Valerie Woods

Naturally, it was my father’s fault, this wanderlust that kept me moving from place to place.  For my dad, being married with four growing kids didn’t stop him from traveling and rambling.  The only time I happily woke before noon was that day in late summer when we got the pre-dawn wake-up call from my dad.  A quick breakfast, leave the dishes – we didn’t even have to make our beds.  And then, the car or camper or whatever we had that year, was loaded up, windows open to the August dawn, and we were off. 

This inherited travel bug may be at the root of why I found myself stepping off a plane into the soft, warm night of Mumbai, in the Maharastran state of southern India.  What else would explain why a city girl from the south side of Chicago would be on this side of the world?  My move from Chicago to Manhattan was understandable… I was a struggling actress after all.  And then the move back to Chicago to live with mom after my father died made sense.  A marriage proposal and an aspiration to screenwriting took me Los Angeles. But now Mumbai…Bombay…India.

This pilgrimage to India was in the hopes that I would finally, after eleven years of practicing meditation, be able to, well, actually meditate.  At least, what I thought of as “real” meditation.  That deep, transcendent state of wondrous bliss that I’d heard so much about.  When I sat to meditate, grocery lists, past memories or clever scenarios of imagination would scramble across my inner screen and I’d jerk myself out of it, inwardly chastising myself for a lack of discipline. 

There were rare occasions when, during a session with my teacher, I’d touch that space, but I couldn’t maintain it. I wanted to go to what I considered to be the source.

Mumbai Airport - 1:00am.

Outside waiting for the shuttle, I was surprised at how familiar I felt in the night. There’s a hazy moon and just enough moisture in the air for comfort. It reminded me of Chicago summer nights, hanging out on the stoop, too hot to be shut up inside. It’s definitely India, there are people everywhere, speaking rapidly in Marathi, Hindi or Gujarati, I can’t tell. But it still felt like home.  Maybe it had to do with the fact that I shared the skin tone of nearly everyone I saw.  My short, fuzzy hair, in contrast to the long, silken hair of the Indian women, identified me as someone not from this neighborhood.  And yet I didn’t feel out of place.  Was it this similarity of color that made me so comfortable so far from where I called home?  I remembered the surprise my father felt when he arrived in Africa for the first time.  He could see the faces of his relatives all around.  That man could be his cousin; that one looked just like the guy at the barbershop.  It was a wonder to finally experience this connection to his ancestral and genetic home. I didn’t think too much about it at the time.  It was enough to simply enjoy the atmosphere and the sense of welcome.

The temple bells were ringing when we arrived at the retreat site. At 3:30am it was time for the day of worship to begin.  I quickly changed clothes and entered the sacred space. Candlelight danced in the darkness of the stone and marble courtyard.  The mystical beauty of the place was not surprising.  I had seen photographs and videos of this holy place with its classical Indian architecture, arches and symbols.  However, I wasn’t quite prepared for the waves of emotion that trembled through me. I had never been in a place where the vibrations of silence were so clearly heard. I was powerless to contain either the tears that flowed or the non-subjective love that surged in my chest as I entered the candlelit temple.

A man in traditional Indian clothing waved a large silver lamp with multiple flames – side to side and then in a large circle.  The light swirled in the smoke of incense that surrounded the temple deity.  And the arati being sung lulled my travel worn spirit.  Then, after the morning chant, when the dawn burst through, a monk I had met in the States, greeted me by saying, “Welcome home.” 

There it was again.  Home.  How could that be?  Nothing in my upbringing had prepared me to be in this place, with these people and chanting in ancient Sanskrit.  And yet, I was now wondering how I could possibly leave this place now that I had found it.

That eagerness to awake before noon was back as we all made treks to neighboring temples to make offerings at dawn: climbing tall stairways with trays ladened with garlands of flowers, coconuts, incense, candles.  Lilting chants to the rising sun, to the Goddess and to Shiva.  And yes, there were cattle in the marketplace, and prayerful sadhus, holy men, bathing at the sacred hot springs. And then, morning chai, but made without the caffeine.  We were invited to forgo caffeine for the entire retreat.  This would support our meditation.  I knew there wouldn’t be Starbucks, and I was cool with that.  But no caffeine at all?  Well, I’d come this far and I did want my meditation supported, so…herbal tea chai.  At least there was sugar.  And, there was progress.  But I also struggled. Aside from the physical challenges of heat, unfamiliar food confusing my digestive system, there was the realization that this inner journey I had begun was proving to be more than just a notion. 

