Walking into China

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The little village of Sust in northern Pakistan is the very last stop before the Khunjerab pass that stands gigantic at  4700 meters in the high Karakoram Mountains. It is also the entry point into China. This is the land of the last snow leopards. Within less than 40 miles a bird could also be in India, Afghanistan or Tajikistan. For me Xinjiang, in the Far East region of China is the aim. The pass is closed most of the year, lying under heavy snow at sub-zero temperatures, and on May 1st it officially opens. I am in Sust since a few days, sleeping on the floor in the kitchen around the open fire with at least a dozen others. This is a check post point and life is tough. It is cold, smoky, food is scarce. We are a handful of westerners, a few colourful people from Tajikistan and some traders from the nearby regions. We are all on our way to Kashgar.

An old bus with tinted windows is stationed there by the still frozen river; it will drive us to the Chinese border as soon as the road is clear. Every morning since a few days we inquire desperately as when we are going to move; and today is April 30th already. But the weather forecast doesn’t look good, the pass is apparently out of reach and so we must wait.

The next morning a couple of traders from Urumqi are engaging with the bus driver in a heated discussion. Impatience is in the air. They want to leave today!

What happened then I never knew, but I suspect that some baksheesh was paid and so the bus was suddenly ready to go.       

We all got in and off we were.

The ride is one of the most spectacular I have ever experienced. I was used to sit on the roof of buses during my journey north in Pakistan, and it was an intense yet delightful place to be during the peak of the March heatwave; but here there was no chance. It was dry and cold, snow was covering everything around and we were slowly moving above the 4000 meters line.

After a couple hours the bus suddenly stopped and we were all told to get out.

That was it!  The road was actually no more accessible, and in fact we should never have left in the first place. Snow was getting thicker and we had no choice but walk the last bit!

How long was the last bit we had absolutely no idea.

And so on May 1st 1989, I wrapped myself with all the clothes I had and covered my head with a yellow Shiva scarf. Of course I was a hippy and the idea of sunscreen or sunglasses or a hat had never even occurred to me. I put my pack on my back and up we walked. We were less than 20 people, from such different places, on such different trips, but here we were, moving step by step, up and up and up. I remember an English man who was travelling with his Hong Kong girlfriend. She seemed so exhausted and unhappy and she had 2 suitcases! He was a big guy and I still see him carrying that luggage on his head leading the way while his girl was threatening to just stop and sit on the snow. I remember an older lady from some remote village in Tajikistan; she had come to Pakistan for some medical treatment and was now on her way back home through those high mountains. Two men were taking turns to help her up. It was totally surreal and I felt in a movie from a different time. The air was getting painfully thin, the sun was bright and blinding, but the nature and the high pics all around were so absolutely breath-taking.

I cannot remember how long we walked. It was one step at a time, one breath, another step, and another breath…

This very moment was all there was. How we got here was a mysterious unfolding that only the divine could possibly make sense of. I recall the feeling of being completely one with life and the magic it is made of. I recall that sense of being in the hands of something infinitely bigger than my little self. I recall the awe in my heart in front of so much beauty. As the amount of oxygen was diminishing with every step so was the holding of the mind; everything became lighter and a strange sense of emptiness was pervading the air. Life was being lived, fully and dangerously. In that moment there was no thought about tomorrow and the feeling that I could die here and then was an obvious possibility; and yet in that moment I felt more alive than ever, more present than ever and in touch with something that clearly would never die.

We finally all made it to the top and crossed over to China. By foot. On the snow. At 4733 meters above sea level!

The long overnight trip to Kashgar was excruciating. I was snow-blind.

