Imagine living in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas for a month, meditating in a cave 12,000 feet above sea level with chiseled snow-capped peaks all around.
John Travis, 60, founder of the Mountain Stream Meditation Center in Nevada City, had this very experience.
On his 14th trip to India that began Oct. 31, 2005, and ended Sept. 16 this year, Travis immersed himself in Vipasana meditation in a mountain cave in the arid, high altitude region of eastern Kashmir called Ladakh. Travis had seen a picture of the cave on a Web site years ago, and had decided he wanted to meditate there.
"Ladakh is one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet," Travis said. "There are a lot of herders herding cows, yaks, pashmina goats, and nomads. Then, there are small scale communities that are very religiously based. The main religion of Ladakh is Tibetan Buddhism."
In Ladakh, Travis lived in the Mahabodhi monastery with 13 monks for a month. The accommodations were spartan. Travis had a room and bathroom of his own and ate twice a day. There was electricity in the monastery for approximately three hours a day using a generator. At night, at a nearby store, he could access the Internet for about 20 minutes.
Most of the day, Travis would meditate alone in his mountain cave that had a door and only one window. The cave was 6-feet by 7-feet and had a 7-foot high ceiling, Travis estimated. He would light a candle inside and have approximately four meditation sessions a day from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
"Living in Ladakh was like living back 1,000 years," Travis said. "I would walk twice a day for 20 minutes around the mountain. Rest of the time, I just sat in the cave and meditated."
Travis recalled there was a Buddhist cremation grounds close by. Sitting in his cave, he would sometimes smell the burning stench.
One day during his daily walks, Travis was called by a few locals to perform an impromptu funeral ritual for a young New Zealander who had died.
"They (the local people) were at a loss on what to do with him, how to send his soul on its way," Travis said. "So I did a ritual more in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I did the mantras, and the circumambulation of the body."
Living in solitude in the upper reaches of the Himalayas was a transforming experience, Travis said.
"It was about the joy of renunciation and the simplicity of lifestyle that's available at the Himalayas," he said. "I got a sense, even in the busyness of India, there are places of great peace. I found for myself great contentment and peace."
Back in the U.S. now, Travis is conducting meditation retreats in California, Wyoming, Nevada, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Massachusetts. He usually teaches 15 residential retreats a year. He's one of the senior teachers at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre in Marin County, besides his involvement in the local Mountain Stream Meditation Center - which doesn't have a physical location, but rotates among members' homes.
After 40 years of practicing meditation, Travis said he now feels "a sense of fearlessness."
"I believe what the Buddha said was true: We can find peace," Travis said. "It's simply a discipline and something that we have to keep repeating.
"Before I was 30, I spent two total years in solitary retreats. I turned 60 this year. There is no place left to go. I don't want to be anybody. I just want to be myself."
To contact Staff Writer Soumitro Sen, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4229.