Yes, it had its share of spiritually romantic aspects that Hollywood movies like to highlight.  Yet, as we traveled the inner terrain, anything and almost everything could and would surface. There were times of intense frustration, unexplained sadness, or whip-fast surges of anger.  Yes, it was not all sweetness, yet there was some light. 

Near the end of my stay, during a meditation session, I felt I’d nailed it.  A typical westerner’s concept, I realize now.   Meditation is not a competition after all.  In any case, I was moving with the breath, I could feel my awareness dropping into the deep void of Consciousness, the stillness and peace of the Self.  The next thing I knew, a scene from an old movie western was playing through my mind -- a movie I’d only seen once in my life maybe thirty years ago!  Why in the world was it in my head while I’m on a journey to the inner Self in a sacred meditation hall in a remote village in India?  I.  Was.  Furious. 

At the conclusion of the meditation, the teacher gently told us to pick up our journal and write about our meditation experience.  ‘What meditation experience?’ I screamed in my head.  I was daydreaming about an old movie!  But I said to myself, fine, I’ll write. Fine, I’ll “journal” about my great meditation experience.  And so I began to detail the movie scene that had played in my mind.  A man and a woman were hiding from danger inside a cave.  And naturally, the man made a move on the woman, as if this was the time to get romantic.  Yes, I was supremely angry that this scene interrupted my spiritual journey, but I kept writing.  In the scene, the woman stopped the man and said, “Don’t do it unless you mean it.”  And then…I stopped writing. “Don’t do it, unless you mean it.”  The words I’d written on the page hit me in the face with startling clarity. Why did I make this journey? Was it just a whim? Had I been carried away by the novelty or by simple curiosity?  Did I mean it?  Here, in the heart of India, in the land of yoga, in this place, there was no faking it.  I had to check myself.  Did I mean it?  And the advice: Don’t do it, unless you mean it. 

So maybe meditation isn’t about visions of light.  Maybe it’s not about relaxation or stress reduction, even though that does happen.  And perhaps it’s true that meditation isn’t what you think.  Meditation, “real” meditation, was about the journey to know who you truly are.  And if you don’t want to know the answer to that, then don’t make the trip. Who am I, really?

One day, at the noon chant in the temple, I had a glimpse of the answer. The melody was unfamiliar, haunting and beautiful. It was a shloka, or devotional poem, written by the great sage Adi Shankaracharya.  As the melody continued, I read the translation.  It’s called the Nirvana Shatakam, the Six Stanzas on Salvation.  One of the stories about its origin is that at the age of eight, Shankaracharya was wandering the Himalayas in search of his guru.  He met an old sage who asked him: “Who are you?”  And the boy’s response resulted in this shloka that expresses the essence of Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy of non-duality.  In essence it says I am neither this nor that.  I am not the senses or the body.  I am not the eyes or the mind.  I am Consciousness and Bliss.  I am Shiva.  I am Shiva. 

In this context, it is Shiva who represents our true nature, the indivisible Self of all. Things began to make sense, especially the sense of feeling at home. Throughout my stay, there had been no reflection of me as a city girl, a black girl from the south side of Chicago.  I wasn’t a foreigner or a tourist. I was neither male, nor female, short nor tall.  For a brief time, traveling the pathways of meditation, I caught a glimpse of my destination -- I saw no difference.  This was finding the universal home of each one as one.  The eyes, the hair, the skin, the body, the hands -- I am not those things.  And neither is anyone else.  I am Consciousness and Bliss.  And so are you.  

Yes, it was my father’s fault.  This longing for traveling unchartered territory, whether tangible roads or the intangible pathways of meditation.  I never got the chance to thank him for my wanderlust while he was here, but now I can thank him as I continue the journey to the universal heart – where all journeys lead.

Chicago to Mumbai: not a long way from home.  It was a long way to home.

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