At Kripalu, the holistic healing center in Stockbridge, MA, I use Qigong to harness nature’s energy for nourishing my soul; I discover Metta Meditation; I learn to say Om the correct way; I understand the basics of Ayurveda. Yet, no matter what class I take and how much I love it, my feet always carry me to the Meditation Labyrinth, a twisted, circular path flanked by daises, lupins and conifers, leading to a central stone alter.
I first did the Meditation Labyrinth as a group exercise with a teacher. “Release,” as you walk towards the altar, the teacher said. Let go, become open. Be ready to “Receive” at the altar. “Return” back to your lives unburdened, open, free.
That didn’t happen to me. The labyrinth led me down a path I hadn’t expected, making me acutely aware of the imbalance in my life. I refer to it now as Life’s Labyrinth.
My eyes never left the altar on that first group-walk. I wanted to get there as fast as I could believing that was where my happiness lay. I passed others walking more slowly, singularly focused on the three stone slabs in the center, two vertical and the third resting horizontally forming a table. Two Bodhisattva statues held guard with their laughing faces. I hurried but just as I began thinking I was almost at the altar, a twist in the path led me away from it. This happened several times and I grew increasingly frustrated.
And just like that something in me shifted and my steps slowed. I realized I was looking at the altar as I have looked at every goal I have set for myself (and there have been many, way too many). I was so focused on the altar that I wasn’t enjoying the journey.
I let people pass me. I looked away from the labyrinth at the sloping green meadows disappearing into thick woods. I looked up at the clear blue sky, the white cotton clouds. I breathed in the sun-dappled air. I crouched and looked at the purple lupins, smelled them. I smiled at the daisies; they smiled back at me.
When I reached the altar that first time I felt no relief, no promised happiness. I only noticed the things people had left behind. Beads and bracelets, flowers and pebbles, coins and notes. I gazed down and began walking back to the exit, disappointed. On the way back I couldn’t differentiate between the people walking towards the altar and those who had already been there.
I couldn’t forget the labyrinth and returned that evening to see if it would be different. This time I was alone. I walked, not looking at the altar but the wilderness around me. The sun going down behind the hills, the crisp evening air. The darkening woods. Trees whispering, birds singing.
I tried letting go of some of the burdens I carried. They were getting heavier each day, making me weary. My personal failures. My social grievances. Things I had seen which I shouldn’t have. Experiences I hadn’t deserved. Experiences I missed by moving from India to England and then to the United States. I didn’t wish to forget them, I simply didn’t want them weighing on me every single moment of every day.
I let the thoughts come, nodded at them, sent them off. I shed the distresses of the past like a snake outgrowing its skin. I promised the future I had no expectations of it. So engrossed was I in this self-imposed exercise that I didn’t even notice I was at the altar. I hadn’t been waiting for it but it found me, perhaps, because the time was right. I don’t know. I looked at it and realized my cheeks were wet with tears. When had I started to cry?
I knelt, put my head on the cool stone slab and wept as if I had lost something. And I had lost something – the burdens I carried. Somehow I’d entered the rat race where what you are is more important than who you are. Writer, doctor, housewife, plumber. Labels, labels, labels. It had happened despite my upbringing where goals were not tangible and the most important thing was to live selflessly and with integrity.
Instead I had focused on accumulating degrees, finding the perfect job. Then marriage, a house and children. Publishing my articles in bigger and better journals and newspapers. Seeing my novel completed, hoping it would hit the bestseller lists. In the process I, me, was completely lost.
The future became this vastness
At that moment the future became this vastness; there were no boundaries. The sky came down to meet the rising earth, the light glowed through them. Long evening shadows gone when earth and sky and light worked their magic. A clearness in the air so I could write my story in it however I chose, whichever way I chose. It was my story. It was my life and I owned it; its worst moments were mine to make better and its best moments were mine to cherish.
That night, I felt as light-headed and giddy as a happy drunk. Except, the feeling lasted well into the next morning, my second day at Kripalu.
Of course, my feet took me to the labyrinth again. This time I stopped at the entrance. I took off my shoes and socks. I tied a sock around my head, covering my eyes. I wanted to walk the labyrinth barefoot, blindfolded and I really cannot explain why.
It was hard going this time. The soil was soft, moist, but the jagged rocks and stones jabbed my feet. I felt my way slowly, the conifers my guides. If I strayed even slightly off the path, the pine needles pricked my bare arms.
My sense of touch and hearing were so heightened this last walk. (I am sure people saw me blindfolded and barefoot and thought I was crazy but Kripalu is a place where you can be crazy, be yourself). I couldn’t see but I felt everything a thousand times magnified, from miles away. The buzzing bees, the cars on the road, the leaves rustling in the soft breeze. I could smell the first monsoon rains in India when peacocks dance and young boys whistle at old women making them blush. The smell of frying pakoras on streets. Guavas. Trees bowing with the weight of sweet mangoes. Temple bells.
I knew I was at the altar when my feet bumped into solid stone. I didn’t stop but turned around and retraced my steps to the exit. What if the altar symbolized the realization of all my goals and the exit death? When do you stop being scared of dying? Maybe when you have done everything you wanted to? Or maybe when you realize you can’t do everything and so simply keep walking down a path that is full of surprises, turns, ups and downs so that when you exit you just think it is the beginning of another adventure?
I don’t know as I am ambiguous about after-life, religion, god as we define it. I did realize, though, after that last walk that staying on the path, ignoring whatever was happening around me was hard. There are no pine needles to prick me in life at a misstep. I had to be my own guard, sentry and judge. Fewer people would applaud my staying on the right path; more would notice my straying off it.
As I removed my blindfold, the first raindrops began falling. They tasted of Earth. Sky. Mountains. Streams. Everything that makes life beautiful only if you pause to notice.
I returned from my Kripalu stay a different person. My husband and children were worried I had mellowed. They thought something was wrong with me because I wasn’t living in the frenzy I used to before. The frenzy that drove me to do a first masters, a second and a third. The frenzy that made me take on the reporting of every story thrown my way. The frenzy that made me write a novel. The frenzy that made me believe I could mold the world as I wished.
What I should have been doing was enjoying everything and everyone around me even when things didn’t go the way I’d planned. The rhododendrons by my front door that bloom only when they like. The apple tree that flowers and never bears fruit. The long icicles that reach from our roof to the ground no matter how much we clean the gutters. The rabbits that eat every flower. My burnt rice. My imperfect thoughts and words.
My romantic, loving husband, a walking-talking encyclopedia. My funny, chivalrous son, purveyor of random facts. My sweet, precious daughter who dances through life so gently she leaves no footprints but everyone feels her butterfly touch.
That, then, is my altar.
And I am already there.