Past life

I took a bit of a trip down memory lane this week. In my past life I was an archaeologist and my old field director was in town for just a few hours giving a seminar in the university. Nearly 20 years ago I was an enthusiastic grad student and he was an up-and-coming lecturer, setting about making his mark within the academic community. Now he’s a highly renowned professor, internationally acclaimed — complete with fashionable tortoiseshell glasses and gently greying hair.

I arrived a little early — and there he was, flanked by one of my oldest friends. He welcomed me exuberantly, bellowed my name across the room using the Greek diminutive form that few of my acquaintances use these days. I got wrapped in a bear hug, such as English men don’t usually offer, with enthusiastic questions about how I am, what I’m up to. I felt like an honoured guest — despite that being his role here!

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A bit blurry, but that’s me in the centre, taking a huge stride over a dead sheep — I remember this moment well!

I sat through the seminar surrounded by keen students making copious notes while my thoughts drifted about, listening to the talk but without the need to retain the information. I really enjoyed the pictures of the Greek island he’s still studying. I could almost smell the vegetation and the sun-baked earth, hear the wind sighing endlessly through the trees, and remember the taste of our simple picnic lunches which we ate in whatever shade we could find (if we were lucky!). This was a landscape I knew intimately, a landscape I’d walked across during 6 hot summers when I was in my 20s. I still have scars on my back from the thorny vegetation and from losing an argument with a barbed wire fence or two. I offered my blood, sweat and tears to his research project during those times. And with him, and others who made up the field team each year, I shared countless coffees, whiskeys, and cigarettes; they inspired me intellectually, challenged me physically, left me alone or offered company as they read my moods and needs. During the weeks of field season, these archaeological comrades were my world.

They were my satsang before I’d heard the word. We spoke the same technical language of sherds and assemblages or grid squares and soil matrix, we had the same concerns and aims in our work, and expressed ourselves in a weird mix of Greek and English. My team knew my foibles and I was often indulged. I used to enjoy driving the Land Rover along the narrow island roads, exchanging pleasantries with the farmers we passed who all came to know me, music blasting loudly through the countryside (usually the wonderful Cretan singer Nikos Xylouris, or Otis Redding when the mood took me!) to be shut off into sudden deferential silence on the outskirts of any village. In my free time when I wasn’t working or finding excuses for driving (I’d volunteer for any errand), I used to enjoy long walks on my own, taking time to study the insects and the plants; leaving the others to drive in convoy to the beach, I’d hike down to meet them with just enough time for a quick dip before it was time to return to base at sundown. Each evening after work we shared bottles of beer as we poured over topographical maps and aerial photographs or compared war wounds from the day’s work. Through these days when the work was tough and the hours long, but there was always laughter too, I forged some deep and enduring friendships.

Now my satsang is quite different. A routine of regular classes with familiar faces, people I come to know in a very different way. And each month a small number of us gather round a harmonium with herbal teas to share our experiences of yoga, swap ideas or just sit in company. The language has shifted to Sanskrit, the technical talk now is anatomical or philosophical.

And yet the common thread is of acceptance and being known, of being allowed to hold a special place within a group and feeling loved and respected. My little yoga satsang also indulge my foibles and they too have been there as I offer my sweat and tears to the practice (no blood in yoga, I’m happy to say!). As I think back to times past and consider also the present, I feel immensely grateful for all this — these transient communities that come together under various circumstances and then disperse naturally when the time arises. My regular yoga crowd ebbs and flows, but perhaps another 20 years from now there’ll be some more bear hugs on offer as I reconnect with old friends. And I hope some of these mat companions, these fellow yoga warriors, tread their path somewhere alongside me for years to come.

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