Saturday, January 29, 2011

Souvenirs that remind us where we've been... who we've met...

Sacred sunsets from our hut window...

Planting new medicinal trees near the healing hut with Sinead and Pilani

Doing the Karma Yoga!  Bringing life to the gardens with water and sweat

PSU Playing in the mud pool, not afraid to get down and dirty!

For me, these photographs are the best souvenirs because looking at them years from now I can smile and remember the moments, both sacred and playful, serious and joyful.  And also remember the people we've met along the way...

Balu and Malla's Gruhapravesham, a pooja for their housewarming
Rakshas guaring the temple of Kali Ma in Moratandi village near Sadhana Forest

Temple trinkets for sale
Making dream catchers to decorate the main hut

Learning to squat, to aim better, to collect waste, to fertilize the garden

Memories of beauty, ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow... colorful chalk art in
front of Hindu homes on Pongal, the Harves Festival...

Cleaning, cooking, securing... the life of community and all the scheduling that entails

A holy bus in Pondicherry celebrating the Saint Francis of Assisi who loved animals so
Learning to play new instruments

PSU students Learning to drive auto-rickshaws in India! Don't let the liability office here about this...

I believe in ENERGY

Here is the short "I believe" statement we were asked to write for a Monday night program at Sadhana Forest sponsored by Jamey.  I spent about an hour writing it and then volunteered to read it out loud (with much gusto) to the community at dinner time last week.  It was received with much applause and good cheer.

It embodies much of what I love about Sadhana and what I learned when I grew there.  Enjoy!

January 24, 2011

I believe in ENERGY.

The energy of the life force – the laughing force – the loving force.  Energy incarnate, energy in the vibrations of the Cosmic Soul, energy in the Atman, Brahman, Shakti and me!

When I was a fetus, I was a funny fetus.  A yet unripe bundle of energy tendrils, globules, synapses, star dust, sparkles and spice.  I came as energy into this world – from another time and place, in an energy capsule of flesh and bone and blood and power and light and positive ions.  Perhaps in my previous life my soul was enwrapped in royal Rajasthani robes, pink, flowing, wind blown from Jaipur palace rooftops.  Perhaps my energy was enshrouded in more humble guise – peasant kurta, cotton pajama, cow dung conditioner, neem shampoo?

I believe this isn’t my first life time in India…nor will it be the last. My energy is electric infinity, blasting through my feminine divine shakti self, heaving, thrusting, dancing, drumming, devilish bursting, Bollywood bumping, hip gyrating energy!

I believe in the energy of morning circle hugs, the energy of Yoga + Yatra + Yes + Yelping luscious, glimmering, gargantuan affirmations of the one and only universal truth out into the lonely, darkness of the galactic chaotic night: LOVE! LOVE ENERGY.  The mother’s energy of fearless sacrifice for her babe, the quiet solitude of love lost, the dreams of love saturated hopes unfulfilled, the energy of love newly discovered, hot and anxious, searching, heart skipping, wandering, and wishing energy…

I believe in NATARAJA energy: explosive dancing feet, percussive, passionate, pliant and poised.  The energy of song and chant and solemn whispered lullabye.  Music ENERGY! The light of hearts and souls, eager to find authentic expression in floating notes, in rests of still silences in between crescendos and staccato eighth notes jabbing complex melodies, urging them along, daring, delirious.

I believe in TREE Energy – the sweet sucking energy of the roots, the energy streaming in sap,  the leaves of energy reaching thirsty for rain, sun, wind.  I believe in the Energy of the FOREST and the garden, the Green Energy of beauty and of bounty.  I believe in the Energy of Poo, the Energy of Pee, of strategically placed compost carefully collected ME spread thick, and thin, with care, here, there and EVERYWHERE.

I believe in the energy of YOUTH and pride and ego… directed, controlled, disciplined, focused on projects for human unity, justice, peace and equity.

I believe in the energy of the AGED… the elderly, the wise… concentrated, collected, cooperatively channeled towards teaching, compassion, gratitude.

I believe in Sadhana energy, the path, the journey, the Seeker’s Energy.  The Energy of longing, the energy of detachment, desire, discovery and trust.  The energy of faith: fathomless, unfolding, filling, freeing.
I believe in the energy of Community… the energy of sweat and toil, collective energy, uniting energy.  The energy required to achieve impossible feats of heroic magnitude, the communal energy of building dreams, growing forests, feeling FULL POWER!

I believe in ENERGY… despite those that don’t… despite the odds.

I believe in the energy of the glamorious, glorious, gigantic, cosmos, the circle of energy that always grows, gleems, glistens and glimmers in each and every one of us!

Finding Thoreau in the Woods...

The Great Butter Rebellion, which took place at Harvard University in 1766, was the first recorded student protest in what is now the United States

Since the opening of Harvard's gates in 1636, food service had been an issue (did they use Sodexho?). Despite periodic attempts at improving the service, the quality of the butter remained exceptionally poor. One meal with particularly rancid butter led Asa Dunbar (the grandfather of Henry David Thoreau) to jump upon his chair and proclaim: "Behold, our butter stinketh!— give us therefore, butter that stinketh not.

