It rained solidly today. Up till now, storms have only lasted an hour or so, but today the rain fell from the morning when Anna began practising her abdominal massage on me (my fourth go now; it seems I have liver and solar plexus issues but really excellent kidneys and digestive tract) until late in the afternoon.
I love tropical rain. For the first time since the end of January, I experienced a temperature below 30 degrees (29, said my keyring thermometer). I’ve run out of books to read, which is an advantage when it comes to packing, but not so great on rainy days, especially as my plan to listen to everything on my iPod, systematically from A to Z, has come to nothing. My poor iPod died a death in Trivandrum and has never recovered. That’s probably another piece of excess baggage I should discard, but I don’t quite have the heart and part of me wonders whether the “iPod doctor” I saw advertised in Bangkok might help.
So I sat on my balcony in my raincoat and shorts and watched the coconut trees dance in the wind. Here I am in a break between storms, post-abdominal massage. I was quite surprised to see how brown I’ve got (so I shan’t be winning any Indian beauty contests any time soon – not that there was ever any danger of that):
But it’s not just the Indians who have a weird obsession with fair skin (the make-your-baby-white-cream I saw in an upmarket shop in Calcutta was perhaps the most disturbing example of this I came across). The Thais have it too and it’s quite a challenge to find a moisturiser, body lotion or deodorant that doesn’t promise to bleach you white. How strange (sad?) that the people in the world who are dark are working so hard to be fair and those who are fair are darkening up (I’m thinking of all those orange fake tans so popular in the UK).
But I’ll leave that discussion to the sociologists. Meanwhile, here’s the view from my balcony on a sunnier day:
And so from the shakti of storms to shakti of another kind. Sexual politics have been much in the foreground of my brain recently. There is a yoga school on this island which says it is “tantric”. And it probably is, in its way. At any rate, the blurb says “We teach genuine forms of Hatha, Kriya, and Kundalini Yoga meditation, and methods for the mastery of sexuality from Tantra Yoga”. It also says it is based in Kashmir Shaivism, which is something I have studied a little and attempted to practise in my own small way (no sex please, we’re British). So I went along to two lectures on the Spanda Karika, which is a text in the Kashmir Shaiva tradition I know a very little about and love very much.
Well let’s just say that the lectures didn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with text in question but seemed more a sort of general interpretation of Kashmir Shaivism (note the word “interpretation”). Spanda (literally “pulsation”) was reduced to “the divine tremor of the heart”. Lucy sat there on her cushion getting very cross. She got even crosser when every example used to describe the upsurge of inspiration we all experience through things that move us (art, dance, music, football, chocolate, you name it; if it inspires you, it counts) was brought down to sex. “When you move towards your lover…”
So let’s clarify a few things. First of all, those inner upsurges that Kashmir Shaivism teaches can be a route to god, are described in the Shiva Sutras (“udyamo bhairavah”, Shiva Sutra, 1-5, translated as “The inner upsurge of energy is the supreme,” by Carlos Pomeda, not me, because I’m not a Sanskritist). Second, the constant references to sex “because we are a tantric school” are really unhelpful for anyone who is not sexually active, either through choice or through circumstance. And even for people who are sexually active, I suspect many of them are not having the kind of sex that lends itself to a yoga practice. Or even want that kind of sex. And generally, to reduce everything to sex is limiting. And sex is only one of the many billions of things manifested as spanda or which give that inner inspiration. It can be tiddlywinks, if that floats your boat.
In traditional Tantra, as I’ve understood (feel free to argue with me), there was no lover in question. The Kashmir Shaiva teachers, good householders that they were, had their wives, or for the more left-handed devotees (whose predilections might also include living in cremation grounds and eating or meditating on corpses), the meditation practices required by anyone seriously embarking on the sexual path were so involved and tortuous, that really, if it’s the sex you were after, there were much easier (not to mention more pleasant) ways to get it (for a fuller description, anyone interested can read the relevant chapter in George Feuerstein’s Tantra, the Path of Ecstasy. And for descriptions of modern Indian tantrics, there are a couple of stories in William Dalrymple’s very beautiful Nine Lives, in search of the sacred in modern India).
But Tantra in the west has become synonymous with a new-age sexual therapy of sorts, which might be very useful as self-inquiry or self-development, but is not Tantra. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t/aren’t tantric sexual practices. But they’ve got nothing to do with nice orgasms.
In fairness, I don’t think this yoga school is about that either and I’m sure some of the people there are very genuine. Certainly there are also some who are just out to get their rocks off (more on that later).
But it does lead to some very particular views. Here’s a snippet of a phone conversation I couldn’t help overhearing in a restaurant the other day, as the speaker in question had one of those very piercing female American voices that is utterly unconcerned with how far it might carry.
“You can be great in bed but if you don’t know how to access higher levels of consciousness, there’s no point and I’m not interested.”
Which seems to me a hell of a demand to place on prospective lovers (lovers - plural - apparently de rigueur here, as opposed to lover - singular). Do they then all have to be students of this particular yoga school (which narrows the choice considerably, especially, as with most yoga schools, there are far more women than men)? And who’s to define “higher levels of consciousness”? But hey, what the hell do I know, I reminded myself as I choked on my omelette, I’m single.
A few days previously, I’d finished my solo dinner in the same restaurant when a young guy invited me to join him as I was leaving. I sometimes have to force myself to be sociable, and this was one of those occasions. Why do I invariably regret it when I do this?
