Amma teaches us to be like a bird perched on a dry twig, ready to fly at a moment’s notice. We certainly had an opportunity to practice that teaching during our March 17 work party.
At the beginning of the work party, there were five team leaders present and ready for action. The plan for the day took an unexpected turn when no one from the group who was going to do the March planting showed up.
The native shrubs and ground covers we were planting that day were bare root plants or plugs, so we didn’t have the luxury of planting them over time; they had to be planted that day. When it became clear that the group wasn’t going to come, the team leaders “rolled up their sleeves” and started planting the 65 plants themselves.
I called John (neighbor) and asked if he would carry the wood chips we use for mulch to the various planting areas. Thankfully, he was available and came right away. With his help, we were able to finish the project by 2:00 pm!
I was too busy planting and carrying wood chips to take any photos during this work party, but took pictures of some of the plants and planting areas later.
(You can enlarge the photos by clicking on any picture in the gallery below.)
If we were being “tested” on flexibility, persistence, letting go, accepting what is, doing whatever it takes, equanimity and/or being like a bird perched on a dry twig, I’d say we passed the test!
Last week, I wrote a post about an intriguing mystery that happened after a recent Greenbelt work party. While I experienced a myriad of emotions at that time, it was primarily a positive experience.
There were several other mysteries in process at that time. They were different than the one I had written about in that I was very irritated by each of them.
Soon after I came home from India in mid-January, I found that someone had cut down a large tree somewhere and then dumped it in a part of the Greenbelt that we had cleared. I believed it was done by a “professional” company because all the debris had been sorted by size and much of it had been banded before it was dumped.
(Click on the gallery to enlarge the photos.)
A week later, I noticed that someone had pruned a cedar tree and dumped the branches in front of the first stack. The new debris was neither sorted nor banded, so I assumed that this illegal dump was done by a different person than the previous one.
Shortly before our January 21 work party, I noticed that all of our buckets were missing from the site. Most of them were 5 gallon buckets. Many were bright orange or bright blue. How in the world had someone taken 30 buckets without being noticed? And why? We had used the buckets to hold wood chips, trash, glass and weeds.
Seattle Parks Department removed most of the dump and replaced most of the buckets. The buckets are now chained to the job box that holds our tools. I also placed three Another Future Healthy Forest signs in hopes that it would prevent people from dumping in the reforestation space.
The roads were finally clear and dry yesterday so I drove for the first time since the snow began last Sunday. When I passed the area where I put the three signs, I noticed that one of them was gone.
Grrrr. I guess these are all opportunities to practice equanimity and “putting in the effort and letting go of the results”, but I’m not there.
Friday, August 31, was graduation day for 1,325 undergraduate, post graduate and PhD students from the Amritapuri campus of Amrita University. The graduates came from the Schools of Arts & Sciences, Ayurveda, Biotechnology, Business, and Engineering.
This year, the graduates and their families gathered in the Amritapuri auditorium and waited for Amma and the other dignitaries to arrive. The Chief Guests, were Dr. K Sivan, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation and Amma who is the Chancellor of the University.
Student receiving his diploma
Student receiving her diploma
I was not able to attend the event, but I had been present when the decorating began the night before. The next day, I discovered that the front of the stage had been decorated with beautiful flowers and there were purple curtains that extended from one side of the auditorium to the other. They were so beautiful that they practically took my breath away. The pink lights that were placed behind the curtains made the scene even more striking. As you can see in some of the photos, many banners had been hung around the sides of the auditorium.
I was able to hear the last part of Amma’s speech. You can read some of Amma’s message to the graduating students if you click here.
So much love went into preparing and presenting this ceremony. I have no doubt that the graduates will remember this day for the rest of their lives.
I have had a cyst on my left cheek for about six years. The doctors I have seen during that time have kept an eye on it but the only solution they offered me was to have it surgically removed. I had been told that the surgery would leave a sizable scar. I would have no problem with that if it was a necessary surgery, but since it was cosmetic, I decided to just let it be.
One day last week, a friend asked if I had considered talking to Dr. Sushila about the cyst. Dr. Sushila is the Ayurvedic doctor that runs Amritapuri’s panchakarma program. I’ve known her since my early days in Amritapuri. I thought it was a great idea, so I walked to her office and was able to schedule an appointment for that very day. During the visit, Dr. Sushila suggested I see a doctor who works at the Amrita University School of Ayurveda. The next morning, I took a rickshaw to the Ayurveda hospital/school/clinic.
