Shattered into Wholeness
by Justin Hilton
Editor’s note: The following story is a moving introduction to a profound new teacher and author, Justin Hilton. Excerpted from his forthcoming book, Naked Awareness, this passage represents the literary hybrid that Justin beautifully renders: memoir providing a river-crossing into new possibilities of perception, feeling, and being. As the story opens, Justin has just arrived in India for the first time, traveling from Rome by way of war-torn Kuwait. Hailing from Austin, Texas, Justin has no points of reference for the unrelenting depth of poverty and unvarnished life he encounters. Beyond the travels through a foreign land, he finds himself stepping into another dimension and happening upon multiple “trapdoors” into expanded awareness. Told with humor and grit, this masterful piece of writing is a touchstone for the intangible, an awakening reminder of the presence that animates each one of us, untouched by outer circumstances. Always whole. Already liberated.
Arriving at three o’clock in the morning to a dirty, well-worn airport, I felt an instant lightness in what seemed like a totally chaotic situation.
I went to pick up my backpack from the luggage carousel.
As I reached for it, an older man, dressed completely in white, grabbed it and motioned for me to follow him.
After a few steps, I asked where we were going.
“You need taxi, Sir?”
“Yes,” I said, surprised by his psychic ability. “Colaba, Sir?”
I pointed to a page in my Lonely Planet, where I had circled a few cheap places to stay.
“This way, Sir,” he said with a thick accent.
As we passed through the doors of the airport, what felt like hundreds of men swarmed around us. They all crowded and pushed in close speaking simultaneously, while my guide added to the indistinguishable chatter. Some were pulling my shirt, others touched my arms, and still others shook my hand, as I tried to overcome the haze of the long flight and acclimatize to my new environment.
While my guide bantered back and forth with the crowd of men, from young to very old, all in some version of a once-white shirt, I looked on in fascination.
Forgetting that I was the temporary subject of all the kerfuffle, I began to be pushed toward a long line of taxis that looked like they were stolen from the 1950s. I saw my backpack up ahead, going into a trunk.
Arriving at the car where it had already taken up residence, my guide opened the door and held out his hand.
“Colaba, Sir! Baksheesh, baksheesh, Sir!”
I had changed money before I left Italy, and luckily, had written the exchange rate in huge black ink on the inside cover of my Lonely Planet.
I handed him a 100 rupee note (about $3.00 US). This was an enormous tip, and our eyes locked for a second as he seemed to consider asking for more, or getting the hell out of there before I figured out what I had done.
Strangely, we both laughed at the same time, as his head did the classic Indian bob.
He thanked me and shut the door.
The shabby but elaborately adorned vehicle decorated with Hindu saints, candles and brightly colored fabrics was a mobile shrine right out of central casting. As it lurched forward, my driver turned up the Hindi music, it sounded a bit like a bird slowing being murdered as it droned through the blown-out speakers.
I cracked the window open, and took in the smell of burning garbage, mixed with the aroma of curry, turmeric, and cardamom. The air was so polluted that it stung my eyes.
I stared out at the small canvas shops lit by bare fluorescent bulbs, and began to make out hundreds of human forms, lurking in the dim light. Focusing further, I saw what looked like piles of dirty clothes, covering the sidewalks for as far as I could see. I noticed a few cat-sized rats scampering between the piles. One of the piles appeared to move, and I realized that they each housed groups of people sleeping in clusters.
The drive from the airport was well over an hour, and there was no break in the urban campers. I was overwhelmed by the mass of humanity and abject poverty.
When the taxi pulled to the side of a street no different than the ones we’d been passing for the last hour, it dawned on me that we had reached our destination.
I had somehow imagined that I was just passing through this middle of the night mirage, and would arrive at a safe haven where I could take some time to adjust to this strange new world I was now a part of.
When the driver opened the door, a surge of panic shot through my body.
My new surroundings appeared like some previously imagined purgatory: there were bodies and filth for as far as I could see. The putrid smell was overwhelming and brought instant nausea. The rats the size of cats that I had seen from the car were now scampering right outside the cab.
The driver placed my suitcase on the curb, and I pried myself from the shelter of the taxi.
My feet felt wobbly as I pointed helplessly to the circled guesthouses on the dog-eared Lonely Planet page.
