Traveling Mindfully: Root Institute, Bodhgaya

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The name of the course is “Yoga and Meditation: Journey to Awareness,” and it is exactly what we were looking for, but did not find, in Rishikesh so many months ago. In one sense, this ten-day retreat at the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture in Bodhgaya, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment, is the kind of romantically spiritual immersion which Westerners have associated with India since the hippies and the Beatles came here in the 1960s; and, in fact, our 18 fellow participants are nearly all from Europe, Australia, or North America, as are our two instructors (though they both have extensive Eastern training). This originally gave us pause (a yoga teacher named “Jean-Claude” in India?); but the Root Institute’s reputation is outstanding and, after visiting its immaculate, lush, and peaceful grounds, we were sold.

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Now, five days into the course, we are accustomed to the intensive schedule of stretching, sitting, and searching, “developing mindfulness and concentration, in motion and in silence,” just like the poster in the Om Café promised. And though I continue with my restless struggle to stay in the moment (as I furtively type future blog entries in my room, a framed photo of the Dalai Lama looks down at me with disappointment and compassion), I know that the effects of these ten days — just like the benefits of our year of travel — will be with us for a long time.

Jean-Claude, it turns out, is an excellent Hatha yoga instructor, especially skilled at slowly building up poses and sequences which I thought I already knew completely. He takes full advantage of his four hours with us each day, knowing when to push with more standing and balance poses, and when to back off with pranayama (breathing) and relaxation exercises. And of course, by its very definition, yoga is the union of mind and body, so these simple body-opening stretches are also extended lessons in concentration.

Still, our “journey to awareness” is not as blissful as it sounds. Meditating a few hours each day for a mere week-and-a-half does not guarantee a passage straight to nirvana. What’s more, we learn from our teacher, the Venerable Rita Riniker, that the purpose of Buddhist insight meditation is to actually dwell on suffering. This does NOT mean visualizing starving children in Africa; that is an entirely limited view of suffering. Rather, it means focusing on the inner afflictions so prevalent in the developed world: loneliness, anxiety, anger, and deep mental unrest.

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Meditation then, means bringing to the surface that nagging knowledge that you could be happier; it means confronting the confusion that most people choose to bury under so much cultural clutter and internal delusion. We in the West are very good at ignoring our suffering, not only because of the sheer availability of distractions, but because the alternative — taking a long, deep look at our minds and attempting to gain control of our thoughts — is not fun and is extremely difficult. This is what I realize each morning and evening, focusing on my breath, maintaining my posture, trying to distinguish between the Thinker and the Thoughts — all as my feet go numb and pain shoots up my shins.

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So why do it? Because of the promise of a calmer, more peaceful mind which can, in fact, change one’s life and have a positive impact on everybody one encounters. I can get even more trippy-dippy and talk about the karmic seeds we are sowing through the mere intention of our being here, how world peace, love, and harmony can all grow out of this practice, but I’ll spare you. I’m new at this, anyway.

Suffice it to say, that halfway through this ten-day journey into mindfulness and concentration (which, incidentally, is also the halfway point of our journey around the world), I am learning something — about my mind, about my body, and about that great Eastern philosophy-religion-psychology-path called Buddhism which was born — literally! — right down the road.

And none of this would have happened if we had come to Bodhgaya on some rigid schedule that did not allow us to look up and read the writing on the walls.

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