Shanti greetings going out to all,

As I mentioned in my last journal, recently I undertook an amazing experience in Vipassana meditation.
Vipassana is believed to be one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Once long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by the Buddha over 2,500 years ago. The meaning of Vipassana is to perceive true reality through a process of self-observation and practicing Vipassana is believed to have led to the Buddha’s enlightened state of being.

Before beginning any studies, the law was laid out to us all. This was going to be true monastic living and there would be a strict code of discipline to be followed:
Each morning we would awaken at 4am to begin meditation in the main hall.
All students will maintain noble silence. That means no speech (I have ex-girlfriends who would tell you that would not be so difficult for me!), no sign language, no touch, no eye contact.
No-one is to leave the centre, there will be no contact with the outside world for the duration.
Physical exercise and practice of Yoga, although compatible with Vipassana, had to be suspended for this course.
We could only eat food from the dining hall (simple vegetarian and mostly bland) at designated meal times. There was breakfast and early lunch, but after midday it was tea, peanuts and fruits only.
No reading and writing, all books and journals were confiscated until the end of course.
No music, radio, cameras or any other sensual pleasures (whatever they may be).

One starts by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. This is a painstaking process of quietening all thoughts and seemingly endless commentarys that the mind produces. It is a true battle with your ego which doesn’t want to shut-up, it wants to be controlling, a steady stream of inane chatter, selective past memories and future daydreams.
Our group sat for the first 4 days, just trying to maintain focus on respiration, all attention fixed on the point of the nostrils where the breath enters the body. 10 hours of sitting upright in a darkened room with a simple objective – respiration and the awareness of the present moment.
The Vipassana theory is, with the development of this sharpened awareness, one proceeds to observe the chanting nature of the body and mind. Through the sensations of pain, pleasure, pressure, lightess and random thoughts/emotions that emerge and move on again, one experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness.

I will be honest and admit that the first days of the course felt like a living hell of physical pain and mental frustration. I kept asking myself,
“Why do this to yourself? This is a full 10 days of my journey in India, why don’t I just quit this place and head into the mountains again. Anywhere would be better than here. I can’t keep this up, my back aches, my knees hurt, I can’t sit still, this can’t be good”.
So this is what it’s like to do battle with ones ego. The ego wants to convince the higher self that it can assert itself at any time. But would I let it win? I had been warned of this cycle of thought and that steady patience will see it pass. Only then can the true benefits be reaped.

Then, sometime on the morning of the third day, I had a moment of inspiration that made me believe that not only was I going to make it through, but also receive a taste of truth-realisation.
While seated back at my cushion in cross-legged torture, my thoughts alternating between a dedicated internal focus and the idea of getting the hell out of there, I developed a sudden shift in consciousness. I had reached a dark void in my mind and felt detached from the heavy qualitys of the body that I have always been present and accepted by my naive awareness. Now, my consciousness observed a weightless, vibrating field of energy, a very peaceful and painless state of being. And then the session ended and I was back with my physical body again, yet I believe my outlook may have changed forever.
So, is our reality made of clusters of sub-atomic particles closely organised in rythmic patterns and vibrating at particular frequencies? On the back of that experience I can only say yes. Another step on the path to enlightenment.

On day four we began true vippasana meditation, observing the subtle sensations over every minute part of the body surface, developing a sense of energy movement much like a tingling free flow that gradually overrode all pain.
With continual focus over the following days I began to observe blockages in the free flow, areas of no sensation where I had to work with far more intent and patience until I observed subtle energy movement there. Often this was accompanied by some powerful emotions leaving my body. Anger, frustration, resentment, sadness – they were all in there just waiting to come out, and vipassana was the tool to achieve the release. Strong medicine indeed.
By the last days of the course I was completely absorbed in the practice and could sit for hours on end in complete stillness. And it felt so good, so shanti. I can now understand why people devote their lives to the clergy and monastic existence.
So the big question (at least the one my parents keep asking!) is – will I become a monk? Well, no. I still enjoy booze and fast women too much.
But I have now developed skills that have bettered me as a person and can take with me and use throughout my life.

As I draw towards the completion of my journey in India, I have chosen Rishikesh as the ideal place to gather my thoughts.
Rishikesh is a holy settlement on the banks of the Ganges river, close to its source in the Himalayan ranges so the waters remain clean and unpolluted. It is a colourful place with many bright Hindu temples, yoga ashrams, stoners and holy men getting around in loinclothes, dreadlocks and red spots on their foreheads. All surrounded by sub-tropical jungle and some beautiful sandy beaches on the riverside for cooling off in the holy waters.
There is also a lot of music in Rishikesh. Whether it’s singing from the temples, chanting from the ashrams or flute, tablas and sitar drifting from the guesthouses, these are the sounds that will always epitomise the culture of India for me.

