Practice in Letting Go

This past summer, during Amma’s Chicago programs, ideas for how to design one of the planting areas in our Seattle forest restoration site started coming into my mind. The next day, I walked to the children’s program room, borrowed colored pencils and graph paper, and drew that design.

When I returned to Seattle, I transferred the design onto the ground as best as I could. It took hours and hours to accomplish that task as I was trying to lay it out perfectly. When I finally finished, I started laughing at myself. It had taken me that long to create placement for 12 plants. We had ordered more than 300 shrubs and ground covers. Clearly, that was not how I was going to maketo make planting plans for the whole site.

I enjoyed having “my area” though and dreamed of what it would look like in the future. This fall, I started noticing  how often branches from nearby trees fell into “my area”.  I also noticed that I was only seeing them in “my area”.

A few weeks ago we had a wind storm. In the photo below you can see some of the branches I took out of “my area” after the storm.

On November 15, we had the big planting work party. It was wonderful to finally have the native plants in “my area”. I day-dreamed about what the area would look like in the Spring.

Then I had a horrifying thought: “Those falling branches could kill ‘my plants’!” I’ve been resisting the apparent fact that in forestry 50% of what we plant may not survive. In fact, I haven’t dealt with it at all because I believe “our” plants will be different. And I hadn’t even considered the possibility that any of the plants in “my area” would die.”

At that point, I took a good look at the terrain surrounding “my area”.

The trees are really tall, they are old, and “my area” is closest to them.

As I reflected on this situation, I had many thoughts.

  • These plants, and all of the plants in the restoration site, are not “mine,” they belong to Mother Nature. I can be an instrument and do my best to take care of them, but what lives and what dies is not in my hands.
  • I knew that we would likely lose some plants in the summer since we now have long stretches with no rain, but it hadn’t occurred to me before that some plants are likely to die during the winter.
  • I remembered the Tibetan monks who spend many hours making a sand mandala and then ritualistically take it apart as a way of acknowledging that life is transient, in a constant state of flux.
  • While I will not purposely dismantle the area I have been thinking of it as “my area”, I am clearly getting an opportunity to let go and surrender. My job is to put in the effort and let go of the results.
  • It is time for me to stop thinking about that area as “my area”. I am an instrument, I am not an owner. That area is no more important than any other area.

As I was writing this post, I thought about the title that the Green Seattle Partnership gave those of us whom they trained to lead forest restoration work parties. We are called Forest Stewards. I decided to look up steward to see exactly what the word means. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines steward as “a person hired to perform household or personal services.” It gives these words as synonyms: “domestic, flunky, lackey, menial, retainer, slavey, servant”.  That’s it. I am not an owner, I am a servant of the forest.

I am a Forest Steward.

Be Like a Bird Perched on a Dry Twig

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Amma tells us to be like a bird perched on a dry twig, ready to fly at a moment’s notice. That doesn’t mean that we should live from a fear based hyper-vigilance but rather we need to learn to live consciously, adapting to each change that comes our way.

Amma gives us a plenty of opportunities to learn that lesson, some directly, and some indirectly. I am going to share two recent experiences that were, in my mind, chances to practice that teaching.

Giving Prasad

In an earlier post, I mentioned that we are able to hand Amma the prasad that she gives each person who comes to her for a hug. For as long as I can remember, the type of prasad she has given in India has been a piece of hard candy wrapped in a packet of sacred ash. We have handed her those packets three at a time.

When I received the instructions for giving prasad on Wednesday, I was told we would be giving Amma chocolate Hershey’s kisses wrapped in an ash packet instead of the hard candy packets. Those would be given to her two at a time since the Hershey’s kisses are so much bigger than the hard candies.

When I joined the prasad line on Thursday, I was told that we would be alternating what we would give Amma. The first time we handed her prasad, we would give her three packets with the hard candy and ash. The next time, we would give her two packets with the Hershey’s kisses and ash.

When I reached Amma, however, I discovered that the devotees were handing her two packets, one with a Hershey’s kiss and ash, and one with the hard candy and ash. Amma had changed the instructions yet again!

I laughed at the leela. I laughed even more when I received my own hug that night and Amma handed me a flower petal and a Hershey’s kiss. That is the type of prasad we receive during the North American tour, but to my knowledge it has never been the custom in Amritapuri.

To me, this was a good example of being the bird perched on the dry twig. We had to be ready for the type of prasad to change at any moment and adjust accordingly.

Tai Chi

The second example occurred during my Tai Chi class. Soon after I arrived at the ashram this year, I visited the beach area we had used for the class last year. I found it full of construction debris. A few days later, it had been cleaned up so it seemed like we would be able to meet there after all.

Even in the best of times, the class is interrupted by an occasional truck, bicycle, or bus that wants to go through that area. Today was one of those days when so much came our way that it got funny. It was another darshan day, but this time the crowd was huge. When we arrived for the class, there were already two parked buses in the area. They bordered the space we were planning to use. Once the class started, two more buses drove onto the grounds and parked nearby.

