Imagine that you go to sleep tonight in your bed, and tomorrow you wake up in India.
You are in the far north, in a village cut into the mountainside, where men with maroon robes and shaved heads walk side by side down the street and play chess in cafés. The air up here is crisper than in Delhi, but is nevertheless still filled with a fine orange dust that will soon coat the insides of your nostrils and permeate everything you own.
When the taxi can go no further, you get out and hike up an unmarked dirt road. Tall pines and soaring rhododendrons flank the steep hillside, and tribes of gray monkeys watch you unflinchingly, their movements precise and graceful. You heed the advice of others who have come before you, and do not look them in the eye.
At the top of the mountain, greeted by fluttering prayer flags, you arrive at a monastery.
Here, hoping to achieve some insight or another, you will spend the next ten days in silence.
On the first day, you will exchange names and countries with precisely three people before the gong is struck, and the silence descends.
On the second day, you will stand with your lunch tray and briefly re-live the anxiety of a school cafeteria, as you cast around for some sense of belonging. You will smile, seeking permission or forgiveness, but be unable to break the ice with a witty joke as you settle in alongside the others.
On the fifth day, a monkey will snatch an orange right out of your hand and eat it in a nearby tree, while you watch -- dumbfounded, but also strangely pleased.
On the seventh day, you will notice that the cushion belonging to the short, slight, dark-haired man who usually sits in front and to the right of you -- is empty.
You will give a mental shrug, and close your eyes.
On the ninth day, when the silence lifts, the slight man of the empty cushion will come find you.
He has a feeling, he says, that you might understand the story he has to tell -- and he has to tell someone, so could it be you?
Yes, you will say, although you don't even know his name. Go ahead. I'm listening.
First, he recounts a career as a scientist, a chemist; a true believer in the rational-material world and all its reliable systems of logic and explanation. Never once, he says, has he ever doubted that the world operates according to scientifically observable and predictable phenomenon.
And, he confesses, for what feels like his whole life, he has suffered from crippling back pain. And he's tried everything: exercises and pills and needles and chiropractic and surgery and things he doesn't even want to say. He flew all the way to South Africa, once, to see a specialist of some renown.
Nothing works. No one knows what to tell him.
So finally, as a last resort of sorts -- he comes here. But it doesn't help. The pain in his back is so distracting, he can barely finish a forty-minute sit.
And, as night falls on the sixth day, while walking up the stone path back to the cabins, the pain suddenly seizes him like it never has before.
He falls to the ground, completely paralyzed; unable to muster anything louder than a groan.
Hours later, someone discovers him. He is immediately whisked down the mountain to the "hospital," which turns out to be the home of a local medicine man. There they sit him down, their obligation fulfilled, their emergency evacuation complete.
The medicine man proceeds to ask some questions through a translator.
"Then," the man says, "he puts his hands in front of my belly, like this -- not touching, about an inch away."
He holds his hands up meaningfully, as though feeling the heat from a nearby fire.
"And I can feel something gathering there, in my belly, where his hands are. It's the pain, but it's more than the pain. It's some kind of energy, some kind of awareness.
"And then he starts to move his hands, slowly, upward." He mimics the motion with his own hands, moving them in front of an imaginary body before him.
"And I can FEEL whatever it is following his hands, moving up through my belly, up through my chest, my throat, my mouth..."
His gaze is focused; remembering. "Then," he says, "when it passes through my head, the pain is searing. And all of a sudden, this image floods my mind. Something from my childhood. Something I haven't thought of in a long, long time."
He gathers himself, and continues: "it only lasts for a second; then it's above my head, resting on top of it -- like, hovering just above it... And THEN, the guy leans forward, forms his mouth into a perfect O, and -- POOF -- blows it away."
He shakes his head slowly. "I mean, I felt it leave. It's totally gone. And I haven't felt any pain since."
The two of you consider this in silence. Finally he says:
"So, now I have to re-think everything I thought I knew. My world made complete sense before. But, you can't argue with your own experience. Now, everything is upside-down. I have to start over."
He remembers you now, and turns to look you in the eye.
You wonder if he will laugh, as you might do in his position. But he doesn't.
You wonder if he imagines that you have answers. But he doesn't.
He is finished now. He is grateful. He just needed to have his story witnessed.
And you -- for whatever reason -- are the person who could give that to him.