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It was early 2002. At the time, I lived in the UK and usually visited India just once a year, for a month and half from mid-December till about the end of January. By this time, I had been living abroad for a few years, and had got used to a strange thing: every time came to India, my life abroad completely faded away, as if it never happened. Its not as if I forgot, of course; it’s just that everything about my life abroad started to fade away, like an old dream, the moment I landed in India, and within a couple of days it all seemed like a distant memory. On the other hand, when I was living abroad – which was for most of the year –  I always remembered everything about India in crisp detail.

I usually made it a point to remain in India at least until the 26th of January, which is celebrated in India as Republic Day. This was my way of celebrating my motherland’s ‘birthday’, and it was a little promise I had made to myself: to leave only after celebrating Republic Day.

Each time I left India after my holiday of 5 or 6 weeks, I felt a terrible heaviness in my heart. Unreasonable, perhaps, but there it was. Very real, aching, making me want to not leave. That year this emotion was particularly difficult to handle, but for no particular reason that I could put my finger on. I was initially meant to return in the last week of January. I called my office in the UK, informed them that I was going to extend my stay by about 8 to 10 days, and rescheduled by flight for the second week of February, hoping the sadness would lift by then, or in the very least, that I’d be able to handle it better in a few more days.

My parents lived in Nashik at that time, and I was back in Nashik to prepare for my departure after having travelled around the country a bit to meet friends, visit my Guru’s ashram, and visit spiritual places I liked. I have always loved driving, and at that time I had not yet got around to buying a car in the UK (I was always extremely busy at work, and getting a driving licence in the UK took a lot of time and commitment). So every time I came to India, I drove around a lot. We had a joke in the family that I put more miles on the car in a few weeks than my father did in the rest of the year!

A couple of days before I was due to return, I went out for a drive into the countryside. My heart was very heavy that day. Firstly, there was the pain of my impending departure from India. Secondly, that year, I had some arguments with my parents on the one topic we usually argued on: getting married. That year the arguments were particularly sharp. I knew it all came from a place of love, of course, but I felt very misunderstood and was quite upset about some of the things they said. I drove to the countryside near Trimbakeshwar, which is a famous holy spot about 25 kilometres from our family home. I went past Trimbakeshwar, taking a road that leads to a green and lightly forested area. About 10 kilometres from Trimbakeshwar, I pulled over on the side of the road, right next to a sign that demarcated the border of Nashik district with another district called Thane.

I had a hand towel with me in the car. I pulled it out, held it in my hands to wipe my face, and suddenly, I found myself holding my face in my hands, bent over the steering wheel, and starting to cry. I remained like this for a few minutes, not entirely sure of what these tears were for. I remember feeling confused, not sure about what I was meant to do with my life, not sure if my actions had been right, not sure if anyone understood me or ever would, not sure what I was doing in the UK, not sure why I hated leaving India, not sure what I was doing with my face in a towel. For a few moments I even managed to raise my face up and howl out loud into the towel. The amusing thing is that I was proud of not having cried for many years, and here I was, sobbing into a towel while sitting in a car at a random spot on a road in a forest. Hmmm.

After a few minutes, I got out of the car and decided to walk around a bit to get some fresh air and clear my head. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I noticed a little shrine under a small tree across the road, bang across the place where I had parked. I felt pulled to go to this shrine, so I did. It was a very simple shrine, with just a few stones set up in a small pile a few inches high. Someone had placed a small picture, about 8 to 10 inches high and a few inches wide, of the beautiful Shiva, sitting in meditation. It was simple piece of paper, not even a photo, and was flapping about delicately. My usual way of “taking in” a shrine encompassed bowing down and touching my head to the ground to pay respects, prostrating on the ground in traditional Indian fashion, and then meditating for a while. So, after the preliminaries, I sat to meditate.

A minute or so after I sat to meditate, the mind calmed down. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, mind and heart. I felt beautifully light and free. The forest was not particularly dense, and the trees did not have very thick foliage at that time of the year (though in that part of India trees do not lose all their foliage, they do shed some leaves in certain seasons). I heard a light breeze go through the trees, rippling through the leaves, as if it was singing a soothing melody: a melody of love, of celebration, of joy. The simple act of hearing that sound lifted my spirits. I was now at the edge of feeling happy, like a person who is about to crack into a wide smile. The very next moment, the mood turned deep again, and a great realisation dawned: “Here, everything is perfect. I am not feeling hot or cold. I’m neither hungry nor thirsty. I’m not missing anyone or anything. I have everything I need to be at perfect peace. The world and all its dramas, just thirty minutes away, means nothing here. It cannot not bother me in any way; faded away, just like my life abroad fades the moment I set foot on the soil of India. Here and now, there is just this moment, there is this tree, and there is me. We are in a place and a moment of perfection: in peace and in love.” I took in this realisation and took in how it felt. There is only this moment. Ah, this moment. Ah, this!

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From one point of view, everything was exactly the same as it was thirty minutes ago: the same world, the same people, the same opinions and the same issues. But something had shifted in a major way. It took me a few more moments to understand what had changed: it was me, the way I saw things, the way I felt, and the way I responded. That one moment brought me to a place of great peace and power: the clear realisation that nothing and no one in the world could ever disturb my peace unless I let them; that nothing really meant anything in itself, except the meaning I chose to give it. All this dawned upon me within a few moments, each moment building upon the last, till the whole picture was complete. The tree under which I sat, this beautiful, slender, young tree, had taught me more in a few minutes than what piles of books and philosophies could have in a lifetime. It had gifted me as a living, breathing experience, that which I had read and heard about many times before: that real peace comes from within, that it is not dependent on external circumstances, and that once experienced, it is unshakeable.

I decided to carry my friend the tree in my heart wherever I went. This experience, this moment, this tree would be with me forever. It would be my shade whenever I felt the sun of life get too hot. It would be my companion when I felt the need for company. It would be the mirror that reflected the clear light of my being. It would be my oasis of peace among the madness of the world. It would be my retreat, my place of rest, my strength.

I took in the feeling for a few more minutes. I got up, bowed to the great master Shiva again and hugged the tree. When I left a few minutes later, the person driving the car on the way back was a different person from the one who had driven it there. Something had change forever; I had changed forever.

For the next few years, I visited the tree on every visit to India, to celebrate the gift of immense love I had received. But before this habit could turn into an attachment, one year, I was unable to go, and the message I received with this was: “You don’t need to go to the physical place every time. Don’t get too attached to it. Remember, you carry that moment with you, in you.” I was at peace with that too. I still do visit the spot occasionally, when I feel the pull to do so. I haven’t been there for a few years now, but that seems irrelevant; the lamp is lit, and the gift is permanent.

All these years later, when I reminisce about this experience, I realise that strange as it may seem, I am grateful not just for the experience with that tree, but also for all those unpleasant experiences which brought me to that place: the physical place, and the internal place. Had it not been for those events, I would not have gone searching, and I would not have found the treasure that I did. Isn’t it amazing how even events that seem to not be of love are actually encouragement from the Universe to find a place of love, peace and freedom? All it takes for us is to look at things differently: to see with the eyes of Love. Yes, that funny word: Love. Ah, this Love. Ah, Love.