 

Arambol

Arambol 1987

One morning of January 1987 I arrived in Goa for the very first time. I had been travelling in south India for 4 months. I wanted to crisscross the southern states as much as possible and rarely spent more than a couple nights in one place. I had a very low budget of 50 rupees a day for accommodation, food, and transport. This is the only time I ever travelled with a guitar, which is quite difficult to believe considering that I hardly knew how to play and that I was so very uncomfortable with my voice; but I did! I knew about 5 songs and that was enough to play the hippy game. I had a small bag with all my possessions and that was it. I had spent those months moving from what was then Madras, to all the main temple towns of Tamil Nadu, to the hill stations, to the southernmost beaches, to Kannya Kumari at the very bottom of India, where I managed to arrive on a full moon night and see the Moon rise over the Bay of Bengal while the sun was setting over the Arabian sea; then I came up Kerala on the backwaters, a boat trip of indescribable beauty and peace that has remained carved in my cells ever since.
I had just now travelled a long night on a local bus from Hospet, the little town used as a stepping stone to Hampi where I had spent a few magical days. The only places to stay in Hampi then were all windowless boxes without beds and I still remember those sleepless nights in such stark contrast with the outstanding days spent by the river and the austere yet grandiose ruins of what once was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire.
After a cup of tea in the buzzing market town of Mapsa where I waited for another bus to the ferry in Siolim, after crossing the river to the northern part of Goa and another bus, I arrived in Arambol.
Arambol was a small fisherman’s village with just a few houses and one little guest house with 4 rooms. The owner and his family had their own house nearby where they could accommodate one more guest if needed. His name was Shankar, and during the winter months, he built a shack on the beach made mostly of bamboos and palm leaves. “Om Shankar” was the only shack in Arambol, and there we could get basic Indian food, but also chips and amazing super fresh local fish, usually Kingfish! There were 2 or three tables. It was wild and completely paradisiac.
And yet the unique and special attraction of Arambol was the sweet water lake, and it is where I headed to with my bag and my guitar. From the main beach, it was a half hour walk over rocks. There wasn’t a path and it was steep and rugged, especially at night when we would walk with a candle inside an open coconut to light the way. The sweet water lake was a unique, magical, completely untouched natural happening. Outstanding in beauty, surrounded by so much greenery, it was created by a little river that came straight down from the jungle above.
Between the lake and the mighty sea there were no more than 50 meters at the most, and sometimes during the full moon the two would meet and merge their waters.
A few hippies were already settled there as I arrived, and it looked like everyone had chosen a tree near the lake and made a home. Spring water was available a 20 minutes’ walk upstream, basic food could be cooked on wood, and of course we could always walk back to the main beach and eat at “Om Shankar”.
I found a flat spot under a coconut tree on the left side of the lake and made myself home. I hid my guitar and my few valuable possessions under a big palm as I went out, but there was hardly anyone around and the place felt safe. Indeed I ended up spending 3 weeks in that spot and never lost anything.
At sunset, the whole hippy community came out and gathered together on the white stretch of sand right between the sea and the lake. We were about 25 and we would form a circle. Chillums would go around. And around. And around.
It was all so wild, so untouched, so extremely beautiful. We would take healing mud baths on the far end of the lake and swim naked in those waters. I felt in the hands of the divine.
Later on, as it was dark already, we would usually walk to “Om Shankar” and hang out there, eating fish and rice and curry. We would smoke more chillums as we listened to the crashing waves and counted the stars.
On the other side of Arambol was a very long stretch of beach passing the little fisherman’s villages of Mandrem and Ashwem, and ending at the mighty river in Morjim where the Olive Ridley Turtles came to nest in massive numbers once a year. It was a beautiful wild beach and for almost 10 km you would hardly meet anyone. I loved to spend the whole day walking all the way to the Morjim river, naked, singing, in complete harmony with nature. There was only one other shack on the way and it was called “end of the world” and there again I could get some food.
Sleeping around the lake was peaceful and profound; I felt in the hands of nature, taken care in a way I had never been before. I felt cocooned between the depth of the starry sky, the silence of the sweet water lake and the wildness of the ocean.
The mornings were a unique delight. As the first light rose and the crows filled the air with their melodies, we were woken up by Rahul, a young boy who came down from the jungle with a big tray on his head and a large pot of hot chai around his shoulder. “Boom Shankar” he would shout again and again. And he would make his way from tree to tree where all the hippies were slowly waking up. Nature was dense around the lake, and unless you knew where people were hiding it was not obvious. Fresh coconuts, bananas, pineapples, bread rolls, boiled eggs, butter, and even honey… Rahul had it all. The chai was always very sweet, which I loved. I remember drinking a cup of tea while he was serving me breakfast, and getting another cup for later. Of course, I had no cup or bowl, but just a spoon and a coconut that I had taken days to cut and polish into a perfect enough mug.
I had my first chillum of the day with Rahul, and I always wondered how he managed to go up the hill after serving breakfast to all of us. It reminded me of the postman in my childhood who in the villages could hardly refuse to come in, have a coffee with the shot of Calvados, before delivering the mail to the other neighbours.
One day around the end of January, Shankar told me that the season was now over and that his guest house was empty. We had become good friends and he offered me a room in his family home.
And so I left my haven of peace by the lake and moved to a room with the comfort of a bed and a mosquito net. Village life was intense and I loved the new stimulus on my senses. The sounds were particularly exciting and their combination unusual. Women washing laundry by the well; birds chirping and crowing and singing; chicken, pigs, and kids running and chasing each other; an occasional sound of a scooter.
Shower was outside by the well, and toilets were behind a wall. Indian toilet is an art by which I was now well trained, but this was something so unusual that I would not have been able to make it up even in my wildest dream. Behind the wall, you simply squatted on the ground and shat, and soon enough pigs would come and clean it up better than any modern toilet would. It was certainly extremely simple and efficient but it did take me by surprise the first time; I was hardly finished that a big pig came rushing towards me and I thought I would lose parts of my cheeks. I slowly learned the fine art of doing my business in a relaxed way while sending the pigs the message that their time had not yet come. I came to love those toilets. But I never to this day tasted Goan pig delicacies.
One day, I packed my bag, put my guitar around my shoulder and walked to the bus station. I slowly made my way to the main port town of Panajim where the next evening I would take a ferry to Bombay.

