This article by Ajayan was first published in 1999 by The Eastside Journal, Bellevue, Washington, under the title: Whispers of the Himalaya.
Author and meditation teacher Ajayan (Henry) Borys, former Kirkland resident, shares his experience of living in a cave in the Himalayas during the spring and summer of 1996.
The spring of 96 was a fateful moment for human visitation in the Himalayas. That season saw the terrible Mt. Everest climbing tragedy, as well as the filming of the spectacular IMAX movie, Mt Everest. These two events would respectively shock and inspire the world. Yet just a few hundred miles from Everest, something else was taking place in the Himalayas. Something much, much quieter. I was sitting in a cave, meditating. And it was the experience of a lifetime.
What brings a man with a wife and two daughters to spend two months in a dirty, scorpion-invested, natural freezer of a cave? Well, it wasn’t exactly to kick back and enjoy creature comforts. Ever since 1970 I had explored with a passion various forms of meditation. I had traveled the globe studying with saints and yogis. In 94 our family had sold our Kirkland home, Aerostar, and all other belongings, to live in the south of India. There I taught meditation. It was only a matter of time before I’d land myself in a Himalayan cave.
For my retreat I selected the remote pilgrimage spot of Gangotri. This is the legendary source of the holy Ganges River (actually 18 kilometers below the glacier that is the present-day source). For untold centuries this area, at just over 10,000 feet, from which springs India’s most revered river, has been a favorite spot for yogis seeking union with the Divine.
There is a saying that everywhere in this world is the earth, but the Himalaya is heaven. It is not just a saying. Though raised in the Cascades, still, I had never seen so much beauty in one day as that day I first approached Gangotri on a rickety, packed-jammed Indian bus. Keep in mind that even the foothills of the Himalaya are so extensive that only after a full day’s drive within them does one glimpse snowcapped peaks. Yet then more appear: the towering wind-swept, snowy mammoths, the highest mountains on earth. And everywhere are waterfalls-cascading from incredible heights, showering silvery streams and rainbows over the alpine forests of pine, Indian cedar, and birches.
The Ganges itself at these higher elevations doesn’t merely flow, it explodes. Every foot of that river brims with unimaginable power-gushing, boiling, rising and falling in oceanic waves, cutting through the maze of cliffs and mountains surrounding it in every direction for hundreds of miles. Finally, one arrives in Gangotri, a tiny, remote hamlet, nearly uninhabited most of the winter, but a favorite pilgrimage site from May through October.
Somehow I had thought finding a cave in the Himalayas would be easy. I soon discovered differently, however. This was prime season for holy men to come from all over India to pursue their spiritual practices in Gangotri. All caves were filled. We’re talking zero vacancy rate. Yet on my third day there, by the miraculous blessings of a local saint (who lives naked much of the year at that altitude), I discovered an ideal cave as I hiked through the mountains.
This hovel was about a mile outside of Gangotri, surrounded by virgin pine forests, overlooking the Ganga with 360 degree mountain views-and no one lived within a kilometer. Adjacent to it was a dramatic canyon rising above the Ganga, serene meadows, and natural rock gardens. That spot would have been one of most beautiful National Parks of the world-and it was all mine.
For the next two months I observed strict silence (no talking), meditated, ate one warm meal daily, did yoga (after establishing a truce with the scorpions, who liked to sunbathe on my blanket), bathed in the icy Ganga, and drank its holy waters. My daily meal consisted of rice and dahl (mung bean soup), which I ate with the other swamis in the area. I supplemented this meager diet with wild edible plants growing in the mountains.
Yet cave life, I discovered, is not quite as comfy as the creators of the Flintstones would have us believe. First, caves are dirty. Ergo, lots of laundry, and the Ganga freezes your fingers in seconds. Caves leak and are musty. They are home to many bugs, beetles, mice, etc., which often joined me in bed or during my meditation.
One morning, for instance, a couple of hours into my meditation, I felt something crawling at the base of my neck inside my clothes. Reaching under the neck of my sweater with my hand, I grabbed it-carefully so as not to crush whatever it was. When I opened my hand, I saw that it was a huge, black beetle. Just like the kind you can see on exhibit at the Science Center. Gently, I placed it outside the cave. As I continued meditating, though, I couldn’t shake the thought that I had seen a beetle of this sort before. Where had it been? Wasn’t it in that movie about Richard Burton’s and John Speke’s search for the source of the Nile (Mountains of the Moon)? That beetle had crawled into Speke’s ear while he slept-for the purpose of burrowing into his brain! Speke had stabbed the critter while it was still in his ear, and this had permanently damaged his hearing. The more I meditated on the beetle, the more afraid I became that it was indeed related to Speke’s. This beetle had, after all, been heading in the direction of my ear… My cave was infested with them, too-dreaded, black, Himalayan, brain-burrowing beetles! Nevertheless, by God’s grace, I would emerge from my retreat fully endowed with brains and ears intact.
As for wild animals, I had heard that tigers roamed these forests. That was my one unspoken fear. Tigers always struck me as a bit overwhelming.
