“Why don’t you teach an analytical meditation at my learning center?” a woman asked me. It was a bright morning in Rishikesh, and while I loved my new apartment with its spectacular view of the Himalayas, my heart was heavy with confusion about the future. I did not like the commercialization of this ancient city, nor the sharks I encountered, mostly wealthy urban businessmen who had bought up all the apartments in my enclave for ‘investment’ purposes and appeared to have few ethics.
“All right,” I agreed, albeit reluctantly; perhaps it would do me good to teach the Seven Flavors of Samsara, an analytical meditation on the nature of relative reality that I had learned from a powerful guru, and which I occasionally shared with those perplexed about the nature of reality—particularly those who agonized over why bad things happened to good people and vice versa.
My class was well-received. As we sat sipping chai afterwards with the group, a sannyasin (female renunciate) complimented me on the way I had presented these ancient truths. We exchanged contact information and began to call each other. Soon I confessed to her that I had flown down from America hoping to settle in Rishikesh, but that I was now considering returning to the US. “Why not wait a couple of months before you decide?” she asked gently. “I have an Ashram in Tiruvannamalai where you could stay.” “Tiruvannamalai?” I repeated doubtfully; while I had enjoyed the weekend I’d spent there long ago, I had felt no urge to return. But finally I decided that since I loved the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, I should give it another shot.
A month later, accompanied by a friend, I found myself in Tiruvannamalai, at the home of a man with a long beard garbed in white. We walked outside and gazed up at Arunachala towering above us, and our host began to rave about the holy hill’s power to transform. My companion glanced at me in disbelief, and both of us tried to suppress our giggles as this man ran on. You see, neither of us could understand how an intelligent human could believe that a mountain, for god’s sake, could transform the human heart.
I stayed on in Tiru and struggled with the teachings, so simple and yet so profound. Soon I began to experience little flashes of happiness, not to mention minor miracles, all of which encouraged me to make this ancient town my permanent abode. At dawn about a year later, an English friend and I decided to take the inner path around the mountain. Fifteen minutes after we had set out, the heavens opened and it began to pour. My friend pulled out a rain jacket, but I was drenched. I trudged on with him, cursing my fate as the rain pounded down on my defenseless body; by the time we finished circumambulating the mountain, four tedious mud-filled hours later, I was a sodden wreck.
Seventeen days of flu followed; I had no one to care for me, for this friend had returned to the West, and I knew no one else in the vicinity I could trust. One morning I felt well enough to rise; I walked out the door and into the morning sunshine, and gazed up at Arunachala. In a flash, I realized that gradually, without mini-me even being aware of it, the mountain had embraced me in a savage but loving grip, and that I now had no choice but to surrender to its awesome power. So that man raving about the mountain so long ago had been right, after all!
Arunachala means perfect existence-consciousness and bliss, and, according to eastern mystics, this is our true nature, our Self. Delving into this great truth was pure magic; gradually I began to step away from identifying solely with my body and mind, my emotions, and track record. I began to seriously explore Atma-Vichara, the investigation into the Self which Ramana Maharshi called the Direct Path. After all, what is the promise of Arunachala? To destroy the ego of the seeker, so he or she can experience the true Self that transcends body and mind. All the experiences I had had to date, it also struck me, were due to the burning down the edifice of mini-me that had caused me endless sorrow.
How does one know one is following the Direct Path? Given my penchant for reducing complex philosophy into easily digestible atoms, I decided to focus on just these three aspects of highest consciousness (sat-chit-ananda, existence-consciousness and bliss). I could not deny, for instance, the fact of my relative existence, and I knew from years of grappling with and practicing eastern philosophy, that my Spirit would survive the death of my body and mind. Neither could I deny that I was aware, conscious. So the turning point came when I began to experience that ineffable inner bliss—and it is this bliss, coupled with steady awareness, that tells me I am on the right path.
It is said that Shiva manifested in the form of the sacred mountain Arunachala in order to help those who are ready to achieve permanent freedom from suffering. It is also said that if one dies within a 40-mile (30 yojanas) radius of this sacred hill, one achieves moksha. Can this be true? Recently I read that Ramana had answered this query from a lawyer by saying that Shiva is like the Supreme Court who can overturn all lower court decrees; Ramana also seemed to imply that this reward is given only to those who merit it.
Arunachala has turned into Magic Mountain for me; he is also father, mother, guide, friend and lover. His magic is not dispensed freely, for one must make immense effort before the inner show can begin; our first major chore is, no matter the pain involved, to surrender to the process of burning our ego down to ashes.