The cry was adopted by fully half the student body as they rose together and exited the Commons in protest.  In reaction to this incident, the university president acted as parliament and demanded a confession. As no student stepped forward, he suspended half the student body until the guilty party stepped forward. None of the students would out the instigator, and instead insisted that they be readmitted without penalty. Their defense: "That the Butter was bad and unwholesome no one can deny: had it been the first time, or had it happened rarely, we should have been content. This, however, was not the case." Eventually, the students won (

I was thinking a lot about Thoreau and his Walden experience during my final week at Sadhana Forest.  I tried re-reading Walden but didn’t get very far.  Nevertheless, Thoreau was my constant companion. And now since my return, I'm finding myself reflecting more deeply on the experience and what it meant for all of us. Thoughts of Thoreau fill me again...

The final week went well and the students were more positive than they had been, generally, the week before.  The enthusiastic members of the group stepped up and helped the others remain focused.  Still, the shopping trips and snacks and complaints about the food continued for some.  Nevertheless, everyone agreed that overall the experience had fundamentally changed their outlook and had inspired them to new stages in their personal development. If nothing else, the course had challenged people to look at themselves and their world differently.  Everyone said they felt like they had changed, they had grown. Mission accomplished, right?

So, then, why was I feeling inadequate?  Why were students' rebellious claims that they had not been properly prepped for the experience, that they didn't understand the course objectives, that they felt upset with us for admitting they hadn't met some of our expectations-- bothering me so much?  Well, probably because I'm a teach that cares... a lot... and I had put a lot of time and energy and passion into creating a course in spirituality and sustainability that meant something to me.

But the more I got thinking about Henry David on the 22 hour plane ride home... and the more I revisited the pages of Walden in those final days, the more sense it made.  So did the Butter Rebellion.

Funny, my students protestations about the food at Sadhana reminded me of Thoreau’s grandfather’s role in the Great Butter Rebellion back in New England in 1766.  We come from a long line of civil disobedient types so I guess it was natural for my students to voice their discontent and demand better butter (or in the vegan world we inhabited… to escape the woods and access cups of coffee and choco treats).  What seemed to me as something modern (and a bit spoiled) was in fact part of our New England tradition.  When we don’t like something and when it disrupts our dietary gratification (especially) we stand up and speak up!