Tiruvannamalai -part 1

For years Tiruvannamalai sounded to me like everything I dislike; dirty, crowded, traditional, full of temples, rituals, beggars, no fun, bad food… No one had ever been able to give me an answer that would turn me on enough to come here.

I had heard that not visiting Tiruvannamalai had been my Master Osho’s only regret in life, and when one day I was offered a house here I came for a month to check it out!

Since then I keep coming back, I keep missing the place unlike any other when I am away, and every time the same magic reveals itself, and the same mystery enters my every breath.     

Arunachala is the mountain responsible for everything that happens here. The huge Shiva temple in the city of Tiruvannamalai at the feet of the mountain, Ramana Maharshi and countless others spending their life and attaining Samadhi here, the millions of seekers who come here for a day or a lifetime… Nothing of this would exist without this mountain.

I have a long and rich history on the spiritual path and in self inquiry. I spent over 20 years meditating every day, from Osho’s active meditation techniques to 21 days Vipassana retreats to simply sitting for weeks in complete silence and isolation.

When I first arrived here, I went to the Ramana Ashram and found the meditation room adjacent to the main temple.

I just came from what was then Osho’s Commune in Pune and I was used to perfectly maintained, beautiful and spotless spaces. The Osho Auditorium where we were meditating was always perfectly air conditioned, smell free, without a fallen hair on the marble floor. The silence was always to be respected and even when hundreds of people would sit there together, the slightest cough would be enough to see you escorted out.

As I entered the meditation room, I spotted an empty cushion and sat on it in front of a picture of Ramana. In the middle of the room a dog was sitting; people were coming and going; some were sitting with eyes closed, others were moving around and someone was reading a book; the window to the temple was open and singing was happening on the other side; the fans were on, a clock on the wall was ticking, and the door was constantly opening and closing.

I closed my eyes. I opened them. I looked around. I looked inside. I felt the wind and the activity around. I could hear all those noises outside.

