An anxious one
is a bird’s life
in fears well-founded
of sly cats, eager dogs,
two legged giants and
An anxious one
is a bird’s life
in fears well-founded
of sly cats, eager dogs,
two legged giants and
Gib stared at the swirls of pink and orange tinged with gold against a pale blue background in amazement. He sank his feet deeper into the soft and slightly moist stuff he was standing on. His uncut mop of hair flew in the air, each strand playing ‘tangles’ with the others. The strong, unruly body of water in front of him thrashed and crashed in tune to a vaguely familiar and a stirring rhythm. Gib took a timid step forward to reach for the rolling water. His feet hit a jagged edge of something buried beneath the soft stuff he loved. Gib winced in pain, cried out and aimlessly hit at the beeping sound coming from his left.
‘Beep Beep Beep’ it made a racket.
Gib hit out even harder to make it stop. He opened his eyes as his hand recognized the cool metal touch.
Gib rubbed his eyes and looked up at the plain white ceiling of his bedroom. He felt his hair to see if it was still long. It wasn’t. His short cropped hair was intact. Gib felt a twinge of sadness, a feeling which usually accompanied his recurring dream.
“Gib go and get the oranges. You don’t want to be late for school do you?” His mother screamed from somewhere inside the house.
Gib got up, threw on his day robe, picked up his basket from the hallway and exited.
The lone orange tree stood in a corner of their 3 perch garden, amidst a sea of clean cut blue-green grass. Gib tapped the tree trunk three times and held out his basket. The orange tree shook a branch and dropped three oranges neatly into Gib’s basket. Gib looked up in surprise. ” There are four people, I need one more” but the tree just ignored Gib and raised a branch to wave at an official who was riding a grey angry cloud towards Gib’s place.
The official looked stern; his face was just as grey as his cloud. ” Give this letter to your father” he said handing Gib a letter and hit the cloud pretty hard. The startled cloud flew away leaving behind a startled Gib.
His father paled and then blinked hard when he finished the letter. He handed the letter to their mother without a word. Her small eyes widened when she finished the letter and she looked as grey as the official had looked.
“When was the last time you saw Zeb?” she asked Gib.
“Last night, when we said good night to you after the story.” Gib replied.
Gib’s father pushed a red button on their dog and ordered it to look for Zeb. The dog made a few beeping sounds and put up his screen. It showed the map of the whole world. But no dot marked a place indicating Zeb, he had vanished.
“Eat your orange and get ready for school. You can’t miss school. It will look even more suspicious.” Gib’s father announced.
“But Zeb?”Gib began but his mother silenced him with a look. But she peeled his orange for him and poured extra honey over it before handing him the orange on his favourite plate.
Gib went to school as usual. An unfamiliar hollow sensation accompanied him in Zeb’s place.
His future wife, Mea didn’t seem much pleased to see him that day. “Father told me about Zeb. It’s a disgrace.” She said haughtily. “Poor Zain” she added as an afterthought.
Zain was supposed to have been Zeb’s future wife. Zain’s cool grey eyes and the impassive face remained the same as she went about her work with an air of nonchalance.
“She didn’t even make a single mistake in class today.” Mea reported to Gib during lunch. She sounded impressed. Mea and Zain were training to be gift makers and attended the same classes. Lunch was a difficult occasion. Zeb’s and Zain’s empty places at their table looked out of place in the full cafeteria. The other children kept glancing at them curiously but were too scared of the watchful teachers to ask questions.
“What will happen to Zain and where is she?” Gib asked Mea.
“An official came and took her for questioning after the presentation tricks class. They’ll take you too. Just tell them you know nothing.” Mea ordered.
“In any case that is the truth right?” She inquired with a note of anxiety creeping into her steady tone.
“True, I know nothing.” Gib replied in a dull voice.
They finished their platefuls of stew and sipped their milk in silence. Mea spilt some of her milk attracting some unwanted notice from a teacher for her trouble. Gib tried to help her but she brushed him off and wiped the steel table top with the cloth that the teacher handed her.
“Pay attention to what you do always.” The teacher warned her.
Mea nodded acquiescence timidly.
The teacher glared at Gib. “Finish your milk young man. We do not waste food and beverages here.” Gib swallowed the rest of his milk in one gulp.
The rest of the day was uneventful.
However, the hollow feeling inside Gib increased and continued to get worse as he realized his classmates were avoiding him. Mea was the only one who spoke to him during the play hour. But she spent most of the time piling up advice on Gib on how to behave when the officials questioned him.
