It’s 8:30 pm. The soft tapping of my bare feet and the dragging of my mandatory white robe against the sticky wooden floor are the only sounds in the meditation hall. Moments after I lower myself onto my mat, the room goes dark. A white-robed Nepali devotee, wearing his hair pulled back into a smooth ponytail, walks across the room and … turns on the TV.
Here I am, on my first day of an eight-day Dynamic Meditation retreat in Nepal, expecting an intense session, and instead I find myself plopped in front of a television watching some old greybeard reel out a lecture that looks like it was recorded in 1986.
His words are slow. Painfully slow. For almost an hour, he chews, savors, and half-swallows each drawn-out sentence. And yet, I am slowly captivated.
There was once a parrot, he says, who lived in a golden cage and loved to scream, “Freedom!” One day, a man took pity on the creature and opened its cage. But the parrot didn’t budge. So the man pried it out by force—only for the parrot to fight back. The next day, the parrot was back in the cage, once more screaming for liberation.
Freedom, this videotaped guru elaborated, is a concept that people love to idealize but shy away from pursuing. Those who have the courage to exercise it, however, can never go back. “Once you’ve tasted the freedom of the sky,” he said, “how could you return to being unaware of your wings?”
I had to admit, this struck a chord. After all, I had just quit my job in New York City and left everything behind in a bid for liberation: to travel the world, loosed from the corporate chains that had bound me for the last few years.
My inspiration lasted me through the next morning. I rolled out of bed at 5:30 am with a grunt, slipped on my daytime robe—maroon, this time—and headed down to the meditation hall. The same Nepali man sat quietly at the front, as though he hadn’t moved from the night before. As I sat on the floor, shivering beneath a scarf wrapped tight against the morning chill, we made eye contact. He cocked his head to the side, signaling for me to approach. Ugh. He knew I was new. It was probably obvious from the awkwardness smeared all over my face.
His name was Krishna, and his role was to guide attendees through the meditation process.
I soon found out that our videotaped guru was the infamous Osho, creator of the Dynamic Meditation practice for which I had blindly signed up. By the time of his death in 1990, Osho had achieved worldwide notoriety for melding mystic spirituality with a devotion to personal wealth and tantric sex. (Consumption doesn’t get much more conspicuous than Osho’s collection of 93 Rolls-Royces.)
But that wasn’t what Krishna was here to talk about. Dynamic Meditation, he explained, was much different from the Vipassana techniques that the word meditation brought to my mind: entire days of utter silence without any outer mental or physical stimulation. According to Osho, silent meditation techniques were designed for men who lived thousands of years ago, had simpler lives, and did manual work all day. But modern humans, he claimed, needed something else. Sedentary work life and constant distractions had rendered us incapable of sitting quietly the way our ancestors did.
I wasn’t quite clear on the evidence that our predecessors somehow combined lives of constant labor with prolonged stints of placid repose. But there was no question that I had spent my corporate life sitting on my ass, and needed change in a big way.
Osho rebelled against social expectations and restraints, which he held responsible for a build-up of tension and repression that threatened the spiritual well-being of individuals who lacked a way to vent all their pent-up frustration. He offered Dynamic Meditation as a release valve. Forget stillness and silence. For Osho—and hence everyone on this retreat—the path to catharsis was via high-energy activities such as heavy breathing, dancing, and screaming.
In other words, people were about to go mad in this meditation hall, and I was expected to follow suit.
Yet when the moment came, and everyone started screaming as if the world were coming to an end—I couldn’t pull it off. When I opened my mouth to join, all that came out was an uncomfortable squeak. I tried again, wondering what might actually make me angry enough to scream like everyone else. Perhaps the shoddy Wi-Fi service at the retreat?
In between the breaths of my flimsy screams, I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell I was doing. I’d envisioned this retreat as an eight-day stretch of complete and utter Zen. There I was in my imagination, sitting cross-legged for hours at a time, om-ing and transcending all my worldly concerns—the very embodiment of spiritual piety. But whatever this felt like, piety wasn’t it.
The dancing that followed the screaming didn’t improve my unease. I swayed rigidly to the sound of traditional Hindi music, occasionally peeking from between my eyelashes to see if everyone else looked as foolish as I felt.
As I walked out of the meditation hall feeling defeated, one of the center’s disciples caught my arm. She had obviously noticed my discomfort, because she asked what was holding me back. I didn’t feel free, I responded. I didn’t understand what on earth Osho’s lecture about freedom had to do with me screaming about my decidedly first-world problems, or dancing to Nepali folk music.
“You have to open your heart,” she said. The effects would begin kicking in after a few days; if I was patient and dedicated, I would find them. “Once you’ve tasted the explosion, the ecstasy of freedom,” she added, “you cannot go back.”
So I kept trying.
A few days passed, but my self-consciousness didn’t. Whenever it was time to scream, small squeals escaped my mouth, more as a formality than a form of self-expression. The whole point of the exercise was to break out of my shell and not conform to society’s standards, but that was precisely what I was doing: making sure I didn’t scream louder than my neighbor, and constantly monitoring others’ movements to confirm that I wasn’t dancing like a total dweeb.
I was walking into the nightly twilight celebration on my penultimate day when I was once again intercepted by the disciple, who asked about my progress.
I told her I was having difficulties opening my heart as she instructed. I still didn’t feel free.
“Think about what truly makes you happy,” she said.
So, I closed my eyes and tried again. I started dancing and thought about the journey that had brought me here in the first place. I remembered the toxic apprehension I felt when I left New York. For the last four months I had couch-surfed around the world through my social network, experiencing the kindness of dozens of strangers-turned-friends who had hosted me along the way. I thought about all the places I had seen so far. I was in Nepal, for God’s sake, in the middle of a quest to completely change my approach to life.
And that’s when it happened. I suddenly felt as though soft, warm drops of energy were rolling down my arms as I spun, pooling into my palms, and trickling through my fingertips as I flew around the room. I was moving and jumping, yet I felt light as a feather. All my expectations, responsibilities, and fears temporarily vanished. All that existed was me, free in the world … and all these other people twirling around in maroon robes, who I still had to be careful about not bumping into.
Here we were, in a big meditation room in the Himalayas, feverishly searching for our personal slice of freedom—en masse. What did it mean that we’d all decided that the best way to liberate ourselves was to band together with fellow seekers? Could I have achieved this feeling dancing in a room alone? Would I have bothered to try?
The disciple was right. The taste of freedom was strong, maybe even addictive. But it was just that: a taste. A hit, a shot, a temporary fix. A short flight I could savor—before gliding back into my golden cage for the night. And what is there to do, until I wait for my next flight, other than dance and scream for liberation?
Originally published on The Penn Gazette.