In spite of me, in spite of the sounds, in spite of the movements, I was drawn inward. I was being engulfed by something far greater than anything or anyone around, and my eyes were widening inside; a feeling of melting and letting go was taking me; there was a clear sense of Oneness, a clear vanishing of the Ego, a vast sense of Emptiness.

As I walked out an hour later I knew that my life was never to be the same again.

I made my way to the nearest chai shop by the side of a busy street, and grabbed the last half broken plastic chair. It was just before sunset and traffic was intense, exhaust fumes filled the air, rubbish was all around, and some beggars looked rather scary. I ordered my chai with half the normal amount of sugar.

I still recall that first day in Tiru a few years ago, sipping my tea in complete amazement. What the fuck was that!? How could I feel here closer to myself than I had ever felt before? How could my meditation be deeper here drinking a cup of tea on a dirty crowded side-walk than in the most modern meditation hall?

As I sat there, watching Indian life go by and slowly drinking my tea, I noticed how my mind had become so much quieter; my jaw was dropping, the sense of time was dissipating, concerns about past or future were appearing as rather vague memories; the present moment was shining and taking all the space.

The sun was slowly setting and I had just spent my first few hours in Tiruvannamalai…

Many more days and months would follow… and part 2 is coming soon…

Tribute to Meera, part 8

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Meera always told me that having zero background as a painter and having never been to art school was a gift in disguise. She said that so many people coming to her were so loaded with ideas and concepts, had too much baggage, and that she spent so much time trying to free them from their knowledge. In that sense I was free already.

Today when I look at my paintings I recognize that, and I am in awe every single time. Meera taught us very little techniques, almost nothing really. And yet I see beauty all around right now, I see mystery and depth, I see the wild cyclone in movement and I feel the centre of it. I see both my aching and my silent heart, the joy and the pain, this whispering longing taking me to the unknown…

As years are passing and I am slowly collecting knowledge, I can see how right she was. Looking at paintings I did in her trainings when I knew nothing, I often stop in amazement at a certain freedom I had then. Many times I realise that today I would not be able to paint with that magenta next to that bright pink, or to suddenly enter a heavy stroke of black ink in the middle of a beautiful light flowery painting. Staying in touch and alive with that innocence and that freedom is a constant challenge. That freedom has a beauty of its own and the taste of the divine.

 Painting with Meera in Osho’s garden, listening to Him and meditating every day, was a happening hard to describe. Osho’s presence is tangible in every word Meera utters, in every move she does, in every painting she creates.  Osho’s vision is the connection between Meera and me.

( Part 9 coming soon )

Tribute to Meera, part 7

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After the first season helping in Meera’s caravan I finally got in touch with the creative fire within and I just wanted to paint. Meera had been right and now she wanted me to keep going wild into unchartered places. When I told her that I now just wanted to paint, had no juice for helping, and would rather explore on my own outside the training, she offered me to come in the group and do as I wanted. I could even have a corner in the room, and as long as I was around she was happy.

And so, I spent the last few winters in the painting training, doing as I please, knowing no limit and no boundary. I was officially part of the staff, but I refused to work and help, and would immediately leave if pushed. Meera wanted me in there and so kept widening the exceptional status I had. I was certainly the source of much admiration, but also envy and jealousy. Clearly I isolated myself and became a freak. During the days off there was so much work for the staff, so much to prepare, but as my friends were busy from morning to night gluing paper, mixing colours, cleaning and deep cleaning, I would just sit there on the roof under the trees and paint all day long, forgetting to eat, only having two or three breaks a day to meditate in the Buddha Hall.

We were painting on Krishna roof those days, an amazing open space in the heart of the commune, under magnificent ancient trees with amazing greeneries all around. During the evening meditation, when everything stops and everyone gathers together to meditate with Osho, I again had a special permission to stay on the roof and paint if I wanted; and sometimes I would miss the evening meditation and paint till midnight, alone in that huge space, with all the lights on and music playing.

Those are the days when my creativity took off. I was intense and prolific.

