What I will be hosting, to be exact, is a series of retreats to be held at the Ashram this spring. During each retreat, about a hundred devotees will come here from all over the world for a period of a week to ten days, to deepen their meditation practices. My role is to take care of these people during their stay here. For most of the retreat, the participants will be in silence. For some of them, it will be the first time they've experienced silence as a devotional practice, and it can be intense. However, I will be the one person in the Ashram they are allowed to talk to if something is going wrong.
That's right--my job officially requires me to be the speech-magnet.
I will listen to the problems of the retreat participants and then try to find solutions for them. Maybe they'll need to change roommates because of a snoring situation, or maybe they'll need to speak to the doctor because of India-related digestive trouble--I'll try to solve it. I'll need to know everybody's name, and where they are from. I'll be walking around with a clipboard, taking notes and following up. I'm Julie McCoy, your Yogic cruise director.
And, yes, the position does come with a beeper.
As the retreats begin, it is so quickly evident how much I am made for this job. I'm sitting there at the Welcome Table with my Hello, My Name Is badge, and these people are arriving from thirty different countries, and some of them are old-timers but many of them have never been to India. It's over 100 degrees already at 10:00 AM, and most of these people have been flying all night in coach. Some of them walk into this Ashram looking like they just woke up in the trunk of a car--like they have no idea at all what they're doing here. Whatever desire for transcendence drove them to apply for this spiritual retreat in the first place, they've long ago forgotten it, probably somewhere around the time their luggage got lost in Kuala Lumpur. They're thirsty, but don't know yet if they can drink the water. They're hungry, but don't know what time lunch is, or where the cafeteria can be found. They're dressed all wrong, wearing synthetics and heavy boots in the tropical heat. They don't know if there's anyone here who speaks Russian.
I can speak a teensy bit of Russian . . .
I can help them. I am so equipped to help. All the antennas I've ever sprouted throughout my lifetime that have taught me how to read what people are feeling, all the intuition I developed growing up as the supersensitive younger child, all the listening skills I learned as a sympathetic bartender and an inquisitive journalist, all the proficiency of care I mastered after years of being somebody's wife or girlfriend--it was all accumulated so that I could help ease these good people into the difficult task they've taken on. I see them coming in from Mexico, from the Philippines, from Africa, from Denmark, from Detroit and it feels like that scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where Richard Dreyfuss and all those other seekers have been pulled to the middle of Wyoming for reasons they don't understand at all, drawn by the arrival of the spaceship. I am so consumed by wonder at their bravery. These people have left their families and lives behind for a few weeks to go into silent retreat amidst a crowd of perfect strangers in India. Not everybody does this in their lifetime.
I love all these people, automatically and unconditionally. I even love the pain-in-the-ass ones. I can see through their neuroses and recognize that they're just horribly afraid of what they're going to face when they go into silence and meditation for seven days. I love the Indian man who comes to me in outrage, reporting that there's a four-inch statue of the Indian god Ganesh in his room which has one foot missing. He's furious, thinks this is a terrible omen and wants that statue removed--ideally by a Brahman priest, during a "traditionally appropriate" cleansing ceremony. I comfort him and listen to his anger, then send my teenage tomboy friend Tulsi over to the guy's room to get rid of the statue while he's at lunch. The next day I pass the man a note, telling him that I hope he's feeling better now that the broken statue is gone, and reminding him that I'm here if he needs anything else whatsoever; he rewards me with a giant, relieved smile. He's just afraid.
The French woman who has a near panic attack about her wheat allergies--she's afraid, too. The Argentinean man who wants a special meeting with the entire staff of the Hatha Yoga department in order to be counseled on how to sit properly during meditation so his ankle doesn't hurt; he's just afraid. They're all afraid. They're going into silence, deep into their own minds and souls. Even for an experienced meditator, nothing is more unknown than this territory. Anything can happen in there. They'll be guided during this retreat by a wonderful woman, a monk in her fifties, whose every gesture and word is the embodiment of compassion, but they're still afraid because--as loving as this monk may be--she cannot go with them where they are going. Nobody can.
As the retreat was beginning, I happened to get a letter in the mail from a friend of mine in America who is a wildlife filmmaker for National Geographic. He told me he'd just been to a fancy dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, honoring members of the Explorers' Club. He said it was amazing to be in the presence of such incredibly courageous people, all of whom have risked their lives so many times to discover the world's most remote and dangerous mountain ranges, canyons, rivers, ocean depths, ice fields and volcanoes. He said that so many of them were missing bits of themselves--toes and noses and fingers lost over the years to sharks, frostbite and other dangers.
He wrote, "You have never seen so many brave people gathered in one place at the same time."
I thought to myself, You ain't seen nothin', Mike.