A Challenging Call
This call took me to many places, places I would have continued to wistfully long to visit someday if I hadn’t felt its pull. A call does that. It calls you forth into the unknown, and if it is a true call you have to answer it, not knowing what it will bring.
It was two months prior to our trip to Ireland that the land called and I answered. And, just one year before Ireland, I’d heard the call to go to Maui. I would feel it again in the future as a call to return to Hana, the wet side of Maui, as well as Molokai, and Montana. Granted, these are beautiful places in the world. It’s certainly not hard to answer a call to Maui.
The hardest call to answer was probably India. I’d felt it when I opened up a book in a travel store in Berkeley, to a two-page spread of a photo of Varanasi, the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. In just seeing the image, I knew I was called to go to this Indian city in particular. The pull was so strong.
I was nervous as heck to go, and totally excited. It turned out that my friend was going to be in India for six months, so I arranged to meet her there. Suddenly it felt easier to go since I wouldn’t be alone for much of the time. Honestly, I admire her because she took off on her own, and spent a great deal of time there by herself. I was grateful to travel with her.
We knew we would be in Delhi, first. I landed there and then she came to my hotel. The next day, we flew out to Varanasi, or Benares. When I first arrived, I was surprised to see so many ailing people on the streets. Hindus believe if they die in the holy city of Varanasi, they escape the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. And so, people come here from all over India to die. It’s a sight I’d never experienced before.
Life, Death, Sacred Grace
Just a few weeks prior to leaving home for India, I’d learned of a four-day teaching by the Dalai Lama in a town named Sarnath, just outside Varanasi. I scrambled to get my registration in and loved the days I spent listening to him. I spent the rest of the week in Varanasi just being there…being on the land and the river Ganges, being with the people, and being in a place where I learned to see that the Divine is in the air we breathe. Literally.
One day I was walking along the Ghats, the wide, concrete steps that you take to walk down to the river itself. There are close to one hundred Ghats along the Ganges in Varanasi, most of which allow one access to the river for bathing, washing clothes, or offering prayers. I had just returned from a boat ride on the river, led by a guide. He’d taken me to one of the burning Ghats, steps that lead to one of two cremation grounds along the river. There at the burning Ghat, I witnessed the ceremonial burning of bodies, which ends with the ashes being offered into the river.
It was a powerful experience to witness the outward expression of ceremony and death in way I’d never seen, coming from a place where death is neatly closeted and compartmentalized. Alongside life, I could feel death’s palpable presence.
When my river guide returned me back to the Ghat where we departed, I took some time to walk along the river, taking in my experience. I could feel life. I could feel death. And, I could feel a tremendous amount of presence in the air. The air was thick with presence. It was thick with awareness of the Divine. As I breathed in, I suddenly had the direct experience of breathing in the Divine. I could feel the Divine as I breathed in the air where so many people were conscious of the Divine throughout their day, and so many people had done so for millennia in this oldest living city in the world. Unlike here in the United States, unless you are in a church or temple, there in Varanasi, so many people offered thanks to the river, to the sun, to the earth each day. They were aware of the grace of life and death, and how it showers down upon us, always, in each moment.
The more time I spent on Indian soil, from the north to the south, the more I came to feel the same kind of remembrance taking place within me. My feet connected me to soil upon which millions of others had walked, some consciously remembering the divine as they did. I breathed in air saturated with thoughts and awareness of grace and gratitude.
This doesn’t mean it was easy, nor does it mean that everything that happened was wonderful and light. It wasn’t. It doesn’t mean that everyone was gracious and spiritual and loving. No, it wasn’t that way at all. In many ways, Varanasi, and India, are hard places to visit as a Westerner. Yet, there is something truly beautiful. There was something for me to remember there, and perhaps something necessary for me to reconnect with in this lifetime. I came to remember devotion as a way of being. I came to remember that all of life is sacred, including the breath. I came to remember something ancient within me, reflected through this ancient land.