During this lockdown, I’ve maintained a disciplined schedule of working out, sleeping well, eating healthy and lying shamelessly. But the one activity that I’m honestly trying to get better at is meditation, and yes I’m gonna ignore the fact that taking deep, relaxing breaths during a pandemic marked by breathlessness feels a little bit like showing off. It’s like running 100-metre sprints during the polio crisis or telling Okinawa war vets that kamikazes are delicious and they should totes try some.
For the record, I’d like to state that meditation truly is a life-changing invention, like the wheel or the ‘Skip Intro’ button. So any shortcomings are mine and mine alone. For example, on most days, I can spend six hours staring at my toenails but when I decide to meditate for just fifteen minutes, I suddenly have the schedule of an ER surgeon who’s also the President Of The World during an ongoing alien invasion.
The next step is to open the Headspace app on my phone (no, this is not a paid post – also nobody has paid for the written word since 2008.) But when I unlock my phone to open Headspace, some magical time travel happens and boom, it’s one hour later and I’m still on Insta and Twitter and now I want to slap people more than I did at the start of the day, so I’m worried a 15-minute session won’t cut it but I can’t do longer because remember, the aliens have just blown up the White House and I’m Bill Pullman giving a speech while simultaneously performing a C-section with my feet but whatever, let’s start.
Lights dimmed, notifications off, just the calming session playing and I start taking a few deep breaths, shutting out the world, my body relaxing as I focus on the inhale-exhale cycle, in through the nose, slowly out through the mouth, in through the nose, slowwwwly out through the mouth, in through the I LOVE IT WHEN WHEN YOU CALL ME SENORITA, NA MAIN SAMHA NA MAIN JAANA ugh earworm, okay focus, inhale, slow exhale, inhale, slow MUJHSE NAZAR NA PHEROOOO wow always the Abhay Deol voice, stupid brain, okay focus focus, why is my butt suddenly itchy, is it a symptom of colorectal cancer, is this how I die, I’m glad they called it colorectal cancer ‘cos if you told people they had ass cancer they would just laugh haha, oh hey that broccoli in the fridge might go bad soon, isn’t it weird how broccoli looks like gobhi that ate a lot of broccoli, oho is this what they call a veg joke wow Ashish aaj toh angaar hi angaar OKAY FOCUS YOU IDIOT and remember what you learnt: don’t try to fight the thoughts, let them come and go, don’t latch on to them, see them as clouds drifting across the sky, bye bye ass cancer thought, okay the mind is clear again phew, let’s just count breaths… 1… 2… 3… deep breaths deep breaths deep breaths deep RACE SAANSON KI!! I give up.
The lockdown is by no means my first attempt at meditation. I started a few years ago and by ‘started’ I mean I did it only when I felt like it, a strategy I’d also like to apply to taxes. My aversion was partly because I was once made to attend a three-day meditation camp as a kid. This proves the adage that whether it’s religion or karela, if you were forced to do it as a child, you’ll probably hate it as an adult. (Heroin is a notable exception to this rule.)
Anyway, this happened when I was ten and visiting my cousins in Ghaziabad, a town in U.P famous for its traditional murders, power cuts and murders during power cuts. But something worse was in store when I found out that I, along with two cousins my age, were to be bundled off to some meditation camp for kids, probably because the nearest gulag was full.
To be fair, some of my older uncles had gotten into meditation and wanted us to experience the same clarity of thought and peace of mind, which we did anyway BECAUSE WE WERE KIDS AND THAT WAS OUR DEFAULT STATE. In fact, the only stress I had in life was about being plonked into this camp during my summer holidays, which I’d planned to spend going back and forth between comic books and TV while slowly replacing all the fluids in my body with Thums Up.
My cousins and I protested the decision but minority voices in U.P are often ignored. Three hours later, we were deposited at the camp in Delhi whose name I forget but it was run by the same people who run that famous 10-day vipassana course that your hippie friend won’t shut up about. That’s the one where you wake up at 4 a.m., meditate for about 10 hours a day while maintaining absolute silence for the entire 10-day duration, but by the end you feel amazing because you get to leave.
Thankfully, as kids, we had way fewer hours of meditation. The sessions were split across the day and drove home the basics: focusing on one’s breath and blocking out all thoughts about how much you hate your uncles. The No Talking rule also only applied to a small radius outside the main meditation hall because the headline ‘INSTRUCTORS MAULED BY TWO HUNDRED FERAL KIDS, NO ONE SAW ANYTHING’ would’ve been bad PR.
There were other non-meditation activities as well like drawing, playing in the park, slowly digging a hole in the wall and covering it with a Rita Hayworth poster etc. We also had multiple meal breaks where we enjoyed khichdi and lauki, the scintillating cuisine of jaundice patients. A huge curtain ran through the centre of the dining hall, separating the boys and girls, which was hugely discriminatory against a boy who had just spotted a cute girl and fallen in love, something that happened every three days at that age. It was pointless though. Even if I’d had the guts or the charm to talk to her, what could I really say at a meditation shivir? “Heyyy… nice nostrils. You inhale really well. Do you want to get some lauki tonight?”
Of course things have changed since, or as the poet Rilke once wrote, “Friendship ended with childhood, stress is my best friend now.” And while it’s definitely not a substitute for professional help, meditation has served as a helpful anxiety mitigation device, much better than my other techniques like large whiskeys and restless leg shaking that looks like Elvis getting electrocuted.
But you don’t need to wait for undue life stress to kick in before you try it. That sense of focus and equanimity feels great at any point. The only side-effect is that you might use the phrase ‘high on life’ unironically, in which case please walk into the nearest glass door repeatedly until that urge subsides.
Also, to the women reading this: in case you were at that meditation camp and think you may be the girl from my story, do feel free to get in touch. I don’t know your name but I will recognize your nostrils.