I Am Because We Are
The division between you and me, between the giver and receiver may seem real when we look at the surface level. And then there are moments in our lives when we can experience how deeply interconnected we all are. It’s like seeing things from a macro lens of universal Oneness and realizing “When I don’t know you, I serve you. When I know you, I am you." We had many such experiences during the 2-day retreat for the staff members of Environmental Sanitation Institute (ESI) in Sughad, Gujarat.
Over the last few years, Moved By Love (MBL) volunteers have held over two dozen retreats at the sacred campus of ESI. Hundreds of people from diverse backgrounds have connected with each other in the spirit of Maitri and Jai Jagat. We have been sharing many stories from these gatherings and their ripples going far and wide. Giving invisible support to all these retreats is the ESI staff who have been welcoming and serving everyone in the spirit of ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ (Guest is God). Several times during the MBL retreats, the ESI staff members would ask us with a child-like curiosity “What exactly is an MBL retreat?” and “What happens inside the retreat hall?” Inspired by Jayeshbhai’s suggestion, a bunch of MBL volunteers hosted a 2-day gathering in September 2015 for the ESI team members to express our gratitude for their incredible support.
On Day 1 of the retreat, the volunteers took over various functions like managing the kitchen so that the staff members could experience the retreat completely. Whether sitting in a circle of sharing or going for a peace walk or the 3-steps-and-a-bow, several aspects of a retreat that they had earlier witnessed were experienced by them as participants. On Day 2, we traveled together in the Khushi bus to Polo forest for an outing as well as a mini-pilgrimage visiting several temples on the way. And of course, impromptu singing and garba dance sessions happened throughout the two days J
Ripples of small acts of kindness
The entire ESI staff sat together in a circle to share stories of their experiences. Bhupat shared an incident from an MBL retreat a couple of years ago when he had fallen ill and a retreat participant whom he had met for the first time took great care of him. That experience inspired him to serve strangers with as much love as he would serve his own family members. Similarly, Aruna shared an incident that happened a few months back when an elderly participant gave her a foot massage after a long and tiring day and it moved her deeply. From that day she started carrying a small bottle of oil in her bag and offers to give a foot massage whenever she finds a suitable chance to serve.
Shift from Me to We
We shared with them the ethos of ServiceSpace and Moved By Love with stories of over a dozen people whom they had met briefly but didn’t have much idea about the contribution they were making through their work. They were in awe when they saw how the alignment of head-hands-heart that we foster at the MBL retreats rippled out into so many beautiful ways across the world. They had many ‘aha moments’ of realizing that by serving at ESI they are contributing to so much good work happening across the world. It shifted their perspective and gave them a much stronger sense of pride in their contribution to the MBL retreats. An extra bounce in their steps and a twinkle in their eyes were seen very evidently. Mahesbhai reflected: “Prayer or external service, when done with the truthfulness and pure intention, both are the same.” Whether their daily work is about cutting vegetables, cooking, cleaning, gardening, driving, or administration, it doesn’t matter because ultimately each of them is contributing to the larger effort in the spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (whole world as one family).
Being the Change
All participants identified a new personal practice that they would like to commit themselves for the next 21 days and more. It was a joy to see their honesty, courage and vulnerability while sharing these practices with others. They truly embodied the spirit of doing small acts with great love. Here are a few practices shared by the staff:
“Every time I get angry at someone, I will do an anonymous act of kindness for that person.”
“I will spend time with every team member with an intention of genuinely appreciating their good qualities.”
“I will start my day with feeding the pigeons”
“I will read one page of Bhagavad Gita everyday
“For the next 21 days, I will offer half the food from my dinner plate to someone and only then eat”
“I am used to eating very spicy food, but for the next 21 days I will eat one meal per day that will be without any spices.”
“For the next 21 days, I will got to a temple everyday and clean the premises.”
“Recently I have been missing my morning prayers – Prabhat Pheri – and hence I commit to doing it every single day for the next 21 days”
“Everyday, I will bow to an elder before staring my work”
“I will meditate for 30 minutes everyday for the next 21 days” (Over half a dozen people committed to spending time in silence or meditation everyday).
