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Buddhism, the Beatles, and survival in India: A conversation

by Krysta Matthews
email: krysta.matthews@gmail.com

Turn off your mind, relax
And float downstream
It is not dying
It is not dying
Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining
That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

(The Beatles, 1966, Tomorrow Never Knows)

Is it possible that the Beatles, the band I have worshipped since I was a young girl, hold the secret to survival in India? Certainly they spent time there in the sixties with the Maharishi, and it is doubtless they navigated the streets of Mumbai and Delhi while under the influence of potent psychedelic substances; but were their words, disguised as poetry and set to the seductive jiwari of a sitar and relentless rhythm of tom-toms, intended as a guide for all those foolhardy enough to brave the great and mystical subcontinent? Do they suggest means to achieve tranquility and ease of travel? Unintentionally, I think they do. Through experimentation with LSD and tape loops, Buddhism and Hinduism, the Beatles stumbled upon the open-minded attitude needed to fully appreciate the enigma that is India. I did not come to this realization while I was in India, however. Like most travellers, I floundered my way through the voyage, experiencing the joy of victory, the heartache of defeat, and delighting in the unexpected surprises. The revelation came, as they most often do, from the ironic clarity of hindsight and the scratching of frustrated pen across abused paper.

It all started, or ended depending on the way you see it, with a chance encounter at the Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi. It was my final flight from India, and I was savouring the final bittersweet moments in hard-won solitude. And I was trying to buy lunch. At home, if a man were to try and chat me up in line for a double-double, I would probably have brushed him off politely and returned to my lonely musings. But I wasn't at home, and I was learning that in India I did a lot of things that were out of character, meaningfully engaging with complete strangers, in particular.

I don't know what makes me do it, perhaps the small sense of loneliness that was settling in, the desire to share my last moments in India with someone, or perhaps it is a mischievous impulse to prolong my reckless friendliness. But, whatever the reason, when he sits down across from me with his heaping tray of vegetarian curry combo #4, I set down the novel I have been wielding as a shield, and take him up on his offer of conversation. This seems to be a theme throughout my five weeks in India-abandoning ritual, yielding, surrender-leaving my expectations at the door and allowing myself to welcome and be welcomed by the most surprising and unexpected people.

My conversation with John, a 50 year-old Buddhist from England, who is returning home after a stint at his Mumbai-based NGO, evolves very much like an interview. Upon learning about his reason for being in India, I leap at the opportunity to grill him about development communication from the perspective of an ex-patriot development practitioner. I should know by now to expect the unexpected, but I can't foresee that speaking with him would eventually enable me to make sense of my Indian experience.

Once I exhaust my line of questioning, John is curious to learn about the impressions I have formed of India. As a seasoned veteran, he is eager to hear the perspective of an India neophyte. At first, I offer my standard answer, "It is amazing. I really love it. I can't wait to come back." At some point in sharing my general impressions, I stumble over my words, and then pause, searching for others at the tip of my tongue. Embarrassed, I explain, "I'm sorry. Ever since I arrived in Mumbai, I have felt like I've left my brain behind." This piques John's interest and he leans forward, his eyes probing, urging me to continue. "I don't know what it is, but I find that the less I think, the better I do. Like, if I try to rationalize what is going on around me-the poverty, the chaos, the strange customs, the sheer mess of humanity-I go crazy. None of it makes sense. But if I mentally check out and just allow things to happen, then I have the best time. I open myself to new opportunities; I engage more fully with the people I meet."

Here, I digress in order to explain to John why I am in India in the first place. As a student of intercultural and international communication, we are here to perform fieldwork about travel and tourism within an intercultural/international context as both the participant and researcher. I continue, "It's been challenging because, as students, we are constantly asked to interpret our experiences within some sort of academic lens, theory, or framework. And I just can't do it. It seems like the people who interpret, interpret, interpret are perpetually tangled in this web of confusion, self-doubt, and guilt. It's paralyzing. I know that's what I'm here to do, but I can't help feeling that the student identity and the traveller/tourist identity are at direct odds with one another. I can't fully immerse myself in an ethnographic, participant-researcher study if I feel compelled to constantly interpret, and at the same time, I can't strive to be culturally sensitive if I fail to fully immerse myself in a participatory experience, and I can't participate when I'm constantly casting about for examples of neo-colonialism—and heaven forbid if I don't feel consumed with guilt every hour of the day!" I halt in my diatribe, slightly breathless, surprised at myself and the force of my conviction.

