Our open-sided Land Rover inched closer to a clearing in the thick bush, and our guide, Fannuel Banda, whispered urgently to us to stay seated—and quiet. A couple hours earlier, the enormous red sun had sunk into a vast horizon, which meant that in the pitch-black darkness, Banda had to point his large flashlight toward what he wanted us to see: a lion, devouring its fresh kill.
Despite the fact that we’d been hoping for a lion sighting all week, my initial instinct was to look away. I was mere feet from this brutal feast and could practically smell the blood. I caught a glimpse of the poor warthog’s face, an expression of fear still present in its eyes, and wondered if it was the same little guy I’d spotted earlier that day, innocently digging his big snout into the ground in search of his own dinner. But I didn’t look away. None of us on this game drive through South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, Africa, did. Instead, we stayed seated and quiet, observing this death in its perfect, if gruesome, unfolding.
It’s admittedly strange to go on safari, practice yoga and meditation in the blissfully quiet and Wi-Fi–free bush, and have this zen-like reaction to a scene so filled with harm. Yet what I learned almost immediately, here and on guided walks under that beautiful African sky, is that being on safari is a lesson in being a witness—a true observer.
The Sanskrit word for this is sakshi, and its meaning is derived from the word’s two roots: sa, which means “with” and aksha, which means “senses,” “eyes,” or “spiritual wisdom.” We embody sakshi when we can witness the world without getting involved in, or being affected by, worldly things; when we can look at our thoughts without getting attached to them; when our awareness can distance itself from our ever-changing breath and bodies, allowing us to rest fully in our true nature.
Until this trip, I’d thought of sakshi as a beautiful concept worthy of working toward, yet impossible for mere mortals like myself to achieve—at least in this lifetime. In the weeks leading up to my trip to Zambia, the thoughts that surfaced in my mantra-based meditation sessions were anything but unimpassioned. I’d been dating a man I was falling in love with, but who was about to embark on a year of travel. And as my mind inevitably drifted toward what might happen between us—It will never work! Why can’t the timing be right with this one?—I found myself reacting as usual, rather than softening and staying calm. Other anxieties regularly came up around my writing (Am I challenging myself enough with the assignments I’m taking? When am I going to finally start that book?), as well as the bleak state of the world—from natural disasters to political decisions that filled me with resentment and rage. And instead of watching these unsettling thoughts surface with some manner of detachment, I clung to them with a fervent urgency.
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This didn’t change when I arrived at the Bushcamp Company’s Mfuwe Lodge, where I meditated before dawn each morning to the sounds of hippos stomping outside my chalet and hyenas howling in the distance. It’s funny how the patterns of your mind will follow you to even the most remote reaches of the world.
Yet an interesting thing happened as I sank comfortably into the busy-yet-peaceful pace of this safari: I started truly observing everything around me. In just a few days, this would shift how I started observing the thoughts scurrying around my own mind.
On morning game drives, we sat quietly in the Land Rover as Banda drove us through the bush, African antelope leaping beside us while monkeys scrambled up trees. We stopped so Banda could point out the most colorful birds I’d ever seen, some with black-and-white, polka-dotted wings and red breasts and others—called lovebirds because of how they care for each other—a kaleidoscope of blues, pinks, and yellows.
We spotted wild African dogs, zebras, giraffes, elephants, African buffalo, a leopard, and on our last game drive, the lion. Being so immersed in this kingdom all week, with no contact with the outside world and no agenda other than to observe these beautiful animals in their untouched-by-man habitat, offered a surprising gift. By watching the rhythms and cycles of these creatures’ lives from a place of pure awe, I wondered if I could approach the wilds of my mind’s wanderings with the same detached self-observation. If I could become less involved in my emotions, would I then become more attuned to the world around me, and more present in surprising ways?
On my last morning on safari, I sat in the pre-dawn stillness from what felt like a much different seat. My new romance may fade or flourish. My writing will undoubtedly ebb and flow. The hurricanes, fires, and political storms will surge and pass. And my practice is to nudge my awareness to observe it all as I did that hungry lion, from a place of seated, quiet awe.
See also Practice Detachment to Live Happy and Worry-Free
By Meghan Rabbitt