Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: September 12-14, 2018

Choices

Nonattachment (or not)

I often say that the only joke I remember is Question: Do you know how to make God laugh? Answer: Tell him your plans for your life. Since we don’t even know what’s around the next corner, when we make plans, we have no way of knowing if we will be able to do them. I used to attend a church that added “If the Lord shall say the same” before any announcement. While there is nothing wrong with making life plans, I think it is important to remember that those events may or may not happen. Holding on tightly to plans can send pain and suffering our way.

I got a good reminder of that last week. I had planned the dates for my Amritapuri trip around the Ganesh Chathuri holiday. Last year, I had discovered that there were amazing bhajans held in the Kalari nine nights of that ten-day festival. The bhajans were led by a group of young men. Some played drums or other instruments. The singing got pretty raucous and I loved it. In fact, I think it would be accurate to say that I experienced unbridled joy. I have been waiting to have that experience again ever since last year’s Ganesh Chathuri.

There was a puja scheduled for the morning of September 13, the first day of the holiday. When I saw the area being set up on my way to my cafe shift, I realized I had forgotten what a big deal that puja was. It is held in the auditorium. The ashram elephant is brought in and there are rituals performed … and lots of singing.

When I went into the cafe, I mentioned it to Chaitanya. She hadn’t thought about the fact that I would want to attend the puja either. She offered to find someone to replace me, but it didn’t seem right to back out on her at the last minute, so I said I would stay. After all, I had the night bhajans to look forward to… and those were my priority.

As the sounds from the auditorium intensified, however, I longed to be there. I began to get agitated. Sreejit walked into the kitchen, so I asked him to relieve me for a few minutes so I could go see what was happening. Being at the puja, even for three or four minutes, was just what I needed. After all, I had the night bhajans to look forward to.

When my replacement came at 9:00 a.m., I was able to go to the auditorium for some of the last bhajan and for the Ganesh Aarati. I was also there when the prasad was handed out. It consisted of numerous types of treats in a small banana leaf bowl. I had already committed to myself that I would take that morning off next year if I’m here, but I felt satisfied with the small parts of the ceremony I had attended. After all, I had 9 evenings of wonderful Ganesh bhajans to look forward to.

On my way back to my room, I decided to go look at the Ganesh Chaturi schedule on the bulletin board. I was horrified when I saw what was written on the flyer. There had been a homa earlier in the morning and then the big puja …. and those were to be the only Ganesh Chathuri programs this year.

Amma had canceled the games and big processions associated with Onam and Krishna Jayanthi in recognition of the pain being experienced by the Kerala Flood victims. I hadn’t thought about that being extended to Ganesh Chathuri as well since there were no games or big processions associated with that festival.

I felt devastated. I started crying and I cried all day. It reminded me of a time years ago when I went to Amma crying to the core of me. At that time, a friend standing near Amma was alarmed. She thought one of my children must have died. The event that brought on my tears that year was not the death of one of my children, but rather was due to the fact that I didn’t have enough money to make my yearly trip to Amritapuri. Up to that point, I had come to India every year since 1990.

I believe what I access when I am in that state is my soul crying for God. And it may be have also brought up longing for experiences I have had in past lives. (For most of my years with Amma, I have cried whenever I saw Ayyappo pilgrims. They sing in that same style of music, raucous and tribal. I speculate that I took Ayyappo pilgrimages in some other lifetime. The yearning to do that again is still inside of me even though my conscious part doesn’t really want to go with them!).

Amma has said that crying for God is as powerful as meditation. I believe the longing I experienced when the bhajans were cancelled was good, but it sure was painful. I also believe that part of my pain was due to my holding on to plans instead of living from a place of nonattachment.

Later in the day, it occurred to me that having Amma’s darshan might help. Darshan was being held in the temple that day. I decided to look for the token table and found it in an unexpected place about 30 seconds later. Within the hour, I was in Amma’s arms. And, of course, being with her did help. Even though I remained teary for the rest of the day, they were not the kind of tears that were painful and wouldn’t stop.

Trust My Inner Wisdom (or not)

In the psychotherapy community I practiced in, we used an affirmation that said “Trust Your Inner Wisdom.” I usually added “except when you can’t.” Most of us have so many voices in our head. I believe it is important to make sure that we aren’t listening to a voice that supports our unhealthy belief systems and/or behaviors.

Decades ago, I heard a minister say that the first quiet voice we hear inside is usually the voice of God. The next messages that come into our mind may be a flood of discounting messages that tell us why that first message is wrong and why it won’t work. If we choose to listen to that second stream of messages, the original “voice” will fade away.

The misery I experienced when I found out there would not be Ganesh bhajans in the Kalari for the next nine days was a good example of my not listening to my inner voice. “Go check the schedule” had gone through my mind daily for about a week. I always responded. “I will …. later.” Later didn’t come until late morning on the day of the event.

As I already mentioned, I knew that Amma had cancelled the games and big processions during the two previous holidays because of the floods. While the night Ganesh bhajans weren’t games, they were raucous and high energy. Having them every night for nine days would certainly have fit into the “celebratory” category. While I was aware of this, I had not allowed myself to seriously consider that they might not happen, I believe that was also a discount to the wisdom of my inner voice.

The 20 Step recovery community extensively uses Portia Nelson’s Autobiography in 5 Short Chapters.

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost...
I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I'm in the same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in...it's a habit
My eyes are open; I know where I am;
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

I have found her autobiography to be a very powerful and helpful way of looking at life’s lessons. Years ago, I added another chapter to it… for my own use. In my adaptation, the new chapter came before any of the others. It said:

I receive a warning.
I ignore it.