Since it is a University clinic, there were students who observed the doctor closely. A few of them also assisted her. That first day, the doctor did an examination and then had one of the senior students make a poultice of herbs. I noticed it consisted of some black herbs and something that looked like a small citrus fruit. (I probably didn’t see everything that went into the poultice.) The student used a mortar and pestle to crush up the ingredients. After applying the mixture, she put a bandage over it. (The purpose of the poultice was to see if the cyst would soften overnight.)
That was the first of five daily visits to the clinic. The second morning, the doctor took of the bandage and then removed a scab that had formed on the outside of the cyst years ago. She then began the process of taking out the contents of the cyst. It was important that she also remove the outer sack because if any of the sack remained under my skin, the cyst would regrow. When the doctor finished her work, a different student applied a new bandage.
That day I had heard the doctor tell the students my cyst was a sebaceous cyst. When I looked it up later, I read that the contents of that type of cyst is a “cheese-like matter”. That description matched what I have observed in the past.
There had been some build-up of that matter overnight, so it was clear that not all of the cyst had been removed. The doctor supervised a senior student in removing more of the substance. She instructed me to return to the clinic for next two days. On the fourth and the fifth day there was no indication that the cyst was still producing the matter.
I was told I could remove the bandage at the end of that day. And, at that point, I could also finally wash my hair (I hadn’t been able to wash it because I was supposed to keep the bandages dry). When I took the last bandage off, I was very pleased to discover that there will be almost no scar.
Hopefully, I won’t need to return to the clinic, but if I do, so be it. The procedure caused no pain, so I do not dread the possibility of going back. Since I used to teach nursing students at the University of Washington, I had enjoyed being in the teaching environment.
I feel so grateful, and impressed, that the doctor was willing to give me this level of attention. I can’t imagine being told to come back five days in a row in the U.S. She had so much patience and was so gentle. And she asked repeatedly if I was experiencing pain. The cost was unbelievable. I paid 200 rupees ($3.00) to register at the clinic and 30 rupees (45 cents) for each of the dressings. That’s it!
Leela is a Sanskrit word that is often defined as “God’s play.” Even though the word “play” is used, that doesn’t mean all leelas are fun. They often take the form of lessons and challenges coming in rapid succession. Or they may be a whole series of events that leave you thinking “What in the worldis going on?”
I always experience an increase in leelas when I visit Amritapuri. The leelas that stand out for me on this trip occurred the evening of August 31. You may remember that earlier on the trip, I made a commitment to myself to not sit in the back or far sides of the auditorium and instead to sit in the front of the hall. For several days, I took every opportunity to do that. While I loved being in the front, I also did too much; I can’t sit cross-legged for long periods of time so my legs hurt, and I was getting too tired.
On August 31, I decided I would stay in my room during the evening meditation and the question-and-answer period that followed it; I would just go to the bhajan (devotional singing) program that followed it. During the first program, I would catch up on computer work.
About the time that the meditation started, I received an email saying that someone may have attempted to get into my Comcast account and that I needed to reset the password. After multiple failed attempts at changing the password, I called the U.S. and got help from Comcast directly.
After the call I was able to change the password on both my phone and laptop, but still wasn’t able to get the emails to download. I ended up deleting the Comcast email account on both devices and then reinstalling it. After that I was able to get my emails on the phone, but still couldn’t get them to download onto the laptop. Soon thereafter, I discovered that all of the contacts on my laptop had disappeared. Needless to say, dealing with this took a lot of time and I didn’t get any computer work done during the meditation and Q&A. In fact, I’m still dealing with some of the problems that started that evening.
By then, it was time for me to go to the bhajan program, so I headed to the auditorium. Once there, I discovered Amma had started singing earlier than normal. As I walked into the hall, she was singing the last verse of Morya Re. I couldn’t believe it. I had heard that song for the first time during the 2017 Amritapuri Ganesh celebrations and fell in love with it. I have been with Amma for 29 years and I’ve never heard her sing the song before. I was happy that I got to hear some of it, but longed for the full experience.
I was still determined to sit in the front of the room but the hall was crowded due to the upcoming Krishna’s birthday celebrations. I decided to get to the front area by coming in from the side. Perhaps I could sit against the wall at the bottom of the stage. The front section of floor-sitting area is primarily occupied by the brahmacharinis (female monks) and long-term western residents. That would be an awesome place to sit for bhajans, although at this point I knew I would likely be sitting so close to the stage wall that I might not be able to see anything.
