When I started my India trip, my plan was to travel for the first few months then settle down in an ashram in the end to focus on yoga and meditation and, hopefully, learn more about Hinduism.
As I mentioned in my Mehandipur post, I have always had a fascination with religion, psychology and philosophy. I enjoy learning about different belief systems, their history and what motivates people to behave in ways that they do. Hinduism, in particular, has become religious fascination number one since I arrived in Asia, and I was dying for a chance to learn more about the Hindu gods, karma and all their rituals.
So when I heard about the eight-day “Introduction to Buddhism” meditation course being offered at the Tushita Meditation Centre in McLeod Ganj, I had mixed feelings. As home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, McLeod Ganj is a magical place in the Himalayas full of Tibetan refugees, monks and lots and lots of Westerners, all there to enjoy the breathtaking views, peaceful atmosphere and positive energy. (McLeod Ganj was MY FAVORITE destination in India).
However, a week-long introduction to Buddhism course was never in the plan. India was supposed to be learning about Hinduism, not Buddhism, and I was afraid my Buddhism course would cut into my ashram time in the end.
But something pushed me to stay. I don’t know if it was the desire to stay in McLeod Ganj, sheer curiosity or something more powerful, but in the end, I decided to embrace Tushita. And it ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Located about 15 minutes outside the city, the Tushita Meditation Centre is a Tibetan Buddhist center that hosts free daily meditation sessions and regular Buddhist courses and retreats. It is also home to several monks and nuns.
As the title suggests, the “Introduction to Buddhism” course is an intensive retreat focusing on the basic philosophy of Buddhism through a series of lectures and guided meditations.
The days were fairly routine. Every morning, a gong would sound at 6 a.m. to wake us up in time for our morning meditation session. The rest of the day followed in a sequence of breakfast, morning lecture, stretching, lunch, chores, discussion groups, afternoon lecture, dinner and evening meditation.
I’m not sure if I could pick a place more suitable to learn meditation. Situated right in the mountains, Tushita is completely surrounded by trees, fresh air and beautiful views of the woods below. The gompa itself, our hub for meditation and lessons, was also impressive. In front of the rows of cushions and tiny desks where we sat, a massive gold Buddha commanded the attention of everyone in the room, surrounded by walls of colorful paintings and a photo of the Dalai Lama.
Our housing, however, was a bit more humble, consisting of basic single beds and shelves with shared toilets and showers on the outside (some can opt to pay more for their own room and bathroom, however). And as if you’re not removed from society enough, Tushita was quick to take away any distractions that may otherwise hamper our development, including our phones, cameras, laptops, etc. that got locked away for safekeeping. But I think the one thing that kept the distractions most at bay was one particular rule: no talking.
Yes, apart from asking questions during lecture time and group discussions, the entire retreat was meant to be in silence. No meal-time conversations, no chatting with your roommates, just lots of time to reflect on the day’s lesson, meditate or read Buddhism books.
Ok, I’m pretty sure the ones watching from home right now are laughing in astonishment at the idea of me being quiet for a week, but I’m proud to say, I did it! Better than many others in our group, I might add (you know who you are).
Surprisingly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, it was a bit of a relief at times to be able to sit quietly alone and not feel bad that my frequent anti-social self wasn’t participating in the seemingly-exciting discussions nearby.
Instead, I listened. I read. I watched the monkeys play in the trees (an endless source of entertainment). But most of all, I thought.
Buddhism, when you break it down, is fairly simple. Basically, it’s the idea that through aging, sickness and death (among other things), the human condition is one of suffering. But through meditation and awareness, one can learn to be unattached to temporary, material and emotional things (the causes of suffering) to attain peace, knowledge and, ultimately, enlightenment, an eternal God-like state of bliss and understanding.
On the surface, it’s an easy enough concept to grasp. Removing any sense of karma, reincarnation or beliefs in the spirit realms, even the most devout Christian or adamant atheist can find Buddhism a useful tool for coping through life or deepening one’s own, different, sense of spirituality. In fact, many argue that Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion anyway.
For me, who is often overly-emotional, irritable, and/or anxious, Buddhism, in its most basic form, promised a way to find peace, despite external circumstances. But learning to meditate is not easy, especially for one with the charming aforementioned characteristics. To start, just sitting upright, cross-legged for a prolonged period of time can be quite painful without proper strength, flexibility and practice (that’s where yoga helps). And then the really hard part: stilling one’s mind. In training, they teach you to watch your breath, sometimes counting, to help you focus. When thoughts come, as they inevitably do, the idea is to simply observe them and let them go, as if watching a still from a movie. No analyzing, no obsessing and no judgment (not even to scold yourself for thinking), just recognition and release.
If you’ve ever tried this yourself, you know how difficult it is. It’s amazing how many thoughts go through our heads each day, even more amazing when you consider how much of them are repetitious or useless, serving no purpose whatsoever for our ultimate well-being and oftentimes, causing more trouble.
When one gets really deep into meditation, some claim to get glimpses of enlightenment, sublime experiences that are out of this world. Others drudge up old or repressed memories or, sometimes, even past lives. And still, with intense concentration, some gain the ability to transcend human limitations of pain and endurance (so I hear). The whole process is, essentially, a massive clearing out of the junk inside your head that distract or otherwise prevent you from seeing things as they truly are and reaching enlightenment.
In my eight days at Tushita, I got nowhere near enlightenment, nor did I have any freaky out-of-this world moments. I did, however, have one strange experience that took me by surprise, a memory, actually, from the 10th grade.
This was not my first kiss, not some melodramatic teenage argument, nor some significant award or competition that was important to me then. Instead, it was a simple lunch with friends in my high school cafeteria. While I still can’t figure out why this image came to mind, I do remember the olive green color of the shirt I was wearing, the exact positioning of my friends at the table and the random 15-year-old thoughts going through my head at the time, happy to chat with my friends, nervous to talk to the boys I had a crush on. But that’s it.
I still insist this memory was rather trivial, but the one thing I do take from this scenario is how incredible the human mind really is. Maybe we don’t actually forget as much of our lives as we think we do, maybe it’s just a matter of training our minds to drum up the past and, with practice, we can relive the most amazing or even insignificant events that made us who we are today.
As for the rest of the group, we all seemed to have powerful experiences in some form or another. In addition to stilling our minds, our meditation guide, Rinchen, also took us through a series of intense, and at times painful, meditations where we focused on love, forgiveness and death. I tell you, nothing gets the emotions up like imagining what it would be like to say good-bye to loved ones if you only had six months to live or recognizing who you still have grudges against when forced to concentrate on forgiveness.
But, in one of my favorite moments in all of India, Rinchen says, with complete seriousness, “And if you’re older than 26, death is closer than you think.”
In a massive relief of tension, the entire room, made up largely of 20-somethings, bursts out laughing in a tremendous, gut-level release that even Rinchen partakes in. Apparently, there’s only so much gloom and doom we can take.
By the end of the week, despite not talking, we’d all found a deeper connection, not just with ourselves but with each other. In a massive show of unity and friendship, nearly all 100 of those in our group filled the rooftop of Carpe Diem restaurant in McLeod Ganj the day the course ended for dinner together, and I still continue to keep in touch with many of those people today.
I won’t go so far to say I’m a Buddhist just yet, but I will say that after Tushita, I have opened up my heart and my mind to seeing what Buddhism can do for me, and maybe those around me indirectly. Though still a beginner, I have started to meditate regularly and try to use Buddhist philosophy when I find myself frustrated or overcome with emotions.
Could Buddhism be the new Xanax? 😉