“Don’t panic. Just act normal and say you knew nothing out of the ordinary. And don’t mention your dreams to them. If you do, we will all get into trouble.” She commanded. Then she added in a softer tone, “If you do they might separate us. I don’t want to be paired with another boy.”
Gib felt an urge to stroke her soft black hair but he fought the impulse. Such behaviours were frowned upon. He didn’t want to attract more trouble.
When they parted that day, Gib gave her his prized silver marble with the blue eye.
“Why are you giving me this?” Mea asked, her voice clenched in fear.
“You were the only one who spoke to me today. Keep it for the night. You can give it to me tomorrow.” Gib replied.
Mea nodded and walked away.
The officials came for the whole family that evening. They were escorted into an enormous steel building surrounded by round pillars. A special agent took Gib into a separate room. It was decorated with miniature circular pillars and globes in silver. The agent took a sample of Gib’s blood and urine and conducted various examinations on his body. Satisfied the agent began asking questions.
” Did you talk a lot with your brother?”
”Did Zeb speak to you about anything strange?”
“Was there anything different about Zeb during the past month?”
“What kind of games did you play?”
Gib told them what he knew. He and Zeb always went to school, did their home work, played with their friends, and shared their meals with their future wives, talked about being excellent medicine makers, just like their father. The agent looked satisfied and led him towards his parents.
When they returned home that night Gib’s mother made redpepper dip, vegetables and meat rondelles, Zeb’s favourite. His father gave her a withering look when he saw the dishes but helped himself to a big plateful without a word.
“Zeb would have licked the plate clean.” Gib volunteered.
“Gib, I do not want to hear that name mentioned again in this house or outside!” his father said coldly.
His mother cleared the table in silence.
A week later the officials brought a charred body. They said it was Zeb. They said he has gone to a steel worker’s house. They said he had tried to work the steel machine there and that he had got burned to death. They said this happens when you go out of your own territory. A medicine maker could never work a steel machine. The governor gave a special speech on TV. He talked about the tragic story and how it should be a lesson to everybody. They buried the remains. Gib’s father forebode his family to ever speak of Zeb.
Gib’s mother customary shout of, “Gib go and get the oranges. You don’t want to be late for school do you?” continued each morning. But her voice grew terser with each passing day. She hardly looked up at Gib when she spoke to him.
Gib still got up in the morning at 7 o’ clock sharp. He went out for oranges. He went to school with Mea. In school he went to the medicine class alone. He bumped into Zain occasionally. She was with another boy, a future engineer with a square, serious face. So she snubbed him whenever they met. Mea took the snubbing as a matter of course and continued to stand up to Gib whenever some busybody mentioned Zeb.
During the break he shared a table with Mea. Played with his class mates during the break, headed for the showers afterwards and took leave of Mea every day at the school gate.
On Wednesday afternoons he went to see a movie with Mea and watched heroic deeds of every day warriors who contributed to the common good and were exemplary citizens.
Everything continued without Zeb. But Gib was beginning to feel funny inside. He was not sick he just felt hollow inside. He sometimes wanted to throw away all his books and run out of the class. He wanted not to go to the movies on Wednesdays with his future wife. He wanted to step on the oranges and squash them on the ground. He wanted to slap everyone around including himself. Most of all he wanted to find Zeb. This was strange because everyone else seems to have forgotten Zeb. Even Mea hardly ever spoke of him. She was busy planning for their graduation.
Whenever Gib wanted to talk to her about Zeb, Mea’s pretty brown eyes glazed over. She seemed not to hear him and went on talking about her blue robe for the graduation and the shop she planned to apprentice in.
Gib’s life became difficult with each passing day. The hollow grew stronger with time and refused to budge no matter how hard he tried. He knew he shouldn’t feel that way. But he did.
Nights became the worst time of the day for Gib. He just could not sleep. The hollow inside him grew heavy, stuffy, dark and unbearable.
One night, Gib found it impossible to go to sleep. He stared hard at his pillow. He just wanted the hollow feeling to go away so that he can get on with his life. Slowly it began to loosen up. To his amazement Gib saw something like water drop onto his pillow. It came out of his eyes. For a moment Gib panicked. May be he too was dying. This must be life going out of his body. But what he saw next pushed all else from his mind. Letters began to appear on his pillow. He recognized Zeb’s handwriting. Gib let the water flow out of his eyes.
If you can read this it means you are- ready to hear about the new world I found. The water drops that come out of your eyes are called tears in this world. It’s natural. And nothing to be afraid of. In this world we can choose our jobs. You don’t have to be a medicine maker if you don’t want to. Things are different here. We don’t know who our future wives or husbands are. We don’t know what we are going to be. It’s not easy but it’s beautiful.
