Today is a holiday, and I’m not sure which one. As far as I can tell, it has to do with lighting firecrackers and gridlock on the footbridge and rampant consumerism. Laxman Jula feels like a county fair, only with twice as much manure, a lot of amplified Krishna Dass, and fried sweets that would put the glycemic load of any funnel cake to shame. It’s all a bit much for fifteen people who just spent the last week in isolation in the Himalayas, meditating, Sufi dancing, and vision questing.
Such was the rhythm of our days at our mountain center retreat, and the ripe and rampant carnival astmosphere of Rishikesh today is libel to send our freshly blossomed third eyes slamming shut in sensory overload. A dear friend, who is having her own third eye conundrums due to her recent adventures in pranic healing in Varanasi, was told to put sandalwood paste between her eyebrows to protect her energetic circuitry, so to speak. Jangly and skittish from the chaos, at this point I’d smear Colgate with tartar control from hairline to jawbone if I thought it would help.
I’ve sought out my favorite Rishikesh haunt (Moksha- it means “liberation”) for a soothing dose of brown rice and kim chi. Do chakras like pickled vegetables? Regardless, I’ve spent enough time with chapatis and dal for the last week to warrant at least one indulgence outside the realm of Indian cuisine. Okay, two if you count the slice of banoffee pie I have my eye on (bananas, nutella, ‘nuff said).
We’ve returned to this city at a bend of the Ganga for a week of volunteering at a local orphanage, run by our ex-pat guru, the formidable Prabhavati Dwabha. Our days will be taken up with teaching and tutoring and trying to play with some semblance of the utter absorption and presence of these ridiculously charming children. Seriously, last night I almost ate one. Fortunately, the grounds of the orphanage, and the small rustic streamside hut I am camping out in for the week, are cool and quiet. The noise of the sprawling city is muted by a thundering stream (which runs right past my hut- a bit like trying to sleep with a team of Clydesdales doing a polka by your ear, but oddly relaxing) and the Ganga itself, which slides past in crème de menthe languor. If one has to recuperate after psychic surgery within the calamity of Rishikesh, it’s probably one of the better options.
Psychic surgery is not a term I use loosely. Dwabha, in her customary laser beam fashion, began the retreat with a day of meditative gardening, followed by a thorough examination of our individual “roots”, and the imprints we’ve taken on as a result. Cultural heritage, family skeletons in the closet, that awful year of fifth grade when you tried to hide the fact that you never learned how to tell time- it was all laid out like an unsavory buffet of angst.
I watched with nervous anticipation as Dwabha invited the students to the edge of vulnerability and revelation, and gasped in wonder as they unhesitatingly swan dove into the morass of their own unhealed places. They just…went there, and I felt like there was no better way to signal my admiration (and keep tabs on their emotional safety) than to squeeze my eyes shut and dive in after them. The end result was a week of getting to know each other at a far deeper level, risking judgment, and building trust in a steady and (dare I hope?) irrevocable way.
It wasn’t an entirely comfy experience on my part, and not only because I was excavating some painfully calcified psychic detritus of my own . The stories of what has shaped these students, and what drove them to India in search of themselves chilled me to the bone, when it wasn’t making me weep. Broken homes, absentee parents, substance addictions, depression, and all of the ways our society alienates and medicates its youth for the vulnerability, the emotional rudderlessness, the mania that the world we’ve created inspires. It’s a wonder some of them are still alive.
This week recalled to me many conversations I had during my time in the Peace Corps with the people in my host village. It was so difficult to explain the widespread social poverty, a poverty of values, connection, and meaning afflicting much of the Western world. I struggle to make sense of it here as well, where a discarded wrapper can be a source of livelihood for a person or even a family. But it also helped me reconnect with the meaning I find in this work. Even since last year, there are more medications, more alienation, more trauma in the students I work with. From all I’ve seen and heard, it’s a trend that extends far beyond my experience of it, and it’s not getting better.
So though I often feel like a tour guide, a number cruncher, and a herder of cats, I know that I am something more than that, and even when the students are at their most fractious and self-absorbed, I can remind them that they are something more as well.