So, What Did You Learn?

Sep 30, 2005

Some friends came to visit us the other day. Interestingly enough, it was their chauffer that laid down the inevitable question -- "So Nipunbhai, what did you learn from your pilgrimage?"

Almost about seven months ago, this driver and I were doing a 5:00AM run to pick up my brother from the train station. At one point, he abruptly stops the car at a tea stall, looks to me point blank and says, "I've been dying to ask you this question -- can you tell me what meditation is?" Throughout the five minutes that I spoke, I don't think his eyes fluttered even once. So, in a way, this is round 2 in that sincere questionaire series.

I take a second to think. "I think the biggest lesson I learned was humility," I say.

Just in that instant, I realize that pausing a moment before responding is, in and of itself, a growth in humility. Before, I might've jumped to fill the void with my intellectual answers; now, I pause to admit my lack of an answer and to show reluctance for repeating cookie-cutter or self-aggrandizing wisdom. Instead of answering a question, it is now a joint journey of discovery. A simple pause, subtle growth.

"When you go on a walk like this, you have no choice but to accept your complete lack of control over circumstances," I continue.

That unconditional acceptance, almost a resignation of the ego, is an ongoing process. When a bus load of drunk boys whistle at Guri or two shady-looking guys start following you on a lonesome dirt road, at first, you respond with a futile-yet-macho attempt to cover up your fear. Soon enough, though the kids become what they really are -- kids. I see my own younger self in them and at one point, I even started dancing and laughing with them as they rode off in a distance. It's all ok. Similarly, the foreboding thugs appear to me as manifestations of my own ego patterns; I manage to crack a smile because it's all kind of humorous after a while.

If I wanted to build fences, protect and hide, I would be at home playing games with my ego. I'm here to put it all down, so here it is. At home, we use our merits to control everything but on a pilgrimage, you're naked. All your fears, hopes, desires, everything is out there for everyone to see. It's obvious that you're hungry, it's obvious that you're lost, it's obvious that you are vulnerable. There is just no way around it and in fact, that's exactly the purpose of a true pilgrimage. Either you cry with anguish or smile with acceptance. I did both and realized that I prefer smiling. :)

"When you're walking, all your interactions are momentary. You talk to someone, meet someone, help someone and boom, the next moment, a new scene entirely," I tell my driver friend, as others tune in.

Our conditioned response is to collect and gather, for security in an uncertain future. Kids collect toys; teens collect self-affirming trophies and report cards; college students collect line items for their resume. Gather, gather, gather. Lonely souls gather friends, weak souls gather power, poor souls gather money. Just in case, of course. When you are walking, though, the collection frenzy hits a dead end. No palm-pilot to gather contacts, no cell phone calls to get rescue help, no encumbering possessions that can't fit on your shoulders.

You just keep walking, anonymously lifting loads and pushing cars along the way. At first, it's humbling. Then, it's kind of liberating, actually.

Initially, the rapidly changing scenery is a stark contrast from our preserve-and-persevere culture. You are humbled by realization that life will get along just fine without you. Slowly, though, you start to loosen the blindfolds around your Eyes. Life starts to become an awesome ride on ever-changing waves of the natural flow. You haven't got a clue how you will survive the night and you end up meeting a grandfather who practically adopts you or a brother who refuses to let you leave or a drunkard who walks 8 kilometers with you. Heck, you want mangoes and they appear, as if out of nowhere. Everything becomes an awesome adventure of the spirit, a mind-walk to discover your own illusions.

Of course, the deeper your me-me-me grooves, the longer it takes to see the beauty of life's joys and pains. Everyone wants to think they're good, pure and almost perfect but mostly, we're just masquerading under the guise of phony acts of cultivation. One after another, nature's compassionate slaps granted me the chance to pay off some of my overdue fines.

When a coin toss led us to stop walking in favor of meditation, we knew that our "stories" wouldn't be as interesting to read. Again, it's humbling to feel that you're not providing any value-add to the world for affording you such a pure opportunity to grow. I'll be the first to admit that it's rationally difficult to cancel a press conference, ignore major TV station interviews, and refuse speeches. It's difficult because a part of the pilgrimage responsibility is surely to share the inspiration. Yet, at a subtler level, Guri and I didn't leave home to "save the world"; we ante'd up our reservoirs of inspiration for the world to save us. As Eckhart Tolle once said:

To meet everything and everyone through stillness instead of mental noise is the greatest gift you can offer to the universe.

Any pilgrimage, I would argue, is an attempt to cultivate our innate gift of stillness. Ours certainly was. And once again, it ended up being an exercise in humility!

In perhaps my humblest moment of the pilgrimage, Guri and I sat on top of a terrace overlooking a huge Jain temple. We were hungry but there was no food, we were tired but there were no beds for that night, we wanted to believe in our lofty ideals but we were left with our own karma. If you try to win on a pilgrimage, you always lose. Always. Instead of feeling the beautiful breeze or seeing the magnificent roof-top sunset view, my ego was dying in the face constant instability. I felt horrible and worthless, without knowing why. In a way, such moments are the jewels of all pilgrimages -- burn-out or burn-through. I meditated. With the full understanding that this state will soon pass, I sat equanimously until the stone of ignorance was polished into a tiny jewel of wisdom. Silently, one can't help but take vows to not carve out such ignorant grooves in the future.

By and by, all the states pass, another dawn always emerges and you tread a little lighter. It's humbling at first, liberating in the end.

My good friend, James O'dea, would say that the purpose of life is to be cooked. Cooked so you be supple, supple so you be had by Life.

As the story-telling session comes to an end, I conclude, "In the end, I would say I got a little cooked."

Bookmark and Share


Projects I'm Involved With

"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."