SRI AUROBINDO ASHRAM
want to live here forever. Where here is not this physical place,
but the vast empty inner space in which I am now.
in Pondicherry. I come to Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram to seek
the Silence, inspired by this great Teacher who bade farewell
to his body 64 years ago. I come here to leave behind the background
noise so that I can learn to tune in to the Signal until I hear
it loud and clear. I sit, think and look around. I observe and
ever there are special, protected places in the world, this
is one. When I visited it for the first time it took me five
minutes to think “Big deal.” and leave. But then
I felt drawn back, and then back again; this is my 3rd day in
Pondicherry and I must have spent here at least 7-8 hours.
here with my loads of thoughts, my mind as crowded as a Saturday
afternoon at IKEA. Then it begins to happen, at first it comes
and goes in short intervals, but then it persists. The annoying
voice of the mind subsides, and everything becomes vibrant,
alive: the flowers, the squirrels, the huge acacia tree, the
beautiful house. The silent procession of devotees who come
to pay homage, to pray at the tomb of Aurobindo and the Mother
(his spiritual companion), or to meditate and listen to the
now and then a thought emerges, but it fades away spontaneously,
it doesn’t trigger the cacophony of the usual mental bullshit.
is peace. Not much else, or rather, there is plenty more, but
nothing that counts more than this peace. I just wish that I
could learn to stay in this inner ‘here and now’
and take references so that I can come back to it later, elsewhere,
in completely different situations.
the flavour of this vacuum. What I can say for sure is that,
when it happens, my breath changes. It starts with a slight
gasp, then comes the need to raise my breath, to take it up
to the level of the solar plexus and expand the lungs. After
two or three strong inhalations, the breathing becomes light
and smooth, and the mind calms down. When I get distracted,
when the clown thoughts take over again, as soon as I realize
it, I hear another subtle gasp and I go back there, to the silence
of the heart, sitting on my throne contemplating the world.
There is no ecstasy, there is nothing to carry me away, nothing
particularly exciting. There's just calmness, there is strength,
there is Buddha’s smile. There is the awareness that I
am this, this I am. And that I and not-I are one and the same
this is a cliché that is repeated continuously by any
amateur in spirituality, but I wonder how many really understand
it because, if I may speak for myself, I've got some problems
with it. Yes, I can dig that there is a plane of existence in
which I and this flower pot are the same thing, but what relevance
can it have in my life?
away, silly and useless thoughts, go away, absurd attachment
of the mind to understand, name, classify.
back to my inner refuge. Silence. The empty inner room. Around
me the flowers, the acacia tree that protects and covers the
grave with its shadow, the crows. Everything is now, including
myself. Nothing else is real, there cannot be anything real
other than What Is. There is no god but He/She Who Is.
It is so clear.
AMMA ASHRAM, AMRITHAPUR, KERALA
is probably the female spiritual leader with most followers
ever. Being a worshipper (and according to her devotees, an
incarnation) of the goddess Kali in her manifestation as the
Universal Mother, she obviously has a strong appeal especially
on women but also on many men who equally believe that the old
stereotype of God being a Father needs to be revisited.
main claim to fame is her darshan (a word that could
be loosely translated as blessing), which takes the form of
a physical embrace that she dispenses to as many people as she
physically can. Apparently she has already embraced several
million people around the world, and still does it five days
a week for 6-8 hours a day. So clearly there must be something
special in her embrace.
receive it, one must go to register at a counter at the edge
of the main hall. They give you a token which indicates the
time slot assigned to you. When I went there weren’t many
people waiting (some 30-40) so the lady told me to join the
queue straight away. This I did and sat at the first available
main hall could probably fit a couple of thousand people, perhaps
more. There is a large stage at the front, where she sits in
the middle in good view. Around her sit or stand her closest
followers, plus the ordinary people who are either waiting to
be embraced, or, after the embrace, have been allowed to stay
for a while on stage to be close to her. The hall itself is
divided in three 'bands': in the first band are the musicians
and singers on a stage of their own, facing Amma (so giving
their back to the audience), in the second band are the devotees
who sit on the floor, and then there are rows and rows of chairs
for all those who prefer to sit.
