Monday, November 20, 2006

[11-01] Akanksha Retreat

The three days went by in a blur. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the closing session where everyone was sharing their thoughts and feelings. One after another, the students expressed their gratitude and learning from the three days and I didn’t know how to react.

For three days, my focus was these participants. To make sure that each thing went smoothly, that they were receiving all that we had to offer. From adjusting the schedule to moving them around, they were all that I could see. I must have lapped around the Sughad campus over a hundred times over the course of the retreat, seeing what needed to be done and checking that things were ready, but never did it feel like a chore. I simply did what needed to be done.

What I heard at the last session blew me away. The participants were in tears because of the love and attention that they had received, from the fireworks at the initial welcome to the dolls at the end during Secret Angel reveal. I had forgotten the power of one’s first interaction with Manav Sadhna and Jayeshmama. But they had more to share about than just Jayeshmama and Manav Sadhna. They were also talking about me, about the love and care that they received. I was dumbfounded. A girl spoke of not having any sisters, but she received the love of a sister from me. Others would now always think of me when they heard Raghupati Raagav Raja Ram.

Nirali had given me the idea – wake them up with a prabhat pheri (going around and singing bhajans accompanied to soft music). I didn’t wake any of the MS volunteers, but Ellie woke to join me in the morning. We went around singing and putting our hands on each participant’s head to wake them up. Later the Manav Sadhna guys were complaining to me about the morning singing session, so the second day, I hesitated and ultimately, did not go around waking the participants by singing. But the one day was enough. My thick voice had been music to their ears. The experience of been woken up with so much love and positivity was something most would not forget. At the end of the retreat, they insisted on me singing Raghupati Raagav one more time.

After they gathered their belongings, we congregated in the front lobby- holding hands and standing in a circle. “Didi, you never sung the song,” they said right before we closed our eyes and prayed. When the last lines of Shanti were spoken, I took out the bookmarks (their parting gift) and went around the circle, singing Raghupati Raagav Raja Ram. The group joined in and waited as they received their momento. Earlier that day, Jayeshmama, Nirali and I were thinking of how to close the retreat. A bowing walk amidst other things were suggested, ultimately we decided to see what happens. None of the ideas was used. What we did was simple and beautiful, there could not have been a more appropriate way to end.

Before the retreat, I had been in a negative space for some time and was slowly coming out of it. The retreat gave me a focus and an opportunity to submerge myself in something outside of myself. At one point, during the planning, I had thought why did Jayeshmama give me this to coordinate- I didn’t know how to do a spiritual dinner and they are so many MS folks who have been through a spiritually oriented MS retreat, so why me. I simply wanted the retreat to be over, so I could work on my other projects. Ultimately, I understood.

I had not done anything intentionally over the three days. I sat with the students, talked about my own experiences and listened to theirs. My job was to make sure they were getting all that they needed and that’s what I did. There was no conscious thought process that led me to think that now I will selflessly serve. It just happened. By submerging myself in the moment, I was able to give everything I had, which included my love. I only realized that what I had selflessly serviced after the fact when others, who I highly respect, brought it to my attention.

The learnings from the retreat by no means were one-way. Each Manav Sadhna worker walked away learning something from the interaction as well. I personally, realized, yet again, the importance of all the small details as I saw and heard the impact they had on the participants. People from Manav Sadhna found the inspiration to improve their English and other skills sets. If not all, atleast a few Akanksha students and teachers left Ahmedabad with a different perspective on life, self and seva. In three days, so many preconceptions and ideas were thrown out the window. Some really began to learn the power of love, the heart and selfless service.

[10-30] Search for Good

Day 2- Akanksha Retreat.

Day 2 of the retreat was called Project Day, but in reality it was Process day. The activity for the day – a Search for Good Walk. A walk with a compassion kit full of things to give to people, no money and no set path. We had to find our own food if we wanted food and besides that, the only and most important, part of the instructions – walk with our hearts open.

I had never done such a walk on my own with the find your own food element, so it was going to be an experiment in faith in the universe. Food, by the way, is becoming an increasingly large hurdle that I need to start overcoming. I’m finding my self-restraint with respect to food decreasing. Thus, in all honesty, I was a little worried about the find your own food, but at the same time knew I needed to trust the universe.