My experience with the Ganesh holiday was a good example of this additional chapter. I had received warnings in the form of advice and intuitions and had ignored them all. And the result was I brought more pain to myself than if I had listened.

Exam Time

I worry too much about what other people think of me and I don’t like to be laughed at. I cringe whenever people tell stories about me that they think are funny and I don’t. I also get upset when I judge that I’ve made a fool of myself.

An incident that happened in the early 70’s stuck with me for decades. I went to a New Year’s Eve work party with Al (my husband). I worked nights at the time, and for some reason got dressed in the dark. At some point during the party, when we were talking to Al’s boss and his wife, someone noticed that I was wearing shoes that were two different colors. (At that time, I owned two pairs of shoes that were the same style, but different colors. When I had slipped them on in the dark, there was no way for me to tell that they didn’t belong together.)

I was mortified. Other people seemed to be fine about it, and said understanding things, but my inner critic flared. My feelings of humiliation were strong even decades later. I ended up doing some EMDR (therapy) on the issue in the mid 90’s. During it, I started to laugh. I had been divorced from Al for many years and here I was still worried about what the person who was his boss in the 70’s thought about me. My energy about the issue reduced tremendously after that, but it wasn’t 100% gone.

Last week I had a chance to see where I stood on those issues. One morning, I took my garbage to the recycling station. When I returned to my building, there was a group of women residents sitting near the elevator listening to the broadcast of a class that was being offered in the temple.  Before the elevator door shut, I saw one of the women smile and lean over to talk to the woman sitting next to her. They were both looking at me. At first, I took their smiles as a greeting but then I realized it didn’t feel that way. I looked down and was dismayed to discover that I was wearing two different kinds of thongs; and these weren’t even similar to each other. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed. Again, I had made a fool of myself and worried about being judged.

The difference between the event in the 70’s and the one that happened last week is that I had so much less energy about it. I still didn’t like that I made the mistake and I didn’t think it was funny, but I had much more of a “whatever” attitude about it.

Long ago, someone taught me the difference between shock and embarrassment. Shock is deadening. We may freeze and turn white as the blood drains from our face. On the other hand, when we are embarrassed about something, it can actually enliven us. We may turn bright red as blood rushes into our face. Some small part of us may even think it is funny.

I realize that the words I chose for these two experiences also show the difference between shock and embarrassment. For the one that occurred in the 70’s I used “mortified” and for the one that happened last week I used “dismayed”. I believe I went into shock during the first event and was embarrassed in the present one.

I’m not happy that I set myself up in this way and know that I still have energy about being laughed at, but I do appreciate seeing that my energy about the issue has lessened so significantly.

[Note: Soon after I wrote this section, I went to work at the cafe. Ziggy, a long term devotee who is also a clown, came up to me and asked permission to put a balloon earring on my ear. I laughed at the synchronicity and said yes. People did indeed laugh at me, and I thought it was fun!]

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: September 7-11, 2018

Attitude

On my first day in Amritapuri this year, I noticed a man wearing a t-shirt that said “let go” on the front. Since my blog is named Living, Learning and Letting Go, his shirt caught my eye and my interest. A few days later, he asked me if I was having a good day or a great day. I was startled at first but then realized it was a nice example of how powerful choosing our attitudes can be. If our choice is between a good day or a great day, we are more likely to create one of those two options for ourselves.

***

I was reminded me of a story that I once heard Jean Illsley Clarke tell. She is a parent educator and was a mentor for me. Her story was about a seven-year-old girl who had been kicked out of a number of foster homes. Jean visited her on a day that she had been acting out. When Jean went outside to talk to her, she asked the child “How did you make your day go today?” The girl was startled for a moment. After thinking about it, she said, “Exactly the way I wanted it to go.”

***

A quote that is projected on the screens during Amma’s programs in Amritapuri and the U.S. (and probably elsewhere) is also about the importance of choosing ones attitudes.

***

For the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. In one of his books, Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

***

There is so much power in realizing we can be responsible for our own attitudes.

Choices

Towards the end of last week, I realized I hadn’t done many of the activities that were important to me during previous trips.

  1. I hadn’t joined the prasad line to hand Amma the packet of ash and candy that she gives each person who comes to her for a hug.
  2. Amma has given western visitors and ashram residents the opportunity to sit on the stage with her each darshan day. Not only had I not taken advantage of that opportunity, I hadn’t even checked to see what my assigned time was.
  3. During my last three trips to Amritapuri, I had enjoyed doing a one-hour shift as a prasad assistant twice a week. That job consists of making sure that there are always people available to hand Amma the prasad and teaching them what to do if it is their first time giving prasad, I had planned to do that seva (volunteer job) again this year, but kept putting it off. I soon realized that it wasn’t going to be a priority for me this year.

Instead, I have kept focused on coming to bhajans on time, and sitting in the floor-seating area in the front of the auditorium, as well as attending more of the meditations and Q&A programs.

A few days ago, I walked by the prasad-giving line and saw that it was almost empty. I know what it is like to not have enough people to run the line, so as soon as I could, I joined the line myself. I enjoyed giving Amma the prasad packets as much as I always do.

After I finished doing that, I noticed that there was a lot of empty space in the area on the stage where devotees sit. That is very unusual, so I decided to take advantage of it. I had an incredible view of Amma as she gave darshan. I sat there for about half an hour and then left. I realized this was a good example of the importance of staying aware of opportunities that arise and not holding on to plans in a rigid way. It is important for me to consider each choice that comes my way individually.