I am in the queue, moving to the next chair up every couple
of minutes or so. When I get to the security checkpoint, I leave
my sack and shoes and go through the X-ray check, then proceed
to the stage, where the row of chair restarts. All the while,
the music and singing goes on. The assistants there direct the
queue, tell you what to do when it’ll be your turn etc.
They ask me which language I speak. The ones closest to her
look after her, one takes the small gifts she receives (flower
garlands, fruit, sweets), one adjusts her shawl, another one
holds a mobile phone to which she’s talking without listening,
clearly giving some instructions. She hugs one person after
another, and the procession goes on and on. At first I was a
bit put off by her minding her daily businesses while embracing
people (what, I came all the way from Australia to get a hug
and you don’t want to have a little chat with me?), but
on close observation I could tell that she behaves in exactly
the same way as those mothers that go shopping or whatever while
holding their child in their arms. They may be discussing money
and goods, but they’re not for a moment unaware of their
child, and they hold it tight close. I noticed for example that
occasionally the person that she was embracing, after a while,
would let go of her, but then with a very loving gesture she
would take their head and move it back to her chest. Eventually,
when she decides it’s time to let them go, she moves her
head forward and whispers something in their ear, and then with
an equally loving gesture she gently moves them away.
I was waiting for my turn, I was trying to prepare myself, to
get in the right state, not sure though of what that could mean.
I didn’t want to feed any expectations. I was putting
up my best effort to try to stay in the moment and keep away
from my mind any silly or selfish thoughts. I thought of the
ever important, ultimate question that one has to face every
time one is seeking a contact with the upper level: What do
you want? And, confused, I found in me the presumption that
she was going to look straight into my eyes and the doors to
the Universe would open wide for me. Yeah right. It doesn’t
work like that, my friend. She has about seven billion children,
she’d embrace them all if she could, and she’s trying.
She doesn’t have the time to look at them one by one,
or maybe she does, but not in a direct way that would feed their
ego, their silly sense of self-importance -- maybe she sees
inside them, without being noticed. Or maybe it’s all
just a bit of cuddling from a nice woman, and that can’t
no special treatment for me. When my time came, it was all as
I had seen her do with the others: she held me to herself, and
kept me with my head on her chest for a couple of minutes, while
she was speaking animatedly in Malayalam, the local language.
I was hanging there, enjoying the embrace and letting happen
whatever was going to happen. Finally she bends her head down,
whispers into my ear the same three syllables for three or four
times, and then she pushes me away gently. The Universe doors
did not get wide open, but I was nonetheless taken aback because,
coincidence it may well be, the three syllables were almost
exactly like the ones in my name, only the vowels were wrong,
and not by much.. Think what you like, I’m telling the
truth. Later I asked a devotee I met if Amma says the same words
to all, and she said they change every time. And nobody had
asked me my name since I had entered in the ashram the day before.
moved away and went to sit on stage, a few meters from her.
I was feeling absolutely normal, except for the intensity by
which I was feeling normal. A while later I also realized that
although I was kneeling on the floor with my legs folded all
the way and my buttocks leaning heavily on my heels, I wasn’t
in any discomfort let alone pain, which is something that only
happened to me on the infrequent occasions when I have felt
totally truly relaxed.
call it the cat position, which is any position from the most
ordinary to the weirdest that one can take and still look as
relaxed as cats do.
Part II: Amman Ashram
sitting in the main hall, front row, watching darshan
on stage, listening to the music and chanting and writing in
my notebook. There’s an Indian girl aged probably 20 sitting
on the floor in lotus position, about ten meters away to my
right but slightly ahead. She has a thick long plait of black
hair going down her back which is as straight as the north face
of the Eiger, looking totally comfortable. Anybody who has practiced
meditation knows that either you are born with a back like that
or if you have got it through practice you must be a serious
meditator. I’ve been observing her for more than half
an hour now, and as far as I can see she hasn’t batted
an eyelid. She is clearly in a different space, totally absorbed
in Amman, the music and in her devotion. She truly is beautiful.