Remember the dream you told us about. I’ve seen that place. It exists here. It is even more beautiful than you described.
Gib kept on reading.
Outside the orange tree swayed in the soft breeze, a dry leaf fell on the ground noiselessly. An automatic vacuum reached for the leaf like a snake and sucked in the leaf leaving the grass beneath spotless and orderly. A stray cloud concealed the sickle of a moon briefly and drifted on its way.
In a corner of the world where
Ancient ruins of glory days
And repressed tension of diverging ways
Conspire with fear, grasping and ‘identity’
To wreck havoc,
A bunch of nonchalant goats
Graze on chewy grass
By a peaceful pond
Covered in Duckweed
(@Muhudu Maha Viharaya – [Pottuvil – Sri Lanka)
Wisdom hides amongst the most mundane of things
In a withering bush near a car park
In a foolish movie for the masses
In a cup of tea and an invisible storm
Rising above the filthy mud
Of day to day living
Mia picked up her basket of frog skeletons, put on her burgundy dress and stepped out of her house. The witch gathering was scheduled at half past moon rise. Mia hoped she wasn’t late for the ceremony. Her path was laden with rotting leaves; a chilly wind caressed her back as she took mincing steps on the narrow path. The robe clung to her slim form, accentuating the exquisite lines. Two silver stars shone on her delicate earlobes. A lone wolf wearing a red scarf watched her progress with interest.
Mia shivered as a memory of forceful a kiss haunted her. She ran her fingers through the frog skeletons, seeking comfort.
The wolf moved silently, its sense of smell leading it along Mia’s path. From time to time, the wolf licked its teeth.
Mia walked on, apprehensive yet coveting the night’s revelry that awaited her and her sisters in the moonlight. The said moonlight shed its indifferent gleam on the wolf’s red scarf and Mia’s burgundy dress, illuminating the folds of each garment.
The soft padding on wolf’s paws hid its progress from Mia’s ears but her mind was full of images of wolves and rarely strayed from its constant vigilance.
The wolf leapt forward silently, towards a patch of brown shrubs where the path diverged. There it waited, comfortable in its red scarf and conviction about Mia’s frailty. Its red eyes shone like rubies in the faint light of the indifferent moon.
As Mia approached the brown shrubs, the wolf sprang, aiming for the appetizing curve of her slender neck. Mia’s mind sprang into action, urging her to duck and roll over. The wolf landed on its paws and growled, ready to pounce once more. But, Mia was quicker. She drew her wand and unleashed a stream of rage-filled curses on the wolf’s pulsating body which froze on the spot and began to shake. A cloud of black smoke emanated from Mia’s wand covering the wolf’s body.
The indifferent moon saw the wolf’s limp body fall on its side. For an unnaturally long minute, even the wind ceased to blow and the trees became silent. Slowly the black smoke dispersed, revealing a struggling frog under the red scarf.
Mia tightened her finger tips around her wand, her eyes shone with pleasure, goose bumps rose on her bare arms and her toes curled in ecstatic expectation. A cry of pleasure escaped Mia’s lips as she pinned the frog on to the brown soil with her wand. It struggled for a short while before succumbing.
Mia wrapped the dead frog in the red scarf before placing it on top of the frog skeletons in her basket. Then she walked towards the flickering light in the distance where her sisters were gathered around a fire to begin their feast.
It was a steep climb
I stumbled on the steps
Scraped a knee
Hurt my back
And the old bruises
Aches and pains
Were my sure Companions
The lingering breeze
From the top of the mountain
Urged me onwards
Where a still pool
Bestowed cool droplets
On weary travelers
I am a poet, a gifted being
My rage fills word docs
Like flies swarm a milk box
And I like to wallow
In my misery
with a cocktail in hand
Looking down at the lesser beings
From the vantage point
That is rightly mine
Lighting bugs flickered from leaf to leaf. The dying fire crackled sending forth jaded wisps of smoke. Monk lay on his old blanket that smelt of egg sandwiches, staring into the cobalt blue sky, trying to catch stars with his mind’s eye. Unclear thoughts kept distracting him.
He shook his head from side to side, to clear his brain and tried to concentrate.
The ugly woman watched him with interest, her face partially concealed behind her limp and long hair. Her eyes shone bright red.
“What was the poem again? If I can memorize it perhaps I’ll be able to catch the stars,” Monk informed her.