The driver said something in Hindi, and gestured toward a dark doorway, fifty yards away, as he quoted me a fare that, according to my guidebook, was five times what it should have been.
Having been screwed by taxi drivers all over the world, particularly on the first ride from the airport, I bargained with him passionately, using my guidebook as my first and only exhibit, finally settling on double the normal fare. The driver shook his head in apparent disgust as he departed with what I imagined to be a few choice Hindi insults.
The wide sidewalks were so packed with sleeping bodies that it was hard to carve a path between the resting masses of humanity and the rodent nation that seemed to own the night.
I managed to find one of the circled guesthouses, which turned out to be full.
This initiated a two-hour trek in which I looked at countless filthy rooms with bare mattresses on the floor, all of which made me want to keep searching. With each stop, my standards lowered, and finally, I found an overpriced room with limited insect life. The heavily stained walls, lit by one fluorescent light bulb, looked like they had stories to tell, but the mattress wasn’t too bad, and I would be in my sleeping bag anyway.
I drifted to sleep, just as the sun was rising.
Even in my exhausted state, I could feel my whole system shaken by the overwhelming chaos and filth that surrounded me.
Up until this night, I had always sought out chaos and the raw grit of humanity, as they offered unformed possibility and adventure. Some inner threshold had been crossed, and with it came the disoriented flavor of fear that I knew to be the sure signal of growth up ahead.
I awoke a few hours later to the bustling sounds of blowing horns, loud engines, and indecipherable voices that seemed close and far away at the same time.
I stumbled to my small balcony. The potent odor of smog mixed with the stretch of rotting garbage inspired a mild gag reflex.
For the past thirteen years I had been a vegan, nature boy, who, among other things, was constantly concerned with the air I was breathing, and the food I was allowing to enter my body.
Staring out into the sea of poverty and filth, I felt Mother India’s first awakening slap. She was offering a fierce invitation to let go of my identification with this body, to breath her dirty air, and eat her nutrient-depleted, unsanitary food, in pursuit of liberation from the slavery of this body’s care and my total identification with its well-being. I heard her whisper:
“You’re here; now be fully here. Leave your luggage at the door and come inside.”
Simultaneous excitement and terror swept through my body at this invitation. I had spent my twenties repairing the damage inflicted during my drug-addicted youth with the same compulsive, extreme attention to health that I had given drugs and alcohol the decade before.
I made my way down three flights of stairs, and out into the noisy street, wanting to “come in,” as requested.
I was immediately accosted by a band of children.
There must have been ten of them, the oldest being no more than seven years old.
“Hello, Sir. What’s your name, Sir? Where are you from, Sir?” several compelling little voices rang in stereo as they pulled on my shirt and lightly tapped my arm.
I was struck by the similarity in approach to last night’s taxi mob. The Indian people were certainly not afraid of physical contact and being right up in your face.
I answered their questions and was learning their names, when a small girl in the middle of the group, with huge liquid brown eyes, said, “Ten rupee, please.”
The others seemed to pause, gauging my reaction to her request.
I raised my eyebrows playfully and said, “Now, what would you do with ten rupee?”
“Milk for baby sister,” she said.
Her well-practiced vulnerability dissolved all traces of my callused cynicism. I was momentarily frozen, as embarrassment for a privilege of which I was barely conscious, mixed with raw emotion. I felt tears welling up, and had the urge to give her all the money I had and run back to my room.
“I’ll buy your sister some milk. Where is the nearest store?” I said, surprising myself with such a clear plan of action.
“This way,” said a slightly older boy in broken, British English.
I followed them through alleyways and backstreets, passing what looked like dozens of little stalls selling basic goods. I quickly lost track of the way back to the hotel, becoming fully immersed in the colorful scenery of daily Indian life, and was moved down the street with a child holding each hand, as well as one or two hanging onto the belt loops of my jeans. Several of the children darted slightly ahead to a tarped stall.
When I reached the stall, one of the little boys was holding a rather large box of powdered milk.
As he struggled to raise it up to me, a smiling skinny teenager reached from behind the counter and plucked it from his hands.
“Hello Sir, you want buy this, Sir?”
I smiled, suddenly realizing why we had passed so many other stalls on the way to this very special one.
“Yeah, how much?”
