A Day in Solitude

A Day in Solitude

by Robin Armstrong

Robin Armstrong emerging after 13 months in solitary darkness.

Robin Armstrong emerging after 13 months in solitary darkness.

A day in the Black Room, or Maun Mandir as it is called in Gujarat, which really means Temple of Solitude.
This is an exercise in simplicity, however it is one in which simplicity proves to be a difficult task master. Isn’t interesting how the simplest thing in the world, just being alone with oneself, can be one of the most difficult and challenging.? Just try to think the last time you spent 24 hours without speaking to anyone, or without seeing anyone, or without any electronic media. Have you ever even spent 24 hours with radio, tv, telephone, newspapers, computers…..just by yourself? ….alone with your thoughts and your feelings …and no one but yourself to talk to? Sounds delightful and easy doesn’t it?….but it isn’t! Sometimes two hours will fly by as if it were 5 minutes, but at other times a minute can seem like an hour or more! It really just depends on what your mind is attached to and how much you are attached to thinking! Just who is it that is doing the thinking anyways? And then who is doing you?
Well to start with you wake up somewhere between 3 and 4 am (this is the first challenge!) Its dark, I go to the bathroom and then wash, after which I sit down on the bed and meditate trying not to think.. I use this a quiet contemplative time, usually I don’t meditate for this first stretch. Ninety minutes goes by pretty fast if you are awake and are able to get behind your thoughts. If you are tired it can seem like a long time.  Somewhere between 4 and 4:30 you hear some sounds of people stirring. If you don’t ignore them time will slow down.
By 4:30-4:45am I hear Hari Om, the outside compartment door opens and someone puts in a cup of tea (coffee or masala) and the outer door is then shut and locked behind them.  It’s tea and if you stay in meditation longer it will be cold! So I gladly go and get my tea, sit down, say a prayer over it and sip it gratefully. It will be nine hours before another cup of tea comes, but who is counting? This is a welcome surge of energy. About 15 minutes later I put the empty tea and clothes if I wore any, and the sleeping blanket etc into the little two way cupboard and shut the inside door.
At 5 am the outer door opens and an empty hot water jug with salt is passed in for gargling. This is very useful after chanting for several hours. The clothes are taken to be washed and new ones are placed in the cupboard. So much for the morning rush of activity, now I have to get down to some serious chanting. I go over and sit at the little pujya table on the floor for meditating. I slowly start to chant and before long I am getting into it, or so it seems. I learned very early to keep any time pieces hidden and to not look at what time it is…..it only makes time go by slower. An hour or so of chanting goes by without much effort but then there’s the second hour and it becomes, at times, harder to keep chanting. Somewhere between 5:30 and 6:30 someone puts in a little plate with fresh flowers in it into the cupboard. This has to be the highlight of the day. It is just out and out beautiful and divine. I put the flowers on the meditation table and sit quietly for a while and slip into a meditation for the next little while (hopefully an hour or so). Once you get used to it, a couple of hours goes by quite easily at this phase of the day. Now it is about 7:30 or so and if you haven’t short changed your meditations and over estimated your time, then it is only another 2 and one half hours to lunch. At this point I start chanting and go take a shower to clean off and wake up. I come back into the main room and start walking around a bit and doing some exercises while chanting…. It’s fun once you get into it. Some time goes by exercising maybe 30 minutes to an hour, probably less. The I sit down on the bed this time and start chanting until hopefully lunch comes.
This last phase, until lunch comes at 10 am, seems to last for an eternity. The more I anticipate it, the longer it takes. Either way I am supposed to be more absorbed in my chanting and forgetting about time….. Ha!  Try it!  Some times lunch comes before I know it, and at other times it can take forever. On top of that, the outside crew might be late with the meal, they are never early! By the time lunch comes I am grateful for it! Hari Om!