She recited in her deep and soothing voice,
Fear grips like fire drops
On delicate skin so smooth
As she walks a tight rope
Balanced over a storm
Or an orange fire warm”
Monk turned to look at her with a foolish smile on his face. “I love hearing you recite. ‘The Dark’ leaves me when you are here. Perhaps, we can get married and I won’t ever have to bother with stars. Will that be too hard? Please consider it and tell your folk” he pleaded.
The ugly woman didn’t move. “You know that is impossible. I can only visit. Now try again, I’ll recite for you.”
Monk sighed and went back to staring at the sky. The ugly woman began to recite in a sonorous tone.
Monk’s head began to nod, his body relaxed as the stars began to greet him. Some silver ones danced around his head while gold stars shimmered close to his two eyes.
“Bliss” Monk murmured.
The Dark waited with a glum smile across his shattered face, not too far from the ugly woman.
The ugly woman kept on with her recital, Monk seemed ecstatic and The Dark glum as ever with his lanky arms swinging to the poetic rhythm.
The ugly woman lowered her voice as if to put Monk to sleep and The Dark began to take mincing steps towards Monk.
He crept close, looked at the Ugly woman and winked. She stopped the recital, a little sad but resigned. The Dark loomed over Monk who began to shake and closed his eyes tight. The Dark reached out and touched Monk’s forehead with a blackened finger. Monk shivered and began to cry. The Dark began to rest all six fingers on Monk’s face, one by one slowly.
A chill seeped into Monk’s body.
Monk sobbed harder but finally opened his eyes. The Dark stood tall and firm over Monk’s old blanket that smelt of egg sandwiches. Monk shrieked and tried to price The Dark’s fingers off his face.
The ugly woman wept near the fire, or Monk imagined so.
The Dark tightened his grip, closing his hand over Monk’s nose and mouth. Monk struggled, unable to voice his pain, his body went limp.
The Dark looked at the body, melancholy, resentful, angry and filled with terror.
The ugly woman emerged from beyond the dying fire to touch The Dark’s shoulder. He put his arm in hers.
The two of them walked over Monk’s fire to look for his sister.
The pirate asked the captain
Would you stop shams?
To survive on clams
Priced from a rock
Set in the vast sea?
Would you embark
On a shipping spree
To thwart guilt
by saving a shark?
Would you forgo a drink
Of the most expensive wine
To dance with gods
On a woodland brink
On a serene night
The Captain cocked his unibrow!
On a clear day when the fickle mist lifts, you may catch a glimpse of the true face of the mountain. There will be countless green trees, heavy, moss covered rocks, tiny creatures and mounds and mounds of dirt. And if you are absolutely noiseless, you may hear even the gentlest rustle created by wind and manifested through things substantial and not. This is what my imaginary critic would call a passable simile to the discovery that awaits when you take charge of your erratic mind and set out to explore its contents.
For 10 days (technically 12 days), I learnt the technique of Vipassana at the Dhamma Kuta Vipassana centre in Mhakanda, Kandy (http://www.kuta.dhamma.org/). It was not only one of the toughest tasks I have ever lived through but also the most valuable journey of my life so far. This is a recount of certain aspects of the said journey.
According to popular belief Gautama Buddha rediscovered the technique of Vipassana around 2500 years ago. Following his hard-earned discovery about ‘Dhamma’ (law of nature) and the Four Noble truths at the age of 35, the Buddha continued to teach this non-sectarian and practical approach to discovering the truth within oneself to countless individuals throughout ancient India for the next 45 years until his passing away.
S N Goenka
A Burmese national of Indian descent, S N Goenka began teaching Vipassana meditation in 1969 in India and attracted hundreds and thousands of people. He adopted a non-sectarian approach to training and taught people from various backgrounds around the globe. Even after his passing away in 2013, the meditation centres that commenced with his guidance continue to help thousands of people around the world.
Weird and anxious warnings (and lessons in kindness)
Though I kept my decision to go on a meditation retreat private as much as possible, I had to let the cat out of the bag to a few people and lying was out of the question. While most of the responses were encouraging, I did meet some resistance.
“I’ve read in the papers, some women go off to meditation and then get sucked into it. They stop caring about family life. Your poor husband. Just go this once but not again. He won’t stop you but this is not the way.”
And in the same breath they continue (only figuratively).
“You don’t even perform any ‘Pooja’. You don’t offer flowers or light a lamp to the Buddha statue. So and so does every morning and evening. And it is a good practice to adopt in a ‘Buddhist’ household. Otherwise you are not a real Buddhist.”
However, this person swallowed their entirely legitimate misgivings and did all that was in their power to help me get to the retreat.
