Spiritual travel is a journey, but the destination is you. When embarking on spiritual travel, you must know where to start.
Start at the Beginning: Grounding
India, the land of spiritual travel
Gurus, chakra healing, yoga ashrams, ganja-induced trances, cave meditation, tantra masters and the Vipassana phenomenon. We come to India hoping for a taste of transcendence. India is good for this. No other place on earth has explored the inner life in such depth. All those millennia of continuous chants, the vibrational impact of Sanskrit itself. You feel it when you land here. Masters have gone before us and they have cleared some path.
But most of us start at the wrong end here and get burned, we meet the charlatan, we go down a spiralling path that damages our trust, spins us into worlds without anchors from which it is hard to return unharmed. When I leave India and travel outside, many people ask me if I have gone to Rishikesh to practice with the masters there. I tell them yes, I have been but no, I would never set foot there without the company of a teacher I know.
How to step into spiritual travel for personal growth
With India, it’s best to start at the beginning. You can journey through the country in a way that corresponds to and nurtures every stage of spiritual development. But I don’t recommend the practice of spiritual bypassing. When I attempt spiritual transcendence as a way to escape myself, I always get burned. Or worse, I end up abandoning myself in order to reach some height.
I’ve learned that, for me, it’s best to start from the ground and work up.
There is no better ground from which to start than Kerala.
Grounding: Kayal Island Retreat, Kerala
I land in Kochi and get an Uber to a hidden dock. We drive for less than an hour and slow down to locate the tiny lane. It involves several phone calls between the driver and Maneesha, the owner of Kayal Island Retreat.
It is late and the dock is without light. Clouds cover the stars. A silent boatman is suddenly beside me, guiding me down toward the lone blue canoe tied loosely to the rickety dock. I did not see him come. He does not speak English but shakes his head to my Uber driver to assure him that this is the place. I feel suddenly calm, stepping into the cavern of the boat with this old, silent man at the helm, pushing us away from the dock and into the dark waters.
It begins to rain. The sky lights up far away with a stroke of lightning. I turn my face up to the sky. After the rush of the Bangalore traffic, the horns and the roar of the plane engine, the Uber driver’s halting manoeuvres, there is suddenly only darkness and the sound of rain on the water, the boatman’s paddle slipping in. There is nothing else. I sink a few inches into myself and this place. I smile up at the sky and let the rain cover my face.
We reach Kayal’s dock and the boatman stretches out his hand for me to step up. I am met by Maneesha’s mother, a serene presence with sparkly eyes wearing a handspun sari in Kerala white with gold trim. She tells me my room is ready and asks if I would like a snack before bed.
There are only four rooms here. Mine is perfect. There is an outdoor shower with handmade soap. There is a frog watching me from the grassy enclosure. The bedroom is small with a white double bed and bright pillows that catch the red of the beautiful photo hung just above. Nothing is overdone. As I drift off to sleep, I hear crickets and what I think is my bathroom frog and nothing else.
The small resort faces the water and beyond the small enclave, there are only the dirt lanes of the village, goats tethered on the edge of paddy fields, chickens pecking around small farmsteads. There are no cars. The island is dependent on a small public ferry and private boatmen to reach civilization. You hear only the water as it laps the shoreline.
After waking up, I walk outside in my pyjamas and pick my way, barefoot, down to the shore to watch the islands of water hyacinth float past. A pot of perfect masala chai appears shortly after, effortlessly, as if I had willed it telepathically. I mosey up to the outdoor breakfast table in my own slow time and eat hot appams with egg curry, the dish I imagine God eats for breakfast.
I sink into this place without effort. I watch the water for hours. I read. There is a private yoga class in the morning. Kalaripayattu in the afternoons. A silent boat ride past fishermen standing with old-fashioned nets. I finish the day with an Ayurvedic massage, walking to the shower with scented oils pooling around my feet. Everything ties me to the earth, to my body. It is like the entire state is a grounding remedy: nature, oils, movement, bare feet on grass, slow time, nourishing food. You feel the impact of generations of matrilineal society here. The experience is one of being embraced.
Maneesha’s mom oversees the kitchen and the food is a revelation. Most people in India find my diet difficult to understand and I tend to make do, eating around things, trying to be polite. Somehow here everything is just right. I am surprised with every meal. The dishes somehow manage to be simultaneously things I have never before tried and exactly what I want.
My breath slows. There is nothing to do, nowhere to go. I settle into my skin. I remember what it is to respond to the rhythms of nature: sleeping when I’m tired, eating when I’m hungry, moving when I have energy. I find my base. I can come back to this when I don’t know where to go.
My spiritual India begins here and I find myself circling back, reinforcing my connection again and again before travelling into higher realms. There is plenty of time for transcendental meditation and third-eye-opening. Just nourish your foundation first and make your way there naturally.
This article is the first of many in my series ‘the destination is you’ – a journey into spiritual travel. You can follow the series here.