Moments of Being

I missed the entrance to the Tsuglagkhang Complex – which contains the official residence of the Dalai Lama – in McLeod Ganj, Northern India. Accidentally, I walked passed it, following a rubbley path cut into the steep slope of the mountain.

The Dhauladhar mountains left a wedge-shaped valley between them which was densely wooded and bright green: a huge, hollowed-out triangle on its point. The higher mountains, half-obscured by drifts of mist, were white.

It had the neatness of a stage set. Green then white: natural coulisses separating middle- from back-ground.

I walked on, and came to an old, Buddhist monk in red robes making a slow kora – a ritual circuit of the Complex – around the edge of the mountain. I made a prayer gesture, an unspoken Namaste, and he paused beside me. Suddenly he smiled broadly so that his eyes resembled upside-down crescent moons and deep laughter-lines creased his face. We stood there, on the edge of the green mountain, and without having spoken a word we laughed at nothing together.  

I had set off for the Himalayas alone, full of mixed feelings about leaving the life I had made in the desert village. I had been guarded and tense. Women travelling alone must be extra careful, I kept telling myself. But it had been inhibiting shouldering this burden of carefulness, and for the first time since I left… I let go. I felt relieved, laughing with the little, old monk, and overwhelmingly free.

 I followed the path around the side of the mountain. It was picked out by colourful Tibetan prayer flags: green, yellow, blue, red and white, with mantras inscribed on them. They seemed at once to blend into and stand out from the misty greenery. The sounds of the town were muted in the damp air.

Prayer Flag


Such moments Virginia Woolf called ‘moments of being’. They do not contain the Meaning of Life (for that, better to turn to Monty Python), but are ‘ little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark…’ [To The Lighthouse]

They are moments of sudden perspicuity, and the simplicity of their revelation is often startling: I am going to be OK, was what I realised in McLeod Ganj. And suddenly it all felt lighter.

In India I met many travellers in search of themselves, seeking out these moments of epiphany and hoping to make them permanent. A futile mission, most probably, because it is impossible to pin them down and difficult to live your life by them.

When I was seven or eight, before Mrs Dalloway had replaced Matilda on my bookshelf, I would have called Woolf’s ‘moments of being’ my ‘I am Me’ times. It doesn’t happen to me quite like this now, but once every month or so, I would be struck by my uniqueness (“I am the only person who is Me…”) and aliveness (“This is it!”). I would lie in bed long after my light had been turned out and shudder at the awesomeness of the realisation. I could feel my eyes widening in the dark. It was an incomprehensible responsibility (“I am running a person: Me!”). But if I thought about it for too long, tried to rein it in and understand it, suddenly it was gone. The plug was pulled and it slipped away.

I suppose that’s the nature of a moment: it’s over. You could be walking over a city bridge, or watching a play in a darkened room. The moment rises up all around you, carries you in its swell, then drops you on the shore where you started.

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on July 23, 2009.

3 Responses to “Moments of Being”

  1. Gris, your recollection of your childhood epiphany of Self and the present moment is nothing short of profound. I know exactly what you’re describing here and seeing it articulated so succinctly made my eyes prick with tears. Thank you. This is it.

  2. another little old monk writes…
    When you were about seven or eight, we were visited briefly in Edinburgh by the Dalai Lama’s right hand man. He was here leading a group of Tibetan monks in a Festival performance and he lodged with us.

    With him was a very young monk whose role (as we understood it) was to attend on him constantly and prevent his ever being alone in female company.

    In his simple robes and shaven headed boyish innocence, his prospects for a celebate life was very much at odds with the debauchery that is Edinburgh in August.

    As they left it was pouring. He reached into their bag and pulled on a lightweight rain jacket, it would seem bought hurriedly on an earlier exposure to our climate. As he escorted his master away we were left wondering about his life and its contrasting simplicities; he was only a few years older than our own children. But he seemed to have it sorted – accross the back of the ill-fitting plastic jacket sang out “Live Life to the Max”.

    While it may not have been quite their point in Pepsi’s rewriting of Carpe Diem, we too shared many of your observations of India and of life itself you describe here so beautifully. Thankyou!

  3. I wish I remembered that, Eric Derrida.
    Incidentally, now that you are unveiled as Dad, I propose Kevin Wittgenstein as a new pseudonym…

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