I did find a place to sit there and I was even able to get a glance of Amma from time to time. I was content. Moments later, an Indian brahmacharini asked if I could see Amma, and when I responded “a little” she motioned for me to come sit next to her. I was hesitant at first, because I didn’t want to block anyone’s vision, but she said it was fine. I moved up and felt very appreciative that she had helped me in this way. Then a Western resident, who was even closer to the front, motioned for me to come sit beside her, and I did. If Amma had been sitting on the floor instead on the high stage, I would have been about 20 feet away from her. Needless to say, I had a wonderful time singing bhajans from that area… and felt very taken care of besides.
My conclusions from these experiences:
Was I bad for skipping the meditation and Q&A : No
Was my choice to skip those programs a mistake: No, I made the choice based on self-care and it still feels right. However, choices may have consequences and these did.
Throughout this experience, I had the opportunity to practice behaviors such as persistence, flexibility, equanimity, and letting go. I was also reminded that what I need will be provided.
What I will do differently in the future because of this experience: I will come early to the bhajan program so if Amma starts the program before I expect her to, I will be ready.
To read the previous posts in this series click here.
Preparing for and leading the July 25 work party was a perfect opportunity to practice flexibility, letting go, non-attachment, staying in the moment, equanimity, persistence and a host of other values that I haven’t yet identified. At times, the challenges seemed endless.
Perhaps the first challenge occurred two weeks before the event when I fell while working in the Greenbelt. I found myself dealing with bruised ribs… again. I’ve done my best to stay conscious of my feet while walking on the sloped, uneven land but clearly I wasn’t staying conscious enough. As the work party approached, I purchased a walking stick, something I’d considered doing for a long time, and bought a good pair of hiking shoes. I also threw away the very old tennis shoes that I had been wearing the day I fell. I had known they didn’t give my feet enough support but they were so comfortable and easy to slip on. It felt good to take care of myself by discarding them.
Based on past experience, I expected we would have around 15 students from the UW Introduction to Environmental Science class. I felt very grateful when two of our regular volunteers agreed to be team leaders. Then, I was told that someone I had met in the past had moved to Washington. I discovered that he has lots of experience doing this kind of work. When I told him about the event, he was very interested in helping. So, counting me, we had four staff. Hooray!
That changed when one team leader got sick and it became obvious he wasn’t going to be able to come and another let me know she couldn’t participate. Then the third had a conflict and would only be able to come for part of the time. That left me as the only leader that would be present the whole time.
The day before the work party, we only had two students registered. Another registered that evening. I was surprised that we were going to have such a small work party, but with such a limited number of staff I knew it was for the better. Besides it is fun to have a tiny group from time to time.
Another challenge that we would have to deal with was hot weather. I’m used to having work parties planned out in great detail. When I discovered it would be in the high 80’s or low 90’s that day, I realized I would have to be prepared to let go of my “plans” and instead to practice flexibility and letting go. We would have to work wherever there was shade as it would be too hot to work in the sun. (Most of the work I had planned would have been in direct sunlight.)
Since this work party would be from 1 to 4 pm, I waited until the morning of the event to buy food for snack time. When I got into my car, I used the handle to shut the door and it broke off. I went back in the house to ponder the situation. When I returned to the car, I discovered that in addition to the broken handle, the driver’s door was locked and wouldn’t open. Because of my injured ribs, I couldn’t move into the driver’s seat from the back seat or from the passenger seat. I couldn’t believe it. I decided snack time would have to consist of what I already had in the house, uninteresting as it might be.
Several hours before the beginning of the work party, I set out directional signs on 25th Avenue South, on the Hanford Stairs and on Cheasty Boulevard. As I walked down the stairs going towards Cheasty, I noticed there was a police car parked nearby. And to the north of it, there was yellow tape blocking the road.
Since that was the way the students who took the light rail would be arriving, I walked down the stairs to get a closer look. Once there, I learned that a big tree had fallen during the night and it had knocked down power lines. I told the policewoman that people would be coming to a work party in a few hours and would be walking along that road. She told me that the repair work would take most of the day but assured me that the students would be allowed to walk through. I was still concerned. What if the students saw the tape stretched across the road and didn’t know what to do. Would they turn around and go home? I walked back to my house and sent out notices by voicemail and email.