Thoreau himself, during his two year experiment in radical simplicity, didn’t deny himself the pleasures and comforts of home, completely.  He accepted visitors and often walked to town to go shopping.  He was, afterall, only a mile and half from his family home in Concord.  Inhabiting a small wooded area along the shores of Walden Pond, on his buddy Emerson’s 14 acre land plot, Thoreau wasn’t too much of an isolationist or an escapist.  He heard the whistle of a passing train several times a day.  This whistle from 'the civilized world' was much like the harsh horns of Indian traffic (and temple music) we could hear each day from the coconut rope beds of our palm leaf huts at Sadhana.  One student said hearing the sounds of “India” just over the next hill from Sadhana made him long to escape, to travel, to see the real India (even though he had come and signed up for the ‘escaping civilization as we know it’ lifestyle).  I wonder if Thoreau had the desire to escape… to roam… to explore the world.
In some ways, he did.  He traveled not with his feet, however, but in his mind.  From the confines of his tiny self-built cabin (10 feet by 15 feet) Thoreau read the literature of the world, much of it in Greek and Latin.  Interesting enough, however, some of his most favorite readings were from India! 
He read extensively on Hindu Philosophy and Religion – praising the writings of the ancient spiritual masters and examining, in detail, the great scriptures: the Vedas.  Several years before taking up his hermitage in the woods, Thoreau received from an English friend an entire treasure-chest of 44 volumes dealing with Vedic literature. For them he fashioned a new case from driftwood found in a New England river "thus giving Oriental wisdom an Occidental shrine."
In fact, Thoreau had a copy of the greatest Hindu Epic, The Gita, with him at Walden and valued it dearly:
"In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial." 
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) went to the woods in 1845 at age 28.
So Henry David never had to travel to India to experience India, in his own way.  And he didn’t need to understand India by travelling its breadth and length – because he internalized some of the most sacred and profound lessons about life, simplicity and nature right there in his one room cabin.  
Interestingly, Gandhi was one of the most famous people inspired by Thoreau’s writings.  Can't get more Indian than Gandhi, right?  The Mahatma even admitted that his civil rights activism was heavily influenced by Thoreau.  After reading Walden in 1906, while still in South Africa, Gandhi recommended it to all his buddies working in the Indian Nationalist movement.  He even adopted the Thoreau’s term “civil disobedience” to describe his own political ideology towards the British!
Young Gandhi in South Africa, around mid-30's when he read Thoreau
Living more deeply with less, this is what Walden is about.  Part memoir and part spiritual journey, it is the story of one man’s attempt to ‘transcend’ what he called ‘over civilization’ – to find balance, harmony, simplicity, peace in nature.  Going to Walden, Thoreau wanted "to conduct an experiment: Could he survive, possibly even thrive, by stripping away all superfluous luxuries, living a plain, simple life in radically reduced conditions?"
Interesting that those of us who travelled to Sadhana signed up for something very similar, however, when we got there we found it almost too difficult.  
I wonder why.  Are we, as 21st century moderns, even more trapped in our ‘over civilization’ than our forefathers were – are we even farther from our spiritual selves?  How can we, who travel thousands of miles to escape modernity and capitalism and consumer behavior, embrace a life of radical simplicity externally when we are not prepared to do the internal work?  While I found it difficult at Sadhana to focus on the transcendent (mostly because I was focusing on my students' needs and concerns), most of my students found it nearly impossible.  Almost all of them said that they were too overwhelmed by India, or the community lifestyle, or the ‘changes’ their bodies and emotions were experiencing to focus on the spiritual.  Many of them found it difficult to even embrace the sustainable, let alone the spiritual.  They claimed this was because they couldn’t connect with the place, the policies, the practices there – and so, several of them preferred to travel outside Sadhana, to experience something else, something at once familiar (snacks, coffee, clothes shopping) and also something more exciting (the colorful, confusing, chaotic world of modern India).  Not a single person, myself included, described the experience of Sadhana as something spiritual.  I'm still a bit sad about that.
Thoreau was not bored at Walden, as I suspect some of my students, who longed to escape the woods, often were.  He was also not idle.  Like us, he had decided that he really had wanted to escape the consumer driven ‘busy’ lifestyle of his neighbors.  But he did not want to escape work and he did not think work in of itself was an evil.  In fact, he seemed to embrace work and the spiritual depths which it could bring.  Thoreau kept very busy in the woods.  He was busy observing nature, studying wildlife, taking notes on trees, building and maintaining his house, raising thousands of bean plants and other vegetables, making bread, clearing land, chopping wood, making repairs for the Emersons, and writing every day.   
My students struggled with writing every day, although they were asked to keep journals and write a reflective paper connecting spirituality & sustainability and their Sadhana experience.  We reminded them to put aside time each day to reflect and process what they were observing, experiencing, feeling.  Most couldn't.  I can understand, certainly, why they found it really difficult to do so.  Optional workshops in the afternoons and frequent outings to Koot Road (usually for snacks or chai) filled their free-time, when they were not required to work in the forest or out learning about permaculture in the gardens.  Near the end, shopping for souvenirs and last minute attempts to get into Pondy and bike to the back-packer shops in Kulapallayam took up most of the group’s energy.  These outings took precedence over workshops that might have stimulated the spiritual: the early morning yoga, the afternoon dance classes, the introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, the workshop on Non-Violent Communication.  Getting out and Getting Away seemed to be the mantra for many.  I had to wonder sometimes, what were folks trying to escape?
I partook in some of the souvenir shopping, I must confess, but most afternoons I chose to spend away from the group and the bustle.   I spent free time talking with friends, writing, sitting at the beach, people watching, reading the biography of the Mother, studying about Auroville, walking in the countryside, or doing faculty advisor work: arranging group logistics (guest speakers, travel plans, financial details, etc.).  Buying souvenirs was something I reserved for one or two days only and I did so on my own, without urgency, or too much effort.  Still, I reflected a lot on those days and what shopping meant.  It is interesting that “souvenir” means in French ‘to remember’ – and yet, the Indian momentos we spent hours searching for to give to friends and family back home were far from remembrances.  They were really commercialized, exotic tidbits of India (Kama Sutra daggers, colorful bongo drums, pashmina shawls from snowy northern Kashmir) rather than authentic 'souvenirs' somehow connected to our memories of Sadhana or the forest or our lived experience there.  But here, of course, the post-modernists (and my dear academic friends like Robin DeRosa) will have a nice chance to question what is authenticity and how do we chose to remember experience (is it ever 'real'?)...!  If such souvenirs are, as some movies claim in the opening credits, "BASED ON A TRUE STORY" then what does that mean? Whose truth and to what degree? Still, I found the approach most took in this regard  both troubling and fascinating.  What souvenirs did Thoreau bring home from Walden, I wonder?
Thoreau believed in KARMA YOGA… the yoga of work, the spiritual work of doing… even though I’ve never seen him use this word, it is apparent in his philosophy and actions.  Perhaps 19th century New England farmers were just more industrious than we lazy 21st century types – but, nevertheless, there is something shameful about our reticence to do work.  A few students embraced the work, the sweat, the dirt, the effort and really loved waking up early to go to the forest in teams.  Starting the day with work, claimed one enthusiastic student in her journal, made her feel not only more awake but also more alive.  She bemoaned the sedentary lifestyle she lived back home and wanted to embrace a more active consciousness (at all levels).  Several complained about the work, the heat, the intensity of it all.  One student complained "this is not what I signed up for!"  Some students switched out of jobs after one day trying them out or signed up repeatedly for kitchen duty (cutting fruit) because I suspected they found the physical labor too trying.  Others threw themselves into KARMA YOGA so forcefully they passed out (one student feinted in the toilets from heat exhaustion) and another one wanted to serve the community so badly that  she volunteered for the most loathed job: hygiene team (scooping poo and sawdust out of the composting toilets two hours everyday for a week). Hats off to her, I couldn't get that spiritual even if I tried. (Footnote: Gandhi once scolded his wife for refusing to clean toilet at their ashram in Gujurat becuase she said it was the work of untouchables!)  

