If only’s have whispered to me for as long as I can remember. If only you were thinner, you’d be more popular. If only you were more successful, you’d be happy. If only…if only…if only. Then I discovered meditation. I sit quietly with closed eyes and repeat my mantra for 20 minutes, once or twice a day. I’ve been doing it for 13 years, and the results are mathematical: the more I meditate, the better my life becomes. I feel lighter, happier, and less distracted.
I don’t like to meditate. I admit it. It’s the mental equivalent of dieting or going to the gym. My practice is inconsistent at best, and I have yet to experience an aha moment. So I get busy or conveniently forget, and then the nagging if only’s crank up again, and I think: If only I were better at meditation. If only my life were simpler and I could meditate more.
And then an opportunity arises to visit India. Given my crazy schedule with two kids under four and a full-time job, I wonder if I should go. But I know I don’t really have a choice. I need to quiet the voices.
In the bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, author Elizabeth Gilbert spends four months soul-searching in India. I’ll have five days. This may be a spiritual folly. But after leaving the kids behind, I drag all my baggage—both the psychological and the Samsonite kind—and endure an 18-hour flight, a 4-hour train ride, and an hour car ride to Ananda-in-the-Himalayas, an Ayurvedic spa whose name, in Sanskrit, translates as “bliss.”
Located on a 100-acre estate, Ananda has stunning views of green mountains and the Ganges River whooshing like liquid chalcedony below. In the reception area a smiling Indian girl in a sari greets me with a bow and“Namaskar,”the traditional Sanskrit greeting, which means roughly “the divinity in me respects the divinity in you.” She presents me with a strand of brown Rudraksha beads, said to promote tranquility and health, and a schedule of treatments and activities.
Immediately, I stress out. How will I find time to meditate with all of these sybaritic options? Hiking, lazing by the pool, Ayurvedic massage—to the weary traveler they sound a lot more soothing than sitting cross-legged on the floor.
I proceed to lunch in the sun-splashed rotunda, taking in the well-heeled crowd of Indians, Europeans, and Americans, all dressed in white kurta pajamas, then head to my room, reluctantly setting my timer for 30 minutes, bidding adieu to the view, and closing my eyes. I begin chanting my mantra in my mind. Within seconds, thoughts, like a conga line of ants carrying placards, parade through my inner silence. Hmmm, I wonder how my kids are doing?… Will my meditation practice change here in India, or will the jet lag cancel it out?… I bet I can get great deals on pashminas in the gift shop. I catch myself and impatiently refocus on my mantra. Then I get annoyed with how I get annoyed with myself. This is “a practice,” after all. No one has it mastered, not even the monks who have a name for the human condition’s continual barrage of thoughts: “monkey mind.”
The mantra-thought loop begins again. I may be in India, but my meditation experience is the same as at home.
Later that afternoon I join seven other guests for a group meditation and Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep. Our instructor invites us to plant an intention in our minds as we drift into a light sleep, the cusp between consciousness and subconsciousness. Meditation has many benefits, from reducing stress to lowering blood pressure, but what keeps me hooked is the opportunity, rare though it may be in my monkey-mind state, to connect with my soul. I’ve got only five days, so I start with a big intention: I want to connect with my spirit, the mother of all creativity and wisdom.
I visualize my inner spirit as a goddess in white flowing robes. I lock this image into my mind. My desire to connect with a beautiful feminine goddess is no accident. Lately I feel as if I am transitioning between maiden and matriarch. I feel old.
If only you were prettier, more energetic, whispers my insidious critic.
Shhh, I’m meditating, I tell it, and start repeating my mantra.
Even though meditation is a solitary, inward journey, it’s somehow more transcendent when done with a group. Lying with these strangers, I go to a deeper place than I did in my room. There’s no epiphany, no moment with the white-robed goddess. Just an easier time banishing the thoughts and focusing on my mantra.
When a chime sounds the end of the meditation, we look as if we’re awakening from a communal nap. We smile at one another, tacitly agreeing to honor the blanket of silence connecting us all.
I return to the spa on a tree-lined road, feeling dazed and relaxed—until I confront a baboon the size of a rottweiler.
My heart races. Should I run? Do they bite? I instantly read my own obit in The New York Times: “Meditator Mauled by Search for Inner Peace.”