Earlier today I had an incident with an innocent looking cow that was grazing alongside the roadway.
Now, first I must explain that cows are a very sacred animal to the Hindu faithful, and therefore are allowed to roam wherever the hell they want. Often they will block a roadway as they plod along and even lay down on the warm bitumen for a rest. No-one can force them to move and so they act like they really are holy beings and understand that they rule the place.
Anyway, I see this cow ahead turn to slowly approach me. No big deal, as most are quite used to existing in close and ambient contact with people. I usually enjoy giving them a pat and scratch behind the ear as I stroll past.
In the back of my mind I noted something a little unusual about this particular beast – the points of its horns had been cut and filed down. Still, I continued on my way until, within meters, it dropped its head and charged straight at me. Taking a cows horns in the thigh, even a blunt one, is a particularly painful experience, which in my country-bred mind requires swift retaliation. Just as I was about to take the bull by the horns (pardon the pun) and teach this beast a lesson in manners, I remembered where I was. To belt a cow amidst a holy community in India is a sacrilege that would have seen me mobbed and beaten. In order to keep the shanti of the place I had to quickly retreat over a nearby fence with an aggressive cow close on my heels and many smiles and laughter from the crowd of witnesses. Laughing myself (and limping!), I vowed to take my vengeance on the bovine race upon my return to Australia. Looking forward to a big, juicy steak…

Love, light and much happiness going out to all,


Shanty greetings going out to all,

My travels through the Indian Himalayas are continuing to flow long relatively well. I remain fit, healthy, unscathed and, most importantly, continually inspired and educated by the right people, the right books and the right places.

Once again I must apologise that this journal is now a couple of weeks out of date. I had the intention of sending within days of my time in Kashmir, but was unable to finish my writing before undertaking one of the most challenging, yet rewarding experiences of my life – a 10 day retreat in an ancient technique of insight meditation called Vipassana. In a dark forest isolated from the outside world and almost all sensory distractions, I have been taking my quest for inner peace to another blissful level – but I’ll save the details for my following journal.

I believe the last time I wrote I was on top of the world (literally!) in awesome Ladakh. I will continue with my journey West.

On the morning of my departure from Leh, myself and my two Aussie travel-mates arrived at the chaotic bus station at 5am and with bleary eyes searched for the ‘deluxe’ bus that would take us over the mountain ranges to the exotic land of Kashmir.

An amazing way to travel

We were about to experience another truly Indian enigma: the oh-so innocent switch from the simple comforts of a decent bus (at least one with suspension!) to one of the local rusty rattlers, or as I like to call them – ‘cattle class’.
We were 3 big, robust Aussie lads on a single bench seat made to tightly fit 3 small Indians. Our hips could just fit, but our shoulders were far too broad – two of us could lean back at any one time while the third man would have to lean forward. We took our positions in shifts. Despite the cramped conditions and much to their credit, the lads kept their spirits up and we learned to smile our way through every frequent sharp corner and jolting bump that came our way.
The first day we covered only 200 km in 10 hours on the road, arriving in the evening close to the muslim community of Drass, a region which has the unenviable record of being the 2nd coldest place on earth (I’m not sure who takes 1st place, but here it can get to -60c!). Reputedly, this is also the bed-bug capital of the world.
It was a very short rest for all concerned though, as we were told that the bus will be underway again at 2am as strict controls were in place for the times we could cross the heavily militarized mountain passes ahead of us. On this part of our journey we were traveling close to the Line Of Control which separates the disputed borders of India and Pakistan.
As our driver expertly nursed our jam-packed and ailing bus over the final mountain pass, the landscape evolved quite dramatically from rocky desert vistas to one of the most fertile and breathtakingly beautiful regions I have ever laid eyes on – Kashmir. All discomfort from our long, long ride was soon forgotten as the bus descended into a land of lush, green mountain meadows and ancient pine/fir forests surrounded by towering snow-capped ridges and peaks. This was mountain scenery that matches the very best of Switzerland or the Canadian Rockies, almost fairytale-like in its raw beauty.

Land of lush, green mountain meadows and ancient pine/fir forests.

