A home for the ancient traveler

This article is excerpted with permission from the Fall/Winter 1995 issue of Sunseeds (Vol. 9, No. 2).



by John Robert Cornell

You have just spent two years . . . oops --it seemed like two years but was only two weeks by the calendar --in Pondicherry, the City of the Soul in South India. Now it's time to go home. Wait a minute . . . Home . . . ?

You are home. Nothing could be more home than this. The ancient traveler in you is home. He is already there! He doesn't want to go anywhere else. Since you arrived he has been breathing in a sustaining silence like a subtle ambrosia. In the courtyard of the main Ashram building, around the samadhi, the silence is gently massive. You don't have to try to be quiet there. It's not like church, where you may have to restrain yourself to maintain a respectful silence.

You walk into the courtyard and the silence already there turns down the racket in your head and heart. It happens without effort. It feels like walking into a cloud of down. Every raw edge of you is soothed, every corner is rounded by troth-peace, every thin, shriveled flake of you is moisturized by a settling dew that has no denial in it. And it's such a relief.

Not that this city is quiet. Horns slice into the air incessantly, bicycle bells jingle. Miniature cars, jeeps, and three-wheeled motorized taxis belch the smoke and roar of internal combustion. Donkeys bray, kids shout, dogs bark far into the night. Even rock music blares from the seaside cafe in the evening. Long-time residents complain about the increase of noise since the motorscooters came to town 20 years ago. But the silence is palpable in the midst of the noise, behind it, smoothing the corners and edges from it.

The first time you went to the samadhi was late in the evening. You could feel the calming silence even before you turned the corner of the sidewalk and came into full view of the courtyard. Only a few people were still there. You had very strong surges of emotion in those first moments of pilgrimage. The feelings didn't disperse the silence nor even disturb it. Its calming influence is not imposed; it does no subtle violence to you. It does not restrain the lunging want or the nagging need. Instead it calls out something else in you; it calls the secret you to the front.

In the Ashram quarter of Pondicherry, you had unspoken permission from everyone you met to be your truth, your secret self. The people here are living it. They shine on you when you meet them. Some kind of radiance, sister to that soothing silence, pours out of their eyes when they look at you.

Rather they look into you, and you cannot find the subtlest hint of social exploitation in their gaze. You didn't even know you watched out for that exploitation until you realized that something familiar "was missing" in this meeting of the eyes. Here the inner being is richly more than a clichˇ, more than a passing emotion. Here soul fills out, grows substance, raises its head and looks out at you from those eyes.

She is here and He. People pour out stories about them into your willing ear. They were living a miracle, a living miracle, a sustained miracle that lasted in this spot for 60 years. The fragrance of it is everywhere. People will tell you stories for hours about their grace, their compassion, their laughter. Seekers came here attracted like bees to a meadow bursting with wildflowers.

There are books and books of collected stories emanating that special fragrance. You feel like you have landed in Capernaum just in time to hear the stories from the lips of Jesus's companions, the stories that will make their way into the New Testament in the second century. Or you are on Mt. Carmel and, with Peter, you don't ever want to leave.

Go home? You can't seem to comprehend the idea.

Their presence in this city has changed the very air, which seems to carry a silent, sustained devotion. You think that the change has seeped into the stones on the streets and the mortar in the buildings. Even the beggar with no legs outside the Ashram dining hall shines up at you, eyes brimming with something that you could make a home in. You could curl up in it like a cat in a down comforter and go to sleep, safe at last. You could drink it like cream soda; it smoothes everything behind the fizz.

But this is not paradise. A travel guide comments that India is essentially an ungovernable society. It is too big and unwieldy. A friend remarks that the Indians are a long way from mastering matter. That's easy enough to see. Garbage rots in the streets, and it is too hot to keep the windows closed if there happen to be any glass windows to close. There is corruption, wretched poverty, dirt, pollution, ugliness, homelessness, exploitation, caste discrimination, theft --chaos on a scale that is simply incomprehensible.