Meera could see that I was flowering and she kept supporting me. She was obviously aware that this situation was not right, that my entitlement was an issue, and my dramas out of place. Over the years she asked her closest friends many times “Should I kick out Nirav?” No matter the feedback she always chose love over fear. She always chose Yes over No. She always focussed on the light and the expression of creativity. Against what made sense and what was right from a therapeutic standpoint she always kept my potential in sight and did whatever was needed to support it.

 

( part 8 …)

Tribute to Meera, part 6

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My journey with Meera had just started. A glimpse at me had in a way been enough for her to see my unexplored potential, and very soon she was reconfirmed in her intuition. She gave me everything, let me do all I wanted, didn’t set limits and kept showering me with her love. She took me in the staff for five years continuously, and invited me to her trainings abroad.

The problem was that not only I didn’t believe in my potential as an artist, but receiving so much unconditional love was not possible for me. The more she gave the more I pushed her away. Those five years were intense, extraordinary in many ways, and also extremely painful. I frequently exploded into intense emotional dramas, freaked out in the middle of the groups, challenged her and pushed her to her edge. As her book “ReAwakening of Art” was about to be published, I forced her to remove my name from it. Obviously my name would have appeared in a beautiful way, and this is one of the most painful things I ever did. My name was removed and the book was published.

Today a dedicated copy is by my bedside table, and whenever I try and read Meera’s words to me on the cover, my eyes instantly fill with tears.

Maybe this Tribute is also an effort to complete something between us and ease the pain in my heart.

( part 7 …)

Tribute to Meera, part 5

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It is now 9.35 sometimes in December 2000, it is a beautiful misty morning in Koregaon Park, and Meera’s painting training is about to start. This part will last six weeks and has to be booked as one course. Over sixty participants will soon be picked up in the Multiversity Plaza and brought to the group room. In the last three days, Meera’s experienced staff had been busy setting up the space, mixing hundreds of litres of acrylic colours, gluing papers together to create huge pieces of canvas, sorting out brushes and watercolours, and organising so many many details. I had just been part of the crew for two weeks and I knew what a major happening it was.

I had decided not to join and obviously Meera could not force me, but something in my heart felt heavy as I wandered around the commune. I watched all those people arriving, excited and ready to embark on a journey that would change many lives.

Meera arrived in her black robe, smiling. The plaza was packed. “Where is Nirav?” she asked one of her assistants.

Here I was, sitting on a table at the back, partly in shock, partly sad, but also deep down knowing that something was soon going to happen and change the course of my life. There was a sense of urgency, a bubbly intensity, and magic was in the air. We were in the heart of Osho’s garden, between His Samadhi and the Buddha Hall where He spoke for many years, and there was never a doubt as who was actually running the show.

The group was starting in less than five minutes and there was no more time for discussion. Meera walked over to me “Nirav, did you find the money and are you coming?” “No, I am not coming, sorry!” I replied. “Oh, Nirav, this is not possible. Come! You join the staff now, I will find a way.”

She gave me a hug, took my hand and pulled me with her to the centre of the plaza. She gave me a list and a pen which I ticked as she called the names of the participants.

I was silent as we all walked together to the group room. I was hardly realising what had just happened, and how I suddenly found myself here; but obviously a match had just been thrown into my inner chambers and fire would soon engulf all my ideas and concepts of who I stubbornly believe I am. Most importantly my creativity was going to explode into thousands of rainbows and transform the very way I experience life.

 ( part 6 …)

 

Tribute to Meera, part 4

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I had not understood how Meera could have seen my potential as an artist during our short meeting the week before. How she could now see my untapped possibilities on this paper is something that will probably remain unexplained till my death. The fact is that this was not a painting but a dark mess; it was ugly and it made no sense whatsoever; it was an energetic expression of those dark and primal forces inside; black and white paints were basically just thrown, most strokes were done with my hands and feet rather than with brushes, there was no mind, no urge to create, no desire for beauty, no one to please, no goal and no ego.

The Primal Painting group went ahead, and Meera encouraged me to keep going, to keep playing and exploring, to be myself and be wild.