How I wished I could photograph her unseen, or, even better,
how I wished I could draw her. In comparison even Julia Roberts
looks goofy in her sari. I can totally relate to how Dante felt
about Beatrice, his angel-woman. Except that while he says “li
occhi non l’ardiscon di guardare” (the eyes don’t
dare to look at her), I am looking at my Indian girl, avidly,
intensely, because I want to treasure this moment in my memory
music is also very beautiful --- the lyrics are very poetic
(the English translation is projected on a big screen), reminiscent
of the Song of Songs, and the singer has one of those voices
that evoke longing, love, total devotion.
feel like I am waiting in the ante-room, I’m on the outside
wanting to enter but not quite knowing the password. What is
required? True, sincere devotion? If so, I am ready, but how
do I make it happen? I can’t just command my heart to
open. What is it that I need to surrender to, and how do I do
I know it all --- emotionally, I feel as if there is a barrier.
I observe, I observe, I observe. Bliss is happening in front
of my eyes, and I see how beautiful it is. It grabs me, too,
but it doesn’t take me away. There I stay, happy but aware
that on the other side there is a joy that I can’t fathom,
I can only see it in the face and posture of this girl. Even
when I can briefly still my mind, I feel the peace and the power,
but it’s only a mental thing, it’s just a different
brain wave. The heart is only listening, it doesn’t get
can only go on observing and writing, writing and observing.
Happy and grateful to be alive, and for all these gifts that
Life is bestowing on me with full hands. It suddenly occurs
to me that really to ask for more is almost blasphemous. That
all I am being asked for is to rejoice for all that I receive
and praise the Creation. I pause for a second to look around.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you musicians, thank you
singer, thank you Indian girl, thank you Amma, thank you Mother
visiting the museum of the Royal Palace of Thanjavur, and in
particular I am admiring the royal collection of statues in
one of the courtyards. There are several rows of them, with
more or less all the Hindu deities represented, even a few statues
of Buddha. At the end, the last one, the very last one and separated
from the others, is a statue of Amma, the goddess of fertility.
I pause to take a look at it, and, not sure why, I feel drawn
in, as my initial cursory glance (I was at the 50th
statue, more or less) becomes a more and more attentive gaze.
It isn’t the most beautiful statue I've seen, but it’s
got something. She’s very graceful, elegant, and I can’t
help going back repeatedly to the perfect rotundity of her breasts.
I take two steps away, but then change my mind and go back to
her. I am alone, not a soul in sight. I cannot resist the urge
to touch her, initially just to feel the stone, which has a
very pleasant touch, then, a bit for fun and a bit for pleasure,
I start to run delicately my hands along her body. Of course
I cannot resist the urge to wrap them around her breasts.
there were people around I wouldn’t certainly do it. If
I was there with some friends, I fear that I’d give in
to the obscene need of rubbishing this magical moment with a
Beavis & Butthead style chuckle. The bronze statue of Juliet
in Juliet's House in Verona comes to mind --- she has one very
shiny and one very black tit, only because the first one is
bare and all young male visitors feel obliged to be photographed
while fondling her. No, it’s definitely not the same thing
for me, certainly not this time.
seize the moment -- who knows when I'll have again a similar
I pause to admire her. It’s not just her perfect proportions
and shape, it is also the tactile feel of the stone that is
incredibly sensual. I put my hands around her waist, and hold
her as you would a lover. I put my hand against hers, shaped
in the mudra that wards off evil, and touch the tips
of her fingers, then rest my hands on her cheeks, gently. I
feel an irresistible attraction, but it is not, or at least
not only, of a sexual nature. I sense that there's more. I rest
the palm of my hand on her forehead, and stay there, listening.
of nowhere comes the soft question: "What do you want?"
before the brain kicks in (and it’s just as well or else
who knows what crap it would have said ), in an instant, from
very deep below, a request arises: "I would like to
know if it is a sin for a man to wish to join with a Goddess?"
In these very words.
And where is this coming from? I startle myself. Sexual abstinence?
Fetishistic perversion? Wait, this should be carefully looked
into -- I sit close by and take the time to examine myself.
No, this is not the dirty impulse of a sexually repressed man.
There is something else that I should try to focus on.
is this thing that I've felt for a moment, this perfect marriage
within me between divinity and sexuality, beauty and desire?
And what is this new impulse that starts from the guts but rather
than pulling me down to the gross pleasures of the flesh urges
me up, and makes me desire the physical communion with the divine?
check my emotions: I am perceiving a dimension of sexual desire
that is not lust, it is worship of the union, it is the pursuit
of the contact point between the physical and the mystical.
