Meditations in Delhi: Balancing Balance (part I)

It’s the middle of May and Delhi is sweating.

On some early evening runs when all I can smell is burnt trash, and the air feels thick with heavy metals, I think that it’s a mistake to be outside. Then, there are the days where I see a piece of blue sky between the trees, there’s a slight breeze and the buzzing of bees, and I think how lucky I am to have found a home less than a minute’s walk from a quiet forest in this crazy city, where you’ll lose count in the chorus of car honks, just wait less than a minute.

With the blessing of shared connection and community, I have not found anyone who isn’t feeling a little lost, a little out of balance or seeking more of it. Always interested in mental health and human behavior, I find most people I know here search for solace in something, whether it’s alcohol, tobacco, art, religion, yoga, etc. Life seems much more bearable with these little joys — and importantly, the company and sense of belonging it brings. Of course, our relationships with vice, if we can call it that, may go haywire, leading to undesirable habits and health outcomes. My current research in tobacco, and my previous work with people who inject drugs, show that these behaviors are part of our shared humanity.

Acroyogi friends jamming in Siri Fort Forest, the park that keeps me sane.

While the need to lean on something is undoubtedly amplified in one of most polluted cities of the world, the search for balance pervades the planet. After all, no one traverses a calm sea without at least encountering one storm or tide, ever-oscillating. And, in the words of Buddha, to live is to suffer.

In October, I attended my first 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course in Hoshiarpur, Punjab. In addition to giving me a lesson on Buddhist philosophy, the experience helped me clearly observe a law of nature that for most of us, strips away our sense of stability: things change. Our bodies, our minds, the people in our lives. In the chaos of the world, humans try desperately to create order, else we go insane, to loosely quote Peter Berger.

Sitting in silence for 10 hours a day is like the inward expression of watching paint dry or flowers bloom, in real time. I watched a migraine appear and disappear, muscle cramps come and go. Oddly, when you pay full attention to the reality of impermanence, instead of simply knowing it on a rational level, human agency, in wake of this reality, is restored. By not prescribing sensations with meanings of pain or pleasure, meanings of revulsion or desire, we can relate differently to All. Knowing that the sometimes overwhelming reactions we give in response to life happening are much like a doctor’s prescription that can be edited ,or even withheld, powerfully reconnects us with a calm within the chaos.

According to S.N. Goenka, If we can let go of the (very human) need to control our lives, if we can stop reacting as if it’s a freak of nature when things don’t go as expected, we will have achieved Buddhahood. As such, when we look to balance as an end goal, we hope to transcend our humanness. Yet this common tendency underlies humanhood. Can a human action lead to a nonhuman goal? Is true metamorphoses to ascendance possible? Holla at me if you know the answer to that one.

A perfectly calibrated scale requires a) a machine that does not react to the environment or b) an environment as perfectly calibrated. Humans are not machines, or Buddhas. So, no matter how much I seek balance, it seems to be just one teetering tree pose away from stillness.

Tree in Tree, Lodhi Garden.

Sustainable and realistic balancing, then, may not be about becoming superhuman in the face of our worst fears, but working with the fear and watching it pass. Balancing becomes less about rooting down than moving with the flowing tides, with as little resistance as humanly possible.

These guys balancing like boss birds. Alankuppam, Pondicherry.

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About Annie Liu

Sobti Family Fellow 2018-2019. Visiting Scholar at the Public Health Foundation of India. Graduate of Penn SAS C'2016, BA in Biological Basis of Behavior. MPH/MAIA student at the University of Miami.