My alarm went off at 3:45 am this morning, just like every morning for the past 24 days.
By 3:48 am I’m dressed.
By 3:50 am I’m walking out to door.
By 4 am I’m sitting on the ground, touching the earth with one hand and praying my wooden mala beads in the other.
And an hour later, I’m back in bed (or sometimes back at work) after two rounds of chanting earth mantras in a foreign language.
17 more days to go.
What possessed me to get up at 4 am?
It all started with my friend, Ramakrishna. I met Ramakrishna many moons ago, when I first started working with don Miguel Ruiz. My last memory of him was being at a ceremony in California, standing on top of a hill with him and don Miguel, and having a profound experience of connecting with the Mother.
And then I didn’t see him for 20 years. Until he moved to Austin recently and shared what he had been up to. Living in India. Working with his guru, Kaleshwar. Starting an ashram in Northern California after his guru’s passing. Doing profound healing work. When he excitedly shared about his traditions elemental mantras I felt curious. But a 41 day practice? With my travel schedule? Are you crazy? I thought.
But the second time we met I felt excited about the idea. I could do this. I wanted to do this: to commit sitting on the earth and touching it with my thumb while repeating a sanskrit mantra dedicated to the earth 108 times. Actually, two earth mantras. All at the same time of day, without fail.
The only way I could work it into my schedule was to pick 4 am as my prayer time. This actually really excited me: I’ve wanted to spend more time being in communion with the night. I’ve wanted to be more disciplined. And I love anything having to do with the elements of earth, fire, water, and air. So sitting outside in the middle of the night at exactly 4 am chanting to the earth? Yes, I thought, I am wonderfully crazy. I’m in.
Finding the way in
But of course it was not that easy. When we first start something new and challenging the fantasy of what it will be like rarely matches the reality. I imagined myself communing blissfully with the land, cross-legged and peaceful, surrounded by darkness and stars and cool breezes whispering in my ear while the earth revealed her intimate secrets to me.
Instead, I found myself fumbling to learn the words to the chants, navigating drunken partiers, sprinklers, ants, mosquitos, fear of bears and mountain cats, and my own resistance.
Did I mention my resistance?
Sanskrit is a beautiful language, except when a novice is rumbling it around like gravel in their mouth, trying to find the right pronunciation and cadence. Especially this novice who was raised learning Spanish, which does not translate well to Sanskrit. For the first days of the practice I carried the words around with me everywhere and listened to the chants over and over again on my headphones. The first chant is about 20 lines, the second only two lines, and I found it amazing to watch the back and forth process of memorization. I’d remember one part only to forget another. I’d find myself inverting lines or losing the memory of how to pronounce a particularly complicated word. I’d get lost, grasping for what came next, beads frozen between my fingers.
And then one day I found the words pouring from my mouth like a stream over shiny rounded rocks, all the edges smoothed away.
The external process was just as fascinating. Day One: my backyard. Day Two through Seven: Daytona Beach, Florida at a busy hotel that is basically perpetually on Spring Break. I scoped out my meditation spot the night before: a small lawn near the hotel facing the ocean. The first morning it took me an hour and fifteen minutes to do the mantras, and between the first and second chants the sprinklers roared to life. I went from being a quiet meditator to a wild woman throwing herself out of the way of the spray in approximately a ½ second.
And then their were the drunks and late night partiers. Bless them. At first I was horrified: I can’t meditate while there are people stumbling around, listening to music, talking loudly, looking at me!!!! But I learned really quickly that when you are sitting on the ground muttering to yourself in the middle of the night people leave you alone. And so I got to do my practice and learn to stay steady no matter what else was happening.
No matter what
When I traveled from party capital, Florida to the mountain forests of Woodstock, New York that no matter what testing continued. Day Eight was transition, in the backyard of my friend’s house in Harlem. Day Nine: Ah, I thought, peace at last. A cabin in the woods surrounded by trees. I found the perfect outside spot at dusk and then curled into bed to sleep for my four hours before the tibetan bowl of my alarm brought me to wakefulness. I crept down the wooden stairs in the dark, onto the porch, and stepped onto the cool earth, relishing the silence and the cloak of night. I propped myself up against a tree, settled in, closed my eyes, exhaled contentedly and …
The attack began.
Apparently every mosquito in Woodstock had been notified of the lone woman sitting outside at 4 am. One line into my mantra and I was suddenly swarmed by buzzy stingy face people. But there was no way I was stopping – I wasn’t willing to start my entire practice over from day one, which was the consequence of breaking my commitment. So as the mosquitos buzzed, bit, and bugged, I kept my thumb firmly planted on the ground and my prayers flowing in my mouth and through the beads. For the next hour I must have looked like an epileptic monk, having gran mal seizures in an upright position as I tried to shake the mosquito world, and then the ant world, off me.
Later that day I found a mosquito netting in a closet upstairs, and managed to balance precariously on the top step of a ladder to tie it from a tree branch. The wee hours of days 10 through 20 were therefore spent in my ethereal floaty gauzy tent, free from flying buggies.
But there were still bears. And mountain cats. And other things that go bump in the night.
Mind you, I never saw any of these things. But here was another beautiful part of the practice: working with my fear. Sitting in the dark each morning in the wild, I watched my mind categorize sounds. Tree branch falling. No reaction. Tree branch falling. Next breath. Wind in trees. Inhale. Car in the far distance. Peace. Wait! What was that??? An unfamiliar crashing thudding noise would set me afire on the inside: Adrenaline, heart rate increase, reptilitan brain on high alert ready to flee or fight. But I never moved, just kept doing the mantra. It was a beautiful separation of fear from my steadiness.
(And I figured if a bear did find me or I did get mauled by a mountain cat it was a great way to go, praying in the darkness, food for my hungry brethren.)
The bargaining, the boredom, the magic
Some mornings I couldn’t wait to be done, and I would check my beads repeatedly: how far have I gotten? Am I done yet? When will this be over??? Or I’d bargain with myself: it is okay to sleep in just this once, no one will know. Or: I don’t have to do the second mantra today. Or: it’s raining, I don’t have to do the practice today.
But I stayed faithful, no matter what the internal or external distractions. And there were a few days where magic peeked through the window and winked at me. The morning when it felt the mantra was chanting me, and the beads flew through my hands like tiny birds. The morning when I felt a cellular communion with the mushroom and fungi that grew in profusion around me. The morning my being was bathed in a column of light. The morning I felt more rooted into the earth, and more held, than I ever have before.
Beautiful, profound, altering exceptions.
Because most days are still simply about doing the practice. And doing the practice, for no good reason, except to do the practice.
Which is really the best reason of all.