Before going into silence, I asked a swami about this, “Are there any tigers around here?”
Hmmm. He seemed pretty sure about it. “How about bears?”
“Bears no disturb sadhaks,” came his unequivocal reply in broken English (a sadhak is a spiritual aspirant).
This still left one question: How would the bears know I was a sadhak?
As it turned out, I never saw any beast larger than the small rat that shared my cave. Speaking of this rat, he turned out to be a most worthy and pious roommate.
I had been keeping a little food in my cave, and each night I had been awakened by some nocturnal forager. One night, after the rustlings disturbed my sleep, I figured it was time to draw the line. Picking up my walking stick and flashlight, I crept in the dark over to my food. Turning on the flashlight, I walloped with the stick the plastic bucket that contained my goodies. A moment later a small rat hopped out of the bucket. He walked a few feet towards the wall of the cave, but very slowly, as if my blow had stunned him. It would have been easy to do him in then and there, but I didn’t want to hurt him (in fact, I hoped I hadn’t hurt him); I just wanted some undisturbed sleep.
Then the strangest thing happened. The rat turned and lifted himself onto a large rock directly in front of me, making himself completely vulnerable. Crawling to the rock’s edge closest to me, he faced me, bent his forelegs, and bowed his head down to his paws as if prostrating. Next, he slowly raised himself and lifted his head to look at my face. For perhaps 15 seconds he looked at me with large, soft, unblinking eyes. Finally climbing off the rock, he crawled into a crack in the cave’s wall.
From that night on, whenever my pious little roommate woke me up, I just rolled over and let him eat his fill.
Caves are also natural refrigerators. Wearing everything I had brought with me (including wool ski hat, gloves, etc.), piling blankets on, topping it all with a rain slick, I just managed to stay warm enough to sleep through the night. It took me half an hour to dress for bed.
At first the cave’s cold seemed almost unbearable. In the first week I often pondered the possibility of borrowing a propane heater from some local ashram. During my freezing meditations at least, it seemed a reasonable enough request: “Excuse me. I’m living in a cave. Could you lend me a propane heater? It’s very cold.”
Gradually, however, the discomforts began to seem an essential part of my retreat. This was tapas (spiritual practice with an attitude of self-denial), and I took solace in recalling the many sages who had done tapas in these very mountains throughout the centuries. They, too, could have chosen to live in the comfort of home, but they savored such spots as this. Indeed, such musings occasionally transformed the biting cold into a penetrating presence of God.
Then there were those precious breaks in my routine of meditating 12 hours a day. I would crawl out of my cave into the brilliant mountain sun, stand surrounded by rugged mountain peaks jutting into the clear, blue sky, savor the solitude, holiness, and beauty of that place, the Ganga dancing before me, and know that I could ask for nothing more. Pilgrims visiting such sacred spots consider that their life has been fulfilled. Perhaps it is true. What I felt in those mountains was indeed something rare. Such spots have offered their beauty and solitude to thousands of sincere seekers of God. They have been the resort of saints and sages throughout the ages, and have been adorned with a vibration of sanctity. To stay even for a few days amidst that beauty, to bathe and drink of that holy river, to see the valleys of flowers and gaze on the peaks of the Himalayas, was indeed to be blessed by God.
What about social life? Well, in spite of observing silence, I did make wonderful friends with some of the swamis (it is easy to make a good impression when you don’t say a word). These included the naked saint, and two others who dearly wanted me to spend the rest of my life wandering the Himalayas and meditating with them. There is great kinship found without effort in the Himalayas amongst sadhaks-regardless of nationality, race, or religion-and this added greatly to the charm of my time there.
But the real attraction of living in a cave and doing all that meditating, is what happens on the inside, and in this respect each day brought new treasures. One’s appreciation for life, one’s awe for this miraculous existence of ours, grows in a way that cannot be described. Here is a short excerpt from my daily journal (hopefully someday to become a book), to give a flavor of the upside of cave living, and why I went there in the first place:
Doing asanas outside my cave, the giant boulder that is the roof of my cave caught my attention. The white and gold rock face gleamed in the sun. Moss covering much of it formed an inviting, warm, deep green carpet. A net of fine spider webs I had not noticed before shone in the sun. Every inch, every crevice, every glimmering facet and shadow cast by overhanging pine branches, was a glorious work of art. I could not take my eyes from it; the golden light of God beamed from the rock.
How easy to see God in nature! We may spend hours watching sitcoms and videos, but to spend even half-an-hour a day in a garden, learning to lavishly appreciate its wonders, its fine details-this will open our eyes to the Divine.
Continuing asanas, I noticed the pine rising above the boulder; it too shone with the light of God. My eyes then went to the deep blue mountain sky, the gleaming white sun, the billowing white clouds; they all shone with glorious divine presence. All is God’s grace. We only need eyes that see.
Copyright © Henry J. Borys, and The Eastside Journal, 1999–2007. First published by The Eastside Journal, Bellevue, WA under the title: Whispers of the Himalaya