***

This week I also had the opportunity to see that I don’t always make choices that are in my best interests. On Sunday, I got a hug from Amma and then decided to have dinner with friends instead of listening to the Swami bhajans. During that dinner, I heard Swami Pranavamrita singing one of my favorite bhajans after another. Even though I longed to be immersed in the music, I chose to stay with my friends. It was nice to be able to choose between between two good options, but since I am still longing for what I missed that day, I don’t think I made the best choice for me in that moment. I know it was a learning opportunity though and I believe I will have an opportunity to make a different choice many times in the future.

***

I used to teach a workshop based on Wayne Mueller’s book Legacy of the Heart.  I ended the workshop by saying “You will have endless opportunities to choose between Pain or Forgiveness, Fear or Faith, Performance or Belonging, Scarcity or Abundance, Grandiosity or Humility, Drama or Simplicity, Judgement or Mercy, Busyness or Stillness, Disappointment or Nonattachment, Isolation or Intimacy, Habit or Mindfulness and Obligation or Loving Kindness. The choice is up to you.”

Discovering My Limits

I have enjoyed sitting on the floor during bhajans. My legs often get uncomfortable but my back feels better than if I am sitting in a chair. If I go to the earlier meditation and Q&A program, I usually sit in a chair since sitting on the floor for the 1 1/2 -2 hour bhajan program is all I can handle. I’m pleased that I am able to get up and down from the floor, although I’m not very graceful about it.

On Thursday of last week, I faced a new challenge and soon realized I had discovered a new limit. When the program is in the auditorium there is a lot of space in the front area. However, on Thursday, darshan was held in the temple, which is much smaller. I decided to go to the temple for the 6:30 bhajan set. Since Amma would be giving darshan,  a swami would lead the singing. It would be like the “old days”.

The situation was very much like the old days. The front area was very crowded and there was no room to walk between people. As more and more people sat down, I began to wonder how I was going to get out. The swami would sing longer than a normal bhajan program and I knew I couldn’t sit that long. As crowded as it was, it would be difficult to get into a standing position and my balance would probably be a problem.

I worried about it for a while. Then the person next to me stood up. By using her space and my own I was able to stand up. That didn’t solve the problem of walking through a crowd of people when there was no space between them though. I slowly made my way past one person and then another, and then reached out my hand for support to go the last distance. One person either didn’t see me or ignored me, but another took my hand. With that extra support I was able to get to the aisle.

I had discovered a new limit. I will not sit on the floor during the 6:30 p.m. bhajans if darshan is in the temple. I can sit there at other times during the day.

***

I used to tell new devotees to be sure to stay until the end of programs because so many special things happen then. Another limit I have had to accept is that I can’t handle staying up late. If I do, I feel horrible the next day.

One of the events I missed this week was Rosh Hasshana, the Jewish New Year. A group from Israel sang for a while. I was there for part of that. I loved their music. Later in the night, another group of Jewish devotees sang for Amma and then Amma sang with them. I could hear a bit of that song from my room.  Part of me wanted to join them, but I knew I needed to respect my limits.

Saraswati Garden

I spent some time in Saraswati Garden a few days ago. It has become so lush. As I wandered through it, I marveled at how big the plants are compared to those that were there in 2016 when the garden was fairly new. Some of the plants that were 18-24 inches in 2016 are now well over 6 feet tall. And there are many new plant varieties.

November 2016

September 2018

Photo credits:

The Amma quote is from Amma’s Facebook Page.
The attitude, choices, and limits photos are from Pixabay.com.

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: September 2-6, 2018

Krishna Jayanthi

I planned this trip to Amritapuri based on the dates for my favorite Indian holidays- Krishna Jayanthi, Ganesh Chaturthi, and Onam. Many, if not all, of the holidays operate on a lunar calendar. As a result, the dates and order may change from year to year.  Onam came first this time. You may remember than Amma wanted that holiday to be less festive than normal in recognition of the pain and suffering experienced by those affected by the Kerala floods. She asked that the event be more focused on praying for peace in the world.

Amma said the same for Krishna Jayanthi. The afternoon procession and games were canceled and there were some other adjustments made throughout the day.

My favorite part of the holiday occurred first thing in the morning. When I took the morning seva shift at the cafe, it was with the agreement that I could have Krishna Jayanthi morning off! Normally a big group of people start to gather in the courtyard in front of the temple around 6:30 a.m. We put on orange headbands and then place sandlewood paste and kum kum on our foreheads, in the space between our eyebrows. By 7:30, everyone is ready and a large procession around the ashram grounds… and beyond… begins. We sing high energy Krishna songs as we walk.

This year, everyone gathered in the courtyard but the group was much smaller. There were no headbands. When we were ready, the procession and songs started but the group only walked to the area in front of the Indian kitchen. We sang a lot of songs though. I particularly enjoy the songs that we sing during that procession, because they are in Sanskrit and easy to follow. And most of them I have sung many times over the years. Before we returned to the temple, we received word that Amma wanted us to chant the peace mantra at the end of the early morning event.

Adults and children dressed as Krishna and Radha joined us when we were singing near the kitchen. They stayed near the front of the procession as we walked back to the temple. Five decorated cows were in front of the temple when we returned. Rituals were performed honoring the cows and we sang more songs. Afterwards, we chanted the peace mantra and the crowd dispersed. As always, I had had a wonderful time.

