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.
|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.
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.
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.
|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.
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.
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...
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.
|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.
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...
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!