All the 25 participants were inspiring because they shared their practices with a lot of authenticity and humility.
It was a joy to see how much love and care Jayeshbhai showers on the ESI staff members. From collective prayers and deep reflections to cracking jokes and laughing together, every interaction was done in the spirit of being part of one big family. No hierarchies or boundaries to separate the server and the served. As the participants completed a circle of 3-steps-and-a-bow around the ESI campus, Jayesbhai washed the feet of each person. This was one of the most intense moments of the retreat when tears of gratitude were flowing incessantly.
It is in giving that we receive
For the MBL volunteers this was one of the most moving experiences of serving at a retreat. Love and gratitude was visible in every small act. For instance, volunteers had planned to surprise all participants with printed photos of each person clicked during the retreat presented in individual photo frames. Bhumika had hand-made all the photo frames and brought them from Baroda. Neerad skipped the outing to Polo forest on Day 2 and chose to stay back in the campus so that he could take printouts of the photos, insert them in the frames and keep things ready. The staff arrived back in the campus at around 1 am. We welcomed them with prayers and the moment they received the surprise gifts of their photos in a frame, there was a free flow of hugs, bows, love and joy. No words can describe that feeling.
We also had some first-time volunteers who barely knew the ESI staff members, yet in two days they felt deep connections. For instance, here is what Catherine reflected:
More than language, more than words can express, the movement of Love starts with a single small and beautiful act: a glance, a smile, a touch, and maybe even just the act of saying “yes” to whatever comes.
When I agreed to volunteer for the two-day retreat held at the ESI campus in Sughad for the staff at the Environmental Sanitation Institute, I had no idea what I was saying “yes” to. I discovered it would all be in Gujarati and, barely speaking ten words of it, I imagined I would just be extremely confused. As it turns out, once I let go of my need to know absolutely everything happening all the time and let the moment take me wherever it wanted to take me, it seems that connections happened without any effort.
I was surrounded by amazing people: from all the wonderful volunteers I was present with to all the retreat participants I felt honoured to be serving. Everyone turned each moment into a beautiful dance. A daunting mass of dirty kitchen pots, pans, plates and bowls became a playground when I looked up to see a couple of joyful faces coming to join me to tackle each participant trying to sneak by with their plates to wash; the headache-inducing prospect of a three hour bus ride filled with clanging cymbals, tambourines, and what seemed like chaos after a long day of travel became one of my most joy-filled journeys when I forgot that I felt tired and joined in the merry-making noise of the moment.
It wasn’t about understanding everything with my ears, nor was it about knowing where I was going or what I was supposed to be doing. It was more about feeling the movement of each moment, recognizing the presence of Love, and being moved towards others and ultimately, towards myself.
You can checkout anytime you like, but you can never leave :)
Whenever one enters the ESI campus, they are most likely to first meet Amrut Kaka near the gate. He has seen the campus been built brick-by-brick and has been guarding it since inception. He was very moved by the 2-days spent together in Maitri and wrote a hand-written note thanking the entire MBL community and blessing from deep within for realizing the dream of Jai Jagat. After the retreat he was requesting MBL volunteers with all his heart to stay at the campus for extended period and “keep spreading the love”.
A few us did stay at the campus for a couple of days after the retreat and we witnessed how effortlessly they had started to open up and were sharing so much of themselves. Khushmita reflected on how beautifully the tapestry was sewn together with all of us coming together as threads of love and now are a beautiful fabric all stitched and shining. Bhala and Bhali invited us to visit their village home for tea and the amazing love they poured on us had us overwhelmed. Aruna was our guide for a day out and she insisted on feeding us her favourite pani puri at a particular stall. Atul had a broad smile “always on” and was often seen kissing his palm and blowing love in the air :)
Over dinner, Kanchan ben just spontaneously shared her life story with us and we were so moved by her and Naveen bhai's journey of strong commitment amidst difficult challenges. We didn’t see any layer that separated ESI staff from MBL volunteers. It didn’t matter where we came from, what work we did, how much material wealth we had or did not have, we all had an abundance of love and gratitude. Our belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity got strengthened. As we kept talking and sharing our lives, we experienced what the poet Rumi says: “Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.”