Get Thee to a Nunnery

So here I am – finally on the banks of the Mighty Ganga, about to check into a heavy-duty Vispassana ashram.   Spirituality with attitude, meaningful meditation, a path to inner peace… perhaps?  Of course, being known for my neurotic and somewhat volatile personality, this is going to be an interesting experience.  Which is why I haven’t told a soul, not a damned soul, about it.  And who could blame me?  After all, I could end up the butt of some rather hilarious jokes within wide social circle for I’m a bit of a character.  Well, in this case, a character about to eschew my western values for…enlightenment?  Better karma?  A more tranquil persona?  (Is that even possible, for of a Columbian coffee-drinking, Gaulouise-smoking, martini-loving, Kierkegaard-reading, Freud-admiring, neurotic Girl About Town such as myself?)

The moment of reckoning is upon me.  I steel myself and walk through the front door.   This is it.  Do or die.  For I’ve signed up for a heavy-duty stint, at an ashram with attitude, I’ve been reliably informed… meditation, three plain meals (vegan naturally) per day and 5am meditation.  People spend 10 days here in complete silence, I’m informed, in hushed tones, by the woman checking me in.  And then – the bombshell is dropped.  In order to have a beneficial stay, I’m required to clean out my backpack and hand over anything and everything that will be considered counter-productive to my spiritual enlightenment. 

No doubt the look of horror on my face gives my true feelings away but in the name of playing the game I duly proceed to hand over:

(a) Four novels (they make me part with Henry James!)

(b) My trusty Moleskine notebook (if it was good enough for Hemmingway, it’s good enough for me)

(c) My entire biscuit supply, purchased in Delhi (three packs of Hide & Seek chocolate chip cookies, one pack of Happy Day butter rounds and a pack of trusty oatmeal Digestives).

It feels as if the worst is over.  But – no the worst is yet to come.  I am then notified, in grave tones, that all caffeinated substances are off-limits, for the duration of my stay.

No – there will be no happy day.

It’s downhill all the way from then on.  A spartan room – well, that’s no sweat for me.  Three vegan meals a day?  Well, I’m known fondly as one of the Last of the Big Eaters, a gal who regularly skips meals without even being aware of it, so this will hardly break me.  Even the prohibition on talking to other attendees?  OK, I can be a chatterbox; however, after 48 hours of incessant noise (India is not a quiet country) and the cacophony of Tel Aviv, I’m actually ready for a limited amount of peace and quiet.  But no morning cawfee?  No afternoon tea?  No coca cola to quench my thirst in the raging heat?   I fear things cannot end well.

The day passes…in a caffeine-deprived haze.  I spend the morning staring at a wall (apparently the Sanskrits regard the ability to focus one’s energies on a blank spot, blocking out all emotions, as highly beneficial to one’s inner tranquility).   A Guru pops in periodically to check in on me.  What he doesn’t know is that my mind is already wandering – contemplating chapter nine of the book I’m currently penning. 

Lunch is a dull affair, in a gloomy hall, in silence with a group of fellow abstainers (most, it appears, are Westerners on a quest for…well, who knows?)  In the afternoon, I walk in the grounds and stare at the river, trying to ignore the pounding headache I am experiencing.  I have now not consumed caffeine for over 15 hours.  (I’m reminded of how bad -tempered I am by late afternoon each Yom Kippur, the one day each year I deprive myself of my greatest pleasure).

By 4 pm, I’m aching, literally aching, for a cup of tea, I am literally salivating at the thought of a steaming hot glass of chai, or a schluck of Assam.  But no can do my friend…all I have to look forward to is an more wall staring, followed at 6pm by a bowl of dubious-looking watery green stuff.  The evening passes agonisingly slowly…from my room I can see jolly-looking foreign tourists and Indian pilgrims walking across the suspension bridge nearby, eating ice creams and samosas, laughing merrily, not a care in the world.  I take to my bed shortly after 10 pm, determined that – in true Scarlett O’Hara spirit – tomorrow will be another day.

Tomorrow comes early.  Really early.  I am woken at 5am, for morning meditation.  Bleary eyed, and with pounding head, I stumble to the main hall, where all around me are chipper-looking devotees, cross legged on the floor, chanting mantras and looking much more peaceful than anyone should be allowed to look at such an ungodly hour. 

And suddenly it hits me.  This is foolery of the ‘nth’ degree.  And I don’t have to be a party to it.  I came…I saw…I eschewed.  I’ve done my bit in the name of inner peace – but now I’d like my western habits back!  I want my Henry James novel, caffeine, eggs and toast…I want a hot shower, my notebook, I want chocolate and I want to sleep late.  In short, I want out.  That’s it.  This interesting little social experiment is over.  I’ve got a trip to make.  And a few cups of coffee to consume first.

The woman who checks me out looks disappointed but says very little.  (No doubt she’s seen it all before).  Some of the devotees shoot me looks of disdain or pity (I’m not gonna find nirvana..).  I should also point out that a couple of them look truly envious.  Frankly, though, I have no interest in being judged.  All I want now is to break for the border.  I sign for my printed matter, thank my hosts graciously and hot foot it out the door.


There’s a coffee shop about 100 metres due north, if my memory serves me correctly.  The Little Buddha Cafe.  In I walk, in fine spirits.  Half an hour later, I’m munching on toast, hash browns and an omelette and sipping my third cup of coffee.  Henry James never had this allure.  And the view looks mighty fine from where I’m sitting…

Rock on Rishikesh!