I recall the “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” by Bernini,
and wonder what must have gone through his mind while he was
micro-polishing her face lines to make it the best ever portrayal
of a female orgasm. I recall that famous Modigliani painting
of a woman lying on the bed dressed only in her supernatural
sensuality. School memories emerge of Petrarch’s passion
for his Laura: “ . . . uno spirto celeste, un vivo sole
fu quel ch'io vidi . . . ” (a celestial spirit, a living
sun was what I saw).
does not end here -- as I take my leave of her, and touch her
softly for the last time, I hear her answer: "No, if he
desires her with a pure heart."
think of Anchises who very few remember who he was other than,
at most, that he was the father of Aeneas, he of Aeneid's fame,
but no one reflects on the fact that he had been one flesh with
none other than Venus, the goddess of Beauty. So who was this
Anchises? And how did he manage to seduce Venus? I should try
to find out more about him. Maybe I could learn how he got to
have a pure heart.
nobody can take away from me the thought that for a few minutes,
maybe only for a moment, just a brief fleeting moment, I have
had access to something similar to what he must have felt.
I had to sum up India in three words, based on what I have experienced
in the last two months, I would say, dirty, harsh and wonderful.
Dirty because if one denies it, one would deny the evidence,
and if one says that it is a minor issue compared to everything
else it’s because they just want to see what they like.
And I'll say no more on this. That it is harsh one can feel
it in the heat, in the deafening noises, smog, foul smell, spicy
food, diarrhea, one can see it in people sleeping in the street
amidst the traffic, in women carrying huge loads on their heads,
in men who plow fields with a wooden plow pulled by two oxen,
in the continuous encounters with the lame and the beggars.
To name just a few places and situations.
after one has observed and experienced all this and much more,
if he can stay open, if he can maintain the embrace attitude,
one can meet a world so beautiful that it can make thoughts
stop, a prerogative which, according to St. Theresa, is God's
alone. But I say that even the world can do it, if only one
keeps his eyes and heart well open.
see a scene that in itself is nice but nothing spectacular,
like a mountain, or a beach with the waves, children playing,
a dark temple, a chilled lemon juice . . . but be it because
you are seeing it with shocked eyes, or be it because India
has a special energy, for a few moments everything inside stops,
and you remain there dazed, speechless, wishing only that the
moment is prolonged as much as possible, and that when it goes
away, when the band resumes the march, something stays inside,
a seed, a hook, a handle that would allow you one day or the
other to go back there, while you are, I don’t know, in
the office, at the supermarket, at the pub with friends, or
best of all when a big anger attack is about to start. If you
can do that in my opinion you will discover what it really means
to be alive.
started the journey with the desire to seek the Void -- not
quite a goal, but more than an abstract wish.
at first glance India is not exactly the first place you would
think of to look for the void. Yet I think it is, because the
amount of impressions that one receives continuously is so big
that after not long you must give up and try to float above
it. Like when you watch TV for too long and at one point you
see the utter emptiness of it. Not by chance, here there are
so many enlightened people, and so many who have gone out of
their minds. In one way or another the container bursts. Not
that this was what I wanted to happen to me, but the matching
of India and Void can not have been a random one -- something
inside me must have put two and two together.
I found is too early to tell -- certainly I feel that India
has brought to my surface something from very deep inside. It
gave me the clear feeling, indeed the certainty, that there
are forces at work within me which I did not even suspect the
existence of, and that control me a lot more than my four confused
ideas, my education, my culture, my good or bad experiences,
my habits, obsessions, passions and dislikes. They're in a place
that the mind can not reach, and the heart feels but does not
recognize. They are visceral forces that neither yoga nor meditation,
nor shrinks nor any shortcut technique can really put under
control. And of which I continually see the effects, in myself
as well as in so many people I meet -- we wear a spiritual cocoon
which holds only as long as everything is fine, but it shatters
into a thousand pieces as soon as the ego feels challenged,
demonstrating that the awareness that we believe we have achieved
and which we often exhibit as a trophy to friends has not even
scratched the demons that live in the depths of our soul.
now that I know of their existence, I can also see clearly that
if there is a way to tame them, it is only through the long
painful work required to peel off one by one the layers of the
onion that we are and bare ourselves, finally seeing the pompous
nullity that we are, and becoming fully aware that we truly
are just puppets. It is only from there, from that vast scary
Void there, that the work of reconstruction can start, with
humility and patience.
so I feel.