Our walk was comprised of many incidences, a few stick out that I will recount here. As we crossed Subhash Bridge, out of habit, I began to pick up trash, Shirajul, Milan and Amar joined in. We walked and clean, while keeping our hearts and eyes open for people to assist. As we passed some vegetable vendors, they looked at us in confusion and stopped to ask us what we were doing. We talked to them about taking responsibility for our city, which is our home and then continued on our way.

After a little way, we came across another cart. A man was selling bananas. Something was different though- there was no trash near his cart, instead he had put a plastic bag on his cart where customers threw their banana peel. We were so impressed by the cart that we had to stop and talk to the man. “I’m educated,” he said when we commented on the cleanliness. “I know how important it is to keep clean.” What is an well-educated man doing running a banana cart?, we all thought. He had a good job at one point, but when he was laid off, he couldn’t find any work. So the he took up a selling fruits. He lives with his son, daughter-in-law and wife in a small home near Sabarmati.

Questions continued in our mind. How was he content with this life? He passed his time reading the newspaper, reading religious articles. His knowledge of spirituality was very impressive. Amar asked him to read something from the newspaper that lay at his feet and so he did. Where the half hour passed talking to him, we did not know, but we realized it was time to move on. The interaction brought more light to the conditions faced by the lower middle class, what about opportunities for them. To express our appreciation for the man and the example he was setting by maintaining the cleanliness of his surroundings, we came him a blanket. It would come in use since he was sleeping outside of his house since his daughter and family were visiting.

As we walked on, a conversation about cleanliness and how one person can be instrumental in changing attitudes came up. What the banana cart man was doing was setting an example. Not conforming to the regular practices of other vegetable and fruit vendors. For his himself or not, he was doing his part to keep the city clean.

Amar pointed out an old woman sitting on the middle of the road divider so he went up to talk to her. Between his understanding of village Hindi and my knowledge of Gujarati, we learned her story. The woman lives by herself and supports herself by begging. A companion beggar came to fill in the details. While we had t-shirts and hygiene kits, what the woman needed was some food, so we spent some money to get her some food. After combing her hair, we went on.

“Didi, can we go this way,” Amar asked, pointing to the road that veered away from the main road we were on. “Of course, it’s your walk.”

We continued picking up trash and soon we found ourselves in the middle of a community. We entered at the corner of large open space, covered in trash. Soon a crowd of boys surrounded us and began asking us what we were doing. The Akanksha youth were a little intimidated so I decided to step in and do some crowd control. We explained the obvious- we were picking up trash because it was dirty. More dialogue ensued about the need to keep their space clean, however no one felt the desire to join us. After a few minutes the Akanksha youth began to speak also and I continued with trash picking. Crowds began to form around each of us as we dispersed and picked up trash. At one corner of the open field stood large brown dumpsters. We collected as much as we could hold and walked the trash over to the dumpster. On one hand, it seemed like a futile attempt as there was so much trash, but the ocean is made up of small droplets of water.

A large crowd surrounded me again, literally forming a circle of 2 feet diameter around me. I stepped forward and the crowd stepped back, reassuming the circle, not a pleasant situation if one was claustrophobic. In my mind, for a second a fear formed about large crowds, but it disappated as I reminded myself to work from the heart. Some men began to ask what I was doing and again I explained the obvious- I was picking up trash and putting it in the dumpster. The man was skeptical. What’s the reason you’re here? Who do you work for? There is a reason you’re here, you wouldn’t just pick up trash like this? Despite the fact that there was a small Manav Sadhna logo on my compassion T-shirt, I did not want to associate with any organization. I see trash so I’m putting it in the right place, I responded, but the man would not believe. Let him choose his truth, I thought and continued picking up trash. One of the youth began to shoo the crowd away and we continued with our work.

The four of us regrouped and began walking, away from the open field towards the opposite corner from where we entered. A crowd began to follow us. At one point we stopped. Do you have any questions, we asked. The crowd looked at us in silence. We turned to each other and began to use our humour. Do I have anything suck on me? I struck a pose. Maybe there is something wrong with the way we look, we turned a circle with our hands out. The crowd laughed. Finally a woman in the back asked, what are you doing? So we explained. We talked to the kids. About the size of the field and how much fun it would be to play there, if it wasn’t dirty. The kids were somewhat responsive. When we felt it time, we moved on.

The crowd continued to follow us. Some male youth again shooed them away. As the numbers dwindled, Milan came beside me. “Didi, they are saying bad things.”

I turned to her with love, “There are always going to be people who don’t like what you are doing. You need to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what they do and say. Remember what you are doing and why you are doing it. The critics will be many, it’s important to stay grounded.”

