I want to thank everyone at Vaidyagrama for making it a magical place. You, truly, made the waters part when it comes to demonstrating how peace should be created and maintained. Each one of you, from my doctor to the woman who cleaned my room, was an inspiration for this blog.
Coimbatore, India – Twenty-five-year-old Hari meets me at the airport on a dry, sweltering monsoon afternoon in July. He will drive me 50 kilometers southwest to Vaidyagrama, an Ayurvedic healing center in South India’s heartland.
I am spending two weeks there because, clichéd and cheesey as it may sound, I want to find myself. Lately, I look around and think, “Is this it? Is this all there is to life?” Some call it midlife crisis but I know it isn’t that; it is that my life has been reduced to deadlines, milestones, and goals and happiness has become an external thing dependent on material and emotional acquisition rather than spiritual progression. I am going to spend two weeks detoxing – body, mind, and spirit – with Ayurveda, a native science documented in 5,000 B.C.E.
Asphalt smoke rises from the city’s sidewalks but we soon leave it behind, entering an arid landscape. The pictures of Vaidyagrama show a lush, green place and I wonder if they were photo-shopped to attract a lost, vulnerable clientele that will buy spirituality in a bottle if presented with the option. My eyes move upwards to the monsoon cloud-capped peaks of the gigantic Western Ghats; I see their vibrant, flourishing beauty and, smiling, settle back into my seat.
I open my eyes only when we start bumping along on a dirt road. It turned green outside as I dozed; from the deepest recesses of my mind I summon the plant names I learned in my undergraduate botany class. The pink and white blossoms of nerium, the red of hibiscus, the yellow of marigold, the polished green leaves of rubber. A color collage that distracts me from my apprehensions about the place I am headed to.
Hari drops me off at the Vaidyagrama’s front door – an archway guarded on either side by the monkey deity, Hanuman. I hesitate, turning around frantically to make sure the taxi driver, I have known for all of two hours, is still there if I need to escape. But he has disappeared leaving my bags in the foyer.
And I take a small step in, right foot first as my grandmother taught me.
Turns out it is the biggest step I have taken in my life, yet. I am transported from chaos to peace and stand like a fool, stunned, until two young women hustle me to a chair.
“Are you tired?” one asks.
“Herbal tea,” the other one says shoving a cup of warm, dark liquid into my hands. I sip it; the sharpness of ginger, peppercorn and basil is muted by the subtle aroma of cumin and coriander, the sweetness of jaggery.
I complete my registration and the two women walk me along several wide, covered pathways flanked by thick vegetation, to my room. There are 36 rooms in the ashram divided into nine blocks of four grouped around a central courtyard.
We pass other guests wearing long pants, their upper torsos covered in thin shawls. No one meets my gaze. I’ve read people come here for many reasons – from allergies to cancer to detox and de-stress. I understand silence is important to begin my journey into myself and believe I am prepared for it.
I am not.
My room is in an especially quiet block assigned to me, perhaps, because I asked for silence. I look longingly at the closed door after my two junior and one senior Ayurvedic doctors leave, instructing me to relax, remain in solitude.
First I unpack all my clothes into the single cupboard. Then I rearrange my clothes. I go and sit on my porch where bamboo shades keep the sun and the people out. I gaze at the plants outside. I look at my cell phone. There is no reception. I pick up the landline to call my children; it is dead.
I am jetlagged but I can’t sleep. I walk up and down my suite, from my small sitting area to my room and porch, then back again. The silence is deafening and I can’t do this for two more minutes let alone two whole weeks. I would like to leave but that would mean failure and I don’t like to fail.
It was my ego that prevented me from leaving the ashram right away and I thank it now because if it had not been for my egoistic self I would never have started on my journey to self-realization.
It occurs to me that I live in a world where everyone tells me to love myself and I think I do but I actually don’t because if I did I wouldn’t hate my own company so much. I would embrace solitude. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, forcing myself to sit in silence.
It is the first time I hear the ticking of my six-year-old wristwatch. It is the first time I hear the music of rustling leaves as a distant storm approaches. It is the first time I smell the earth that went into making the soil stabilized bricks the ashram is built with. When I open my eyes I see fleeting images in the candle flame burning in my room.
A gentleness drifts into me, settles in.
Within two hours of entering the ashram I wanted to flee; within three hours, I know I am in the right place. The perfect space.
