Of Holding And Listening
"Whatever is held and listened to will show us where it lives in the world and in us" -- Mark Nepo.
When I was in fourth grade, I learnt this Hindi song in music class that went like this: “Āo, nayā samāj banāyen, is dhartī ko swarg banāyen…is dhartī ke har mānav ka, mānavta se nātā joden, nātā joden, nātā joden.” (Translation: Come, one and all, let us build a new society, one that is heaven on earth; Let us build bonds with all humans, through our shared humanity.)
I never forgot that song. I still catch myself humming it sometimes. And even though I was fairly young, I realized that learning and singing that song in a group did something to the air in the room – I felt this bond uniting us, as we harmonized. That feeling of connecting deeply with many humans came powerfully alive again for me, at our recently concluded ‘Heads Hands Heart’ retreat from 7-9 September, at ESI, Sughad.
It was my first retreat as a volunteer. I’d been in Maitri Space/ESI once before, as a participant in the previous year, and already knew that there was something magical about the campus – trees, birds, animals, humans who lived there, and humans who came there for retreats -- they all had a quality that you don’t find easily in the world outside. So I’d been really looking forward to being back there again.
However, the retreat began a little unusually for the volunteer team, since one of our seasoned anchors had to deal with a medical emergency at her home. And so suddenly, the rest of the volunteer team, first-timers and many-timers, and basically all of us folks who’d been assuming that we could relax and follow, had to step-up and lead, in multiple, small ways. Looking back, I realize that this was something special to witness and be a part of -- how a motley group of volunteers stepped up collectively and the pieces fell into place, with a flow that I’d only read about before and never quite experienced first-hand. I also recall how when we were all scrambling a bit to get everything in order on the day before the retreat officially began, I had a moment when I realized that I was spending more time in the ‘Fix’ and/or ‘Help’ end of the ‘Fix, Help, Serve’ spectrum that Rachel Naomi Remen talks so evocatively about. But the closing volunteer circle at the very end of day allowed us share these states of mind that we were in, and reiterate why we were all there – to hold space, serve, and witness what emerges. And so began the real retreat!
The first day was the day of the Head, like always. The seed question for reflection in the morning’s opening circle, following the peace walk, was – what experiences or practices have you had in your life, whether imbibed from family, ancestors, strangers, or just seemingly random life lessons, that have served as sparks of inspiration for internal cleansing? And how has that rippled out in your life? And just like that, like seed scattered on the fertile soil of our minds, we were off, speaking when it was our turn and listening to others’ stories, weaving in and around the question. Stories shared in the circle were diverse. One person spoke of how being allowed to pass other vehicles on the road when driving on the highway filled him with gratitude and changed him such that he is now unfailingly courteous to pedestrians and other drivers on crowded roads. Another spoke of how spending time at Maitri Space and imbibing the practice of washing one’s own dishes has transformed how he behaves when he’s back in his parent’s home. Some spoke of encounters, whether with strangers in Kutch or mentors from school and work, who transformed their perspective on life and taught them practices of humility, perseverance, and passing out flowers (goodness) even if you receive a stone (difficult experiences) from others. And several people expressed wonder and gratitude at the timing that allowed them to be a part of this retreat. The circle concluded with Jayesh-bhai sharing many nuggets of wisdom on the importance of listening with love and remaining equanimous when issues arise. He talked of how when he asked his father, Ishwar-bhai, for any final words of advice when he was close to his last moments, he was told, “Do what your heart tells you is right.” And if he ever felt that there was not sufficient depth to his practices, he was told that he had not yet surrendered fully!
And thus the morning of the first day flowed into lunch and rest, before the evening saw us all migrate towards the Safai Vidyalaya and the Sabarmati Gandhi ashram, to get a sense of the original home from which all of Ishwar-bhai’s sanitation work started, and the soil from which the idea of satyagraha spilled out to the rest of India. After drinking chai in the non-conformist Toilet Café, we moved on to another special place, Seva Café, for dinner and an evening of sharing. A few participants shared some poignant and funny life stories, two powerful singers moved us deeply, and the evening ended with everyone being regaled by shayaris by a participant.
Thus ended Day 1, which was an interesting, ‘heady’ day, for participants and volunteers alike. The participants appeared to be easing into the space of maitri and friendship. And the volunteer team reflected that the day had passed without any dramatic episodes, given that a nascent collective had guided the events of the day! We also committed to anchoring ourselves more deeply over the next 2 days so that we would all be much more effective at holding space.