Normally on Krishna Jayanthi, there is a much larger procession that goes between the ashram and a local Krishna temple in the late afternoon. There is lots of singing and it is a very joyful experience. Last year, the procession started at the temple and ended at the ashram. When we walked into the ashram gate that day, the courtyard was filled with people waiting for the games to begin.  The game is similar to hitting a pinata in that the participants use a stick to try to break a vessel filled with candy. One of the differences is that in the Indian game, the participants are not blindfolded. When they run towards the hanging pot, water is thrown at the person who is trying to hit it. As the person gets close to the pot, the rope is pulled up and the pot rises. There many different groups that participate; players vary from young children to the elderly.  This activity is particularly popular with the college students.

Neither the big procession nor the games were included in this year’s program. Instead, Amma held a normal darshan day. At one point, when I was sitting on the auditorium floor watching her give hugs, I noticed that a group of children who were in Krishna and Radha costumes had gathered. Some of them were as young as two. They were all so cute. I left the hall soon thereafter. When I returned, the children were on the riser where the singers usually sit, chanting the peace mantra. It was very beautiful. After a while, they stopped chanting and each went to Amma to get a hug.

Amma had another surprise in store for us. Sometime during the afternoon, it was announced that she would be stopping darshan in time to lead bhajans from 6:30-8:30. She doesn’t normally sing on darshan days, so it was a very welcome addition to the program.

The last part of the Krishna Jayanthi celebrations usually start around 11:00 p.m. and go until about 2:00 a.m. During that time, Amma gives a talk, sings bhajans and hands out payasam, a sweet pudding. I was exhausted and knew if I stayed up that late, I would feel horrible the next day, especially since I had a cafe shift at 7:30 a.m. and had my last Ayurvedic appointment at 10. I made the choice to go to bed instead of going to the program. I woke up as Amma started singing bhajans so went outside and listened to them from a balcony that is near my room. It wasn’t as much fun as being at the program but it was a healthy choice for me.

(To read excepts from Amma’s talk click here.)

Photo credits: Amma’s Facebook Page and Amritapuri.org

Darshan Programs

After the floods, the number of Indian visitors who visited the ashram was greatly reduced and since the Cochin airport was closed for quite a while, Western devotees had trouble getting here. Normally, large groups of students from Amma’s colleges visit, but that also stopped for a while. There were days during that time when the darshan programs finished between 8 and 9 p.m.

The college students started coming again last week. On the first day, there were groups from two schools; each school sent around 250 students. I think there have been even more students on some days. There has also been quite a few weddings since I’ve been here. Some of the weddings have a lot of guests. The wedding itself is short and simple, but I enjoy watching everyone before and after the ceremony. There is so much excitement.

There have been many years when I have gone to darshan to get a hug from Amma at the time I arrived at the ashram and again when I was about to leave. Occasionally, I would go one other time during the stay. For the last three years, we have been able to get a hug from Amma more often. I feel blessed to be the ashram no matter the situation, but it is so nice to be able to be in her arms so frequently.

Tuesday Prasad Lunch

Tuesday is the day that Amma serves lunch to ashram residents and visitors. Before the lunch, she leads a meditation and answers questions. I found this photo of the September 4th pre-lunch program on Amma’s Facebook PageThere was a quote that accompanied the photo. It was in response to one of the answers asked that day.

Pure love will help us transcend our shortcomings and mental weaknesses. Immeasurable is the power of such love. Its transforming energy serves as a catalyst and serves as a success formula both in our spiritual practices and efforts in the world. Just as a mountaineer has a safety rope tied around his waist to catch him in case he falls, divine love is our true protection. If we have this love and focus, we will be able to overcome all kinds of obstacles”

My Experiment

I have continued to make a priority of sitting in the front section of the hall for bhajans and in addition have gone to the meditation and Q&A sessions more often. I have been experimenting with finding a frequency that is challenging but not exhausting. It is my sense that reconnecting to the bhajans is the most important thing for me to do on this trip, so I always give bhajans priority.

In my last “Living and Learning” post, I talked about leelas being “God’s play.” I experienced a leela on late Monday or Tuesday afternoon that was more of the fun variety. I tend to be very avoidant of meditation unless it is the meditative state that sometimes arises within me during bhajans. On that day, I decided to attend the meditation program even though I didn’t really want to. I ran into a friend on my way to the auditorium and he said that the meditation had been canceled. That had never happened before so I was puzzled. I was also a bit mortified when “Hallelujah” came out of my mouth, loud. But that is how I felt.

I walked back to my room, and just as I was inserting the combination into the lock, a bell rang three times. That is the signal that Amma is coming. Clearly, she was going to do the meditation after all. What could I do other than laugh and head back to the hall!

Cafe

I have continued to do a morning seva (volunteer) shift in the cafe, calling out the number on a food order when it is ready for the devotee to pick it up. I always enjoy that job, but I enjoy it even more when the students are present. They tend to order in large groups. Years ago, they ordered mainly toast, but that has changed. One day, there was a group of 12 male students waiting for their breakfast. They had ordered 2 Grilled Cheese sandwiches, a regular omelet, a cheese omelet, 2 orders of French Toast, 4 Egg and Cheese sandwiches and 6 Breakfast sandwiches! Needless to say, it takes a little longer for everyone else to get their food when there are orders this big, but the cafe staff do an amazing job of handling it.

An even more interesting thing happened last week, and is still going on. Essentially all of the eggs we have served since we received the last egg delivery have had double yolks. I also saw two that had triple yolks. On the rare occasions there was a single yolk, it was very large. The double yolks are very easy to see when the eggs are fried  but there are noticable differences in the omelets as well; they are bigger and are a deeper yellow than is normal.

