Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: Wrapping Up (Jan 2017)

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Every year, as my trip to Amritapuri is winding down I think of a statement I read decades ago in a book by Malidoma, an African shaman who lives most of the year in the U.S. In the book, Of Water and the Spirit, Malidoma commented that he goes to Africa every year to learn from his elders and detox from Western civilization.

I resonated with that statement when I first read it, and I still do. For me, being with Amma, especially in India, is like taking a vacuum cleaner to my whole system. While the living and learning experiences may be difficult at times, I always see my growth when I return to Seattle. I am softer, healthier, and more able to handle the challenges that life sends my way.

When I went to India the first time, I loved it. In fact, during my first three visits, I cried every time I thought about leaving. Then there was a period, that lasted for at least five years, when I had a love-hate relationship with India. The heat and the never ending physical and emotional challenges were difficult for me to cope with. I felt on overload most of the time. Even then, though, I had a deep internal sense that it was very important for me to take that annual trip. I often used the metaphor, to myself and others, that it was like going to a doctor knowing the treatment would be painful.

Thankfully, that period passed, and for a long time now I have eagerly anticipated my yearly trip. I know that every visit will be filled with learning and adventure and that the challenges that come to me will help me grow.

It is my experience that being with Amma, whether it is in India or the U.S., increases the frequency and intensity of the life lessons that come my way, along with the ability to work through them at a faster rate. When I’m in the middle of an emotional roller coaster, the growly declaration that “this is going to be the last time I’m going to do this” inevitably goes through my mind. At least now I know that the thought is just a thought, and it will pass. I fully believe that it is important for me to continue going to Amritapuri each year, and that those visits will cleanse my mind and body, and feed my soul.

As I was preparing to leave Amritapuri this year, it occurred to me that once I retire I can go to the ashram whenever I want to go, and stay as long as I want to stay.

I almost always travel to Amritapuri in November and December, the busiest time of the year; a time when my son and daughter’s lives are filled with creating the Christmas play on top of their regular seva responsibilities. While I love seeing the play and being involved in play preparation, I am also faced with the reality that I can’t spend as much time with my adult children as I want to. When I retire, will I go to India at a different time of the year? Am I willing to miss the play in order to spend more time with my kids? Will I go earlier and stay longer? Will I go twice a year even though that would mean facing jet lag twice? I know those questions will be answered as my life unfolds.

For the last few years, I have felt an increasing desire to do panchakarma, an Ayurvedic therapy that provides deep cleansing and detoxification. Panchakarma was one of those things that I used to say I would “Never” do, but since I discovered that my high blood pressure and high cholesterol would eliminate several of the procedures I’m resistant to doing, I have felt more inclined to consider it. I have no doubt that the treatments would be in my best interest and the people I know who have done it have loved it. Maybe I would too.

If I do panchakarma, I would want to do it in Amritapuri, but I’m still resistant. I know the protocol involves staying out of the sun, rain, and wind and that I would be expected to keep the fan off in my room and to avoid other places with fans. That’s a big deal, considering I’d be in India. I also would be expected to refrain from doing seva, napping, writing, or reading. There are many dietary restrictions as well. Am I willing to make those commitments for most or all of my trip?

My biggest resistance is to the activity restrictions. As an over-doer I am stumped by how I would fill my time if I avoided doing all of the items on that list. Am I willing to give up blogging, working in the gardens, taking Tai Chi, and the other things I love doing in Amritapuri? What WOULD I do? Would I spend those weeks staring at a wall?

No doubt, I would be confronting all the garbage that is inside my mind. I would also be confronting my reluctance to simply “BE.” Am I willing to do that?

So, as I wrap up this year’s trip to Amritapuri, my mind is filled with questions. It is also filled with gratitude for all I experienced on this trip, and excitement as I look forward to discovering where the next steps in my life will take me.

 

Photo Credit: Amritapuri Facebook Page

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 31, 2016- January 1, 2017

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Choices Have Consequences

On New Year’s Eve, I decided to go to bed just before midnight rather than stay up for the end of the Amritapuri, New Year’s celebrations. When I heard the next day about the things I had missed because of that decision, I felt a bit sad.

The entertainment continued for a while after I went to my room. When it was finished, a video of Amma’s Christmas message was shown. The translation of her talk was projected onto many different screens. I know it was shown in English, French, German, Russian, and Malayalam. There may have been other languages as well. If you would like to see a transcript of Amma’s talk, you can find it here.

By the time the entertainment program and the talk were done, Amma had finished giving darshan. (Darshan lasted until 1:00 a.m. That meant she had given hugs for 14 hours with only a ten-minute break.)  Amma then led a meditation and sang three songs. I know two of them were favorites of mine; I haven’t heard what the third one was.