“84 rupees, Sir.”
As I received my change, I thought, God, I could afford to get hustled like this every day.
The little girl looked up and thanked me with a big toothy grin.
She and the small boy rustled the box of milk—which was more than half their size—out of the stall, disappearing into the swarm of animals, wagons, and people.
I would come to learn that the “milk for my baby sister” racket was a very popular one, probably due to its universal appeal and overwhelming success. I wondered how many times that same box of milk had been sold to unsuspecting tourists, and hoped that the children would be handsomely rewarded for their valiant efforts.
Having no idea where I was or how to get back to my hotel, I flagged a rickshaw.
This battered, three-wheeled motorcycle, with green, stained seats, was another version of the taxi shrine I had experienced before. While I admired the small statues and stickers of Vishnu, Ganesha and Shiva on the small dashboard and windshield, the word, “Colaba,” slipped from my lips, and was met with the customary head-bob, which I interpreted as a good sign. The streets were packed, and the driver seemed to be living inside an Indiana Jones movie, as we narrowly missed other vehicles, children, and cows sleeping in the middle of the road. I caught myself in full white-knuckle, fear-for-my-life mode, as I remembered the invitation to “be here.”
I gazed into the eyes of humans and creatures flashing before me on this lightning ride. A deep feeling of peace and recognition took hold of me. It was as if the Many were One, awake to itself in a morass of fantastic forms and circumstances.
Amongst the hustlers, touts, and beggars in the streets—where the bodies of the dead were wheeled on wooden carts to open burning ghats, and people with no legs scooted along the road on skateboards, with emaciated dogs looking on—my heart broke open. It broke for the congress of pain and desperation gathered here, to represent the suffering of all humanity that is so often masked or hidden away in the sterile, Western world I had come from. Even more, it broke for the access this culture granted me to my own pain and desperation, as I felt my inner world begin to unravel.
In a visceral revelation, it was clear that the most dire of circumstances can be trapdoors to profound liberation.
Linear time seemed to fold in on itself, as countless points of self-reference showed themselves to be baseless in an instant. I felt the jaws of Mother India grinding up the story I had created for myself over the past thirty years. I struggled to invent some new version of me, hoping it would offer value and context to the past that I had worked so hard to spin into a story I could live with. This story occasionally had even inspired me. This storyline was my sole reference point for who I was. It was the currency I had worked my entire life to amass . . . totally useless in this crashing economy. My story, it seemed, was all I had; all I’d been able to extract and save from this life adventure I had lived so far.
Staring out from my runaway rickshaw, I saw freedom and a sense of knowing shine through whatever role each being had assumed in this excruciatingly tragic and beautiful mirage of life. I felt their connection to each other and to all things. The grip of attachment to my own storyline, and the years of attempting to create a self with meaning and purpose, fell to the feet of Mother India in humility. The burden of viewing all life experience through the lens of “what does this mean for me?” dropped away, if only for a brief respite.
The suffering all around me was simultaneously personal and impersonal. I felt myself caught between the mindset of the Western culture that had carefully molded my perspective, and this new Eastern influence that seemed to be effortlessly disrobing it.
It seemed like two great theatrical productions were occurring. In the West, all the actors had long since forgotten that they were actors in a play that, regardless of the quality of their performance, would end that evening at precisely the predestined time. They were acting as if they did not exist outside of their role, in a play that had no ending.
In contrast, the play in India was rich with color and the continuum of emotion, but also included an awareness of the context of the theater, the audience, and the evening’s imminent end. The inclusion of the basic conditions and temporary nature of human existence offered a potency and realness that felt like a balm for my delusional Western persona.
This strange new land reminded me of the countless hours I had spent in forests. The forest is filled with many diverse life forms, sometimes seeming to be in competition to survive. When I could soften my own projection of individual survival as the primary goal, I had experienced the forest as having one root that animated the spectrum of life within its bounds. Like the beings I had encountered today, there was a simultaneous, full embrace of whatever role was being played out, and an undeniable presence of what remains, untouched by all roles.
I could feel all this working on me in a way I didn’t seek to understand; it was my undefined contributor. It asked nothing of me. There was no new doctrine or perspective it was pushing me to adopt in payment for defining or redefining my experience. Indeed, it offered no definition.
