A walk around a mountain

When we meet a vastness that we cannot fathom, we are drawn into a different space. This space is inclusive – and we realise – indeed feel – ourselves to be part of something that is larger than us. This is why I believe sitting by the beach and watching the sun set or gazing at the open sky at night make for “larger than life” experiences.

All of this came to me when I had the chance to walk around the much revered “Arunachala” hill at Tiruvanamali, the very, very popular Indian temple town. The hill is believed to be one of the earliest outcrops of earth – so you are looking at a very, very ancient earth form. And the popular mode of worship is to walk around the hill (with the hill always to the right of you) stopping at shrines on the pathway – a distance of around 14 kms.

Now, I didn’t know if I could walk 14 kms, so I thought I would take it an hour at a time. Anytime, I felt fatigued, I could call one of the local autorickshaws and have them ply me back to my resort. And so I started at dusk on a momentous experience.

As you walk on the much shaded pavement on lingam avenue with the the immense mountain on your right, you realise that you are in the presence of a multi-dimensional vastness. For one thing – its ancient – incredibly so. The mountain has indeed perhaps witnessed the very evolutionary process from amoeba to the monkey to our own human sapiens. And you realise you are but a speck of the immense life forms that the mountain has been benevolently watching over 1/2 a million years or so.

And then, there’s the time of day. The recommendation is for one to undertake this holy walk at nighttime – preferably during the full moon (I walked a day after the full moon – the moon had just begun to wane.). If you look to the skies on such a night, you see a rounded, bright moon and the vast, wondrous skies. You get an idea of the immensity of space and the worlds (think milky way!) and you realise you are but a speck in this very wide space.

And then there’s the dimension of size – as you walk alongside the mountain, you realise how big it really is – or rather how small we are in comparison with it.

And finally, there’s this idea of spirituality. The mountain even in the recent past has been home to some incredible sages – starting with Ramana Maharishi, Seshadri swami and many, many more. On the left are centres of wisdom that have cropped up inspired by them (I counted at least 7 spiritual centres and numerous places of worship) – and it gives you goosebumps to realise that you are treading ground that these very special children of god treaded. Indeed, legend has it that perfected beings circumbulate the hill even today. As you walk, you observe numerous modern day sanyasis in their ochre robes, devotees on their path of discovery, tea vendors, 3 wheeler (auto) drivers, and people engaged in all aspects of commerce. Each person is on their own journey and the mountain is exercising its spell and doing its work silently on each and everyone. There’s really no question of who among these is a more spiritual person – the mountain is teaching us to be non-judgemental – and appreciate that everyone is on his or her journey.

At first all these comparisons to immensity look like a negative thing. It certainly does some ego bashing! However, you realise soon that its medicinal – it allows you to drop all pretence of greatness and let you be yourself. When you realise that you are one of a billion people and will be spending a minute fraction of a million years that the World has witnessed – somehow, there’s a sense of lightness. You feel you can allow yourself to be unencumbered by society’s pressures – at least for the duration of the walk. And have some fun – the mountain will anyway do its work!

And then there is the experience of being alone with oneself for the duration of the walk. It’s something thats a bit of a luxury these days – to be by yourself with no distractions for 3-4 hours and just walking on. The mind slows down by itself. The scriptures recommended you walk barefoot so you can sense the earth beneath you (something i should try as well). With the feel of the earth beneath you, swaying trees and an immense hill on your right and a full-moon adorned sky above – its hard not to fall into a wonderfully meditative state walking. Its not a race, so you can let your body do the speed control – take your time to stop, breathe, think. Ideas crop up, solutions to pressing problems flash through your mind, there are periods of no thought. And underlying it all is a sense of gratitude for just being there. Its an incredible feeling. And as you push through your perceived limitations and cover a distance you didn’t believe was possible – there’s a sense of accomplishment too.

I’d like to get into this walking thing more – not for exercise, not for a purpose. Walking for the sake of walking and with the elements in tune, now that’s something to revel in. Would you agree?

Communication – are we single tracked?

In a recent get-together, a colleague confessed that things were not as well with the group as they should have been. The reason – everyone spoke a common dialect, excepting him – and they preferred to communicate in their native tongue rather than english. And no matter how much he tried, the language barrier was proving insurmountable.

Now, here’s the interesting thing – this guy was one of the most affable chaps you could ever hope to meet. And one of the most travelled – so adapting to new cultures and languages came easily to him. The team was a very enterprising unit as well, so how did they not realise he was feeling out of place, and why was he finding it so difficult to communicate to them they needed to speak in English – at least when he was around?

The problem got me thinking on something more fundamental. Knowingly or unknowingly – the spoken word (or written language) has become the defacto means of communication. They communicate ideas, they communicate emotion, they communicate everything these days. So much so, that we have become a little insensitive to other means over time!

If you dont believe me, lets take stock – when was the last time you sat with your friend comfortably in silence (true communion huh!). Where the silence spoke a language that you understood? On a more profound note – think about ramana maharishi or eckhart tolle’s silences which transform you with no need for words.

Or remember the last time you enjoyed music that didn’t need lyrics to move you. Listening to the music translated the emotions directly (the violin duo of ganesh-kumaresh are doing an awesome job with their new album in this regard).

