Soon after I arrived in Amritapuri, I had the foolish thought that this might be the year that I don’t have any experiences to share. I say foolish because I don’t believe there ever was any remote possibility that could happen.
My first week was full of challenges. In hindsight, I see that I was receiving endless opportunities to choose between two possible attitudes. For example:
- I could lament that I left my good thongs in Seattle, or instead choose to be grateful that I had felt drawn to pick up and pack a cheap pair of thongs that, for the last two years, had been lying on the floor of an empty room where I work.
- I could suffer about the fact that my internet stick was not where I believed I had left it last January or instead choose to do what it took to get another one.
- I could berate myself for not remembering that I needed to bring a water filter or instead choose to look for creative ways to solve the problem.
- I could bemoan that the seva (volunteer work) I look forward to most in Amritapuri (separating worms from the fertilizer they produce) was no longer an option or instead choose to appreciate that I would have more time to support the development of the Christmas play.
- I could obsess about the seemingly endless internet and phone problems I was experiencing or instead choose to see those problems as opportunities to practice equanimity while doing what needed to be done to solve them, one step at a time.
I will describe three other examples in more detail:
1) The evening of December 2, I was about to go to my room when someone walked up to me and asked if I would be willing to hand Amma prasad (the candy she gives devotees after she hugs them). That is one of my favorite sevas so I eagerly accepted the invitation and joined the prasad line. As I reached the front of the line and took the position next to Amma, a western man came for his hug. He started speaking to her in beginner’s level Malayalam. Amma and he were having a great time laughing about his speaking attempt. Afterwards, he handed Amma three malas (prayer bead necklaces). He wanted Amma to put them on him. Once she did that, he pulled out another handful of malas made from a different substance and asked her to put those on him too. He went through that sequence two more times. The last set was a handful of about 15 rosewood malas. It was a rather bizarre scene, especially since he was now wearing around 30 malas. I imagined he had plans to give them away to friends at home but having her put them on him was a rather bizarre change from normal practice of simply asking Amma to bless the malas he would be giving as gifts. Amma and he were laughing and so was everyone who was witnessing the incident. To me it seemed like “no accident” that I was present for that entire encounter.
I had not been able to sleep for more than two or three hours at a time since I arrived in India on November 28, so was hopeful that night would be different. You can imagine how upset I was when, after 2 ½ hours of sleep, there was a huge ruckus between nearby dogs. Once I wake up, sleep is over for the night. How long could I live like this? I had to get some sleep! Would the dogs start barking again? Would they continue to be a problem throughout my stay? It didn’t even occur to me that they hadn’t barked during the previous nights and dogs had never been a problem in the past. I was too sleepy and too lost in fear of the future to think clearly.
It did occur to me that I had been in bliss when I went to bed and now felt like I was in hell. I realized it was a good example of how quickly our minds can change our reality. While I struggled with the fear for the rest of the night, I found it immensely helpful to recall my experience of witnessing the interaction between Amma and the man with the malas. As I smiled with the memory, I let go of some of my tension. What a gift that prasad experience had been for me. So in a situation like this, I could choose to stay in the fear, or consciously focus on a time when I was happy, reminding myself that this current challenge will pass.
2) With the ongoing lack of sleep, it soon became obvious I was developing a cold. On the afternoon of December 4, I felt strongly pulled into sleep and I slept almost continually for the next 36 hours, getting up only for meals and for meeting bathroom needs. I realized I could focus on how many things I was missing out on while I was sleeping or could instead choose to be grateful that:
- as I moved in and out of sleep when Amma was leading bhajans (devotional songs) that night, I heard small portions of them from my room. Each bhajan segment I became aware of was a favorite of mine. I wasn’t sure whether I was really hearing the songs or if I was dreaming I was hearing them. Regardless of whether it was a dream or reality, I could choose to believe that experience was a gift from Amma to me.
- during the short time I went downstairs for dinner on Dec. 5, Swami Pranavamrita sang Kalam Kanalu and a Swami Ayyappa song. I have a special history with both of those songs so I could choose to take them as yet another gift to me.
- since I have been sleeping around the clock the swelling in my feet has gone away. Perhaps the jet lag will also be gone when this illness has run its course! I can choose to believe that my sickness has multiple purposes and they are all good ones.
3) I have felt pulled to learn Tai Chi for several years but the pull was not strong enough for me to take action. Before I left Seattle, I knew that this was the year for me to start, so I enrolled in the classes as soon as I arrived in Amritapuri. One lesson was all I needed to take to know that it was so right for me. The process quickly brought my mind and body into a meditative stillness. I could tell some part of me recognized the moves and knew what to do. I could berate myself for taking this long to begin, or I could choose to remember that my life will unfold in its own time and acknowledge that now must be the perfect time for me to start Tai Chi.
All in all, during the eight days I have been at the ashram, I think I have done a pretty good job of choosing to not make myself miserable by taking on negative attitudes and instead consciously choosing positive ones. The time I was least successful in that endeavor was the night the dogs woke me up. All of these events have reminded me that I can choose my attitude towards the lessons, challenges, and tests that come my way, and that my attitude will make a significant difference in my experience.