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Published: April 23rd 2008
I swear that Rishikesh's alter ego
is an octopus. It must be. Every time I try to leave, it wraps its sticky long tentacles around my restless soul and pulls me back into its comforting, slightly claustrophobic embrace. It is now the end of April, temperatures have soared up to 42 degrees Celsius (and my long-suffering friends know that I already reach for a fan and cry for ice packs when it’s 17 degrees back in the UK), with a meager 23 degrees at night time. The mosquitoes feast on my blood every night, with the midges, ants and flies adding a bit of variety. Still, I have not been able to move from Rishikesh bar a weekend trip to Kunjapuri Temple, towering a grand hour over Rishikesh - even if it takes Emma and I about seven hours to get there. But that’s a different story.
I am just about to leave for good towards cooler climates (or so I like to think), when Sanjay appears like a ghost, all dressed in white and wearing an angelic smile to match, on the rooftop on the night before my departure and tells me about a five day silent retreat he’ll
be leading at the ashram on the 24th April, involving an incredible amount of mantra chanting (2160 times the ‘Tryambakam’ mantra a day, to be precise), fasting (only fruit and vegetables), and a twice daily fire ceremony - lasting two hours each time. He invites me to participate and I am intrigued. Especially intrigued because I am the only Westerner taking part and I have yet to see an Indian person in complete silence and without mobile phone - for five minutes, let alone five days. Such a monumental event cannot be missed. I agree to stay, even though this means turning down an amazing week-long trip to the Himalayas with my friend Emma. Maybe it’s a genuine desire for spiritual growth that keeps me here, maybe it’s guilt: I have not been exactly focused on my practice in recent times in the Ashram, and five days of silenzio
might just help me to sort out all the junk, confusion and indecision that is going on in my head right now, which I keep conveniently pushing away with the aid of, oh, let’s see…. Visits to the internet café, chats with my fellow ashramites (although I am running out of those, there are only a handful of us left now, and half of these people consist of Vishva’s family), clothes shopping, going out for banoffee pies and chais… all good stuff, but not exactly conducive to the sadhana
I came here to do.
I suspect a lot of it has to do with the location: The ashram is surrounded by building works, next door to an internet café, with so much distraction readily available if you want it. But I also realize that this is a cop-out. MJ, a new arrival to the ashram, tells me how hard it is for her not to smoke or drink when ‘everybody around me is doing just that’. ‘Well, you can just say no’, I say, laughing at myself a second later. For my entire stay in the ashram, I have been inwardly (and often outwardly) cursing about the building noise, the builders, the people who don’t stick to the silent times and ashram rules, this and that. But actually, the point is this, and I’ve said this before: the art of sadhana
is to remain centered exactly
when everybody else around you is doing something different. Looking at the behaviour of others is a convenient way of avoiding to look inwards, of looking at yourself and your own lack of focus. And if I’m learning one thing in the noise that is India, then it’s this: Real silence, real stillness lies within. Once you've mastered this, nobody can take that away from you, wherever you are.
Right now, I am wondering what I've let myself in for though. It sounds like a tough practice: we are not allowed to read, go out of the ashram for five days bar a 5 am dip in the Ganga, we are not interacting with anybody (we even take our sparse meals in our rooms), and we are not allowed to lie down all day other than on the floor. 'Who came up with this idea?', Surendra, the ashram manager, asks me, clearly concerned that there will be nobody to talk to for the next five days. 'Maybe you should have asked Swami-Ji (Vishva) for some advice - this is not an easy sadhana.' I am starting to realize this. But I'll give it a go - as usual, I've agreed to take part without knowing all of the details, but this is generally the best way to get me to do things.
Will I ever get away from here? I’d like to think so. If only because my visa will run out eventually. Somewhat exasperated, I tell Ram-Ji about my difficulties to leave Rishikesh. Apparently, this is common: he smiles knowingly and says, ‘This is a blessing from Ganga. Cherish it.’. Emma agrees: she has been trying to leave six times already, bought and wasted train tickets to Dharamsala, Amritsar and Goddess knows where to, and only managed to tear herself away last night - after a near-meltdown and much agonising. In any case, I’ve set myself a deadline. I am leaving Rishikesh on 7th May, two months after I moved to this ashram and almost four months after I first got here. Of course, as soon as I decide this, I get a phone call from an old Yogi who lives in a tiny ashram in a nearby stunning nature location, imploring me to go on a retreat with him before I leave; another lady e-mails and invites me to her secluded mountain hideaway; an offer to stay at somebody's home comes in….. but no, I am
leaving. Mark my words. Hari Om.
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