Shortly before the work party was to begin, I walked towards the stairs again. I could hear, and soon could see, that there were students sitting on the stairs. I thought they might be the UW students I was expecting. As I got closer to them, I could see that they were smoking. When they saw me, they ran away. I realized they were not here for the work party and that they were probably students from a nearby high school who were on their lunch break . They probably ran away because they were caught smoking, but I also laughed to myself when I thought how weird it must have seemed to have an older woman who was wearing a sun hat and an orange safety vest and holding a long walking stick come out of the forest.
Finally, it was almost time for the work party to begin. One of the students came early, so he helped me bring the rest of the supplies into the site. Then the other team leader and the rest of the students arrived… and then a surprise… a fourth person, who had seen the work party on an event calendar joined us. I had wondered if there would be participants who would decide not to come because of the heat. Not only did everyone who had signed up show up but we had an additional person!
We started working in areas that had already been planted, removing wood chips that were touching the stems of the plants as well as digging out invasive blackberries, ivy and bindweed that was sprouting. (We put wood chips throughout the planting areas to hold in moisture and reduce weed growth. The wood chips are not supposed to touch the plant however, so we attempt to keep the space around the plant cleaned out. We refer to that empty space as a “donut hole”. ) As we finished one area, we moved to another, following the shade as much as possible. Every planting area looked so much better after we finished taking out the invasive blackberries and bindweed, and cleaning out the donut holes.
I didn’t remember to take photos during the first part of the work party, but this is what some of the planting areas looked like after we worked on them.
And these photos were taken later.
Removing blackberries from the ferns
Looking at one of the new plants
Removing blackberries from the ferns
After the break, we all moved to the Greenbelt site that is north of our main site. We started by moving a drying rack that had accidentally been constructed in the place where future wood chip piles would go. I was amazed to see that the blackberry canes and other invasive plant cuttings that had been placed on it were already dry. We used that dried debris in constructing the new rack.
[Note: We place the blackberry canes, blackberry root balls, ivy and bindweed on drying racks so that they don’t touch the ground and re-root. The increased airflow that results from having them off of the ground also speeds up the drying process.]
We will be removing a lot more blackberry vines and root balls from this area. It is good to have a new rack ready to receive them.
There was a truck parked in the area I had planned to clear next, but the sun was also there, so we moved further into the Greenbelt instead. It was still hot there, but there was a lot of shade, and a slight breeze.
We cleared an area of blackberries so that we could build another rack there. Once that rack was complete, the students continued digging out blackberries. We also started pulling out ivy. All of the cuttings were placed on the new rack.
Ten to fifteen years ago, many evergreen trees were planted in this part of the Greenbelt. I have been very eager to start freeing them from the invasive vines that had grown over them since then. We began working on one of those trees at this work party. There is much more to do before the tree is fully free, but we made considerable progress. (If you click the gallery to enlarge the photos…. and look closely…. you may be able to see that there is less ivy under and going up the tree!)
Even though the area was shady, we were all tired from working in the heat so stopped a bit sooner than we would have under normal conditions. After putting the tools and other supplies away, we gathered on the stairs to celebrate our achievements and to take a group photo.
Once again, we had accomplished so much in a short period of time. It was another big step in returning this land to the healthy forest it once was.
Not only did I enjoy leading another work party, but I had also survived a myriad of challenges and had had an abundance of opportunity to practice flexibility, letting go, non-attachment, staying in the moment, equanimity, persistence and more. While I know that these experiences will help me grow, I hope the frequency of the challenges will slow down for a while!
I have been writing individual posts about many of the things I have experienced over the last two weeks but decided it is time for me to update you on some of the other parts of my day-to-day life in Amritapuri.
The loud music from a temple in town played from 5 or 6 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m. my first weeks here. I learned that the music came from a Narayana temple that was in the midst of a 41-day festival. I had no idea when the festival started or when it would end. One day last week, the music began as usual but it was MUCH louder than it had been the other days. It reminded me of the time in the early 90’s when the music coming from that side of the water started at 5 a.m. and lasted until 2 a.m. the next day, day in and day out. While the music had been loud this year, it was nowhere near as loud as it had been back then. I had even enjoyed listening to it when I was in my room. But I did not enjoy the blasting music that came into my room on that early morning last week.
The following morning, I slept later than I had slept since I’d been here. It wasn’t until someone else mentioned it that I realized there was no music coming from town. The 41-day festival was over! They must have played the music louder on that last day to mark the ending.
When I started this section I labeled it construction. Soon it became obvious that I should change the heading to equanimity. Amma teaches us to strive for equanimity in all situations. I have had plenty of opportunities to practice that lesson on this trip.
