Rameshwaram Pilgrims (unattributed)
After immersing ourselves fully clothed into the sea three times, we walked barefoot and dripping wet to the temple complex, arriving just before it was due to open for the afternoon session. For an additional ₹125 per person (the temple entrance was ₹25), our group of fourteen was taken ahead of the waiting queue to the first of twenty-two wells. The Brahmin (a staff member of the temple) standing on the wall at the edge of the well, threw in a metal bucket attached to a long string, and, with a well-practised technique, pulled up the full bucket and unceremoniously threw the cold water over the head of each waiting pilgrim. After my turn, I was hurried onto the next well, and the next, barely having the time to acknowledge, let alone view, the astonishing sculptures of the temple, which is renowned for having the longest pillared hallway of any Hindu temple in India. And so went the process until I'd had a cold bucket of water over my head at all twenty-two wells.
Though I had my doubts about the purity of the water in the wells, the aspiration to bathe in these ‘holy’ waters is a major aspect of the pilgrimage to Rameshwaram (a town located just off mainland India on Pamban Island, which is the closest land-point to Sri Lanka) and is considered purifying and equivalent to penance. I suppose it is similar to a ‘confessional’ in a catholic church, where one can be absolved of all sin via the confession. If only it was that easy?
On a recent visit to a spice farm in Kerala, I decided to try an Ayurvedic concoction (a natural appetite inhibitor, of sorts) for a few weeks to help me lose some weight. I have noticed on many previous occasions in the yo-yo-ing saga of my relationship with my body, that I have a curious reaction to the physical changes that occur when I shift some weight. The closer I get to the ‘ideal’ I envisage as my goal, including the thrilling moments when I look at the slimmer me in the mirror, the more threatened and exposed my ego feels. It is at this point, when I clearly feel healthier, have more energy, and am amazed at how I look, that sticking to a maintenance plan is what's going to work. Yet my mind begins to kick and scream at me: Are you sure it's healthy to have such small portions for the rest of your life? You've never maintained staying slim for long before, you might as well start eating ‘normally’ again. You know you've got the discipline now, so don't worry, you can re-start it again later. (And the classic) Your mum's going to be really worried about you!
As a society, we have a tendency to place importance on the final result of our goals. We measure the degree of ‘success’ about our ‘self’ (i.e. who we are) as equal to achieving the goal. Hence, on the day that I undoubtedly fall from my eating discipline, instead of acknowledging my achievement so far and getting back on track, I decide to give up on the goal altogether. The mind is slippery. It overrides common sense, in spite of the physical discomfort and sluggishness I've suffered for years as a consequence of overeating. Doesn't this sound like a scratched record of the same conversation we have about our New Year resolutions and intentions to make significant changes in our lives?
The problem is that we do not actually want to change!
That's the truth. There is no judgement. Life is a continual process of change. We simply need to look in nature to see the reality of this —the cycle of seasons, birth, growth, death, etc. If we look back to the person we were ten years ago, do we acknowledge how different we are today? Change happens regardless of our awareness of it. However, we are also inherently wired to resist any ‘additional’ change than what is necessary to maintain our survival.
We have an insidious attachment to ‘suffering,’ which is wholly connected to assumptions and narratives about our identity (who we think we are, who we should be, or could have been). Then, we are inevitably disappointed with ourselves for not fitting into this ‘ideal self’ we've been carrying around in our minds forever. It takes courage to detach from this ‘ideal self’ without holding onto anger/resentment (past narratives), and without fearing that we will be annihilated (future narratives). Yet once we face the fact that our past and future narratives are essentially delusions that do not need to affect the present, in reality, it takes just a moment to ‘let the self go’ and understand that we can create a new narrative of our choosing. We realise that while we effect/affect everyone and everything with our choices and decisions (because we are all connected), the connection is not what we imagine it to be. Because we no longer feel the need to act within our usual behaviours of possession and attachment.
As for our salvation from the illusions of ‘self’? I quote Louise Hay, who has only one premise for change: “The point of power is in the present moment.”
While meditating one day, I had an insight that sounds ineffable/crazy when described in words, though I will have a go…
It was a sense of spaciousness, like an expansion of thought —an experience of the formless within which anything was possible. I interpreted it as: “There is only now!”, the ‘potential’ to create. Simply this. There was a feeling of having no past, no history and no anticipation of the future; a realm beyond the daily/monthly/yearly agreements I've had for so many years in keeping with wanting to achieve my goals. I understood about the importance of expressing goals (clarity), getting support to override the negative habits of ‘failure’ and self-deprecation, and also listening to the subtle agreements in my thoughts that were already habituated ‘beliefs’ about who I was. The binding ingredient was to see that ‘intention’ and ‘creation’ arise together and in-form each other. The formless was actually a potential to create in abundance —be it artistry, health, wealth, spirituality— all that life intends possible.
During the process of having buckets of water thrown over me at the wells in Rameshwaram, I did have an experience of fearlessness that felt incredibly light and freeing. At one moment, I felt how tense my body was in anticipation of the cold water, and then I had the thought that I didn't have to be tense anymore. I could relax and enjoy the ritual, and be confident that my body had the capacity to respond once the water came. I've held onto this moment and re-create it in my mind, because I realise that in so many arenas of my life, it is pointless to fear the unknown. Once I let go of the expectation of having a certain persona, character, identity, outcome, etc., I can simply be in the moment and respond accordingly.