The name of the first song starts with Kushiyom. Amma introduced it a few days before the 2004 tsunami. The song ends with the Lokah Samastha peace chant. I couldn’t find a recording of the whole bhajan, but I did find one of Amma singing the Lokah Samastha part. The video was recorded days after the tsunami hit the village where the ashram is located. It was a time of so much destruction and grief.

The last song Amma sang is the bhajan I find to be the most celebratory of all of them, Mata Rani. This video is a favorite of mine.

Amma returned to her room at 2 a.m. Sweet pudding was distributed to the devotees afterwards. If I had stayed for the entire program, I wouldn’t have gone to bed before 2:30 or 3:00 a.m.

While I felt sad, particularly about having missed those two songs, I knew I had made the right choice. I had been so tired that night and was also feeling very chilled. I had gone to my room to get a long sleeve shirt earlier in the evening and, as weird as it may sound, I also wrapped myself in a double layer fleece blanket.

While it was a bit windy and the fans in the auditorium were blowing, I could tell the the temperature didn’t justify the level of cold that I was feeling. I had the same experience before I got sick last week and also one week here last year.

I fell asleep the moment I laid down and didn’t even hear the sound of the loud firecrackers from the village across the backwaters.

So yes, choices have consequences. In this case I felt sad about what I missed, but when I woke up on Sunday morning, I was awake and healthy, and able to enjoy New Years Day. I was very glad I had chosen to sleep.

So many lessons

Since I knew I would be missing time with Amma by going to bed early on New Year’s Eve, I made sure I had time with her during the day.

Several years ago, Amma created a plan that gave all of the Western visitors and residents the opportunity to sit on the stage with her for 30 minutes on each darshan day. (The Indian residents have a similar opportunity but I don’t know much about their structure.)

Soon after I arrived in Amritapuri on this visit, Amma changed the length of the sitting shift to 45 minutes.  On New Years Eve, I made sitting on the stage a priority. I didn’t think I could sit cross-legged for 45 minutes and was prepared to leave early, but I ended up staying for the whole time!

Later in the day, I joined the prasad line. As I went through that process, it occurred to me I have mentioned in past posts that the prasad-giver hands Amma the candy and ash that she gives to each person who comes to her for a hug, but I haven’t said anything about what that experience is like, other than I love doing it.

It took two hours for me to make it to the front of the line. Once there, I began handing Amma the prasad. We give her a group of three packets at a time, each containing ash and a piece of candy. It is essential that we keep our eyes focused only on Amma’s hand at all times, because if we start watching her, we would be very likely to miss the cue that she is ready to receive more packets from us.

When Amma is ready for the packets, she opens her hand a certain way. Sometimes, she may want even more of them. In  that case she opens her hand a little wider and we give her three more, i.e. six packets in total. Occasionally, Amma’s hand is an easy reach and sometimes it is further away.

The process is further complicated by the fact that Amma often moves her hands when she talks with people, so you may think it is time to hand her the packets when in fact she is just gesturing to make a point. She may also reach to a nearby plate to pick up extra candy, a banana, an extra ash packet or a variety of other things.

This time, there were a few other factors to take into account. Whenever Amma is on stage there are many people around her. The prasad-givers have some designated space but it is small. When I was next to Amma, there was a boy around 10 years old who came to her crying. She held and talked to him a bit and then asked him to sit behind her. He took half of the space of the person who times the prasad-givers’ two minute shifts. When the timer moved to make room for him, she had no choice but to take part of my limited space!

Then, a woman in a white sari stood over me talking with Amma. The end of her sari flapped in front of me. That meant I couldn’t even see Amma’s hand. So I was trying to hold the woman’s sari away from me, ducking low to get some kind of view of Amma’s hand, and attempting to get the packets into her hand in the correct way and at the correct time. (Sometimes I think Amma is setting all of this up to play with me!)

When my two minutes were up, the timer tapped me. It is always hard to exit quickly so the next person can get into place before Amma wants more prasad. Once I get out of that person’s way I have to navigate around a fan and a whole lot of people who are sitting on the stage, without stepping on someone. I left laughing at the leelas and celebrating that I had been able to stay focused throughout all of these challenges.

I believe everything happens for a reason and that we can learn from every experience. In the two hours I was in line, and in the two minutes I had handed Amma prasad, I could see that I had been given lessons in patience, focus, flexibility, letting go, equanimity and no doubt many other things. Amma teaches us through her every action.

 

To see all of the posts in this Amritapuri series, click here.