This has been the first time in the 28 years I have been coming here when there was no construction noise. That quiet ended a few days ago when workers started making the stair railings in my building higher. The railings had already been raised on the first four floors so they started this time on the 5th floor, my floor. So for the last few days I’ve been dealing with the sound of an electric saw cutting through metal pipe. I have NOT been feeling equanimity.
1) After I finished writing this part of my post, it occurred to me that they had finished my 5th floor railing in one day and the pipes have still been being cut on my floor. Is it possible that they are using the 5th floor as their staging ground and the racket will continue until they finish all 16 floors?
2) I went to lunch shortly after writing Note 1. While I was there, I was griping about the noise and the possibility that it might not end for days. When I returned to my room, the saw, the workers and most of the pipe was gone. I don’t know if they’ve already finished the job, moved higher up in the building, or just stopped for the day. Regardless, if this was a test, I flunked it.
The other area where I have struggled to maintain a sense of peace has centered around having ants in my flat. For the most part they are not a big problem now, but when they come back in large numbers, I have no equanimity.
I promised I would publish one more post about the Christmas play but that is not to be. In the past, I have been able to get play photos and audio recordings of some of the songs but that is not possible this year. I will put some of my photos from the rehearsals in this post instead. As you look at the pictures, keep in mind that the cast had only 15 days to make the costumes, backdrops and props; learn the acting roles, dances, songs and musical accompaniment; make power point slides in English and Malayalam; and figure out the sound and lighting and much more.
When I meet people by watching them rehearse for a play, I tend to think of them in relation to that role forever. This year, I find myself doing that with the actors who played the gorilla and the giraffe. I saw the person who played the giraffe on the bridge to Vallikavu yesterday and asked him if he missed being a giraffe. I told him I’m likely to continue thinking of him in that way. He laughed.
I have been handing prasad to Amma on most darshan days and doing the prasad assistant seva twice a week. I love those sevas. In addition, I have cleaned rudraksha seeds twice and plan to do it again. I’ve also been helping Chaitanya in the cafe in the morning, making the pancake batter and helping getting everything needed for the orders, such as putting honey, butter or peanut butter on toast or adding oatmeal, ragi porridge or hash browns to orders. I then pass the plates to the person who gives them to the customers. Sometimes I cut up tomatoes, wiping down counters or do other tasks. Last night, I helped keep the bakery and the cold drink counters stocked. I’ve been enjoying participating in this way.
In the past, devotees climbed the rudraksha trees to harvest the fruit. During that period, I remember seeing volunteers separating the fruit from the seeds and then brushing the seeds clean. I learned this year that, at some point, they realized they were harvesting the fruit before it was ripe. Now they wait until the fruit ripens and falls from the trees. After the fruit falls, the animals and other critters eat the fruit. Then the garden staff can just pick-up the seeds from the ground.
Once the majority of the fruit has been removed, the seed is soaked. After soaking, any remaining fruit is much easier to remove and the seed can be brushed clean. It is still a painstaking and slow process but much less so than when they were dealing with unripened fruit.
I attended a funeral last week. I always feel honored to participate in that experience. It is unlikely I will be in Amritapuri when I die, but every time I see a funeral, I think of how wonderful it would be to have Amma at mine. While I love that image, I fully believe that she will be there to meet me when I pass no matter where I am in the world.
I love the increased level of synchronities that happen whenever I am in Amritapuri. I remember two from last week.
The first one occurred on Thursday. In the early evening, Amma told the person in charge of Western tokens he should hand out more darshan (hug) tokens. He gave one to the person sitting next to me, but didn’t say anything to me. I wasn’t feeling the need for a hug so I didn’t think twice about it. As I watched more and more people I knew lining up for a hug I began to feel the familiar longing… but I also felt tired. I started to walk towards the cafe but decided to not go that direction because I might run into the person handing out tokens and if I did, I would have to make a choice. I turned instead to go to my room and instantly walked into him. So much for avoiding putting myself in that position. He offered me a token. I laughed and took it… and had a wonderful darshan.
On Saturday evening, I was passing out plates of food in the cafe when Chaitanya told me I could leave early. I was surprised that someone was taking over for me and wondered if I had done something wrong. That didn’t seem at all likely, but it went through my mind.