Back in my room, I lay on my bed, feeling the pulsation of the last sixteen hours. I watched my mind attempt to shape my experience into something it could use as a directive—any directive. Maybe I could stay in India for years in an effort to shake off all my Western conditioning. My intellect wanted so desperately to be in charge—to have a project—even if the project was my ego’s own annihilation.
Hey! This was India! My ego under siege would take what work it could get! It was almost comedic to observe the fast-shifting strategies of my mind trying to engage me in identifying with its perspective:
Fear: You’re going to get so sick, here. There’s nothing you can eat—it takes people years to recover from all the intestinal problems they get from this place. You’ve had your “cool India experience.” Now get the fuck out before it’s too late.
Seduction: This is your true spiritual home. Everything that has happened to you up to now, led you here. Find the perfect ashram to meditate in and/or guru to follow, and then maybe you’ll get enlightened and go back and teach just like Ram Dass did.
Doubt: So, what really happened today? A bunch of kids hustled you out of $2.00 in a filthy third-world country. Don’t you think this whole spiritual experience thing is a little over the top?
. . . And so on and so forth.
After a while, I got bored with my endless loop of inner dialogue, and found my way back down to the streets of Mumbai.
I had walked all of about two minutes, when I was surrounded again by a motley group of small children, some I recognized from my earlier adventures, and some with new, curious, little faces.
They began immediately with the formalities.
“Hello Sir. What’s your name, Sir? Where are you from, Sir?”
And, like clockwork, a small boy—the Indian version of Oliver—blurted out, “Please, Sir, ten rupees.”
Not really wanting to press instant replay, I ignored the request, and asked the kids where I could get some good dahl. There was a brief pause, in which the kids looked at each other, and then back at me, as if to say, “Is this guy serious? Is he actually asking homeless children for restaurant recommendations?”
And then came the yank from one of the boys holding my hand that moved the whole group of us forward, and down many winding streets and alleys, arriving at what looked like a very “locals-only” establishment.
As I held the door for the kids to come inside, a large man, wearing a shirt stained beyond recognition, began yelling at the kids, and, to my horror, raised an iron, fire-tending tool, as the children cowered back.
“No, no, they’re with me!” I stammered.
The large man raised the stick one more time to taunt the kids, then gave me an incredulous look.
“If you want to eat with them, you must eat outside.”
We did, sitting in the dirt, eating on a small crate we used as a table in front of the restaurant.
I instructed them to order whatever they wanted.
Turns out, the place really only served dahl and naan, but we all ate a lot of both.
The children were part of the lower caste called The Untouchables.
I wanted to get on it about how horrible and oppressive the caste system was, but, as I looked at their happy little faces, it occurred to me that the Western, self-absorption trance—that privately and publicly drives all who are under its spell to win the undefined game of life—might be just as oppressive.
I thought about the pressure and restless lack of peace that resulted from the drive to be individually significant, as well as the vague promise of somehow beating the system to receive the rewards of success that always seemed just out of reach.
At that time in India, there was no possibility of moving up the caste ladder, while back home, in America, we were fattened on a constant diet of the “American Dream,” rich with examples of folks just like us, transcending the class and socio-economic status we were born into.
It appeared that Indians found some peace in the fixed nature of their circumstances, while my culture believed that, if we could just conjure up the right set of circumstances, true happiness and satisfaction would be ours.
Implicit in the selling of the American Dream is that happiness and satisfaction are situationally dependant, and that getting the right circumstantial formula leads to “living happily ever after.”
I felt humbled and moved to tears by the joy the children openly displayed at our modest feast. No doubt their culture had problems of its own, but one of them was not a restriction of happiness to prescribed circumstance.
Looking round the table, I realized that, despite my identity as a rebel, I had fallen—hook, line, and sinker—for the Western notion that work, will, and making all the right choices, would deliver the happiness and peace I so deeply desired. I had pursued a dual track of monetary and spiritual materialism, appearing to excel in both arenas, only to circle back to the longing that had been my companion for as long as I could remember.
There was ease and delight in sharing this meal with these young, new teachers of mine. I wanted so much to see the world through their eyes, or, at least, to weaken the hold of my own perspective.
We parted with full bellies and hearts, as we promised to find each other tomorrow.