Many years ago, I dreamt I was about to die in a head on collision with a semi-truck. There was an adrenaline rush and feeling of doom. But the interesting part of the dream (and why I still remember it) is because as I was about to die, I had only one urgent thought: I wished I had meditated more during my life. I longed for meditation and the peace and spiritual unfoldment that accompanies it more than anything else.
I started meditating when I was about 20 and for several years it was an inconsistent practice. Once, after stopping for a year or so, I resumed and was overwhelmed by a great feeling of peace and what I can only describe as the joyful feeling of “coming home”. Since that time, I have never dropped my practice. This last November, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take a meditation retreat in the beautiful mountains near Shimla, India.
I am a member of the Self Realization Fellowship, founded by Paramahansa Yogananda. Yogananda came to the United States back in 1920 and began teaching westerners techniques for meditation and spiritual growth. Although he passed from this Earthly realm many years ago, his organization continues to send out bi-weekly lessons on yogic philosophy, meditation instruction as well as running retreat centers and programs worldwide for its members. In India, his organization is known by the name Yogoda Satsanga Society (YSS).
One of the retreat facilities, known as Anand Shikhar, is located in the rural outskirts of Shimla, in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. My dear friend and mentor, David T., a longtime SRF devotee, comes to India yearly for retreat and stays around 3-4 months. In late November, I made the day long journey to Anand Shikhar to visit my friend and have a small retreat of my own.
It was going to be my first time traveling within India, after living here nearly a year! I was looking forward to it, but also nervous about traveling alone. I left my apartment around 5 am one morning to board the first bus of my journey. Four hours on this bus would bring me halfway to my destination. The lone Caucasian passenger, I sank into my seat and tried to be inconspicuous.
About an hour into the ride, the bus suddenly started smoking and pulled over. We all left the bus and I messaged David to let him know there might be quite a delay. But, I have told you before how God seems to always keep watch over me while I am traveling. About 5 minutes later, another bus appeared which somehow miraculously had exactly enough seats for all of the passengers displaced from the broken down bus – not one to spare nor one less. We were back on the road with barely a delay.
I boarded my second bus in Chandigarh and had about another four hours ride. This time on an incredibly winding road. The conductor was frequently passing out paper bags labeled “Hill Sickness Bag”.
Finally, I arrived at the Shimla bus stand where David was waiting with a cab he hired to drive us back to Anand Shikhar, which was still about 30 minutes away.
During the cab ride, I learned that our driver, Bali, is an aspiring musician. He wanted to take us to meet his music Guru in the music Kendra where he studies. The music Guru was performing the evening Puja ceremony in another room of the small sangeet Kendra when we arrived.
Bali made us some Chai and we sat in the cozy space while David spoke with another student about the history of harmoniums. The music Guru appeared in due time and we enjoyed listening to him sing. It was really delightful hearing authentic, local music being performed in such an intimate setting.
I reflected that back in Amritsar, I am in a rather strange, isolated situation because of my intense studies. I really hadn’t had much cultural experience in India other than attending Gurdwaras. This intimate gathering was the first time I felt like I was really experiencing India.
Soon, it was time for us to continue our journey. We said goodbye and Bali whisked us away at top speed down the narrow, winding road, through the forested mountains. I was delighted to suddenly see a small troupe of monkeys near the village homes. David pointed out that here people have bars and other devices on their homes not to deter human thieves, but for keeping the agile monkeys out! Bali told us the brown ones are monkeys, but there is another local primate known as the Langur, which is black and white. I hoped I would see them before my visit ended.
As we neared the location of Anand Shikhar, I had a strange and beautiful sensation come over me. There was something about the geography of the land, the hills, trees, grasses, the light, that reminded me sooooo much of my birthplace of Salt Lake City, UT. Later as I took a walk with David, I had to stop and photograph some scenes that reminded me of one of my favorite places, City Creek Canyon. I felt I knew this land; it felt like home.
When I was a very small child, I used to have dreams of being in a place that I thought of as “the land of hills, and hills behind”. I spent many years hiking throughout different places in Utah, looking for this land. Sometimes I would come upon a place that reminded me of the land with hills, but I knew I had never found it. I was quite surprised that now, in India, I felt I had truly found the land remembered from my childhood dreams. The land of “hills and hills behind”.
Actually, it was a small miracle that I was able to stay at Anand Shikhar. The center had experienced a small land slide earlier in the year, which had left a dangerous hole near a pathway leading to the small temple on site. The facility was formally closed to any visitors for safety reasons. But David was there and through him I was able to get approval from Mr. D.D. to come stay 8 days. Grace of God.