Photo Credit: Offered by Miya to Wikimedia

Since there were so many double yolk eggs, I decided to learn more about them. Several articles I read said that the occurrence rate was 1:1000. (That certainly wasn’t true in this case!) There also seemed to be consensus that double yolks happen when hens are young and that as they age, the hens will start producing one yolk eggs.

Another article said that we don’t usually see double yolk eggs because eggs are scanned to check the contents prior to putting them cartons. When double yolks are found, they are sold to companies that use eggs in the ingredients of a product. (Part of the reason that is done is that double yolk eggs are bigger than eggs with single yolks. The bigger eggs don’t fit in the egg cartons.) Yet another article mentioned that a farmer’s flocks tend to be about the same age, so that if there are a lot of double yolks, it is probably because the farmer’s flock is young. I can’t imagine that the contents of eggs are scanned in India, but the concept that it occurs because a given flock is young seems plausible.

Weather

On most days during the first week of this visit to Amritapuri, it rained once or twice a day. I love hearing the rain here. Since most of the roofs are metal, the sound is even louder than it would normally be. Often when I think it couldn’t rain any harder, it does. There have been times in previous years when I have been in the auditorium and the sound of the rain has drowned out the sound of the amplified music.

I took this recording from my room on one of my first days here. By the time I found the voice recorder app, the sound was not at its loudest but I think it will give you an idea of how hard it was raining and how loud the sound was.

It has rained very little since that first week. The temperature has been cooler than normal, which is very nice. If there weren’t fans, though, I’d be sweating; but there are lots of fans. In fact, in the evening, I often get chilled when I am in the auditorium. I generally wear a light-weight jacket for those programs because I know I will get cold. I’m not complaining. We had many, many years without fans in the auditorium and in those days I was SOOOO hot.

Phone

The phone rates here as so low that they defy belief. It seems like they go down every year. You can get a phone plan that gives 2 GB of data a day for 84 days. The plan costs 350 rupees ($4.85). In addition to the impressive amount of data, you get free phone calls within India, as well as free texts. At the end of the 84 days, the plan can be renewed.

I have that data plan. In addition, I spent 250 rupees ($3.47) to use on international calls. When, I called the U.S., however, those rupees disappeared quickly. Later in the day, I learned that I could pay an additional 43 rupees and get reduced rates to the U.S. When I asked what the per minute cost would be for that plan, I was told calls to the U.S. would be 1 rupee and 80 paise per minute. I thought I must have misunderstood, but when I made a 2-minute call later, I was charged 3.8 rupees (5 cents)!

These prices make me wonder how much of the $85/month or more I’ve paid to U.S. Phone companies over the years is pure profit. I feel good that I changed to Consumer Cellular last month. When I return to the U.S. I will be paying $33/month… and that includes taxes and fees. The rates aren’t as good as in India but they are certainly better than $85/month.

 

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

So Many Memories

Every time I come to Amritapuri, I have so many memories of my first visit. I met Amma in June of 1989. Six weeks later, I was at her New Hampshire retreat and 6 months after that I was at her ashram in India. I don’t remember when the ashram started to be called Amritapuri, but I think it was many years later. At that time, we just referred to it as being near Oachira or Vallikavu.

In those days, the beach road was not paved and was full of potholes. The taxi drivers were not willing to drive on it so they would take us to Vallikavu. From there, we took a canoe to the ashram. This was our first view of the ashram:

I arrived days after the temple was able to be used. The top floors had not been completed yet, and it would be years before the construction was done. I don’t have a photo of the temple from that time but the first photo below was taken within the last decade. The second two are from January 1990. You can click on the photo gallery to enlarge the pictures.

In those days, Amma would hold Devi Bhava programs three days a week. Those would be held in the temple. She gave darshan (hugs) in a small darshan hut.

The evening bhajan program was held in the temple. My memory is that there were so few people that we only filled the front third of the temple. I remember wondering why Amma had built a temple that was so big.

A photo from later in the 90’s shows the answer to that question.

When I came to the ashram in 1990, we never knew if Amma would attend the evening bhajans. My memory is that she would participate at least two times a week, and that when she came the program would last longer.

That first year, Amma sat with us on the floor of the temple, all of us facing the Kali murti. She would lead the singing without a microphone. A year or two later Amma, as well as the swamis and other back up singers, moved to the side of the room. At that point, everyone was still sitting on the floor of the temple. I remember Amma scolding us for facing her instead of the front of the temple.  Amma started using a microphone at that time.

I don’t remember what year Amma and the other singers started singing from elevated area at the front of the hall, near the Kali murti. I also don’t remember when the darshan programs moved to the temple.

During my first visit to the ashram, there were 30 western guests (now during the Christmas season there are close to 2000). The Western Canteen opened at that time. It offered only one meal a day, and that meal, as I remember it, consisted of a bowl of soup. (When I look at the photo below, it looks like the meal was bigger than that.) We were so grateful to have western food once a day.

Four days a week, the Canteen food was served on the fourth floor temple balcony. During the three Devi Bhavas, we gathered on the stairs going up to the sixth floor. Maybe those were the times we only had soup. There wouldn’t have been room on the stairs to serve much more than that.

Amma was 35 years old when I met her, and 36 years old when I visited the ashram for the first time. These are some photos of Amma from the early days.

I have been blessed to be able to consistently spend time with Amma in the United States and India during the last 29 years. I have so many memories of those experiences, and I am exceedingly grateful for that. Millions and millions of thanks to you Amma.

 

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: August 24-28, 2016

Kerala Flood Update

A few days ago, I saw a newspaper lying on a table. When I glanced at it, the article that caught my eye was announcing that the Chief Minister of Kerala (the chief executive of the state) requested that all Keralites living in or out of the state, donate a month’s salary to the relief effort. It was suggested that they donate three days a week of their salary at first and then pay the rest over a 10-month period.

