Mysore Light and Darkness • 22 February 2014

Five p.m. is golden hour here, like nothing I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s the rickshaw exhaust bending the light. Or maybe light is refracted by the vortex that’s moored over Laksmipuram like a fifth-dimensional blimp, but if so we can’t talk about that.

Golden hour comes on fast. The sun drops out of the haze like it’s setting on Luke Skywalker’s home planet. It appears flat and unfamiliar, like an alien star. The smog puts a soft filter on the hills, and then patches of glow start to move across the landscape.

Now. Get outside and let your senses do the rest. Naturally your mind will slow or stop, and some of your falling-in-love circuits may kick in to gear.

Listen, I understand transformation can take the piss out of you. And it is totally okay to spend the hours of 2:30-5:00 pottering around some darkened apartment like a ghost, absently chanting shantimantras. Even if you’re home by 10am and you need to spend the day splattered on the marble floor, while you work on a bowl of kitcheree like an insect who needs all day to ingest a leaf, that is okay. But go out at five. Push the edges of the Mysore bubble.

The gold light will bring up details in an environment that has seemed opaque.

Go to the field on Gokulam hill, where the kid in a polo shirt walks his superclean Shiba Inu while violently texting. When he gets to the top of the hill, there will be the moment when the bony woman in a dull blue or green sari – the woman who milks the cows – sees the dog. Her face will open like it might if snow started falling. You can watch closely because she’ll be transfixed, and the kid will be glued to the phone. The Shiba will be watching you.

Wander into a neighborhood at least a mile from Gokulam and take out a camera. May as well be an ice cream truck. The children will tell you to photograph them and then rush in to see the capture. They don’t want country coins so much this year; they want to send tiny images of themselves back to America in your phone.

Drive to the central city. Watch kittens play in the vegetables at the market – one place alpha-dogs won’t eat them. Wander the campus of Mysore University, and sit under the banyan tree that shades the student canteen. Find the 101 abandoned shivalingams in the broken down temple next to the stone masonry. Careful as you circumambulate them: the place looks deserted but for the clothes drying on a line across a broken promenade, but you are being watched.

Note the means and modes of transportation: three boys and a puppy on a bicycle; goat on a mo-ped – lashed to the luggage rack; old man on a custom 3-wheeled scooter; motorcycle tossed in a rickshaw like a dead fish in a basket; mound of laundry 3 feet high on the head of a woman with a beautiful spine; haul of firewood on the back of an ox; golf clubs riding side-saddle on a new Scooty.

See how many Xerox signs you see nailed to a tree, or how many rats will be out at this hour in plain view. Look for babies. Sheep, goats, calves, water buffalo, humans, puppies, chickens. Baby elephants and other wonders can be found at dusk, if you can indeed find the place, at Sri Sutta Math.

Count how many men mark golden hour with a golden shower. Around here the lingams are bathed in ghee, and the retaining walls in, well, pee. Just before dusk, see how the alien pod water towers – bright orange saucers mounted three stories high – hover above the landscape, on hill after hill after hill.

When it becomes evening, approach temples. Maybe one of them will have some gravity. It’s ok to go inside. Know the rules and leave an offering. Or if you prefer ritualized sports for contacting those feelings, a cricket game will present itself. If you don’t want to get soulful in front of others, find the 400-year-old Banyan tree out beyond Chamundi – there’s a temple inside it to no one in particular.

If you have a bike, get almost lost. Navigate by landmarks and the setting sun. No map. Push the envelope every night. Learn the main roads, then the enclaves, then the three or four alternate routes to get everywhere. If you are very abstract/analytical (I am), navigating by intuition may be hard: the curved main roads and random roundabouts do not mesh with western mental infrastructure. But if you stay in your head, you won’t learn gut-reckoning.

Memorizing the Google map is tempting, but maybe you agree that this is a little like learning the next pose from a book – not organic, not relational. Traveling Latin America with the Editor in our 20s, I used to memorize every new city’s map before we stepped off the bus. The man who has not lost his cool again since got good and angry: “Slow down and just be with me; be with this place.” We were reading maybe too much Martin Buber and post-colonial theory at the time. Still, I changed my way.

Plans (of a city, of an enlightment path) can be distractions sometimes. When consciousness has a map, it will ping-pong between immediate experience and the abstract model. On the other hand, consciousness can go very sharp and very receptive when you have to open to an experience from the ground up. James Bond memorizes the map and the sniper nests; Joe Mysore leaves a trail in the dirt with his cricket bat while chasing a ball down the road. Maybe Jane ashtangi wanders a little wide-eyed, GPS in her jeans pocket in case she gets lost in the dark.


I’m driving home from the city, turning left off a side street onto a main east-west drag. It’s Valentine’s Day. Looking right, I see two monkeys like an old couple, waiting to cross the street. But this isn’t monkey territory. There are no parks or tall trees, only rickshaws and road noise and little electronics shops. I stare at the pair and notice worm-shaped lesions on their sides, distended bellies, and a humanoid hypervigilance. They’re scared.

A hundred children stream in front of me there on my bike. They are a wave of high voices. They wear blue ties and checked blue or green shirts and they create their own stream of traffic. I stare more at the monkeys and realize the skin lesions are teeny paws and the bellies are tiny backs. Each one is carrying a baby.

My nervous system explodes. Consciousness begins to implode along with it, but I still have time to note the signs of a peak experience rising. All the self-generating drugs spiritual practice has evolved to harness (DMT, dopamine, serotonin, and god-knows-what nectars we will never define) flood the system as I am falling in love with this particular experience.

Time slows down to car-wreck speed, and the light goes golden. The second part is weird – that I can track the golden light appearing in my perception. It’s similar to the way that certain types meditators can watch (the perception of?) time slow down when love and death approach.

