Inner Pilgrimage: Ten Days to a Mindful Me
by Raji Lukkor
In the spirit of interspiritual awareness, we are pleased to feature a new author, Raji Lukkor, and an excerpt from her powerful new book, Pilgrimage: Ten Days to a Mindful Me.
A young woman arrives in the woods on a searing summer’s day. Voluntarily sacrificing luxury and self-indulgence, she willingly follows a rigid daily routine that excludes reading, writing, praying, listening to music, watching television and—the granddaddy of forfeitures—talking. Where exactly is she and why is she there? She’s at a ten-day vipassana meditation retreat where she spends ten hours every day, meditating. An ordinary being, she hopes to unlock the secrets of the ever-thinking mind so it can help her live a calmer, more centered existence. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Raji Lukkoor’s memoir, entitled Inner Pilgrimage: Ten Days to a Mindful Me.
Goenkaji instructs us to close our eyes and watch our breath, our natural breath, as it flows in and out of our nostrils, the objective of which is to help the mind achieve a one-pointed or single focus. Awareness of the natural breath is called anapana (aa • naa • paa • na). The idea is to purge the mind of citta (CHIT • tha) or thoughts or pre-conditioned, misery-causing habits, exercising restraint on the mind’s restlessness, thereby giving it a fresh start, which in turn generates happy, compassionate, and benevolent thoughts, words, and actions. Goenkaji warns against the use of beads, mantras, or images, and regulating the breath during meditation, stating that these elements are distractions that could thwart the very concentration we are trying to achieve, impeding progress on the path of vipassana. He advises us to use the breath as the focus or frame of reference—the pivotal point—to which you could come back each time the mind wandered off through one of the six sense “doors,” namely sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch, and thought.
“At last! This is the moment. It’s why I’m here. It’s time to abandon all apprehension and plunge into meditation.” I sit up straight and close my eyes. Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out…. My loquacious mind travels to the distant land of the past, obsessing in thoughts about a neighbor who humiliated me twenty years ago, or a friend who took advantage of my goodness in middle school, or a fellow college student who betrayed my trust more than fifteen years ago.
“Oh, I’m off course.” I bring my attention back to my breath, and then take a swallow. Inhale…exhale…inhale…exhale…inhale…. My feet begin to tingle. “Oh, no, not cramps!” Inhale…exhale…. Thoughts about my parked car bother me. “Will my car turn on after ten days of inactivity? Do they have jumper cables? I’d need to stop for gas on the way home. Wonder where the nearest gas station is.” My mind soars to the undefined horizons of the future, weaving unparalleled stories into rapturous masterpieces, inarguably giving a veteran author a run for his or her money.
Several minutes pass. I become aware of my breathing. Inhale…exhale…inhale…. The tingling in my feet intensifies. “Ahh…. I need to change positions.” I extend my knees into siddhasana (a yoga posture that consists of sitting in the standard cross-legged position, and then extending out the hip joints such that one ankle rests on top of the other). Exhale…inhale… exhale…. A loud, drawn out yawn. Inhale…exhale…. “I’m tired.” I want to focus on the breath, but my cramped up feet won’t let me. I can no longer deal with the numbness. I wiggle my toes and jiggle my heels to jumpstart the blood circulation. “So much for breathing! I’ll do a better job tomorrow. Promise!” Inhale…exhale….
The audio comes back on and Goenkaji sings a brief closing prayer in Pali. His voice is powerful, sonorous, but he sings in a low register, which jolts me back to the room. His tuneless singing makes me forget about the cramping and the numbness. It’s my very first exposure to Pali, a derivative of an ancient Indic language Prakrit (a contemporary of the Indo-Aryan Sanskrit). It has an unmistakable Eastern twang to it and many of the words contain emphatic double syllables as in dhamma, nibbana and magga. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it’s a derivative of Sanskrit because it sounds like it.” Sanskrit, like Pali and Latin, is no longer a spoken language; its classic literary expression is preserved only in ancient Hindu scriptures, chants, and hymns. Although his performance lacks melody, Goenkaji sings in both Pali and Hindi. I don’t understand Pali, but Hindi is one of the many Indian languages I speak and/or understand. The lyrics weave spells of profound spiritual, moral, and social messages. I keep with the singing despite my physical and aural discomfort. “Alright! Alright! This isn’t a Madonna concert.” Goenkaji ends the prayer with an equally discordant “Bhavatu sabba mangalam!” It’s like saying amen, I suppose, and basically translates to “May everybody be happy,” as he explains. The old students then say, “Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu,” with the sa drawn out as in aaahhh; this means, “May you be happy as well.” I bring my hands together in the namaste pose and bow down as a mark of respect.
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