Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 27, 2019 – January 4, 2020

Sunrise and Sunset Photos

The sunrises and sunsets in Amritapuri are spectacular. I’ve been frustrated, both here and in Seattle, that my sunrise and sunset photos never come close to the view I see with my eyes. One day on this visit, I did an internet search to see if I could find tips for improving those photos.

One of the tips I read was to turn on the HDR setting. I took the photos below soon after I did that. The HDR photo looks crisper and I like it better. I look forward to experimenting with HDR and trying some of the other sunrise and sunset photo tips after I return to Seattle.

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HDR

Amma’s Paripally Orphanage

Generally, during December, groups of children from Amma’s orphanage in Paripally come to Amritapuri to receive Amma’s darshan (blessing in the form of a hug). This year, I noticed that there were no such groups and wondered why. I got my answer Christmas week when it was announced that Amma was going to the orphanage to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Everyone was invited to attend. I heard there would be cultural performances followed by Amma giving darshan to each of the children.

I decided not to go, but I did reflect on the past. My first trip to Amritapuri was in January 1990, a few months after Amma had taken on responsibility for the orphanage. I have been there several times. The visit that I remember best was when Amma stopped at the orphanage after she held programs in Trivandrum. Those of us who had attended the Trivandrum programs went with her.

Oh how it has changed over the years. The children who lived at the orphanage when Amma had taken responsibility for it were starving. Under Amma’s care, the orphanage and the generations of children who have lived there have thrived.

I had assumed that several busloads of ashramites and visitors had gone to the orphanage celebration, but during bhajans at the ashram that night it became obvious that most of the ashram had gone. There was no sound system in the auditorium and none of the normal bhajan leaders were present. The number of people in the normally packed auditorium was tremendously reduced.

I had expected the orphanage visit to be a half a day experience but it turned out to be an all day one. The buses started returning to Amritapuri twelve hours after they had departed that morning.

I learned later that many previous alumni and teachers attended the event, in addition to the current orphanage residents. They had also received Amma’s darshan that day. To read more about the festivities… and to see photos… go to: https://www.amritapuri.org/76883/19parippally.aum.

New Year’s Eve

Some visitors left the ashram after Christmas, but many more arrived. In fact, I think the New Year crowds were bigger than at any other time during my visit.

New Year’s Eve was similar to Christmas Eve in that after dinner Amma came back to the auditorium. There were performances, Amma’s New Year’s talk, singing and other activities. One of those activities was a chant for peace in the world.

Like Christmas Eve, I knew it would be unhealthy for me to stay up late and I had a 7:30 a.m. cafe shift, so I watched three or four of the performances and went to bed. Unlike Christmas Eve, I went to sleep immediately and slept through the night.

Again, I feel sad about all that I missed, but know I made the right decision. I also believed I had Amma’s support in that decision because there were several times on the U.S. tour last summer, after I talked to her about my balance problems, that during late night programs she told me to go to bed!

To read about and see photos from the New Year’s Eve programs, go to: https://www.amritapuri.org/77089/20newyear.aum

Prasad Assist Seva

Amma continued changing the directions for the prasad-givers every time I did the assistant job. I got a bit cocky about being able to go with the flow. That cockiness ended the day that darshan was held in the temple.

I wasn’t worried about the change since I had done another prasad assist job in the past and I knew the system that had been used when darshan was held in that location. As strange as it may seem, I didn’t consider the possibility that anything could have changed.

I panicked when I came to my shift only to discover that the chairs had been removed from the area and everyone, except for a few people in the darshan line, was sitting on the floor. I didn’t know how I would get down and I was even more concerned about how I was going to get up. That would not have been a problem in the past but that day it seemed like a BIG PROBLEM!

I also discovered that there were other changes. There was no longer a small line of people waiting on the balcony to give prasad and I didn’t know where the other prasad assistant was. There was no way I could be repeatedly getting up and down as the job often requires. I was near tears and felt desperate.

I was able to get down and had no trouble sitting on the floor throughout the shift. I talked to my supervisor about not being able to get up and down and she let the other prasad assistant know that I would not be available in that way. When it was time, two people helped me get up. Even though I had been shaken, I had survived the challenge and done well.

Shoes/Thongs

In India, people take off their shoes/thongs when they enter a temple or a house. In Amritapuri, we wear shoes/thongs in the auditorium now but still take them off when we are in the temple and when we go up on the auditorium stage for darshan. As a result, there is always a hodgepodge of thongs going every direction not far from those areas.

One day during this time period, I watched as one of the darshan line monitors meticulously picked up pairs of thongs with her toes and one after another placed them in straight lines. It was like a work of art. No one took the hint though. People kept taking them off and leaving them wherever they fell. The line monitor soon gave up.

This scene reminded me of a time when Swami Paramatmanda, one of Amma’s senior Swamis, remarked that how we place our footwear when we take them off, is representative of the state of our minds. That felt true to me then and it still does, or at least it is representative of MY “monkey” mind. I usually take off my shoes in the entry way when I enter my house, but there are times when I take them off in the hallway, or the kitchen, or the bathroom, and occasionally even in the living or dining room. And I certainly don’t take care to see that they are placed side-by-side neatly.

Monkeys

On Tuesday, December 31, there were FOUR monkeys in the café courtyard, two big ones high up in a tree, the small one that I’ve seen many times during this visit and one that is considerably smaller than the one I consider small. They apparently had been chased away from the back of the café earlier because they were stealing food.

One monkey had been hard enough to deal with but now there appeared to be a whole family. I watched as the small one started opening trash can lids and attempted to turn over the bins. Luckily, the trash cans the monkey looked into didn’t have food in them and it was unsuccessful in turning any of them over. I can imagine the mess it would have made if it had found the trash cans that held the food waste. (In Amritapuri the recycling stations have separate bins for hard items, soft plastic, paper, food waste, etc.)

Weather

Two years ago, it was hotter than normal when I came to Amritapuri in December. Last year it was back to “normal.” I got fooled into thinking the weather might not be shifting. But this year it’s been even hotter than it was two years ago. As I write this, it is 90 degrees and very humid. I’m sweating even though I am in my room with a large fan nearby.

I am so ready to be back in Pacific Northwest weather which this week is in the upper to mid 40’s for a high and high 30’s to low 40’s for a low. Hummmmm. I see the forecast for the Sunday after I get back is for snow. Oh, well that could change by then, or it could just be a little bit of snow that goes away fast.

To read previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 21-26, 2019

University of Arizona – Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham Partnership

I have learned more about the event that took place in the ashram auditorium early in my stay. At that time, a Letter of Intent was signed by University of Arizona and Amrita University (Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham) representatives. The agreement marked the beginning of dual degree programs at both the baccalaureate and master’s levels.

Two hundred students will participate in the study abroad program for at least one semester each year. An 11-member delegation came from the University of Arizona for the signing. To learn more about the partnership go to: https://www.amritapuri.org/76232/19arizona.aum

A group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera

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Other groups

One of the first times I went to Amma for darshan, a group of about 60 young Indian men and women were brought to the stage. They looked like they might be college students, but were not in the uniforms that students at her colleges usually wear. When they first came on the stage, most sat and watched Amma give darshan (hugs). After some of the group had received their hugs, other members joined the darshan line. Amma talked to several of them for a long time. I never found out who they were but wondered if they had been working in one of her humanitarian projects.

One day last week, about 20 members of an Israeli group were led to the stage during darshan. Later, I learned they were from Tel Aviv University and had been doing something with Ammachi Labs. I found this description of Ammachi Labs on amritapuri.org.

AMMACHI Labs is an academic and research center at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham that brings an interdisciplinary approach to addressing societal challenges. We create innovative educational tools and skill development solutions to help uplift entire communities. In our commitment to rural villages of India – the very communities that stand to benefit the most from skill development – we are as excited about our continuing development of community outreach solutions as we are about our focused R&D for CHI, robotics and automation, haptic technologies and applied robotics.