Yet, because of this natural beauty, Kashmir is also a land with a long history of ongoing political violence. As little as 8 years ago, this area was decribed by the then US president, Bill Clinton, as “the most dangerous place on earth”.
The Indian and Pakistani governments wish to claim Kashmir as their own and since their first conflict in 1947 the region has remained a flashpoint between the two countries. The people of Kashmir just wish for their own independence and has produced powerful militant groups striving for this aim.
This has created a situation of unpredictable danger throughout Kashmir, and wherever I travelled their was a huge military prescence to contend with. The soldiers on patrol are heavily armed and decked out in helmets and body armour, roadsides are lined with razor-wire and there are machine-gun bunkers frequently found on street corners.
Roadblocks and bag searches are common practice, and many times I have been stopped and interrogated. Thankfully, being an Australian is a true blessing here – one look at my passport and these hardfaced soldiers and policemen would light up with a beaming smile and congratulate me on being a cricket champion of the world. Just drop a few names like Ricky Ponting or Shane Warne and they will treat you with an open and friendly respect, often earning a vigorous handshake.

The capital city, Srinigar, is famous for the large lakes it has been built around, and even more famous for the hedonistic houseboats that are anchored around their banks. With their faded elegance, the houseboats are leftover from the British Colonial era, when the English would escape the heat of the southern plains for the cool heights and beauty of Kashmir. Apparently, being unable by law to purchase land here, the clever Brits built these floating palaces for themselves. Filled with antique furnishings, carved wooden facades, delicately coloured leadlight windows and plush deckings for long, lazy days of watching life on the lakes drift past, many may be past their glory days, yet most of the boats have remained well-maintained and quite charming.
Luxurious gondolas slip past carrying what little of the tourist trade remains. These are truly something – a pimped up ride with throw cushions to lie back over and lunch and English tea served on request. My friends and I hired one for the day (with guide and paddle boy), and took a tour of the local lakes and surrounding canals. Around us were large floating gardens of lotus lilies, local fisherman and craftsman plying their trade from rowboats, amazing lakeside architecture and a multitude of birdlife living amongst the vegetation on the waters.

A lone fisherman on a tranquil lake

In many ways Kashmir does have the feel of country that is independent of the rest of India. With strong roots in the Islamic faith, Srinagar shares more in common with the cities of Central Asia. Many men wear long shirts and long beards, many women remain covered from head to toe and wear dark masks over their faces. At routine times of the day, songs of prayer are broadcast from the mosques and, drifting over the breeze on the lakes, these sounds add a dreamy and surreal feeling to an already exotic and colourful place.
Westerners are a rarity on the streets of the old city and I was met with some curious, suspicious and often hard stares while visiting one of the central mosques. My presence seemed to invoke mixed reactions from the locals. Children followed me around as if I was a Bollywood star, then at one point, on a crowded waterfront street, a stone was thrown at my head. Although feeling calm and centred, I also learned to keep my guard up.

I believe the Kashmiris may very well be the best (and most insistent!) salespeople in the world. To be enticed into one of their stores is truly an experience to behold. They will lead you in by the arm, seat you comfortably and serve tea as if you were an honoured guest visiting the inner sanctum of their home. Then, beginning to display their wares one by one in a steady stream, they will watch your expression with a hawk-like concentration until you show the slightest interest or admiration for an item – and now it’s game on and the hard sell begins. An inexperienced and naive traveller can often feel obligated to purchase just because they have been treated so special! I believe it is not uncommon for a customer to walk out of a Kashmiri store with an armload of treasures, their wallets emptied and finances devastated, wonderng what the hell just happened in there!! I have learned early to toughen my resolve, assertiveness is a must with these guys, but so many of the crafts here are exquisite and painstakngly made, and there is much to admire.

After a slightly uncomfortable stay on a houseboat owned by an overzealous shawl salesman, my friends and I moved to a quieter part of the lakes on a beautiful boat owned by a family of Sufi Muslims. The Sufis are the philosophers, mystics and poets of the islamic religion and these were a wonderful, generous and warm family to stay with. Their kindness and goodwill was inspirational, and they shared valuable insight and guidance from their faith. Together we shared a daytrip into the mountains to try our hand at fly-fishing and caught many tasty rainbow trout for a campfire fry-up on the river bank.

Rainbow trout fry-up on the river bank.

Other journeys into the mountains of Kashmir included taking a horse trek for the day from the village of Aru to some amazing viewpoints, and a challenging round of golf on the worlds highest golfcourse near the ski resorts of Gulmarg. With obscure threats of militant clashes and kidnappings in these regions, tourism remains very quiet. I felt fortunate to share the beauty of these places with so few other travellers, often finding myself in peaceful solitude.

After a few days of chilling out in McLeod Ganj as I recover from my intense studies in Vipassana, the next stop on my journey will be to the sacred Ganges River and the famous town of Rishikesh – believed to be the Yoga capital of the world and the place where the Beatles came in the late sixties to study under their guru and produce the most trippiest tunes of their career.

Wishing everyone peace, love, light and happiness. I certainly feel as if I’m brimming with them after my meditations.