What a difference it would make in the recovery effort if people did this. I wonder how many Keralites will be this generous or have enough income to be able to participate. I would guess that he will have more response than if the same request was made, after a tragedy, by any U.S. president or governor.

In researching this event today, I read this statement by the Chief Minister:

As you are aware, this is the worst calamity in the history of Kerala. This calamity has affected the entire stretch of Kerala and 12 out of 14 districts severely. The devastation and destruction are extremely severe and beyond a description. The loss of life, livelihood, homes, roads, bridges, agriculture, power lines and public infrastructure will have far-reaching impact on socioeconomic fronts. Though it was unprecedented, the government swung into action immediately and concentrated fully on rescue and relief. I need to underline the fact that all sections of the people held their hands together along with government agencies to conduct rescue and relief operations. The selfless efforts of the fisherfolks have to be specially underlined. Read more

I also learned that on August 26, the death toll was 302 with more bodies being discovered. There were 1435 relief camps still in operation and the population in those camps was 462,000.

I then looked for an update on Amma’s relief work. I found this statement on amritapuri.org.

As the flood waters recede, and as the spotlight wanes, Amma and MAM remain fully committed to helping the survivors with their recovery for as long as it takes. Next steps for the Math include focusing on disease prevention, ongoing treatment of injury and disease, and finding ways to re-house those who have lost everything. Read more

To read Amma’s Kerala flood rescue and relief day-to-day updates – click here

Onam 2018

This year, Onam occurred on Saturday, August 26. Onam is a family holiday in Kerala, one that celebrates the agricultural harvest. Amma decided that the ashram event would not be celebratory in nature because of the devastation caused by the floods. The tug of wars and cultural entertainment that would normally be part of the festivities were pulled from the program.

Huge crowds usually come to the ashram for Onam. I wondered how many people would be able to attend this year. Even though there weren’t as many people as normal, it was still big. The program began with Amma’s satsang (spiritual talk). She spoke in Malayalam, but the English translation was put up on screens. I find I am much more attentive when the translation is done this way. There were so many parts of Amma’s talk that spoke to me. I haven’t found the text of the full satsang anywhere, but you can read some of it here.

(The photo below shows only half of the auditorium.)

After the satsang, Amma sang three songs and then gave darshan (hugs) for a short period of time. When darshan was over, it was time for lunch. Amma handed a plate to every person in the auditorium.

The Onam lunch was quite a feast. There were so many types of food on each plat. A lot of tables had been set up and brahmachinis and other helpers walked around aiding devotees in finding a place to sit, handing out hot water to drink and a buttermilk sauce to put on the rice, and cleaning up the tables in-between diners. The meal really felt like a family event to me. I realized, once again, that I have a VERY large family.

(Click on any of the galleries to enlarge the pictures.)

After the lunch, Amma fed Lakshmi, the ashram elephant, her lunch. This is always one of my favorite parts of Onam. After Lakshmi finished eating, Amma had her pick up, with her trunk, any food that had dropped on the floor. It always amazes me to see how well Lakshmi can clean up her mess.

Once the floor was clean, a bucket of water was brought to her. Lakshmi drunk quite a bit of it and then pulled up more water into her trunk. Next, she sprayed the water all over the children who were standing or sitting close to her. There were screams of delight and laughter from all over the auditorium, especially from everyone who was sprayed. That process occurred over and over. I think they even brought Lakshmi a second bucket of water.

When the water in the buckets was gone, the lunch program was over. Lakshmi was taken away and the devotees dispersed.

Amma came back to the hall at 6:30 p.m. for the evening bhajan (devotional singing) program. The songs were beautiful, as always.

Since there would be no entertainment that night, I expected bhajans to be the end of the Onam program. That was not Amma’s plan, however. Instead of going back to her room when she finished singing, Amma announced that she would be continuing to give darshan.

Amma gives and gives and then gives some more. I don’t know when she stopped for the night, but I know I went to bed before she did.

Photo Credits: Onam Photos are from Amma’s Facebook Page and Amritapuri.org

Continuing to Explore

In my last post, I talked about making the decision to sit closer to the front of the room during programs instead sitting at the back or far sides of the hall. I have followed through on that commitment. Most often, I have been sitting on the floor in the section closest to Amma. I had forgotten what it is like to be surrounded by devotees who know the songs. The sound is so full and powerful.

I am still finding my limits though. I can sit cross-legged for an hour or even an hour-and-a-half. However, when I tried sitting in that way through Amma’s meditation and question and answer session, followed by the bhajan program, on Monday night, I found that my legs hurt a lot. Three-and-a-half hours was too much for me, even though there was a short break in the middle.

That night, Amma sang a lot of old bhajans, including one I hadn’t heard in many, many years. It was Shyam Radhe Shyam Radhe Shyam… Aarati Kunjavihari Ki Sri Giridhara Krishna Murari Ki. I was in heaven.

Salad Day

Sreejit cooks for the Western Canteen. One day last week was salad day. He made potato salad (potatoes, pickles) , 3 bean salad (pinto beans, chickpeas and green beans), and beet salad. Someone took a picture of him surrounded by the ingredients. I think it gives a good sense of the amount of food Sreejit prepares for lunch, six days a week, and for every dinner. Needless to say, I am very proud of him.