She listened intently and walked in silence.

A boy comes up to us and tells me that some women in the gulley were calling us over. We oblige. “Why aren’t you talking to us, you talked to the children?”

“What questions do you have?”
“Explain what you’re doing.” So we did. As we got ready to leave, we asked for some water to wash our hands. They then brought us water and talked to us some more. After some more conversation, one of the women offered us some food. I turned to the other youth and we did was smile. Food had come to us, we didn’t need to go looking. No one was hungry.

They took us inside to see a place where water had filled up. There we had a conversation about mosquitos and flies and one’s selfish interest in cleaning community space, even if it is outside your neighbour’s home. Through some women’s eyes, I could see some understanding. As we moved to leave, the children again began yelling and running to follow us out.

I stopped them before they got too far.
“Do you want to play a game?” The answer of course was yes. “Everyone is going to go out of this gulley and pick up at least two pieces of trash.” Twenty children, that’s forty pieces of trash.

They ran out, yelling and picking up trash. As we came out of the gulley, I asked where the dumpster was. They again ran off, yelling and shouting to the dumpster where they deposited their trash. Before they could disperse, I gathered them all together.

“Hands in everyone. Twenty pairs of little hands joined in with our four. Shall we make a promise.”

“Haaaaa (yes in Gujarati),” came twenty odd voices.

“Repeat after me. I, take this promise, to clean my community every day for 5 minutes. To pick up trash and throw it in the dumpster.”

The energy and enthusiasm of that moment will not be forgotten.

We noticed the time and realized it was time to head back. As we came out to the main road, we saw the woman again and stopped to say hello. In her hand, she held 3 packets of Gutka. I gently took them from her hand and a struggle began between us and the woman. At one point, Milan suggested that we give her the packets back and continue on. Amar and I weren’t so ready to give up. The woman said the gutka was for her neighbour’s daughter. We attempted to raise her awareness on how she shouldn’t encourage the use of tobacco for others. The women was gripped with fear about what would happen if she didn’t take back tobacco. Ultimately, we gave her money for the packets and went on our way.

Given time constraints, trash picking ended. Our conversation was interrupted as a vegetable vendor we saw earlier called us.

“He told me that you guys were picking up trash. Why?”

We launched into our explanation of our city being our home and suggested that she keep a plastic bag for trash for her cart. The woman understood. Laxmi (wealth) only goes where there is cleanliness. If she kept at least her cart area clean, then we were 100% sure that her business would increase. Through simple language and reference to concepts that she herself mentioned, the message of cleanliness and social responsibility was communicated.

The Manav Sadhna workers were intended as guides for the walk, however it was by no means an one-way process. The youth were in tears as they shared their stories. It was their first experience with this kind of service. For us, it was a not a new experience, but no less powerful. The power of love and of the heart is boundless and unimaginable.

[10-19] Colours in Silence

After the bus ride home, I grabbed my stock of rangoli colours and headed out. It was time to make rangolis for Diwali. My first stop was Ramanbhai’s house. Ramanbhai is apart of the supporting staff at ESI. His heart is full of love and his face decorated with a smile. He always makes a point to hello and make sure I’m okay. A few nights ago, I had gone to his house for dinner and was overwhelmed by their hospitality and love.

Ramanbhai’s wife and daughter were home, so the rangoli wasn’t going to anonymous. I managed to convey that I had come to make a rangoli and pulled my colours out after finalizing a spot. Then the colours magic began. A design had come to mind earlier in the day, so I decided to bring it to life. A deevo as the middle petal of a lotus, in front of a green sunset with an aum on it. They didn’t know what I was making and for some part neither did I. I just picked up the colours and began to pour with my fist. Anita had gathered some friends, they were completely silent as the picture formed. The silence was incredibly powerful, interrupted only by whispered guesses on what I was drawing. When the image was complete, I bade good-bye with my hands and went on my way.

Next stop: Kasturbhai’s

As I walked into his gulley, the kids began to shout in surprise. “Heenadidi is here, Heenadidi is here.” Kasturbhai’s wife and sister and other families members came up to receive me. The wordless communication happened again and it was decided that the rangoli would be made beside the little temple. The colours came out and magic begin. Again the power of silence and everyone’s full attention overwhelmed me. Even the mistakes or artistic elements, they loved the rangoli. After snapping a shot of the kids and rangoli, Kumkum, Deepak (4 year olds kids) came to drop me at the street. The little one would not let go of me as I handed her over to her sister. I am always touched by the amount of love they shower on me.