Day 2 dawned fresh and bright, with the sounds of the anganwadi sisters doing their prabhat-pheri at sunrise, and the insistent calls of a peacock perched up on the Neem tree. It was time to emulate nature and do some physical labour, on the day of the Hand! After a long, humorous pep-talk with Devendra-bhai on internal and external sanitation, participants split into four groups – to make brooms under the guidance of 87 year old Kanchan mama, to clean the public roads leading up to ESI under Chris’ mindful guidance, to make lemonade at Kabir ashram and share with the public, an activity helmed by Lala kaka and Sanchay, and to learn to spin with the hand charkha under Diken’s gentle guidance. Some of the volunteer crew joined the ‘official’ hands activities, while some worked behind the scenes with their hands, crafting notes and gifts for all of the participants. I do believe the air at Maitri Space began to have a different feel to it, one of fierce concentration and deep absorption, as our hands quietened the chatter in our heads.
The transformation was apparent at the pop-corn style circle of sharing that followed lunch. Stories shared came truly from a deeper place -- about the joy of giving people lemonade on a hot day, about the creativity and dexterity that goes into making a humble broom, about the engineering, science and design skills that lie behind making a broom that cleans efficiently, about how cleaning public roads is a tremendous technique to break conditioned thought-patterns, about how it’s true all they say about charkha spinning being a real meditative practice that unites head, hand and heart.
Buoyed as we all were by the palpable wonder that the morning had generated, we entered Maitri Space for a circle of sharing with Anar-di, who then touched us all deeply with her stories on the many ways to think about what love is. Love, she said, is a type of perspective, the lens that frames how you see yourself and others. It is a form of courage, the force that flows from the heart. When she described herself in her early years as someone who made copious judgments about every single person she met, from the way they were dressed to the way they held their coffee cup, she had us all smiling, as we recognized some aspect of our own selves in these stories.
Love, she said, is a space that replaces judgment with acceptance. Her unedited albeit humorous recounting of how the man she married (Jayesh-bhai) was someone who wore branded outfits and loved sports, who then decided to give up that way of life and commit whole-heartedly to a life of service and simple living, thereby ensuring that she was gifted with an opportunity to practice love as acceptance, had us all humbled and brimming with respect for her fierce authenticity. The end of the circle of sharing was also enlivened by the goof-ball antics of Jayesh-bhai and Anar-di’s pet dog, Renu, who shot into the room, after apparently spending an hour trying to determine where Anar-di had disappeared. Once Renu entered and had greeted her mistress, she made straight for the marigold petals in the rangoli and proceeded to eat some. A few volunteers who had been involved in the décor tried to re-direct her away from the flowers and hilariously, as befits a dog that is a member of the Safai Vidyalaya family, she made sure to trot up and down the scattered trail of escaped petals and eat all of them up, so the trail was clean. Clearly, all beings adopt the values of sanitation when they enter the radius of ESI!
The group dispersed on that note to spend a little time in noble silence before everyone got to experience an Awakin Circle, anchored by Neeti-di and Siddharth. The passage chosen was the Cherokee version of the good wolf and bad wolf story. Participants dug deep and shared their resonance with this eternal conflict; some struggled with the idea that the bad wolf carries value, some others countered with insights from their own lives as to how this makes sense. Touched, in some form or another, by the collective wisdom and acceptance of the Awakin Circle, participants were then ushered into a silent, candle-lit dinner that allowed for the silence to continue weaving its magic. And finally, all of that stillness then exploded into exuberant motion as the anganwadi sisters led us in a joyous and unimaginably energetic dancing of the garba. And so ended Day 2…
The final day of the retreat, Day 3, a day given over to the Heart, began at Hriday-kunj in circle with Jayesh-bhai. His pithy wisdom dropped profusely with every sentence, like flowers falling off a Har-singar (Coral Jasmine) tree, faster than any of us could gather. He shared that his ethos for running an institution is “co-operate, co-create and leave behind,” that “we should aim to be like a drop of curd in milk that can transform all of the milk into curd; and not like a drop of oil in water, that stays in contact, yet aloof.” And that “when a relationship is created, needs are understood and there is joy to be found in that.” Over and above everything, he shared that the energy charge and creativity that comes when one lets the heart lead the head is tremendous. And that he had, in his own life, experimented with different styles of running an institution, including the popular NGO-style methods of setting defined targets, projects and expected outcomes and that targets inevitably made him tired. And so, he operates differently nowadays.
Finally, after a short presentation on Rev. Heng Sure and his 800 mile bowing pilgrimage across the California coast, participants were invited to undertake the ‘three steps and a bow’ along the Maitri path, if they so chose. As a volunteer who stood at the receiving end for the first time, this was a profound experience for me, to be able to serve in this manner. That intimate act of making repeated contact with Bhoomi-mata (Mother Earth), through prostration and silence in a sacred space, allows so much to be released that we hold so tightly. There was not a single participant there who wasn’t visibly moved, either to the point of letting the tears and sobs flow, or towards letting carefully constructed shields gently down, either by a crack or wide ajar.
Thus it came about that in Maitri Space, all of us were able to let things go and let things be, thereby letting in some light into our occluded souls. And thus it ended, with participants and volunteers alike, feeling bound and moved, by love. With deep gratitude and a bow to everyone who co-created this retreat :)
Here are some more smiles from the retreat :)