Remember when you practiced munna bhai’s hug theraphy on someone (a child, a friend, a spouse, a relative..) and they felt better immediately. Remember a tough day, when someone laid a hand on yours in understanding – and you felt more reassured?

Dont get me wrong – we still need the words to survive today. However words are easier to manipulate. The body and the soul are better (and faster) at detecting sincerity than the mind is. They are also more adept at communicating emotion and experiences than the spoken word can ever be. Its harder to fake sincerity – try faking a comfortable silence or composing music you cant identify with and you’ll know what I mean!

The word of course helps detail out ideas and implementation – its the blood that keeps our society alive, we couldn’t do without it. Also, some of our best authors and speakers do an awesome job of translating great ideas, emotions and experiences through the spoken word as well. Just try to read through a PG Wodehouse without laughing – am sure you’ll agree with me.

Endpoint – words (written and spoken) are required – its what allows us to live our lives today for the most part. But would it be a good idea to become a little sensitive to the other means (touch, pure sound, maybe vision, sense of feel etc.) and incorporate them into out lives – it may add more spirit to our lives?

A meditation on Life’s tragedies

The last month hasn’t been one fraught with good news. Come to think of it, the news these days seldom is – but a lot of it is sensationalist stuff, so doesn’t really get you emotionally worked up most of the time.

Truth be told, statistics don’t reveal any significant peaks in the number of tragedies in the month past. The numbers were much the same – and infact India has just had a polio-free year  – so the numbers should be marginally better. Bad news however always affects you by the quality of the event and never the quantity – so the death of a loved one can affect you more than the 300 deaths due to a large scale aircraft crash. It’s not that we are insensitive to the latter, it’s just that we are a lot more sensitive to the former. And the past month saw tragedy played at several “personal” levels (tragedies to a near one and dear one, at the local neighborhood and the death of a star we looked up to), so perhaps the musing is a little more.

I recall our scriptures proclaiming that at our very root, we are most concerned about ourselves (essentially things that have to so something with “me” or things that are “mine”). The self takes on multiple identities – we identify ourselves with our body, our society, our nations, our tribes and our beliefs. This is why when any of these are hurt, we get hurt – we perceive it as an affront to our personal self (extended self maybe, but self neverthless). Eckart Tolle explains this at great length in the his new best seller (The New Earth) – and this is a great framework for seeing what hurts you and why.

Now, a look at the tragedies. The first was the news of death of an infant child of a dear one (actually another friend had also gone through a similar tragedy a couple of years earlier). A couple who are good and true had just had a loss they couldn’t account for. If you believed in a benevolent god, would he give you something precious only to request the favor back so early? And yet, if the event wasn’t attributed to a cosmic someone or something, where could we find solace and an entity to drown our sorrows in? The law of karma would state that it was the infant’s choice, that it was a very advanced “soul” in a little body and therefore had very little karma to work out and hence moved on -and with a lot of gratitude toward its family at that….. even if this true and a satisfying evolutionary explanation, would the parents not feel piqued that the God of justice had triumphed over one of compassion? Ramana Maharishi or some such elevated souls may have reacted differently to such events, for most of us it’s a hard cross to bear.

Closer to home (geographical proximity meaning an “extended physical self”?), we had a gang who specialized in bank heists shot dead. It was far enough (at least a couple of miles) for us to not have heard the so called “encounter” shooting, however the sheer thought that just a few miles away there had played out a strange drama of a heist and a few deaths, leaves a knot in the stomach and an uneasiness in the air. Such tragedy inspires fear and implicit acknowledgement that our neighborhoods are not so safe any more.

The third tragedy was the premature death of a singer – one I had never met – but whose songs have enthralled me for a long, long time. Whitney Houston succumbed to the usual “celebrity” story – excessive substance and alcohol abuse and a very turbulent life. With her death (and Michael Jackson’s in the not too distant past), a small chapter from my childhood somehow to have lost its reality – a cherished scene of the family talking away listening to these legends crooning their hits on radio and tv (specially during the grammy’s) has faded away…

So what next – for my friend and his family, I can and will provide a shoulder to lean on. And I have memories of togetherness that can be cherished. In the second case, there is no real “personal” loss – except that we will bolt the doors a little earlier (!) and advise kids against the twilight talks most of us used to enjoy on the very same streets. And Whitney’s and Michael’s records survive them (actually the only way I knew these legends in the first place) to entertain us.

The sadness therefore is not just from the loss itself, but in the understanding that there is a bit of us that has evaporated with these tragic incidents. We grieve for the part of us that shared a special moment with the person, place or event who suffered the loss – and is now lost as well. It is also an object lesson for us that life does not stand still – she “flows” and does not stop for anyone or anyplace. Let’s take a moment to stop, take a breath and whisper our gratitude to all the great souls who have come our way and appreciate all the events and places we are and have been fortunate to experience. This will make a difference – not perhaps to reality and it’s tragedies – but to our reaction to them and the memories that we are left with when a treasured phase passes us by. To know life is fleeting makes us all more present and caring. Prayers.