Feeling the Flow of Grace: One-day MBL Retreat in Mumbai
I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.
– Anne Lamott
All of us have felt the power of that mysterious “invisible hand” of grace in our lives, weaving together incidents and people in remarkably touching and inspiring ways. On a sunny Sunday in April in Bombay (30th), at the Narmada Niketan home for seniors in Belapur, forty people from all across the city felt connected through grace as they shared stories, opening space, Darpan noted, as family would (how could we not, with all of the thoughtful touches that the volunteers sprinkled in the air).There were many stories about families and yet, far more about the multiple ways in which we find family all around us through unexpected acts of kindness and memorable moments of connection.
Those moments of connection and finding family began the day prior to the retreat. Many of us arrived at this lush, leafy residential home for senior citizens in Belapur the evening prior, to interact with the beautiful sapient observers of the world who welcomed us into their home - Narmada Niketan, which houses close to 180 silver-haired lovelies. Darpan, Vidhi and Vinit greeted all of us with warm hugs and bright smiles, whipped out organized charts that showed us our room assignments and let us know which dining room we would help decorate. Vidhi lovingly offered each of us a thoughtfully created map of the space to orient us (such thoughtful attention to detail; she handed over each map with so much bhav - by establishing eye contact, bowing slightly with her head and smiling). Mona aunty (Vidhi’s mom) toted incredibly delicious theplas which she lovingly made at home for all of us to enjoy over tea (her fortunate and thankful roomies had the privilege of indulging in a delicious sneak snack preview). As we made our way to our rooms, we noticed the thoughtful green touches, broad benches and the mindful placement of beautiful heart thoughts all along the walls. Each quote was so inspiring and added to the serene energy of the space. Even the quotes were born out of an act of love and symbolized the theme of the retreat “unexpected kindness and grace". It was as though the artist who presented the quotes released love into the universe, trusting it would find its space in the world.
Lifts were airy and capacious, designed to accommodate wheelchairs. As we entered our rooms (each one thoughtfully named after earth elements or states of being), we were delighted to find colourful bed sheets, customized bookmarks, a beautiful hand-written name tag and of course, chocolate awaiting us on each bed. The volunteers’ thoughtful touches made our experience special and we felt a sense of deep gratitude running through us. We made our way to Vishram Dham for tea, and there, near the temple, we found ourselves drawn to a melodious medley of voices. One of the women shared that she comes to spend time with the ladies there and they sing together in the evenings on the steps of the beautiful open temple. They asked us where we were from and after we exchanged notes, we delightfully cheered them on by clapping and thumping to the beat, smiles all around. After that, we stood in silence for Aarti and as the bell rang over and over again, it felt as though blessings were cascading upon all of us.
Excited chatter filled the air as we headed toward our respective dining halls to prepare for the surprise candlelight dinner - it was decoration time! Armed with a big basket of flowers, tea lights and more, we headed to our respective dining halls. We placed tealights at the centre of each table and adorned them with flowers, a different flower rangoli design at each table. Buoyed by excitement and enthusiasm, we then put a few tea lights and flowers at the base of the pillars. As the residents entered the space, the glow of the candles and sweetness of the flowers awaited. We welcomed them with chants, teekas, flowers, hugs and smiles. Once they were seated, it was project heart-pin time. As we pinned hearts on their shirts and blouses, conversations, smiles, hugs and even music flowed.
After dinner, we gathered in a circle outdoors, under the stars and the watchful eye of the moon as Sheetal invited us to share songs that captured the essence of who we were. A few of us broke into bhajans, Gujarati and Sufi - songs close to our hearts. All present connected deeply with the spirit of the songs and the intent with which they were sung. After Rahul sang a Gujarati song, he shared a very touching story about Arun Dada that ended with “There’s always room for ice cream”. Suddenly, volunteers armed with boxes of Suchmuch Aam (Cream Bell) began distributing deliciousness, one bar at a time. What a memorable entry the ice cream made and what a “cool” surprise it was to bite down into what tasted like pure aam raas. Rahul – we are grateful for this find, and highly recommend that everyone reading this blog entry try it. Many who tasted this ice cream for the first time wondered where it had been all of their lives. The ripples of Suchmuch Aam also continued well after the retreat and everyone who tried it for the first time loved it. Sach-much – it was a blissful evening.
The next morning began bright and early with Khushmita’s laughter yoga session. Khushi flows through and out of Khushmita so effortlessly and soon, all of us, including the thirty residents who joined us, were engulfed in waves of roaring laughter. We connected to our child-like states through smiles and laughter.
