I was taking an evening walk along the river and across the bridge at the dam when it happened. He was obviously a gunda, a thug. As I walked along the bridge, he started crossing the road to intercept me. He lumbered across, one heavy arm leading and then the next. His aggressive maleness showing in his nonchalance, and in how his testicles hung down red for all the world to see.
I'd been in India for months and had seen monkeys like this before and knew of their reputation. My friends told me how monkeys would grab their bags of goods and spill them all over just for fun, or steal the contents. "He's after my bag of biscuits," I thought. I was carrying a polyethylene bag filled with cookies.
One look at him and I turned around and started back in the opposite direction, afraid. Just then a smiling swami with eyes beaming through dark-rimmed glasses walked by and said "he won't hurt you." I knew different, knew this monkey was up to no good, and yet decided in that moment not to give in to my trepidation and let this criminal monkey ruin my walk. So I turned around and continued in my original direction.
The monkey saw me coming and started towards me again. I crossed the road to put some distance between us, and yet he came. He had a red face and a silvery coat and was big for a rhesus monkey. One of the lead males, perhaps one kicked out of the troupe by one yet stronger. Perhaps he was a ronin, a renegade, who had turned to the occupation of mugging passersby. I knew I was in for trouble.
As I walked, he kept coming, until he was perhaps 7 feet away. I felt my skin tighten. I wanted to run. Instead, I looked him in the face, pointed at his eyes, and shouted "You STOP!" He did, and he stood there staring at me, almost stunned, perhaps wondering if I was an easy mark after all. I grasped the opportunity his pause gave and dashed away, looking over my shoulder to see if he followed. He didn't. Rather he swaggered across the road and put his head through the railings, looking down at the river flowing beneath the bridge.
I felt so relieved. Another test passed. This sort of thing, being forced to face my fears, had been happening constantly since a day a month earlier when my meditation teacher came up fast one evening, and with a voice sharp like a scalpel, said “You have to get over your fears! Do you think he is afraid?” pointing to one of the others standing nearby. “No,” I said. “He is fearless.”
My teacher looked into my eyes, then walked away, leaving me red-faced and feeling very small. It took me a week to get over my emotions. In the meantime I’d realized my fear was hindering my life and my teacher had done me a service. Rather than anger at him, I now felt profound gratitude: He was a spiritual surgeon lancing a boil, enabling healing to begin. The way he’d delivered the message went deep into my mind, and I became determined to face fears as they arose, and the opportunities starting coming.
Immediately afterwards was the Holi celebration, the Indian springtime holiday when anyone who steps outdoors gets painted in bright colors. In past years I’d hidden inside, worrying my clothes would be ruined and I’d get sick from being colored, but feeling that I was missing out.
This time I forced myself outside, got completely covered in color, and laughed, played and colored others, until some wicked pranksters threw me on the ground and poured pails of colored water over my head, and the water and colors were everywhere, including in my mouth and eyes. My clothes were ruined and the next day I got sick, and it took a couple weeks to recover. Yet, I’d had fun and the sickness went away.
Then there was the time in the mountains when I momentarily took my eyes off the path and squashed into a pond of liquid human excrement. I’d always been terrified of germs, and now I knew they were all over my right tennis shoe, oozing in. I ran in circles for a moment, not knowing what to do, wishing I could peel my skin off.
Then I limped back to my tiny room at the mountain retreat, got my shoe off, and shuddered when I saw the wet brown color on my sock. I bathed my foot in soap and water and washed my hands several times. It didn’t seem like enough. I wanted to pour disinfectant all over myself. But there wasn’t any, and I realized I just had to stop reacting to the fear. By dinner time I was able to eat, but kept thinking of what I’d stepped in, and it was not a good mix. By the next day, it all started seeming funny.
Another time, when riding my bicycle along the river, a big grunting monkey chased me, and I learned how fast I could pedal. Now, I’d had to face this simian-gunda.
After leaving him at the bridge, I continued on my walk along the river, but didn’t really enjoy myself because I’d have to go back across that bridge to return to the ashram for dinner, and feared my assailant would still be there. Eventually, not wanting to delay the inevitable any longer, I turned around and headed back toward the bridge, hoping it would be monkey free. But it wasn’t. That same monkey was sitting in the middle, waiting for a victim.
"Oh, no," I thought, as I held my little cookie bag close so it would not be obvious. He immediately started towards me. It was déjà vu of the worst kind. I crossed the road and so did he, and as he approached I felt my hair go straight and imagined kicking him in the face.
In studying yoga, I’d learned that fear is violence, and knew this to be true from observing myself: For a time, I had lived at a yoga center in the woods, and often ran across big Black Widow spiders hanging from their webs in the outhouses. The first time this happened, I impulsively killed the spider. Then, when it happened again and again, I learned to feel the fear, contain the violent urge, and use a long-handled broom to take the spiders outside rather than smashing them.
So, I wasn’t surprised when my first impulse was to hurt the monkey, and I held the impulse in abeyance and kept walking. The monkey came right up to me and when he was about five feet distant, I let out a piercing shout to “STOP” and stared hard into his eyes. His mouth wavered into a subtle snarl and I imagined he was about to jump and bite and then, to my surprise, he froze, and I got away.
I’d heard my meditation teacher say that when confronted by an assailant, Ahimsa, non-violence, the first principle of yoga, requires using only the force required to repel the attack and no more. Somehow I’d done that. It required all the presence of mind I’d cultivated over 16 years of meditating, and three plus years with those black widows, and it worked: He didn’t attack me, I’d gotten away, and neither of us were hurt. I even had my cookies.
Later that evening, I wondered if I should have offered the monkey some cookies and realized that he would not have stopped at one. No, my lesson was not to appease him, but to face my fears and make skillful choices in their midst. Also, it was good that I hadn’t acted out my violent thoughts. Violence just begets violence.
When back at the ashram I told my friend Vikaas what happened and wondered aloud about carrying a stick and using it. Vikaas said "No! Then he'd slap you." That would be bad. Better to walk the razor’s edge and learn to apply only the force necessary in the midst of fear.