights before getting into the rickshaw.

Some mornings go like this: Up at six, leave home at seven for a twenty minute walk to the ashram, and a twenty-five minute climb up the mountain path to the upper ashram. There we meditate for half an hour. During most of the meditation a monk with a glorious baritone voice sings sacred chants. We are transported and filled with peace. Afterwards we walk down another path for about ten minutes to Ramana’s cave where we sit and meditate for anywhere from about twenty to fifty minutes. Then we walk back up to the upper ashram and then back down the mountain. There are monkeys and peacocks everywhere.

Each day about half way up the path we noticed a man dressed in the traditional south India lungi (a rectangular cloth tied around the waist) and a gold coloured angavastra (another cloth) draped over his shoulder. He seemed open and welcoming. One day he invited us to sit with him. His name is Maheshwaran. He calls himself the “Wandering Swami of Arunachala”. Really! He used to work in the tax department until he gave it all up to follow a spiritual path. I think Arunachala sustains him. I suspect that his pension from the Tax Department also sustains him. Unlike many of the sadhus (holy men) around town, Maheshwaran is well fed and healthy. And really bright. I don’t think he’s really a swami. Maybe he’s been initiated into a monastic order or with a teacher, but I don’t think he’s renounced all worldly goods. Or all worldly judgements and opinions. I think he’s just carved out a very sweet role for his retirement, sitting in the shade on the mountain, chatting with all the people going up and down. He collects money from the tourists for various charities. Good for him. While we sat and chatted a mongoose came out of the bush. So rare and unusual to see one. I didn’t know what it was but Maheshwaran did. So magical to see one wild like that. And to be with someone who knew what it was!

Sweet man

As requested, some photos of our apartment.

A little about the inner journey: When I first got here I was feeling pretty fractured and off center, and very much in doing mode. We’d been so busy throughout December and the first part of January dealing with all kinds of “housekeeping” on our return to Canada from Europe – getting visas for India, months of mail, taxes, seeing our financial planner, choosing and booking flights for India, Bali and Australia, shopping for all the things we needed to bring to India to make life workable here, etc., and then going to Quebec for two weeks, and then a one day turn-around and off to Whidbey Island for four days, and then only four days for final shopping and packing for India. We learned the hard way never again to cram so much into such a short amount of time. It was all made more stressful because Don had two unexpected business issues arise that took up time, and threatened to completely derail our plans. By the time we got here we were so much in need of just stopping that it’s a very good thing we came to the exact right place to do just that, though the first week was still quite busy with getting everything together for our apartment, finding out about water delivery, someone to do laundry and clean, where to shop, and getting the internet connected.

In spite of all that, even throughout the first busy week, gradually a kind of stopping arose. From the second day we started meditating, climbing up to Skandasramam, Ramana’s upper ashram, and then going to his cave. We developed a pattern of meditating twice a day most days.

Initially my meditations were all about getting here. Literally. I discovered that I wasn’t energetically in the body, and had resistance to being in the body. The mind loves to pull you away from being in the body, from being here, from being presence, and I’d been well pulled away. So the first few days were about coming back home into the body, and feeling the resistance until it dissolved and the body became a place of peace.

Then I was inspired to look at the nature of the mind. I became aware that I hold a lot of beliefs about the mind such as what I’ve just written above: “the mind loves to pull you away from being in the body”. Also “the mind loves to create drama and suffering”, “the mind never stops”, and so on. The question arose for each belief “what if it’s not true?” Each of these beliefs may be true. Or not. But for sure if I believe them then that’s what I’ll experience. Discovering a willingness to let go of these beliefs. Remembering something I’ve known for a long time – the mind is just a collection of thoughts that arise and then fall away, arise and fall away. When you think about it there’s really no such thing as the mind per se, not some concrete, or separate definable thing. There are just thoughts coming and going, one after the other. Most are repetitive. Some nourish us. Some bring suffering. If we let them. If we believe in them. If we take them personally. Watching the mind trying to engage me and pull me from presence.

I got to a place of being outside the mind, of just witnessing. For the umpteenth time. And yes it is blissful, and I loved everything. But then in subsequent meditations I kept trying to get back to that place and of course the harder I focused on that the more elusive it became. Finally I stopped trying and fell into the truth that I have no idea who or what I am. What is this life being lived here, this life that courses through this thing called “body”? I have no idea. Whose life is it? Where did it come from? Why is it? Since it seems there are no answers to these questions surrender is the only option. So now the focus of meditation has become the heart. Just be. In the heart. As best I can.

What arose next was the recognition that there’s actually no one here who cares if I stop identifying with the self the mind has fabricated, no one here who cares if it survives or not, except the mind-made self of course. That evening I was listening to Adyashanti, one of our favourite teachers, and there was discussion about being willing to do or experience “whatever it takes” to reach enlightenment, to embody enlightenment. It stayed in my thoughts, and early the next morning when I couldn’t sleep I felt into that – am I willing to do, to experience, whatever it takes. I could feel resistance. I could feel that this is where the spiritual rubber really hits the road. Who here cares? What’s really wanted? I kept testing the waters, feeling into it – what if I really let go? That’s what’s required of course – a complete letting go. Well that hasn’t happened yet but at least now there is a greater willingness to do and experience whatever it takes to get to be willing to let go.

In the past when I asked the question “who am I?” it would be met internally by bewilderment. I would run into the brick wall of the mind that didn’t understand why such a question would even be asked. It was so obvious, and the mind could come up with a long and detailed description in answer. Since I’d only be telling myself what I already know why ask? It seemed perverse and pointless. Now when I ask “who am I?” I melt into the space that opens with the recognition that there is no answer. And in that space there is no question.

And as for the rest – outside of meditation? Life is just ordinary. Apart from being sick for a while life is good. Meditating twice a day really helps. I come out of it with the felt perception that it’s all only a dream. And with that perception nothing is wrong. India in all it’s insistent, dusty, dirty, noisy, crumbling, crowded, crazy, colourful wonderfulness swirls around us, and, as ever, life has its way with us. I like it here. Don still has a love/hate relationship with India. It’s a lot to take in.

A couple of sunsets from our balcony

Tiruvannamalai traffic

Next blog: a day trip to Pondicherry, walking around Mt Arunachala, some details of daily life.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.