The outcome for the student who courageously opted to scoop poo was impressive, if not wholly HOLY.  Her yoga made her realize how useful and important her waste really was and connected her to the gardening work in a way she really hadn't imagined possible.  She was also one of the few students who wrote that she loved Sadhana and that she felt she had been prepared for the experience, that she knew what to expect, and was enthusiastic for the chance for an experiment of living more simply.  In so many ways, her experience shines for me as one of the class success stories -- and the poo was just the icing on the proverbial cake!

The founder of Auroville, The Mother, writes extensively about Karma Yoga and its centrality to the mission of the ashram community.  Again, it is important to remember that ashram comes from the Sanskrit root word ‘shrama (to work).  Physical work is seen by Aurovillians as the primary path to spiritual consciousness. Two Aurovillians I spent the most time with (Lissa and Bunty) discussed the fact that they prefer to do work in service to the Divine (and the community) than meditate in the Matrimandir, or elsewhere.  Work is yoga, is higher consciousness they claimed. The Mother said Auroville would be a place for those who wanted to do Karma Yoga… who wanted to work hard, in this way there was no separation between the physical and the higher consiousness:
The opposition between spirituality and material life, the division between the two, has no meaning for me, for in truth life and the spirit are one and it is in and by physical work that the highest spirit must manifest.”—The Mother

The founders of Auroville knew that it would take many long years of tremendous physical labor and strength to make Auroville happen.  “All forms of work are only opportunities for the inner to express itself. In other words, Auroville demanded from each inhabitant a yoga-sadhana on the collective level.”

Communal effort and labor is love, early Aurovillians were taught.  I think that is the only reason Auroville still exists today.  What a lovely idea and one that I myself experienced more than once during my stay, personally.

The Mother said “To work for the Divine is to pray with the body.”  I like this quote and it means something when you've lived in the woods for 3 weeks trying to create something, build a forest, grow a community.

Work as sadhana (spiritual practice) is a concept not lost on Aviram and the long-term volunteers where we stayed.  But it was a concept almost completely foreign to our American students.  They did not connect the two, even the few who whole heartedly embraced the physical labor part of the experiment.  It is interesting to me how very few students, despite a semester course focusing on the spiritual aspects of ecology, left Sadhana Forest with a new perspective on spirituality – let alone a new spiritual consciousness of their own.  

Perhaps it is easier for 19th century Transcendentalists descended from hot blooded puritan separatists to make the connection between labor and enlightenment, but for our group, this objective was clearly lost amidst the flood of stimulation and newness.  What seems apparent from the few journals that I’ve read, thus far, and from the brief conversations we’ve had in the last few days, is that students were unwilling or unable to make the connection, between their spiritual practice (sadhana) and their work (karma yoga). 

Some students even seemed confused about why we visited the Hindu temples we did (or that they were Hindu, at all!).  Others who understood this was part of Indian spiritual tradition (because they paid attention in class) still struggled to see how these massive and messy halls of ceremony and arcane ritual reflected any spiritual significance.  

Few students tackled their encounters with the sacred while in India.  It was far too ugly and lacked the pristine quality they thought the sacred should have.  When students talk about or write about about the temples we visited they focus almost exclusively on the filth, the bad smells, and the disarming proximity of strange priests and beggars to their persons. Their accounts remind me greatly of the 19th century records British missionaries left behind having encountered the ghee besmeared, confusing HINDOO.  They just couldn't connect.  Several students admitted to being bored and annoyed by our 14th generation Brahmin priest guide at the Chidabaram temple, Ganesh, because he spoke too intensely, too closely, with too heavy an accent.  They said they lost interest in the hundreds of facts he was relaying to us about the symbolism, the myths and the beliefs of his spiritual tradition, so they tuned out and turned off.  His eagerness to tell us about his world, his people and centuries of his caste's sacred wisdom was lost.  But students regained energy and enjoyed haggling for bracelets once outside the temple -- on the city streets lined with cheap temple trinkets.

 The majority of students found the matrimandir ‘weird’ and ‘cold’ when we visited – and couldn’t figure out why people would spend so much money on a temple (one student called it a meatball) when so many people were poor in India.  The centrality of spiritual energy at the matrimandir didn't seem plausible or meaningful to them -- although Aurovillians feel there is a powerful vibrational mass of consciousness here.  The fact that people might spend so many years and so much effort to build a temple of this magnitude and grandeur completely flummoxed them (if not angered them).  Students failed to draw a parallel between our Western religious traditions (spending big money on Cathedrals, etc.) and the religious traditions in India.  It was foreign and it seemed wrong to them that any group should focus on the transcendent in this physical way, especially when people were going hungry in India.  

