Eye Exercises

17 07 2008

In the past few days, we’ve been doing a lot of looking. We started by searching for elephants in a wildlife preserve. We were told we’d be lucky if we found any animals, it being the monsoon season and all. And by the way, someone asked, “Aren’t you scared of leeches?”

The answer was yes. Absolutely. But with some protective leech gear and tobacco powder (incidentally, tobacco repels leeches), we were willing to give it a shot.  As soon as we spotted the first leech on my shoe, our anxiety grew. We spent the next part of the trek looking down. Leech after leech after leech appeared. We were caught between a rock and a hard place: look for animals or fight off the leeches?

Our guide saved us. He rarely talked, but he would freeze in mid-walk, his eyes widening and his ears literally perking up when an animal was near. Then, he would bound toward the animal, causing us to drop all our leech fears in the mud and run behind him. Back and forth, from animal sighting to leech almost-biting, we trekked.   The staff at our hotel called us “very, very lucky,” and they were thrilled to add elephant to their “Animals Seen Today” list. On the other hand, they refused, depite my prompting, to add leeches.

From there it was onto Varkala, a beach town reminiscent of San Francisco in the 1970’s. I can easily imagine it overrun with tourists drumming and drinking mojitos. But now, everything is half-awake; buildings are torn down, restaurants are closed, and there’s not much to buy anywhere. It sort of feels like we are seeing this town at dawn, as it slowly and reluctantly yawns, stretches and joins the day.

There wasn’t much to see, so we sat on the beach and faded into a very ordinary day. Soon, we began to witness a recurrent scene on the beach. It was a funeral procession of sorts. That’s not the right name, but I don’t know what else to call it. It was more like moments.

Four different times, a man carried ashes on his head and threw them into the waves. Immediately, he would jump under the waves himself, and then the others in his group would join, washing their heads with the mixture. In the same breath, the children in the group would begin to jump and laugh and run with the waves to shore. Almost immediately, the same men who performed the ceremony grabbed a child and played in the water. There were tears and there were squeals of delight. I felt like I was glimpsing death through new eyes. It’s a version that holds excitement and newness in the same hand as the sorrow and pain. It was truly a sight to see.

Now, we’re at an Ashram doing yoga eye exercises. I feel funny even admitting that. It’s the same way I feel about writing a blog; it’s trite, self-indulgent and bizarre. I’ve wanted to do a spiritual retreat for awhile, and I’m thrilled about the yoga, but honestly, at times, I am rolling my eyes at myself.

I’m trying to see past it all, trying to do the exercises our teachers teach us, to find what is it I can get from simply stopping for a few days. A rare feat for me. However, after day one, my butt hurts from meditation and I dread the chanting.

On our first day, we were ending with a ceremony, and while all forty people respectfully sang, chanted and prayed, I noticed a cat coming up on stage. It jumped up on stage as a man held a candle and  acknowledged gods or swamis or something. During the holiest piece of the program, the cat began to meow. As we all bowed down to the stage to end with a prayer, the cat literally came to the edge and meowed at us.

I tried to hold back laughter. Why was I the only one laughing? I wondered. How could they all not see this? How could they not tell that we were bowing down to a cat? I didn’t get an answer, but it was clear that all seemed able to look right past the cat and find the spiritual moment they came for.

Guess I need to keep working on my eye exercises.



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