Slowly, I keep walking. So does the baboon. As we pass each other, his brown eyes glance at me as if to say, “So what?” and he lumbers up the hill so nonchalantly that I laugh out loud. I get the point: don’t let your monkey mind get the best of you.
For the next three days I keep up an intense schedule of yoga, meditation, exercise, and spa treatments. Who knew relaxing could be so grueling? I also attend a lecture on Vedanta, an ancient Indian philosophy that teaches us to live life according to higher ideals. The talk is led by Dr. Sree Sreedharan, a Vedanta disciple. Sree is wearing robes and beads. He has little round glasses and a soft voice.
We wait for the other guests. None arrive. So he gives me a private lesson. “The questions that lead to inner bliss are ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I constituted of?’ and ‘How do I contact the world?’ ” says Sree, with the fervor of a preacher. “The findings are called Vedanta.”
We talk, and within minutes our conversation turns intensely personal. I surprise myself by bursting into tears.
“I never feel like I’m good enough,” I tell him. “I’m raising two small children, I’m working on a marriage, dealing with a full-time job. I just can’t enjoy any of the blessings in my life,” I say. “Why can’t I be happy?”
Sree offers me his hanky so I can blow my nose.
“My quest for inner peace is exhausting me,” I say. “My mind is always on the next thing, and the result is that I never feel like I’m anywhere.” I keep to myself that this makes me feel old, exhausted, and ugly.
Sree counters with two strange questions: “Do you have dinner plans?” And “Have you ever worn a sari?”
A sari is a traditional garment worn by many Indian women. Putting it on is an elaborate chore—it takes years of practice to get the folds just right. I answer Sree’s questions—no and no—pull myself together, then head back to my room to meditate. The last thing I feel like doing is being with myself. Still, I set my timer for 30 minutes, and try to connect with my inner spirit.
After finishing my meditation, which included a slew of intrusive thoughts—Did I really hand Sree his hanky back after blowing my nose?—I make the 30-minute drive to Rishikesh to witness the barefoot Hindu ritual Ganga Aarti. I’ve agreed to meet Sree and his wife for dinner, but for now I sit on the banks of the Ganges, listening to 50 young orange-robed monks chant while a holy fire is fed a mixture of herbs and ghee (clarified butter).
The monks chant on and on. Maybe I’ll go back to the hotel. I’m hungry. I’m hot. I’m exhausted from crying. This whole trip is exhausting. If only you were more spiritual, says the whisper.
The guru arrives, and the energy in the crowd shifts. The short, bearded man sings, and the crowd jumps to its feet to pass around small brass lamps with flickering flames to thank the river Ganges.
A young man beside me makes sure I get my turn holding a lamp. I look into his dark eyes, genuinely touched by his desire to make me feel that I belong. I try to pass on the kindness. Noticing that the old woman next to me can’t see now that everyone is standing, I switch places with her. She takes my cheeks in her rough palms and kisses me, so delighted is she to have the best view.
I feel a warmth spreading in my chest. There’s not one if only on deck. I am happy and full, right here, right now. Kindness connects me to these strangers like family, accepting each other in the moment, just as we are.
I head back to the hotel and meet Sree in the dining room. I tell him of my experience. He smiles and leads me to the hotel room where he lives with his wife, Sarita.
Sarita and I shake hands, and I babble animatedly, feeling uncomfortable in their home. I see the sari on the bed. Perhaps sensing my discomfort, she hands it to me and leads me to the bathroom. Gamely, I put on the underskirt and top. For 20 minutes Sarita patiently folds and pins the fabric so it drapes perfectly around my tall frame.
When she’s finished, she presents me to Sree, as if I’m his prom date.
“Lovely!” he exclaims. “We must take pictures!”
With my digital camera, he snaps a shot of me against the curtains. He hands me the camera and I gasp at what the tiny frame reveals: a goddess in long, white, flowing robes.
Inner peace lurks in moments both expected and surprising. Just as chance favors the prepared mind, meditation lets us experience life fresh. I’ve been home for two months, and with few exceptions, I meditate twice a day.
Could I have strengthened my resolve without leaving home? Maybe. But I wouldn’t have the mental souvenir I enjoy when I close my eyes: the vision of my goddess self. Tear-stained cheeks, but eyes brimming with happiness, lit from within by the prayer lamps coasting down the Ganges.
Melina Bellows is the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Kids.