Students who hadn’t taken the fall class, but were still asked to read the same books about India in order to prep for the trip, seemed even more unable to connect with the spiritual side of India than the others.  The reading assignments had focused on one woman's spiritual journey through modern India and on Hindu ecology -- but to what end?  Chapters on the connection between Hindu mythology, sacred groves and legends portraying forests as places of enlightenment seemed to be forgotten (if ever read) by the new students when they landed in India.  The colors, smells, noises and foreign experiences overwhelmed them and finding the Spirit in this land seemed as impossible as finding a clean western toilet with tissue paper for the bum, to those overwhelmed.  Many of them went out looking for it in shops and cafes, instead!

The desire for the material, it seemed, outweighed their understanding of the sacred in this land, as they judged the falseness of what they deemed ‘organized religion’ and distanced themselves from all of it emotionally.  When I picked up the journals in hopes of finding greater depth, I was sad that no one talked about the visit to the sacred grove in the five journals I’ve read thus far – or about the fascinating talk on sacred groves by the Tamil professor and traditional healer who presented after our visit.  The argument he made about the centrality of the sacred in the security of biodiversity (sacred groves are forbidden to be cut down & cultivation there is taboo) and in the protection of the village (sacred groves are built on the edges of villages to keep them safe from evil spirits) was lost to them – or perhaps of no interest.  No one wrote about the visit to the Kali temple we visited, the symbolism of the pongal ceremony (where the Harvest Festival is celebrated with a pooja involving rice offerings to the gods) or about the caves on Mt. Arunachala where Baba meditated for 17 years to reach enlightenment.  The spiritual was largely absent from all discussions and journals, as students struggled with the immediate and the worldly.

One discussion we had as a group, shortly after I shared some feelings Steve and I were having around a particular group dynamic (disappointment at students focusing more on consumption than on their commitment to simplicity), revealed an important clue to why students were not making a connection between the work, the lifestyle, and higher consciousness.  

One student explained that maybe he was in fight or flight mode responding to all the discomforts and newsness that surrounded him.  He said he couldn’t possibly start reflecting on sustainability and spirituality (the course themes) because he was just too busy trying to observe and cope with everything else.  It was honest admission and I was grateful.  My thought was that more time in silence and writing and reflection might help him process more.  He was also one of the students who submited a very short journal.  This is probably because one of his coping strategies had been to log into facebook and skype several times a day to connect to people back home rather than be present in the moment.  Another student was a bit defensive when we suggested that if they left India without at least one “Aha!” moment than maybe they had missed out on something.  Her reply was that Aha moments needed to come after the experience and not during… there was just too much to reflect upon while it was happening.  My thought on this was that perhaps we could all at least set an intention for an Aha!  moment.  It is hard to have a spiritual experience if you haven’t set your intention for that outcome.  I think most students didn't even consider this intention or desire it, even from an academic/anthropological perspective.  I feel that it is also hard to uplift your consciousness if your primary thoughts during the day revolve around “when can I get out of this place and get a cup of coffee?” and “I need to find some really cool yoga pants when I go shopping today.”  But then again, maybe the Dalai Lama is thinking these exact thoughts at this precise minute and we're none the wiser...

Thoreau wrote about visiting town in Walden, too.  The man wasn’t above a little shopping trip now and then but, of course, he wasn’t tempted by cool candle shops and gaudy hippy ganesha tee shirts like we were.  I mean, could even Henry David have escaped such sins?  Probably not.  But he did also value the quiet of the woods and the peace that this brought him.  On top of that, he was vegetarian and preferred that diet.  It wasn't like he was hankering for ice cream and soft drinks the way we did.
Several students said they longed for isolation and invisibility while at Sadhana Forest but when I asked how many of them were going quietly into the woods to meditate, to walk, to sit, to read and/or to just watch nature almost no one was taking time to do this, certainly not on any regular basis.  Being in the woods didn’t seem to be important to them and for some, it may have been a little threatening.  One pair of students got lost (for a few minutes) in the forest at night early in the trip while coming back to the huts from the Monday night bonfire – and I think this may have been the last time they wandered into the woods alone on the trip.  Another student said she didn’t know where to go ‘out there’ and said she felt unsafe wandering alone.  Near the end of the trip, Aviram took us to a sacred grove on the property about a five minute walk past Children’s Land.  None of us had discovered this spot earlier although Steve had mentioned it to us – a 200 year old shrine boasting an army of heroic horseback riding warriors in terracotta.  

I was surprised none of us had visited this place the whole time we were in Sadhana, myself included, because we hadn’t really gone beyond the limits of the residential area, unless we were in large communal work groups coming out in dawn on assignment.  It was magical and I swore I’d return with my camera and notebook to meditate and just BE, but I never got back there… alas.
Thoreau spent a lot of his time in the woods taking notes on nature. “He expands his religious thinking beyond God and humanity to include all of the natural world. It’s a radical step he takes: he equates Nature with the transcendent. I’d say he equates God with Nature, and then goes further to imply that the divine is immanent in all beings, and even in inanimate objects such as rocks or bodies of water. So rather than taking a stance of radical individualism, Thoreau seems to extend subjectivity beyond humanity and God to all of Nature.”