In the evening, I went over to Manav Sadhna. The card project kids were all spending the night to work on cards. When they saw me, the boys again began with their talks of also taking a vow of silence, potentially to mark the one month death anniversary of Chimanlal, the baby bird the project had adopted when Chimanlal’s mother and siblings were killed. As the talks to keep silence continues, Jagatbhai interjected.

“Only take a vow of silence, if you are doing it with the right intentions. Don’t do it to put on some show.”

I was jolted and reflected on his words. Was I keeping a vow of silence for show or for a reason? I needed some time to myself and this was a way, but then what was all of my hand gesturing about. I became aware of how I had been communicating for the day and could identify when it was for show. His simple words struck me.

I hadn’t decided when I would end my vow, but 24 hours seemed to be necessary. When I came home on the bus, I decided to extend that. I would do an intensive meditation session the following day, the vow of silence would continue.

[10-19] Day of Silence

And the day became silent. The Manav Sadhna staff thought I was crazy with my gesturing trying to people (it wasn’t completely silent as in no gesturing or writing). Amod came by with rangolis and trying to teach someone how to make a rangoli without talking to them can be a little more difficult, but we managed and came out with a beautiful sarva dharma rangoli to mark the staff of Diwali (it was Dhan teras).

The card project kids could not believe that I had taken a vow of silence. Listening to their conversation was very interesting as they discussed how they couldn’t even stay silent for 5 minutes, let alone a day. Everyone kept asking why and I couldn’t really tell them. Some said it was for Jagatbhai’s birthday, others because it was Guruvaar or Thursday, only Ellie really knew.

As the morning progressed I realized how much I really needed to just get away. From the city, from people and go within so I contemplated going to Koba for a few days, but those plans fell through.

The only person who really understood what I was gesturing and could do so quickly was Ellie. Apparently, this knack of hers is called Elliepathy. Ellie and I embarked on a trip to get a phone charger and sweets. I got us on the right bus, but when we got on, we both realized that Ellie didn’t know exactly where we were going. We were quite the scene- a mute Indian, who did not look like a local, and a white American, who most would believe did not understand or speak Gujarati (which she does). She somehow figured out the destination through my charades (how do you communicate income tax?) and our adventure had begun.

At Gwalia, Ellie continued with her deciphering of my hand motions to communicate with the workers to find out how much different sweets were, how many pieces were in a kilogram, etc. Her knowledge of Gujarati went far. The journey continued at the mobile store and internet café. Somehow we even managed to have a conversation over pineapple juice.

After spending some quality time together, I headed back to the ashram and Ellie to Seva Café. I was on my own as a mute in the city. Getting a rickshaw/bus back was the most challenging part, as I didn’t know where the bus stop was or what bus to take. My basic Gujarati writing skills came in handy, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the assistance of a man who saw my confused face as I stood on the side of the street. He made sure the bus stopped and I got on okay before he waved good-bye and went on his way. Such a simple action, yet it went straight to the heart.

As I rode the bus home, I thought of how it would feel like to be a foreigner in the country. The confusion and the difficulties communicating, however, they, for the most part, at least know English and can speak. Even with language barriers, to travel the city they can speak the name of the place where they want to go. I was deprived of that ability also. I thought of Sameer and Ruchi’s 14 experiments, maybe its time to conduct some of my own. I think I’m going to travel the city alone and mute for a few hours at the least.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

[10-19] Jagatbhai's Birthday

We finished up our Akanksha meeting and were all just hanging out. Our excuse- the Seva Café staff was coming to Manav Sadhna, but really we were all waiting for the clock to strike midnight. The kids were very excited and all them had stayed the night even if they didn’t have work so that they could celebrate Jagatbhai’s birthday.

At midnight, the kids were all awake and rang to the back room to yell, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY”. We sat around in a circle and prayed. The energy in the room was so powerful, which is not surprising when you think of the energy and love Jagatbhai gives all of us. This was our attempt to share that love with him. He lit a deevo and we went around the circle sharing a few words about Jagatbhai. As others spoke, the light of the deevo that was now behind Jagatbhai caught my eye and in that moment I found the perfect words to describe him.