About half way through the class, a truck with some construction supplies tried to go through our area to the building beyond. There was no room for them to do that, because of the parked buses, so the driver just parked in the space we were using and started carrying the supplies to the construction area. Clearly, we had no priority.

There are two other areas on the beach that could potentially work, but there seems to be a new routine at the ashram. When the ashram cows are walked in the morning, they are taken to the beach and tied to trees, where they “hang out” for hours.  Today there were eight cows in that area of the beach.

What could we do? We would have to hold our class a few feet from the cows.  So we did just that. And I loved it!

When we become like a bird perched on a dry twig, ready to fly at a moments notice, we are able to adapt what comes our way. Each challenge is an opportunity to practice detachment, surrender, equanimity, patience, persistence and flexibility.

To look at previous posts in this Amritapuri series, click here.

Many Paths, Same Destination

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For several years in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I wrote articles about my experiences with Amma for “The New Times,” a free newspaper that was, at that time, available in Washington and Oregon. I have started sharing some of those articles on my blog. I am choosing the articles to post based on their topic, therefore they are not being shared chronologically. The article below was published in March of 1998.

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The day after Christmas, while eating brunch with friends, I half-jokingly said that next year I thought I would ask my guru, Amma, if I should come for my annual visit to her ashram in South India. (Normally I just go; I don’t ask.) On my way to the ashram last year (1996), my plane had decompression problems and fell 25,000 feet. This year (1997), less than a week before I was to leave on the trip, I discovered that I needed surgery, now. There for I had to cancel, or at least postpone, my pilgrimage.

While I am abundantly aware of the lessons I had the opportunity to learn from these two experiences, a part of me is a bit tentative about planning another trip to India. What else might happen? After making this statement, one of my friends snapped, “Why don’t you just check in with yourself?” I responded with some ineffective statement, and then kept my mouth shut.

Then, when I received my January 1998 issue of The New Times, my eye fell on statements written by Sobonfu Somé:

“People in the West tend to live unbalanced lives… so they search for a guru of some form to take care of their spiritual needs. The idea of a guru doing everything and all we have to do is show up and tell the guru, “this is what I need, fix everything and I can get out of here” does not work. The guru takes the individual’s involvement away and once the individual’s involvement is not there, nothing can really happen.” [Note: This quote is from 1998. I don’t know if Sobonfu still holds the same belief.]

After dealing with my initial desire to defend, justify, rationalize, explain, and judge, I decided that it is time for me to respond to this way of thinking.

What I have discovered in nine years of being a devotee of a guru [Note: I have now been a devotee for more than 27 years!] is that discipleship is anything but mindless pursuit. I have needed to learn to become – and stay – exceedingly conscious and attuned to what is happening both within and around me, to be impeccable in my actions, and to be fully in integrity. I have needed to learn when to ask my teacher for help and when to find the answer within. I have certainly not “given away my power,” but rather have been learning about what surrender means.

That is not to say that I have not observed people using gurus in the way that Sobonfu described. Several years ago, I asked for time with one of Amma’s swamis in order to share my concern over what I perceived as devotees “following” in ways I judged to be mindless, acting from what appeared to me to be blind faith.

He explained the difference between mature and immature discipleship. He said that the surrender that comes from a mature disciple results from years of testing and observing the guru as well as from watching the growth of both oneself and of other disciples. As a disciple has experience after experience with his or her guru, faith grows naturally. Surrender to the guru and to Spirit/God comes as faith grows.

I find I have judgments similar to Sobonfu’s of the ways I perceive some people using astrology.  It seems to me that when individuals make most or all of their decisions based solely on astrological readings, they create self-fulfilling prophesy, give away their personal power, stay stuck in self defeating behaviors and as a result limit their personal growth.  I notice that others use astrology as a guide or as a way of helping them to understand what they are experiencing, rather than a tool that has every answer.  I guess any tool used in an obsessive and mindless manner is likely to undermine the purposes for which it was created.  That is not the fault of the tool nor of the system, but rather problems created by misuse of the tool.

My years with Amma have been filled with an almost unbelievable level of challenge and growth.  My personal spiritual process has amazed me.  I believe that asking Amma to be my guide and teacher has resulted in speeding up the rate in which the universal “lessons” come and has provided me with the support I need as I move through each challenge.  I am thankful that I have someone to help guide me as I find my way through unknown territory.  I am also very thankful, and quite certain, that she does not “do it for me.”  As far as I am concerned, meeting and going through each challenge is what creates the joy of living.  I would not want anyone to do it for me.  That does not mean, however, that I must learn all I need to learn without help.

Perhaps instead of criticizing each others chosen spiritual paths, we can instead be thankful that there are so many ways to connect with Spirit/God.  With this attitude we will be better able to support each other as we learn the lessons we are here to learn.

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“The New Times” articles that I’ve already shared:

Support in Times of Trouble

A Multitude of Lessons

Exposing the “Know-It-All”