This is very Hindu of Thoreau.  To see God, the Creator, separate from and perhaps superior to His Creation is Judeo-Christian-Islamic.  To see God as Creation and to realize the interconnectedness & unity of all of the Cosmos (Atman-Brahman) is Hindu and Buddhist.
I'd like to think I had a Walden experience in Sadhana Forest, for I went to the woods to live more simply, to live deliberately, to suck the marrow out life.  But I wonder if that is what I accomplished.  I wonder, too, what it is my students found in the woods, if anything.
I hope, even if it was not what they expected, they discovered something meaningful.  Something worth their effort and time and yoga and hard work and discomfort.
In the best of all possible worlds, in the days and weeks to come, in their writing and in their reflecting, I pray they will find something in their experience to connect to some form of sadhana, some part of their spiritual practice.  And I hope, for that, they will be grateful.  And they will be thankful that they went into the woods, and came out renewed, refreshed and encouraged.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Running for comforts...

We finished our second week in the woods yesterday.  By and large, the students are healthy and happy.  Some of them are itching to get out and see more of  'the real India' -- which is quite understandable given the fact that we are living in a community of over 100 people, many of whom are transient pilgrims and back-packers, arriving weekly with stories from their adventures beyond the woods.

April (Manchester, UK) and Liesl from Portland Oregon.
April describes herself as a Tatooed, world-traveling, healer, hoola fire
dancer spreading love and light and positive vibrations internationally.
Liesl says she's exploring the world (she came here via Bali and Thailand)
and seeking a home in this world, always filling her bank with wonderful memories.

Marta is also from Portland, Oregon and bumped into Liesl
at a cafe in Thailand.  They decided to travel a bit together
and come to India to seek spiritual enlightenment.  

Some travelers come to us with sandals dirtied by rivers in Thailand, Himalayan mountain dust, ashes from the ghats of the great Ganges.   Others come to Sadhana fresh from European capitals, Euro-rail passes still hot in their pockets, Lonely Planet guide books well worn and dog-eared.  Most will pass quickly through Sadhana Forest (staying their required 4 weeks here) to explore more of India, experience more couch surfing up North near the Taj Mahal and try their hand in other ashrams, organic farms, and reforestation projects.  Almost everyone is on a journey that will extend beyond their sadhana here and, for several students, this has evoked feelings of jealousy and sadness and frustration.

Nino and Martin, from Switzerland and Belgium
respectively.  Started their global bike ride in Europe
back in May and have crossed Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Iran before flying to Bombay.  They biked across India and after this will take a boat (with bikes) to Beijing before training across China and Russia, and biking home from the Baltic Republics!  Two of the nicest guys ever!!

Adding to some feelings of dislocation and homesickness is the fact that my colleague, Steve, had to go home due to a family emergency last week.  The students miss their professor and I miss my partner-in-crime and friend.

Since he departed, I'm doing my best, now solo, to support each of the remaining 11 PSU participants under my guidance face the physical, emotional, spiritual and developmental challenges each is confronting.  And there are challenges a plenty here in the woods.  Life here isn't easy and we are not on vacation.  The few and infrequent moments of ‘down time’ are filled with a multitude of small irritations – even lying down to take a nap to escape the melting afternoon sun can be filled with frustration since there are few places to be alone, to be silent or to be, as one student noted, “invisible.” Living in community can be, even for an extrovert like me, ironically, socially overwhelming.  In addition to being draining, being here as a solo faculty member, overseeing 11 strong unique individuals, can also be a bit lonely.  I am feeling their stress and trying to be open to their needs -- without being overwhelmed or too concerned about their rapidly shifting moods and desires.  I am trying to hear them and let them speak their true feelings.  At the same time, I need to encourage them to purge and then let go.  It seems important that no matter how they feel, they try to find a way to stay positive and strong in the final week we have here together in the forest.  

Mia from Paris.  One of the elder members
of the community and a long-termer.  She is
an artist, poet and dancer.  I love her work!
We spent a few hours together one day discussing
the work of Rudoloph Steiner, Anthroposophy and
my Astro Biography.  My moon nodes are crazy!
She is a fascinating and brilliant woman. Lover her.

Ollie from Tasmania.  He's our resident musician,
guitar player, singer/song writer.  It is a pleasure
to wake up to his sweet tunes (even at 5:30 a.m.)
and we all love his cute Aussie accent, which
sounds especially great when he sings Kangaroo songs -- which he does often with verv!

We had an intense two hour session yesterday during which I asked the group to journal what they were feeling.  I wanted to know 1) What they had learned in the last two weeks 2) What was most frustrating and challenging for them 2) How they were confronting/responding to these frustrations/challenges and 4) What could they do in the last week to make this the most amazing and positive week they could.  After they wrote for 15 minutes some shared their thoughts.  The honesty was revealing and it showed that a deeper probe into their emotions was helpful/necessary.  So many of the students have been only sharing the positive – perhaps because they didn’t want to disappoint Steve or I, to “let us down” because obviously this place means a lot to us – but yesterday they blew off a lot of steam.  They, as one might say, “unloaded” (big time).  I can only hope that openly communicating where they are and where they want to be this week will help all of us.