This first part was soon ending and the Swiss friend I was translating for was not staying for the rest of the training. Meera’s training was in two uneven parts that season, the first one lasting two weeks, and the second lasting six weeks. Part 2 would among other things include water colours, nature painting, self-portrait…

Meera explained that I wouldn’t be able to translate anymore and that she would not take me as a helper for the next major section of the training; the staff was already full and since I had never participated in at least a shorter group of hers, joining the staff was simply impossible. She wanted me to join as a participant. I understood her point, and yet I was clearly not ready to pay for a creativity group. I honestly could not see the point. Yes I was enjoying the process and had fun exploring and painting, but No I didn’t feel that painting was my thing and this idea that I was a born painter was completely removed from anything I could feel or understand.

I told her that I would leave after the Primal Painting part. She told me that No, I could not leave. I told her that I was not a painter and that I was not that interested. She told me that I was a painter and had to keep painting.

The Primal Painting part ended, my Swiss friend left, and there was now a three days break before Meera’s creativity caravan would keep rolling for the next month and half. I was ready to call it a day and an interesting experience and I was completely unwilling to join as a participant. Meera could not take me in her staff for numerous very good reasons and was absolutely not ready to let me go. In the heart of Osho’s garden in Pune, those three days had the flavour of an arm wrestling match.

( part 5 …)

Tribute to Meera, part 3

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After a couple of hours, the music eased, lights were slowly dimed up and Meera gently brought us back.

We were all dumbfounded at the sight that met our eyes; those large pieces of paper now all looked like greyish chocolate and the room was a complete mess.

Meera ordered us all to go back to our painting and stand in front of it. Finding one’s own painting in this was quite a challenge but somehow everyone made a move.

I was still out of it from what had just happened in this session and was stumbling around trying to figure out where my painting could be, and quite frankly I had little clue what it did look like.

I was not alone in this case and a few other friends were also without their painting; Meera meanwhile collected the unclaimed papers.

I still remember that moment, the space, the energy, Meera standing in the middle of the room, and about seventy people obviously shaken and out of their minds.

“Who painted this?” Meera asked, starring into one of the paper that was yet without owner.

She seemed to have forgotten everything else and was completely absorbed in this horrible grey mess. “Who painted this?” she continued… “Who?”

She stopped the music, turned the lights to the max and called us all around. I had no idea what she was doing and why she suddenly seemed so frantic. She was staring at this painting, ignoring everything else and kept repeating “Who painted this?”

I was still looking for my paper, and I came closer to the one she pointed to. To me they all looked the same. Litres of black and white acrylics had been poured in all possible ways on all those papers, and really, I was unable to see any value or beauty anywhere here.

After a few moments I figured out that yes this was mine. “Me, I painted it”.

She looked at me, looked again at the paper lying on the floor in front of her, and nodded her head in her very unique way. There was a long silence in the room as everyone gathered around starring at this mysterious painting. I looked at it, looked back at Meera; I was completely blank, puzzled, and I had no idea what was going on and what she possibly could see in this. After such a wild high energy session, this silence was such an unsettling contrast. Meera would keep the suspense and the energy in the group moved inwards. What a magical moment! What a divine spontaneous happening was unfolding in front of us!

Meera was obviously startled by what she had just seen. I certainly had no idea what it possibly could be and why it seemed such a big deal, and looking around at my friends I suspected that no one really had more clues than I did.

She finally said in a grave voice “Nirav, you are a born painter! “

I was in shock.

We had been in that underground chamber the whole afternoon and it was certainly high time to get some fresh air, clean up the mess and get ready for the evening meditation in Osho’s Buddha Hall; but instead, Meera gave us a five minutes break before spending the next hour explaining why that painting was so special. I had no idea what she was talking about, and I felt more and more uneasy being put on the spot like that. I guess that some of my advanced painter friends present could follow and be touched by what she shared. I didn’t.

When we finally came out of the chamber the sun had set long ago, and the full moon was shining bright.

( part 4 )