Jagatbhai is a deevo. Near the flame, you receive light and warmth. From afar, you may not feel the heat of the candle, but its light brightens corners of the room far away. Similarly, those who have the opportunity to work with him, gain so much from direct interactions, but even those who don’t work with him, learn much from observing him and brief conversations.

The midnight celebration was very touching. Although some kids were half asleep or didn’t need to stay at MS, they did out of their love for Jagatbhai. The card project children really are Jagatbhai’s children, the love that they all share for each other is very moving.

After the midnight celebration, I had the opportunity to watch Jagatbhai in action, something that is always very rewarding. He was talking to the Seva Café staff about things that he thought needed to improved upon, etc. In a friend and fatherly way, he was trying to awaken an internal desire to change within the staff. Jagatbhai has a way with talking. He doesn’t say much a lotof times, silently observing and accurately perceiving many things around him. When he speaks to you about improvements, he speaks to you as a friend and fatherly figure, with only your interests at heart. Even though he was talking to me, I learned from observing this conversation. At one point, he mentioned how Jayeshmama had once told him to become a zero, ie. disappear from the limelight, and so he did. I took this to heart and in those words, realized that I too needed to become a zero. I am an attention seeker, I needed to disappear behind the curtains, working silently with a pure heart.

After a very late night, I was woken by the sound of by cell phone. It was Anjali.

“Hi Heena, sorry I didn’t call you last night, I thought we were going on the walk in the evening, but we’re doing it now. Raghu just woke me up to get ready. I’ll call you when we are leaving, ya.”

So we were up. After brushing and changing, we waited for Anjali’s call before departing. As we walked towards Subhash Bridge, Ellie and I were fairly silent. As we neared the circle, I wondered in my mind whether or not we would meet up with Jayeshmama et all. As soon as we got to the circle, we saw the four of them crossing the street. There was no need to pull out the cell phone.

We walked in silence. It was dark as we went around the circle, by the time we were halfway across the bridge, the city was alit. In the morning light, we stopped at the Swaminarayan Mandir on the other side and said a silent prayer.

We walked in silence. Without even being aware of it, the Sarve Dharma prathna was being recited in my head, over and over again. There were no other thoughts, just Aum Tat Sat Shree Narayana Tu. Out of the silence came the sound of faith and devotion, it couldn’t have been more right.

The city was awakening as we walked into the old city. Up ahead, I saw a flower vendor, with garlands of marigolds hanging from a string. My heart told me to get some. I remembered the flowers Nirali had on her desk and how she gives them to women on the street. I bought a garland, breaking silence to ask for flowers and gave a few to each walking with me.

We rounded a corner and saw a fight. An 8 year old girl was hitting and shouting at her 3 year old brother. The shouts could be heard all around. Mama and mami almost passed the children, when they turned back to Anjali to approach them. Anjali and I were already on our way. I went to the girl as she was picking up a stone to throw at the boy. Without a word, I gave her the flowers I had in my hand. She looked down at her hands, now filled with orange marigolds, before looking at me, calm and silent. Her brother were running into the streets, so she was trying to stop him. Her love for her brother had turned into a violent fight. Both siblings had released their hot air and were at peace. The sister lovingly took the brother under her arm as we walked away.

We walked by a Muslim basti where families were awaken to the new day. A 12 year old girl stood outside her home, holding her little brother on her hip. Something drew me to this girl, so I placed some flowers in her hand and continued on my way.

Aum tat sat shree narayana tu. The words continued in my mind. In the hands of a woman in the middle of an argument with a growing crowd of people, a small street side temple being cleaned with such love by a boy, to a woman living on the footpath with her family, a rickshaw parked outside a home awaiting a new day of operation. These were the places where more flowers were left.

I saw a woman approaching me and considered giving flowers to her. I hesitated then did. The woman obstinately said no. I had just taken new flowers out and had not walked very far with them, nor had the prathna being gong through my mind after these flowers were taken. It made perfect sense that the woman said no.

The sun was low in the sky, deep orange with a yellow glow rising above the city giving start to a new day. The sunrise was beautiful. I remembered a story and stared at the sun for 20 seconds that day.

We did prathna and sat in silence to pay tribute to someone we all respected. The walk was the perfect way to start the day.

The silence was needed. The mind was wandering and the silence was exactly what had been, without my knowledge, prescribed. As we came back from Jagatbhai’s home, I expressed this sentiment to Ellie and she told me how Sonia had just told her the previous night that I needed to spend a day in silence.

The signals were all there, I decided to spend the rest of the day in silence.