To read more about Ammachi Labs go to: https://www.amrita.edu/center/ammachi

Br. Dayamrita Chaitanya

Br. Dayamrita Chaitanya is the brahmachari (male monk) who is responsible for Amma’s North American satsangs. He has been with Amma for about 35 years. He and I have been in Amritapuri at the same time before but it generally has only been for a day or two. This time our visits overlapped for much longer.

On December 23, Dayamrita held a question and answer session for residents and visitors. The program was held in a building called Shanti Mandiram. I had never heard of that building. I was astounded to find out it is a huge building next to the place where the brahmacharinis (female monks) live. The building had apparently been under construction for years and has been in use for about three years. All of the silent retreats are being held there.

How could a building have been built so close to the main ashram and I had never seen it? I’m still having trouble believing it.

On the 23rd, I found the building and walked up to the third floor. The room was big; but so was the attendance. There were Amma devotees from many different countries as well as both Indian and Western ashram residents.

Br. Dayamrita answered many questions. He also told many stories. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was so glad that I attended the session.

Christmas Eve program

In Amritapuri, the big Christmas celebrations are held on Christmas Eve. They consist of cultural performances, Amma’s Christmas message, singing and distribution of Christmas cake. They usually start late and aren’t over until around 2 a.m. Since I work in the cafe at 7:30 a.m. I knew I couldn’t stay the whole time. I had decided to leave after the first three cultural performances.

The program starts when Amma comes. She led the evening bhajan (singing) program from 6:30 to 8:15 p.m. and we had dinner after that. Amma was expected to arrive for the Christmas program around 10 p.m. but came just before 9:30!

I was very happy about her early arrival because it meant I would be able to watch more of the performances. I ended up staying for all of them; they were wonderful. There was a shadow puppet show, a choir, a salsa dance, Indian traditional and non-traditional dances, a flamenco dancer, a dance called Mother’s Prayer and more. There was also a beautiful performance centered around Hanukkah. One of my favorite parts of the program was the finale. The singing and dancing that occurs when all of the groups come on stage together is always so joyous.

I went back to my room after the performances but wasn’t able to get to sleep. I could hear the sounds of fun coming from the hall. It was all I could do to keep myself from getting dressed and going back to the auditorium. I feel sad about what I missed but know I made the correct decision for me.

I don’t have Christmas program photos to share with you but you can read more about the evening and see photos at: https://www.amritapuri.org/76453/19xmas.aum

Eclipse

On Thursday morning there was an eclipse of the sun between 8 and 11 a.m. When an eclipse happens here, everyone stays inside. The café was closed for the morning, but the canteen was open from 7-8. I had some breakfast and then went to the temple to participate in the Vedic chanting that was taking place throughout the 3-hour period.

The hall was packed. I didn’t know the chants and didn’t have the books, so just listened. The woman seated next to me was looking at the chants on her phone. About halfway through I noticed that she was looking at one that had a font that was big enough for me to read it. When she noticed I was doing that she held her phone between us. She shared her phone with me for the rest of the session.

Throughout the experience, I kept expecting it to get dark. Every time I looked outside, though, it was sunny. I was puzzled. Had the eclipse not happened? I was even more puzzled when I later looked at an online newspaper and saw photos taken in Kerala of the full eclipse. I talked to someone who had stayed in her room throughout the morning and she told me it HAD gotten dark. How could I have missed it? During the first half of the chanting I had often closed my eyes. Had I also fallen asleep?

The chants were beautiful. Maybe someday I will put in the time and effort needed to learn some of them.

Monkey

The monkey I mentioned in an earlier post is still visiting frequently. It probably has learned that if it comes to the café kitchen area it might be able to steal some food. I saw it once last week and it was there again on Thursday afternoon.

New additions to café menu

Over the years, the café and canteen have certainly changed. I was at the ashram on the day in 1990 when the Western food service began. At that point, Western food was only available for dinner. I remember it as consisting of a bowl of soup but the photo below shows bread and possibly something else.

On most nights, the dinner was served on a balcony in the temple. On Devi Bhava nights, it was served on a staircase on a higher floor. We felt so excited to have something other than the kanji (watery rice) with a small serving of vegetables that was served in the Indian lines for breakfast and dinner in those days. (Lunch was regular rice and some vegetables.)

A group of people in a room

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In 1990, we never would we have imagined the time would come when the ashram would offer a wide variety of Western foods at every meal and there would even be gluten free options available…. and a bakery.

A few years ago, the café staff started making almond milk. Earlier this month, they added sides of quinoa, hummus, and broccoli (when they can get it) to their already abundant menu options. Three days ago, they started offering a new drink. Some of the ingredients are spirulina, wheat grass, aloe vera, and lemon!

To read previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 13-20, 2019

Bhajans

This last week I have, for the most part, stopped nodding off during the evening bhajan (singing) program. On December 20, Amma sang two or three new songs. That was fun. The times I enjoy most, though, is when she sings the really old ones. In India, she usually sings more of the old songs than she does during her tours.

Earlier this week, Amma sang many of the really old ones. I am always flooded with memories when she does that. This time when she sang Omkara Mennum, I remembered the early 90’s when Amma only joined us in the temple for evening bhajans two or three times a week. We never knew when she would show up, or how long she would stay.

Temple in January 1990 when it was new.

On the nights she came, the program usually lasted much longer. She would sit with us on the floor of the temple facing the front. There were no microphones. Some of the songs, like the one I just mentioned, were very long. Amma would often go into samadhi. During those times, everyone would sit quietly, until she “came back” to this world.

On Monday or Tuesday of this week, the program ended with Amma singing Mata Rani, which is one of my favorite songs. I don’t remember when she started singing it although I found a YouTube video of it that was posted in 2010. That seems about right.

I remember the ecstasy I experienced when Amma first started singing that bhajan. Below is a video that is a compilation of her singing it in a variety of cities and countries the year she introduced it to us. I have such good memories of that time.

Prasad Giving

I’ve continued to do the prasad giver assistant seva twice a week. The directions I give the people coming through the line are different every time I do it. It is my belief that having the directions change so often is another way that Amma teaches us to “be like a bird perched on a dry twig, ready to fly at a moment’s notice.”

Being the person who actually hands Amma the prasad, as opposed to facilitating others in doing it, may be my favorite thing to do here. Putting the candy and sacred ash packets in her hand feels like Home to me. In fact, I often say “Home” in my mind every time I hand her a set of the packets.

Because, at this point, I can’t get up and down quickly or be up on my knees, I haven’t been able to hand her the prasad myself this visit. I’ve been okay with that, but last Sunday I learned that having a stool was an option. I got really excited. Maybe I could be a prasad-giver after-all!

I decided to practice with the low stool ahead of time and quickly realized that wasn’t going to work; I couldn’t get up and down from it easily either. All of a sudden, I realized that my days of doing my favorite seva might be over. I felt devastated and cried… a lot.

Fatigue and Balance

In Seattle, when people ask me how I’m doing, I’ve been responding “I’m tired.” I’ve felt so much fatigue, although it has felt like a different type of fatigue than when I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the 80’s. Before I came to India I had blood work done to check for a variety of things but the blood tests all came back “normal”.

During this trip, I’ve felt like I spend most of my time sleeping or resting. I sleep around 5 hours at night and then usually take an hour nap after my café shift and another hour nap in the afternoon. This week, I noticed that when I first wake up, I don’t feel exhausted. That is a change. All the sleep I am getting here must be paying off. I always feel like I rest to my core when I am in Amritapuri and that is true for me this year too.

It’s been a tough trip. I’m realizing how much worse my balance is since I was here last year. I get so wobbly that I decided to buy a cane from the India branch of Amazon. I had no luck ordering it myself because the login would not recognize my computer. When they sent me a verification code, they send it to my U.S. SIM card and I have no access, other than voicemail, to that phone number. (That has been an issue with Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and OptumRX. I’ve done online chats with most of those companies but never have found a lasting way around it. I have felt very frustrated.)

Anyway, I had Sreejit order the cane for me and it was delivered in less than a week. Amazing. How times have changed. Never would I have dreamed I could order from Amazon when I was in India.