After a delicious breakfast, we entered the serene retreat space, a hall, built just off the side of the mandir. Volunteers welcomed us warmly with smiles, hugs, heart pins, beautiful hand-written name badges with big smiley faces adorning them, and tilas after which we sat down. Each of us was given a beautiful diary covered in white with a bright red heart popping out. At the centre of the space, a beautiful rangoli heart flanked with the glow of tea lights and scent of beautiful flowers took our breath away. All of these thoughtful acts of the volunteers allowed love and grace to flow through each of us freely. Over story sharing, our connection deepened. Vidhi opened up about the special connection she shared with her brother who always encourages her. With his support, she gathered the courage to ask her family for permission to go on a solo trip abroad and then dove headlong (and heartlong) into that three month adventure, discovering her own voice in the process. Vinit shared about how the legacy of kindness and grace that flows through him and connects him to everyone has its roots in how hard his father worked to feed their family years earlier. Shaila aunty spoke about making friends our family and how heart energy binds us all together powerfully; once, she made sarsoon saag bhaji out of methi grown by children in a garden at Matunga. They remembered the love they tasted that day and thanked her for it profusely when they had an opportunity to meet her weeks later, adopting her as their mother through the language of love. Geeta aunty tearfully reflected about how the children she volunteered with (and other volunteers who went out of their way to help arrange for whatever she needed at the site) offered her unconditional love that helped her heal when she lost a close family member, reminding us that ultimately, giving and receiving just melt away into love. Mona aunty spoke about how her family anchored her through her recovery from an accident so serious that she was not expected to walk; instead, surrounded by love, her inner motivation only strengthened and she was moved to give back to the community once she recovered. Toward the end, she shared she felt lovingly held as she shared, by forty family members.
Through a deep moment of connection, sometimes, the first time we see certain people, they feel like soul family. Neha shared how the night before, at dinner, she connected with a NN resident who sang a beautiful, soothing song for all the volunteers and residents in the dining hall. Vipul expanded on the grace, wisdom and love that flows from those older and wiser as he shared how he was lovingly held by two lovely elderly women who offered him not only a room at Gandhi Ashram in Delhi at a time when he needed it, but also space in their hearts, which he needed far more. When Ishu travelled to Rajasthan as a Gandhi fellow, a family there adopted her as a daughter and that bond continues. Prasanna, who saw a naked man on the street, gathered up the courage to give him his pants and reflected on how that act connected both of them through love and dignity. Gargi shared how her nephew, an engineering student who shared a deep connection with animals, showed up late for his viva because he just had to save an injured bird. The professor allowed him to take the allotted time to complete his examination later. Shivani spoke about how a ride home on a fairly empty train created space for a transgender woman to have a connected conversation with her that left her amazed and shifted her view of the community even further.
Then there are divine acts of grace that strengthen our belief in the benevolence of the universe. Ketan bhai, little Aarya’s father, shared how a boy appeared out of nowhere and then disappeared into thin air after guiding their car toward a mandir they wanted to visit. “That child is God” his mother and mami proclaimed. Ashutosh’s uncle helped him get through a trying academic period through offering support, encouragement and wisdom. Though initially being worried about missing a train in bad weather, through divine coincidence, Parth’s family met three other families one day twenty years ago and they have all been one happy family since then.
Finally, many present offered beautiful reflections on grace. Chetan bhai wondered what it takes to find hidden grace in tough situations and shared that the true value of grace is in feeling and touching it in trying times. Unexpected grace, Abhishek reflected, is the fuel of life itself. Trying to find answers as to how and why grace enters our lives is not only futile, but also beside the point, Rahul noted. Yet, we feel its presence immediately. Through Anantraman’s commitment to “supporting doing” as well as all of the stories we were privileged to feel and hear, it became clear that grace, which has no beginning or end, sends out endless ripples in the universe.
In the concluding circle, Rahul shared what it was like for him to grow up around Narmada Niketan as a space. Sheetal also shared how the Narmada Niketan team has held the intention of hosting a retreat for several years and small changes were mindfully being made in the space, tilling the soil for such a retreat to take place. The retreat was also supported by so many invisible hands - one volunteer worked till the end despite knowing that she would not be able to make it to the retreat. Another volunteer gifted clay bottles, each hand painted with love by two other volunteers who did not even attend the retreat, to all the participants. We offered thoughts of gratitude to the staff members of Narmada Niketan, especially Ashok bhai Purohit who were helping selflessly throughout the duration of the retreat. We saw how the lines between participants and volunteers blurred, as one of the participants tagged us with hand-crafted diaries to make notes during the retreat, another brought sweets that were distributed during meals, someone brought treasured Shewsburry biscuits from Kyani and Company in Pune, and finally, another one offered freshly plucked jamuns from the trees to everyone around. Overall, it was pure grace to be in presence of so many open hearts and exuding so much warmth.