I couldn’t stop wondering, ‘Why did she become a teacher? Where did she grow up? What was she like as a teenager? How does she live her life of solitude in the ashram? Who are her friends?’
As a ‘seasoned’ researcher, I thought I was well prepared for a year of fieldwork in India. I had undertaken two significant research projects already and felt ready to take on a third, longer one. At the time, I didn’t realize how much I had changed in the years before beginning this project.
Given that my project involved living, talking to and practicing contemplative/meditative practices with ‘seekers’ drawn to questions of spirituality, enlightenment or well-being, I knew I would not escape unscathed. I also secretly desired to be healed. Healed from the pain of a significant relationship ending, from the disappointment and disillusionment that emerged with moving to another country and the failure of the many dreams associated with that move.
The healing during fieldwork took different shapes- one came in a short encounter with love and another came in the space of meditation. I was taken aback and pleasantly surprised by both these encounters. They left a mark on me. As I recall now, here is how it went:
The meditation teacher walked in gracefully and sat down saying Namaste to the hall filled with people. Her aura was pristine. She exuded power and confidence. I was moved by her presence. In fact, I was attracted to her. I thought to myself, “How is this happening? Why is this happening? It’s a seven-day meditation retreat, I ought to be taking notes, be an objective ethnographer, do the meditations, interview the participants and as if all this is not difficult enough to juggle, I am also attracted to the teacher. Well done, Yagna.”
Each day presented a new challenge. In the initial days of the retreat I struggled to get into the meditations. They seemed too irrational and sometimes even frivolous. The meditations were encouraging participants to access areas of our minds and bodies, which we never connected with in our daily lives. On other days, I had the most engaging conversations with other participants about how they experienced the meditations, their successes and challenges. Yet, with each passing day, one thing remained constant: I became more and more curious about the teacher. I couldn’t stop wondering, “Why did she become a teacher? Where did she grow up? What was she like as a teenager? How does she live her life of solitude in the ashram? Who are her friends?” I wondered if I could get to know her. I decided I would wait for the last day of the retreat to interview her.
On the third day of the retreat, the teacher announced in her gentle voice, “Let go of your emotions today. You have been holding them in for too long- maybe days, months or even decades. There is no judgement here. Once you let them go, you will finally sit in silence. You will feel renewed.” I had not been able to put my mind, that of a researcher/academic aside and engage in the meditations completely. Finally, on the third day, I gave myself permission to let go. And then it happened. I cried and howled. I cried like I had never cried before. Tears wouldn’t stop. I allowed myself to feel everything that I had been pushing away, that either didn’t seem important enough or was too painful to deal with. With each wail I pushed a painful memory out of my body. When I reached the point of exhaustion, I collapsed on the floor and then sat still. I felt as if I could sit in silence forever. I left the meditation hall in silence and didn’t speak to anyone till the next morning. I felt as if my body had been cleansed. For the next few days I suddenly understood and related to the stories and experiences of others in the retreat. I felt as if a special bond had been created with the participants. I wondered “Did I really experience catharsis? Had I been renewed? Where did all my pain go? Why was I experiencing a silence?” My skepticism had been shattered. On the one hand, I still believed that experiences are socially constructed and on the other hand, I had experienced a catharsis which was a breakthrough in my healing. Most importantly, I couldn’t believe that I had experienced what the teacher and other participants had seemed to know and believe from the very beginning of the retreat.
On the last day of the retreat, I gathered the courage to approach the teacher to ask for an interview. I went up to her and became completely tongue tied. I said to her, “Your presence is so powerful,” and burst into tears. She looked at me, bowed and folded her hands in Namaste and said that we could talk more later that evening. I felt embarrassed that I had not been able to even construct a full sentence and decided to be more in control of my emotions while conducting the interview. I rebuked myself for being a bad ethnographer, and even worse at being ‘smooth’ while approaching someone I was attracted to.
While talking to her I felt an immediate connection. As we talked, I discovered another side of her. She laughed easily. She had a childlike curiosity about the world. During the conversation, I tried to read her face, her hand gestures, and how her face always seemed exuberant. We talked for two hours. I discovered that she never got along with her family, had vowed to remain single and had found her calling in becoming a meditation teacher. She claimed that she had a lot of anger while growing up, but didn’t know what to do with it. She had wanted to understand society and human behavior but never gotten a chance to do so academically. She could not pursue higher education. Finally, when she discovered ashram life and meditation, she slept well. The anger slowly faded. Now she hardly leaves the ashram and spends most of her time teaching meditation. She prefers a life of solitude and silence.
I noticed a photo of her younger self in the room. In the photo, she sat in an imperfect yoga mudra. She had thick wavy hair, a contrast to her now clean shaven head. Her face looked fuller. She wore a very pretty blue kurta and silver jhumkas. I wondered if it was her favorite color. Something about the photo filled me with sadness. Why did she have to give up her older life to become a meditator and live in an ashram? And yet, I had to believe her when she said that she is happy and fulfilled now. I wish I had known her when the photo was taken. I realized that she and I were in fact of the same age. I paused and remembered where I might have been at the age when the photo was taken. I too had been wearing colorful kurtas and silver jhumkas, but discovering and understanding the world through heady intellectual theories and ideas instead. Maybe if she and I had met then, we would be friends and she would become the ‘researcher/academic’ and I would be a meditation teacher.
March 23rd, 2021
YNC completed her doctoral research at Cornell University. She is currently an ACLS Fellow.