While most reports about the epic and enormous spiritual festival called the Kumbh Mela are done by helicopter journalists that come in for two days with a pre-determined set of hyped up stories of naked babas or if they’re lucky some sort of minor tragedy that they can use to dramatically mischaracterize an enormous gathering of spiritual people whom they don’t understand or identify with, I had the pleasure and pain of living and learning the lesson of the Kumbh for six weeks in Allahabad, India.
Looking back as I made the 30 hour haul back to the U.S., I realized how hard it was to camp on the silt of a river bank that in the summer is underwater and in the winter retains none of the heat from the day’s sun. The night’s cold is only combatted with blankets and clothing layers as heating doesn’t exist. And when rains come, so does the muddy rivers of water that make their way through your tent – and at one point my office – seeking to rejoin the river, to return to where all the drops become one.
These elements are mixed with dust and the smoke of thousands of fires being stoked to boil the sweet chai tea and to keep the millions warm through the night. Within days, one develops the Kumbh cold, a deep cough accompanied by a constant runny nose. You are surrounded at all times by people – friends, strangers, spiritual guides, and some that wear each of those hats depending on the day and situation – and some wear no clothes at all. There is no privacy and the days of the week no longer exist – only main bathing days and the others in between. It’s hard, but it’s meant to be that way.
The story of the Kumbh Mela is one retold constantly, but what you have to realize is that being there, you’re living the lesson and learning from it. It’s said that the Kumbh came about from the churning of the sea by demons and gods alike for the nectar of immortality. But before that bliss was reached, many other things came up in the process including poison.
When the poison came up, there was despair because if it was left, the whole world would be contaminated but if it was consumed, the poison would be internalized and destroy whomever drank it. So Shiva, one of the trinity of powerful Hindu gods, took the poison and he drank it. But, he didn’t take it in, he held it in his throat and went to a temple in the foothills of the Himalayas where he meditated for the rest of his life to keep it there and keep the world safe.
Well I can tell you that what Shiva did was quite a feat, because being at the Kumbh does churn up many things. And it’s a battle, not between demons and gods, but within yourself to identify how you deal with these emotions of frustration, anger, and exhaustion that come up from the challenges that present themselves.
For me, I realized that, despite walking away from work for a year in an attempt to find balance, I will constantly sacrifice myself, my health, and my happiness so I don’t let people down. I worked 16 hour days for 6 weeks which drove me to near physical and mental collapse. I realized this and made the conscious decision to go MIA from time to time.
I would travel over the river by boat at sunset and mingle among the akharas of chillum-smoking nagas and sadhus where I found kinship in the music radiating from their tents, and kindness that was in the spirit of giving and learning. It was at these gatherings where my little group of hooligans found ourselves shepherded by saints and enveloped in their teachings.
While I find incredible spiritual fulfillment in service and believe that doing my part to save the world and help others is the reason I’m on this earth, I won’t be whole if I don’t begin to carve time out for myself to ensure that I’m not draining myself.
Everyone at the camp would always ask if I was eating and taking care of myself, but I failed to realize that carving time out of the day for me was just as important as a meal time or sleep because it’s that time when you recharge from within, when you reflect on all the things that have been churned up during the day and how you deal with them in a better way next time.
So the lesson of the Kumbh is really a lesson in life. Sometimes poison comes up and it’s down to you whether you take it in, put it out, or take a moment to deal with that venom so it doesn’t hurt you or others. And than you can take the time to see the joy that we can bring to each other in those wonderful moments that strung together are called life.
I’m currently in Los Angeles to produce an art show and tour for a talented Kenyan artist, Cyrus Kabiru, who is speaking at TED LA this week. Despite the craziness, I’m committed to doing ten sun salutations every day and taking time to do personal writing – because no one is going to carve out the time except for me. Maybe I did learn a few things at that crazy place called the Kumbh Mela after all : )
Namaste my friends.