"That's what Buddhism is all about," he beams. "It's the attempt to clear the brain of distractions, thoughts, in order to truly experience things as they are. You have to approach India with this mindset, "leaving your brain behind" as you say. It's the only way to survive here." There is silence for a few moments as I ponder this. I realize that while speaking with John, I have been tearing my garlic naan into pieces and dabbing them carelessly into my uneaten palak paneer. I came here for an academic education, but am I receiving a life-lesson instead? Experience things as they are. The philosophy resonates with me. I think that's why I have been able to take things in stride in India. Instead of thinking too hard, I have simply said "yes." I have accepted the invitations into people's houses, the offers of food from random strangers, and the incitation to dance onstage in front of hundreds of people. I have never felt as free and at peace with myself as when I have simply said yes and given people the benefit of the doubt.

"You probably think I'm crazy. Hell, if the person I was ten years ago met me, he'd think I was crazy too, but it just makes so much sense," John muses. That makes me smile. He does look a bit like a vagrant. His hair and clothes are unkempt, his hair looks like he'd hacked away at it with a butter knife and then used it to try and tame the whiskers on his face. He wears an ill-matching sweat suit and well-worn canvas sneakers. Certainly not the type of person I would typically pass time with. But here I am, two hours later, learning lessons about life and religion and transcendence, just another in a line of the most astonishing and unexpected surprises. Emerging from our conversation, we realize that our flight is boarding, and we rush off to separate gates, and part ways.

I later learn that John Lennon originally consulted a book on Buddhism in order to prepare himself mentally and spiritually for an LSD trip. It was this Buddhist philosophy, coupled with the influence of Indian mysticism and the sitar, and the political impact of the Dalai Lama, which inspired Lennon to write "Tomorrow Never Knows." This was the period when the Beatles stopped touring and began searching for meaning beyond their material success. Theirs was a conscious journey for fulfillment, fuelled by LSD and marijuana. The true significance of my journey, fuelled by dehydration and a bit too much sun, hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn't realize I was searching for anything. Maybe that is why my trip to India has affected me so profoundly. I wasn't looking for spiritual fulfillment; I just wanted to get through my month in India without being run down by a rickshaw, succumbing to a gastro-intestinal malady, or going insane from the unrelenting noise. Somehow, however, I seem to have flirted with a state of being that enables me to feel content and present, to truly appreciate the sensations that surrounded me, and to celebrate each small success.

Of course, I did not attain true transcendence-far from it. I still allowed myself to be upset by others' emotions, I still worried, and I still permitted my preconceptions to influence how I encountered reality. Nevertheless, what John helped me realize is that my resistance to the academic interpretation of my experience is not necessarily insolent or apathetic. I think it is an illustration of the existential argument that plagues the social sciences: how do I rectify the fundamental discrepancy between authentic observations and my interference as an observer? It is a conscious act of checking my brain at the door, discarding expectations, and acknowledging my contribution to the reality that I experience. Ironically, relinquishing control and opening myself non-judgementally to alternative ways of being has enabled me to feel a renewed sense of confidence and command over my own destiny. This is a parting gift that India, in its gracious way, has left with me.

"Do you leave India today Madam?" The flight attendant at the gate inquires, stirring me from my contemplative state. "Sadly, yes. I don't want to go." Smiling reassuringly, she says, "I hope we will see you again soon." I respond with a watery smile, my chin wavering, exposing my emotion. I duck into the jet way and leave Delhi behind. Not only am I leaving Delhi and India behind, but I am returning to a life where I am ruled by reason and plans. Can I turn off my mind at home in "reality," or will I be swept away in a current of other people's expectations? Will I be able to find the tranquility that I achieved here, and manage to relax and float down a stream of my own construction? I long to be able to prolong the sense of independence that travel provides and, adjusting myself in the cramped economy seat, I cling to my last moments of freedom. Sifting through the contents of my iPod, I settle on Abbey Road as the soundtrack for my flight. Perhaps the music will reveal even more insights. With Delhi receding below me and the Beatles whispering their symphonic, infinite wisdom in my ear, I gaze down upon the twinkling Diwali lights and bid India a reluctant and temporary farewell.

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