"What feels like chaos is only chaos to the mind of limitation that attempts to have control. Life is not overwhelmed by life."
Text by Caverly Morgan. Photos by Vineet Teames.
I had heard of it, but I didn't know what it was. It had always sounded celebratory. Involving colors. Dancing. Merriment. And, being a festival in India, it of course has a deep, religious, history.
Holi. How fortuitous that we arrive to Varanasi on the day before the celebration! What a treat! I begin to read about the history of the day. My husband gets his camera ready.
It is said that Holi existed several centuries before Christ. However, the meaning of the festival is believed to have changed over the years. Earlier it was a special rite performed by married women for the happiness and well-being of their families. The full moon was worshiped. Now many describe the festival to us as signifying the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring, the end of winter, and for many a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships.
As we wander through the city for the first time, we learn that there might be more to the street festival than Google relayed. We hear, first, about the colors that are thrown through the streets. Sounds playful enough. Beautiful images of this dot the internet.
Then we are informed about the cow shit that is sometimes thrown as well. There's even an account of motor oil flying through the air and damaging someone's face. The image of 'colorful festival' slowly begins to transform into 'Mardi Gras on crack' in my mind.
We sit down with an Indian friend, who hovers delicately between a boy and a man. It's when he brags about 'breaking clothes' that it sinks in that this might not be a party we're ready to attend. "Oh it's the best! People come out into the streets and drink. We drink all morning! We throw things and sometimes fight but it's all about how we make up in the afternoon. Last year, there was this European couple, and the guy got wild and broke my clothes. So I broke his girlfriends clothes!"
It takes me a minute. "So you mean you ripped her clothes in public?"
"Oh yes, it's all great fun!"
Call me a party pooper, but this is not sounding fun to me. When a few hours later I learn about the accounts of women being groped by indeterminable hands, it is confirmed, I'm staying inside for Holi.
The evening before the festival we sit on a peaceful ghat before the fun begins. As night falls, a monk makes his way down the steps for an evening puja on the Ganges.
"Where are you from?"
"The United States," I naïvely answer.
"No, where are you staying?" He continues in an English accent that is as thick to me as mine is to him. Again, innocently, my husband offers the name of our guest house on the other end of the Ghats.
"Go. Go now. This is the night of Holi." The wise man directs.
At first I'm aghast that we've intruded on his sacred evening ritual on the riverside through our presence. Then it clicks. It's getting dark and Holi is approaching. He's letting us know we're not safe.
We bow in gratitude and begin the trek home. I feel unusually vulnerable as the first plastic bag full of colored water is thrown at me from an unknown hiding place. The edges around the vulnerability soften some as it becomes clear that only those under ten are doing the throwing. Little boys hiding behind crumbling walls and from the crevices of rooftops and dark balconies. The playful and mischievous raid has begun.
Each time I am struck there's a chorus of giggles. I'm able to find the humor and fun in it. It’s a game. I get it.
Simultaneously, I feel myself identifying with the women of the world as a whole. Who have had things thrown at us. All of us. All of us who have been groped. Our clothes broken, and worse.
So while it's easy to be a mirror for giggling boys, laughing along with the play, in the same instant I feel myself mirroring the uncertainty of the vulnerable women of the world. I feel our insecurity. Our doubt for our safety. Our fear.
And that is a theme for me on this beloved journey in this beloved country. Holding it all. Being with it all. Learning not to flinch in the face of the everything-ness of this wild and wondrous world.
It's one thing to sit in the comfort of an air-conditioned workshop in Portland, Oregon, and talk about being present to the dualistic world that the conditioned mind creates. It's another to be navigating 'color bombs' in an evening in which a monk has warned you that you'd better take refuge inside lest you avoid getting hurt on the eve of a sacred religious holiday. This occurring in the very moments that my Facebook feed lights up with sweet images of tame celebratory meals back at home to commemorate this meaningful day. Smiles. Waves. Plentiful and colorful food.
And to be clear and fair, from what I can see, the majority of people in India have a peaceful and joyous time celebrating this historic holiday. Friends later show us photos of their families gathered in bright colors. Faces painted. Dancing limbs. Play. The joy is palpable. The color. The brightness. The love. Certainly most people do not take to the streets, get drunk, and grope women. I want to be clear about that.
This particular account is about the way in which, with the light, comes the dark. The wandering cows and dogs that don't choose to be part of the festivities and yet are covered in sometimes toxic color regardless. It’s about hearing how some people end up being thrown in ditches full of trash and sewage.
It’s about the way in which a sacred holiday that has been celebrated for countless years has become something that now draws partying tourists from all over the globe who are looking for the world's best bash.
There is no shortage to the contrasting nature of our dualistic world on this journey. Not just the journey of Varanasi during Holi, but the journey of our existence.
As we practice, we ask: how can I be with all of this? How can I hold it?
What's important to underline is that the ego cannot. When our attention is aligned with the illusion of separation, we are busy drawing one 'reality' towards us while pushing the other 'reality' away.
We like this, we don't like that. We want this. We don't want that. We agree with this. We don't agree with that. We crave. We resist. We suffer.
The duality worth truly exploring here is not merely the duality of what the intention of a holiday is versus what it has become. The true exploration is not on the realm of content.
The true exploration is on the realm of process. How do we align the attention with the activity of the mind that creates the illusion of separation? How do we become the 'I' that appears to be outside life?
When aligned with that small erroneous sense of self, these contradictions, on the realm of content, seem irreconcilable. The small 'I' busies itself with either trying to reconcile and make sense of the contradiction, or, it chooses one side (of any content) and resists the other.
Thoughts like, “This should look this way.” Or “This shouldn’t be happening in this way,” fill our small minds.
Meanwhile, who is doing all of that goes unnoticed. It goes unrecognized that the creator of that process is illusory. It’s the subject. Versus life as the object. The ultimate duality that creates all dualities.
Life, clearly, does not struggle to hold all of the seeming contradictions of the world. And when we're clear that we are life, we don't either. It doesn't mean that we don't still feel the pain and suffering created by our conditioned distortions. It does mean that, like life, we have room for it. We can hold it. We can even love in the face of what appears to be madness. The real madness is not what happens in the realm of content.
The real madness is the forgetting that our true nature is that love. The acceptance of the universe exactly as it is. With all of it's apparent contradictions. With the dualities of our conditioned creations. With the duality created by believing that we are separate from others. From life.
Life, awareness at large, is not bothered by any of this.
What feels like chaos is only chaos to the mind of limitation that attempts to have control. Life is not overwhelmed by life.
Awareness is undisturbed. When recognizing that we are that, we find ourselves, like life itself, unflinching in the face of it all.