Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: January 4-13, 2017

Even though I’m back in Seattle now, it is important to me that I tell you stories about the last part of this visit to Amritapuri.

Baby Feeding Photos

In Hinduism, it is traditional for a baby to be fed its first solid food as part of a sacred ceremony. When a parent asks Amma to perform that ritual, she holds the baby on her lap and feeds him or her some payasam, a sweet pudding. An ashram photographer takes a photo of Amma feeding the baby; thus, providing the parents a memento of the experience.

Soon after I arrived at Amma’s Amritapuri ashram this year, I noticed that there were five big photos of Amma under the windows of the outside portion of the west wall of the auditorium stage.  I had never noticed them there before.

The pictures were visible to every person who walked up the ramp that goes from the auditorium floor to the stage. From a distance, the photos looked identical. They were each about 40 inches high and 24 inches wide. When I saw the photos up close, and read the sign that was next to them, I learned that the big photos of Amma were actually comprised of tiny photos of Amma feeding babies. Each big photo contained pictures of 6000 different baby feedings. I remember believing they were tile mosaics but now that I think about it, I’m having doubts about that.

Since each of the baby feeding photos were of a different baby, and there were five large pictures of Amma, 30,000 babies feedings were part of that exhibit. I was intrigued and astounded by that display throughout my trip; astounded by the display itself and by the fact that Amma has performed that many baby feedings.

 

Friends

Many of my friends were participating in a nine-day silent retreat (meditation, yoga, silence) during the end of my trip. It was over the evening of the 11th and I was on the road to the airport by 5:00 a.m. on the 12th. It felt strange to leave not having seen so many friends for nine days. A highlight though was that my friend Ramana arrived from Seattle on the 9th. He and I hadn’t been in Amritapuri at the same time for several years. It was fun to spend some time with him during the last days of my visit.

Synchronicities

I was trying to get some information for friends who were coming to India a few days after my departure. I was walking to an ATM when my friend Do walked up to me and asked if I had been able to get the information I was needing. When I said no, he told me that Prabha could probably help. I proceeded to the ATM. As I was returning to my building, I had a momentary glimpse of someone who looked like Prabha. I wasn’t sure since I was seeing her from behind. After a moment’s thought, I decided to check it out. It was her, and she did give me the information I needed. I found out that Do had seen her right after I talked to him, and told her that I was looking for her and why, so by the time I talked to her, she already knew what information I was looking for. This whole scenario seemed so synchronistic to me and it was all the more amazing because there were around 5000 people living in the ashram. There are always some people I don’t see during my whole visit, and all of these connections were made within a five minute period.

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I never know what Amma’s schedule will be when I plan a trip. Her India tour dates are often not announced until a week or two before the event occurs. As it turned out, Amma started her South India tour hours after I boarded the plane for Seattle. Sreejit and Chaitanya were both going on that tour. So, we all left the ashram on the same day. Perfect timing!

Lessons

Many experiences and lessons were contained within this trip. I visited gardens, farms and fields. Through those experiences, I came to some sense of peace around the fact that not all of the trees, shrubs and ground covers in our Seattle forest restoration project will live. This kind of work is trial and error and will also be affected by weather, soil conditions and many other factors. Whether or not a plant survives is not in my hands. My job is to put in the effort and let go of the results.

My experience with the ants was a challenge that reminded me to “wait, watch and wonder” rather than immediately react. It also gave me the opportunity to practice equanimity. Sometimes I was able to get there and sometimes not.

Being able to witness and participate in the production of the Christmas play, as always, gave me joy. It also reminded me that when we work together great things can be accomplished. I could see how far the cast have come in learning to take whatever comes. No matter the challenge, the participants do what needs to be done and hold on to a positive attitude throughout. Their growth is obvious and their work inspires many.

One of our Seattle satsang members died while I was in Amritapuri. I still can’t believe that is true; it feels surreal. His death reminds me to make every day count.

My respect for the importance of “going with the flow” rather than trying to force things to happen has grown. When I try to force my will, I am likely to exhaust myself and cause myself pain. During the month I was in Amritapuri, there were so many times that a person I needed to talk to walked in front of me moments after I became aware of the need.

Here are some of my favorite memories from this trip. There are so many others that I don’t have photos of, such as my darshans with Amma and time with my family and friends.

Traveling back to Seattle

My trip home would be as long as it always is: a 2 1/2 hour taxi from the ashram to the airport, a 4 hour flight from Trivandrum to Dubai, followed by a 14 1/2 hour flight from Dubai to Seattle. This time I planned to take a LYFT taxi from SeaTac airport to my house.

For several years, I have made the trip more tolerable by taking a long layover in Dubai. During that time, I have stayed at the Dubai International Airport Hotel. It is expensive but the opportunity to sleep, or at least have my feet up, in a quiet room for 15-19 hours has been well worth it.

Sometime during this last year, I heard that Emirates would give me a free hotel and food if I asked for it. They provided the accommodation without question. Having the free hotel turned out to be a mixed blessing though. I hadn’t realized I would have to go through immigration and that took well over an hour. Also, I didn’t know where to go when I got to the baggage claim area. Everyone I asked told me to go to exit 1. When I finally found that exit, and the hotel bus, I was told I  should have checked in with someone in the terminal. Luckily, that person brought a group of people to the bus at that moment and I was able to get on the bus.