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: August 19-23, 2018

Western Cafe

I started helping my daughter Chaitanya in the Western cafe on August 19, my second day at the ashram. The first four days, I buttered the bread that would be cooked on the grill. On Thursday, August 23, I started doing a 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. shift calling out cafe orders as they are ready. When I am given the plates from the kitchen, I check that what is on the plate matches the ticket. I then call out the ticket number and make sure each person gets the correct order. Some of the time, I work at a leisurely pace, but at other times the orders come out fast and furious and I have a whole crowd of people standing in front of me. The job certainly gives me practice in staying focused.

There are so many more people involved in ordering, cooking and serving the food than when I started working at the cafe in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. In the “old” days people would line up outside the cafe window to order and pay for their food. I would be sitting inside the cafe, taking orders and cashiering through the window. The photo above was probably taken in the early 2000’s. The window where I used to sit is the one on the left. Over the years, much of the process has moved outside with the people who take the orders, the cashiers, and much more being in front of the cafe. The whole building was remodeled and enlarged two years ago.

Crow

Photo Credit: Pixabay

A funny thing happened on Monday or Tuesday. When I sat down to eat my breakfast, two crows flew over to me and perched on nearby chairs. Sometimes, one was on the chair directly in front of me and sometimes he was one chair over. The other crow was always on the back of the chair to the south of him. I’m used to crows perching on various ledges above me but don’t remember them being at eye level before. These crows rarely looked at me directly, but they were on constant alert, looking one way and then another.

At one point, a friend carried her breakfast plate to the table and set it down in the care of someone not far from me. She had covered her food with another plate. The person who was watching her food stepped away briefly. In an instant, the second crow flew to the plate, knocked the cover off and started pecking at her breakfast. I spontaneously stood up to shoo him away. Without hesitation, the crow that had been sitting in front of me grabbed part of my omelet and flew away with it.

From my perspective, the crows were working as a team and I had been a sucker in a conspiracy! I laughed.

Kerala Floods

(The photos below are of a 24 hr/day call-in rescue hotline operated by Amrita University’s faculty and students.)

It is estimated that one million people are being housed in flood relief camps. Four hundred and twenty people have died or are missing, Ten thousand kilometers of roads have been destroyed or damaged and 50,000 homes have been “wiped out”.

The flood cleanup has been hampered because when people return to their homes they are finding poisonous snakes (including pythons and cobras), centipedes and scorpions in their cupboards and personal belongings. Some have even found crocodiles in their houses.

The Cochin International Airport is the world’s first solar powered airport. The solar panels, along with the runway, taxi bay, shops as well as other areas of the airport were submerged during the flood. The damage is estimated to be more than three million US dollars. The airport was due to reopen on August 26 but the reopening has since been moved to the 29th.

Safe in Amma’s ashram, I feel separate from the nightmare in which many of the people of Kerala are living. It was good for me to research and write this summary. If you feel inspired to donate to the relief effort you can do that at: Amma.org (US) or Amritapuri.org (India). I’m sure there are many other ways to donate, but those are the two places I am aware of.

Onam

Saturday is Onam, Kerala’s biggest festival. It is a harvest festival and a family festival. I’ve heard that this holiday is similar to Christmas in the West, although it is a secular holiday. The government has canceled Onam celebrations this year because of all the flooding in the state. I know that some of Amma’s centers in the other parts of the world will host programs that will include praying for the Kerala people and Kerala relief fundraising dinners. There will be an Onam event of some kind in Amritapuri, but I don’t know the schedule or the content. I will be reporting on it in the next post.

Is a New Day Dawning for Me?

On Tuesdays, Amma serves lunch to the devotees and visitors who are living in the ashram. Amma blesses each plate and then the plates are passed to everyone by long lines of devotees. When it is time to form the lines, I eagerly join in. Once everyone has a plate of food, we eat together.

This past Tuesday, after finishing my lunch, I saw that Kumuda was sitting in one of the first rows of chairs in the middle section of the auditorium.  The lunch was over, but Amma hadn’t started giving darshan yet; she was playing with some children.

When I walked over to Kumuda, an old but familiar energy washed over me. I realized being that close to the front of the room felt like being with Amma before the crowds got big. In those days, I spent many hours sitting and watching Amma; I was mesmerized by her. It has been a long time since I have had that experience. I don’t remember when it ended, but the shift probably started around the time I became the tour coordinator for Amma’s Pacific Northwest programs. I was tour coordinator for about 15 years, and it has been at least five years since I gave up that role.

In the last decade, I have developed the habit of sitting in the back or side of the program halls and just watching Amma on the screens. My relationship with Amma has not been affected by my moving to the back of the room, but my relationship to the music is a different story. For years, I have longed for my mind and body to react to Amma’s bhajans (devotional songs) the way it did in my early years with her. At that time, it was as if my body, mind and soul was fully immersed in the music. I remember feeling like the music was feeding my soul.

I resolved to test out sitting closer when I am in Amma’s presence and during any other program that I attend. Tuesday evening, I sat in the fourth row of auditorium chairs during the bhajan program. On Wednesday, I sat cross-legged on the temple floor watching Amma give darshan and later did the same sitting next to the brahmacharinis (female monks) when they sang. Tears ran down my cheeks as I experienced the music, just like they used to in the early days.

[Note: I’m making a big deal about sitting cross-legged because I didn’t know that I could still do that, especially for a whole program. I discovered that my back felt better sitting that way than it does when I sit in a chair. Also, there is a large section for floor sitting in front of the chairs, so if I sit there I will be closer to the front of the room.]