Lessons learnt – 1 A lesson in mere kindness. 2 My, what a hindrance unchecked cultural religion can be to real progress
“There is a greater agenda around the world to push religion on people. If one wants to collect ones thoughts, one should go on a holiday.”
This person drove me all the up a steep hill on a road filled with potholes to the meditation retreat in spite of their own misgivings and warnings.
Lessons learnt – 1 A lesson in truly unselfish kindness. 2 My, what a hindrance unchecked atheism can be to real progress
At the orientation on day 0, all participants took a vow of noble silence and agreed to keep the five precepts in order to develop the necessary grounds to practice meditation from a place of discipline and morality.
On the next day we began our grueling schedule of meditating (following instructions given by S N Goenka) from 4 30am to 9 30pm with 5 to 10 minute breaks every hour or one and a half hour in addition to longer breaks for meals. We survived on two unexpectedly delicious vegetarian meals a day plus evening tea along with a banana and cream cracker biscuits. I found the fare satisfying and it kept me going swimmingly throughout the day.
Each evening, after the day’s long hours of meditation was done and dusted, we listened to a discourse by our teacher S N Goenka. His discourses were apt for each day and each day we discovered that he had pretty good grasp of our daily experiences.
I made the first ego-shattering discovery when I realized what a wild animal my mind truly was. We spent the first three days, trying to watch and concentrate on our natural breath and the mind kept taking me on wild trips into the past and the future. The body reacted in kind with searing to dull pains occurring all over its corporal being.
While S N Goenka is the main instructor and guide, we were assigned assistant teachers to guide our individual practice. I was blessed with a wise and a compassionate teacher who had the uncanny ability to pick on both my strong and weak points at exactly the right moments. Without her help, I would have lost my bearings on the 4th day itself.
They teach Vipassana technique on the fourth day. That is a bridge each of us can only cross in solitude with the compassionate voice of our teachers shouting instructions from the shore. It is narrow bridge and balance is of utmost importance.
Vipassana is a deep technique and 10 days is not enough to reap full benefits. But the intensity of practice coupled with guidance can make one discover certain truths in all their actuality. Each meditation sitting was different and after a few days one stops having any expectations and accept each moment as it is. One is bound to stumble upon the inevitable truth (in varying degrees) that true equanimity is the only liberating attitude towards mediation and life itself. If accepted, adopted and practiced unceasingly, equanimity will usher in compassion, kindness and sympathetic joy (again in varying degrees depending in one’s own mindset). That is the wonder of the technique and the brilliance of this particular teaching method, meticulously broken into phases within 10 days.
At the retreat, we lived in close quarters with strangers from all over the world. While Dhamma Kuta had provided all the necessary comforts including hot water, I expected at least some friction to manifest in the air. But I was pleasantly surprised (a perk of being uncertain). Everyday someone would use their breakfast break to clean the bathrooms and the toilets in the block and sometimes you catch the sight of a kind soul sweeping the corridor. One rainy afternoon, I went back to the block a little concerned about my clothes which I had hung out in the sun, only to find out that a kind stranger had already hung them to dry within the safety of the corridor. To this day I haven’t the faintest clue as to who the kind stranger was. Whenever, our paths crossed, each and every one stepped aside to let the other person pass. This invariably created a few funny moments in which we had to break our oath of noble silence and chuckle.
There two days when our block and the one below ran out of running water. But the girls bore this particular difficulty without a single complaint and shared what little water was available. Later we learnt that wild boars had come up with this clever plan to attack the pipes up the hill to teach us a valuable lesson in equanimity.
Throughout the 12 days we spent together I don’t recall a single incident that resulted in pettiness, jealousy or fierce ‘othering’.
Today, I am filled with gratitude towards Buddha for rediscovering this technique and S N Goenka for building such a strong foundation to practice. I am grateful to my husband who remains a constant inspiration and a motivator and drove all the way on day 12 after a going through a rough week of his own to pick me up from the retreat. I am grateful to all the people in my life who continue to extend their unconditional love and support. I am grateful to the teachers, ‘Dhamma Servers’, administrative staff and the kitchen staff of Dhamma Kuta for their extraordinary kindness. I am grateful to my fellow meditators. I am even grateful to the wild boars for their timely lesson.
Vipassana Meditation Centre – Dhamma Kuta (http://www.kuta.dhamma.org/) is managed entirely on donations given by meditators who have completed at least one 10 day course.
"Life is a strange abiding A place to live, grow and thrive (And aspire for dispassion) A glimpse of victory A glimpse of failure A drought wrought in a dust cloud Followed by a rain soaked breeze"
Some of the mediators on the last day