When I looked at the box, I realized it was a different cane than the one in the picture on the website, but I love it. (That’s a good thing because the cane was non-refundable!) I can walk a normal pace when I use it. It even has a flashlight, which is immensely helpful for dark corridors or opening the combination lock on my door. I use it when I go to the temple, when I am dealing with stairs and the guard rails aren’t close together, when there are crowds and during the times of the day that I’m most wobbly. (I struggle with thinking people are judging me, wondering why I’m using a cane when I can walk so well when I use it. But I know worrying about what people think is my “stuff”.)

I also recently received a lead on what might be going on with me. On Monday, Chaitanya expressed her concern about me to a friend of hers who is a cardiologist. The friend told Chaitanya, and me, what she suspected was wrong (it had nothing to do with my heart!). I called my doctor’s office in Seattle and made an appointment for the first working day after I get back. If the friend’s theory is right, she said it is a problem that is easy to fix. That gave me hope that this isn’t a permanent condition.

Small thermorest

Decades ago, I brought a small therm-a-rest to India. I don’t remember why I originally brought it, but I think back in the days when I sat on the floor I may sometimes have put it under my asana (mat). There have also been years when I used it to make myself more comfortable in the chairs by placing it between my back and the chair.

This has been one of those years. The problem with that process is that I often forget I brought the therm-a-rest and rush out of the auditorium when the program is over, leaving it sitting in the chair. I have done that 4-6 times this visit. I often don’t realize I have left it in the auditorium until the next morning and each time I have wondered if that would be the time I would lose it for good. The first time I left it in the chair this year, someone handed it to Chaitanya and asked her to give it to me. Every other time, when I returned to the auditorium, my therm-a-rest was sitting on a nearby table. I am very thankful for the honesty of the ashram residents and visitors.

As I looked at the picture, I realized the therm-a-rest is really old. E607 is written on it. The building I live in used to be called E building. That changed about ten years ago; now the building is named Amrita Darshan. The numbering system changed even earlier than that. The floors in the building used to be numbered using a western system with the ground floor being Floor 1. At some point they changed it to the Indian system where the ground floor is Floor 0. At that time, my room number changed from 607 to 507.

Weather

It’s hot.

During most of the years I’ve come here, it has been cool in early morning and during the night. I always left the fan on at night, but that was mostly to keep the mosquitos away. Many years, I wore long-sleeved and long-legged pajamas and used a sheet, a light blanket, a wool shawl and a bedspread to cover myself at night. That stopped four or five years ago. Now, generally, I only use a sheet.

In the past, there were times in the morning and/or evening where the weather was cool enough that I wore a light jacket or wrapped myself in a shawl. Those days are apparently gone.

One day this week, it got REALLY windy. I rushed to bring in my laundry. Then it started thundering. The thunder was louder than I’ve ever heard. After some time, I felt a bit freaked out. I knew Chaitanya was in her room so I called her and asked if this was normal. She told me it is sometimes like this in August but not December. Soon, it stopped thundering and started raining. Before long the rain stopped too.

Crowds

The crowds have been growing. When Amma first returned from the European and North American Fall Tours, many Indians came to the ashram on public darshan days. The number of Western visitors increased then too, but as Christmas approaches the Westerners are pouring in. I don’t know how many are here now, but I would guess there must be close to 2000. The first year I came to Amritapuri there were 30 Western visitors! (There are around 5000 devotees who live at the ashram now; most of them are Indian.)

To read previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 11-12, 2019

Balance

I’m doing pretty well with balance. I mainly have problems when I stand up after being seated and when I’m tired. I walk slowly and carefully at all times. I’ve used a cane once for going up to the 7th floor of the temple; I imagine I will use it more as the crowds increase. I decided to order a folding cane from Amazon India, so I have one for the trip home. It is amazing that Amazon is so accessible in a fishing village in India!

Most of the times I have fallen in the past have been when I’ve turned abruptly. Part of my café job entails standing in a space that is about three feet in depth, picking up one plate after another and putting it on a shelf directly across from the kitchen counter. The space is narrow enough that there is no danger of falling but I am doing 180 degree turns constantly. One day this week, it occurred to me that this experience might be providing me with an opportunity for some neurological reprogramming.

Sometime during the last few days, I remembered that whenever I had Chronic Fatique Syndrome relapses in the early 90’s, I listened to a recording by Robert Gass and the Wings of Song called Om Namah Shivaya throughout the night. The recording was 45 minutes long but I set it to “repeat.” My relapses were much shorter when I played the recording in that way.

I decided to see if playing it might help me with balance. I was able to locate the same recording on Amazon Prime Music and downloaded it to my phone. I listened to Om Namah Shivaya as I went to sleep the last two nights. I disconnected it when I woke up briefly 2-3 hours later. I don’t know if it will do anything for my balance but my Fitbit says my deep sleep+REM sleep was over 50% both nights. I have rarely to never had readings like that. And the first night I slept more than 7 hours!

[Shiva is the male aspect of God that is the destroyer. I think of him as destroying disease, illusion, delusion and other negativities. I once read that Om Namah Shivaya is the most commonly used mantra in the world. It has many meanings, but I like one that is actually a combination of three definitions: “I bow to Shiva. I bow to the universal God. I bow to the God that is within me.“]

Café and stage sevas

International devotees are pouring into the ashram for Christmas. The café is getting busier and busier. I knew that there would be a point when another person would be assigned to help me during part of my shift, because the work load would be too much for me to handle. As far as I’m concerned we reached that point on or about 8:40 a.m. on Thursday. There were so many plates waiting to be given out that there was no room on the counter for the kitchen staff to add new ones. That deluge only lasted about 10 minutes, but I was totally overwhelmed during that time. As soon as my shift was over, I told Chaitanya that I needed help, but I find it very interesting that it never occurred to me to ask for help at the time. My brain felt scrambled.

My brain is getting a workout during the stage seva too. Amma is continuing to set the prasad-giving shifts for one minute, so I’m constantly giving people the chance to practice handing prasad, watching for people to finish their minute so I can send another person, passing along orientation information that is regularly being added to, tracking the number of prasad-givers who have gone through the line and occasionally calling people to the stage from the auditorium line (when the person responsible for doing that is out finding people to join that line).

I hope to one day have the experience of concisely and coherently orienting the person who replaces me after my hour shift. Right now I am quite flustered as I try to relay that information at the same time I’m doing all the other things. Amma certainly is giving me plenty of opportunities to practice focusing and maintaining equanimity.

Confronting my know-it-all

On Wednesday I saw a notice near the Western Canteen that said a big event would be held in the auditorium on Thursday morning. As the area was being set up, I could see it was an event involving the Amrita University students. I assumed it was their graduation ceremony since graduation has taken place in the auditorium around this time of year the last two years.

When I was eating my breakfast on Thursday, a visitor asked me why there was an American flag in the auditorium. I was surprised and said he must be mistaken. I was curious though, so went to look for myself. On one side of the stage there was what appeared to be a U.S. flag and on the other side was the flag of India. I was a long way away from the U.S. flag though, so it looked like the stars were curved rather than in a straight line. I assumed it flag was something other than the U.S. flag, and went back to the table to tell the visitor my new information.

I was still intrigued though and wanted to check it out further, so after I finished eating I went to look at the flag up close. It indeed was a U.S. flag. That made no sense to me at all. I went over to a swami and asked him about it. I don’t remember his exact words, but I had the impression it was there because of U.S. and Amrita University cooperation. I knew that Amrita University had joint projects with several U.S. universities, and I still was thinking this was a graduation ceremony, so figured the graduating class must have had involvement with one or more of these U.S. universities. But it still seemed strange to me to have a U.S. flag there. Regardless, I went back to the table once again to relay the additional information.

It wasn’t until later in the day that I discovered it had not been a graduation ceremony at all. It had been an event where a partnership agreement between the University of Arizona and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham was signed.