On Thursday, I sat cross-legged on the floor during morning archana and did that again when the women residents sang their series of Sanskrit chants soon after darshan started. That same evening, I sat cross-legged on the floor when Swami Pranavamrita sang during darshan. Once again, I experienced the bhajans in a way that I hadn’t experienced for years. My mind was (relatively) silent and I experienced a combination of joy and peace.

Is a new day dawning for me? It sure feels like it is.

 

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: August 15-18, 2018

I left Seattle for Amritapuri, India at 5:50 p.m. on the 15th of August. Fourteen hours later, I arrived at the Dubai airport. While I was there, I received notice that Amma had asked the Amritapuri ashram residents and visitors to chant the peace mantra 108 times at 10 p.m. That mantra and translation is:

Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings in the world be happy

The chant ends with:

Shanti, Shanti, Shanti
Peace, Peace, Peace

Even though I didn’t know for sure why Amma had made that request, I assumed it was because of flooding that was occurring in the Kochi area. I decided I would also participate. I finished the chant minutes before boarding my plane to Trivandrum.

After the 14 hour flight between Seattle and Dubai, there is a 2 1/2 hour layover in Dubai, followed by a 4 hour flight to Trivandrum. Usually, I start the 2 1/2 hour taxi ride to Amritapuri as soon as I retrieve my baggage. This time, however, I was traveling with my friend Kumuda. When she comes to India, she spends a day in Kovalam so that she has a chance to rest before making the last leg of the journey. I decided I would also do that this time. Maybe resting at that juncture would reduce the amount of jet lag I experience.

We arrived at the hotel about 5 a.m. It is off-season now so the hotel was really quiet. In fact, we may have been their only guests! It was wonderful to lie down for a while and then walk to the beach for breakfast.

I hadn’t been to Kovalam since 1993 and at that time I had stayed in a different area. After we had breakfast, Kumuda showed me around. Two types of flowers caught my eye. They were so beautiful.

I also saw a vine on a trellis that was growing a fruit that looked like limes. I say “looked like” because the fruit was perfectly round and the skin was shiny. At first I wondered if it was an artificial plant. When I glanced at the leaves, though, it was obvious that the plant was real.

There was heavy rain from time to time on the day we were in Kovalam. When I checked the news that evening, I learned that 13 out of the 14 districts in Kerala had been put on red alert due to the rain.  By morning, the last district was also on red alert. The worst flooding was in Kochi. [An article written on August 18 said the floods in Kerala were  the worst in a hundred years. The article also  said the flood had killed at least 324 people and 220,000 others had been displaced. Kochi airport was still completely submerged and was expected to be closed until August 26.]

The weather forecast predicted there would be thunderstorms the next day. I began to wonder if it would be safe to take the taxi ride from Kovalam to Amritapuri. When I checked the forecast the next morning, I discovered that it had changed. Now, it called for clouds or light rain during the time that we were planning the drive to the ashram. We left Kovalam at 5:30 a.m. and arrived at the ashram at 8:00.

I was grateful…. and relieved…. to be back at my spiritual home!

asrham-07
Amritapuri temple

I checked in at the International Office and then took my luggage to my room. Shortly thereafter, I went to see Sreejit and Chaitanya, my son and daughter, who both live at the ashram. I love every reunion we have. It is always so good to be with them.

Amritapuri during the 2004 tsunami

Being in a situation where flooding is possible, brings up memories for me of being in Amritapuri during the 2004 tsunami. After the tsunami hit, all the people from the nearby villages and the ashram were evacuated. Amma provided food and shelter for everyone at Amrita University and her nearby schools.

Many of the ashram residents and visitors and some of the villagers stayed at the Engineering College for five days. I remember witnessing the grief of the villagers who had lost family members. I also remember being thankful to have the clothes on my back and a mat to sleep on.

More than two hundred people had died in the village closest to the ashram that day and many more had died in other parts of India and beyond. Amma’ provided food, shelter, clothing, and medical care both locally and to Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. In the years that followed, she also provided job training and built many houses for tsunami victims. To read more about Amma’s 2004 tsunami relief programs click here.

 

Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS)
Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS)

Soon after I arrived at the ashram this year, I learned that Amma had sprung into action once again. Even though the first floor of her multi-specialty hospital (AIMS) in Ernakulum had flooded, it took in the patients from hospitals that had needed to be evacuated. Amma sent many of the ashram’s brahmacharis and brahmacharinis (male and female monks), as well as Western visitors who wanted to help, to AIMS to deal with the influx of patients and to do the manual labor needed to move everything from the flooded first floor of the hospital to higher floors. They also filled sandbags and dug structures to protect the hospital from future flooding. [ I haven’t seen those structures so I don’t know what they looked like.]

Amma has also started dozens of medical relief camps and provided water, food, clothes and bedding to people who needed it. Thirty out of 40 of her schools around the state have become relief shelters. She has also made a large donation to aid the government’s relief program. To learn more about the current relief efforts go to the Latest News section in Embracing the World.

After having breakfast, I went back to my flat and continued the process of moving in. At some point, I decided to go to the temple to watch Amma giving darshan to those who came to the ashram that day. [Amma’s form of darshan/blessing is to give hugs. She has embraced more than 37 million people world-wide.] When I visit India, I often wait for several days or even a week before I go to Amma for a hug. That day, darshan was being held in the temple and the crowd was much smaller than normal.

Usually, bus loads of people come to see Amma on darshan days. I realized that the devotees couldn’t get here because of the floods. And since the Cochin airport was closed, many of the international visitors weren’t able to be here either.

I decided I would go for darshan. Before long I was in Amma’s arms. Now I was truly …. and fully …. home.

Photo Credits: Amma’s Facebook Page