Lost in the West
A decade or two ago, the closest most of us ever got to Namaste was ordering naan and a tikka masala. Being spiritual meant burning incense when the cat pissed on the rug, and yoga was a mispronunciation of a tub of chocolate-flavoured yoghurt.
Fast-forward to the present day, and it seems the gaping emptiness left by the all-but-complete secularisation of the west can no longer be filled with material things. Left, right and centre, those born into privilege are undergoing existential crises – some even before they start that internship at a family friend’s firm. For some, it’s arisen from something catastrophic like heartbreak or addiction, but the majority are just disenchanted with the rat race and trying to fill a perceived gap in their existence. There’s got to be something more, right?
Not immune from this phenomenon myself, like so many others who travel to the Island of the Gods, I found myself signing up for a week-long retreat at Ubud’s hallowed Yoga Barn. By “retreat”, I mean I bought a seven-day class pass and resigned myself to not eating shit for its duration. Maybe I’m more suited to sitting in lotus position than I am to sitting the bar, I thought. But it wasn’t just the downward dog I was looking forward to: Yoga Barn offers a range of meditation classes, and I was keen to elevate myself into a higher mental plane than the gutter in which I usually function.
First up was Ananda Mandala Meditation, which I chose because it contained the word “mandala”, so seemed like the next-best thing to owning one of those trendy circle towels. It was taken by Dr Punnu Wasu – a man who, if Hollywood ever put out a casting call for a meditation teacher, would have nailed every description. Around me sat the usual suspects: women sponsored by Lulu Lemon and well-oiled men whose fresh tiger tattoos screamed “I had a stopover in Bangkok”.
Determined to surrender myself to the experience and not be judgemental, I joined the circle, closed my eyes and held hands with the people either side of me while Punnu discussed the chakras we were to concentrate on. It took all my willpower not to snigger when he revealed that the first one was located in the anus. Then, we started breathing – hyperventilating, rather – to a 40-minute recording of someone counting.
About 10 minutes in, the girl to my left started sobbing. I squeezed her hand in understanding: I too had pins and needles. But then she started to wail. By the time another 10 minutes had elapsed, I was one of few not in hysterics. My confusion grew. Why was everyone crying? Was our teacher an onion?
When the tape finally finished, we were allowed to open our eyes.
“It is time to share,” beamed Purnu. “What did you experience?” Everyone shot their hands to the ceiling, straining in their sitting positions like primary-school kids ready to dob.
“I saw swirls of purple,” said a girl, who had obviously never before noticed the blood circulating in her eyelids.
“There was just so much sorrow in the room,” said another, “I’m not sad; I have nothing to be sad about, but I couldn’t help crying”. Everyone nodded feverishly. I gazed down (at my navel), but could think of nothing to contribute.
After class, I retreated to the on-site café to order from the ayudervic menu and ponder my transcendental incompetence. I overheard (okay, eavesdropped on) discussions of fasting, tongue readings and enemas. I’d always thought paying someone $130 to stick something up your bum meant you were either a Labrador or Tom Cruise, but here, it was just part of the daily routine.
I woke the next day determined to give my third eye another crack, so joined Sacred Geometry Meditation under the guidance of a small Buddhist monk. We lay on piles of cushions while he read prayers, smudged the room with incense and sprinkled us with holy water from a vial I’d seen him fill at the outside tap. His voice was soothing, and it wasn’t long before soft snores filled the room from people who didn’t seem to mind paying to nap. About halfway through, I became aware of a higher calling – not from Ganesh, but Mother Nature: I needed to pee, and badly.
I rose and tiptoed to the heavy wooden door, but it didn’t budge. I suddenly remembered the text from the brochure, “To maintain peace, the door is locked for the duration of all meditation classes.” For a very awkward five minutes, I pushed, pulled, slid and lifted the door, but it was all in vain. Defeated, I lay back down, only to watch another poor sod get up and repeat my process. But instead of giving up, this woman strode onto the side balcony, climbed over the rail and shimmied down the pipe to relieve herself in the garden on the ground floor.
“Everyone make a sound, any sound, to welcome to the divine heart, to mirror it within your soul,” came the monk’s high voice, interrupting my admiration. I glanced at the clock. 45 minutes to go. To my right, a woman started moaning as if in orgasm. At my feet, a man hummed like a vacuum. The girl left of me started experimenting with a range of different notes, which I soon recognised as an attempt at Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. I looked around incredulously. So I can’t leave to use the bathroom in case I disturb anyone, but this woman can rehearse her audition piece for The Voice?
That was it: my divine revelation. The meditation classes were a fucking waste of time, and I was done. I threw myself over the balcony, stormed the three kilometres back to my hostel in the midday sun and flopped into a chair next to Pakir, the trilingual, Ubud-born 30 year old who owned the house in which I was staying. We couldn’t have looked more different: me a big-boned bule sweating and panting in yoga pants, and him a dark, slender Indonesian with dreads, silver pirate earrings and a body mapped in tattoos.
“Do you ever do yoga, Pakir?” I asked. He looked at me like a cat as he slowly rolled a cigarette.
“Do you meditate?”
“Sometimes.” He paused to lick the paper. “In Ubud, in a month, a farmer makes maybe $120.” I tried to keep my facial expression still, unsure whether to look sympathetic or indifferent. “Everything we need, we grow. There is harvest for the rice just three times a year. So there’s lots of time. We play chess. We make kites. We paint – everybody in Ubud is painting all the time. Once, maybe twice a week, we go to the temple and play sports or have games. No one is really needing…” he licked his lips, searching for a non-offensive way to frame his conjecture, and shrugged. “We are happy.”
I nodded, embarrassed. “I think I’m going to go back to Canggu tonight,” I said. “I’ll call you a car,” Pakir replied.
Maybe these holes in our lives can’t be filled with soy candles and Buddha statues and ohm tattoos. Maybe we even dug them ourselves, with our new shoes and our shopping centres and our technology that renders real-life activities – developing film, writing letters, playing scrabble, baking bread, collecting eggs – superfluous. Or maybe my Byron-born boyfriend was right after all, and the fluoride in my toothpaste has damaged my pineal gland and third eye beyond repair.
Do whatever makes you happy, be it headstands at sunrise, not eating cacao when the moon is full or calling your child Blessed Detox Tea. But just remember that “happy” and “hippie” are malapropisms, not synonyms, and if you’re having trouble finding yourself, maybe you were never lost.