Among the complaints and frustrations vented: the difficulty of living in community, the difficulty of being dirty, the lack of cleanliness in Sadhana, the pests, the people, the system, the structure, the safety, the limitations and restrictions of our context.

Jack (UK) and Hannah (Tasmania) who are two of our long-term
volunteers.  They've lived in Sadhana Forest for over a year now
and in the Sadhana Forest Haiti program that just began in 2010.
Hannah writes of herself "Thinking, criticizing norms, coming to new conclusions.  Always exploring new ideas and ways of life." and Jack writes: "I am what I am, still tryi8ng to figure that out."

Steph is our resident gardener and is brilliant at
permaculture design.  She is originally from Ireland
but has decided to make Sadhana her home.  She's a luv.

Here in the forest, the daily work is hard and dirty, and often, wet.  It isn't easy to never feel clean.  Taking a shower is time intensive and requires finding an empty shower (and bucket), and carrying the heavy bucket of water from the kitchen pump to the open stalled dirt-floor showers on the other side of the compound.  Needless to say, most of us are not finding time, sunlight, energy or initiative to shower daily.   Our clothes are muddy and we are all pretty smelly.  The hippy hair and dirty-duds look works well here.  We blend in.  Sweat is our camouflage.  Many of us have adopted the dirty-hippy chic and are at peace with persistently brown, mucky toes and calves.  Some students refuse to embrace the uncleanliness of our predicament, preferring instead to wipe and wash whenever a free moment presents itself (although these efforts to be clean never last long).  I, for one, am very grateful for the Coleman Bio-Degradable Wipes my beloved gave me for Christmas!  I dare not reveal here, publicly, how little I’ve bathed since reaching the forest.

Dirty but...


Western values related to cleanliness are challenged here in Sadhana one hundred times a day.  Sanitation and hygiene issues are often at the forefront of conversations – second only to food fantasies.  Some people miss the old ways of washing, the comforts of home bathrooms and kitchens.  Others feel liberated from the routine and rules of washing.  I don't feel my health is at risk here but some do.  Although I suspect much of the complaining is happening because the students are either homesick or not open to change.  Just before we came, I asked the students to give up as many of their expectations as they possibly could.  Empty the cup, I suggested, so that you can make room to fill up.  

While I sympathize with their feelings, I must confess I was surprised at how vehemently some of them expressed outrage and disappointment at the conditions here.  It isn’t that bad actually – and I’m not sure that their assumptions about our health risks are really that legitimate.  But I feel like other emotions and struggles are shaping their reactions – and the intensity of their expressions about all this.  Having lived in India before, I’m not really that phased by bugs and poo.  And since we are living in the woods it is really hard to imagine how we might keep rats out of the open kitchen hut or the toilet areas.  They come in the night (I've not seen one yet myself) along with long snakes and other creepy crawlers.  I did have mice inhabit my baggage (two nights in a row) but, other than that, the wild life has kindly kept its distance.  

The choice we have made to live simply, in community, in the woods is bringing up all sort of personal struggles for the students.  This level of  devotion to sustainability has challenged the comfort boundaries of many of them.  They worry about health risks (composting squat toilets that aren't cared for properly do attract flies) and about basic germs (people touching their food, unwashed hands, rocks in the lentils).  Even the dish washing methods are being questioned by some.  I wonder if there is a more efficient and sustainable way to wash our 100 dishes, thrice a day, than how we are doing it now.  

At present, here in the woods, we each wash our metal plates after meals by dunking them in a series of water filled buckets, one after the other, down the line.  The final buckets have a water and vinegar mixture and we soak them in these for ten minutes before someone comes along to remove them.  The plates are then set out in racks in the hot sun to dry (and sterilize).  For more stubborn sticky rice bits, we scrub the dishes (and pots) with coconut husk and ash from the cooking fires (as Indians have done for centuries and continue to do in the villages).  The ash has been sifted and separated from the charcoal (which is used in the gardens as fertilizer with human pee). Nothing here is wasted!  The ash actually works really well to cut down grease and break up fats.  The vinegar and hot Indian sun do the rest.  But some of the students are devotees of Western dish detergent, with flowery scents and lots of bubbles in pretty bottles-- and the fear of contamination (if such detergent is not used) is fed by the years of corporate advertising that has warned us that if we don't use such 'scientific products' our health and safety may be jeopardized.  

Lenny and her daughter, Adelaide from Canada.  Lenny came to
India as a back-packer over 20 years ago and is now a psychologist
and holistic health practitioner (she teaches Nea).  She is joining her
daughter who is traveling the world for a year in India just for a week.
They seem quite okay with the dirt, the work, and the food.  Fun folks!

