An encounter with meditation while channelling the spirit of Kerouac on a trip around India.
I was fed up.
No, that’s not strong enough.
I was exhausted. Mentally hollow, and yet at the same time my head buzzed with the flurry of conversation, confusion, anxiety, anger, frustration and fatalism. After almost four months, seventy-seven train journeys, and 36,000km around India’s railway network, my body and my brain – like the railways – had long since run out of steam. I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept in a stationary bed, my skin shrank from the sweaty touch of other human beings, and travelling around a country built on religion with a self-confessed militant atheist in tow – a man hardwired to judge, ridicule and strip mine and everyone else’s faiths to the bone – was hardly conducive to the journey I had imagined.
In 1991, my family and I uprooted from Sheffield to Madras in the hope of making India our home. My parents had left Madras in the mid-seventies, as a pair of newly married junior doctors, and wanted to take back their expertise. But two years after we returned as a family, fed up with soap-eating rats, severed human heads and the creepy colonel across the road, we fled back to England with a bitter taste in our mouths. Twenty years later I decided to go back. Taking a page out of Jules Verne’s classic tale, Around the World in 80 Days, I embarked upon a 40,000km journey around India in eighty trains with a photographer friend of a friend as my companion. Travelling a distance equivalent to the circumference of the Earth, on a diet of treacle-sweet coffee and banana chips, I wanted to lift the veil on a country that had become a stranger to me.
What had I thought this journey was going to be? The Dharma Bums version 2.0? Post World War II, the Beats, in their anti-conformist way, began to shift underground in New York shaking loose formal constraints and experimenting with sex, drugs and new modes of thought, particularly Zen Buddhism – the core of Jack Kerouac’s 1958 semi-fictional novel The Dharma Bums.
Lauded as the godfather of the backpacker generation, the king of the Beat Generation, and the man who helped bring Buddhism to the West, Jack Kerouac spent much of the 1940s hitchhiking across America, wired on coffee and Benzedrine, churning out ‘spontaneous prose’: much of which was influenced by the poet Gary Snyder – as detailed in The Dharma Bums. The protagonist Ray Smith, based on Kerouac himself, follows in the leaping, bounding footsteps of Japhy Ryder (Snyder), tailing him up mountains, adopting the lotus pose on cliff faces and practising ‘yabyum’ better known as group sex. I had found a battered copy of The Dharma Bums in a bargain basement in Mumbai and followed Ray’s struggle to reconcile his own understanding and draw towards Zen Buddhism with Japhy’s contradictory and often patronising practices. In truth, Kerouac, although experimental with eastern philosophy, never really shed his Catholic vestments and by the late 1950s his inclination towards Buddhism had all but died out.
However, I understood how it felt to become disillusioned with one way of life and feel the pull towards another. At this very instant I was livid. I had just been thrown out of the Jagannath temple in Puri, in the eastern state of Orissa. The temple was one of the four dhams, or abodes of the Gods, and only Hindus were allowed to enter. An altercation with a security guard led me to be plucked from the queue, laughed at, and my British passport thrown at my head after I revealed myself to be of non-Indian nationality – despite being a Hindu. The priest forbade me to enter insisting that I must be a Christian and a group circled like vultures, forcing me to leave the grounds.
Religion had never been an important part of my life. Being born into a nominally Hindu family, I happily ate rare steak, never went to the temple and felt that faith was a personal choice as long as it brought no harm to another. Throughout the previous few months, my militant atheist sidekick had bullied me into reassessing religion as I saw it, but things really changed when I met Ben.
A thirty-year-old documentary photographer from Hackney, Ben was hardly the Japhy Ryder to my Ray Smith, but like Ray, I did admire the way in which he meditated. He didn’t take out prayer beads, adopt the lotus pose or whip his clothes off and leap up mountains, but I liked his disciplined attitude towards meditation, choosing to sit first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and the clear effect that it had on him. I had met Ben on train number sixty, the Lifeline Express. It was the world’s first hospital train which brought free medical care to the neglected rural poor, parking at local stations for up to five weeks at a time and operating on children who suffered deformities from polio and cleft lips, and adults in need of cataract and ear surgery. The atmosphere was stifling, yet Ben’s calm transcended all angst. His dark eyes shone as though he knew something that nobody else did. One night as we drank tea on his balcony, I asked him about it.
It turned out that Ben had just come from a Vipassana retreat, which teaches a non-religious method of mental purification that allows one to face tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way. Vipassana, a Burmese technique practised by the Buddha, means ‘to see things as they really are’ and involves ten days in silence without external distractions, to sharpen the mind and learn self-control. Kerouac and the Beat Generation spent much time meditating in isolation, taking frequent trips out to the West Coast to seek solitude in the mountains, which I was not about to emulate. However, the Vipassana course was taught in a large group by a man named S.N. Goenka who had found the meditation technique useful in alleviating his debilitating migraines, and after fourteen years of training, decided to teach the method to anyone who could benefit, and his retreats had now spread worldwide. My experience of many an orange-robed charlatan in India had made me sceptical, but the most appealing aspect of Goenka’s course was that it was free of charge, running purely on voluntary donations. After my expulsion from the temple, I sat cross-legged on the passenger train through Orissa, and thought back to Ben. I knew that I couldn’t go on in this way. I needed somewhere quiet. I needed to sit still. I needed to remember how to breathe.
On arrival at the retreat I handed in my phone, my passport and for all I knew, my sanity. Ten days in silence with no pens, paper, iPods, reading material, alcohol or meat, was a big ask but it was worth it if it could teach me not to react to agitation and to take on the same cloak of calm that enveloped Ben. At least 100 people filled the meditation hall, and to my surprise, most were Indian. From 4.30am we sat cross-legged on cushions, eyes closed, observing our breath – a practice that focuses the mind. Goenka was based at a different retreat, but his voice crackled periodically from a tape player.
“Be aware of your breath on your upper lip. Don’t change it, just be aware of it. Does your breath enter the right nostril? Left nostril? Is it warm? Cool? Deep? Shallow? Be aware.”
In total we meditated for an average of eleven hours a day. My thoughts ran riot, wrestling with me, climbing around my head and shredding my nerves. But they soon quietened as I learnt to observe my breath and realised that it was a good indicator of my mood: while agitated it was deep and rasping; when calm it was barely detectable. After the third day we learnt the technique of Vipassana which involves observing every sensation in the body, from the top of the skull to the tips of the toes: little more than a mental MRI. Over the ten days I did nothing but observe my breath, monitoring the way in which my thoughts manifested physical effects on my body – sweating palms, butterflies, a tension headache. I was not force-fed literature or doctrine, nor goaded into adopting rites or rituals. I simply sat still, let my body do the talking and listened. When negativity arose it eventually disappeared. I just had to be patient. Soon my sleep deepened, my smile brightened and my thoughts cleared.
As much as Kerouac and company considered meditation as the path towards a higher plane, I found it a practical and instantaneous relief from pain, agitation and unease. When I left South India and arrived home I soon fell back into the pushy pace of London life. But I now had a remedy at my fingertips. I could tap into it on a crowded Tube, call it up when I couldn’t sleep and start my mornings with a ten-minute sit to set the pace of the day. Where once I would have elbowed back on the Jubilee line, complained about work, or ranted about the rain, I now took a deep breath and allowed the moment to pass.
Before I had left the retreat, Goenka had offered one final piece of advice:
“Please don’t leave here calling yourself a Buddhist. If the technique works, then please practise it to reap the full benefits. If not, then throw it in the bin and put it down to experience.”
Around India in 80 Trains, by Monisha Rajesh, is due out now in paperback.