When I looked on the internet for more information, it appeared to me that Amrita University is now called Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham. I wonder how many years ago that change occurred. I also found this statement:

Over the years Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham has developed working relations with many of the best universities in the world. Amrita Center for International Programs plays a developmental, strategic and co-coordinating role in the institution’s International work, seeking to provide quality support both internally and externally. Strong collaboration with national and international organizations is the hallmark of all research carried out at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham and to this extent we have developed a broad range of international partnerships around the world.

That webpage also had a list of the partners. I would assume, but don’t know, that the University of Arizona will soon be added to this list.

I am aware of how many times during this “investigation,” I had assumed that I knew what was going on even though I didn’t have a clue. And in the process I had passed along incorrect information. Once again, my know-it-all part had been exposed, to myself and others.

To read previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 7-10, 2019

Prasad Assist Seva

For the last few years, I have done a stage seva during darshan, in addition to my café seva. The stage seva I was originally asked to do was a prasad givers assist. That job had many components.

I sat near the door to the stage where Amma sits when she is giving darshan (hugs). I motioned to the prasad givers that were seated in a line in the auditorium when it was time to come up on the stage. I needed to be sure that there were always six prasad givers on the stage; one handing Amma the candy and ash she gives to those who come to her and five in line waiting to do the same. I also had to make sure the line below stayed full and trained anyone who hadn’t given prasad before.

That job also entailed running around looking for people to join the lower line and I knew I wasn’t up for that this year. When I said that, I was offered another prasad assist job and took it. On Sundays and Thursdays from 2-3, I am the person who practices giving prasad with each person as they come through the prasad giving line. I also make sure there are always three people in the prasad giving line closest to Amma. When one person finishes, I have to immediately send another person to join the line. That is easier said than done since the shifts may only be 1-2 minutes and there are plenty of people blocking my view.

The details of both of the prasad givers assist jobs change regularly. Sunday was the first day that I did the new one. In addition to practicing prasad giving with each volunteer, and sending people into the line close to Amma at 1 or 2 minute intervals, I had to ask each person if they were a renunciate or a karma yogi. If they said yes, then I gave them a token and explained that when they gave the token to the person timing, they would be given two-minute shifts instead of one minute. I also had to use a talley counter to count the number of prasad givers going through the line. There were even more components to the job, but I hope I have said enough to give you the impression that I was multitasking.

Changes I didn’t mention before:

  1. The swami rooms are now located in the building behind the auditorium.
  2. In the past, if you didn’t use an Indian SIM card for three months you had to order another one. It could take several days to get it. Vodafone has changed that now. I hadn’t used that SIM card since last January. I discovered that I could recharge my phone if I bought a 28-day package. For about $4, I was able to get 2.5 GB of data a day, as well as unlimited calls and texts in India.. There is no limit for the number of times I can recharge. I was able to get my phone recharged as soon as I got to the ashram and soon afterwards I was able to use my Personal Hot Spot to connect to the internet.

Sleeping

I’m still sleeping a lot. Hopefully I’m catching up from the months of exhaustion I’ve been experiencing.

Weather

It stopped raining three days after I arrived. It’s hot. I am so thankful for the fans.

Darshan

Saturday and Sunday were public darshan days. On those days it is common for groups of women to come for darshan together. They are often teachers at one of Amma’s schools. They are always very striking because they wear the same saris. On Saturday, there was a group that was in red and gold saris. They were beautiful.

Since they live at the ashram, Western visitors usually wait until the end of darshan before they go to Amma for a hug. I waited in a nonmoving line for three hours Saturday evening. Thankfully we were in chairs. It was long and I am not a patient person. But of course, I knew the wait was worth it. When I was in Amma’s arms, I was HOME.

As I thought of what I was going to say in this post I thought of a song I wrote many years ago. I wrote the words in English and then Meera translated them into Malayalam. I sang it for Amma in 1998 or 1999.

amma ende karangal ennum ninne sevikkatte
amma ende manass˘ mantrathāl nirayename
amma ende vākkukal ennum ninne pukazhthette
ende hridayam ānandam kond˘ nrittamādatte

ende sneham prakāshamāyi ennenum thilangatte
amma ende vishvāsam valarnnu kondirikkatte
ennenum ammayepole āyi varename
amma itinnu vendi mātram nyan prārthikkyunnu

Mother, may my hands be in service, my mind fill with mantra
May my voice forever sing your praise, my heart dance with joy
May my love shine ever brighter, my faith ever grow
Mother, may each day I become more like you, only for this I pray
Only for this I pray

I wrote about this song in a December 27, 2014 post. At that time I included a voice recording of the song. I decided to include it in this post as well. Please excuse my pronunciation errors.

Monkey

There was commotion in the back side of the café on Tuesday morning. There was a monkey sitting there. The building is open to the air so the monkey could have gone inside if it wanted to but it didn’t do that. It was blocking people from going up the outside stairs though.

I saw the monkey when I finished my shift an hour later. It looked so small and cute. I know that monkeys can turn aggressive in an instant, so I stayed away from it.

People were taking pictures of the monkey when I got my own food. I resisted the temptation to do the same, choosing to eat my breakfast instead.

Later, I told Chaitanya, who runs the Western kitchen, that if the monkey had wanted the food I was serving when I worked, I wasn’t going to get in its way. She supported that way of thinking!

In the early years, there were rarely or never monkeys around. However, after the 2004 tsunami Amma built a bridge between the ashram and the town across the backwaters so that people on the peninsula could evacuate easily. (See the photo of the bridge at the top of this post.) Monkeys can cross the bridge too, so they are on the ashram grounds from time to time.

Amma serves lunch

On Tuesday’s Amma comes for meditation and a question and answer session. Afterwards, she serves lunch to all of the residents and visitors. In the past, she handed each person their plate individually but there are now thousands of people. For the last few years, she has handed the plates of food to a brahmacharini at the beginning of a line and the plates are passed down a series of lines until everyone in the auditorium has one. No one eats until everyone has their meal. In fact, no one eats until Amma has had a spoonful of her own food.

I usually participate in one of the plate passing lines but I decided not to do it that day. Maybe I will make a different choice next Tuesday.

To read other posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 3-6, 2019

It’s hard to believe this is my eighth day in India and my seventh day in the ashram. I feel like all I have done is rest and sleep but I know that isn’t true. In addition to setting up my room, doing laundry twice (in buckets), eating, being with friends and family, etc., I worked with Kothai remotely to finish the December Pacific Northwest GreenFrends Newsletter, published three posts on this blog (Mother Nature Provides… Again, the December GreenFriends Newsletter, and my first Amritapuri post). I also corresponded with the UW College of the Environment interns we will have next quarter, some of our recent service-learning students and various people regarding our Greenbelt Martin Luther King Day work party.

On Wednesday, I started working in the café from 7:30 – 9 a.m. handing customers their plates of food as the food came from the kitchen. (The orders are numbered and when a customer’s number shows up on a monitor in the café courtyard, the customer comes to the counter and I hand them their plate.)

That process will get intense as the crowds grow but it has been easy so far. The monitor system works so well. I remember all the years that people huddled around the counter as we called out the numbers. It was often difficult for the people whose number had been called to get to the counter. This way, no one is blocking the counter area; customers are focused on the monitor that is 15- 20 feet away.

And as I ponder these changes, I’m remembering that I’ve done this, or a similar, job since the late 90’s. In those days, I sat in the window that is on the far left of the photo below. I took the orders and was the cashier.

I remember writing each person’s name on their order. In the earliest days, I also called out the name when the food was ready. That process was hampered by the fact that even though people from different countries may have similar names to people in the U.S., they may pronounce the names very differently. At some point, the door that was near “my window” was split and customers were handed their food from the counter where Chaitanya and her friend are standing in the photo.

In my first days here, I slept the best I could during the night and then took a nap in the afternoon. I’ve actually slept way better than I usually do during the transition period. There was only one night where I had trouble falling back to sleep when I woke up early. On Thursday and Friday, I didn’t take an afternoon nap, but I nodded off throughout the evening singing program. I hate that feeling.

