American Pilgrimage #1

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In 15 days I will land in Los Angeles International Airport and then head, the following day, to Thich Naht Hahn’s ‘Deer Park Monastery’, outside of San Diego. After two weeks there, I will drive to San Francisco where I will meet a Hindu Swami I came to know in Hong Kong; a former student of mine whose father ran a beer factory in Nepal but who left for America to get a degree and discovered Buddhism; and my new meditation mentor, Anushka, who teaches in the vipassana tradition.

In September I will spend two weeks in complete silence in a Tibetan monastery inside of a redwood forest, living in a cabin on top of a ridge. From San Francisco I will go to Crestone, Colorado, 6500 above sea level with 14,000 foot peaks, and a stationary population of only 73. Crestone is a sort of American mecca, contained a Hindu temple; Zen, Carmelite and Tibetan monasteries and various ‘New Age happenings’. After two weeks spent at Zen retreat, I will return to Denver with friends and wait for my girlfriend to arrive. The two of us will then drive to LA via Sedona, a more commercial American mecca, and the Grand Canyon, avoiding Las Vegas, which is more or less on the way. Vegas encapsulates all the reasons why I should be going to America — fame, money, sex,   glamour, the American Dream. If I want spirituality I should surely go to to India, not America, reversing the journey my parents originally made in the Sixties.

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My parents as Fulbright Scholars, newly arrived in the USA. My mother is on the front row, fifth from the left. My father is on the third row, second from the left. I’m not sure if they had even met yet.

My parents, in fact, journeyed to America before they came to Britain. They were both Fulbright scholars, studying for PhDs in Economics (my father) and Physics (my mother). By the time they arrived in England, it was 1969. Darkest Lancashire was cold and relentlessly racist – spirituality was the farthest thing from their minds. I was born into an hard-working, intellectual home in which there was no puja, no visits to the temple, no Diwali, and no God. There were, however, stories in abundance, told mostly by my father, from the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, from which gods and religion cannot be separated. It was also a house full of books, and on trips to India, which were regular, I accumulated several hundred Amar Chitra Katha comics which immersed me in Indian history, Hindu mythology, and Buddhist stories. These stories began my evolution as a writer, but they also lead me, eventually, to meditation and a spiritual path.

Fast-forward to me aged thirty-one and living in Manchester, a professional author, recently single, in a new city where my friends included several older men with dicey marriages, a strong dependence on alcohol, huge intellectual reserves, and fierce political commitments characterized by cynicism, rage and despair at the state of the world. It was clear to me that this was what I would become if I did not do something different and yet, I believed, I had already tried everything; politics, art, love, drugs, travel, friendship, success; and still I remained resolutely miserable. Then came a moment I remember very clearly, and have mythologised in my mind until it feels like a made for TV movie.

I was lying on the floor of my study, helpless, despairing, suffering intensely, when I noticed a book on meditation given to me by a friend several years before. It was one of thousands of books in my study, slim, blue, and – in my made for TV memory – glowing slightly. I had always avoided it, probably out of fear which masqueraded as cynicism and intellectual superiority, but I had reached a moment of surrender. I wasn’t even on my knees; I was on my back. So I took down the book, sat in my armchair, and read it, receiving a fairly instant hit of calm, my first adult taste of a state that I would encounter again and again, and lose again and again over the following years.

The book was written by a South Indian for an American audience, and spoke lightly, gracefully, of strategies pertaining to the spiritual life complete with exercises, homework, and meditation techniques. It reintroduced me to figures from my childhood, most importantly the Buddha himself, and led me to begin a regular daily meditation practice. I began to experience longer moments of peace, and even bliss, though I learned that none of them lasted, that I could revert to agony in seconds without, apparently, having any say in the matter.

This helped, but I was still close to the edge, still in despair without really knowing it. And then I went to Leeds, ostensibly to write a ballet with the Northern Ballet Theatre. I was often in the company of a Dutch woman called Wieke with whom I began to talk about meditation, and she told me she practised something called ‘vipassana’. I had heard of it. It was ten days of pure hell, rising at four, no speaking throughout, meditating ten hours a day, eating only before noon. ‘That’s so hardcore,’ I told her. ‘Well, I think life is pretty hardcore,’ she replied. I couldn’t argue with this. I never wrote the ballet, but a few months later I found myself at Dhamma Dipa in Hereford for my first vipassana course and, by coincidence, Wieke was there too.

 

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The entrance to Dhamma Dipa, the vipassana centre near Hereford

I don’t think anything will be gained by my attempting to describe the experience of my first vipassana course. Let me simply say that I meditated for 10 days, and it was painful, frustrating and, like life, relentless. There may have been wonderful moments, but they were few and not as wonderful I as would have liked them to be. I left with a fever and a urinary tract infection. I gave an Australian guy a lift to the train station and he asked me if I would do it again. ‘Yeah, sure,’ I lied. ‘Why not?’

I think it was a week later that I started crying uncontrollably, something that, to my surprise, did not stop for months. I joined a group of vipassana meditators in Manchester who assured me that what I was going through was not only normal but quite healthy. I found this hard to believe because I was, I realised, having a nervous breakdown, something I had always thought was reserved for people with ‘real problems’. I started having therapy for the first time in my life, and eventually realised I did have ‘real problems’, and that this wasn’t because I was particularly damaged (though I was), or because I was weak or pathetic, but because this was a universal condition. This was suffering, and it was everywhere. I had learned the First Noble Truth.

Now, about a dozen vipassana courses on, my focus has shifted full circle from the external to the internal. I meditate for two hours every day, one hour morning and night, and do my best to keep up the five precepts that prohibit killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and the taking of intoxicants. Vipassana is not easy. It is hardcore; but Wieke was right: so is life. Vipassana forces you to confront yourself, your biggest fears, those things you least want to face, and then it helps you to overcome them. But the process does not end; it has to be repeated again and again and it is the hardest, most rewarding labour anyone can undertake.

I have, I believe, I hope, been through the worst, taken those terrible, wonderful, tortuous first steps where my demons were my constant companions, and my own neuroses and traumas loomed like Himalayas ahead. The path feels easier now, gentler, though not gentle, and I am – quite simply – far happier inside, more peaceful, more self-aware. I feel ready for a great journey, to take further steps, accompanied now by better companions, by the angels who seemed to rush toward me the minute I decided I didn’t want the demons anymore. And I am going to America.

It happened like this. A few months ago I came across a fellowship offered by the Hemera Foundation for artists with a spiritual practice, and applied at once, delighted that I could for once be unreservedly honest on an application form, beginning sentences with, ‘I’m not sure how I feel about this,’ or, ‘I am confused…’ I immediately began telling people about it, speaking as if I had already been offered the fellowship, so right did it feel, and now, here I am, ready to go.

I have meditated all over India and Nepal, in powerful, hallowed spots, but this, my American Pilgrimage, feels more special to me. The places I will visit are those I have imagined in my novel; San Francisco, Arizona, the desert, the hills, the redwoods. I will be in a country that has, for better or worse, become the centre of the modern world, a place I interact with on a daily basis through products, media, and language. But I believe the tables are turning, that, while India is becoming more materialistic, America can only go the other way, and that this process has already begun. The Hemera Foundation has provided me with two wonderful mentors, one for my writing and one for my meditation, and with their help I will meditate and write my way across this fascinating, controversial land. I still do not know if I believe in a God, and I remain sceptical about all manner of things, but this journey is surely a blessing.

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Meditating with my nephew

 

 

 

 

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