I had been in India for seven days surrounded by thousands of people. Although I’d had many interactions, I had not really talked with anyone who spoke English. In a café I saw a flyer for a Tantra workshop taped to a wall. There was a free introductory session on Friday evening. It was the prelude to a weekend workshop.
I showed up in the small yoga studio on the second floor. There were about eighty of us, mostly westerners, seated cross-legged with knees touching. We watched a slide show about how the speaker and his female assistant came from Australia and ended up in India to teach us the art of Tantra. It was humid and 103 degrees with no air-conditioning. After the slide show, our teacher instructed us to form two lines that snaked through the packed space. He invited the first ones at the head of each line to lead us slowly back between the lines with eyes closed. Those of us still outside forming the lines were to use our hands to gently guide the visionless through the passageway.
There were many young beautiful girls, with slim yoga bodies draped in thin layers of cloth, exposing cleavage, bare backs, and tattoos. They were dripping in jewelry and sweat. I could have been one of them thirty years ago, opening freely to all of the hands that touched bare shoulders and hips. Some of the women, though, walked stiffly, with varying degrees of trembling and subtle flinching at the strangers’ touches. Loud, dramatic music filled the spaces between skin and breath. The teacher’s voice boomed in occasionally, encouraging us all to go deeper into love. Some participants wept while they melted into the hands that caressed them. One man rubbed his head, like a purring cat, into the belly of the woman across from me. The lines lost their shape and the roles of toucher and touchee became blurred.
I decided not to take the course. I had spent too many hours as a seeker amongst seekers listening to loud sensual music intended to provoke strong emotions, and a dramatic, ecstatic, cathartic experience, all in the name of spiritual awakening. I didn’t want to spend three more days of my life in a group of people longing to connect with God through their sexuality. It was clear to me that so many of the students were not even aware of the traumas that lay at the edge of their trembling skin. I wouldn’t be led by facilitators who did not begin to create a safe container for what they were attempting to unearth. I was fifty years old. My eyes were open.
A few days later I went to the German café, the one where westerners could be found. Every table was full. I saw a man there I’d seen at the workshop. He was sitting with a woman, next to an empty seat. I asked him if I could sit. He welcomed me by pulling out the chair.
“Hi, yes, sure sit here. You came to the workshop the first day.”
“Yes, I did. Did you do the whole weekend?”
“Yeah,” he relayed as he shook his head and rolled his eyes, “Shoo. It was full power.”
His friend shifted in her chair.
“This is Miriam.” He motioned to his friend.
“Hi, I’m Amina,” I said smiling at her. She nodded.
“I’m Eli,” The man said.
“Nice to meet you both.”
“You too,” Eli replied.
Miriam went back to thumb typing on her iPhone.
“Yeah, I’m just blown open after this weekend. Everything I thought I knew about relationships is just thrown up into the air.” Eli threw his hands up and looked into the sky. “These traditional old ways of thinking about romantic love. Well they’re just handed down to us without question. Everybody just gets in line and follows the leader.” There was a sudden shuffling of chairs and shouts at the next table. An Indian woman who worked at the café rushed in holding a broom in the air like a sword. Behind me was a large monkey about to descend upon the food on table next to ours. The woman with the broom made jabbing motions towards the monkey. It hissed and retreated.
Eli went back to talking. He was bright with passion. “Abilisha and I stayed up late last night. She was telling me all about her spiritual journey. She is a Goddess… a Tantrica, she is.”
Abilisha was the assistant teacher in the workshop.
“We were so activated and stimulated. We made love for hours on those steps last night,” he said while pointing to a narrow concrete staircase that led to a guesthouse.
This revelation assured me I had made a good decision not to do the workshop. In the past ten years I’d heard so much about polyamory from afraid-to-commit men in their fifties that this talk disgusted me. But Eli was young and his exploration fresh. I could understand enthusiasm that lacked real life experience.
Miriam laid down her iPhone and redirected the conversation. “I want to go to the Beatles Ashram today.”
I had tried to find the Ashram on my own a couple of days before, but without success. The Maharishi Ashram was named the Beatles Ashram by westerners. In the late 1960s the Beatles became interested in Transcendental Meditation and went to study with Maharishi in his Ashram in Rishikesh. Much of the music from the White Album was created during that time. I wanted to feel the energy that had helped create such profound and influential music. I also craved companionship. Eli and Miriam started making plans. I asked if I could join and they welcomed me. We planned to meet at the Lord Shiva statue by the bridge around 5:00pm. Miriam had a scooter and we could all ride over there together. Excited, I finished my lunch and went back to my guesthouse for a rest before our evening adventure.