My biggest challenge has been my balance. I know the ground here so I’ve been okay most of the time, but when I’m tired I get wobbly. My kids and others have suggested I get a cane. I even had an email from someone in Seattle suggesting it. I have been resistant, but on Wednesday I went into the temple to watch Amma giving darshan. The main temple floor was full, so I went upstairs to the next level. That was also very crowded. I soon realized that I was going to need a cane to safely navigate crowds, children, and stairs.

A friend offered me a walking stick. That seemed like it would solve the problem, and it did, when I was walking on dirt. However, when I used it to go up a single stair, the metal tip slid and I fell. Several people helped me get up. One of them knew how to get a cane from the ashram. She even was kind enough to make the arrangements and bring the cane to me. I will use it when I am going into any area that seems unsafe for me.

Amma came for bhajans (singing) the first night she was back in the ashram and has sung every evening since. She also came to the temple around 11 a.m. on Wednesday and Thursday to meditate with the devotees. After the meditation, and a question and answer period, she gave darshan. (Darshan is a blessing. While even being in Amma’s presence is darshan, Amma is known for bestowing her blessing by hugging each person who comes to her.)

Wednesday’s darshan was for people who were leaving and on Thursday it was for part of the brahmacharinis and brahmacharis (female and male monks). I’m thinking, but don’t know, that Saturday and Sunday will be public darshan days. If it is, I’m hoping to go to Amma for a hug one of those days. I need it!

One of the things Amma teaches us is to “be like a bird perched on a dry twig, ready to fly at a moment’s notice.” She also provides us with an abundance of opportunities to practice that lesson. On Friday afternoon, we had such an opportunity.

On Fridays, Amma usually comes to the auditorium about 5 p.m. to meditate and give darshan to the people who are leaving. I often don’t attend the meditations, but on Friday I decided I would go.

I had a light lunch that day so decided to get something to eat at 4:30. On my way to the canteen, the bell that indicates Amma is coming rang. She had never, in my memory, come that early. What could I do other than laugh and let go of my plans to eat.

I walked to the auditorium to find it nearly empty. People started arriving; the brahmacharinis were running. I usually sit in the back of the hall, but this time I sat towards the front, on the aisle. I soon realized that Amma was going to be walking down that aisle.

As Amma walked down the aisle, she reached out her hands. When her hand touched mine, I felt like I had been given darshan. That passing touch of hands is very familiar to me even though it has been several years since I have had the experience. I am home.

(Photos of Amma I use in these posts come from her Facebook Page.)

To read previous posts in this series click here

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: November 27-December 2, 2019

Pre-post Reflections

I am presently in Amritapuri on my 32nd visit to Amma’s ashram in 30 years. This almost yearly pilgrimage has been an incredible part of my life. I feel blessed to have been able to spend so much time in the place where Amma was born. It seems to me that her energy permeates every grain of sand whether her physical body is present or not.

That does not mean that I’ve always wanted to make the trip. There were several years in the past when I went with the same attitude I might take when I go to a doctor or a dentist– i.e. because I know it is for my own good. I grow so much when I’m here and have always felt like the experience was an important purification process. Almost always, though, I am very eager to come to India. I wish there was a way to teleport here though; the journey there is so long.

When I am in Amritapuri, I am challenged in many of the same ways that I’m challenged by life in the U.S., but here it is like the process is put on fast forward. I may feel like I’m on an emotional roller coaster, but even though the challenges may come one after the other, I usually work through them faster too.

As I write this, I’m thinking about the saying that “growth comes from the challenges not the consolations.” While being consoled feels good and is also important, I think it is true that growth comes from facing the challenges that come my way.

I love being with Sreejit, Chaitanya and Akshay, my son, daughter and son-in-law, who have lived in Amritapuri for many years. I love being with my Amritapuri friends, and, of course, I love being with Amma, who in many ways became the center of my life when I met her in 1989.

I also love the sights, sounds and smells of India. Each time I arrive in the country, part of me wants to bow down and kiss the earth. There were two years that I couldn’t afford to come to the Amritapuri, When I informed Amma of that fact during her North American summer tour, I was crying so hard that someone thought I was telling Amma that one of my kids had died. That incident always reminds me how important this part of my life is to me.

I had no plans to start this post in this manner, but it felt good to reflect on these things. So on with my November 2019 story;

I left Seattle on November 27. It was a 14-hour flight to Dubai, followed by a 3-hour layover. During the connecting flight security check, I was instructed to take off my Fitbit and put it in the bin. I’m not used to doing that so I forgot to take it out of the bin after I went through the security line.

Soon after I entered the main part of the terminal, I realized I had left the Fitbit in the bin. I was instructed by airport staff to go to one place and then another. Eventually, I was able to find it, but by then the layover was almost over. That challenge certainly made the time go by fast, and provided me with a lot of exercise. My normal routine is to buy a cup of ice cream in Dubai, and there was enough time before my next flight for me to do that!

The flight to India was a 4-hour flight. I had decided not to add the 3-hour taxi trip to the ashram to the journey, so stayed in a hotel in Kovalam, a town near the airport, for the day. I planned to get lots of sleep. I did rest a lot, but couldn’t sleep. There is a 13 ½ hour time difference between Seattle and India, and turning day and night around is difficult.

I had many challenges during my time in Kovalam. The one I will mention now is that they were fixing the road between the hotel and the area where the restaurants are located. It is not unusual in India for people to walk through construction sites, but I don’t like to do that. I had to eat, however, and there was no other option.

In some places there was a thin strip of normal ground alongside the new road but that strip was rocky and very uneven ground. I had trouble walking on it. An Indian woman gave me a hand both when I went towards the restaurants and coming back from there. But that was only for a few feet, so most of the time I ended up walking on the hot tar and gravel. My shoes may never recover.

The Beginning

At 5 a.m. the next morning, I was in a taxi and on my way to the Amritapuri ashram. The traffic was much lighter than it would have been even an hour later. In two-and-a-half hours, I was back in my India home. I felt exhausted but happy to be there. After spending a bit of time with Sreejit and Chaitanya, I had some breakfast and then went to my room and started unpacking.

In January 2005, I bought a flat at the ashram. That allows me to have a room to myself which makes life easier for me. I can use it whenever I’m in Amritapuri, and it is rented out to other visitors when I am gone.

I was so exhausted and very wobbly that first day. I got help from Sreejit and Chaitanya, and reminded myself that it was important for me to go slow. I was especially careful when I left my room. It would be so easy for me to trip on something, but as I got some sleep my balance improved tremendously.

Changes

There are always so many changes here from one visit to the next. Some of the ones I’ve noticed so far are:

  1. Those of us who live alone are required to sign in on a Wellness Register each morning. If someone doesn’t sign the register then someone goes to the room to make sure the person is okay. For years, I’ve signed in on a desk that is near the elevator in my building. Now everyone has to go to the International Office to do it. Writing that statement reminds me I need to go sign in for today… soon.
  2. The Indian store has been remodeled. Now, it is more like a supermarket where you can just take things off the shelf rather than ask someone to get it for you. The hours have been extended; it is now open all day and well into the night.
  3. The Indian Canteen has been remodeled. There are open air “walls” around it now, as well as numerous other improvements which I can’t figure out how to describe.
  4. The dishes and containers from the kitchen are now washed in a special little building that is attached to the area where we all wash and dry our dishes when we eat. We started drying our dishes in that area the last time I was here. Moving the kitchen washing space and the drying racks to that spot meant that two of the five circular dining tables are gone. I feel sad about that, but it is certainly understandable.
  5. The area that I described in #4 is partially fenced off now and there are lots of new plants that surround it. It is very beautiful.
  6. I was able to recharge my cell phone as soon as I got to the ashram even though I hadn’t used that SIM card since last January. In the past if you didn’t use a SIM card for 3 months, you had to get a new one. That meant I had immediate use of the phone and the Personal Hotspot!

Those are the changes I’ve noticed so far. I’m sure there are many more.

Weather

It usually doesn’t rain here much in December but it has rained several times every day since I arrived. I love the sound of rain on the aluminum roof of the auditorium. Actually I love the sound of the rain anywhere. It is quite a deluge and then it is over, for hours. I was actually able to hang out some laundry after a rain on Sunday and it dried it less than three hours. That could never happen in Seattle!