There is the sheen of the monkeys’ grey brown hair, and the way they look each other in the eyes. Luminous, cool blue eyes. The children are going in front of me and I see lines starched into their clothes and hear so many different notes in their many voices.

There’s a break in traffic – the next thing coming is a rickshaw 8 seconds or miles down the street – and now the mothers cross together. They take slow-mo strides on all fours, dragging clenched knuckles over the pitted, shining pavement. Now in front of me and across the street, they climb a gate in a solid stone wall. They perch on top of the wall.

Standing up there, the mothers go bipedal. One baby, hanging from a breast, somersaults and unwinds legs until they touch the stone. He tries to stand. I’m about ready to die. The baby is six inches high, skinny and bald. He has the face of my grandfather. His knees wobble. He takes a dry leaf in his paw hand, pops his eyes, stretches his jaw and brings the leaf to his face.

Okay, existence. You can finish me off. The light I seem to be seeing comes over the wall and catches the back of the baby monkey’s left ear. The skin goes translucent and I disappear. There is no more paying attention, no more taking interest in experience or energy rising in the chest. Just the gold and the vortex.

Then the scooter has shut off and a few children are walking away down the street, where the rickshaw used to be. I’m besotted. The fluid in my knees feels carbonated. There is so much upwelling in my chest that I want to shout and maybe without realizing it I do. While driving and possibly shouting, I can’t sharpen my eyes, but it works to rest them on the horizon and navigate from peripheral vision. I feel transparently uncool.

You know you are in love when seeking stops. The beloved is all there is.

Falling in love with Mysore has been a years-long process, but the last two weeks felt different. I wonder if maybe god has slipped a gold instagram filter over my optic nerve. There’s more care, and more indifference. Care shows up as silence and a desire to perceive each moment clearly. Indifference is wanting nothing in return – a city does not quite love back. It doesn’t matter if the object of love shrinks down to the moment of pressing a jasmine garland to my face – or expands to all cities, and all garden gates, and all wide eyes, and all knuckles dragged across pavement. It feels like a version of heartbreak that does not leave a mark.

It’s a little tempting to get precious about the monkeys. But peak experiences are a dime a dozen. If past experience is any predictor, this one will decompose in days or weeks. But each time this happens, it hollows out more space for awe. When it again becomes necessary to use some discipline to generate concentration, there’s a little more power to do that – to cover experience with perception; to accept it radically; to leave the heart open.


Mysore light gets me through the day, but “Mysore magic” is a poultice action. At its very best, this place is a salve that draws out toxins not just in the body but in the personality.

It doesn’t always work like that. But, potentially, this place is a good platform for direct contact with hell. For me, intense silent retreats (especially when I don’t want to take them), and difficult times with family, have been the best places to shore up negative samskaras. But extended time here with the intention of self-study is also plenty effective. I suspect it’s the combination of very intense practice, and boredom lying just under the surface of the party.

There’s also an instant karma thing going on here, because the yoga social network is tiny, and because Indians are often VERY clear about cause-and-effect in chains of social interactions. So when I make external mischief in words and deeds, the consequences come back fast and loud. It’s possible look at the effects of my own ethical faults, if and when I have the courage to do that.

The patterns depend on the person. I get impatient for decent wireless, because… there’s a pattern of impatience. I ache for fresh air, because feeling any limitation in my breath reminds me of death. I get irritated with anything that smells like high school, because I went through a trauma in high school that (I realize when I’m triggered) is not fully healed. Others say they experience profound revulsion with bodies and personalities. Or a weird rising of OCD behaviors, especially around food. Desire for different friends. Of a wanting to get something – attention or recognition especially. Friends have talked about an anxiety to buy a lot of stuff, realizing it comes from a wish to hold on to this experience.

Or sometimes, there is a Manichean dividing up of the world into yoga and not-yoga, because the transformative practice gets mistaken for measurable stuff like rituals and beliefs (theologians describe this one as the rub between esoteric and exoteric practices – an interesting topic). Maybe most obviously, the enormous amounts of free time can bring about a hungry-ghost sort of need to keep the social schedule full, with new people to flirt with, parties, new day trips.

There are shared patterns that might become visible when we catch ourselves reproducing them. For example, in Guru cultures, insider status becomes the main form of capital (Ram Dass says hilarious things about this, as does Jack Kornfield… it’s always the same). Insider conversations might come to revolve around the assessment of how well others deserve to be insiders, and energy can get diverted into fine-tuned maintenance of social boundaries. For me, the shared shadow I see most clearly this trip is that of the glass ceiling that SKPJ did his part, very heroically, to smash. But that old idea that you needed a cock and a Brahmin string to experience yoga can show up in decomposed form, in my supposedly private mind, as an assumption that even dedicated practitioners just don’t get it on a spiritual level. Right now I am sitting with that, and resisting the temptation to finger-point elitism in others.

It is possible to waste away here – people have described to me the realization that they were here because it was a good place to run away from their real lives. What inspires me, though, is the person who decides to to stay a little longer just when she get uncomfortable with this experience. Right there is the magic – in the recognition that an edge has come up. In a willingness to study the exact mind that wants to run away from, or dis-possess, a negative experience. Ashtangis in these parts can go from zero to bliss in an average of 9 vinyasas. But that ain’t always the practice.

Incidentally, it’s easy to find two or four hours every day to sit on the floor. Just to sit there and not run off. People totally do it: no drama, no recognition, nothing special. That’s like another side of the tenderness that comes on retreat here. There’s this possible intimacy and curiosity for the place. And also there is curiosity for understanding and at times going past the ego-personality that perceives and distorts its surroundings.

The moment of wanting out – of a boring afternoon or a supposedly bad trip – is a chance to double down. A choice to do self-study is what really turns on the lights. Things start to shimmer.