By Geeta Rao
When the monkey mind takes over there is no stopping the rising of fear – real and perceived
|Geeta Rao is a seeker in the Vipassana tradition and an advertising and media professional. She is currently Health & Beauty Editor at Vogue, India
On a recent trip to Bhutan I found myself in the little town of Bhumthang at 14,000 feet with all that I could have wished for around me – clean air, crisp cold weather that was an energy booster, mountains and rolling clouds and above all, silence. My hotel was off the road amidst fields of flowers and buckwheat with a view of a 16th century fortress or dzhong on one side and the calm view of a seventh century monastery on the other. Not to mention the tree laden with apples outside my room. This is not a romantic description – this was exactly the way it was. The reason I dwell on it is because it became a delightful lesson in mindful and not so mindful observation in due course.
As darkness fell, I stepped out into my little balcony to get one last view of the mountains and it struck me that the hotel was particularly dark and empty.
At the reception lit by a single candle, I was told that the resort had no power so they were running my room on a generator and all the other guests had been moved out since most were in groups. I was the only single traveller they had.
Now for the monkey mind. Suddenly I felt the rising of panic. I was the only person in the entire property my mind said in fear. The weather, so energy boosting until now, suddenly made me shiver. At the dining room, I was the only person being waited on. Suddenly it struck me that I had no idea of this resort, no one knew where I was, Bhumthang was not close to any place – the closest city was a ten-hour drive away – and should something happen to me no one would have a clue anyway. I was interrupted by my guide who arrived out of the blue. He was in a lodge nearby. Am I safe here? I asked him. Yes, of course, he said.
Bhutan, let me add, is one of the safest places I have visited, so this was my fear factor playing up, as I could see even then. So will the receptionist be here in the night? No, was the calm reply, everyone goes home but there will be a night guard. There it was, again the sudden rising of fear. Only me and the night guard.
Visions of being locked in my room and being knifed in the shower a la Hitchcock’s Psycho flashed through my mind. Just observe, said another part. There wasn’t much I could do short of asking the guide to stay the night with me, which I was definitely not going to do. But in that moment, I began to hear strange sounds and in the light, even the guide seemed a bit surreal.
It was a downward spiral from then on. I felt the panic rise and the sounds got magnified as the guide took his leave. I went back to my room and the silence, the thing I had sought above all else, seemed menacing. The sound of wood crackling in the traditional bukhariya on the other hand sounded like footsteps entering the room. Of course, Bhutan has as many stories of evil spirits and demons as we have back home just in case the imagination needed any fodder.
Just observe, even when the demon attacks, I said to myself, managing to see the humour of the situation briefly. What had been the perfect prescription for me, planned and dreamed about in the city suddenly did not seem so perfect anymore.
I picked up the phone to make a call and found it was dead. See you cannot even call the receptionist in case you need anything in the middle of the night said the monkey mind. The mobile which I had avoided like the plague rang suddenly and seemed like a lifeline. It was a friend from Mumbai checking if I was okay, and instead of enjoying the moment of connection all that struck me was that even if I was not okay there was little he could do about it.
I felt a bit sorry for myself but at the same time wondered where these irrational fears were coming from – I did not usually fear the dark or being alone. Had I not been acknowledging the fear and did it actually exist all along? How quickly our perceptions change. Solitude, the ultimate luxury, seemed a little less exciting to me at that point. My huge room with three sections and a bathroom with shower curtains (remember the killing scene in Psycho or all those Stephen King novels where there was a strange presence under the bed? said my mind) were in those moments of panic less appealing than a dorm with a shared loo.
I decided to observe the rising and passing of the fear. Had I not suddenly sensed I was the only person in the resort I would have assumed it was full of people and felt safe. In the city, being alone had completely different connotations – there was always a sense of people close by. There were known beasts for the mind to grapple with.
Eventually, what seemed like hours of panic was in actuality a brief hour. The guide, perfectly sympathetic to my situation, had spoken to the hotel, and they assured me a German couple whom I had seen at dinner was booked to stay and would be assigned a room next to mine.
The reality was that nothing had changed. The beautiful natural surroundings, the room, the guide, the town was the same as always. All that had changed was the drama in my mind – the deep-rooted fear of the unknown. Ironically enough, the book I was reading that precise day was Pema Chodron’s (a Buddhist teacher in the Tibetan tradition) The places that scare you: a guide to living fearlessly. And it brought home the oft-stressed-upon Buddhist axiom that only what you experience is real. It was time to re-read that wonderful book more closely. The next night I was alone in the resort and it did not matter. I had run through my fear the first night, or at least converted it into a known entity.
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