How I Meditated as a Hermit on a Mountain in California

From September 1st to September 14th I did not see another human being. I lived in a hut high in the Santa Cruz mountains among the redwoods, and meditated for 8 hours a day. My companions were deer, squirrels, woodpeckers, rattlesnakes and, more elusively, mountain lions. Every morning after meditation I walked up the mountain before returning for lunch, left for me in a racoon-proof metal box on the ridge. By early evening I would break for an open air shower overlooking the forest, before reading in the sunshine and watching the wildlife until dark.

I never fell out of love with the place, the deer who came to visit, the trees I could see from my balcony. Except for the occasional insect burrowing into my skin, there was nothing that I could complain about as far as my environment went. The only other variable was my mind. For the first 2 days I was happy and serene, walking the trails, observing my breathing, sleeping well amidst the sounds of the forest. Then, on Day 3, I reached some of the deeper layers of my mind… and it began. Suddenly, I was in deep misery. There I sat on my cushion, fighting enemies that were nothing but memories or imagination. Every day I sat with fury, hatred and fear interspersed with dreams of money, sex, and fame, constantly slipping between aversion and craving.

If I ever needed proof of the truth of the opening lines of the Dhammapada, I had found it:

All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.

On Day 7 the anger broke and I burst into tears on my cushion. This is the way deep meditation works: cruder, grosser feelings are reduced to subtler ones as the mind becomes more acute, more penetrating.

The following day, the anger was replaced by anxiety and excitement, my thoughts turning to ideas for books, future plans, leaving. Without a teacher staring at me from the dhamma seat, I found myself reaching for my notebook, scribbling down ideas, unable to stop. There were days when my craving for pleasure disappeared until I realised it had been replaced by a subtler longings — for wisdom, for enlightenment, for spiritual prowess.

By Day 12, I was wandering the ridge in a state of deep sorrow bordering on despair. I had failed, I felt, or worse, this life was a failure: I should have been filled with joy and peace, childlike and happy, but instead I was torn apart by fear and longings that could never be met.

But even as I was drowning in these feelings, there was an awareness outside of them, more expansive, bigger than this me. This awareness knew my sorrow would pass because it knew that everything would pass. All I had to do was to listen to the awareness and not to my mind.

It was my mind who believed my body was ‘me’. My mind who believed my anger, my feelings, my thoughts were ‘me’. It clung to them, constructed a self, an identity — all fictions — and fought against the flow of continual change from moment to moment, caused suffering and fear of death, pain, and loss, tried to hold on to everything around us. ‘Life should not be this way,’ said the mind. ‘This should not be in your life’. But the awareness said the opposite; that everything is impermanent, that the only thing that exists is this present moment of awareness, that everything else is memory or projection.

On the morning of Day 13 I sat to give metta, or loving-kindness. Weary and depressed, I closed my eyes, and found within myself a reservoir of love, peace, and compassion. I thought of everyone I knew, my friends, my family, my teachers, everyone in the monastery, the deer the snakes, the lions, the mosquitoes, and I felt how they lived in me, how I was a part of them. I wished for nothing but peace and well-being for all of us, freedom from suffering. Twenty minutes later, when I stood up, my body was vibrating with joy. All the pain and torments of the last fortnight felt like bad dreams, which perhaps they were.

When I returned to San Francisco there were moments when I found myself in real anxiety. It felt as if there was nothing solid nor stable to hold on to. I would die; this was the only certainty. And if nothing was solid nor stable, then who was this ‘I’, who was this Rajeev who others already seemed to know and make assumptions about? The question had no answer. ‘Rajeev’ did not seem to be there anymore, and perhaps never was. For hours at a time I wondered if I was going insane. I longed for my cabin, for the redwoods.

But then I would meditate, and I would let go all over again,of the need for anything solid, of the need to define myself, and when I did, I felt a freedom and sense of peace I had never experienced before.

Of course, I still have an identity, and I still answer to my name, but this is only relative truth and beneath it there is something deeper, something formless. Some call this soul, others call it god. I think of it as awareness, and it feels so much bigger than me. I know that this will also change. I will feel anxious again, angry, fearful, depressed, even despairing. But hopefully I will keep returning to this awareness, recognizing its presence, even when I feel like I’m falling apart. If I can do this, I will have done enough.

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