He started by asking me what month I was in, which is a standard question around the yoga school and unsubtly defines your rank. I gave my standard answer which goes along the lines of “I’m not in any month. I’m just doing my own practice and sometimes I come to the lectures or meditations.”
What ensued was a very dull conversation which I will abridge out of compassion for anyone who has been kind enough to read this far. Without bothering to find out anything particular about me, this young Finn whom I had just met (in his 21st month, so really that’s the next best thing to enlightened) proceeded to comment on my “childlike personality” (really?), to equate shakti, and mine in particular (they aren’t “women” at this yoga school but “shaktis” – at which point I feel myself seized by the Bhadrakali incarnation of shakti and want to disembowel people)… But anyway, to equate shakti, and mine in particular with motherhood and children, assuming babysitting was a favourite pastime of mine (there’s probably a reason I’m the age I am, childless, and with no prospect of changing that state any time soon) – and then intimating that the other point of shakti was sex. He “could never live in a monastery” (who asked him?), he leered, the look in his eye clearly indicating that he quite fancied giving his sexual sadhana a go with me.
If there’s one thing that makes me especially queasy, it’s people parading their passes as spiritual advancement. From the little I know, one of the foundations of virtually any spiritual path is satya, truth. So practise a little of it! It was definitely time to go. I pointed out that shakti means creative power, that the whole universe is a manifestation of shakti, said my goodbyes and left. Without hitting anybody.
When I recounted this episode later, much incensed, I couldn’t resist pointing out that I’ve probably been doing yoga at least 15 years longer than this patronising git, not to mention that I’m probably 10 years older than him.
Apart from anything else, I get very upset at this reduction of shakti or spanda to sex because all the very beautiful links between modern physics and yoga (which have spawned such nonsense as the concept of “Quantum Yoga” asana – but let’s not get started on that) can be found in the heart of the Spanda Karika. But I’m really not qualified to go into that one; if you’re interested, read Fritjof Capra’s rather dense but very wonderful The Tao of Physics.
In case any Indians readers feel I have in the past unfairly characterised their country as generally incapable of seeing the point of a woman who is not attached to a man (married), you may be glad to know you are not alone in this. I was in the sea in the early days of my stay on Koh Pang Ngang, happily minding my own business, when a middle-aged (I’m being kind here) German guy walked towards me (the sea is very shallow, remember). Again, he didn’t bother to find out a thing about me but made a whole load of assumptions which had me struggling to remain polite. “You English, what do you do, you teach English like they all do? No? You teach what then, guitar? Cooking?”
We got to the point where he found out I’m alone. “Aren’t your family worried with you travelling alone?”
“As I haven’t lived with them for over twenty years, it seems an odd question to ask them.”
“Why do you travel alone? You had a bad experience?” Read, “with a man”.
Because, of course ladies, the only reason any of us would chose to do anything alone is because we haven’t found the right man yet. Because we are embittered, dried-up, frigid creatures. Just as women are only lesbian until they are “cured” by sex with a real man. How could we possibly not want one of them?
I was really struggling VERY hard to stay polite at this point. It’s one thing when someone from an uber-conservative Indian town can’t understand that you’re by yourself, but when a European financier who must encounter single women on a regular basis expounds such views, I seethe with outrage. But Lothario was too busy waxing lyrical about his Italian partner back in Europe to notice.
The next couple of times I saw him, he was in the company of a very pretty Thai lady. Pretty intimate company (and what did his Italian girlfriend back home have to say to that, I wonder?). Men like him provide no incentive for women like me to be anything other than single. But he would never get it if I told him, so why bother?
Of course, there are some lovely men in the world. I am friends with some of them and I love them dearly. But at the moment, the men I meet who show any remote interest in me simply inspire me to enter a nunnery, or at any rate, take a vow of chastity.
On a more reflective note, I observe that what offends me so much in the people I complain about is their tendency to judge. I’ve expended quite a lot of energy being mildly offended on this island. And yet, here am I, full of judgments, judgments of the people who annoy me, judgments of my surroundings, all the time: “in India, they do it like this”, “this was nicer in India”, etc. etc. Of course, it was also immeasurably filthier and more exhausting in India, but that’s beside the point. I remember the first time I came to Thailand being particularly irritated by a young woman who compared everything to India and found Thailand lacking. I’d never been to India at that time and I distinctly remember thinking “Well why don’t you go to India then? Why stay in Thailand just to moan about it?”
And Thailand is very, very beautiful.
So healer, heal thyself. Or something of that sort. It’s certainly one for me to contemplate.
In this reflective vein, I have started taking self-portraits. It began in Varkala. So much of this travelling time is alone, it seemed odd not to mark it. Here is one in my bungalow a few nights back. It doesn’t look much like me to me – but clearly, sometimes, this is what I look like:
I am moving on soon. Monday sees me taking the boat to Koh Tao, the next island along, where I shall be doing some diving. It’s probably time to re-engage with some activity to get me out of my head.
The insects which have all emerged after the rains are now going mad about my laptop and head-torch, the only sources of light in this power cut I’m in the middle of. Before I inadvertently kill anymore of the suicidal creatures, I shall bid you farewell.
But to end on a less macabre note, here is a sunset at the beach I swim at most days. The old man you might just pick out steps carefully along the length of the bay with his walking stick. Every morning and every evening he exercises in this way, treading unevenly backwards and forwards along the length of the sand. He seems to be doing some sort of rehabilitative exercise, as he looks like he may have suffered a stroke. There’s something very beautiful about the way he picks his way methodically along.
With love from Lucy xx