No one else was there except a small handful of employees, the director and some board members who visited a few times to inspect the repair work underway. It made for a unique, peacefully quiet visit.
I had teased Ustad Ji before leaving Amritsar, “What if I don’t want to come back?” The beautiful reality made it seem like a possible outcome after all…
David is always doing acts of kindness for the people around him and I was the blessed recipient of a harmonium gifted to help me with my studies. This hugely appreciated gift also allowed me to use my time at Anand Shikhar for continuing my musical studies. I was so grateful!
I decided to use the week to indulge in working on only one Shabad. Mere Lalan Ki Sobha, in raag Kalyan. I had received the composition the previous spring, but hadn’t had time to memorize the tans and alaaps (styles of vocal ornamentation). Normally, in my student schedule, I have too much new work to keep up with to be able to devote so much undivided time to one Shabad.
Since there were no other guests staying in my building, I was able to practice long hours each day and night. I really enjoyed having the luxury of immersing myself.
I began every morning with my Sikh prayers and yoga / meditation Sadhana. Then I began my vocal exercises using the Kalyan scale, setting the tone for the work I would do that day. I took a short break for breakfast, then quietly went down to the retreat’s temple where I would sit alone for a couple of hours .
I was so grateful for the opportunity to spend hours and hours alone in silence, prayer, meditation or reading some of the wonderful books by Yogananda made available for devotees use in the temple Kendra.
After my time in the temple, I would head back up to my room for more practice time, working on the Shabad, alaaps and tans. Then I would break again for lunch and either return to my music studies or take a treasured walk in nature.
Vinod and Sunil are two lovely devotees who do amazing work in the kitchen as well as some intense manual labor. These guys are wizards in the kitchen. They made some amazing creamy soups, fresh juices and fabulous Indian food for me during my stay. One thing I ravenously ate was their homemade nimbu achar (fermented lemon pickle). I think they must have been secretly shocked at how much nimbu achar I scarfed down during my stay. 😂
Sunil and Vinod were also helping assist with the construction of a large retaining wall to remedy the landslide area. While I was there, they carried countless, giant bags of sand from the top of the road down to the construction site. After a storm, the sand became wet too. I don’t know how they did all that, then went into the kitchen to make dinner.
Every evening around 7 pm, David, Sunil, Vinod and I would meet in the temple to meditate and chant together. Sometimes David would lead the chanting, sometimes Vinod would. They both have beautiful voices and sing with so much pure devotion and love. It always felt very blessed and healing.
One rainy afternoon, I was invited to attend a luncheon with David. We drove to another small village center about 20 minutes away to dine with a friend of his, Mr. Keshav Sharma, who was a student of the late Ravi Shankar.
After lunch, we climbed a couple staircases and then went through a trap door in the ceiling to enter the attic room which serves as a small temple and music room.
My ears and soul were so delighted, hearing Mr. Sharma’s masterful playing of the sitar. I noticed how I could hear the microtones of the Indian musical scale. Again, I felt I was finally experiencing India. I felt so much joy.
Then Mr. D.D. graced us with a chant. He sings and plays beautifully, with a lot of heart.
One evening as we took a walk up the road, I was hoping to see some monkeys or Langur. I was telling myself not to get my hopes up. It is a vast wilderness and surely the primates are more usually seen in the village where easy food is available. Then suddenly, around a bend, motion caught my eye:
It was a little scary to realize how close they were.
The week at Anand Shikhar passed quickly and brought a lot of healing and integration. The time spent in silent meditation both in the temple, sitting in the forested surroundings or while walking allowed me to balance myself physically, mentally, emotionally and rejuvenate. I was truly sorry to have to leave the special land and wonderful new friends I had met.
The morning of my departure, the cab arrived to transport me back to the bus stand. I gave a silent prayer of thanks for my beautiful time at the retreat and asked Waheguru to please let me see some monkeys and Langur close enough to get good pictures before I got to the bus stand.
About ten minutes into the drive, suddenly this fellow appeared on the side of the road:
Then, not 10 minutes later, we came around a forested bend in the road to find a whole troupe of Langur! I yelled to the cab driver to stop and thanked God for the beautiful gift and speedily answered prayer.
My time at Anand Shikhar was definitely one of the hugest blessings experienced while living in India. Perhaps I will be able to return someday…