The silence and solitude of the first few days taught me to watch with my ears, see with my nose, smell with my eyes. I can summon any memory, image and story at will but I can’t let it go and I am here to learn how. People think I am super-driven but I am not; I keep myself busy so I don’t have to think, analyze, ponder the past.
My life here is austere. My room is simple with no air conditioning, television or fridge, but clean and very well ventilated. My food, my schedule, even my solitude are simple. No one wears make-up, fancy clothes or jewelry. We don’t play music or watch movies. I wake up at 5.30 a.m. and go to bed at 9 p.m. I eat by myself and spend most of the day alone. Everyone is here to heal in some way or the other.
Ayurveda believes that all problems can be treated by cleansing the body, mind, and spirit. Cleansing the body is easy; all I have to do is surrender it to the three doctors and three therapists who will monitor my food, my medicinal herb-intake and treatments (there are dozens including herbal baths and oil massages). They will direct all the toxins to my alimentary canal, then purge them out.
But what about cleansing my mind and spirit so I can find the force that drives the universe, find out who I am and where I fit? There are no instructions for that. We call this force different things and fight over names but it isn’t Jesus, Allah, Krishna, or Jehovah. This force doesn’t divide, it unites. It is a positive force that requires no belief in god or religion. It exists unconditionally.
Life, I am told, is a journey finding this force, the one truth, but I don’t know how to start. Practices like meditation help and I have done it for years without much success. I don’t feel lighter, cleaner and my mind buzzes with questions. No one seems to have answers to these questions. Certainly no one in the United States, but it was built after destroying a native culture that contained more wisdom and philosophy than the present country ever will. My questions aren’t answered in the cities of India, either, where chaos, corruption and money rule. That is why I am here; and I am still lost.
Day three my feet carry me to a discourse underway in the ashram’s central hall. A man sits cross-legged on the floor answering questions posed by those on chairs. I walk in out of curiosity, doubtful this young-looking person has the wisdom to answer my substantial, esoteric queries. I leave amazed at his depth of knowledge and wisdom, the humor that sneaks in unexpectedly. Later, I discover he is Dr. Ramkumar Kutty, the founder of the ashram. I go back the next day armed with a notebook, pen, and ten questions.
For everything I ask he has an answer that invites ten more questions. To him I owe the insights that have gone into writing this story. I’ve taken his knowledge and made sense of it with my words. My understanding may not be right but my intentions are.
My life, I realize, has been largely purposeless, a ship adrift. On the surface it seems I have achieved everything. A great education, a successful marriage, a fulfilling career, wonderful children, a beautiful home and the means to do what I love most – travel. But all my achievements have been about me. An “I” that almost never was a “We.” Even when I gave, I did it to feel good about myself.
Which means I am not that much more evolved than an animal. I have a list of needs that I go about fulfilling. Except I am neither content nor happy when I tick another thing off my “To-Do” list. I want more. More work, more travel, more love. Is that all I am? A product of all my achievements.
I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend. I am a reporter, a writer, a thinker, a challenger. I am flesh, bones, blood. I am brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes. I am Indian, Anglicized Indian, US-American. I am loving, angry, hateful, kind. I am all this and much more but without all of this am I nothing?
It occurs to me in that solitude that I can be nothing despite all these labels and I can be everything without any labels. I still don’t know who I am but I have begun the journey. Dr. Ramkumar tells me I will find out when I focus on the journey and forget the goal. When I stop playing victim and take responsibility for everything from burnt toast to Trump’s presidency. When every act is from good intent, irrespective of the result.
Hard to do in a result-oriented society where success is measured not by who you are but what you are. But it is good intent that will make healers of doctors, saints of preachers, philanthropists of businessmen, saviors of lawyers and truth-seekers of reporters. Something utterly lacking in today’s world where we simply put one foot after another, always thinking practically and only of ourselves. (A good attitude to have if you live in drudgery but few people I know are).
So I strive on. I have no answers, just a few tools to work with and, finally, a sense of how small “I” am and how vast “We” are. My decision to enter the ashram was a subconscious one, my resolution to carry it within me is a conscious one. I will always think of myself as, “Me before Vaidyagrama,” and “Me after Vaidyagrama.”
Now when the selfishness, narrow-mindedness and injustice of the world angers and confuses me, I can close my eyes and think of a happy place where I can hear my wristwatch ticking. Where peacocks wake me and cicadas chirp me to sleep and people walk barefoot so they can feel the soil beneath their feet.