The peace and silence here, at least here in Pondicherry, are in the midst of that, not separated off in some cloister! You feel it walking down the streets or shopping in this leather shop or that silk shop or this furniture store, especially ones run by people touched by Them, people dedicated to this path.

These are quiet, radiant, purposeful, sad, privileged people. They live inside an envelope of grace. Walking the streets of the town, you begin to sense its outlines. You feel it thinning when you cross into the commercial district of Pondicherry. The closer you get to the samadhi, the more substantial it grows.

Inside the envelope, everything seems to be orchestrated. It's a different kind of time, a different style of movement. You don't need a Daytimer. It's not that kind of time. It is the flow you have heard about, that you have floated in yourself on occasion. It is here all the time. But this flowing time is not here just to lie down and luxuriate in.

There was a profound work going on here behind the scenes. He and She were on a mission. For 60 years without letup they engaged life and matter in the most stupendous effort of conscious evolution. They didn't want to just find the divine spark within, declare victory and be done with it. Both of them had found the spark within themselves and united with it long ago.

The distinction of their spiritual path is their labor to uncover the Divine, not only in the soul, but also in mind and life and body. A life divine on earth, clearly visible and sustainable even in the lower reaches of human nature, even down to this chaos, even down to the cells of the body! A stupendous work, revolutionary at the time and, if it seems less so today, that is only because of the far-flung influence of their work.

And you sense that it is still going on today, behind the scenes, without the slightest hype. It was never the kind of work held up to public opinion. Nobody's going to broadcast it. It is done inside the silence. The growing busloads of tourists that come here are brought by government tours for the politicians' purposes, not by Ashram public relations.

But it is time to go home, to the other home, to little brother's home address. You have to leave the envelope.

You look back toward that other home and you see a dense, dirty grey smog. That is what you are going back into. You will vanish into it like a speck in a brown river. You will suffocate. Each day you have been saying, "We are still here. We are still in India" --more frequently and desperately as your time here grows shorter. Now it's gone, and every part of you is dug in, trying to hold back the river as it rises inexorably toward your head. Your heart is a leaden, sweating stone in your chest.

Then a memory comes back to you: of when you came to this planet at the beginning of this life, trying to put on the brakes before you landed here. There were no brakes. There was nothing to hang onto. You were in free fall. You disappeared into the river and forgot where you came from. You forgot that there was anywhere else for a long time. You were a speck of silt in a brown river. You couldn't breathe. In fact you had terrible asthma as a child and almost died of it as a two-year-old. A little later you tested allergic to every substance that the medical technician tried, including the sterile needle itself.

But this time, you think, you could do it awake. You could die into the grey mass with your eyes open. You would see things if you kept your eyes open when you landed. You could go back there and remember where you came from.

The grey mass that you see from here is not California. It is not the land itself. It is not any part of the beaches and deserts and shining mountains of California. It is not the soil nor the rocks nor the oak trees and the soaring pines. It is the other California and the lid. There is a grey lid that lies over one's consciousness there. It works like a thermal inversion in the Sacramento Valley.

Energy, tremendous energies go out from the body for survival, sex and power there. They move out horizontally, spreading to the horizon, mixing together. The lid traps these lower energies and cuts off the higher ones. They stir up dust and turn sour. They become stagnant and dense. Trees, mountains, and other people become indistinct in that air. You can't see them very well. And eventually you forget that they are real.

Your ancestors came there to survive, to avoid persecution, to escape poverty and famine. From Europe a tremendous immigration blew across the American continent from east to west like a prairie fire before a windstorm. They were like a stampede of horses in a desert valley. Their dust is now thick in the air and their descendants are milling about not sure where to race to next. The new world was "empty," and now it is filled. There is no horizon left.

We are here, but we scarcely know this place where we have landed.

But it is beginning to know us. The old voices say that it watches us. It is even beginning to call us. . . .

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