What a Place to Wake Up!
Reflections on India
by Andrew Cohen
My first visit to Mother India was in early January 1984. By that time, I had already been a very serious spiritual seeker for over six years. Living in my native New York City, I had had easy access to many of the most famous, powerful, and influential spiritual masters of that time. And because of that, it had become apparent to me that in so many ways the East was literally coming to the West, and that if one was earnestly seeking for enlightenment, it was no longer necessary to travel all the way to Asia to find it. But in spite of that, there was a deep compulsion in me to go to India myself, even if only for a short time.
Ganges River, Northern India 1986
I remember vividly, on the Alitalia flight from Rome to Delhi, becoming aware of the arising of a spontaneous joy, lightness of being, and incredible excitement about what lay ahead. At the time, I recall noting this unanticipated emotional conviction about my journey, and thinking about it now, it may have been the first bubblings of a kind of confidence in life itself that has become, since that time, my constant companion. Initially, my plan was to remain for three months, but after only a week I knew that I would have to stay as long as it would take to achieve my goal.
Rishikesh, India 1986
Mother India was an extraordinary and ultimately challenging hostess. Her tangible reverence for the glory of the Absolute, I soon discovered, was often shockingly juxtaposed with a blatant and callous disregard for human dignity. Her love for God and her contempt for weakness and frailty created a unique backdrop for the self to confront itself in all its mystery and irreconcilable contradictions. "What a place to wake up!" I often would tell myself. But what an easy place for an unfocused Westerner with only a few dollars in his pocket to get completely lost, as so many have.
Shortly after my arrival, the lightness of being that had emerged unexpectedly on the plane turned into a burning passion for self-transcendence. I suddenly felt, in this new and strange land where conscious spirituality was such an inherent part of the very fabric of life, a newfound freedom to pursue my own enlightenment in a way that I never had before. I no longer had to hide my feelings, my all-consuming desire for Union, and could finally, uninhibitedly pursue my deepest questions about life and death and the very real possibility of my own radical transformation. And so I did what all serious seekers do: I meditated vigorously every single day, and was endlessly exploring one question after another with fellow seekers and teachers. In the midst of this constant meditation and inquiry, I traveled widely, visited many ashrams, met my wife (who is a Bombay native), and got more intimately acquainted with myself than I had ever been thus far. For me personally, there was a profound connection between my growing conviction in the possibility of my own victory and the fact that Mother India was giving me the psychic space and physical place for such an outrageous endeavor to be embarked upon and actually taken seriously. I can't tell you how many times in my meditations I knew, just knew as never before, that what I was so desperately seeking for was not far away. And indeed, more often than not, it seemed to be palpably and poignantly present in the very ether that surrounded me.
Giving satsang with H.H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at The Art of Living Foundation, Bangalore 2005
Finally, at the beginning of 1986, I was growing weary of aging ashrams and spiritual "masters" of any and every variety. In the process of making plans to head further east, I went to Lucknow to visit an at-the-time-undiscovered and unknown enlightened man, H.W.L. Poonja, who had been a disciple of the great Ramana Maharshi. I arrived without expectations, but after only a few days in his company, miraculously, all of my questions were answered and this seeker had become a finder. Beyond even my wildest dreams, Mother India had bestowed her ultimate gift!
The rest, as they say, is history. Since that extraordinary time, I have returned almost every year, to teach and lead retreats. In the early years, it was ninety-five percent Westerners who would come to my retreats, which were held at first in Bodhgaya, the sacred site of the Buddha's awakening, and later in Rishikesh, the holy city on the banks of the Ganga. But over the last few years, the Times of India has been regularly publishing my work and, as a result, a Jewish American man, raised in a climate of Western secular materialism and shaped by the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, is coming to be respected as a spiritual authority in the ancient homeland of Lord Krishna and the Buddha. About half the participants on my most recent retreat were Indians, and many more came to hear me talk in Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore.
Evolutionary Enlightenment retreat, Rishikesh 2005
Mother India is still speaking to me. Each and every time I find myself sitting on a plane, somewhere between a European city and Delhi or Bombay, I always experience that same bubbling lightness of being and sense of expectation and anticipation. And without fail, each and every time, soon upon arriving I enter into that psychic space and physical place where the unimaginable becomes possible and sometimes even becomes a reality.