The food is so different than what we are used to and several people are feeling hungry and unsatisfied.  Some are going so far as to claim that we are not getting enough nutrition.  I doubt this but I understand the cravings for comfort foods (familiar and starchy, sweet and salty) because I’m having them, too.  The food here in the forest is plain, to say the least.  For spiritual purposes, the menu consists of simple, unprocessed, vegan foods -- no sugar, virtually no salt, and almost no spices.  For those of us that adore Indian food, it is hard to embrace this 'sattvic' diet.  The idea behind keeping eating sattvic food (a practice that dates back thousands of years among Hindu holy men and Sadhus) is that by keeping the meals as simple as possible, our spiritual and physical energies can focus on the higher connections.  We channel our energies into finding our connection to the Divine, and do not use them up in digestion.  Spicy food makes spicy personalities, we are told when we are welcomed to Sadhana Forest.  Perhaps this is true, who knows? But daily meals of brown rice, lentils, and unsweetened porridge (mostly Indian millet like Raggy, Samai and Varagu) does take its toll.  It is sort of a regular joke here in the woods that the food runs right through us.  It is little wonder that the one slice of thick, dark, heavy bread each of us got last night (with basil and tomatoes) evoked cheers (literally) from the 120+ diners sitting cross legged in the main hut.  Like soldiers in the army, or prisoners in the lock-up, our thoughts turn too frequently to thoughts of our next meal and fantasies about whether or not we may get some bits of boiled potato for dinner...

Shelev, aged 3, enjoying her bowl of soup with Tamil friend.  Shelev is
Aviram and Yorit's lovely daughter.  It is nice to see generations here and
after the first few days everyone is accustomed to the fact that for children
under age 7, clothing is totally optional.  Vegan Shelev loves the food here

Martin and his son, Bilk, from the Netherlands (Holland) on their way to wash
their plates.  Bilk is in a rare display of fully clothedness.  It is fun to have children
in the community.  All parents here practice 'unschooling' and so, we are all
the children's teachers.  Their curiosity and questions dictate the curriculum.

The majority of Sadhana folks seem to be doing alright with the food.  Frankly, I think we are all so hungry after four hours of working in the forest that we are grateful for whatever we are given.  Most of our students, however, are having difficulty with the simplicity, the lack of flavor, and lack of variety.  The dissatisfaction with the sattvic food seems correlational to the relative proximity of tasty treats outside Sadhana.   Whenever they have the chance the students are plotting how to get out, get to the village, eats potato chips, pizza, soda, coffee (there is no caffeine here), chocolates and other Western treats. Although I sympathize with them and their taste buds, I can't help but wonder why it is that so many of the students who signed up for this experiment are not trying harder to limit their consumption of outside foods and shopping. Steve was saddened by their lack of commitment, too, and mentioned it to them in our last meeting but it hasn’t decreased since our last gathering.  Some students claim they could be stronger and go out less to eat if they didn’t face the peer pressure to do so.  From an anthropological position, it is interesting to observe nonetheless.

Steve calls this phenomenon "running for comforts" and it is certainly on the rise as people are feeling a bit more homesick and fatigued by the challenge of communal living.  Tasting 'home' is the closest thing some of them have to feeling like themselves here, I suppose.  And now, with only a week to go, some are finding the need for comfort growing stronger than their commitment to living simply, consuming less, wasting less and experiencing a different lifestyle.

Tim from the States has been traveling for the
better part of 6 months visiting Eco Villages
around the globe on a $25,000 Watson Scholarship
he won with a great essay.  He spoke to our class
last week about the various communities he has
lived in in Portugal, Australia, etc.  Fascinating!

Hannah from Poland grew up in a Circus and
has been traveling her whole life.  She says the
best part of living with the Circus was learning
how to be flexible and adapt to just about
everything in every imaginable context.
Now I am sitting here at the beach café at Repos beach.  We came early today so students could fine time to sit and write.  I saw a few journal a bit in between munching choco cakes, coconut cookies, cheese & pickle sandwiches and coffee, but only one or two students are finding time to concentrate on their papers.  Each is expected to write a 10-12 page paper on some component of spirituality and sustainability, as it relates to their experience at Sadhana Forest.  Several are struggling to fine tune their topic and, particularly, to focus on an angle that is both academic (thesis driven) and personal (synthesis/reflection).  

I am hoping that the struggles they are facing with living in community and living simply will be reflected in their papers.  Perhaps they will have to return home to really process what is happening here – both all around them and within them.  Perhaps when flush toilets and ceramic tile bathrooms, Dunkin’ Donuts crème lattes and  television are the norm again,  all of this will somehow make sense.  

Steve and I hope that what we tried to do here was worth it… that the lessons about permaculture and forestry, faith and simplicity, were not wasted.  Tomorrow I want to ask the students to tell me the truth about whether or not they think we should offer this course again...

Ashne (UK) and Gaurav (Jodhpur, Rajasthan, North India) are two of my favorite
people at Sadhana.  Both Indians, they seem to have embraced this next cultural
context with open minds and hearts.  They laugh a lot and don't take themselves too
seriously.  Honestly, I think on the spiritual journey this helps... a lot!

Thoreau went into the woods to live more simply… deliberately… to experience solitude and find silence.  At Sadhana there is little in the way of solitude or silence.  But there are many lessons, if we are open to learning them.  My hope for my students is that they can find their sadhana… and that beyond the yearning for more, there is an appreciation for less. 

In a moment less comfortable but inspiring!  Morning yoga with the students.

Sometimes stretching beyond our comfort zone is okay.

Sometimes we even surprise ourselves... when we stretch
and we see the world in a whole new way!