"Not how the world is the mystical, but that it is."
This eloquent and profoundly meaningful quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein, written just over 100 years ago, illustrates a fascinating philosophical view on the human experience, and yet one that has been understood in eastern mystical traditions for over a thousand years. It implies that while methods of objective or subjective analysis, such as science and philosophy, can be extremely useful in explaining how our perceived reality functions, they cannot - now or ever - be used to understand its true nature. Instead, the path to complete awareness of who we are and of the world we live in leads through the realm of ultimate experience, and is therefore mystical by nature. This kind of experience is not triggered by external events or reactionary situations, but focuses solely on one's inner world, as life is lived fully in the present moment. Truth is not confined to what can logically be explained but contains whatever can be meaningfully embodied. Only by practicing to pay close attention to the near-infinitely subtle sensations, thoughts and emotions that populate our consciousness at each instance of our existence, can their biasing effects on the underlying baseline be revealed and potentially filtered away, leaving only what is actually real. It is an investigative approach that is entirely natural and one where any kind of artificial manipulation, other than an unwavering focus, would be counterproductive. Mastery of this kind of awareness, and the consequences it has on one's appreciation of reality, is often referred to as enlightenment within Buddhist and Hinduist teachings. And although the mystics that devote their lives to this pursuit can be encountered in in major religions around the world, nowhere has their presence had a more noticeable impact than in the most anciently mystical land of all.
India is a truly unique place on earth. Soon to overtake China as the most populous country on earth, it appears, at first sight, massively crowded, utterly chaotic and intensely overwhelming to any foreign visitor. Despite being an organized democratic nation with legislative, executive and judicial branches, and an extensive bureaucracy originating in British colonial times, most aspects of society seem to follow more organic rules. From the way traffic is (dis)organized, to the fluidity of prices for goods and services, the absence of interpersonal distance, spontaneous conversations between strangers anywhere and anytime,... interactions and decisions between people happen seemingly in the flexibility of the moment, not only within a framework of rigid social rules. Sometimes it simply cannot function in any other way, due to the sheer number of people needing to coexist peacefully. But I cannot help but imagine that this way of life might cause a certain predisposition toward the mystical for some, even if in a mostly mundane form.
When I first visited India, 10 years ago, I was 23 years old and traveling on my own for the very first time. And while my four months spent in this vast and incredibly beautiful country were transformative for me in many ways, I was too young to properly contemplate and understand some of the deeper cultural implications of what I experienced on the road. What I did realize back then, and was immediately reminded of on my return last month, is that traveling here, too, needs to happen organically. It's mostly pointless to try and exercise precise control over an itinerary, since the only thing one can be certain of is that most of it will not go according to plan. There may be no better way to understand what living in the moment really means than by existing in this permanently impermanent state, all the while observing everyone around you going about their day in much the same way. I believe I have a grasp on these concepts now in a way I definitly didn't a decade ago, and on this second visit, I attempted to really resonate with and experience India from my own ultimate experience.
And so, I spent a lot of quiet time in Rishikesh, a city in the foothills of the mighty Western Himalayas and sometimes called the yoga capital of the world, but mostly a place of great mystical and religious importance due to its proximity to the holy Ganges river. I hiked around the green hills of Mussoorie, a hill station veiled in hazy clouds, occassionally giving way to startling views of the 6000m-high Himalayan peaks in the distance. I explored the magnificent Merhangarh fort in Jodhpur, and experienced one of the most fluid and musical days of my trip yet in Pushkar, when local musicians invited me along to their desert village to drink chai and jam together. Through all this, I tried to make my decisions spontaneously, with as little attachment to the consequences as possible. And as I have observed and experienced a few times before, I once again learnt that the absence of overly rigid structures in everyday life doesn't necessarily cause chaos, but rather leads to liberation, when exterior crutches are replaced by interior awareness. It's such a fundamental life lesson, and yet one that apparently needs to be re-learnt over and over again.
While I was doing all this, Maria went on her own mystical journey, by attending a 12-day Vipassana retreat, a tremendously challenging silent meditation course that focuses entirely on undistracted, focused practice into elemental self-awareness. While her route was without question the more challenging one, and one I hope to one day be ready for, I like to believe that we spent our time in India on similar, if separate paths of inner exploration. My return here served as a reminder of India's tremendous potential for all kinds of mystical adventures. It's really no wonder that so many of the tools for living a better life that have gained traction in the West, such as mindfulness, yoga, meditation, breathwork,... originated in this unique place in the world. It's interesting how ignorant I find myself to have been, only now becoming aware of some of these teachings that have been around for so long. Or perhaps I really have matured a bit, beyond simply aging, during this past decade.
My time in India was rather brief this time around, but by no means less meaningful. During our final few days, Maria and I enjoyed the heartwarming hospitality of Nipun, a local travel friend we'd met on holiday in Greece a few years back, who took us to places in Delhi we'd never have found on our own, and showed us secrets of the world-class Indian cuisine that were the very definition of culinary mysticism. But for now, it's off to my final destination of 2022. I'm two weeks away from a year of traveling, and the journey has been absolutely epic so far.
I hope your year has been meaningful, adventurous, educative and above all, fun! And I wish you and those you care about very happy holidays and a peaceful start to the new year :)
December 18th, 2022