By 10:30 I have to finish eating, rinse off the dishes in the bathroom, and put them in the two way cupboard. They are collected be about 10:45. If you forget or are late you will hear someone chanting fairly loudly Hari Om, because they think that you probably fell asleep or forgot about it. That’s a rush!
10:45 am, lunch is over, my stomach is satisfied and I am starting to relax…..uh oh! Gotta stay awake! Just when a little nap would really be appreciated, I have to fight it off. I just sit there relaxing for a little while and decide it is better to get up and walk around. The bed is in the center of the room so I can walk around it.  I might grab some prayer beads and count off some malas (rounds of chanting:108 repetitions  is one round.) ) as I walk around and around. Sometime I just walk and chant rather than use the beads. It’s a choice I can make. I probably walk for about an hour sometimes more…or less, but then there is still 2 more hours until tea time and it is easy to feel tired right now. If it is really hot and I am sluggish I would probably take a shower here (really it’s a bucket of water that I have to splash over myself!) to refresh. That take another ten minutes or so and there is still about two hours until tea time. So I sit down at the prayer table on a mat and try to meditate repeating the chant silently. If it works I am off and running, but if I am still tired, I have to start chanting loudly and clapping to keep myself awake until I really get into it. This flows easily for about an hour or so, but now I have to keep it  up until tea time. So I force myself to keep chanting out loud, even though by now my voice is getting a little tired and I am taking more frequent trips to gargle with the salt water. Somewhere in here I might slow down and just meditate but if my mind starts thinking about the tea, then I better start chanting again because I have to fight the mind here or each minute of waiting will seem like forever. By trying not to check the time and not think about it, it makes me think about it even more and the tea takes hours to get to me. It feels like it must be about 5 in the afternoon by now, but no finally I hear some stirring and footsteps and the tea is placed in the cupboard It is now 1:30pm. Never has tea tasted so good to me. Never so prayerfully grateful for tea have I been! With the tea comes another pot of hot water for gargling that should last me the rest of the day…until supper!
By 1:45 pm I have to put the empty tea cup back in the cupboard. It will be 3 hours and fifteen minutes until supper time. I am now perked up again so I sit down and meditate for the next phase (hour or so). After the meditation I get up and start walking around chanting for about an hour. By this time of course I have lost track of time and it could be half an hour to supper or two and half hours! It is hot outside and I am probably feeling very sleepy and tired of chanting! If I simply sit down I will fall asleep, but I don’t feel like walking any more. In some of the ashrams the rooms have a bed that swings which can be fun at a time like this, however my bed is just a straw mat on a slab of concrete held up in a wooden frame! But I decide to sit on the edge of the bed for variety and start chanting again. It doesn’t take long to devise slightly different variations of the chant for each station or phase of the day. The variety helps to keeps things alive and more interesting! So depending on whether or not each of my earlier stages lasted an hour, then with luck I only have a half or less to wait for supper. If I have wrongly estimated and cut short any of my stages, then this will be a long wait and I will probably start walking around chanting, although I try not to do this while waiting because it make it more exasperating. The trick is of course, to keep your mind off of your stomach and the whole process. If you are absorbed, stuff will come when it comes, but my human nature does not comply so easily. It is the times just before and about half an hour after meals that present the greatest struggles for me.
5 pm dinner comes. I hear the Hari Om and the clunking of dishes as they are put in the cupboard. By now I am standing right there, waiting for them to close the cupboard, to get my supper! Needless to say that meals are a divine blessing in the day, and I am always grateful when they come. Hari Om. Before meals I say a little chant, the one Mota and Mahatma Ghandi used for grace. And then I eat! Not quickly, but slowly, relishing everything. At the beginning I had troubles with spices so they learned to adjust the spices based on how much and what I ate.
By 5:45pm I have to get the dishes rinsed off and back in the cupboard. Usually I do this as soon as I finish because I can’t stand the disturbance from outside if I forget! And after four or five minutes it is easy to forget anything! At other times however it seems I can’t get some thoughts or feelings out of my head. By about 6:30 pm it starts to get dark and I start to get sleepy. Uh! Oh! Too soon to get sleepy! If I sleep now I will be up all night and tomorrow will seem to drag on forever!  No! So I get up and start to chant walk around the room for hopefully an hour or so, but most likely for about half an hour! Then have walked off dinner I am relatively awake and start chanting again, this time at the meditation table, where I have a picture of Mota Maharaj and a little bowl with beautiful flowers in it. As I get tired of chanting I have increased my depth and slip into a deeper stage of meditation. The time when all the daylight activity outside ceases is the time when I wake up the most. I get lost in the meditation, and I am too wide awake to sleep, so I just keep going until I am tired. Then I say some prayers or at least have a little ‘before going to sleep’ ritual with silent or soft chanting. By the time I get to sleep it is probably closer to 9 or 10 pm and I will sleep well because I will be up in another five hours to start the day over again! Hari Om!