Amma

When it works out easily, I time my arrival to be here for a few days before Amma returns to the ashram. That gives me time to rest before crowds of people come. Amma started her yearly European Tour the beginning of October. When it finished in mid November, she conducted programs in Los Angeles and Detroit.

Sometimes parts of the international programs are live streamed to Amritapuri. Residents and visitors come to the auditorium to watch it. That happened on Sunday. They don’t leave the live stream up all the time, or nothing would get done here, but it is very nice to be able to watch it for awhile. That day, it was live streamed three different times during the day, the last time being during our evening bhajan (singing) time. I loved being able to watch Amma.

I often marvel at how much has changed over the years. On my first visit in January of 1990, we had to take a rickshaw to Oachira, which is a town 15 minutes away, to use a telephone. I still remember that it was a red phone on a table in the middle of an alley. People gathered to watch me make the call. Now almost everyone has a cell phone, I get internet connection from a Personal Hotspot, and I can watch Amma when she is halfway across the world.

The rumor I heard a few days ago was that Amma would return to the ashram early Tuesday morning. When I went downstairs this morning someone told me that they thought she had returned around 8:00 a.m. I wonder if she will come sing with us tonight!

Challenges

My re-entry has been relatively challenge free compared to the past. Normally, I have a lot of trouble with jet lag. This time I slept relatively well on the Seattle to Dubai leg of the trip. That has never happened before. Since I’ve been at the ashram, I’ve slept a lot. This is the first time in all these years that I haven’t been wide awake at 2 a.m. and if I wake up, I’ve been able to go right back to sleep. I hope that continues.

My biggest challenge is that I’ve been unable to find an adapter that allows me to attach a thumb drive to my computer. I remember seeing it when I unpacked but haven’t seen it since. I’ve looked in every inch of this room two or three times to no avail. I know I will find it when the time is right, but haven’t accepted the fact that I can’t have it when I want it, which is NOW!

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: January 2-10, 2019

Sunset in Amritapuri

Strikes

Towards the end of December, we were told there would be a transportation strike on January 2nd. During that type of strike there are no rickshaws, taxis and buses on the road. I imagine the trains are also grounded.

On that day, I decided to walk into Vallikavu, the town closest to the ashram. I remembered the strike when I noticed there were no rickshaws near the bridge that joins the peninsula where the ashram is located and the mainland. I had planned to walk to town anyway so the lack of rickshaws was not a problem.

The only forms of transportation on the roads were bicycles, scooters and motorcycles. There weren’t even any private cars. Private cars are probably not driven during strikes either. The businesses I passed were all closed. I noticed that there were no Indian women on the streets. That seemed really strange.

There was a big group of men on the street ahead of me. I’ve heard that transportation strikes can get violent, but happens when someone breaks the strike. I wondered if I should go back to the ashram but this wasn’t a group of angry men. When I got closer, I was able to see that they were buying or selling fish. Since the market was closed, selling it on the roadside was probably their only option.

Once I reached the center of the town, I discovered the only stores that were open were the pharmacies. I was relieved since one of those pharmacies was my destination. I placed my order and then returned to the ashram.

On January 8 and 9 there was a two-day national strike. (I don’t know if the January 2nd one was state wide or just for the district, but it wasn’t national.) It was called a transportation strike on the announcements here but I noticed on one flyer that the word “transportation” was crossed out and “general” was written above it.

When I walked to Vallikavu on January 8 (for reasons that will become evident in a later section of this post), my experience was completely different from the one on January 2. I saw one rickshaw and a couple of cars on the road that day.  I also saw several closed businesses on the way to town, but when I arrived at the center of town, I discovered that almost everything was open, including the market and some of the banks. The number of women on the street seemed normal.

I believe the January 2nd strike was about the current events in Sabarimala. The national strike on January 8 was called by the Central Trade Unions and was against the government. Twenty million people participated in that one. Based on what I saw in Vallikavu on the 8th, my guess is that people here may not be as dissatisfied with the government as people in other parts of India.

Ashram Visitors

The number of Indian visitors was significantly lower during the strikes. The people probably couldn’t get here, but there may have been other factors at play as well. The crowds were large during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day so it would be natural for them to be lower the week after the holidays. Also, the fact that Amma’s South India tour starts on the 18th may have been responsible for some of the decrease too.

All of the darshan programs prior to the holidays were in the auditorium rather than the temple. I assume that was because there has been restoration work occurring in the area above the front stairs of the temple; there was no way for a crowd to enter the temple from the front.

When the number of people at the ashram decreased, Amma began to hold darshan in the temple. Everyone walks up and down the stairs on the east side of the building. That creates an interesting dilemma since the stairs wind and are quite narrow. Two people can’t go up or down two across without turning to the side to squeeze by each other. But it works. It is nice to have programs in the temple from time to time.

Being there always brings to mind these photos from my first visit to the ashram in January of 1990. I was in Amritapuri the week that the temple was used for the first time.

A separate trip to Vallikavu

When I ordered my medications on January 2, I was told to return on Monday, January 7 and I did. That was an interesting journey. I decided to stop by the optometrist to get my glasses adjusted. When I walked into that office, I was told that the technician was not there. Then I went to the pharmacy and was told that my medications had not arrived and to come back the next day. Then I went to Love Sugar bakery to get my first, and only, Chocolate Fantasy sundae on this trip. I was told that the person who makes the sundaes wasn’t there. I had intended to go to the School of Biotechnology to take photos of the plants, but I had forgotten to bring my phone, which meant I didn’t have a camera.

So, I had walked the 15-20 minutes from the ashram to Vallikavu, in the hot sun, and accomplished none of the things I had planned to do. At least I got some exercise. I returned to the ashram and went directly to the Indian store. I purchased and ate a Magnum Triple Chocolate ice cream bar that I had seen in the store earlier in the week. I was in heaven!

Watching the Christmas Eve entertainment

Generally, the people who perform during the Christmas Eve cultural events aren’t able to see all of the performances. Usually, we have a chance to see a video of the event at a later time. This year, we watched that video on January 8.

I had a chance to see the choir performance part of the video ahead of time and was upset when I saw how stiff I looked. My problems with remembering the words and my off beat clapping were also all too visible. I thought about not going to the viewing, but decided not to chicken out. During the viewing, I was relieved to discover that seeing the video on a screen from across the room was very different than seeing it up close on a computer screen. I like to think that no one even noticed me!

As I was writing this section, I discovered that some photos taken during the Christmas Eve entertainment are on amritapuri.org now. I’ve put some of them below:

You can click on the gallery to enlarge the photos.

Letting Go Reflections

Resentment

If you’ve been reading my posts from this trip you will know that I’ve been sharing information and experiences I’ve had regarding letting go. In the last week, I’ve been reflecting on what is NOT letting go. I believe if I’m feeling resigned to an outcome then that is not letting go. In those cases, it might be more accurate to say I am giving up and accepting the fact that I can’t have what I want. I also believe that if I have resentment about not getting something I want, then it is an indication that I haven’t let go.

I imagine Transactional Analysis theory would consider both resignation and resentment to be racket feelings, i.e. something that covers the core feelings of mad, sad, scared and glad. I think resignation could easily cover anger and resentment definitely does. Also, we can be attached to something through our anger and our fear, or to say it a different way, anger and fear may prevent us from truly letting go.

Preparing to return to Seattle

My trip is nearing its end. I’ve started the process of cleaning my room, putting away the things I leave here and packing my suitcases. I have also been doing the administrative work necessary to prepare for future forest restoration work parties once I get back to Seattle. Today, I met with a friend to learn more about Power Point. I’m giving a talk about our restoration project at Seattle University on February 12 and want to put project photos on Power Point slides.

I will probably get my last hug from Amma on this trip tonight.

To read previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 28-January 3, 2019

Sunrise in Amritapuri

Even though New Year’s Eve wasn’t the first day of this time period, it seems like the best place to start!