As I walked out of the cafe, Swami Amritasvarupananda was singing Manyukal Mutum, my favorite Swami Ayyappa bhajan. There was no doubt in my mind that this was one of the synchronicities that are so common for me here. I sat and listened to the rest of the song. When it was over, I walked out of the auditorium only to find three Ayyappa devotees standing in front of me. They were the first I had seen on this trip. I believed this was no accident. (To learn more about my Ayyappa experiences from the past, read Story 2 and 3 in Overcoming Myself.)
To read the previous posts in this series click here.
Yesterday was the first day since I’ve been here that I didn’t take a nap. As I walked back to my room around 9:30 p.m. I noticed something on the wall ahead of me. I had no idea what it was so walked closer to it. In that moment, it flew off, drawn by a nearby light. I realized it was a gigantic moth. It must have had a four inch wing span, or at least that was what it seemed like in the short time I had to observe it. I walked away so I could look at it from a distance. In a minute or so, the moth flew back to the wall. I walked back to take a photo of it.
While I’m curious, I hope to never meet one of these again. I suppose this is one of those situations that I should learn to accept with equanimity but I’m not there!
To read the previous posts in this series click here.
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.
My favorite joke, and the only one I ever remember, is: Q: Do you know how to make God laugh? A: Tell him your plans for your life.
I think that is so true. There have been many turns in my life that I would have never predicted. If someone had told me those changes were coming, I would have said they were crazy. The most notable example is my relationship with Amma
At the time I met her, I had described myself as being somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist for 20 years. In those days, even hearing the word God made me feel sick to my stomach. I was a very logical, head based person and had no interest in spirituality or spiritually minded people.
In 1989, a new friend told me there was a woman saint coming to Seattle soon and invited me to attend her programs. My mind said NO but what came out of my mouth was OK.
My whole life changed the night I met Amma. Six weeks later, I was at her New Hampshire retreat and six months later I was in India. I have gone to India 26 times since that first visit. I have had other life plans change in unexpected ways since then, but none were as remarkable as that one.
On May 31 of 2017, I “plan” to retire. That is the time of year that Amma begins her annual North American tour so I have “planned” to attend some of those programs and then go to Amritapuri from mid-August until mid-January. I don’t remember when I developed this “plan”, but I think it has been firmly ingrained in my mind since I was in India this time last year.
One day in August of this year, though, I woke up thinking that I wasn’t going to watch another tree in the lot behind my house die. Al, my former husband, and I had bought that property in 1973. I sold it in the mid-80’s and it changed hands again about ten years later. When Seattle formed the Cheasty Greenbelt, that owner sold it to the city.
The property was originally beautiful but none of the subsequent owners did anything with it, so blackberries, ivy, morning glories and bamboo took over. Smothered by the invasive plants, many trees died.
After I had that early morning thought, I grabbed my shears and started to work. I enlisted my friend, Ramana, to help clear some of the land. While Ramana worked on the major clearing, I focused on freeing specific trees.
I found so many beautiful and fascinating things on the land and know that there are many more buried under the remaining blackberries.
One day, it occurred to me that we could make this project a GreenFriends project. (GreenFriends is the environmental arm of Embracing the World, Amma’s network of humanitarian projects.) I called the people in our satsang who have coordinated our tree planting and habitat restoration work in the past. They were very interested in being involved. In October and November, they spent some time working on the lot with me.
We also talked with the Green Seattle Partnership about becoming one of their volunteer groups. In March, we will take the Green Seattle Partnership Forest Steward orientation. Once we do that, we will be able to host larger work parties.
Our project will be supervised by the Seattle Parks Department and the city will provide the saplings and other greenery that we will eventually plant there. The Park Department will do any work that requires power tools. If there is enough interest in the project, we may decide to clear all four lots that are in that strip of Greenbelt!
I feel a great deal of passion about this work and it has been on my mind since I’ve been in Amritapuri. Even before I left Seattle, it occurred to me that August and September would be prime time for working on that land and if I was in Amritapuri, I wouldn’t be available to organize the work.
I have an ever growing sense that I won’t be going to Amritapuri in August and that my path is taking a turn that gives working with nature more priority than spending extra time in India.
Starting last week, I found another thought creeping into my mind. I have kept close track of world events via CNN throughout this trip. I’m beginning to wonder if I will even make it to India next year. It seems like there is so much potential for war.
My years with Amma have taught me a lot about staying in the moment and not holding on to plans. They have also taught me that Amma will hold me close to her no matter what comes my way. I trust that my life will unfold as it is supposed to and acknowledge that I have no idea what that will look like. What I do expect is that I will be participating in at least part of the Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu chant for world peace that will be held in the Amritapuri temple from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on January 1.
Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings in the world be happy.
Peace, Peace, Peace
I’ve mentioned before that Amma teaches us to be like a bird perched on a dry twig, ready to fly at any moment. That lesson has been front and center for the play cast during the last three years.
Five or six years ago, when the play was on a darshan day, Amma said to hold it on the auditorium floor since she would be using the main stage for darshan. The participants built a small stage for the performance.
In December of 2014, Christmas Eve was again on a darshan day. Since the cast believed the play would be on the auditorium floor again, they were very creative in how they built the stage. It had three levels so that three scenes could take place at once.
Amma is asked where she wants to hold the play 3-5 days before the event. In 2014, they were shocked when she said that she wanted them to perform it on the main stage. She would finish darshan early, and watch it with us. While everyone was delighted that Amma wanted to watch, they only had 72 hours to adjust all the backdrops and choreography to fit on the smaller stage.
In 2015, the play was once again on a darshan day. While they knew they couldn’t count on it, they planned for the play to be on the main stage since Amma had wanted it that way the previous year. Days before the performance, she told them they would need to use the auditorium floor since she would be giving darshan on the stage. Everyone flew into action, building a stage for the auditorium floor and adjusting everything that needed to be adjusted. That year they just took it in stride, seeing it as the opportunity for growth that it was meant to be.
The December 2016 play would normally have been on a non-darshan day but, since it was a Leap Year, it ended up being on a Saturday, another darshan day. This time the play was planned so it would fit on either the stage or the auditorium floor. The leaders kept in mind that Amma could come up with an unexpected third alternative and that is exactly what she did. When asked where the play should be held, Amma informed them she would let them know on the day of the program.
While they were jolted by this response, they went on preparing the play, envisioning it in both places. The day before the event, thinking Amma, because of the size of the crowd, would most likely choose to hold the play on the auditorium floor, they installed the lighting and the backdrop. The gigantic backdrop was rolled and hoisted 30-40 feet above the auditorium floor.
On Christmas Eve morning, Amma was asked once again where she wanted the performance. She said she would decide later in the day. They still didn’t have a definitive answer at 6:00 p.m.
It soon became obvious that Amma wanted to see the play with us, so the backdrop and the lights were taken down around 7 p.m. I heard that it took 30 people to remove the huge structure of lights and carry it to the main stage. Both items were then reinstalled on the stage, while Amma was giving darshan.
Soon the cast were in their make up and costumes. All the props were ready to be put on the stage. Nothing else could be done until Amma finished darshan and the stage was cleared.
Darshan was over at 10:30 p.m. It usually takes hours to do the play set-up but they accomplished it all in an hour; the play started at 11:30 p.m. and proceeded without a hitch. The music was wonderful, the acting was wonderful and the dancing was wonderful. Never has one of their plays gone so smoothly.
The cast had handled all of the challenges with such grace, knowing that everything they experienced had purpose. What a lesson it had been in flexibility, persistence, patience, non-attachment, equanimity, and being like the bird perched on a dry twig.
I will write more about the play in a future post, but for now I will share some pictures I found on Amma’s Facebook page today. They will give you an idea of the quality of the costumes and backdrops and even glimpses of the acting.
The story was about Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, with the emphasis being on the loving father. The first photo is of the father, the second Jesus, the third of one of the piggies, the fourth is a village scene and the fifth is of the prodigal son in despair.
After the play, Amma sang some songs and led a meditation. The photo below was taking after we sang a very rousing bhajan. She often ends those kind of songs by saying “Mata Rani Ki Jai” (Victory to the Goddess/Divine Mother) over and over and we respond “Jai” (Victory) each time with arms up. That is what you are seeing in this photo.
If you look closely you can see Amma. (The picture also shows you what the auditorium looks like and gives you a sense of how many people were present.)
Amma ended the evening by passing out Christmas cake to the thousands of people who were present. What a day it had been.
When I arrived at the head of the prasad giving line on Christmas Eve, Amma started hugging people faster. Our “shift” for handing Amma the candy and ash she gives to each person who comes to her for a hug lasts either two or three minutes. Usually the prasad giver only has the opportunity to hand her a few packets. Because she was going fast at that moment, I was able to give her many packets. I had a lot of fun.
I handed Amma prasad again on Christmas day. This time when I reached her, the person who was being hugged asked Amma a question. Amma had lots to say so I was able watch. I didn’t get an opportunity to hand her packets during my time, but I didn’t care. It was nice to be so close to her and after all, I had handed Amma so many packets the day before.