Once I was at the hotel, there was a very long check in line. The hotel was also very noisy. While I was waiting in the check in line, I decided it was unlikely I would make this choice again.  That thought was followed by another; if the hotel room had a bathtub I would consider returning. After a month of cold showers, taking a tub bath would be heavenly. (At Dubai International airport hotel there was  only a shower.) One of the first things I saw when I entered the room was the bathtub!

There were more challenges at the hotel than the ones I mentioned above, but the hotel staff were very friendly and the food was excellent. Another challenge occurred when I returned to the airport for my flight to Seattle. After going through immigration again, I looked for a restroom. I was in the old wing of the airport and every restroom had a very long line. I finally found one with a somewhat shorter line at the end of the wing, so joined the line. That restroom ended up having only two stalls. If I had been staying in the airport hotel, I would have been able to stay in my room until it was time to board the plane.

Was the bathtub and the free room and food worth it to me or will I choose to pay more and stay in the airport? Only time will tell.

Greenbelt restoration project

Within five minutes of walking into my house, I changed shoes and went outside to look at the plants in the Greenbelt. They seem to be surviving well. None had been broken by falling branches and the snow didn’t seem to have affected them. I was so excited and eager to start the restoration work again. Our first work party will be on Sunday, January 21.

Jet lag

Even now, I am in the throws of jet lag. I really dislike the experience of turning my night and day around (there is a 13 1/2 hour time difference between India and Seattle). Sometimes I can’t sleep for more than 2-3 hours at a time for many weeks. While my sleep is still disrupted, I think it is going to be shorter this time. I returned to Seattle a week ago today, and last night I slept 5 hours. May that shift continue!

The end and the next beginning

While I could write so much more about this trip, I hope that my posts have given you an idea what it is like to be in Amritapuri. Every trip is filled with adventure, challenge and learning. Even though I’ve only been back in Seattle a week and I’ve been hampered by jet lag, I have had so many experiences since I’ve returned. I look forward to posting about them in the next few days.

To read the previous Amritapuri posts in this series click here.

“Karuna, Go with the Flow”

Devotees in the Pacific Northwest decided to celebrate Amma’s birthday this year by planting trees. Our goal was to plant 64 trees over a 7 week period but we far exceeded that number. More than 100 people participated in the project and our final count was 309 trees!

The December issue of our PNW GreenFriends newsletter was devoted to sharing stories and photos from the tree planting. Since Amma did not come to North America this fall, some of us decided to create a booklet from the newsletter and give Amma a copy when we were in Amritapuri.

This week there were fourteen devotees in Amritapuri who had participated in the project either by planting trees or by helping with the organization. Tirtha, who came up with the idea of tree planting for Amma’s birthay, was one of those people. I was so glad she was here.

We planned to present Amma the booklet on Thursday December 21st.  Finding a time when all of us would be available was quite a feat. We settled on 8 p.m.

The first bump in the road came when darshan was changed from the big auditorium to the small temple. The temple stage is very tiny so there would be no way for us to all be in front of Amma at the same time. The second challenge occurred when Western devotees were asked to come for darshan starting at 2:00 p.m. There was no reasonable way to get all of our people together at that time but we did decide to move the presentation from 8 to 7 and trust that the darshan program wouldn’t end before then.

Tirtha and I needed to find everyone to let them know of the time change. Within five minutes of the decision, almost all of the people involved walked in front of me; I didn’t have to look for any of them. Tirtha found two of the Victoria devotees soon thereafter. There was only one more person to locate. I knew he was doing seva (volunteer work) until 6:30 but I didn’t know what kind of seva it was and I didn’t know what building he was living in. The offices were closed by then so I didn’t know what to do. He was someone who had a lot of desire to participate in this presentation, so I became increasingly frantic about finding him.

Lakshmi, a long time Amritapuri resident who also helps organize and run the darshan line, had agreed to translate for us once we reached Amma. When I saw her in front of the temple in my frantic state, she said, “Karuna, Go with the Flow.” I knew she was right and I also knew that my seeing almost all of the people in the first five minutes was a good example of the flow that happens when something is meant to be.

I believe that letting go is not permission to be passive and assume everything will work out without any effort on my part. I knew, though, that I had put in plenty of effort. Instead of continuing with my frantic search, I decided to go to my room and take a cold shower even though it was 6:45. After a quick shower, I looked at my email. In that moment, a new email arrived. It was from the devotee I had been looking for, saying he was heading to the temple. I was so glad I had decided to trust the flow and had taken the shower. That helped me cool off as well as calm down. And what a good example it was of the benefits of “Going with the Flow.”

By 7:15 everyone had arrived, and we joined the darshan line. It moved much faster than I had expected. Lakshmi had suggested that since we couldn’t come in front of Amma as a group, we should go one after another. I would hand her the booklet and then each person in the group that followed would say “I planted trees” to Amma. Lakshmi even told them how to say those words in Malayalam.

Before long, I was in front of Amma. She looked through the booklet and was clearly happy. Then I was in her arms, my favorite place to be! Afterwards, I sat in an area where I could see each member of our group receive their hug.

I loved how our presentation had turned out and also appreciated the reminder of the importance of “going with the flow.”

If you would like to read the GreenFriends newsletter that became Amma’s booklet click here.
To read the previous Amritapuri posts in this series click here.