New Year’s Eve

Photo Credit: Amma’s Facebook Page 2016

Amma meets with the residents and visitors for meditation and a question and answer session on Mondays and Fridays. The program would occasionally be in the auditorium, but for the most part they were held at the beach. About a year ago, they started being held in the auditorium exclusively.

One day, towards the end of December, I was surprised when it became obvious that the devotees didn’t know whether the event was going to be at the beach or in the auditorium. Both places were being prepared for her.

That day, and the following Friday, Amma went to the beach. On both days, by the time I cleaned up the area where I was doing my seva shift, I was too tired to go anywhere but my room. After missing the second beach meditation though, I decided I was going to go to the next one no matter what.

The crowds were big on New Year’s Eve. Just before 5:00 p.m., a new person walked up to me while I was working in the cafe and asked if Amma would be coming for meditation. I said, yes, and seeing that the auditorium was nearly full, added that it would probably be held in the auditorium due to the size of the crowd. And then I added, “I don’t really know anything.” That statement proved accurate moments later, when the people in the auditorium started running to the beach. My shift was over at that point, so I grabbed a chair and went there myself.

It was so nice to be sitting with Amma at the beach again.

After the meditation and the question and answer period, Amma gave darshan to the devotees who had arrived that day and were leaving that night. Then she walked to the auditorium to lead the bhajans (devotional singing) from 6:30-8:10 p.m. After bhajans, she left the auditorium and we all had dinner.

Amma came back to the auditorium around 10:00 p.m. Like Christmas Eve, there were a series of performances. The first act was an instrumental group comprised of musicians from all over the world. Their music was referred to as fusion music. All of the musicians were excellent but I enjoyed hearing the saxophone the most.

Then came a dance by a group of very young, mostly Indian, children. I would guess their ages ranged from 4-7 although I don’t know. There was a young boy who was jumping up and down with so much enthusiasm throughout the piece. He was so funny. The room erupted with appreciative laughter. All of the dancers were fun to see. And I also enjoyed watching the people as they watched the dancers.

At one point in the evening,  a single Indian dancer performed. She came on stage and stood in her beginning pose. When the sound didn’t start, she held the pose as if this was a normal event. Eventually the sound problem was figured out and the music began. She did a beautiful dance. I was impressed that she was able to maintain her composure and pose during the awkward beginning.

I don’t remember all of the performances that occurred that night but I remember the last two. I was present the evening before the when an Indian woman was asked if she would arrange to have the Indian women householders (married women living in the ashram) dance. When the curtain opened that night, I was amazed at the number of women in her group; there had to be at least 14 of them. Their dance was so nice. I was very impressed that she had been able to gather so many people, and create a dance, in such a short time.

The last act was a group of the ashram children singing Heal the World. By the end of the song, many people in the audience were singing and clapping along with them. I don’t have a tape of their performance, but I found a video of Michael Jackson singing the song.

After  the performances, Amma gave her New Year’s message. Most of it was published on amritapuri.org. (To read it click here.) I decided to highlight one part of Amma’s talk. Picking that part wasn’t easy. This was my final choice:

True celebration is not something that can be gained by fulfilling a desire. It is the final stage of a continuous preparation. When we see a blooming flower, swaying in the wind, spreading fragrance, we fail to recognise that it represents the last stage of the transition of the flower bud from darkness into light. Inside the flower bud, there was darkness. From that darkness, it slowly bloomed into the light. Similarly, this is our journey of blossoming from the darkness of lower emotions into the light of pure love. It is only when we reach that final destination that we experience real celebration and joy.

I generally do not go to New Year’s Eve programs. Sometimes I don’t get to bed until 2 or 3 a.m. after the Christmas Eve programs, so I usually don’t feel up to another late night. This year, though, I was wide awake when the program began around 10:00 p.m., so I decided to stay up for part of it. After the performances, a taped version of Amma’s New Year’s speech was played. The English translation was projected onto other screens in the auditorium.

After the talk, Amma began to sing bhajans. While I enjoyed singing with her, by the end of the second song it was midnight and I was really tired. I decided to leave and go bed. I know there were at least two more songs and a peace chant after I left. but I don’t know when the program ended.

What a day it had been.

New Year’s Day

There is also a meditation followed by a question and answer session on Tuesdays. This one starts at 11 a.m. I came to the program in time to hear the questions and answers section. The form was different than normal that day. After Amma answered a devotee’s question she asked for others to add to her answer. Two people gave answers.

Then, Brahmacharini Karunamrita stood up and said that she wasn’t going to answer the question but she had something she wanted to say. (She spoke in Malayalam but what she said was translated into English when she was done.) She told us that she had been on the spiritual path for 50 years. She left home when she was 16 years old and joined a convent. She was at the convent for 14 years. At that point, she felt called to be with Amma and has been with her ever since. She expressed her gratitude to Amma. She was wiping away tears from her eyes throughout her talk. And Amma was wiping tears away from her own eyes at the same time. I felt honored to be able to witness that event.

I have a special memory of Bri. Karunamrita. In the early 90’s I was helping to take care of a woman who had had a psychotic break. I felt outside of my comfort zone even though I was a psychotherapist. Bri. Karunamrita came into the room and talked with her. She was so kind and so gentle and the woman responded to her caring ways. I wanted to be like Bri. Karunamrita!

After the question and answer session, Amma passed out lunch  to the big crowd. I joined the plate passing line, which is one of my favorite things to do.

That afternoon I attended a children’s puppet show. Seetala, the devotee who organizes them, has been asking me to come. I loved it. The little kids were so excited and joined in with the interactive performance. I enjoyed seeing the marionettes she had made as well.  After the performance, the children were told they could go to the right of the stage to see the puppets. Several children headed that direction. Then she added that everyone who wanted a cookie should go to the left of the stage. The children who were walking to the right of the stage quickly turned around and headed for the cookies. It was really funny.

After eating their cookie, the children were able to see how the marionettes worked. Then it was game time. I left at that time, but I was so glad I had gone to the show.

***

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day seems to have been a turning point for me. I was more awake and started attending more of the programs. On Monday and Tuesday, I sat on the floor in the front of the auditorium during bhajans. That was one of my goals during my last Amritapuri visit. I enjoyed sitting there again.

***

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I decided to start with some of the New Year’s Eve and the New Year’s Day activities. The rest of the post will be experiences that happened throughout the whole time period. Some happened after New Years and some before.

Time with Amma
I have handed Amma prasad three or four times since I’ve been here. I so love doing that and will do it some more. I am not planning to be a Prasad Assistant this trip. My time here has been challenging for a variety of reasons and I can’t do everything.

I went for Amma’s darshan again on January 3. Westerners usually go for darshan after the Indian visitors have had their hug. The darshan line was looped around three times by the time I entered it; my guess was there were about 150 people in line at that point. I was up much later than I had intended to be, but I knew I needed to be with Amma. Her acknowledging look and smile when I was a person away from her was so special to me.

Tai Chi

I’ve continued to go to the Tai Chi class whenever it is offered. (The class is held five days a week.) We’ve been doing the first section of the Yang 108 form every day. I enjoy the class and look forward to returning to my Seattle Tai Chi class when I go home.

Mental and Emotional Turmoil
Part of what happens when I, and others, are around Amma is that the personal things we need to work on come up. It’s similar to what happens when you stir a pond; the sediment rises to the surface. In this case, the purpose is so that we can see our negativities and self-defeating behaviors and work on them. So, to put it in a blunt and different way, I could say that I’ve “been in my shit” for the last week. That manifested in the form of loneliness, worrying about the future and five or six nights of nightmares. In several of the nightmares I did something wrong and was so glad to wake up and find out I hadn’t really done the action. One of the dreams was very violent. I don’t remember the content of any of the dreams beyond that.

One day this week, I was able to sort out some of the puzzle pieces that went into creating this pain and took action on them. I also recognized changes I need to make when I return to Seattle. Clearly, it was all for the good, no matter how miserable I felt. I have had no nightmares since the day I was able to separate some of the components that went into my misery.

Kiran Bedi

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

This event actually occurred on Christmas day but I forgot to put it in my last post. Kiran Bedi was the keynote speaker for the closing ceremonies of the AYUDH summit.