Eli was already at the statue when I arrived. Miriam drove up on her scooter. Her hair was tousled and her eyes puffy. She explained that she was too tired to go to the Ashram and left. Eli and I started walking back down the crowded dirt road lined with guesthouses, shops and restaurants. Maintaining a conversation while motorcycles swerved in front of us, and taxis honked behind us, and pedestrians weaved between us, was challenging.
We came to a tree-lined dirt path that I had not walked on before. Eli led the way. Cows were constantly crossing or just standing in the middle of it, but there was less traffic and it was easier for us to hear each other. Eli talked about his last romantic relationship and how and why he thought it went wrong according to his new perspective.
We came to an opening overlooking the Ganges River, the river that both takes life and heals life. I had read in my travel guide that Hindus burn their dead next to the great mother Ganga and then offer them up to her. I had seen plastic bottles and wrappers and torn bits of things floating in her. The Hindus believed that she would purify it all.
We climbed down some rocks and took off our sandals to walk in the sand. Eli talked without pause as we made our way to the shoreline. Two very young, barefooted Indian girls came up to us with a basket of marigolds and candles. They smiled sweetly. One was more assertive than the other.
They both pointed to their flowers and then to the water and said, “20 rupees.”
“Ten rupees,” Eli countered.
The more assertive girl lost her smile and protested with a stomp of her foot. “No, 20 rupees.” Then she spoke in an unfamiliar language. The less assertive girl walked off and pursued another person walking on the beach.
“No.” Eli’s voice was flat and stern. “10 rupees.”
The two of them went back and forth for a couple of rounds.
Finally the girl gave him the marigold flower that rested on the leaf and held a candle. He paid for two, one for me and one for himself. The girl lit the candle, and then turned abruptly on her heels to leave.
“These are floating prayers,” Eli said as he closed his eyes and held his floral arrangement. I closed my eyes and said a prayer. Eli placed his lit prayer in the river. I did the same.
We continued to walk down the shoreline as Eli picked up where he left off. I was attempting to follow his words, thoughts, and feelings. I was listening with all of me, but was beginning to tire. His words weren’t landing in my being. They were like angsty ruminations that belonged in a journal, rather than communication meant for conversation.
We kept walking and found ourselves among large jagged black rocks. Some of them had “Danger” handwritten on them in orange paint. Others had skulls and crossbones. We passed them and came to one that was right at the water’s edge. We climbed on it to sit. The sun was working its way toward the horizon. The air shifted abruptly. I was overwhelmed by the impulse to stand up and leave immediately. But I didn’t. Instead, I questioned my impulse and tried to understand it. I recalled our journey past the skulls and crossbones. I had a flash fantasy of Indian bandits crawling out from behind those rocks and descending upon us from all directions. They would find the belt holding my phone, passport, money, and debit card that was tucked inside my baggy pants. They would leave me nameless and penniless with a man I had just met.
I dismissed the image and continued to listen to Eli describe another past relationship. I realized that he was young, in his early twenties, and most likely on holiday after serving in the Israeli army. I’d spent time in cafés next to large groups of young recently freed Israelis. They appeared bonded, like family, or more so, to each other. They spoke loudly and laughed a lot and always traveled in packs.
The wind picked up and we both got up quickly without discussing why and started toward the road. Eli continued his stream of consciousness. Dust was swirling. The temperature dropped. Lightning struck over the mountains a mile away. We stumbled up the crumbling stairs to get back to the path. The wind caught the sand and threw it at us. I squinted, creating slits just big enough see a few feet in front of me. Leaves and sticks flew through the dirt.
We walked faster and weaved to avoid the dimly lit headlights coming toward us. All the while Eli continued his mental churnings. They rattled around in me as I attempted to organize them in a way that had meaning for me. But the air was exhilarating with anticipation of rain and the possibilities that existed in the turbulence. The heat had been so stifling over the last week that this sudden drop in temperature was truly liberating. But I was pulled away from my reverie by my sense of obligation to listen regardless of the impact it had on me. This compulsion was a result of my upbringing, which had instilled compulsory politeness.
I was truly overwhelmed by all the stimulation around me. The trees were leaning over and my pants were becoming sails that pushed me sideways. When we reached the main road, where there was a little more visibility, I broke out of my listening trance, and tuned into my body. It felt alive. Eli’s words became distant. Then the first drop of rain came. The earth spoke louder than human mental-regurgitations. Eli quieted and reached for my hand. Our pace slowed. Finally, we shared a moment in the moment. We made contact. My nervous system settled down. I could feel more of my body.
We walked in silence until we arrived at his destination. We hugged goodbye. I continued down the dark street alone. Rain began to pour, drops merging into waterfalls. The streets emptied. Electric lights in guesthouses flickered and failed. I felt alive and awake.