When I left the stage where Amma was sitting, one of the brahmacharis (male monks) started singing Karunalaye Devi, a song I mentioned in a previous post. Hearing it again felt like a gift.
When I returned to my room, I looked to see if the song was available on YouTube. I was surprised to discover that Amma has a YouTube channel that contains videos of many of her songs.
A version of Karunalaye Devi had recently been uploaded. The singing takes place in the Amritapuri auditorium, but there are also darshan scenes from her Indian tours. The man in the photo below is Swami Amritasvarupananda, one of Amma’s senior swamis.
The afternoon of Christmas Day, I participated in the play cast celebration. It is always so much fun, and, considering all the challenges, they had even more than normal to celebrate about. At the end of the party, we heard that Amma had said any ashram visitor who hadn’t had darshan during the previous week could come for darshan that night. Since the crowds are so large at this time of year, we hadn’t even considered going until January.
It made for another late night, but it was so worth it. What a wonderful Christmas season it has been.
To see all of the posts in this Amritapuri series, click here.
It is not uncommon for my mind to be chaotic even when I am in a peaceful setting. I long to get to the point where my mind is at peace regardless of how much chaos is around me. I have a long way to go to meet that goal.
I am getting plenty of opportunity to work on that issue in my Amritapuri Tai Chi class. Tai Chi, by its nature, is meditative. It slows down my mind and body more than anything else I have ever done.
I would guess that most Tai Chi classes are held in peaceful settings with soft music playing or silence in the background. The place where our class meets in Amritapuri is gorgeous. There are palm trees, views of the beach and the Arabian Sea, eagles flying overhead, etc. As I’ve mentioned before, though, there are also trucks, bicycles, buses and cars that occasionally go through the space where we meet.
With most of life’s lessons, it seems like once you have adjusted to one level, another dimension is added. This year has definitely demonstrated that process. During my first class, I was stung by a red ant. It is amazing how much a bite by a tiny ant can hurt. In fact, the bite was still stinging hours after the class finished.
Soon thereafter, a red ant hill showed up at the perimeter of the space we use for the class, so it has been important for me to stay conscious of that danger, and to make sure new students are made aware of it. (I have stepped on a red ant nest twice in the 27 years I’ve been coming to India, once in the daylight and once at night. It is an unforgettable experience; one I hope never to repeat.)
Starting with our second class, students taking a silent meditation retreat have done a walking meditation in front of us during part of our class. They don’t disturb us but I’m tempted to watch them instead of staying focused on my own work.
In last week’s post Be Like a Bird Perched on a Dry Twig, I talked about the third class when there were even more vehicles in the area than normal. Midway through the class, a truck pulled into “our” space and parked. The workers got out of the truck and started carrying their supplies to the nearby construction site. Since their work had priority, we had to move to a smaller area, one that was bordered by 8 ashram cows lounging in the shade!
Tai Chi is so powerful that it was reasonably easy for me to find that place of peace and contentment even in these circumstances, although I certainly didn’t have single minded focus.
On my fourth class, another set of challenges were added to those that I have already described. (BTW, the cows have not returned to the beach, at least a that time of day, since the third class.) The fourth class was held on a weekend, the first weekend since Amma returned from her European and U.S. tour. The crowds coming for darshan (hugs) were very big that day. At one point, there were 14 vehicles parked on the beach.
Then something new happened. At first, one or two village men started removing carts of sand from the beach to somewhere in the village. Next, two women started a chain. One woman would carry a big pan of sand on her head and walk to a spot next to our class. She would then shift the pan to the head of a second woman who would carry it out to the main road. We often had to divert our path to stay out of their way.
Fifteen minutes before that class was over, a cement mixer started making its piercing noise in the construction area near to us. By that time, the whole situation had become funny.
During the fifth class, a third woman was added to the chain of sand carriers. On the sixth, there were all of the previous challenges, except the cows. In addition, a new layer of sand had been added to our area 0f the beach. The sand was beautiful and felt good on my feet, but it hadn’t been compacted yet, so there was no smooth or level ground to walk on. That made doing the Tai Chi moves much more difficult.
As you can see, doing Tai Chi on the beach in Amritapuri is definitely an opportunity for me to find peace in the midst of chaos. It is also an opportunity to see the humor in the situations that arise in life.
To look at previous posts in this Amritapuri series, click here.