I was working in the bakery part of the café during that time, so I wasn’t able to go to her presentation, but since my job takes place in the area outside of the café, it is across from the open aired auditorium. I was close enough to get a sense of what was happening, and even see some of it, although I couldn’t hear the words of her speech.

I had been told that she was Lt. Governor of Punducherry, but that “she was more than that”. The excitement when she entered the auditorium was electric. I was intrigued. I noticed that when she handed out certificates to some of the attendees, they would often reach down to touch her feet (a sign of respect). When that happened, she would reach down and touch their feet.

I looked her up on the internet later and was very impressed. She is 69 years old and was the first woman to join the Indian Police Service. She served there, in many different roles, for 35 years. She is also known as a social activist, an advocate for the poor and a politician. Her list of accomplishments is extensive.

A story that I liked is that during the Asian Games that were held in Delhi in 1982, she was tasked with traffic control. She became known as Crane Bedi because she brought in cranes to tow away illegally parked vehicles.. Some reports say that she towed away Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s car, although apparently it was actually a sub-inspector that had the car removed. Bedi stood up for the controversial action though, saying that the officer was doing his duty.

I found a video about the incident; it is one that is used to teach children English. I really enjoyed watching it.

There is a sizeable report on Kiran Bedi’s life in Wikimedia.

Soon after the AYUDH event, I had lunch with a friend who said she had read books about Bedi years ago. The one she liked best was called May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India. When I looked it up, I discovered it was published in 1991. Kiran Bedi has also written many books of her own.

Weather

Normally it is comparatively cool in December. There have been times in the past when I was actually cold unless I wore a light weight jacket. That was not the case this visit. It was hot all of December. On January 2, that changed. When I came down the stairs that morning, I was greeted by a wind that chilled me. It has been cool every morning since. I love it.

***

I just remembered some other things that happened during this time period, but this post is long enough. I will share them in the future!

To read previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 24-27, 2018

Photo Source: Amma’s Facebook Page

Christmas Eve Program

This was the first time in ten years that we’ve had a Christmas Eve program in Amritapuri that consisted of many different performances instead of a play. It was such a fun and enjoyable night.

One performance was done by a group of about 20 young children dancing to Little Drummer Boy. Most of the children were between four and seven years old. There were little boys with drums, little girls in sparkling white costumes, tiny children in sheep costumes, shepherds with staffs, and some slightly older children who played the roles of Mary and Joseph.

Two Western groups sang or played beautiful Christmas carols.

Two Indian groups, dressed in exquisite costumes, performed high energy Indian dances.

A Chinese dancer did a style of dancing I hadn’t seen before. I was in awe of her dance and want to see more of it.

Another performance was about a man who had given up his heart to worldly things. The dances showed the progression of his life from childhood on. At one point, there was a rewind and all the dancers moved through his life backwards. His life was then replayed showing what would have happened if he hadn’t given away his heart when he was young. It was such a creative and fun enactment. I had a great view of Amma at that time. She had such a big smile, from beginning to end!

The next to the last performance was a reflection on Jesus. Sreejit was a preacher in the piece. He wrote the lyrics, some of which were spoken and some were sung. There were dancers and actors playing Jesus, disciples and villagers. My favorite lines in this performance were:

His greatness was protected
because the Lord’s light
within it was reflected.

And when he looked at you
he didn’t see social status.
When he looked at you
he didn’t see black or white.
He didn’t see man or woman,
good or bad

All he saw was his family
in God’s holy light.
When he looked at you…
When he looked at you…

This is his story
he came to win,
he came to forgive
the world of its sin.

This is his story.

The last performance of the night was our choir’s song.  I will be talking more about the song and my experience in later parts of this post. For now, I will say that I believe we sounded strong and that the audience enjoyed it. I feel privileged to have been part of the group.

All of the performances were outstanding and well received. After they were over, Amma gave her inspiring Christmas talk.

The spirit of Christmas is sharing and caring. Let us not be focused on our lives alone. Let us look around a little and see the needs of others as well. Even if you are able to help just one person, then you have made a difference. If we can do this, that would be the real Christmas celebration. -Amma

If Amma’s talk is posted online, I will give you the link in a future post. Afterwards, Amma sang three bhajans, the last one being the always rousing Mata Rani. Then, Amma, and her helpers, distributed chocolate Christmas cake to everyone present. That is always a highlight of the evening program. The Christmas Eve program was over about 1 a.m. on Christmas morning.

[Note: As I wrote this section, I was aware that I said more about some groups than others. I had seen the groups Sreejit, Chaitanya or I were involved in practice several times so knew more about those performances. Also, since I was in a performing group, I sometimes only got glimpses of a performance.]

Will You Be There?

In my first Living and Learning in Amritapuri post from this trip, I told readers that I would tell you the story behind the choir’s song after the performance was over. I didn’t want to mention it before because I didn’t want to spoil the surprise.

During a Devi Bhava on the 2003 Summer Tour early in the tour, a group of staff members sang Michael Jackson’s song Will You Be There? They moved their outstretched arms back and forth like a wave as they sang. Amma loved it; in fact, she called for the song to be sung every Devi Bhava for the rest of that tour.

Amma’s 50th birthday was on September 27, 20003. As the September day approached, people from all over the world poured into the ashram. Amma called the group to sing Will You Be There every day. All of the westerners joined in. I remember a photo taken of us when we were doing “the wave” in the temple. There was a sea of white, and me who, as always, was dressed in colored clothes. I have such fun memories of those experiences

That song hasn’t been sung here for years, maybe not since that time 15 years ago! So it was fun to think of performing it for Amma again, this time by a choir.

I would love to have a tape of our song to share with you but I don’t. So instead, I will share an amazing YouTube video of Michael Jackson singing it!

Wedding

On December 27, Amma married a couple who have known Amma since they were young children. I have known the parents of the groom for many years. It was a beautiful and heart felt wedding. Towards the end of the ceremony,the bride handed Amma a poster of herself when she was about three years old. It was a picture of her being held by Amma during a Devi Bhava. Amma held up the poster for everyone in the auditorium to see. The moment was so touching to witness, as was the entire wedding. I had been invited to the wedding feast so I enjoyed participating in that as well.

Letting Go Follow-up: Christmas Eve performance

In my last Living and Learning in Amritapuri post, I said I was going to let go of my need to be able to sing the words of our choir’s song perfectly and let the fact that I couldn’t sing, clap and move at the same time be okay. Instead, I would do my best to relax and have a good time.

I had a chance to put that resolve to the test at the practice on the afternoon of the 24th. I was reasonably successful in accomplishing those goals. My endeavor was aided by the fact that during the practices one of the lead singers stood in front of me and when the song started to go fast, the dancers and actors from many of the performances came on stage and stood in front of the choir. That was quite okay with me since it meant I was hidden.

When we performed the song that night though, the lead singer didn’t end up in front of me. I gulped when I realized that since I was in the front row of the choir, I would be in full sight. but let my hesitation go. I was able to get more of the words right than I had the past and most of my movements and claps were okay. At first, I had difficulty clapping on the 2nd and the 4th beat but at those times I didn’t let my incorrect “claps” make sound. I was really glad I had agreed to participate rather than quit. I would have been very upset with myself if I had given up.

Letting Go Follow-up: Tai Chi

In that same post, I had said I was going to let go of my desire to be practicing the Tai Chi 108 form and focus on all that I was getting from the class as it was. I laughed when in class the next day, the teacher taught the first part of the 108 form I had been wanting to do. That happens so often. When I really let go of what I want, I often end up getting it!

Weather

The weather has been very hot for December. This week it has been in the high 80’s and all of next week it is supposed to be 90 degrees. Thankfully, there are so many fans now. I remember all of the years when there were no fans in the auditorium. I’m sure glad those days are gone.

It rained two days this week. Again it was heavy rain. One of them was during and after a choir practice. It was raining so hard that I stayed and watched the next practice to avoid getting drenched. By the time I ventured outside, I had to wade through water that was 3 inches deep in places.

 

To read previous posts in this series click here.